Wicked Women in Indian Mythology by Kavita Kane
Considering we have a festival Holi named after Holika, a demoness, brings up a relevant question – does evilness have gender? It should not. Wicked thought would pervade both a man and a woman with equal viciousness. But then why does a wicked woman shock more than say an evil man? Are we stuck in stereotypes of man being more violent and women being more kind? Does her more definitive role as a nurturer blunt the wickedness of the deed?
Wicked Women in Indian Mythology
Our mythology has a host of horrid women, exploring a wide range of representations of female evil through demoness, witches, designing seductresses, scheming queens or old hags. We recognise them through some characters like Manthara, Kaikeyi, Surpanakha, Taraka, in the Ramayana and in the Puranas, there is Putana and Holika, both profoundly malevolent as child killers. They are but representations of evil excess that women and the feminine are constructed as embodying within cultures, by consent and circumstances. This evil female excess, encompasses the women’s otherness, including the duality of the humane and the grotesque.
While there is a clash to adore or abhor the feminine evil what is more intriguing, as shown in mythology, is the knowledge about the perceived truths that surround evil women in different contexts.
Holika is the woman who was appointed to kill her young nephew. But why did she agree to help her brother murder his son? Was it force or consent, politics or family loyalty but the reason why the brother approached the sister was because she had an unusual boon granted by Lord Brahma – that she would remain unscathed by fire. That the boon turned on her and she got burnt instead of the little boy Prahlad is the crux of this simple good vs evil story, legends are made of, without any subaltern undertones.
Our mythology has a host of horrid women, exploring a wide range of representations of female evil through demoness, witches, designing seductresses, scheming queens or old hags
Evil is a ‘pravrutti’, a disposition, prevalent in both men and women, cutting through class and caste. Surpanakha and Holika were princesses, and children of rishis – Vishravas and Kashyap respectively. Kaikeyi was a queen while Manthara and Putana were royal helps.
A similar story is that of Putana, a woman sent by King Kamsa to kill the infant Krishna. Disguised as a nursing midwife, she tries to breast feed the baby Krishna with her poisonous milk. This shatters the sacrosanct motherhood-milk imagery coloured in popular imagination. That a woman can resort to such vile ways to kill an innocent baby is the foulest crime and for Putana there is no redemption.She dies a horrible death. She was a wicked woman serving her wicked king. But then, what choice would a hired killer have against the orders of a king? But through Putana we get one of the first glimpses of Krishna’s godliness in the face of his uncle’s evilness and other evils he would have to confront and defeat in the later years.
Putana: Disguised as a nursing midwife, she tries to breast feed the baby Krishna with her poisonous milk. This shatters the sacrosanct motherhood-milk imagery coloured in popular imagination
Yet this deceptively simple story defines the role of evil innate in our minds and heart, magnified by society. That with good exists evil, that to achieve good, evil has a role to play. This is a singular argument running in the battle between evil and good: that for good to win, evil has to lose but not without accepting the presence of evil in us and the world we live in. For Narasimha (an avatar of Vishnu) to kill Hiranyakashpu and save Prahlad, a Holika was instrumental in carrying the story forward. Without her, the innocence of Prahlad and the heinousness of Hiranyakashapu would not come through. Like Surpanakha in the Ramayana, Holika too is supposed to be an eye-openers to the larger evil their brothers represent, a precursor of events to come.
The negative women in the Ramayan have a definite role to enact. Had it not been for a Manthara or a Kaikeyi, Ram would not have ever gone to the Dandak forest to eventually kill Ravan in Lanka. If the first half of the Ramayan could not have progressed without Kaikeyi and Manthara, the latter half would have been unfinished were it not for Surpanakha, the sister of Ravan. Without a Surpanakha, Ravan would not have confronted Ram in a war. Or without Taraka, Ram would not have helped Rishi Vishwamitra and finally met Sita to marry her. All of these ‘wicked women’ are actually trigger points, having larger roles besides being evil, that of propelling the narrative forward. Can you imagine a Ramayana without a Manthara or a Kaikeyi or a Surpanakha?
Was Manthara just an evil gossip fuelling family disputes or a protective foster mother, shielding Kaikeyi from loss of power?
But these wholly black antagonists have their shades of emotions and greys as well giving rise to some of the most fascinating and enduring narratives. Was Manthara just an evil gossip fuelling family disputes or a protective foster mother, shielding Kaikeyi from loss of power? Was Kaikeyi an insecure queen who thought she would lose to Kaushalya her status of Queen Mother if Ram became king? Or were they forerunners to a better world, where evil paved way for good? These vile women, tarnished in irredeemable black through the centuries are harsh reminders of our follies and fallacies.
In Mahabaharat, interestingly ,there are no ‘evil women’ singled out: They are no brutal and malicious demoness, but more relatable characters with their weak moments of anger and vulnerability.
Women villains are strangely fascinating. Possibly it has to do with the juxtaposition of women and motherhood and villainy. For children especially, the most influential person is the mother. And when this mother figure is split into the evil (Kaikeyi) and the good (Kaushalya) the benevolent nurturer always wins. Interestingly, Surpanakha, Holika and Taraka were mothers too so stereotyping can be misleading.
In Mahabaharat, interestingly ,there are no ‘evil women’ singled out: They are no brutal and malicious demoness, but more relatable characters with their weak moments of anger and vulnerability. Most of them react/respond/resort to rage and revenge – as do the men – in acts of retaliation. Be it Devyani and her jealous fury against her husband Yayati and Sarmishta. Or Satyavati and her ruthless quest for power though it is Draupadi whom we identify more easily as woman born out of fire and lives in her fire of wrath and revenge. As does the unfortunate Amba eventually responsible for the death of Bhishma. Gandhari simmers in resentful rage symbolised thought the strip of blindfold over her eyes, refusing to see reason and forgiveness and irrevocably curses Lord Krishna and his clan to an ignominious death. Even Duryodhan’s wife and sister – Dushala and Bhanumati have mercifully not been typecast ‘wicked’ like him. Hidimba though a demoness, is not an antagonist but a friend and the loving wife of the Pandava, Bhim and mother of the brave Ghatochkach.
Then there are the sexually dangerous women – the perky apsaras , the beauties as beasts – who are supposed to seduce powerful men be it sages or kings or mortals. Though they use their sexuality as a weapon to bewitch and annihilate, they are never considered ‘evil’ – they have been assigned to save the world.
Current perspectives are fast altering how evil is viewed. Is the evil that women do, and the evil with which they are accused, always one and the same? How much of the female evil, is real or assumed? But women exercising and executing their own evil intent without a male surrogate is not a contemporary crime. It was there then too.
Kavita Kane writes a monthly column named Goddess of All Things for SheThePeople. Views are author’s own