Week One = Done
As unbelievable as it seems, week one of block 4 has come to an end. This fact is even more significant to me this year, as I am going abroad to Spain for the entirety of the spring semester, something that I am both excited and terrified about. I have never spent more than a month in any place other than Maine or Colorado, so it will most definitely be a shock, but I’m sure it will allow for some growth and fun memories…I just wish this block would slow down just a bit since there is so much preparation to do before I jet off to España. (Cue the music: La gente está muy loca)
Anyway, this week in class we learned a lot about…SURPRISE…women (and gender in general) in Hinduism and Buddhism. We read The Ramayana, an ancient Sanskrit text. We read this same text last year during Tracy’s “Hinduism” course; however, this time we read it looking out especially for themes of gender and what it means to be a woman during this time. There are a whole slew of examples in The Ramayana concerning gender, but I picked out a few that stuck out to me to discuss.
First, there’s the story of Ahalya. Ahalya was the perfect woman, which in this time period essentially meant two things: she had the perfect appearance, and she was completely devoted to her husband, addressing his needs fully, and giving up any of her own needs and desires. Because of her obvious perfection, Ahalya of course attracted many male suitors. The god Indra became immediately infatuated with her; however, unfortunately for him, a man named Gautama won her heart (or at least her hand in marriage) instead. Of course, losing Ahalya infuriated Indra to no end. I mean, how many women out there were both beautiful and completely devoted to their husbands at this time? (Hint: most women) Even so, Indra did not want to give up on Ahalya. For this reason, he sneakily took the form of Gautama, skedaddled off to Ahalya’s house, and seduced her into bed with him, with Ahalya believing it was Gautama the entire time. Of course, because nothing positive ever happens in these stories (I am exaggerating, but really, that is what it seems like), the real Gautama entered into the room, caught the two in bed, and became very angry. He told Ahalya that she had sinned with her body, and changed her into a shapeless piece of granite, saying she would not transform back into her normal figure until Rama saves her in the future.
Ok…as a female reader, I have many problems with this situation. First, Ahalya had no idea that this man who came in and seduced her was actually an imposter. She completely believed it to be her husband, since he took the exact form of Gautama. Was she supposed to interrogate him first, to make 100% sure that this man who looked exactly like her husband was her husband? He walks in…WAIT, I want to be sure…are you Gautama? Because you look completely like him, but I want to be sure you are not an imposter who has taken the form of my husband in order to seduce me because I am just THAT desirable. That would be a little crazy to do every time your husband comes in. Considering women at this time were already inferior to men, let’s not add completely crazy to their description as well.
In addition, at this time, women were not really permitted to say no to their husbands. If Ahalya had said no to the real Gautama, she would have been punished for dismissing him and not devoting herself completely to him. We have seen this idea numerous times in class already, so that really was not an option for Ahalya, as sad as that fact is.
In addition, it is just depressing that Ahalya, who was essentially raped by Indra, was punished severely for “sinning with her body.” This poor woman was completely victimized by Indra, however she ends up being the one who apologizes and asks for forgiveness from Gautama. Of course, he does not give it to her and instead, turns her into granite. It is clear that Gautama just felt like less of a man because of this act between Indra and Ahalya. Because of his loss of masculinity, someone had to be punished, so of course that person was the woman.
Another interesting story from The Ramayana concerning women comes from the story of Rama and Sita. For those of you who don’t know the story, I’ll give a quick overview. Rama, son of the king, was married to Sita, the most beautiful woman in all the land. Rama was set to be the next ruler, but in order to better serve herself, Rama’s step-mother decided that she wanted her own son to rule, instead of Rama. Therefore, obviously the best and most simple solution was to banish Rama to the forest for fourteen years (familial relations were clearly very healthy back then). Rama listened to his stepmother, as it was his dharma (duty) to listen to his father, and thus his stepmother as well. Sita, the doting wife that she was, of course followed Rama to the forest, as that was her dharma as a wife. Personally, I might have stayed behind to tend to my nice castle in peace, but that’s beside the point. Anyway, while out in the forest, Sita saw a golden deer. She essentially demanded that Rama capture this deer for her, since she simply had to have it (holiday season is coming, everyone, take note from Rama and get all of your loved ones golden deer). While Rama was out and about trying to capture this deer, Sita was captured herself by the evil Ravana. Ravana had seen her earlier and took note of her beauty, and realized he needed Sita in his life.
While Sita was in Ravana’s house against her will, she pined for Rama the entire time, even threatening suicide once because life wasn’t worth living without Rama. Meanwhile, Rama tried to find Sita endlessly; he even enlisted the help of monkeys to find his beloved Sita. Eventually, of course Rama found Sita; however, he was cold and unwelcoming to her once he found her. He explained that he could not take Sita back because she had stayed with another man, and no one in their right mind would allow her to return to his house. Essentially, he couldn’t respectfully take Sita back when she had stayed with another man, and possibly hadn’t been faithful. However, instead of Sita being offended, she decided to prove her purity to him by an ancient fire ceremony, in which she jumped into a fire to prove her purity, with the fire god Agni as her witness. She proved her purity to Rama, and the two were reunited.
Again, as a reader, especially as a feminist reader, I take some issues with this whole ordeal. Sita herself stayed pure the entire time when she was in the house of Ravana; her devotion to Rama was never in doubt. However, when they were reunited, Rama essentially punished her for being abducted, something that was completely against her will. Rama felt like his masculinity was put into question when Sita was in the house of another man, and therefore he had to prove to himself and to his people that he was manly enough to not take his (devoted) wife back…really, it just showed that he was not a great husband. To top it all off, Sita felt like she had to prove her purity in a humiliating and public way, something that no woman should ever be subjected to.
After reading The Ramayana for the second time around, it is clear how large a role gender plays. The first time I read it, I thought it was a nice love story between two people that ended with a “happily ever after.” However, it is now clear to me how it is actually a story where woman are treated pretty unfairly, and are expected to be perfect and devoted wives always. When they stray from this expectation, even slightly or even accidentally, punishment ensues by the men in their lives.
Well…clearly, this class has some overarching themes of gender inequality. I see everyday how unequal men and women are, both in ancient texts and in the modern day. Obviously, it can get pretty depressing; I sometimes leave class feeling like men and women will never be equal. Sure, some people believe that they are equal today, but that is far from the truth. Although women today may not be expected to dutifully follow their husbands to the forest for fourteen years, they make significantly less money than men for the same jobs, there has never been a woman president in the US, and an outspoken woman is typically considered aggressive and unruly, whereas an outspoken man is considered to be typical. These gender discrepancies are, to say the least, discouraging…especially as a female who hopes to do well in the future. However, this class has been so eye opening to these problems. Even from the first week, it is clear that I will learn some of the most valuable lessons and information from this class.
How’s that for a liberal arts education?