Sexism in the Ramayana

I am delighted with the wonderful response to the essay on Rama. In complete honesty, I haven’t had that kind of readership for months on my blog; leave alone, a single day! And so, for everyone that stopped to read and share their thoughts with me, thank you for the effort and for extending the debate. Alongside the encomiums, I have also managed to garner the somewhat anticipated displeasure of women (friends and readers), in whose opinion I have given sexism and differential expectations of morality short shrift. This addendum explanatory essay is written to address the criticism and with the interest of influencing and furthering the debate.

The relationship between the sexes (sexual, socio-cultural, intellectual, financial and political) is dynamic and continuously evolving. Both sexes have made giant strides in achieving a more egalitarian partnership. Where we are in the 21st CE is nowhere close to where we were in the early 20th CE even; let alone the time of Rama. It is therefore, neither sensible nor rational to extend our modern sensibilities to the time of the Ramayana.

Since thought stems from context and from a personal one especially, I feel it necessary to fill in a little background detail. I have an abiding passion for and a deep involvement with the natural sciences. Medicine and the science of nature has taught me to view biology and sexuality in an abstract and holistic sense that transcends gender. I am not alone. Many who share these interests subscribe to this point of view. However, outside of this narrow spectrum and in the wider societal context, it is the social sciences that have framed the modern day understanding on gender, women’s issues, rights and the politics of sexuality. To my mind, the humanities have had control over the narrative of sexuality and gender issues for far too long. The time has long come when the stage must be ceded to Biology – time to make the shift from the analytic to the empirical. Because, while social sciences ‘interpret’; biology simply ‘is’. Biology defines gender and through that definition it teaches us to accept difference; to appreciate and respect it. It fosters an understanding between the sexes.  Whereas, the social sciences, on the other hand, have pulled them apart, interpreted them as separate and exclusive, disjoined them and created a terrible environment of discord.

Much of the ‘understanding’ of our spiritual and cultural history is in the realm of interpretation. We have been taught interpretations of events more than historical record. Neither you nor I nor any other person can dogmatically state with any degree of confidence that we are in the ‘know’ of the sexual/cultural mores of an ancient historical period. Inferences are formed from varied sources. They are subject to interpretations which in turn are informed by bias. Mainstream attitude and information is dominated by the view of historians and sociologists who oftentimes interweave their political and personal leanings into what strictly should be detached and bipartisan opinion. Within the framework of the current time; the past, quite naturally, seems ghastly and wretched. That does not make it so. To keep our period’s appalling gender discord as the standard for the interpretation of our epics is bizarre and retrogressive. If the frame of reference shifted, even for a little bit, it might reveal a very different result. Were men and women treated differently from us or, from how we would have liked them to be, in the epics (in varied contexts)? Indeed yes, they were. But it is we (modern day interpreters) who add the element of discrimination. Of oppression. Of subjugation. We add these with a generous sprinkling of common sense realism without really being in the ‘know’. Constant talk of discrimination in a sea of uncertainties only entrenches the feeling of victimhood in women. Worse, it covertly gives men the subliminal feeling that they indeed possess the power to dominate and oppress!

There is another aspect of history that is conveniently ignored in discussions of gender: War. Until very recently in our history, war was so commonplace that every generation experienced it. Men went to war; women rarely did. Men died. Most of them were young men in their prime. Gender ratios were skewed and polygamy was a consequence of that and of the geopolitical compulsions of war. Adultery and polygamy did not have the connotations they do today. How much of the gender relationship of the time was driven by war and/or violence and how much by sexual discrimination? How did war alter the marriage market or sex ratios? Do we know? Yet, we dogmatically proclaim, with not a hint of skepticism, that our culture discriminated on the basis of gender alone and nothing else.

How often in public discourse do we hear of the impact of war as a possible reason for the sociocultural behaviour of the past? Our culture is not unique. A simple reading of the history of most nations is enough to understand that war and political instability were an integral part of every historical age. In, ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, Steven Pinker elucidates at length his thesis of how we are a far less violent species today than at any other time in our history. Yet, mainstream dialogue continues to focus on the historical oppression of women. It is my contention that an environment of violence and political instability promotes a cooperative interaction between the genders. In such crisis ridden situations, the focus of the race is on survival and genealogical transmission. Not on marital discord or sexual oppression. World War II is a case in point. Historical record of this terrible time richly documents many an instance of sympathetic cooperation between men and women both on the home front and on the battle lines.

The Naturalist’s perspective: Biology is not interpreted. Biology is raw, real and visible. A male cannot give birth; a female does. A female does not worry about gene transmission; with her, it is natural. A male does (worry, that is). He needs the vehicle of her body to transmit his genes and ensure their survival. This is a fundamental reason why both sexes view and treat sexuality differently. From a purely genetic standpoint, sexual fidelity in a female ensures the transmission of the male’s genes. Monogamy gives the male a certain assurance of transmission.  Given that the female bears the onus of responsibility with birth, nurturing and rearing of offspring, monogamy is the more evolutionary stable strategy for her. Parental investment theory has had its critics, but has survived as the commonly accepted adaptive response. Monogamy is the default that humankind aspires to. Polygamy, on the other hand, is a reaction to the circumstances (war, for e.g.,) of unfavorable genetic transmission. Interestingly enough, until recently, monogamy was considered a unique human construct. That has now been proved to be a myth. Other species exhibit the same proclivities. The overt uncoupling of intercourse from procreation and increasingly progressive attitudes have led to a more unconstrained sexual environment. It might have started with men; but women are fast catching up and that also might well be an evolutionary response. Sexual fidelity is no more the de rigeur norm. Contrariwise, marriage and partnership is now fraught with the apprehension of infidelity.

Understanding biology is not condoning gender inequality. It is only a tool to to view history and men with a benign eye. Not with a vision perpetually tinted by malice, affront and a sense of being wronged. Why do we revel in a victimhood when biology has so obviously imbued the feminine with the greater power. It is for us to recognize that power, use it wisely and well to steer ourselves to higher ground. It is not only women who would benefit from looking at history through the lens of biology. Men would gain equally by learning to accept that gender is a mere biologic difference; not an intellectual one. This bipartisan understanding will advance the regard for women as equal participants on the stage of life. It is under the guidance of biology that sexuality is cast as just ‘one’ of the varied spheres of interaction between the genders. It also happens to be the easiest! Debate on gender inequality should therefore be applied strictly to our time and ours alone. Because, that is what we truly know, experience, and comprehend. It will be a tribute to our learning and to the giant strides we have made as women in the last century, if we could transcend our expectations of history and demand equality from our men and our society. Not of, or from, Rama.


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