Women at the Margins: Gender and Religious Anxieties in Valmiki's Ramayana.

Author:Goldman, Sally J. Sutherland
Position:Critical essay

In the Sundarakanda, the very heart of Valmiki's Ramayana, the hapless heroine, Sita, pale and dejected, sits raptly meditating on her lord, Rama, in the midst of the asokavanika. There, as the heroine awaits rescue and contemplates suicide, she is guarded and tormented by hideous raksasis. At this most poignant of junctures, the epic introduces another figure, the goddess Nikumbhila. (1) About this figure, Valmiki provides little information. We are told, however, that this goddess delights in offerings of blood and various human and animal body parts and that sacrificial rites dedicated to her appear to include such offerings. The raksasi wardresses threaten Sita with taunts that she would be among those offerings and that she would be, literally, "sliced and diced," and then eaten by them as part of their frenzied rites--dancing and making offerings to the goddess. The juxtaposition of the two: Sita--literally the feminine face of the arya world--and Nikumbhila--the voracious goddess of the raksasa world--is not accidental, nor is this the first time, although clearly it is the most dramatic, that Valmiki introduces his audience to women who participate in religious observances or to devouring goddesslike figures.

In the following discussion, I will suggest that, at one level of this multivalent poem, the poet's alignment of the feminine and religion can be understood as intentional and as marking real or imagined, much-feared threats to the arya world as it is conceptualized and represented by Valmiki. Moreover, I will argue that Valmiki provides his audience with potential resolutions to those threats. While this paper will focus primarily on those women who fall outside of the Kosalan ruling family and those events that occur outside of the kingdom of Ayodhya, in light of the broader structural argument put forth, I need to briefly highlight some relevant features and episodes of the first two books of the poem.


At the outset of the epic the poet depicts an ideal arya/brahmanic society ruled over peacefully by King Dasaratha with the aid of his ministers. (2) Valmiki's construction of this kingdom is so central to his narrative agenda that he expends two entire sargas in its description (1.6-7), reconstructing a fantasized and idyllic world that harks back to a Utopian and glorious past. Of particular note is the poet's emphasis on the perfect vedic society, which is described through its religious, social, and ethical activities. (3) The emphasis the poet places on these very markers of the ideal past indicates a present that has experienced challenges to and even deviation from such ideals.

Immediately following upon this description, the poet reveals a flaw within this society and a tension is introduced: Dasaratha, the perfect vaidika king, has no son. (4) In order to procure the one key element that would ensure the continuation of his lineage, kingdom, and, by extension, the vedic/brahmanic society, Dasaratha resorts to what appear to be extreme measures. Not only must he enlist the aid of a surrogate, here the sage Rsyasrnga, but he performs two separate rituals to ensure offspring: an asvamedha, the horse sacrifice (1.13), and a putresti, a rite for producing a son (1.14). (5)

The asvamedha is normally undertaken to sanctify a king's hegemony. Nevertheless, it has a strong fertility component encapsulated within it that requires participation of the king's queens. (6) Moreover, from an early time, it has additionally been associated with purification. (7) Even so, the seemingly unexpected use of the asvamedha in this context has not escaped the attention of scholars. (8) The standard, and not unreasonable, rationale is that the sacrifice is needed to remove obstacles that have prevented Dasaratha from fathering a child. (9)

It is during the asvamedha that Kausalya, Dasaratha's chief queen and the future mother of Rama, makes her first appearance in the epic narrative (1.13.27). She "unites" with the horse, as do the other wives of Dasaratha (1.13.28). Her actions here are important, since the aspects of sexuality and fertility clearly are foregrounded in the ritual, and it is these very elements that tie the use of the asvamedha to the concerns of the Balakanda. (10) Although the asvamedha is described in other contexts in epic literature, women are not specifically mentioned as participants." In Dasaratha's asvamedha, however, Kausalya is a major participant. That fertility and impregnation are fundamental concerns of Dasaratha's rationale for undertaking the asvamedha is reinforced by the second ritual, the putresti, which occurs in the following sargas (14-15). At verse 2, the text transitions:

istim te 'ham karisyami putriyam putrakaranat / 1.14.2ab In order to procure sons for you, I shall perform the son-producing sacrifice. (12) This rite is smaller and less imposing than the first and appears to have the same basic functions: the impregnation of the queen and the procuring of sons. In contrast to the asvamedha with its relatively thick description, the mechanics of this rite are passed over. (13) We are told only that from the sacrificial fire a great being arose bearing a vessel filled with celestial payasa 'porridge' (1.15.8-13), which will impregnate the three women. Dasaratha divides the payasa among his three wives (1.15.25-27). The participation of the women here is minimal. They are passive, serving only as the recipients and consumers of the porridge. Nevertheless, their presence at and involvement in the rite are crucial to its successful completion. (14)

The women are apparently willing and necessary participants in both rites. They are named but are not given voice. They participate in these ritual activities in order to fulfill a cultural and biological obligation of motherhood and to guarantee the ritually sanctioned production of an heir to maintain the lineage specifically and the vedic tradition in general.

Toward the end of the Balakanda, as the main narrative reasserts itself, another "rite" is introduced, here a marriage, which, like both the asvamedha and putresti, requires the presence of a woman. It is here that the poem first introduces Sita, the heroine of the narrative. Sita's wedding is not described in detail, but is used by Valmiki to mark his hero's coming of age and sets the stage for the epic adventure to begin in earnest. (15) Thus among its other concerns, through these two sections the Balakanda marks normative and approved roles of women in the culturally sanctioned rites and religious observances of Valmiki's world. In addition, the book describes and reflects the idealized role and position of women in traditional brahmanic society, mother and wife. (16)

In the Ayodhyakanda, at its outset, the status quo prevails--the vedic/brahmanic culture is dominant, but there are clear threats to that world from within. (17) While the kanda provides few explicit references to women as participants in religious rites or sacrifices, we are provided a rather detailed description of Kausalya, who is the senior inhabitant of the antahpuram 'inner apartments or harem' and is portrayed as intensely religious. In general, Kausalya is a somewhat shadowy figure through much of the epic, one often mentioned but rarely seen or heard from. Valmiki has remarkably little to say about the physical appearance of this important figure. Perhaps her most defining moment in the epic occurs toward the beginning of the Ayodhyakanda. Rama, upon hearing of his imminent coronation, goes first to tell her the tidings. Of Kausalya we are told:

tatra tam pravanam eva mataram ksaumavasinim / vagyatam devatagare dadarsa yacatim sriyam // 2.4.30 There in the shrine-room he saw his mother, clothed in linen, solemnly and silently praying for his royal fortune. tasmin kale hi kausalya tasthav amiliteksana / 2.4.32ab ... srutva pusyena putrasya yauvarajyabhisecanam / pranayamena purusam dhyayamana janardanam // 2.4.33 At that moment Kausalya stood with her eyes closed... from the moment she received word that her son was to be consecrated as prince regent on Pusya day, she had been controlling her breathing and meditating on the Primal Being, Janardana. tatha saniyamam eva so 'bhigamyabhivadya ca / 2.4.34ab ... While she was engaged in these observances, (Rama) approached her and did obeisance... amogham bata me ksantam puruse puskareksame / 41ab [and she said] "Truly the vows of self-denial I made to the lotus-eyed Primal Being were not in vain...." (18) The image presented is of a woman who is completely devoted to the welfare of her son and one who is engaged in religious meditative practices and observations. Even her sartorial choice mirrors this self-denial. (19) Valmiki is silent here on her relationship to her husband. (20)

A few sargas later, following his sudden change in fortune, Rama comes once more to his mother's inner apartments (antahpuram), this time to tell her that he is being banished. At this juncture, Valmiki pauses to describe Kausalya once more, further reinforcing her image as a woman totally immersed in and devoted to religious observances. Here too, the description is of a pious woman who has focused her energies and life on her son, rather than on her husband (2.17.6-8). Hearing of her son's reversal in fortune, she wishes to join him in his sojourn in the forest. That Kausalya is so intent upon her religious duty and wishes to abandon her husband and follow Rama to the forest is, in fact, culturally inappropriate. And Rama must remind her of her primary duty. Thus he says somewhat harshly to her:

vratopavasanirata ya nari paramottama / bhartaram nanuvarteta sa ca papagatir bhavet // 2.21.20 "Even an excellent women, who is devoted to vows and fasts, would come to an evil end, if she does not obey her husband." (21) It is this duty to her husband that Kausalya has ignored. When Rama finally takes leave of his distraught...

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