Sexual Assault and Our Goddesses

Every day we hear chilling reports of women being abused at shelter homes, public transport, hospitals or bars. Women are groped, raped, molested and abused across countries and cultures. Violence against women is rampant in both public and private spaces. As per UN Women, one in three women worldwide have experienced sexual assault whether at home, on the streets or during the war. The body of women has historically been used as a tool of oppression, subjugation, and control of women.

Let’s admit it, women are not safe anywhere and from anyone and it’s not ok or acceptable! The ‘Me Too’ movement has once again highlighted the widespread prevalence, extent, and magnitude of the problem.

The assault against women has also been a recurrent theme in our myths, folktales, and legends. Though the sexual assault has never been endorsed or had the approval of any religion. But it was prevalent in varying degrees across societies and cultures since time immemorial.

Patricia Monaghan, in her book, ‘The Book of Goddesses and Heroines’ writes about Akycha, a solar goddess worshipped in Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. Akycha was a young woman and moon was her brother. She lived alone on the earth. One day in the dark of night, a young man broke into her house and raped her. This crime was frequently repeated, but she could never see the face of the man. To determine the identity of the man, she smeared his face with the soot of the oil lamp. Next morning, she saw the blackened face of her brother. She cut off her left breast and threw it towards him. Then she grabbed a burning wood and ran towards him. Both ran towards the sky and are still following each other.

Hina is another dawn goddess from Polynesia who was raped by her father. She got embarrassed when she came to know of the identity of her father. She ran away to the underworld. Another version of the myth presents Hina as the wife of Maui. Hina was bathing in a pool one day when the father of all eels molested her by pressing her genitals.

In the book, ‘Women Who Ran with the Wolves’ by Estes, Clarissa, she writes about a Greek tale of Persephone, who was the daughter of Mother Earth Demeter. Persephone was playing in a garden of flowers one day. The earth starts shaking, and from deep within the ground, emerges Hades, the God of the Underworld. Hades was tall and mighty and was riding a chariot driven by four horses.

Hades seized the young girl, into his chariot. The girl desperately cried for help with her veiled and sandals flying. The chariot plunged back into the darkness of the earth,
Seizing the terrified girl, he plunged back with her under the ground and into obscurity. Her mother Demeter could hear the cries through stone and water but could not see her daughter. Demeter overcome by grief due to loss of her daughter began the long and crazy search for her daughter. This is popularly known as the Rape of Persephone in classical Greek mythology.

The story has similarities with the abduction of Sita, wife of Lord Ram by Ravana. In Ramayana, the great Indian epic, the demon king Ravana kidnaps Ram’s wife Sita to exact vengeance on Rama and his brother Lakshmana for having cut off the nose of his sister, Shurpanakha. Every year, an effigy of Ravan is burnt in India to symbolically, send a message across the society that good always prevails over evil.

Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika were daughters of the King of Kashi who were abducted by Bhishma for his brother from their Swayamwara or the wedding ceremony. Later, Amba takes the birth of Shikhandi to seek revenge and kills Bhishma in the battlefield.

Staking Draupadi, the wife of Pandavas in the game of dice, is a defining moment in the ancient epic, Mahabharata. One of the fiercest, bold and articulate women in the Hindu tradition was treated as mere property or an object by men in the Court. As she was lost in the bet, she was dragged to the Court full of men and tries to disrobe her in public. Though she was timely rescued by Lord Krishna. To provoke and humiliate the Pandavas, Duryodhana asks Draupadi to sit on his thigh. The humiliation of Draupadi is the humiliation of Pandavas. Draupadi does question her family sitting over there about her fault and reminds them of their duty to protect her honor. But her plea fells on deaf years. Her five husband later take the revenge and kill her culprits.

Ahalya is another strong and learned woman in the Hindu tradition. She is married to sage Gautama Maharishi. Indra, the king of Devas, is enamored by the beauty of Ahalya, comes disguised as her husband in the morning when sage was having a bath in the river. He makes love with Ahalya, though Ahalya with her powers could see that it was Indra and not her husband. She nevertheless accepts his advances. Though there are different versions of the story, some say Lord Indra seduced her and absolve her of adultery. But eventually, her husband cursed her, and she turns into stone. She later gains her human form when  Lord Ram touches her.

Interestingly, both Ahalya and Draupadi are considered Panchkanya or five virgins along with Kunti, Mandodri, and Tara.  They are worshipped as ideal and chaste women in the Hindu culture.

There is a similar story mentioned in Padma Puran, where Lord Vishnu goes to Tulsi in the guise of her husband to destroy her chastity. The breach of chastity would help Lord Shiva to kill the demon Shankhachuda, who derived his power and invincibility from Tulsi’s devotion. When Tulsi comes to know of deceit, she curses Lord Vishnu to become a stone. Lord Vishnu takes the form of Shaligram and marries Tulsi.

Monaghan in her book also writes about Hera, Greek Goddess of women, marriage, and sexuality. She writes that Hera initially had no consort. But she was later tricked into marriage by sky god- Zeus. Zeus was primarily the God of patriarchal tribes in that area. Union of the two would conveniently establish the dominance of Zeus. Zeus took the form of a Cuckoo bird, which was very dear to Hera. When Hera took the bird on her lap and soothed her, Zeus raped her. To restore her dignity, she had to marry Zeus.

Marrying a rapist is a convenient way of exonerating the man from the crime of the rape.

The sexual assault culture is still embedded and is part of our patriarchal society across the globe in varying degrees. Misogyny and sexism are still being tolerated by families and societies everywhere.

And we need to stop that!

Image: Draupadi being disrobed in the Court

ImageCredit: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3273483&partId=1

25 Comments

  1. Hmm…I agree with your agony and also condemn the beastly nature of present/recent past generations, but I will have to stand on other side when you take examples from epics and point it as deep rooted in our society since looong times.

    If you take the myths literally, you have to accept the supernatural story lines that follow them, like ahalya becoming stone or indra getting thousand eyes, etc. as literal truths. If not, the myths should be taken as myths and no inference should be drawn. Or, one can stand inbetween and derive a symbolically picture (by understanding who wrote these and what is prologue and epilogue to these myths and so on).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree with you that myths were written at different times and for different audiences in mind.
      But myths are very powerful in sending a message and legitimizing social practices and customs in the present times.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Take Lalita sahasra nama or Saundarya Lahari for example. There are stanzas which describe about goddess’s brests and hip and etc. None of our ancients thought that was cheesy or sexual or bla bla. But modern mind, the moment these stanzas are translated, you know what they think (some of them, I mean) so, the problem lies in how the wisdom is utilised. If people మిస్ interpret it, it’s peoples fault.

        Oppenheimer and Einstein were responsible for invention of atom bomb. We do not blame them. We blame the faulty users.

        All this misunderstanding is part of nature’s evolution. The mix of world cultures and thoughts and lifestyles, takes some years to stabilise. We are, as I pointed before, may be on waning phase and need to wait for full moon.

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      2. Agree it all depends on how we interpret it. But I am more concerned with the social messaging. In Draupadi’s case, she was just used as a pawn between the warring brothers. The body of women is always the battleground for war and is associated with shame, and that can be used as a tool by the other group to humiliate the other side. Whenever there are riots in any part of the world, the first victims are undeniably women.

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      3. What happened then, I do not know. Because I can not prove. But of you take Indian history, not myths or scriptures, true history, do you think wars were fought over women? As I recall that started after Mughal entry. Before that wars and subjugation had lot of rules and I hardly find strong evidence to point that women were even tortured.

        Scriptures also, draupadi and ahalya etc are not common women. How much of common man and woman do they speak about?

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      4. I guess thats a partial view. First the strong subdue the weak. Then the rich subdue the poor. Then the wise subdue the ignorant. Then the upper classes subdue lower classes. Then the male subdue female.
        All these are intermixed and every aspect occurs in every other aspect. So, to stop one atrocity, the root of subduing nature should stop. Else, the problem will recur.

        So you must direct the problem in bigger picture. A small correction will not suffice, and will create unnecessary bifurcation in society.

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      5. A very good example would be Vedas themselves. They are more universal than mahabharat etc, for a Hindu. In vedas, you can see many incest relations (in modern view) like father and daughter or mother and a son be getting progeny. But that did not make the vedic nor the post vedic people incestuous. Even a normal person who read the stories in form of puranas did not accuse them. Because they knew how to understand what was written.

        So, in your search for atrocities to woman, you can not make draupadi or ahalya your base. It’s not only the lens from which we see, it’s a question of logical coherence that we need to follow in accepting something as a basis.

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      6. It’s not about what relationship is sanctioned by Vedas or any other authority. It’s not about what is morally right or wrong. It’s about the choice of women. Draupadi was not happy when she was humiliated publicly, nor was Sita when she was kidnapped. It’s about what women want not what society wants from them.

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      7. Agreed! But if you go deeper, you will see wrath of draupadi, on pandavas. She has equal say aswell. Also, there was respect by quenching her desire to kill dussyasana and smear her hair with his blood. Now, there is a submissive mode and respective mode. What do you think the story suggests? Why take one example as to show draupadi was forced? Why not the other?

        I understand the point of using woman as bait here. But it happened because later on Dharmaraja and pandavas gets nice coating from draupadi and they realise their mistake and bla bla…. That teaches us something. Isolating it, will lead to blot. Infact, the questions that draupadi asks to the whole sabha, points exactly what you are trying to suggest to this world. But that suggestion can not be brought without that situation.

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      8. No one is saying that Draupadi was submissive. In fact, I consider her very strong and fierce. But if women like her can be dragged to Court by her hair, in front of her elders and family, no wonder women are not safe anywhere. And after all the humiliation she suffered, was it too much to ask for revenge?

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      9. Exactly. That is what I am saying. Her being drawn like that, provoked her to ask many questions. These questions form the essence of your agony. Infact that is to the reader. These qtns ofcourse have other meanings, but primarily their essence is your (women’s) agony. But that does not say about common public. It says about this incident because by her qtns you will see that such an incident was firat of its kind. And its not a common practice at all. So how can we conclude women are not safe, from what happened to her, when herself is saying that it’s abnormal?

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      10. She asks many more questions,acrually. And also suggests dhrutarashtra and his wife,bhishma and other elders on their role as to how they can protect her and also quotes the laws and habitual customs of the land.
        In none of those, she points that women were ఈ treated… Not even once….

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      11. All countries and cultures have laws protecting women. But still women are burnt, killed, abused and this can happen anywhere and to anyone. This is not a generalization that all are abused.

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      12. So, in essence when draupadi was pointing out how society ‘was’ and the laws, she depicted a clean society and clean ruling system. But what happened to her was an evil thing. Among these two, I think the former represents society and the later a personal event of her life, not the reverse. Another example would be Rama’s story, where sita was abducted. But his kingdom is praised to be golden kingdom where none of his citizens faced any kind of trouble. So what happened to sita did not represent his kingdom’s state, not to women at that time.

        As to women suffering, I get it. You are absolutely right. ‘History’ suggests it. As we agreed on different levels of atrocities, all were there (but from recent past, not from antiquity) But the epics and characters do not suggest or point to these things at all. That’s my opinion though 🙂

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      13. I respect your opinion and wholeheartedly agree that governance systems were stable and not perverted as we see today. But yes Draupadi was made to bear the humiliation, that’s why Bheem took the revenge, and Bhishma Pitamah did point out that he was silent at the most crucial time of his life. And we burn the effigy of Ravan to send a message across the society.

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