Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Beyond Misogyny

It is ironic that in India, the premier persons who came forward to claim ‘women’s rights’ were not women but were men. Balaram Das, a sixteenth century poet, very well known inside Orissa but lesser known to out side world, is considered as the premier of feminism. As feminism developed in Western countries around the seventeenth century, it is to be noted that Balaram Das pointed out the male hegemony of patriarchal society in his poems much before it began in the Europe.

In 1617, John Swetnam's misogynist pamphlet “The Arraignment of Women” (1615) induced English women to enter the debate on the woman question that had been boiling on the continent for two centuries. Rachel Speght, who was the first English woman to protest Mr. Swetnam with almost the same line of argument, directly claimed that women are not inferior to men in intellectual ability.

In 1673, Fran├žois Poulain de La Barre, a disciple of Descartes published a book entitled Essays Concerning the Equality of Men and Women, where he straightforwardly pointed out that women are, by nature, no less intelligent than men, and that they would be able to engage in both creative and intellectual vocations if they were provided with the opportunity to study at educational institutions as men were. He further insists that the view of females as socially and intellectually defective is derived from the blind acceptance of the comments of various classical philosophers about women.

It is not a mere coincidence that strong defenses of women's abilities appeared in two different countries in the seventeenth century. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in their book The Madwoman in the Attic [ See: Gilbert, Sandra and Gubar,Susan: The Madwoman in the Attic; Publisher: Yale University Press; 2 Sub edition (July 11, 2000) , (ISBN-10: 0300084587, ISBN-13: 978-0300084580], tended to examine Victorian literature from a feminist perspective also quote and admit the role of Milton’s Paradise Lost in these feminist terminologies.

John Milton (born in 1608) was the English poet, best known for his epic Paradise Lost. Milton was writing at a time of religious and political instability in England. His poetry and prose reflected deep convictions, often reacting to contemporary circumstances; but it is not always easy to locate the writer in an obvious religious category, although his views may be described as broadly Protestant. He was an accomplished, scholarly man of letters, a polemical writer, and an official in the government of Oliver Cromwell.

On the other hand, the reputed medieval saint poet of 16th century, Balaram Das, one of the five poet companions revivalists of Vaishnavism , popularly known as Panchasakha, has significant affect on Oriya Literature. His Laksmi Purana provided the other pillar on which subsequent literature was to thrive and was considered as the first manifesto of Women’s Liberation and Feminism in Indian Literature. But it was written to promote a Hindu ritual ‘Vrat/Brat.’ (Vrat or Brat are the Hindu rituals of fasting or Upavas, mainly observed by the women, to please a particular God or Goddesses on a particular day. when devotees refrain themselves from food or water.Every Vrat/Brat has its own ‘puranas’ or legend describe in mythical poem form, which were to be recited at the rituals)

The tragedy of Adam and Eve is the central theme of Paradise Lost. It contains two arcs: one of Satan (Lucifer) and another of Adam and Eve. The story of Satan continues the epic convention of large-scale warfare. It begins after Satan and the other rebel angels have been defeated and cast down by God into Hell.

The story of Adam and Eve's temptation and fall is a fundamentally different, new kind of epic: a domestic one. Adam and Eve are presented for the first time in Christian literature as having a functional relationship while still without sin. They have passions, personalities, and sex. Satan successfully tempts Eve by preying on her vanity and tricking her with rhetoric, and Adam, seeing Eve has sinned, knowingly commits the same sin by also eating of the fruit. In this manner, Milton portrays Adam as a heroic figure but also as a deeper sinner than Eve. After eating the fruit, they have lustful sex. Both experience new and negative emotions, particularly the powerful pair of guilt and shame, and engage in mutual recrimination. However, Eve's pleas to Adam reconcile them somewhat. More importantly, her encouragement enables Adam and Eve both to approach God, to "bow and sue for grace with suppliant knee," to receive grace from God. Adam goes on a vision journey with an angel where he witnesses the errors of man and the Great Flood, and he is saddened by the sin that they have released through the consumption of the fruit. However, he is also shown hope – the possibility of redemption – through a vision of Jesus Christ. They are then cast out of Eden and the archangel Michael says that Adam may find "A paradise within thee, happier far." They now have a more distant relationship with God, who is omnipresent but invisible (unlike the previous tangible Father in the Garden of Eden).

Laksmi Purana is also a popular poem in Orissa and it has a great religious ritualistic value as the female masses of Orissa celebrates a ‘brata. Every Thursday in the Margasira month of Hindu Calendar, they recite the poem as a ritual during their worship to Laksmi, the goddess of wealth. The Laksmi Purana is also translated in to English, in prosaic form, by Dr. Jagannath Prasad Das ( See: Das, Jagannath Prasad: English Version of Lakshmi purana: Manushi; No.73, November-December 1992) and also available online at Oriya Nari Website

In Balaram Das’s Laksmi Purana, critics find a typical patriarchal dilemma and though he was a supporter of feminism, he couldn’t ideologically place himself above the patriarchal moral values about the female masses. In the beginning of the Laksmi Purana, he describes the “do’s and don’ts” of a woman.

. “Many things are taboo for women during this period: giving Mahalakshmi’s Prasad to outsiders, even to the married daughter; beating the children; not cleaning the cooking vessels till all the black is gone; spreading the bed crooked; disobeying the in-laws; sleeping naked; applying oils; and so on. If it happens to be the last day of the dark fortnight on Thursday, a woman should not wash the mouth after meals; face south or west while eating; tie and dress hair in the evening; eat in a dark room; apply oil on the body after bath; be angry with or disobey the husband. Lakshmi does not leave the house of the woman who treats her husband as god, is of clean habits, and shares her husband’s happiness and sorrow. Lakshmi shuns the house of the woman who is adulterous, lazy, dirty, quarrelsome and disrespectful to the husband. The married woman has no future without her husband. If she does vain vrats leaving aside service to her husband, she is destined to be reborn as a child widow.” (Translated into English by Dr. Jagannath Prasad Das in prose form) .

But the later part of Laksmi Purana reveals another story. The so-called ‘devoted wife” moral value supporter Goddes Laksmi had to face a set back from her husband Lord Jagannath and her husband’s elder brother Lord Balaram. Seeing her as a member of a low caste from Chandal’s house, the elder brother of Lord Jagannath became enraged and asked his brother, Lord Jagannath, to ‘drive her out.’ According to Lord Balaram, “A wife is like a pair of sandals. If you have your brother, you can have ten million wives. If you still feel for your wife, go and build a palace in the Chandala Street (the street where untouchables reside: my addition to the text); don’t come back to my great temple.” (Translated text in prose form by Dr. Jagannath Prasad Das)

Lakshmi said, “You want to throw me out since I stayed a while in the house of an untouchable. You talk of caste and since you are gods, everything is excused. What about your own caste? You lived in a cowherd’s house. You ate in Nima’s house; you ate leftover fruits from Jara. Both you brothers are therefore low caste, no less. If the wife makes a mistake, the husband must bear it. For one transgression, the master does not remove his servant.” (Translated text from above prose form)

The following text describes how Laksmi, being driven away from her in-law’s house, established herself by making a palace and the Goddess then summoned the eight Vetalas and asked them to ransack the kitchen and pantry in the temple and bring everything to her. The story later tells how the two Gods Lord Jagannath and Lord Balaram decided to go out begging. Wearing torn clothes, sacred thread on the shoulder and a broken umbrella in hand, the brothers now looking like Brahmin beggars, went round asking for water to drink. Lakshmi then called Saraswati and asked her to go to every house and ask the householders not to give food and water to Jagannath. So wherever the two gods went, they were taken to be thieves and driven out. At last, the two brothers had to surrender to Goddess Laksmi and agreed that she could live wherever she wanted and the two gods would never again try to forbid her.

Balaram Das never tried to raise his tone directly on the moral values of patriarchal society. But very tactfully, he raised his voice against the Hindu Patriarchal system. Similarly, Milton had never raised his voice against Christianity but he raised his voice in support of sexuality. Balaram Das skipped the topic of sexuality but placed himself, instead, as a supporter of feminism within the limitations of a marriage.

The relationship between Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost is one of “. . . mutual dependence, not a relation of domination or hierarchy." Hermine Van Nuis clarifies that although there is a sense of stringency associated with the specified roles of the male and the female. Each unreservedly accepts the designated role because it is viewed as an asset. (Van Nuis, H (May 2000), "Animated Eve Confronting Her Animus: A Jungian Approach to the Division of Labor Debate in Paradise Lost", Milton Quarterly 34 (2): 48-56)

But in Laxmi Purana, we find that the husband Lord Jagannath is more inclined to the patriarchal values and his relationship with Laksmi overstates the independence of the characters’ stances and therefore, misses the way in which Adam and Eve are entwined with each other.” On the other hand, Goddess Laksmi asserts her independence while recalling her marriage days, while questioning the gods about their view of the caste system and when wanting to live separately from her husband the Lord Jagannath. Attitudes in the Purana show Lakshmi to be of a strong personality to protest chauvinistic and incorrect male perspectives. Thus a positive outlook in Laksmi’s character on feminist ideology can be witnessed in the Laksmi Purana. But in comparison to Laksmi, Eve was a weak character. Though in the beginning, Eve displays her independence while gazing into a pool and seeing her own image.

Though Milton appeared as a pro feminist in his free verse epic Paradise Lost, critics blame him for his misogynist attitude (See: Gallagher, Philip J: Milton, the Bible, and Misogyny; Publisher: Univ of Missouri Pr (April 1990), ISBN-10: 0826207359; ISBN-13: 978-0826207357) whereas there was no evidence of misogynist nature of Balaram Das. The sexual right is the main topic for Eve in Paradise Lost.Though Balaram Das wants to skip the sexual topics, still both the poets have made their stand nearer to the social right and social freedom of the feminine masses.It is also an amazing fact to mark that the pro-feminist voice was raised in Eastern world at least hundred years before the Western could think over it.