Hindu Mythology, Disability and Women
When it comes to the representation of female characters with disability Hindu mythology is unidimensional, and sexist and that carters to the upper-class men's patriarchal view. If we look at the characters Gandhari, Surpanakha and Mantara not only they’re highly marginalized for being disabled but also there’s hardly any insight on the reasons and implications of their disabilities. Instead, their negative depictions have only given birth to various different types of interpretations and different types of biases and prejudice prevalent to this day.
Gandhari from Mahabarata chose to be disabled. She chose to wear a blindfold her entire life since her husband Dhrithrashtra was also blind. In Joyjeet pal’s essay ‘The Portrayal of Disability in Indian Cinema: An Attempt at Categorization’, he describes her self-abnegation “emerges as a act of therapeutic righteousness” Gandhari’s act variously describes as an act of rebellion against the forced arrange marriage to Prince Dhrithrashtra or it can seen as Gandhari’s reverence for her husband because her sightedness give her power over him both in royal court and interpersonal relationship. The angle of power thus brings to mind that may“righteousness” was not as therapeutic as it was forced. Though Gamdhari’s actions elevated her status and gave her super natural powers, it’s hard to believe that a man going through similar rigorous self abnegation for his wife.
Surpanakha was made disabled. Different variation of Ramayana describes her differently. Same describes her as extremely beautiful whiles others as hideous and frightening. However this has nothing to do with what happened to her. She was a woman trying to express her sexuality but got punished for that. Her nose was amputated and this not only made her disabled but also desexualized her, rendering her as “unattractive” . Surpanakha is a classic illustration of how bold women have been marginalized throughout history. This portrayal of surpanakha often discouraged women from expressing their sexuality for the fear of rendering them disabled.
It’s not too far fetched to relate this mythological misogyny and cruelty to modern day acid attacks on young women. Such attacks always aim a scar toward a woman’s face and leave her disfigured for life in revenge for having the “audacity” to spurn a man’s advances or stand up to someone’s authority. This leaves many in lifelong trauma and fear, that they stop expressing themselves. There is a generalization of disabled people as “asexual folks” in mainstream cinema and other popular cultures and texts. This generalization is not only negative but is more prevalent for disabled men than women.
Popular narrative ignores how surpanaka was a victim of injustice. She married for love, but was left widow when her brother ravana killed her husband. To compensate Ravana allowed her to find a new husband and she began to roam South India and eventually found exiled prince Rama. She desired him but he sent her to his brother lakshmana who sent her to Rama. Realizing the both were playing with her she attacked Rama’s wife Sita which is when Lakshmana chopped her nose off. The tenets of Kshathriya do not allow men to harm women. In this case Rama and Lakshmana both failed Kshathriya Dharma but there’s hardly any discussions on this because it was surpanakha who “stepped out of the line”
Mantara in Ramayana described as the “evil humpbacked maidservant” of Kaikeyi. She is believed to be the reason to banishing Rama. As the story goes Mantara who instigates Kaikeyi to manipulate her husband Dasharat into exiling his stepson Rama (who’s also the heir to Dasharat’s throne) so her own biological son Bharat can become the king. Here Mantara’s disability is tied to maliciousness and villainy. Though it was Dasharat who exiled Rama and Kaikeyi convinced him to do so Mantara is the one to be blamed for. This stereotyping of her character as a disabled person also associates with her lower social status as servant.
Women with disabilities are one of the weakest sections of society even today. Perhaps such depictions in mythology has a lot to with it. Our epics were originally written for upper class men and it is their interpretations that passed down to generations. But today we question those interpretations and analyze how they caused damage to forming an equitable society. While modern societies worldwide have made space for disabled people in public spaces, literature, pop culture etc Indian society still prevails regressive values to disability and refuse the rights, dignity and desires of those with disabilities.
Mythologies are meant to didactic however it’s lessons are grossly misinterpreted and it is high time that we move forward and change those perceptions of people with disability and make it more acceptable and normal.