Re-defining Shakti Or Otherwise Known As Patriarchal Manipulation

Last week at a family dinner, my aunt was talking about a married couple in her neighbourhood who were considering divorce. Apparently, the man in question was a cheating on his wife of four years with his employee. Everyone was disgusted by his behaviour, felt horrible for his wife in the prescribed amount of pity (according to the guidance of the book on Expressing Correct Amounts Of  Privileged LadyEmotions  – the same one that makes us feel sorry for anyone below us in the social order with the correct proportion of well-intentioned condescension) secretly thanking their stars that it wasn’t them and wishing the wife strength to forgive him. When I asked why should she forgive him considering he didn’t ever respect her, was a wife-beating scumbag in addition to his adulterous nature, my aunt huffed, “We women have Shakti. It’s our responsibility to be the bigger person and keep our families together…”. She went on explaining the numerous womanly duties we should perform while my brain slammed shut. In all seriousness though, there are many stories weaved around this shakti, each twisted to suit patriarchy’s best need : To Keep Ladies In Their Place.

Literally speaking, Shakti means power. Of course when this Shakti is written by a Dude, it becomes yet another tool (no innuendo intended) that encourages women to internalise male supremacy.

The epic poem Ramayan is famous as one of India’s foremost religious texts among  Mahabharat, Bhagvad Gita, Manusmriti etc. Like any religious text, it instructs men and women how to live morally on the path of good karma. As A.K. Ramanujan argues, there are many versions of the Ramayan (as many as three hundred) but the most popular one is written by the ascetic Valmiki (a very well respected Dude). In this version, Sita’s femininity revolves around:

  1. Worshiping her husband Ram — She who is prosperous and husband-devout, will always abide by you like your own shadow…
  2. Being a dutiful wife who goes into exile with her husband  — Following my husband with loving devotion, I shall become sin-less; for husband is the supreme deity to me. In this world, which women were given away to whom by parents with water ( a Hindu rite) according to the moral code binding on them, that woman belongs to him alone even after death…
  3. Obeying her elder’s wishes — O, Sita! Surely, those evil women, who get into an improper act of authority over their husbands reap infamy and decline in righteousness. Thus devoted to your lord, loyal to your husband, following established rules, you become an honest wife to your husband and obtain merit and fame and lastly
  4. She decides to walk over a burning pyre to prove to her husband and the kingdom that she was faithful to her husband while the demon Ravan kept her captive O lord! It was not my wilfulness, when I came into contact with the person of Ravana. I was helpless. My adverse fate was to blame on that score… As I have never been unfaithful in act, thought and speech to Rama, who knows all the virtues, so let the fire-god protect me.

She is eventually exiled (some versions suggest Ram ordered to have her killed) while she was pregnant with his twins because there was the possibility of her having cheated on Ram. Granted, Ram didn’t know about the babies she is carrying and banishes her away. Years later, when he is re-united with his sons Luv and Kush, Sita refuses to see him; asks her mother Earth to open up and accept her whole. According to Valmiki’s version, she does this because she knows she wouldn’t be able to defy his wishes to return had she spoken to Ram. And this is one of the most important Hindu texts (Gags are in order here). Important to note these texts are favored by upper class women rather than other versions that show Sita as a subversive character, a sort of late-blooming heroine for the lower classes.

It’s an observable pattern that the most transgressive Goddesses are ostracised or in some way have to pay for rebelling against their husbands (remember all that talk of patriarchal writing of these texts?) or only specifically ‘designed’ for the lower classes to relieve them of their specific problems. Goddess Parvati who dared to have kept her husband Shiv from entering her bath had to sacrifice her son’s head; Ma Kali which is one avatar depicting the wrath of Parvati is accepted in society because her ‘original’ avatar is a more submissive woman. Her most extreme avatar Ma Tara is described as “almost naked with matted hair and a blood-red rolling tongue and sitting upon a tiger’s skin with four arms, wearing a garland of freshly severed heads; she wields a blood-smeared cleaver as she stood victorious, dripping with blood, over a dead corpse with an erect phallus” — you can see why she isn’t a mainstream icon. But ‘outcasts’, ‘lowlifes’ and ‘poor women’ can avail of Ma Tara‘s grace because they aren’t bound with the shackles of ‘purity’ and ‘chastity’ that are imbibed in Hindu girls and women as a step-up from those ‘lowly sluts’. It’s only when Mahashveta Devi uses to voice a woman of the lower classes, she can allow her Draupadi to transgress and save herself as opposed to the Mahabharata myth which is just an Indian spin-off on the Damsel-In-Distress syndrome.

This Shakti that we posses is as powerful as all the God’s together, only we aren’t supposed to use it. At least ‘Good Hindu Girls’ don’t use this Shakti to level with the world; we use it so we can stop ourselves from divorcing bullying husbands, committing adultery or doing anything remotely unconventional.

At this point you’re thinking, “Maybe she didn’t have any coffee today. That’s why her head has gone all woozy! NO ONE READS THESE TEXTS ANYMORE! People have computers! Now they just watch the T.V. adaptations or read the Facebook version! Maybe it’s time for her to put down the crack pipe”. The thing is, though we have the electronic printing press or the Internet, we can surmise the entire Ramayan or possibly any damaging text in a 160 characters Twitter version and create more e-debris than previously imaginable; it would be silly to underestimate the power of these written texts.  The T.V. version which is viewed by million people nationwide is based mainly on the Dude’s re-telling of these epics. My freaking aunt and many, many women who read ONLY these texts have taught some of these principles to their sons and daughters. As a child when I read the abridged version of these texts, I thought a woman’s duty is to be obedient and subservient to her Lord (her husband). Only when I read a feminist re-interpretation of these texts, I began to question these ideals.

If these tales are treated as stories, craftily designed to suit the needs of the DudeCouncil, we’d be better off. Otherwise we have campaigns under the name of the Hinduism and ‘preserving Indian womanhood’ that “drives us to assault women” for being Western a.k.a drinking (gasp! alcohol!) in pubs and bars.

Yes, that is a real thing in the world. By a group called the FREAKING Shri Ram Sena.

(This post is published in Womanist Musings)

Leave a comment


  1. Caitiecat

     /  June 20, 2010

    This is really good analysis, Jaded16, thank you.

  2. Matt

     /  June 20, 2010

    Beautiful analysis Jaded. Thank you so much. This point of view has really truned most of my assumptions around.

  3. The concept of Shakti seems to parallel, in some respects, that of the Holy Spirit in Christianity. According to Sri Aurobindo (and I believe him on this), this is actually a gender neutral force, just as the creator (Ma, or Mother) is gender neutral. So, women ‘have’ the Shakti, but so do men.

    As for the texts: they seem pretty patriarchal to me, and I wonder how one can even reinterpret them? Would such reinterpretations be connected at all to the original intent of the texts (I doubt it)?

    Interestingly one can easily argue from an Abrahamic perspective that the wifely attitude advocated in those texts amounts to idol-worship, and so is blasphemous. That is actually the first thing that occurred to me, when I was reading this post :P.

    • I agree, there is no point in re-interpreting such negative texts. My post wasn’t aimed at re-writing or re-working these base structures of Hindu religion; just wanted to point out how flawed the texts are. The need to do this stems from the problematic stronghold of these texts over the mainstream public’s concept of ‘religion’ and whatever that comes along with it.

      • Yes, I agree. That problematic tendency needs to be pointed out, especially in places like Pakistan where people are too busy debating the interpretation of the Quran to actually ask themselves whether it matters what the Quran says in the first place.

  4. Matt

     /  June 27, 2010

    Once again, you opened my eyes to a new train of thought. Thank you!

  5. Peter

     /  June 30, 2010

    Good post Jaded. Really, you’ve given me a lot to think about. Thank you.

  6. The manipulations of the concept of “Shakti” are manyfold and subtle at the same time. Shikati is benevolent mother Goddesses is to be revered as it protects the sons (read devoted men) in the hour of need where as Shakti as destroyer (kalki, kali) is to be feared as it cannot be contained thus destroys the evil.

    Another interesting feature of these tales is Goddesses are no better than mortal dames. They bitch, backbite, crib and sabotage each other and other women. Here enjoy this

    Ultimately the shakti in any avataar is designed to serve the dudecouncil.


    Desi Girl

  7. nice post..very expresive style of writing..

    do visit my post and do promote it if you like it.. 🙂

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