Friday, July 29, 2011

Myth, Religion and the Body

Why is it that only the men have the rights to be the priests? In the recent times, some religions and rituals have started accepting women as religious, cultural figureheads, but it has been a man’s domain for a long time. If you consider religion as a source of power, you can explain the phenomenon as politics of power.

And, how about coming of age rituals...? While circumcision is an important coming of age ritual in Judaism and Islam, it’s missing in Christianity and Hinduism. While there are no such rituals for women in post-Judiasm religions, there has been wide-spread cult of female circumcision among the nomadic tribes of East Africa (For details, refer to the book, ‘Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad’, published in 1998 about the life of Somali model, Waris Dirie.).

In North-East India, especially in Assam, a young girl reaching puberty is a major ritual. The rationale behind the ritual is to let the community know that the girl is ready for marriage. Earlier, a girl would be married off by the time she was 10 or 12; yet she would continue to live in her mother’s house till she had attained puberty.

For the male child in India, especially among upper caste Hindus, especially among Brahmins, ‘upanayan’, or the sacred thread ceremony is a major event. It is after this ceremony that a man becomes Brahmin, the Dijwa, the twice-born...

Talking about body in mythology, I am fascinated by the story of Princess Amba.

After she and her sisters were abducted by Bhisma, to be married off to his cousins, Amba confessed that she was actually in love with someone else. At this, Bhisma released her and escorted her to the kingdom of her lover. But, the lover, being an Indian male as he was, considered Amba used good, as she was already won by Bhisma and sent her away. Amba then came back to Bhisma and requested him to marry her. But Bhisma had vowed celibacy and could marry Amba. At this the princess was enraged and vowed to take revenge on Bhisma. Now, she could not take revenge on Bhisma as a woman, because the great warrior would never fight with a woman. Then, she went to the forests and prayed to god.

The gods gave Amba the boon to be reborn as a man. Now, there’s issue here. According to Hindi, and later Buddist theories of reincarnation and rebirth, being born as a man is the last level on the road to Moksha. In the cycle of life and death, one is born as tree and insect and slowly climb the evolutionary ladder following every rebirth, the last of which is being a man, and the ultimate of it is being a Brahmin. This cannot be attained easily

But Amba was reborn as Kshatriya, the warrior, as a son of Drupad, Dronacharya’s arch-enemy, and sibling of Draupadi and Dhristadumnya, now called Shikhandi. During the war, when it was time that Bhisma should be killed, Krishna asked Shikhandi to ride to Arjuna. Seeing Shikhandi in front of him, Bhisma laid down his weapons as he knew who Shikhandi really was and did not want to fight a woman. Seeing the opportunity, Arjuna wounded him and Amba got her revenge.

In some retellings of the story, it is said that Shikhandi, like Amba, was born a woman, but became a man later after she appeased the gods, while there are stories where she remains and woman who wears man’s cloths and fights like a man. (There’s a complication here: In the Mahbharata time, the men did not wear upper garment, the concept of shirts were not there, so how did Shikhandi, if she was a woman, represented herself as man?)

The story is both important and interesting in the sense that gender plays a role narrating a traditional story of revenge.

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