Feminine Mythique History & Culture

Gender doesn’t come in the way of Nirvana

One of issues that I struggle with as a reteller of myths and epics is that the stories that are often most popular, the stories that are most often told, are interpreted in ways that seem, subtly or overtly, to affirm traditional prejudices that result in regressive practices. The way, for example, as the previous column, by Arshia Sattar, the myth of Sati has been interpreted.

I will give you another example. As a child, growing up with a fascination for myth and epic — one of the myths that I encountered early on, through a book I found on a shelf in my grandmother’s home was the story of Indra’s sin of brahminicide, acquired when he killed Vritra, a sin that he passed on to women, the earth and trees. Menstruation was the shameful punishment. This particular telling of this myth in subtle and not-so-subtle ways reinforced two issues of the culture that I was born into, and linked them — caste prejudice and gender prejudice.

Inextricably linked

The more I read, the more awful and shameful I seemed to myself — as a woman, I was incapable of moksha — only Brahmin men seemed to have that privilege; as a woman the best I could hope to achieve was reincarnation as a man. Caste and gender prejudice were inextricably linked.

A couple of years ago, as an interest in Buddhism grew, I stumbled across the myth of Yeshe Dawa, an incarnation of the Goddess Tara, in the Tibetan Buddhist Pantheon. It’s with great relief that I now tell the story of Yeshe Dawa and her enlightenment, a story that I have incorporated into my own personal, multi-faith mythology, to the many children I meet. Now, I share this story with you, for it has offered me a way to heal the shame and the anger I feel reading some of the retellings of the myths of my culture, that seem to condone gender and caste discrimination, by offering from the same cultural cosmology — an emancipating, liberating, empowering myth.

The story of Yeshe Dawa is set aeons ago, in another star-system. Here, Yeshe Dawa, a wise princess, close to Nirvana, is approached by all the men in her kingdom — they beg her, for the sake of her own enlightenment which will benefit all beings, to pray to be reborn as a man, for it is only as a man that she can hope to reach Buddha-hood.

Yeshe Dawa responds with a great promise, a vow — that she will, for this life, and all lives afterwards, for the enlightenment of all beings for all eternity, seek nirvana in the body of a woman, for those before her are in the grip of an illusion, believing that the body of a man is superior to that of a woman.

Yeshe Dawa asserts that the truth is that there is no distinction between man and woman, these are merely different forms. Until this grasped, enlightenment will elude those who believe that men are superior to women or vice versa.

Samhita Arni is the author of

‘The Mahabharatha - A Child’s View,’

‘Sita’s Ramayana’ and ‘The Missing Queen’

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 9:07:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/samhita-arni-points-out-how-caste-and-gender-prejudice-are-inextricably-linked/article17433634.ece

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