Books Explained: Mirroring the Past, Aspects of the Present

The dharma of justice in the Sanskrit epics: debates on gender, varna and species
By Ruth Vanita
Oxford University Press
268pages
1,795 rupees

There is a certain narrowing of vision, perhaps natural to the human condition, which makes it difficult to imagine that the questions that concern us today also occupied those who lived long ago. To misquote LP Hartley, it often feels like the past is a foreign land, where they thought completely differently from us.

Yet, as Ruth Vanita demonstrates in her new book, The Dharma of Justice in the Sanskrit Epics: Debates on Gender, Varna and Species, a careful reading of ancient Indian texts may reveal that there is greater continuity in our moral and ethical concerns that many of us suspect.

In this book, Vanita, who also co-wrote a seminal text on Indian queer history with Saleem Kidwai, Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History, discusses the Ramayana and Mahabharata and how they debate issues of justice. . She argues in the book that “epics equip the characters in the text, as well as the readers or listeners, with intellectual tools to dismantle conventional ideas of difference”.

This is done through numerous quotations from the tales and tales within the tales that populate the Indian epics, many aspects of which usually receive only superficial attention. For example, the well-known story of Amba/Shikhandini and Bhishma is examined not only through the lens of revenge, gender and sexuality, but is also used to raise questions about masculinity in the context of fatherhood, with the specific example of Draupada whose rage has a formative influence in shaping Shikhandini’s thirst for revenge.

Another example is the story of Ashtavakra and Disha: the first, a young ascetic, is sent to learn from Disha, an old woman, who offers him sexually only to be rejected. By the end of the tale, however, Ashtavakra finds himself desiring her and the reader is left with questions about what drives desire and whether age and gender can determine who experiences it and who does not. .

This blurs some stereotypes or values, such as that old women cannot desire young men, but, at the same time, Vanita points out, it apparently confirms others, such as Disha’s description of women as “disorderly innate manner”, which will “destroy the family”. in their search for sexual union. Vanita’s approach ensures that instead of projecting feminist, anti-caste or other “modern” values ​​onto the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which they may or may not espouse, the book unveils their many complications – in character , plot and philosophy. . This gives new relevance to the ancient epics, bringing them intellectually closer to our contemporary times.

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