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In the Ramayana, the story of the sister of Rama Shanta plays a silent, but pivotal role. Like many women today, however, she was valued only for her ‘usefulness’.
Shanta’s story remains largely unknown and untold, even though it has featured in a mythology based TV serial. It has had a place in several lesser known, local versions of the Ramayana, and when we pay attention to it, we realize that even though her story has its origins in very different times, there is a thread that binds us together, as women.
Stories say that she is the daughter of King Dasharatha. As per one version, King Romapada, his friend, and his wife Queen Varshini (sister of Queen Kausalya) who were childless, approached Dasaratha and Kausalya, and asked them permission to adopt her, and Dasaratha, bound by a promise, had no other option but to accept.
Another version says that Shanta was born disabled, and that Dasharatha was advised to give her up for adoption, as that would ‘cure’ her. Yet another version – the Bundeli Ramayana, says that Dasharatha was not her father, but was in fact her mother – that she was born to him after he was turned into a woman after he entered an enchanted forest.
There is no way to tease out the ‘truth’ about this. If she was given up for adoption by Dasharatha and Kaushalya, to fulfil a promise, or because she was disabled – I’d say she was better off for not having been brought up by them.
Though of course, she is one of the luckier ones. Unlike most other unwanted girls in our country, who even today, are abandoned into trash heaps, or simply killed, she was privileged enough to grow up in the lap of luxury, as a princess.
In the end, however, she was only a ‘prize’ to be given away, even by her adoptive parents.
Growing up as the princess of Anga, Shanta got an education, and developed many talents. Yet, in the end, what mattered is the fact that she was beautiful, and that she was a woman in a man’s world.
As a result of a curse, her father, Romapada’s kingdom had not received rain, for a long time. The people were suffering. He was advised that if Sage Rishyashringa, who had lived a perfectly chaste life, could be persuaded to perform a yagna, rain would fall, and the kingdom would be prosperous again.
This is where the stories told start to diverge. Some versions say that Romapada sent his courtesans to seduce Rishyashringa, and other versions say that he sent Shanta herself. Yet another version combines both these stories, and says that Shanta volunteered to lead a band of courtesans, who dressed up like ‘rishis’ and lured Rishyashringa onto a boat made to look like an ashram.
One wonders that if Shanta did volunteer, what could have prompted her to do so. Could it be that as she had already been abandoned by one set of parents, she felt the need to ‘prove’ her worth as a daughter, by showing that she could shoulder responsibilities, just like a son?
Even in today’s world, when a daughter is accomplished and supportive, people insist that she is ‘like a son.’ There is a pressure on women to prove their ‘usefulness’ and many of us do internalize this misogynistic message.
No daughter, no woman should ever have to “prove” that she is useful to earn a right to exist, to live.
Especially not when the ‘usefulness’ is limited to being a sexual object – which is what the story limits her role to.
People who want to refute the story, say that Shanta never seduced Rishyashringa. They produce excerpts from the epics to show that Romapada sent courtesans and not Shanta.
However, isn’t that just as bad, if not worse? It was exploitative and disrespectful. Irrespective of who did the actual seduction, it devalues and sexually onjectifies ALL women.
It has a parallel in today’s world, where we are so eager to ‘protect’ the women close to us, but have no hesitation in slut shaming, or sexually objectifying women from disadvantaged groups. For example, the conversation around #MeToo in India, has been criticized for excluding and minimizing the sexual crimes against Dalit women.
Sage Rishyashringa was the son of Sage Vibhandaka, whose tapasya was disrupted when the apsara Urvashi seduced him. The angered Sage Vibhandaka decided that he would keep his son isolated from other humans, especially women, to keep him ‘pure’. One wonders why he decided to direct his anger at all women rather than at Indra, who gave the order, but I suppose it has always been easier to blame women for the faults of powerful men.
It was his decision to keep Rishyashringa unaware and ignorant that made it so easy to lure him away. Rishyashringa, who had never seen a woman before, was attracted to this new kind of ‘rishi’ and felt the urge to spend more time with them. When his father found out and forbade him from doing so, it only made him curious and more eager to follow them.
This too has a parallel to the way we see sex education as ‘corrupting’ innocent minds. People keep their sons ignorant, and silence them when they have questions about their sexuality. So they grow up satisfying their curiosity in inappropriate ways, and learning to see women as sexual objects, and not as people. And then, when the worst happens, people blame the woman – for dressing ‘inappropriately,’ for being ‘too friendly’, for seducing men, simply by existing.
Perhaps the only thing that has saved Shanta from being quoted as a cautionary tale about the ‘wiles of women,’ is the fact that the results of the seduction were favourable to all.
Rishyashringa performed the yagna. The kingdom was saved, and Shanta was given in marriage to Rishyashringa as a ‘prize.’ After all, matter who a woman is, and no matter what she does, at the end of the day, society dictates that she must be ‘given away,’ whether or not she wants it.
When Dasharatha wanted sons, he sent for Rishyashringa and Shanta. He had been told, that “when Rishyashringa becomes Romapada’s son-in-law, a son will be born to you, King Dasharatha.”
Via the yagna that Rishyashringa performed, Dasharatha was blessed with four sons — Shanta’s brothers who were received in exchange for her.
If the story of Shanta is ever told, it is always with a sense of awe at how wonderful it was that she had given up a life of luxury to marry an ascetic, and how because of that her family benefitted. How her story confirms the fact that that a good woman like Shanta is “valiant, selfless and unafraid of sacrificing herself for her loved ones.”
How convenient, isn’t it, when she wasn’t allowed to tell her own story?
Much like the many daughters who are trapped in loveless, and maybe even abusive arranged marriages, for the sake of ‘family honour.’ Like women who are forced to give up their dreams, for the sake of the family. Who every day, in many little ways, ‘adjust’ and ‘sacrifice’ so that others around them are not inconvenienced. And all they receive in return is ‘good wishes’ on assorted days, (Women’s Day, Mother’s Day etc.) that glorify their unpaid physical and emotional labour.
The story of the son is celebrated, retold, and revered. The story of the daughter – Shanta’s story, that isn’t even acknowledged.
We have a choice to make. Will we look towards the future, and see how we can make things different for the daughters of this country? Or will we continue to ignore Shanta’s story, and the lessons we can learn from it, and keep glorifying a past that silenced its women?
Image source: YouTube
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