When Urmila’s Only Duty Was To Obey!

What is a woman’s duty after marriage? Ancient Indian texts like Manusmiriti are replete with the codes of conduct or Dharma that have had a colossal influence on how the structure and function of Indian society are to be determined even today. Every raised eyebrow at women’s overlooked position, especially in the post-Vedic era, is subsequently suppressed with its unique justification from the custodians of Dharma. Thus every threat to social equilibrium is vilified and burnt at the stake.

The ancient Indian literature under the scanner is Valmiki’s Ramayana, wherein the character, Urmila’s sacrifice and suffering in the fulfilment of tasks and duties are hardly acknowledged. The injustice meted out to her is justified in the larger chain of events. Urmila, a cog in the wheel at best, is practically invisible.

The pact

Amidst the glorification of Ram and Sita including Ram’s siblings, Urmila’s only identity as Lakshmana’s wife is exhausted to the point of her annihilation as a woman with no choice but to oblige.

Urmila is ready to accompany Lakshmana just as Sita. But she is stopped by Lakshmana.

Urmila will be a distraction for Lakshmana as he has his duty to serve and look after Ram and Sita, while she must stay back to look after the grieving elders. Clearly, Lakshman is more devoted towards his brother and is willing to stand by him like a shadow. Looking at the situation from Lakshman’s point of view, he is following his Dharma. But, one may question: If his unflinching devotion is only towards his brother then why did he marry?

Often in Indian households, when an elderly mother grows tired of doing household chores, her so-called dutiful son promises to bring a bride home to help. That’s how the undisputed pact has remained in motion since time immemorial. Women, in lieu of a husband, have only found duty towards others more than themselves. She is a spare or substitute for the heir.

But then, men would argue, has not their responsibility been doubled? It does! It definitely does. But the fulfilment of duty shouldn’t come at the cost of complete negligence or erosion of one’s existence. Hypothetically, will a man stay for fourteen years uncomplainingly with her wife’s parents while his wife accompanies her sister and brother-in-law to the forest? Honestly, this switch in position will never arise as men have always been assigned the role of protectors and women as caregivers. Cushioning the patriarchal backbone, Ramayana pushes the idea that women after marriage are only responsible towards their husbands and in-laws than their own wishes. She is a mere facilitator.

Marriage of convenience

“It happens with every woman. A bit of bitter pill to swallow! At least you have shelter over your head.” Many times teary-eyed women have heard till their ears started to bleed.

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For Urmila, it wasn’t just a bit. Her sacrifice didn’t end there.

Nidra found a substitute in Urmila for Lakshman was on guard. To facilitate Lakshmana, Urmila already deprived of conjugal rights obliged to go on continuous slumber for 14 years.

Taken for granted and denied normal human function, Urmila’s slumber is justified on the battlefield as Ravana’s son Indrajeet could be killed by a man who hadn’t slept for fourteen years. So you see, how the plot unfolds to situate men as initiators and women as facilitators.

The story of Urmila is not a part of Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana but several folk Ramayanas. Moved by the tale of Urmila and the sacrifice of Lakshmana, temples have been built in their honour. The Song of Urmila’s Separation has also been brought into the spotlight by two Andhra women.

The tradition of Ramayana is so vast and firmly rooted that it’s impenetrable. Questions as such are dropped in the quest for uniformity. But, one is still compelled to reflect: When the moral of Ramayana is the victory of good over evil, when are the ubiquitous demons in the form of revered customs and duties get vanquished?

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About the Author

Ankita Kumari

Ankita Kumari is a Post Graduate of English Literature. With literaturecurry.com, she strives to bring the literature of seven continents to one place. Based out of Bengaluru, Karnataka, she tries to rekindle the fire read more...

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