Dialogue  January-March, 2010, Volume 11 No. 3

Woman in Mythology, History and Literature*

Sri Aurobindo

The Hindu religion has always laid an overpowering stress on this idea of the woman in nature. It is not only in the Purana that the Woman looms so large, not only in the Shakta cult that she becomes a supreme Name. In the Upanishads it is only when Indra, in his search for the mysterious and ill-understood Mastering Brahman, meets with the Woman in the heaven of things – tasminnevakase striyam ajagama umam haimavatim, “In That same sky he came to the Woman, Uma, daughter of Himavan”. – that he is able to learn the thing which he seeks. The Stri, the Aja or unborn Female Energy, is the executive Divinity of the Universe, the womb, the mother, the bride, the mould and instrument of all joy and being. The Veda also speaks of the gnah, the Woman, - feminine powers without whom the masculine are not effective for work and formation; for when the gods are to be satisfied who support the sacrifice and effect it, vahnayah, yajatrah, then Medhatithi of the Kanwas calls on Agni to yoke them with female mates, patnivatah krdhi, - in their activity and enjoyment. In one of his greatest hymns, the twenty-second of the first Mandala, he speaks expressly of the patnih devanam, the brides of the Strong Ones, who are to be called to extend protection, to breathe a mighty peace, to have their share in the joy of the Soma Wine.

The Apsaras are the most beautiful and romantic conception on the lesser plane of Hindu mythology. From the moment that they arose out of the waters of the milky Ocean, robed in ethereal raiment and heavenly adornment, waking melody from a million lyres, the beauty and light of them has transformed the world. The crowd in the sunbeams, they flash and gleam over heaven in the lightnings, they make the azure beauty of the sky; they are the light of sunrise and sunset and the haunting voices of forest and field. They dwell too in the life of the soul; for they are the ideal pursued by the poet through his lines, by the artist shaping his soul on his canvas, by the sculptor seeking a form in the marble; for the joy of their embrace the hero flings his life into the rushing torrent of battle; the sage, musing upon God, sees the shinning of their limbs and falls from his white ideal. The delight of life, the beauty of things, the attraction of sensuous beauty, this is what the mystic and romantic side of the Hindu temperament strove to express in the Apsara. The original meaning is everywhere felt as a shining background, but most in the older allegories, especially the strange and romantic legend of Pururavas as we first have it in the Brahmanas and the Vishnoupurana.

But then came in the materialistic side of the Hindu mind and desired some familiar term, the earthlier the better, in which to phrase its romantic conception: this was found in the Hetaira. The class of Hetairae was as recognised an element in the Hindu society as in the Greek, but it does not appear to have exercised quite so large an influence in social life. As in the Greek counterpart they were a specially learned and accomplished class of women, but their superiority over ladies of good families was not so pronounced; for in ancient India previous to the Mahomedan episode respectable women were not mere ignorant house-wives like the Athenian ladies, but often they were educated though not in a formal manner; that is to say, they went through no systematic training such as men had, but parents were always expected to impart general culture and accomplishments to them by private tuition at home; singing, music, dancing and to some extent painting were the ordinary accomplishments. General knowledge of morality and Scripture-tradition was imperative and sometimes the girls of high-born, wealthy or learned families received special instruction in philosophy or mathematics. Some indeed seem to have pursued a life of philosophic learning either as virgins or widows; but such instances were in pre-Buddhistic times very rare. The normal Hindu feeling has always been that the sphere of woman is in the home and her life incomplete unless merged in her husband’s. In any case, the majority of the kulavadhus, women of respectable families, could hardly be more than amateurs in the arts and sciences, whereas with the Hetairae (Ganikas) such accomplishments were pursued and mastered as a profession. Hence beside their ordinary occupation of singing and dancing in the temples and on great public occasions such as coronations and holy days, they often commanded the irregular affections of highborn or wealthy men who led openly a double life at home with the wife, outside with the Hetaira. As a class, they held no mean place in society; for they must not be confused with the strolling actor of mountebank caste who were a proverb for their vileness of morals. Many of them, no doubt, as will inevitably happen when the restraints of society are not recognized, led loose, immoral and sensual lives; in such a class Lais and Phryne must be as common as Aspasia. Nevertheless the higher and intellectual element seems to have prevailed; those who arrogated freedom in their sexual relations but were not prostitutes are admirably portrayed in Vasantasena of the Toy Cart, a beautiful melodrama drawn straight from the life; like her they often exchanged, with the consent of their lover’s family, the unveiled face of the Hetaira for the seclusion of the wife. This class both in its higher and lower types lasted late into the present century, both are now under the auspices of western civilisation almost entirely replaced by a growing class of professional prostitutes, an inevitable consummation which it seems hardly worthwhile to dub social reform and accelerate by an active crusade.

The Apsaras then are the divine Hetairae of Paradise, beautiful singers and actresses whose beauty and art relieve the arduous and world-long struggle of Gods against the forces that tend towards disruption by the Titans who would restore Matter to its original atomic condition or of dissolution by the sages and hermits who would make phenomena dissolve prematurely into the One who is above phenomena. They rose from the Ocean, says Valmiki, seeking who should choose them as brides, but neither the Gods nor the Titans accepted them, therefore are they said to be common or universal.

We shall now understand why the Apsara is represented as the Hetaira of Heaven. They represent all that is sensuous, attractive or voluptuous in the Universe, the element of desire which, being unspiritual and non-moral, finds its sphere in the satisfaction of the senses of beauty and for that satisfaction needs freedom.

We see then the appropriateness of the Hetaria as a material form into which the vague idea of sensuous beauty in the world might run. For the charm of the Apsara even when working on the plane of the mind, is still vital and sensational; it does not belong to the more rarefied regions of the spirit. Now vital and sensational charm in seeking its fulfillment demands that the pursuit of sensuous beauty shall be its sole object, that it shall be without check as without any side-glance or after-thought; it does not seek to be immoral, but simply rejects all moral tests; it recognizes no law but the fulfillment of its own being. This is the very spirit of Hetaria. The beauty of nakedness sculptured, painted or shaped into words, is not immoral. For the moment we apply the test of morality, it becomes clear that we must either rule it out as not belonging to the world of morality or rule out morality itself for the moment as not belonging to the world of beauty, which is essentially a world of nakedness, in the sense that dress there is an occasional ornament, not a necessary covering; not because there is any essential opposition between them, but because there is no essential connection or necessary point of contact. Ideals of all the plastic and sensuous arts fall within the scope of the Apsara; she is actress, songstress, musician, painter. When they arose from the waves neither the gods nor the demons accepted them as wives; accepted by none they became common to all; for neither the great active faculties of man nor the great destructive recognize sensuous delight and charm as their constant and sufficient mistress, but rather as the joy and refreshment of an hour, an accompaniment or diversion in their constant pursuit of the recognized ideal to which they are wedded. Moreover sensuous beauty has a certain attraction and splendour which seem to some minds finally, and occasionally to most, fairer and brighter than that other ideal which by daily occupation with it, by permissibility and by sameness, grows stale for some, fades into homeliness and routine for others and preserves its real, undying, unageing and unforsakeable freshness and delight only to the few constant and unswerving souls, who are the elect of our human evolution. In all this the idea of the Apsara coincides with the actuality of the Hetaira. In choosing the Hetaira therefore, for the Apsara’s earthly similitude, the Hindu mind showed once more that wonderful mythopoeic penetrativeness which is as unerring and admirable in its way as the Greek mythopoeic felicity and tact.

When Narayana, the primeval and dateless sage of old, entered upon austerities in the most secret and desolate recesses of the Snowy Mountains, Indra, prince of the air, always hostile to asceticism, always distrustful of the philosophic and contemplative spirit, was alarmed for the balance of the world and the security of his own rule. He therefore sent the Apsaras to disturb the meditations of Narayana. Then upon the desolate Himalaya Spring set the beauty of his feet; the warm south wind breathed upon those inclement heights, blossoming tress grew in the eternal snow and the voice of the cuckoo was heard upon the mountain tops. It was amidst these vernal sweetnesses that the Apsaras came to Narayana; they were the loveliest of all the sisterhood, and subtlest and most alluring of feminine arts and enchantments was the way of their wooing; but Narayana who is Vishnu the World-Saviour when he comes in the guise of the ascetic, moved neither by the passion of love nor by the passion of anger, smiled in the large and indulgent mood of his world-embracing nature and opening his thigh took from it a radiant and marvelous creature, of whose beauty the loveliest Apsaras seemed but pale and broken reflections. Ashamed they veiled their faces and stole silently away from the snowy hermitage. But Narayana called this daughter of his creation Urvasie (she who lies in the thigh of the Supreme, the thigh being the seat of sensuousness) and gave her to Indra to be his most potent defence against the austerities of spiritual longing.

In nothing else does the delicacy and keen suavity of Kalidasa’s dramatic genius exhibit itself with a more constant and instinctive perfection than in his characterisation of  women. He may sometimes not care to individualise his most unimportant female figures, but even the slightest of his women have some personality of their own, something which differentiates them from others and makes them better than mere names. Insight into feminine character is extraordinarily rare even among dramatists for whom one might think it to be a necessary element of their art. For the most part a poet represents with success only one or two unusual types known to him or in sympathy with his own temperament or those which are quite abnormal and therefore easily drawn; the latter are generally bad women, the Clytemnestras, Vittoria Corombonas, Beatrice Joannas. The women of Vyasa and of Sophocles have all a family resemblance: all possess a quite or commanding masculine strength of character which reveals their parentage. Other poets we see succeeding in a single feminine character often repeating, but failing or not succeeding eminently in the rest. Otherwise women in poetry are generally painted very much from the outside. The poets who have had an instinctive insight into women, can literally be counted on the fingers of one’s hand. Shakespeare in this as in other dramatic gifts is splendidly and less unapproachably first, or at least only equaled in depth though not in range by Valmiki. Racine has the same gift within his limits and Kalidasa without limits, though in this as in other respects he has not Shakespeare’s prodigial abundance and puissant variety. Other names I do not remember: there are a few poets who succeed with coarse easy types, but this is the fruit of observation rather than an unfailing intuitive insight. The Agnimitra is a drama of women; it passes within the women’s apartments and pleasure gardens of a great palace and is full of the rustling of women’s robes, the tinkling of their ornaments, the scent of their hair, the music of their voices. In the Urvasie where he needs at least half the canvas for his hero, the scope for feminine characterisation is of necessity greatly contracted, but what is left Kalidasa has filled in with a crowd of beautiful shining figures and exquisite faces each of which is recognizable. These are the Apsaras and Urvarsie the most beautiful of them all.

We may note also in passing that the Indian ideal of the relation between man and woman has always been governed by the symbolism of the relation between the Purusha and Prakriti (in the Veda Nr and Gnâ), the male and female divine Principles in the universe. Even, there is to some degree a practical correlation between the position of the female sex and this idea. In the earlier Vedic times when the female principle stood on a sort of equality with the male in the symbolic cult, though with a certain predominance for the latter, woman was as much the mate as the adjunct of man; in later times when the Prakriti has become subject in idea to the purusha, the woman also depends entirely on the man, exists only for him and has hardly even a separate spiritual existence. In the Tantrik Sakta religion which puts the female principle highest, there is an attempt which could not get itself translated into social practice, even as this Tantrik cult could never entirely shake off the subjugation of the Vedantic idea, to elevate woman and make her an object of profound respect and even of worship.

It may  be noted too that in law and theory at least women in ancient India, contrary to the sentiment of other ancient peoples, were not denied civic rights, although in practice this equality was rendered nugatory for all but a few by their social subordination to the male and their domestic preoccupation; instances have yet survived in the existing records of women figuring, not only as queens and administrators and even in the battlefield, a common enough incident in Indian history, but as elected representatives on civic bodies.

In the case of the Mediterranean nations, two most important exceptions have to be made to the general participation of all individuals in the full civic and cultural life of the community; for that participation was denied to the slave and hardly granted at all in the narrow life conceded to the woman. In India the institution of slavery was practically absent and the woman had at first a freer and more dignified position than in Greece and Rome; but the slave was soon replaced by the proletariate, called in India the Shudra, and the increasing tendency to deny the highest benefits of the common life and culture to the Shudra and the woman brought down Indian society to the level of its Western congeners. It is possible that these two great problems of economic serfdom and the subjection of woman might have been attacked and solved in the early community if it had lived longer, as it has now been attacked and is in process of solution in the modern State. But it is doubtful; only in Rome do we glimpse certain initial tendencies which might have turned in that direction and they never went farther than faint hints of a future possibility.

A medical man writes that in Greece and Rome during the Middle Ages women had great freedom and a superior form of instruction, yet they did nothing outstanding. In his own profession, though there have been women professors since the 17th century in famous Italian Universities – in Bologna, Naples, etc., –  they have done nothing to advance their special science. Then again, there have been no women of first rank in painting, music, literature etc., except Rosa Bonheur, who however had to shave her chin and dress as a man.    

In Greece woman was a domestic slave except the Hetairae and they were educated only to please. In Rome, “She remained at home and spun wool,” was the highest eulogy for woman. It was only for a brief period of the Empire that woman began to be more free, but she was never put on an equality with man. Your medical man was either an ignoramus or was talking through his hat at you.

What an argument – from exceptional conditions as against the habits of millenniums! What about administration, rule, business, in which women have shown themselves as capable and more consistently capable than men? These things need no brains? Any imbecile can do them?

Of course no one can dispute that at the time of suffering and illness it is their tender hand that soothes.

It means that is what men have mainly demanded  of them – to be their servants, nurses, cooks, children-bearers and rearers, ministers to their sex-desires etc. That has been their occupation and aim in life and their natures have got adapted to their work. All that they have achieved else than that is by the way – inspite of the yoke laid on them. And then man smiles a superior smile and says it was all due to woman’s inferior nature, not to the burden laid on her.

Whatever may be the reason of the difference between a man and a woman, it can’t be gainsaid that they can efface themselves more completely or more easily for the sake of love.

They have been trained to it through the ages – that is why. Subjection, self-effacement, to be at the mercy of man has been their lot – it has given them that training. But it has left them also another kind of ego which is their spiritual obstacle – the ego which is behind the abhiman….

Can it be said that because they live more in their heart than in their head, their path is easier?

All these clear-cut assertions are mental statements – mental statements are too clear-cut to be true, as philosophy and science have begun to discover. Life and being are too complex for that.

But it is from the self-determination of the free individual within the free collectivity in which he lives that we have to start, because so only can we be sure of a healthy growth of freedom and because too the unity to be arrived at is that of individuals growing freely towards perfection and not of human machines working in regulated unison or of souls suppressed, mutilated and cut into one or more fixed geometrical pattern. The moment we sincerely accept this idea, we have to travel altogether away from the old notion of the right of property of man in man which still lurks in the human mind where it does not possess it. The trail of this notion is all over our past, the right of property of the father over the child, of the man over the woman, of ruler or the ruling class or power over the ruled, of the State over the individual. The child was in the ancient patriarchal idea the live property of the father; he was his creation, his production, his own reproduction of himself; the father, rather then God or the universal Life in place of God, stood as the author of the child’s being; and the creator has every right over his creation, the producer over his manufacture…. So too the subjection of woman, the property of the man over the woman, was once an axiom of social life and has only in recent times been effectively challenged. So strong was or had become the instinct of this domination in the male animal man, that even religion and philosophy have had to sanction it, very much in that formula in which Milton expresses the height of masculine egoism, “He for God only, she for God in him”, if not actually indeed for him in the place of God. This idea too is crumbling into the dust, though its remnants still cling to life by many strong tentacles of old legislation, continued instinct, persistence of traditional ideas; the fiat has gone out against it in the claim of woman to be regarded, she too, as a free individual being.  

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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