Nov 26, 2011

Gender bias in Mythological Names

The name of Ram’s stepmother who sent him the forest is pretty well known. But not many people know that Kaikeyi is not this woman’s name at all. The word Kaikeyi is a generic adjective meaning that she came from the kingdom of Kekaya (speculated to be Caucasus Mountains). In fact, this name is so generic that several women in Hindu mythology are called Kaikeyi. In the Mahabharata, Queen Sudeshna of Viratnagar (where the Pandavas spent their Guptavas), is often referred to as Kaikeyi. Ram’s stepmother just happens to be the most famous of all the Kaikeyis. Throughout the Ramayan, she is called with this reverse eponym and not once are we told her real name.

Why did this happen? Why was the name of a major character forgotten and not recorded in the story? A closer look at names of other mythical characters informed me that this was not a coincidence, but was part of an overarching trend of gender bias in myths. Gender bias in our myths is a foregone conclusion, but the etymology of names gives a fascinating view into the vast reaches of gender bias.

Our myths contain hordes and hordes of such forgotten women like Kaikeyi who are named simply after the kingdom they come from. Ram’s mother Kaushalya, for example, is so called because she is from the kingdom of Koshal. In Mahabharata, the mothers of Dhritarashtra and Pandu are often addressed as Koshalya because they are from Kashi. They are lucky, because their given names Ambika and Ambalika, are also mentioned in the epic. In contrast, Gandhari, who comes from Gandhar (a West Asian kingdom in modern day Afghanistan), is not fortunate enough to have her name recorded. Similar is the fate of Madri, coming from Madrades (modern day Madras, as is not difficult to decipher.) We do not know Madri’s real name. Kunti is the luckier wife here, because her given name Pritha is mentioned quite a few times. The name Kunti comes from the name of her adoptive father, Kuntibhoj, and so is not her own name. The same fate also encounters the next generation, where Draupadi is called after her father Drupad. She is also often called Panchali after the kingdom of Panchal (not after her five husbands). She was named Krishnaa for her dark complexion, but this name is used far less frequently.

Why should all of this be a problem? For starters, it is simply not fair to recognize a woman just by her origin; imagine if every female student in America were to be known only by the name “Nepali.” That would be a gross injustice to the individuality of each woman. Besides, most of the men who have parallel roles in the myths are given individual names. Ram’s father is not called an Ayodhyan, he is called Dasharath, and the husbands of Madri and Gandhari are not called Hastinapure, they are called with their proper names of Pandu and Dhritarashtra. Gandhari is not given a proper name even though she is as prominent as her brother Shakuni. Even when Madri’s brother had a much smaller role than Madri, he has a proper name, Shalya. These men are never called Madre or Gandhare. Sure, Draupadi’s brother is sometimes called Drupad after his father, but he is more often called Dhristadhyumna, which refers to his daring nature.

Besides the galling discrimination to begin with, it also appears that men can accumulate new names that give them more praise. The original text often refers to the Pandavas by names that reflect their achievements. Yudhishthir is called Dharmaraj, referring to his just ways. Bhim is called Vrikodara, which means wolf-stomached, referring to his voracious appetite. Arjun is called Dhananjaya, meaning he is the winner of wealth. In fact, these newly minted names of men often overtake their original given names. Karna was named Vasusena by his adoptive parents, but soon became famous for giving away the kundals that adorned his Karnas (ears). Ved Vyas is called so because he divided the Vedas into four different parts, and in time it overtook his first name Dwaipayan, which means “born on an island”. Parashuram’s name was changed from Ram because he did great deeds with his Parashu (axe). Krishna was so named because for his dark complexion, but soon his other names like Madhusudan (killer of Madhu), Keshav (killer of Kisi), Hari (one who takes away sins), Govinda (one who takes care of cows) etc became just as famous as his original name.

In contrast, women with multiple names never manage to outstrip the fame of their origins. Sita is known by the various names of Janaki, Vaidehi, Mithila, and many more, most of them referring to her father’s kingdom. Even her given name Sita refers to the furrows created by the plough from which she was born, it does not refer to her virtuous qualities or her deeds.

To be fair, there are many mythological women whose proper names are mentioned. Tara, Mandodari, Damayanti, Savitri, are some of them. There are also a small number of women named for their achievements. But what tips the scale is the overwhelming number of women who are known simply by their lineage, and the few men that fall into this category. The overarching theme is that women are only known for the identity of their country, or at best, their father. Nothing they do after that in life matters: neither their individuality at birth, nor their achievements thereafter, are worth recording. Men, on the other hand, are given names that reflect their individual characteristics, and have the opportunity to cement their reputation through new names commemorating their success. (This trend applies only to human females and not goddesses who have their proper names.) I find this trend to be a reflection of the norms of Hindu society where traditionally, women were not allowed to have careers, their only career of home management was not deemed noteworthy, and only male achievements were counted.

Published in the Kathmandu Post:



Shyam said...

Interesting post. It reminds me of--very, very unfortunately--the same problem that STILL exists in traditional Hindu (and perhaps other male-dominated) societies. As many readers of TKP and this blog will know, in the villages, women are still quite often named after their maiti by their husbands' villages: syange, gairaki, palpali. Though men are often called the same way, it's much more common for women to be not known by their real names. Another, much worse problem that has continued from the mythical times that you describe to this very day in South Asian societies is that women are known by their husband's names: bhujelni, maili, rameki dulahi, etc. In this case, you will almost never know a man by his wife's name (except when the name is the butt of a joke). Even within the extended family, few people will know their saili kaki by name but they will almost always know sala kaka's name. I know of people who haven't heard their mother's name--for Pete's sake--but I can't imagine anyone in the same context who doesn't know his or her father's name. Of course, we shouldn't compare that with completely name-based cultures like Europe and America; but the difference between men and women should NOT be simply overlooked as "culture" because it is lack of respect, and if there is lack of respect in any culture, that part must be amputated or destroyed as quickly as possible. That brings me to a more general but extremely important point about our culture: it is not only women but also children, younger people, members of the lower caste, and poor and/or indentured workers who do not get the fundamental human respect of their own names. Yes, I am going on that limn and saying that except in the case of parents or siblings saying "babu" and "nani"--maybe not even this--the increasing replacement of hierarchy based on gender, power, class and so on with social structures based on the notions of democracy, human rights/respect, freedom of the individual and so on means that we should really start calling young people and children by name. The case of young people is an invisible manifestation of a name-less tradition right under our noses, even in the cities. We don't need to go to the hinterlands to see the same phenomena work. But let me return to the issue of nameless women: just listen carefully, even right in Kathmandu, and you will hear some educated bhaladmi using demeaning or un-respectful name to call, for instance, their neighbor they have professionally employed to assist with their household work: saili instead of Sunita baini, pokhrelni didi instead of Maya didi, etc. While it is easy to say that the said baini's "actual" name is "Saili," or that the said "didi" wants to be called that way, it is time to insist with the bainis and didis, if we mean "baini" or "didi" with respect (rather than as placeholders for "servant") that we want to address her with their real names, as we do with our friends and colleagues.
So, no, this is not just a problem in the myths. It's still there, including under our educated noses today.

sewa said...

hello shyam, thank you for agreeing and pointing the spotlight at the continuation of this issue in our times - all true and verifiable phenomena. I don't know about children (never really thought about it), but the issue of lower class people having no names and being denoted only by their class is pretty common even int he literature that I cited for this article (just didn't focus on it as gender moves me to action more easily ). I got flak for his article from people who thought it was irrelevant, so I really appreciate this note of support!

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