Apr 25, 2011

Remarkable names in Harry Potter

It’s been many years since the last Harry Potter book came out, and yet, Harry Potter continues to be just as alluring to the generation that grew up with it! Now that there is nothing left to read (sob sob) Harry Potter fans have to be satisfied with analyzing what is already there! Recently I got hooked to the names of characters in Harry Potter, which are very interesting. Many of the names are normal, like Harry Potter himself, but many others are steeped in mythology.

Rowling has penchant of giving names that match the personality of characters. To start with, Sirius is the name of the brightest star that can be seen from earth. It is no coincidence that this star is informally called the Dog Star because it is a part of a constellation called Canis Major or big dog. Remember, Sirius changes into a dog when he an animagi. The name of the werewolf Remus Lupin is derived from two different stories, but both mean the same thing. Remus was a mythical character who was raised by a wolf. He and his twin brother Romulus were the founders of Rome, and for that reason, Harry Potter fans (me included) often speculated that Lupin had a twin brother who would make a grand entrance at some point. Too bad it didn’t happen. Lupin, meanwhile, refers to the moon, which is supposed to turn him into a werewolf. The name of Luna Lovegood is a similar reference to moon which makes people go loony or mad.

Rowling seems to have given considerable thought to the names of schoolteachers. Dumbledore’s first name Albus signifies a lot of things. It means old, wise, white, or protector, and Dumbledore is all of them. Remember that his grave is completely white and he is called the White One at some point. Professor McGonagall’s first name is Minerva, who was the goddess of wisdom in Greek mythology. A very fitting name indeed for a brilliant witch, who was one of only eleven registered animagi in the century! Similarly, Sybil Trelawny’s first name means prophetess, which is what she is. Herbology is taught by Pomona Sprout, and Arithmancy by Septima Vector.

The names of a few negative characters are very fitting too. Draco Malfoy’s first name means dragon, and his family name Malfoy is related to Mal – a root word meaning evil in Latin. Later Draco names his son Scorpius, a reference to scorpions. Fenrir Greyback is a vicious werewolf we meet in the sixth book, and his name means “monstrous wolf ” in Norse mythology. Severus refers to severe character, and Severus Snape is indeed a very bitter person. A demented person is crazy, frenzied, and mad, and that is exactly how dementors make people feel.

Rowling also seems to like amusing old names that are no longer in use. Wilhelmina Grubbly-Plank, Hogwarts’ care of magical teacher for a couple years, is one of them. Wilhelmina is a female form of William and has long gone out of fashion. Neville’s family in particular seems to choose their names from the dregs of name dictionaries; I guess this is a way of showing that his family is traditional. Neville’s name itself is one of them, and so are his uncle Algie, grandmother Augusta and aunt Enid. Enid Blyton is the name of a beloved children’s writer, who died more than a hundred years ago, and the name we can say has died with her. Other names of minor characters like Ludovic Bagman, Bartemius Crouch and Cornelius Fudge are just some of those outdated names. She also likes to sprinkle them around for random characters, like Archie, the old man who insisted on wearing women's housecoats in the fourth book. Probably the most interesting outdated name belongs to Ginny, her name is not Virginia as many people had believed. Her full name is spelt out only once, at Bill and Fleur’s wedding when Aunt Muriel says that “Ginevra’s dress is far too low cut”. Ginevra is a unique variation of Guinevere, which is an already unique name in the first place. The only Guinevere I know of in literature is the wife of King Arthur of Camelot. The meaning of the name is "fair and white", a fitting name for the attractive Ginny with many fans.

Rowling has also used other classical and mythological names for minor characters. Dedalus Diggle is an excited character who shoots sparklers into the air to celebrate the death of Voldemort in the first book, and later is the most excited member of Harry’s guard. That sounds very much like the Dedalus from Greek myths, an eccentric man who built wings out of feathers and candle wax and flied out of prison. Nymphadora is commonly known as Tonks because she doesn’t like her classical name, but her whole family seems to have classical names. Nymphadora is a reference to nymphs, or beautiful maidens, in Greek mythology. Her mother is called Andromeda, the beautiful wife of Greek hero Perseus. The constellation Andromeda, which is the nearest constellation to our galaxy, is named after her. Andromeda’s sister is called Bellatrix, which means female warrior (again, very fitting for this extremely aggressive woman). Her other sister is Narcissa, mother of Draco. Narcissa seems to be a reference to Narcissus, a vain man in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection and died watching it. Though the name has obvious negative connotations, Narcissa Malfoy is not a major character so we don’t know whether or not she is vain. Hermione is one of those classical names too, it is the name of Helen's daughter, a very minor character in the Greek myth Iliad. Hermione is the female form of Hermes, the messenger god, who is also the patron of travelers, thieves, storytellers, and commerce. This name does not seem to be related to Hermione's character. Rowling has said that she wanted a unique name for Hermione. Just in case the book became popular, she didn't want a lot of nerdy girls teased with the name of the character. And Hermione is a truly unique name that I doubt anyone else had at that time.

Though I seem to have run out my limits for an article, I have by no means exhausted the study of names in Harry Potter. I am sad that I could not incorporate more fun names at once, but at the same time, I guess it’s a good thing that with Harry Potter, the fun is never exhausted!

P.S. No, the fun is never exhausted, I keep finding new meanings so I am going to add them here as notes

1. Pomona Sprout is the teacher of herbology, and the connection of her surname 'Sprout' to her subject has already been mentioned. I also found out Pomona is an early Roman deity of orchards and gardens.

2. Like Sirius, whose name is associated with stars, Lupin's name is also pretty sidereal. There is a constellation called Lupus which is informally called the wolf constellation.

3. Argus is the name of a hundred eyed giant in Greek mythology who guards. In Harry Potter, Argus Filch is the vulture eyed caretaker of the castle.

4. Sybil Trelawney's prophetess great grandmother is called Cassandra, and Cassandra is a princess with prophetic powers in Iliad. Actually, Sybil should have been named Cassandra, because in Iliad, nobody believes Cassandra, and in Harry Potter, everyone thinks Sybil is a fake.

5. Alecto Carrow is one of the death eaters who enters Hogwarts as a teacher in the seventh. She is also in the scene of Dumbledore's death. Alecto is the name of one of the furies in Greek mythology, and she is a nasty person who sprang from the castrated blood of Uranus. The meaning of her name is "implacable anger."

6. There is also a Dragon constellation, but this is pretty tangential since Draco Malfoy is not as closely related to a dragon as Sirius and Remus are to dog and wolf.

Apr 15, 2011

Gender Bender Poll Results

It's official!!! The verdict is out!! Girls wanna see more guys in see through lace, like Shahrukh Khan in Suraj Hua Maddham! :)

I swear on SRK's left dimple that I didn't doctor the results! Is it my fault that he knows exactly what the ladies want? No wonder he is called King Khan!

If you want to know the official results, (though there is no reason to, since King Khan has already won and that is the most important part), the final results of the vote stand like this:

More colors
1 (6%)
Frills and ruffles
3 (18%)
5 (31%)
High Heels
2 (12%)
Make up
4 (25%)
Dresses etc.
1 (6%)

I personally was expecting more colors to win, coz that's the safest choice, but I was hoping for makeup and dresses, coz those were my preferences. Anyways, I m happy that lace came first and make up second. For Runner up, here I have a picture of Bill Kaulitz.

No, this is NOT a girl, its a male German singer, and the ladies have spoken: they want more pretty, made up guys like him! :) (Personally, this is my favorite made up guy ever, you can check out more of his pictures online, and be truly amazed at how beautiful he is!)

I would like to thank everyone for reading Gender Bender Dress Up. With minimal publicity, this article shot to the second of my popular posts list, displacing my personal favorite Panchakanya article. Also with minimal publicity, the poll generated a lot of votes, second only to the much hyped Unemployment Diaries. Dostet darum my readers!

Hinduism from Foreign Eyes

Living in America has brought me and my friends face to with a lot of questions about the religions of Nepal. One of the first things people want to know is about the caste systems of Nepal. People want to know how we distinguish people from other casts. The answer is actually easy; we distinguish castes by last names. But in Nepal we are so used to distinguishing people by their faces that we often draw a blank to that particular question. To the question of untouchability, we tell people again and again that those are outdated norms, but few people are willing to believe us over the textbooks of ancient Hinduism. One time we had a friend who had taken a world religions class and was very eager to spread his new-found knowledge of the same ancient textbooks. “Are you a Brahman?” he asked us in turn. When I replied yes, he berated me “then go into the jungle and meditate, what are you doing here?” To another friend he said “you are a Kshatriya, go and fight for your country, why are you poring over books with the Brahmans?” We had a hard time convincing him that these are archaic practices long dead now, and that no Brahman I ever knew has gone into the forests to meditate.

Another time I and a couple friends were invited to give a presentation about Nepal to some students. We packed our slides with a whole lot of information. We thought the info about the living goddess Kumari, Mt. Everest, about the hundreds of languages spoken in Nepal was pretty intersting. But apparently not so t the students. They were interested in none of these. Our question answer session following the presentation went like this:

Student 1: So, did you say you guys don’t eat beef?

Us: No, cows are holy to us.

Student 2: Then what do you eat?

Us: Well, meat is not eaten as frequently in Nepal as here. So we eat other stuff.

Student 3: So, you don’t eat meat at all?

Us: Of course we do, we eat goats and chickens.

Student 4: So, no beef at all?

Us: No, none at all.

Student 5: Then what do you eat?


And so it went on for a long time. We were surprised that students took an interest in such an obscure fact rather than other more interesting things. No wonder misunderstandings are rife. I have been asked many times if women wear the traditional burqa in Nepal, and one time I was asked if in Nepal we cut off the hands of a person as punishment for stealing. I had to clarify that both these things are normally associated with Islam and had nothing to do with me, and I am not even sure if the hand cutting thing is practiced anywhere today.

Recently I came across another misunderstanding that surprised me. An American friend, who is a Buddhist told me that people in America thought Buddha is a “fat Chinese guy”. I guess this might be because of the popularity of the laughing Buddha statues. This irritated my Buddhist friend, because he knew that Buddha practiced strict discipline in everything including eating. For that reason, Buddha had a lean physique and is never portrayed as fat in South Asia where he actually lived.

One of the many poses of laughing Buddha

One time I was asked if the Hindu gods changed their sex frequently. At that time I could think of only one god who fit this image, the ardhanarishwar form of Lord Shiva. So I passed it off as another misunderstanding. But later I realized that there are many gender bender stories in Hinduism that we know but do not notice. For example, the stories of Lord Vishnu’s Mohini avatar and the stories of Lord Kumar who was born from two fathers could be perceived as examples of cross dressing and homosexuality respectively. We take these stories for granted but I could see how they could be weird for outsiders.

The person in the center is Vishnu, a male god, in his Mohini (enchantress) avatar. Look how enchanted all the gods and demons are :P

Sometimes these discussions unknowingly escalate into the realms of faux pas. Once I had a friend who was trying to explain that in his religion, he only worshiped God and not the wordly things that God created. “Some people worship animals, some people worship trees” he said. “We worship trees” I interrupted. My friend was dumbstruck, and quickly changed the subject. “What happens if you are Hindu and die and are reborn as Muslim?” was his next question. I tried to explain to him that from my understanding, these theories of Hinduism are all-inclusive, even of those who do not believe in the faith. So a person could be reborn as whatever they liked and still would have to go through the whole cycle of karma, heaven and hell. Well, that’s the theory anyways, in all its arrogance of assuming that it applies to the whole world, but my friend of course would have none of it. One of my other friends was more sensitive to our feelings though. “How long have I had my foot in my mouth?” he asked after we discussed religion. Well, not at all, in that case, but in my own case, the article seems to have put a mile of my foot into my mouth. Hence, time to sign off, Namaste.

Apr 14, 2011

Familiar foreign words in Kite Runner

Reading Khaled Hosseini’s popular novel Kite Runner was interesting in more than one ways. One of them was the words that struck me as familiar. I did not know which language these words were from, so I looked up the languages of Afghanistan. Apparently, Pashto and Persian Dari are the two languages spoken in Afghanistan, and Hosseini mentions a third one: Urdu. So I will just assume that these words come from one of these languages spoken in Afghanistan.

First of all there are the words that sound obviously foreign. Bakhshis, meaning reward, and shahabas (transformed as syabbas in Nepali) meaning “well done!” are two such words. These obviously foreign words did not surprise me. But I was surprised to find that the Afghan words for mother, father and uncle were Madar, Padar and Agha. The words in both English and Afghan are very similar to their Nepali equivalents: Mata, Pita and Kaka. We assume that these words are of Sanskrit origin, but in fact, they come from an ancient Indo Aryan language. It is hypothesized that a single group of Indo Aryan people migrated to different parts of Eurasia and carried their language along, and that accounts for the widespread similarity of the family relation names. Hosseini also calls children bachem – very similar to our own bachcha.

Clothes too are known to travel like words. Salwar kameez is supposed to be of Persian origin. It traveled east and became known as kurta suruwal in Nepal. But when this word traveled westwards, kameez became chemise. A chemise used to mean a simple unisex top in earlier eras, and in Nepal kameez still means a men’s top, but today chemise in English is a type of women’s lingerie.

woman in chemise - hard to equate with kameez, isnt it?

Gestures also travel and the foreign gesture of salaam is pretty well known in Nepal. Foods are perhaps the most notorious for traveling. Foreign foods mentioned in kite runner like naan and tandoori have entered our palates as well as our language. With the foreign name of sabzi, our vegetables have acquired a foreign flavor. Koftas and kolchhas are slightly less known, but still found in Nepali restaurants. Being a vegetarian, I have never had a kofta, which is a meatball. But I remember going to “Ingredients” at Pulchowk and bravely ordering a kolcha. My friends and I loved this fluffy and well buttered version of naan. Samosa is another widely travelled food. We assume that Samosas are Indian, but in fact, samosas were not made in India until the Muslims carried it into India at the dawn of this millennium. Before that, Samosas were made all over the Middle East and known as sambosa or sanbusaj. From there it traveled so widely that today it is known as a traditional food in areas as different as Africa, China, Philippines and of course, Nepal. Fillings may vary from normal potatoes, onions and cauliflowers to exotic meats, nuts and sweets. Pakoda, though, is a different story. The word and the food both originated in South Asia and travelled the other way around. Pakoda is supposed to come from the Sanskrit pak, root word for cooking.

In Kite runner, pakoda is actually spelled pakora. The replacement of r with d seems to be a common trend of crossover words. Hosseini spells jhaadoo(broom) and sadak(road) as jaroo and sarak. In fact, I wouldn’t even have known what jaroo meant if Hosseini hadn’t explained that it means a broom. “You are ignorant, so what?” Hosseini might say. ”Such little things don’t matter. Toophans might come and go, and still the Afghan people will only say “Zendagi Migzara”: life moves on”. Zendagi and Zindabad might sound foreign, but in fact, all these words originate from the Sanskrit Jeeva, meaning life. In a roundabout transformation, jeeva spawned several words like jeewan and juni in South Asia, travelled westwards, reincarnated as zendagi and zendabad, and came back as jindagi and jindabad. Kind of like how Nepali herbs leave Nepal as raw material, go abroad and come back transformed as sophisticated pills and drinks. But anyway, to get back to the topic, the replacement of z with j, as in Zendagi to Jindagi is another crossover words trend. For example, nazar, ghazal and bazaar are known as najar, gajal and bajaar in Nepal.

These three words are also notable for another reason: each of them has spawned several Nepali songs. Other foreign words that appear in Nepali songs are saughat, mard (or marda in Nepali), dil and taar. Remember Rajesh Hamal prancing in bijuli ko taar taar taar taar? Maybe I should dance to it in the new year party, or sawl –e – nau as Hosseini would call it. This phrase in fact is strikingly similar to the Nepali phrase naya saal. In this sawl-e-nau we should also revive the forgotten custom of firing top (spelled tope by Hosseini), or cannons in celebration. But in a hurry to celebrate, students like me shouldn’t forget to read, which brings me to the most arresting observation of all. The novel’s character Soraya teaches her maid to read the alef beh, which sounds very much like alphabet. A little bit of research informed me that both alef beh and alphabet are derived from a combination of alpha and beta, first two words of the Greek alphabet. All this scholarly talk is making me drowsy, and besides, it is time for my sleep fairy (pari to Hosseini) to come and visit me. Dostet darum my dear readers! No, I am not inviting you to a dostibhari sip of daru! To find the meaning, read Kite Runner!

Apr 12, 2011

Gender Bender Dress Up

Recently, I was invited to display Nepali dress to students of fashion at my university. Along with me in a sari was a student from Saudi Arabia. He brought along a men’s costume that can be best described as a loose ankle length shirt to be worn alone or with trousers. This dress was the topic of much discussion as students commented that men don’t wear such “skirts” in America. One student wanted to know if men lifted their “skirts” when it rained, and whether that gesture was seen as feminine.
That discussion was very weird to me as I am used to seeing a wide variety of dresses for men and didn’t think the Saudi Arabian dress was unusual. But it prompted me to look for other gender bender costumes. Sure enough, I found a lot of evidence that contradicted gender rules of dressing up. Skirts are for girls and pants are for boys. Pink is for girls and blue is for boys. Jewelry is for girls. High heels and pointy toes are for girls. Laces and frills are for girls. Right? 

Well, not quite. To start with, we can often see guys wearing ruffles, frills and even laces in period Hollywood movies. If you noticed in the animated section of the last Harry Potter movie, the three Peverell brothers are wearing lacy shirts. Familiar pictures of men like Shakespeare will shock you if you take a close look, because they are wearing lace collars. Lace collars of European kings were often as intricately decorated with jewels as any of their wives’ or mistresses’.
Shakespeare in lace collar

Colorful and frilly tops for men are common in India too. I am thinking of the song Dhol Baje where everyone except the shirtless Salman Khan are wearing bright frock like tops. Also, in India it is common for many women to wear their saris dhoti style - separating both legs so that it is easy to work. or maybe the dhotis are worn sari style - who knows what came first? Lungis, or non frilly wrap around skirts, are worn by both men and women in India and Nepal. They only differ in color and pattern.

Scottish kilts look like checked skirts, the kind that many schools and +2s have for uniform in Nepal. For reference, check the movie Braveheart where Mel Gibson wears one. I am sure everyone has seen the movie Troy, because no sane woman would pass up the chance to see Brad Pitt’s legs in a miniskirt, considered taboo for men today. This Roman attire was also notable for another supposedly female component: gladiator sandals. Yes, there’s a reasons why those strappy sandals are called gladiators: they were worn by gladiators, the most fierce and intense of the fighting males. But once girls took over the gladiators, there was no looking back.
Brad Pitt in miniskirt and gladiators
(Couldn't pass up the chance to have him grace the page :P)

The same is the case with high heels. For most of high heels’ existence on earth, they were worn by both men and women. The origins of high heels are shrouded in mystery, but it is speculated that they were used by horse riders to prevent their feet from sliding from stirrups. European royals turned it into a fashion statement. Louis XIV, a famous French king who singlehandedly established France as the fashion capital of the world, wore high heels because he was short. As a result, high heels soon became fashionable for both men and women. They went out of fashion after the French revolution because they were associated with luxury. When they turned up again a hundred years later, it was predominantly for women, and there was no looking back.
Louis XIV in heels
(and his bottoms look like pantyhose, maybe I should research that next )
(you can click the above picture to see Louis XIV in his full hideous glory. His ridiculous cape matches the chair and the box beside him. EE yuck, he is worse than Barbie. Plus its train is longer than princess Diana's wedding dress.)

The case of blue and pink is perhaps the most surprising of gender codes. Originally, blue was the predominant female color in the western world because it is the color of Mary, mother of Jesus. Red was a male color because of its traditional associations with aggression and strength. For that reason, many soldiers have historically worn red uniforms, long before communists took the color and turned it iconic. Pink, as a light form of red, was the preferred color for boys as late as the 1930s. Apparently the shift to “blue for boys and pink for girls" came in 1950s, but try as I might, I could not find a reason for this drastic shift. In Nepal though, “pink is for girls” was probably accepted quickly because of our traditional association of red with married women.

 Buckingham Palace Guards in red, Britain
(Don't even begin to wonder about their lurid hats....)

All these norms seem foreign, but are actually highly applicable to Nepal. Even in Nepal men are often teased for wearing pinks and peaches. Guys have worn dresses at various times in history, like the brocade frocks of Prithvi Narayan Shah and other royals, called Taas ko Jama.

PN Shah in Brocade Frock

But no guy dares to wear that anymore. Men in Nepal are often berated for wearing earrings, but actually male earrings are neither new nor foreign. Numerous references to men and their kundals (everybody knows Karna’s kavach and kundal) are found in myths as well as slightly older Nepali literature. We have all seen portraits of long haired men heavily decked up in jewelry and delicate fabrics. These men in painting also wore pointed shoes that are now exclusively worn by women. Same goes for men and makeup: basic makeup like gajal for men is nothing new in our culture, but men who use it are stigmatized today. Granted, historically men have not worn high heels in Nepal. But if anyone wants to try now, God help them!

These historical modes of dressing were not reserved for the royalty, because royalty denotes luxury, and people usually aspire to dress luxuriously. From such earlier eras of variety and range in dressing for men, today we have arrived at a very narrow selection indeed. Only pants and shirts or daura suruwal, with flat shoes, no makeup and little jewelry are accepted for men today. Girls on the other hand have not lost their options even as more women have started wearing western clothes. Girls wear pants and skirts on normal days, and saris on special occasions. They can wear any color, any style, any number of laces and frills and embroidery at any time, even in everyday life.
 Such variety for girls (kurta, dress, pants, kurta, sari), and nothing for the bland guys in the background
Poor guys, on the other hand, have to do with boring suits for every occasion. Even their shirts are so boring with no frills or laces allowed. To me this is subtle reverse discrimination because anything out of the line, like skirts or frills, are forbidden for boys. How is this any different from forbidding women to wear pants and other western dresses? For instance, the situation is dire in offices in summer as guys swelter in stiff suits and women breeze around in light fabrics. If only guys could get away with wearing less for work like women do. I personally am hoping that guys will fight the stigma on their dressing someday, and begin to dress in a wide variety of options. Guys in miniskirts anyone?

Apr 2, 2011

Panchakanyas: Truly virgins?

In Nepal, it is very common to worship Panchakanyas or five young girls in any auspicious occasion. But most of us do not know that these five young girls are supposed to represent five original Panchakanyas of Hindu myths: Ahalya, Tara, Mandodari, Kunti and Draupadi. Why were these five women chosen to be worshipped as Panchakanya? Are they all virgins, as the world kanya implies? Kanya can also mean a girl, is there anything common about their girlhood? Curiously, none of these females are virgins, or even young girls. They are all mature women. The only thing common to them all is the fact that they had physical relations with more than one man. Ahalya had a single intercourse with Indra, what would be called a one night stand today. Tara, wife of the Vanara Bali, married her husband’s brother Sugreeva after the death of Bali. Mandodari, wife of Ravan, did the same thing: she married her husband’s brother and arch enemy Vibhishana after the war ended. Kunti begat sons by four different males, none of whom was her husband. Draupadi as we all know was married to five men at the same time.

It is not surprising that these women are worshipped: almost everyone mentioned in Hindu scriptures is worshipped, otherwise how would we reach the count of 33 crore gods? What is surprising is that these women are worshipped as kanyas, when the word kanya explicitly means a virgin. All of the above women are married. They could have been worshipped as wives, or mothers, or as women, which would cover all their qualities. But no, these women with multiple partners are worshipped for their sexual purity, because the word kanya covers only virginity. This intriguing dilemma gives rise to the question: if women with multiple partners were worshipped for their purity, what is the significance of female virginity in our religion? Are we over estimating its value in traditional society? We are consistently told that our scriptures paint a picture of “pure and virtuous” femininity: women have intimate relations with only one man. In real life, our mothers, grandmothers and most other women in living memory have lived such virtuous lives. We assume that they are following the rules set by Hindu scriptures. And in fact, the rules to explain their conduct are highly visible: the laws of Manu. Manu had famously said that a woman must always be subservient to a male at any point in life; first to her father, then to her husband, and then to her son. But what of the divergent stories that explicitly contradict Manu’s patriarchal morality? We assume Manu’s rules have always held sway, but the stories of Panchakanya say otherwise. Are we wrongly interpreting our religious principles?

In reality, the principles of Hinduism are often not as strictly moral as we assume. They encompass a wide range of moralities. The Panchakanyas were able to negotiate their personal relations with more than one man and be worshipped on top of it. This contradiction was possible because in the scriptures, we see that rules regarding marriage and relations were often fluid and made up on the spot. For example, polyandry was never common in Hindu society, even in Kunti’s times, but Kunti makes up a rule on the spot: you must obey your mother, even if it means committing polyandry. These rules can easily be broken or modified.

It seems as if traditionally, Hinduism gives you the choice of doing whatever you want, as long as you can justify your actions with proper arguments. The Panchakanyas also had convincing arguments for their actions: Ahalya was deceived, Tara and Mandodari wanted to stabilize their kingdoms, Kunti’s husband asked her for children, and Draupadi was bound by Pandavas’ promises to their mothers. But acceptance of these arguments rests on the norms of prevailing societies. For example, these arguments would not be valid in today’s patriarchal society, though many other baffling examples similar to the Panchakanyas are strewn all over stories from classical times. Stories exist of women like Satyavati and many others who had multiple relationships and yet were highly respected in society. This reveals a rather more lenient construction of society than we would expect of early Hinduism, as the prevailing image is that early Hinduism was strictly patriarchal.

We don’t know at what point this leniency started changing and society became fixed in Manu’s mold, resulting in the strict patriarchy that we have today. The rules of Manu are still alive because they benefit the high class males at the top of the patriarchal pyramid, those who are powerful enough to enforce rules. Enforcement is strict and definite. For example, today if a woman were to cite the maverick lives of Panchakanyas and disobey traditional rules of marriage, she would be socially outcast despite the presence of highly respected polygamous women in scriptures. In contrast, it is traditionally considered moral to cite Manu, who is widely respected as the first lawgiver. There are few temples dedicated to any one of the Panchakanyas. Only women who fit into Manu’s mold are worshipped: faithful women like Sita, Sati, Savitri and the likes.

Hence in my views, it is useless to say that our culture has been patriarchal from times immemorial. Patriarchy seems to have been the fashion only for the past millennia or so. Moreover, it is worthless to cite mythological stories as a justification for patriarchal tradition, because all types of stories exist, and selection of stories that are passed on to younger generations is biased. Besides, we have just seen that the practices of Hinduism are more interpretative than literal, so there is no need to take either of these rules word by word. When we want to know which rules to follow in real life, we should not evaluate them by literal standards of contemporary morality. We need to ask whether or not they oppress any member of the society, and whether or not they promote good behavior. Manu’s laws are definitely oppressive, but on the other hand, polygamous women were worshipped for their virginity, which is confusing to a woman who just wants to live a normal married life. Adopting either of these rules literally could be very deleterious for society. But just the fact that the principles of Hinduism cover both extremes is a relief. As our society becomes more accepting, in the future we will discard the extremes of patriarchy without going to the other extreme, and hopefully every person can follow the rules that fit them without being socially outcast. The diversity of these rules gives some hope to us Hindus unlike many other religions that have strict principles and little acceptance of diversity.

P.S. The question of why these women are worshiped as virgins has baffled many scholars.

I found many explanations, and here is one I like, if you want further information on this subject


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