Women at the Margins: Gender and Religious Anxieties in Vālmīki's Rāmāyaṇa

Journal of the American Oriental Society 138 (1):45 (2021)
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This paper looks at Vālmīki’s use and placement of his female characters as significant markers of religious identity. It argues that Vālmīki conceptualizes and creates specific types of female figures and carefully locates the episodes in which they appear to mark specific narrative transitions and real or imagined anxiety-inducing threats to the author’s idealized world. Moreover, Vālmīki provides his audience with potential resolutions to those threats. Thus, in addition to such major figures as Sītā, Kausalyā, and Kaikeyī, characters such as Anasūyā, Śabarī, Svayaṃprabhā, and even the non-human characters Surasā and Nikumbhilā are demonstrated to have a specific and integrated function within the narrative and are argued to form part of a larger, gendered narrative frame in which the epic action occurs. Each of these characters, I contend, represents a particular level of the feminine intruding into the culture’s religious practices in an ever-increasing destabilization of the poet’s idealized vedic world or as the means for its reemergence as a stronger, more stable, and less corruptible one. Vālmīki’s creation and use of these intriguing figures provide further testament both to the author’s genius and the underlying unity of structure of his great epic.



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