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Women's Knowledge, Healing Capacity and Eco-sensitivity: A Study of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Forest of Enchantments

 


Women's Knowledge, Healing Capacity and Eco-sensitivity: A Study of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Forest of Enchantments

 

B. Chitra

Associate Professor

Department of English

Ethiraj College for Women

Chennai, Tamilnadu, India

 

Abstract:

 

In many cultures, healing is a skill that women practised for the well being of their family, neighbours and other people of their village or town. Most of the simple ailments were cured by the oldest woman of each family. Their knowledge of healing herbs, plants, and spices helped heal sick infants, women-related ailments, poison bites and other health issues. On a larger scale, their role as midwives in childbirth has been tremendous. However, as academically trained doctors started treating the sick, the value of a woman's knowledge and skill started diminishing. Goddesses and regional deities as healers are worshipped in various cultures. In India regional deities like Sitala, Mariyamma and Ola Chandi are worshipped for the fast recovery of diseases like smallpox and cholera. The knowledge and skill of an ordinary woman as a cook, farmer and healer are dismissed as responsibilities and duties of a mother. Their knowledge is neither accepted as expert knowledge nor their work professional. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Forest of Enchantments is based on the Indian epic The Ramayana written by Valmiki. Sita consort of Lord Ram narrates the story from her perspective and names it the Sitayan. This paper attempts to trace the quality of women characters like Sita, Kaikeyi, Ahalya and Dharini-Ma who are portrayed as herbologists, healers, farmers and custodians of seeds. Sita's eco-sensitive approach to other beings, Kaikeyi's understanding that knowledge is power and how Sita passes on her knowledge to her two sons and raises them to be sensitive towards all beings around them human and non-human are also analysed in this paper.

 

Keywords: Ecofeminism; Eco-sensitivity; Healer; Knowledge as Power; Seed Conservation

 

In the pantheon of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Celtic, Indian and many others, many goddesses were worshipped for their capacity to heal, give life, bless someone with a child and bless the farmer with bounty. The three sisters in greek mythology Hygieia, Iaso and Panacaea prevent, heal and cure all diseases respectively. From the name Hygieia, the word hygiene evolved and hence good hygiene prevents diseases. Panacea's magic potion provides the cure for all diseases and hence the word panacea means a cure for all. Artemis the goddess of healing and childbirth acted as a midwife to her mother when her twin brother Apollo was born. Bona Dea was a goddess of agriculture and fertility. Febris was a goddess worshipped for recovery from fevers. The word fever is derived from her name .Armed a goddess who healed wounded soldiers on the battlefield and passed on her knowledge of medicinal plants to mortals.

 

In Vedic literature goddess, Prithvi is associated with fertility. She is considered to be “the source of all plants, especially crops, and also nourishes all creatures that live upon her”(Kinsley 9).  Regional and village goddesses(gramadevata) like Periyachi, Hariti, Sitala, Mariyamman, Manasa and Ola Chandi in India are still worshipped for relief from seasonal epidemic breakouts, infertility, safe childbirth, good harvest and abundance of rain. Many of the village deities in South India are female and “are specifically associated with diseases” (Kinsley 204).

 

In ancient times women used to treat many ailments at home with the knowledge gained over the years and passed on to them by their mothers and grandmothers. The medical knowledge of women “is a vast storehouse of expertise, yet it goes unrecognized because of the biases of modern science against traditional, indigenous forms of knowledge” (Curtin 86). Women who were the storehouse of knowledge relating to healing plants, herbs and spices used it on a day-to-day basis and when seasons change through cooking, herbal baths and cultural practices to maintain the good health of their family. Even in the modern era an Indian woman manages to grow herbal plants like tulsi, aloe vera, mint and oregano in her kitchen garden and is aware of when to use spices like turmeric, pepper and dry ginger as medicine stacked in her kitchen.

 

The knowledge and skill of a woman as a cook, farmer and healer are dismissed as responsibilities and duties of a mother:

 

…patriarchal cultures tend to locate women’s practices on the border between nature and culture. These involve caring for others, eg., mothering, cooking, health care, and certain kinds of simple, traditional agricultural labor that are low paid or unpaid, such as weeding and tending to livestock. (Curtin 87)

 

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Forest of Enchantments is based on the Indian epic The Ramayana written by Valmiki. The epic is the story of king Ram whereas the novel is narrated from Ram’s consort, Sita’s perspective. In the prologue of the novel sage, Valmiki gives the manuscript of Ramayana to Sita to read. Sita feels even a sage (a man) cannot understand the emotions and sufferings of a woman and hence it is not right for a man to narrate her story. When the sage assures Sita saying that he wrote the story of Ram with the help of “divine visions”. This doesn’t convince Sita. Sita tells the sage that even a divine intervention is not of much help if it “must have been a god that brought it” to him and “not a goddess” (Divakaruni 2). A man cannot feel like a woman and a god’s perspective cannot be a goddess’s perspective. Valmiki encourages her to write the story from her perspective (a woman). Sita starts to write the Sitayan using red coloured ink. The colour of “menstruation and childbirth” and “the colour of the flowers of the Ashoka tree” under which she spent her years of captivity in Lanka (Divakaruni 3,4). She decides it will not be just her story but the untold stories of many women who crossed their paths.

 

Sita the daughter of king Janaka is married to prince Ram of Ayodhya. On the day of the coronation of Ram as the king of Ayodhya, Kaikeyi Ram’s stepmother forces Ram to give up his right to the throne and to go into exile for fourteen years. Sita accompanies her husband to the forest. When their exile is about to end she is abducted by the asura king Ravan to revenge for his sister Surpanaka’s humiliation and mutilation by Ram and Lakshman. Sita spends a year in Lanka as a captive. A war breaks out and Ravan is killed by Ram. Ram rescues Sita but refuses to take her back as his wife. Sita declares to end her life by fire but is unharmed. Through a test by fire (agni-pariksha) her chastity is proved and they return to Ayodhya. Ram becomes the king and Sita the queen of Ayodhya. Surpanaka devises a plan and spreads gossip about Sita’s fidelity. This poisons Ram’s mind which leads to a misunderstanding between Ram and Sita.Ram on his mission to be a just king decides to send away Sita to sage Valmiki’s ashram forever. Sita delivers twin sons Lav and Kush in the ashram. Lav and Kush grow up to be skilled in warfare. The two boys end up attacking their father in the forest and the inmates of the ashram save Ram and his brothers. Lav and Kush are taken to the court of Ayodhya by Valmiki to recite the Ramayan. Ram realises that Lav and Kush are his sons and invites Sita to Ayodhya. After reaching Ayodhya Sita realises her sons have recited Sitayan and not Ramayan. When the moment of the family reunion is expected Ram informs Sita that she has to go through a test by fire (agni-pariksha) to prove her chastity to the citizens of his kingdom. This saddens Sita and she decides to leave the mortal world forever. Mother-earth opens wide and accepts her daughter into her womb again.

 

Through the portrayal of women characters like Sita, Kaikeyi, Ahalya and Dharini-Ma Chitra Banerjee has given the recognition that was denied in history to women in the past who were healers, herbologists, farmers and custodians of seeds. Sita is discovered by  Janaka king of Vaideha who remained childless for many years. When he holds the infant from the earth “a great hunger within him was assuaged, and he was at peace” (Divakaruni 6). Sita's healing begins with her father. Since then Sita is considered the daughter of the earth and is brought up by Janaka as his daughter. Sita's relationship with the earth and her understanding of anything that grows out of the earth remains mysterious. By merely touching any plant she understood its properties and how it can be put to use to heal someone:

 

I could tell which grasses cured headaches and colds, which seeds fended off infections, which herbs to give women when their monthly blood flowed too long, and which potions healed the shaking sickness or gladdened a long- depressed heart. ( Divakaruni7)

 

Her capacity to heal is extended to plants as well. By the touch of Sita, a dying plant would come back to life. Sita initially starts healing the palace maids. Her fame as healer spreads and many citizens start visiting Mithila to be healed by Sita. Sunaina Sita's mother initially is hesitant about Sita's reputation but later arranges a centre within the palace for visitors to meet and be healed by Sita. People of Mithila consider her a goddess whereas she believes that her love and compassion do the trick. It is the kindness that allows Sita to treat even people who harm her. In Lanka as a captive, she gains familiarity with the plants in the garden and identifies their healing properties in a short span. She doesn't hesitate to heal Trijata a demoness who guards her and suffers from a bad toothache. When Ravan is in pain after being hurt badly by Ram in the battle she quickly gathers a few herbs in the garden and rushes to ease his pain. when Ram is hurt by her sons Lav and Kush she puts aside her bitterness and starts treating him.

 

Sita is never overwhelmed by the god status given to her by the citizens of Mithila but is deeply saddened when her husband Ram does not acknowledge her efforts and dismisses her knowledge as womanly qualities. Sita says:

 

The womanly skills I’d mastered were important and intricate, and by no means easy. They required deep intelligence, an intelligence of the heart. But Ram didn’t understand that. He didn’t understand the complexity of the female existence. (Divakaruni256-257)

 

In Valmiki's ashram, she helps Dharini-Ma the medicine woman in collecting herbs. She is trained under Dharini-Ma to clean infected wounds and cuts, and treats residents of the ashram and later forest tribes. The knowledge and the training she gets in Valmiki's ashram are closer to a tribal way of life. Interestingly the “chief deity of the Konds is Darni, the Earth, mother of humans and all other creatures” (Felix 911).

 

Irrespective of her situation and position her eco-sensitive approach to other beings and her bond with mother-earth remain the same. When she travels to Ayodhya with her husband as a new bride she cannot tolerate the fact that branches of trees are being cut by the soldiers for their safe and comfortable journey in the forest. When Sita requests Ram to order the soldiers to stop harming the trees he calls her “tender-hearted” and that it is “right and necessary that women should be so” (Divakaruni 56). Being considerate of the pain of others (in this case trees) is considered womanly quality by Ram. Ram clearly “had never considered that plants feel pain as we do“(Divakaruni 56). Sensing this she wonders how Ram as the future king of Ayodhya does not have compassion for all beings human and non-human. According to Sita, a ruler is responsible for the well-being of all creatures in his kingdom. She realises it's her responsibility as the future queen of Ayodhya to educate Ram on his duties towards saving the forests as well. It is ironic to note that Sita does not approve of the anthropocentric view of Ram as a ruler who is considered otherwise perfect. Nature is treated as the ‘other' which doesn't exist like the way women are the ‘other’ in a patriarchal society. Sita as the princess of Mithila has ambitions of ruling her father's kingdom which is discouraged by her mother on the grounds of gender. If an eco-sensitive woman like Sita had ruled Mithila or Ayodhya it would have been an ecocentric approach.

 

As the princess of Mithila, she never plucks fresh flowers from a plant which she considers a murder. When Ravan abducts Sita the vines she grows try to save her by “wounding around her wrists and ankles “(Divakaruni 170). Ravan cuts the vines to free Sita and this angers her. Her empathy for the pain of those plants makes her forget her situation.

 

During their exile Lakshman boasts of their skills as warriors and that they would clear the entire clan of rakshasas (demons) who disturb meditating rishis in the forest. Sita burns to tell them that humans are the intruders in the forest. Destroying an entire asura clan (tribes) to facilitate and protect a meditating sage reflects man’s greed. When there is a discussion on rakshasas the sage comments that some tribes are militant groups and Taraka (a demoness) believed that the forest was theirs as cities were to humans and needed to defend their space. Forest is the home of many tribes and humans from other civilized societies explore and exploit the forest for resources. Man's perspective that natural resources are only for man's needs is something that Sita doesn't agree with. Tribal communities are the ‘other’ in a patriarchal society and they don’t exist. Their struggle for survival and saving their habitat is considered a threat to humans. When Surpanakha approaches Ram to be her mate Ram and Lakshman mock her. A woman approaching a man to gratify her sensuous desires is considered “immoral” and “unnatural” to Ram. Sita doesn’t approve of Surpanakha’s behaviour either but understands that “rules of conduct” might be different for the asura clan. Sita realises that the “incompatibility of values” between men and women would never change because “their belief in the superiority of their own ways was too deeply ingrained in them” (Divakaruni 151).

 

Kaikeyi Ram's stepmother, unlike Sita, uses her knowledge and skill to gain political power. Sita's ambition to rule her father's kingdom is shattered because she is not a male heir. Whereas kaikeyi get three boons from Dasharatha her husband for saving his life by treating him when he is badly wounded on the battlefield. Even though she is a good charioteer and sword-fighter kaikeyi knows that knowledge is power. Even though Sita is also a trained sword-fighter, Kaikeyi fears her knowledge and skill as a herbologist more than any other skill of Sita. She forces Sita to prescribe medicines to her maid to test her knowledge. She is intimidated by the presence of the renowned herbologist from Mithila in the same family. Two women of the same family with similar skills as healers, one gains by her capacity to heal and the other refuses to take advantage of the godly status given by people. The only situation when Sita uses her knowledge and skill (cooking) to gain benefit is to impress Ram’s father Dasharatha when she invites him to her chamber to dine for the benefit of her mother-in-law. Unfortunately, kaikeyi a knowledgable and accomplished lady herself overlooks the skills of a good cook. kaikeyi accuses Sita of adding love potions to Dasharatha’s food to make Dasharatha fall in love with Kausalya (Dasharatha’s first wife). It doesn't dawn on kaikeyi that Sita used her other skill (cooking) and not herbs (love potions) this time to heal a bruised heart.

 

Like cooking women all over the world were never appreciated for their role as farmers because they are “low paid or unpaid”. Their “ expert knowledge of soil, climate, and seeds is marginalized as anecdotal;  it is often dismissed as mere wives' tales” (Curtin 87). Seed conservation was traditionally in the hands of women in some parts of India. This is evident in some cultural practices. In Hindu wedding rituals in Tamilnadu, a ritual called mulai paligai is practised. Nine small clay cups are filled with nine varieties of grains and nine girls or children carry them in their palms and go around the fire along with the bride and groom. These seeds (grains) the bride carries along with her to her husband's house. Native seeds are symbolically passed on to daughters in the family. Women work as a community and their “knowledge is inherently collaborative” (Curtin 90).In Karnataka, women have the right to decide on cereal crops (akadi) cultivation and harvest. Since women pass on this tradition to their daughters“traditional seeds are preserved over generations” (Mies and Shiva170).

 

Women characters in the novel preserve indigenous plants and share seeds in various situations. In the palace of Ayodhya Sita maintains a garden on her balcony where she grows native plants of Mithila. Kaikeyi during Ram and Sita's exile imports plants from Mithila and maintains Sita's garden for fourteen years as repentance. Kaikeyi as a woman and healer understands sita and the necessity to preserve the native plants of Mithila. Kaikeyi who considered Sita as a threat, and the reason for Sita's suffering decides to preserve Sita's family tradition and gifts a flourishing garden to Sita once she returns. Mother (in-law) Kaikeyi preserves and passes on the tradition to daughter (in-law) Sita. Ahalya wife of sage Gautama Maharishi was accused of practising infidelity. She turns into a stone due to her husband’s curse. Once Ram’s foot touches the stone she is relieved of the curse. When Sita meets her in their ashram she comes to know that she has taken a vow of silence. Gautama doesn’t realise his wife is punishing him. When Sita leaves she gives her vegetable seeds which will be of use to Sita in the forest. Sita becomes a farmer and grows a vegetable patch in the forest. The verbal communication between Ahalya and Sita reflects the suppressed emotions of Ahalya and her helplessness. Ahalya doesn’t answer all the questions of Sita but gives her vegetable seeds. Ahalya doesn’t want to influence Sita by expressing her opinion on the way her husband treated her. It is the passing of seeds, not words between the two that Ahalya wishes to. Mother Ahalya passes on the tradition to the daughter Sita of the next generation. Both women of the older generation quietly pass on the tradition and the right to the custody of seeds when men were busy clearing the forests of tribes and cursing their wives.

 

Sita tries to recreate a forest behind the palace when she becomes the queen of Ayodhya. She encourages biodiversity in flora and fauna and decides to leave it wild the way nature desires it. This is in contrast to king Dhasharatha’s garden which was well maintained where only necessary plants (monoculture) would be grown. Sita still is not satisfied with her little forest because it's manmade and misses the real forest.

 

The tribal way of acquiring knowledge is “very different from the way knowledge is taught and transmitted in literate societies”(Felix 910). The knowledge a tribal child gathers is through keen observation of plants and animals, their relationship with nature and seasonal changes. Sita’s sons Lav and Kush learn medicine and healing in a tribal way. She takes them to the forest for long walks “where they learned to recognize medicinal herbs –particularly the ones that staunched wounds and healed injuries-and how to use them” (Divakaruni 331).

 

In the epic The Ramayana and the novel, The Forest of Enchantments Sita does not have daughters to pass on the tradition. Instead, Sita in the novel passes on her knowledge of medicine and healing to her two sons and raises them to be sensitive towards all beings around them human and non-human. She forbids her sons Lav and Kush from harming any creature in the forest unless for defence. Lav and Kush are the princes of Ayodhya and in future would become rulers of Ayodhya. The qualities that Ram (man) lacked as a ruler would be compensated by the two princes Lav and Kush who are trained by Sita (woman). This would make them ideal rulers in future. The ecocentric approach of a woman redefines the duties and responsibilities of a ruler in a patriarchal society.

 

When mankind makes statements like ‘I love natureor ‘I like to spend time with nature' it means that they consider nature as the other. Sita considers plucking fresh flowers from a plant murder. Plants turn black when Sita leaves Ayodhya. The Ashoka tree in Lanka offers its roots for her to sleep and sheds flowers as tears out of helplessness. Pushpak, Ravan’s magical aircraft transforms its chambers into a forest grove for Sita. When Ravan abducts her the vines she grows near their hut in the forest try to save her by clinging to her body. Compassion and empathy are mutual. There is no ‘other’ in a society created by a woman. They are the same.

 

In the final scene, Sita refuses to go through a test by fire to prove her innocence and decides to join mother-earth from where she came. She blesses the land, its men, women, her sons and yet-to- be- born daughters. On many occasions throughout her life, Sita hesitates to express her opinion on how men treat nature, tribes (asuras) and women to avoid displeasing Ram her beloved. She realises that her love for her husband has blinded her duties towards defending nature and women like Surpanakha and Ahalya. When Ram rescues her from Lanka she proves her innocence by going through the agni-pariksha. Ram as a king sends Sita away to the forest fearing criticism from people especially men that he set a bad example for a husband. When Sita is forced to go through the test again she decides she has to express her opinion. If she falls for the weakness called love again she would set a bad example to the unborn daughters of the land. In future, her sacrifices for the sake of love would be misinterpreted as necessary and would become the norm in society. Proving one’s innocence every time society demands and not expressing one’s opinion when necessary, would be considered natural traits of a woman like love, compassion, sacrifice, cooking, healing and farming. This wisdom is the blessing of the daughter of the earth to mankind.

 

Works Cited

           

Curtin, Deane. “Women’s Knowledge as Expert Knowledge: Indian Women and Ecodevelopment”. Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature, edited by Karen J. Warren. Rawat Publications, 2014, pp. 82-98.

 

Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee. The Forest of Enchantments. Harper Collins, 2019.

Felix, Padel. “Forest Knowledge: Tribal People, their Environment and the Structure of Power.” Nature and the Orient: The Environmental History of South and Southeast Asia, edited by Richard H. Grove, et al. Oxford University Press,1998, pp.891-917.

Kinsley, David. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. University of California Press, 1988.

Mies, Maria and Vandana Shiva. Ecofeminism. Rawat Publications, 1993.