Book review

The ring: Making women adulterous and men faithful since the birth of patriarchy

Wendy Doniger’s ‘The Ring of Truth’ shows with humour and clarity how one form of oppression can be replaced with another.

The wedding ring is perhaps the only myth jointly created by feudalism and capitalism. DeBeers has convinced women across the world to seal it with the ring that imitates the fealty of the vassal and suzerainty of the lord, thereby implying the ownership of a woman by a man who gives her the ring. However, Wendy Doniger’s The Ring of Truth: Myths of Sex and Jewelry informs us that rings, in particular, (and jewellery, in general) have been inextricably linked with sex and gender asymmetry much before feudalism appropriated the connection.

Keeping in line with the Annales body of work, such as Jacques LeGoff’s Time, Work, & Culture in the Middle Ages, Doniger’s sources include mythologies from ancient India and medieval Europe, folk tales from the Germanic world and popular literature and cinema from the 19th and 20th centuries respectively.

The Herculean task of bringing together and deconstructing such a vast array of myths and stories has been made possible by using copious amounts of Freudian theory and feminist interpretation. As if the subject matter of the book was not interesting enough, Doniger’s captivating writing, laced with humour, has enlivened the book, making it a breath of fresh air in an otherwise dreary world of academic writing.

A ring of myths

At the outset, Doniger’s book appears to be about myths revolving around rings; rings of remembrance, rings inducing forgetfulness, rings legitimising paternity and rings proving infidelity. But a keen reading of the text will reveal how the mythical landscape across geographies has been riddled with patriarchy and mostly biased against women. Most of these myths are authored by men, and the ring is used as a device to explain away their caddish behaviour and adulterous alliances. The ring is, therefore, a way for men to externalise the blame of ill-treating women and disregarding their feelings.

The women in these stories are either sluts/whores who get jewellery from men, outside the bonds of matrimony, as payment for “services rendered” (sleeping with men), or “good” women getting jewellery from men to authenticate the bonds of matrimony and proving a woman’s “chastity”.

There are also clever wives, such as Muladeva’s wife, a woman whose wits rattled Muladeva, a Brahmin, so deeply that he takes revenge on her by tricking her into marrying him and then abandons her. Before leaving, he challenges his wife to bear him a legitimate son, even though he would never consummate his marriage. The wife then disguises herself as a courtesan, with whom Muladeva willingly has sex, and gives his signet ring as payment. The ring acts as proof of consummation of Muladeva’s marriage and catches him in his own trap, bringing him home to his wife (and son!).

Doniger stresses the point that the clever wife is too clever for her own good and is, therefore, initially shunned by her husband. She has to be a different woman, not one who is clever but one who offers easy sexual gratification to her man. Moreover, the marriage in itself does not bind the man to his wife, it is the begetting of a son that does.

Jewellery as a weapon

However, jewellery has not always worked against women. Once acquired, it has been a way for upper class (and upper caste) women to gain financial independence and political control. This is why Shakuntala, in the Mahabharata, is so eager to prove to Dushyanta, a king, that her son is in fact his. She uses his signet ring to make him remember their amorous alliance and quotes the shastras to remind Dushyanta of his fatherly duties.

The king feigns ignorance for some time but eventually gives in. Their son, Bharata, according to Kalidasa’s version of the story (Abhigyana Shakuntalam), became the founder of the powerful Gupta dynasty. Dushyanta’s signet ring not only helps Shakuntala prove her fealty to the king but also enables her to gain political power through her son.

This begs the question; can the myths be read differently? Do they signify an earnest attempt on the part of women to oppose the oppressive patriarchal order? Furthermore, in a society such as that of ancient India, where polygyny was acceptable, why was it imperative on the male authors of these stories to label the amorous dalliances of men in the tales wrong and bring in a ring to either shoulder the blame or to fix things? Does it reveal a change in attitude towards women and a regard for their being? Is it a way for society to apologise to women for tilting the scales in favour of patriarchy? Doniger refutes the claim vehemently.

For starters, the ring always allows a man to be unfaithful to a woman, but never allows women to cheat on men. The myths reinforce that a man can mistreat a woman as much as he likes, externalise the blame and the woman will always forgive him. In Doniger’s words “it is just a way of replacing one form of oppression with the other”. It is a choice between blatantly cheating on a woman or abandoning her through lying (“the ring made me do it!”), a choice between “shameless harm or dissembling harm.”

The Ring of Truth: Myths of Sex and Jewelry, Wendy Doniger, Speaking Tiger

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