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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With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

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It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.