Yoga, Philosophy and Gender: Sulabhā in the Mahābhārata

By Centre of Yoga Studies|December 1, 2020|Uncategorized|0 comments

In September 2020, the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies ran a seminar series titled ‘Yoga and Philosophy’. After the seminars, we invited participants to write posts reflecting on each one.

The presentation portion of the seminar series is available on our YouTube channel.

Title slide to Ram's seminarSeminar: Yoga, Philosophy and Gender: Sulabhā in the Mahābhārata’ led by Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad.

This post written by: Amanda Sue Evans.

“Furthermore, ecological phenomenology as a perspective on human experience is intrinsically consonant with the insights that have emerged from feminist thought: on how the whole, dynamic environment of physical functions and their interpretation, social norms and their negotiation, self-perception and its consequences for agency, all shape how women are to themselves.” (Page 2 of 47 excerpt).

Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad kickstarted the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies seminar series on Yoga and Philosophy in September 2020 by applying feminist approaches to the philosophical discussion between the female ascetic renouncer, Sulabhā, and King Janaka in the Mahābhārata. Ram-Prasad draws out Sulabhā’s experience of herself, as a woman, a renunciate and spiritual being in a mortal dialogue with King Janaka, who in this episode in the Mahābhārata appears somewhat deluded. The episode offers a philosophically-based battle between two opponents whose gender is foregrounded – against a background privileging the masculine divine and Janaka’s assumed entitlement. Sulabhā expresses a philosophical perspective of what it is to be free and at the same time expectant of alms as a renouncer. Her gender brings a complexity to the dialogue – a tension and a driver to the points she has to make.

Ram-Prasad’s presentation of the Sulabhā episode at the SOAS CYS seminar prompted a lively discussion of a character who is not developed elsewhere in the epic. Whilst King Janaka makes other appearances, in this episode he comes off poorly. Sulabhā’s depiction challenges social norms expressed in narrative form as a battle of the sexes. Ram-Prasad suggests that she emasculates Janaka with her intelligence more than her beauty: she only exploits her beauty to make the point that his intelligence is weakened by her physical presence, that his boastfully expressed spiritual attainments of freedom from the available temptations and distractions of his courtly life, are ungrounded.

Ram-Prasad deploys feminism as a methodology to excavate this dialogue, to expose the flaws in Janaka’s self-declaration to spiritual ascendency, and to reveal Sulabhā’s  truth, wisdom and tenacity as an ascetic, enigmatically presented in the Mahābhārata and Ram-Prasad’s monograph Human Body, Bodily Being: Phenomenology from Classical India.

To me this seminar offers an account that does not impose Cartesian views on Indian philosophy, nor accepts the denigration of women’s intellectual capacity, and certainly does not undermine the construct of the bodily being of Sulabhā: the episode posits, quite simply, that the ātman, soul, transcends gender.

Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad is Fellow of the British Academy, and Distinguished Professor of Comparative Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. He has written over fifty essays and seven books, and edited several others.

His 2014 ​Divine Self Human Self: The Philosophy of Being in Two Gītā Commentaries (Bloomsbury) won the Best Book 2011-15 of the Society of Hindu Christian Studies. The seminar reading was from his 2018 ​Human Being, Bodily Being: Phenomenology from Classical India​ (OUP). He is currently writing a book on emotions in Sanskrit theory and literature.

Amasu EvansAmanda Suzanne Evans is taking the MA degree programme Traditions of Yoga and Meditation at SOAS, University of London. She is President of the Yoga Society at SOAS and sits on the steering committee of the Centre of Yoga Studies.


  • Ram-Prasad, Chakravarthi. 2018. Human Being, Bodily Being: Phenomenology from Classical India. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Vanita, Ruth. 2003. ‘The Self Is Not Gendered: Sulabha’s Debate with King Janaka’. 15(2):76–93.
  • Fitzgerald, James L. 2002. ‘Nun Befuddles King, Shows Karmayoga Does Not Work: Sulabha’s Refutation of King Janaka at MBh12.308’. Journal of Indian Philosophy 30(6):641–77.
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