Hinduism and Women: Glimpses from a Feminist Perspective
Guest Blog by Debanjali Bhattacharjee
It was Saraswati Puja this week – a day when Hindus in several parts of India and the world worship Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and arts. As several Hindu men and women seek blessings of this goddess, I take this opportunity to share a few glimpses of one of the oldest religions in human history, from a feminist perspective.
The origin of Hinduism
“Hinduism never originated as a religion. It simply referred to the way of life of people settled along the river Indus or ‘Sindhu’ as they called it”.
Our first lecture in Political Geography at Delhi University twenty years ago was intriguing and myth- busting. If Hinduism was simply a ‘way of life’ over 5000 years ago, where and how do I fit in the rituals, the practices and the philosophies I hear in the name of this religion today? I started looking at my own life and the world around me to find some of the answers.
There is no one singular text or one single leader who founded Hinduism, not a one-size-fits-all code of practice. Among my extended family and friends, there are polytheists, monotheists and pantheists, ravenous carnivores as well as strict vegetarians, all of whom call themselves ‘Hindu’. Heated debates on what is Hinduism and what is not are commonly heard; there are no fixed definitions of what makes a ‘good Hindu’, no strict guidelines defining a ‘Hindu way of life’. It is this openness and flexibility I find liberating and empowering. I imbibe what inspires me, challenge and discard what I find unscientific, inappropriate or unsuitable for my life.
Hinduism and its worship of the Feminine
One of the most fascinating aspects in my eyes as a child was the concept of the divine in Hinduism. I saw worship of female and male idols as goddesses and gods. Durga, the Mother Goddess, is benevolent, protective, fierce and compassionate. Well-known for her symbolic ten hands which hold several weapons as well as a lotus and a conch shell, she destroys evils and protects the innocent. Durga Puja is the autumn festival celebrating mother goddess Durga; in several parts of India the festival is comparable to Christmas in the West.
Durga’s two daughters- Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and all forms of arts- are worshiped too. As Hinduism spread over the vast, geographically diverse Indian sub-continent and beyond, various other forms of the feminine came to be worshiped. Some of them are delicate and pale, some bold, fearsome and dark. It is the worship of the female power in various forms, figures and colors I find unique, fascinating and empowering.
Hindu Mythology and Epics
I grew up listening to numerous stories from the Hindu mythology that, later in life, I could unpick, interpret and analyze in ways more than one. I learnt about the erudite women philosophers Gargi and Maitreyee from 6th-8th centuries BC who challenged the learned men for academic debates. I read and watched child-friendly, animated versions of the two famous Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata that centered around wars and victory of good over evil. Interwoven within the tales of the epics were narratives of women’s lives within a complex structure of class and caste hierarchies. There was the ‘swayamvar’ – the practice of princesses challenging, testing and finally choosing their husbands from a royal court filled with potential suitors. Alongside, as in the narratives of Sita and Draupadi, were stories of insult, coercion and control of women, once their fairy-tale weddings were over.
Meandering through centuries and millennia, diverted by the confluence by invaders from middle east, far east and Europe, several religious practices in the name of Hinduism seem to have evolved, adapted, diversified or disappeared. Buddhism and Jainism were two separate religions born as protests to the upper-caste hierarchical structure of Hinduism about 2500 years ago. Both matriarchy and patriarchy prevailed within Hinduism, in differing timescales and sometimes contemporary in varied geographic locations within the Indian subcontinent.
The Medieval Era
Within Hinduism itself the ‘Bhakti movement’ originated from southern India in the 7th century AD. Based on the concept of ‘bhakti’ or devotion to God who dwells within each individual, this movement challenged upper-caste patriarchy and empowered women to bypass gender rigidities through numerous strategies – refusing marriage to a human being, walking out of marriage or refusing motherhood. The roots of contemporary Indian feminism are often traced back to the Bhakti Movement within Hinduism 1300 years ago, just as patriarchy extended its reach and control.
As invasion and warfare continued in the Indo-Gangetic plains of northern India and beyond, patriarchy manifested itself in ways more than one. There evolved stronger gender stereotyping and a glorification of the sacrificial nature of women which, with distortion and patriarchal manipulation, created room for the heinous practice of ‘Sati’ in the 12th-18th centuries AD predominantly in the northern and central parts of India. In the process of protecting their ‘honour’ from invaders, upper-class women in Rajasthan learnt warfare as well as were encouraged to take to ‘Jauhar’, a practice of mass-suicide. In contrast, I also heard stories and read about some of the brave Hindu queens in parts of India during the medieval era – Queen Didda (958- 1003 CE), Rudrama Devi (13th century) and Rani Durgavati (16th century) are a few names that come to my mind.
Colonial oppressions and uprisings
The arrival of European colonial powers – Dutch, French, Portuguese and English- into the Indian subcontinent since the 17th century seems to me to have had a few interesting impacts on the Hindu women in India. On one hand was the protest or uprising towards freedom from a ‘common enemy’; notable Hindu queens such as Velu Nachiyar in southern India in the 18th century or Rani Lakshmi Bai in central India during the 19th century fought the British armed forces. It gained momentum in early 20th century in the anti-colonial movements as women actively cooperated with militant rebel men, participated in protest marches, joined the army or participated in Gandhi’s famous non-violent movements.
On the other hand, we saw the establishment of infrastructure and academic institutions intended to serve colonial interests, and women from upper as well as middle classes left their protected domestic spaces. Women from privileged backgrounds are known to have traveled across the globe to study medicine and science as early as late 19th/ early 20th century.
Also worth mention here is the fact that practices such as ‘Sati’ were challenged by the learned Hindu social reformers, and, empowered by support from colonial rulers, abolished altogether during the colonial rule. While child marriages could not be legally prohibited yet, the reformers ensured that young widows could be remarried, instead of being forced into a life of seclusion and austerity.
Independence and beyond
Decolonization and the Partition of India into India and Pakistan in 1947 along religious lines was one of the greatest socio-political upheavals in South Asia. More than 10 million people were uprooted almost overnight, nearly a million people killed in the violence that was unleashed. It had a catastrophic impact on women from Hindu, Muslim and Sikh backgrounds alike. Rape, abduction, so-called honour-killing, forced marriage and several other atrocities comprise the gruesome tales we have grown up listening to from our grandparents.
It is important to note that by this time, the Indian sub-continent had become a melting pot of seven different religions – Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism. In post-colonial India during early 1950’s, the birth of the Indian Constitution with its promise of a ‘sovereign, secular, democratic republic’ brought in universal adult franchise and the fundamental right to equality.
Hindu women, along with women from all other religious backgrounds in India studied medicine, engineering and mathematics, researched astronomy as well as anthropology, made their marks in history, politics, physics and the languages. Many women experimented with various forms of arts and literature, acted and directed in Bollywood and vernacular language films and have won international acclaim.
Women in post-colonial India flew aircrafts, joined the armed forces, swam across the English Channel and contested parliamentary elections. The famous Chipko movement in northern India– where women hugged trees in their non-violent resistance against deforestation brought eco feminism to the forefront in global conversations.
Hinduism and Feminism in today’s world
Against this vast, complex backdrop of the Hindu ‘way of life’, where do women like me position ourselves in today’s world? How do we draw strength from Hinduism and all that it offers to strengthen our resolve to end violence against women? We raise voices against the objectification of women in media and its biases in reporting; we challenge everyday sexism and misogyny and demand strict legal measures for atrocities against women; we hold hands with our sisters from every other religion, just as Indian women are at this point of time, in one of the biggest political uprisings in India.
As Hindu women, we need to constantly remind ourselves of the symbolism of Durga with her ten arms, fiercely protective and delicately nurturing at the same time. While we strive to create an equal world, we look back at the ancient Hindu imagery of the “ardhha- narishwar” where the masculine and feminine are respected as two halves of one being, complimenting each other in a perfect balance.
Deb is a Welsh Women’s Aid supporter and volunteer