A PAPER ON NATURE OF WOMAN AND WOMANHOOD- STRI SHAKTI ,STRI MUKHI,THE CONCEPT OF INDIAN WOMANHOOD
30th January, 1997.
The twentieth century will be remembered as the century when peoples around the world organised themselves to resist and fight oppression and discrimination wherever it existed. It saw colony al rule coming to an end in several nations of Asia and Africa,it witnessed the desegregation of public spaces in the USA and it also saw the end of apartheid in South Africa. This fight to end oppression and domination also caused organized movements to highlight the domination and exploitation of historically 'backward peoples' and non-human nature. This only reinforces the truth that the human brain alone is capable of causing the worst forms of destruction and practising the most terrible forms of cruelty. But it is also true that it is the human spirit alone which can end this oppression by fighting it with typical human courage and determination. Any fool can oppress another with force and power but to practise oppression with the consent of he oppressed - that is a tribute to the ingenuity of the indian mind. A dubious tribute to some aspects of the hindu tradition.
There is a lot of talk now about the need for uplifting the status of indian women. Much of the talk is shrill, confused and even ill-advised. But it is good that we are talking about the need for upliftment atleast because it creates the awareness that a change in the attitude is called for with regard to the role and status of the woman in the home and in public life. The RSS is committed to having this nation assert its hindu identity and is working towards a hindu rashtra. We as a nation have not said the last word on what constitutes a hindu rashtra but some of us can tell what it is not. This is arriving at a conclusion the 'neti neti'way. By first eliminating all that it is not. And a hindu rashtra cannot be a society of the oppressed. It cannot be a society that represses the spirit of enquiry and makes the right to knowledge and skills the privilege of the few. Above all it cannot be a society which does not allow all its people to live by the purusharthas. Not if we believe that the hindu thought in its fundamentals is universal, all embracing. Not when we proclaim 'let noble thoughts come to us from all sides'. If the hindu thought is universal, it cannot hold the woman and the fourth varna as whole groups, to be unfit to travel certain paths leading to moksha. The 'gnana marga' to be precise; and unfit to be taught the contents of the vedas and unfit to perform religious rituals. And it is the social formulation which sanctioned this denial that kept women and the shudra away from public space and prevented them from any meaningful participation in deciding community affairs. And if noble thoughts have to come to us from all sides, then we must be open to receiving them - wherever they come from. Even if it is the nobility of caring criticism. This presupposes an open society but a society strong and secure in its own identity which does not feel threatened by such criticism.
And yet this is far from being the case with hindu society of the last 2000 years and more. We have practised the most cruel forms of oppression and perpetrated the worst form of tyranny - the tyranny of the minority which determined what was dharma and what was the path to moksha for the woman and the fourth varna. We practised oppression with the consent of the oppressed by constantly reiterating that unquestioning acceptance of their subjugation was their only way to moksha. We did it as hindus and unless we accept this we cannot even begin to seek to find out what being a good hindu is all about. Two years ago when I expressed my wish to initiate a discussion among some of us within the sangha on the issue of the woman, I elicited a knee-jerk response from some of our sangha intellectuals. You are a feminist, indian women do not have such problems, the sangha has other more serious issues to deal with and we do not have the time for the gender issue, were just few of the responses. But shri K.N.Govindacharya was keen to have this debate initiated and told me to go ahead and prepare a paper which could be given to some of our sangha adhikaris who may be receptive to the idea. However, I was asked if it would be possible to address myself to this issue not as a western feminist but from an indian perspective. If when a woman takes up the cause of the woman, she is going to be dubbed a feminist, then I am a feminist. What's in a name? I would be doing what I am doing no matter what this work is called - feminism, activism, women's lib or whatever. But a western feminist I am not - not because I have the same contempt for the movement as some of our men but because I believe that the problems of the indian woman are indian in character. More specifically, it is hindu in character and therefore if we have to seek a change in our attitude then we have to understand hindu tradition and those hindu texts which have influenced and concretised these practices. We in the sangha know what it is to be called names by our detractors. By labeling our women who raise the issue of gender discrimination 'feminists',we are attempting to shame them into silence by somehow insinuating that a hindu loyalist ought not to talk about degenerate hindu practices.
The attempt by some of our men to discourage a debate on the issue of gender and to prevent anybody within the fold from taking a critical look at some of our sacred texts and then talking about them is prompted by the fear that traditional ties binding hindus to hindu societal institutions would be weakened if cracks in hindu society are made issues of public debate. These fears are not unfounded but it is also unthinkable that there is ever going to be a consensus on 'right time'to initiate this debate much less bring about those much needed reforms in attitude and in law without such a public debate.
There are those significant periods in history when a nation is forced to reassert its essential identity: when its identity is attacked by outsiders or when its own societies are churned from within. The arrogance of colonialists, the utter contempt that foreign christian missionaries in India of this period had for our sacred texts, our traditions and our value systems, forced our people in the last 300 years to organise themselves as hindus; and rightly so because what was called for was a determined effort to protect and preserve hindu values and the hindu thought. Thus, the war of 1857 was a very definite hindu response to the british administration's attempts to brazenly christianise the largely hindu army - then under its control. It is always a threatened identity which is sought to be reasserted. And our freedom struggle in the beginning was correctly a war by hindu society against the british, a war to assert this nation's hindu identity. And this war was fought politically, non-politically and also religiously. And this was the period of our reformists too. This is not surprising because in the heightened awareness of being hindus, people are forced to examine the very idea of hinduness and to seek to determine what the hindu identity is all about. And once they begin to do that, the degenerate practices in hindu tradition become a part of public discource and the internal churning of hindu society begins.
Thus from around the 18th century onwards these two movements moved parallely because these two movements seemed irreconcilable - the war against the british which was a powerful hindu response to alien racial and religious attacks on the hindu identity of this nation, and the reformists who were trying to bring about reforms in hindu society at any cost.
The antipathy of the conservative hindu group, for the likes of Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Dayananda Saraswati, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasa gar and the Egmore brahmins like shri G.Subramania Iyer (the then editor of the Hindu) of the late 19th century in Madras (who were progressive hindus and in stark contrast to the conservative Mylapore brahmins), and who clamoured for reforms particularly in those areas of hindu tradition which concerned the woman - like sati, child marriage, the social stigma attached to widows and therefore campaigning for widow remarriage, was understandable but unjustified. The antipathy of the conservatives for Raja Ram Mohan Roy in particular was very pronounced for the reformer's belief that it was the western alone which was modern and there fore any reform of degenerate hindu practices could be acheived only through english education and english law. Hindu conservatives who had begun their unrelenting war against the british felt that drawing attention to these cracks in hindu society would jeopardise the unity of the hindus and would only polarise the different groups, thus making it difficult for the hindus to unite and resist the threat posed by the british and the muslims to fragment the nation.
The fight against the british was a lifetime's mission with the leaders of the freedom movement and so was the work of our reformers who faced stiff opposition from our own people and who were confronted by deep rooted social attitudes which made reforms nearly impossible. It was impossible therefore for a commited hindu to do both things at the same time. It is very interesting to note that even today there is opposition to the words reforms and reformers, although it is not clear whether the opposition is to the very concepts or to their western connotations. An opinion was expressed however by a conservative Hindu within the sangha that what is required is not just reforms in hindu society but restoration of dharma. He is right. But what is the dharma of our times? The Mahatma could not give all his time for the reforms, which, in one of his letters to Rajaji on the eve of the Round Table Conference, he opined were absolutely necessary to prepare us for purna swaraj and neither could Veer Savarkar who also stated unambigously that drastic changes in attitudes within Hindu society were necessary for the nation to evolve into a Hindu rashtra. Neither Swami Vivekananda who injected a fresh vibrancy into the freedom movement with his militant Hindu assertion nor shri Aurobindo contribute enough to redefine the concept of Hindu womanhood, moving away from the stereotypes of Sita and Savitri.
Hindu conservatives resolutely opposed all attempts to bring about the much-needed reforms with regard to the woman and the untouchable and this resulted in people like Ambedkar turning bitter and quitting the hindu fold. Hindu society also paid a heavy price for its obduracy by creating rabid iconoclasts like E.V.Ramaswamy Naicker. The rest, as they say, is history. If we fail now to hear the voices of our women who are asking for radical reforms and a change in society's attitude to the woman, we may well be rocking the very foundations of the institutions of marriage and family.
In today's context, the RSS has placed before this nation the need to evolve into a hindu rashtra and this has inevitably created a climate whence hindutva is once again an issue of public discourse. And this time too there is resistance to any attempt to debate the traditional hindu attitude to the woman.But this time round there are atleast a few men who see the necessity to re examine the concept of womanhood and this time round even the women are beginning to discuss how they see themselves within the home and outside.
As a part of this attempt, I noted down our society's attitude to the woman by examining some of our practices, our festivals, our rituals, our language and the gender bias that some of our sayings and proverbs reflect. I have put down these observations in another paper but what is remarkable is that the origins of these attitudes go back to 2500 years and more. To trace the historic roots of this attitude to the woman, I have taken up for study four of the most important hindu classical texts - the Valmiki Ramayanam, the Mahabharatham, the Manu smriti and the Arthashastra of Kautilya.
Hindu neeti and vyavahara, derived from the sruti, smriti, the two epics, the dharmashastras, the puranas and the bhasyas to our classical texts, have been the pillars of hindu society. Hindu society regulated itself over centuries by its adherence to dharma - a very flexible concept of 'rightness' which for the most part adapted itself successfully to changing times and changing needs. And hindu society regulated by dharma, was supported from below by the broadbased institutions of marriage and family and from above by the king who maintained order in society by dealing with the adharmic through force as represented by the 'danda'.The grihasta or the householder, supported and sustained hindu society and it was the hindu woman who supported and sustained the griha or the institution of marriage and family. A hindu woman theoretically is therefore first and foremost Grihalakshmi.
And these four classical indian texts seemingly so different in content are however identical in intent - providing the social context for the emerging hindu ethics. Not taking into consideration the historic time of Srirama or Srikrishna, it is my submission that all four texts were codified in the form available today, within a period of 800 years, between 5th century B.C and 3rd century A.D. These four texts deal extensively with Rajadharma and the status and role of the woman as wife and mother in hindu society. All four texts are amazingly identical in their content with regard to the concept of womanhood and kingship. Not surprising at all considering that without the woman to lend stability to the institution of marriage and family and without the king to deal with the violators, hindu society would be unstable and therefore adharmic. It is in these four texts that we will find the codified origins of the attitudes we see today with regard to the woman.
Hindu society, by the time these classical texts were codified,had already degenerated into an androcentric society where the role of the woman was strictly defined and these four texts are identical as far as the concept of womanhood was concerned. They may show marginal differences in social practices but they are identical in their deliniation of the woman, telling us that the basic premises about the woman were the same. Thus while the Arthashastra talks of widow remarriage as an accepted social practice, by the time the Manu smriti is codified, this custom has already come to be considered as unacceptable. And as I enum erate the attitudes prevailing in the hindu society of those times we can see for ourselves the continuing legacy even today.
It is the sacred duty of the man and wife to beget a son.Throw to the winds the truth of prarabda karma and sanchita karma. By the time the Manu smriti is codified, hindu society believed that the birth of a son releases the son himself and seven generations of ancestors before him and seven generations of ancestors after him from the burden of guilt. It is the son who saves his parents from the hell called 'put'. He is therefore called putra. In chapter three Manu says,"When a man connects himself with a woman, he should avoid the ten following families......a family that has abandoned the rites or does not have male children...." implying thereby that it is the woman who is resonsible for determining the gender of the child. We know today through the science of genetics that it is the 'y' chromosome of the man which determines the gender of the child. While the woman transmits only the 'x' chromosome to the foetus,the man can transmit the 'y' chromosome which is found only in men or the 'x' chromosome which he has inherited from his mother.If the man transmits the 'x' chromosome, the foetus is a girl;and if he transmits the 'y' chromosome, the foetus is a boy. And yet, even today it is the woman who is held responsible for the heinous offence of begetting only girls. The reasons for this civilisational obssession for sons are to be found in Manu and the earlier dharmashastras. In chapter two Manu says, "By the study of the veda, by vows, by offering into the fire, by acquiring the triple learning, by offering sacrifices, by sons, this body is made fit for ultimate reality." ( The english renderung of the sutras may leave much to be desired but the general trend of the meaning is nevertheless clear). The ultimate reality is of course moksha. Chapter nine of the Manu smriti declares, " A man wins worlds through a son, and he gains eternity through a grand son, but he attains the Suryaloka through the grandson of his son. Because the male child saves (trayate) his father from the hell called 'put', therefore he is called 'putra' by the Self-existent one himself."
This male centered society has no convincing explanations for why only sons can perform the last rites of their parents. If there were no sons or paternal grandsons, then the son of the daughter (the putrika) could perform the last rites but not the wife or the daughter themselves.
The reason is not far to seek. Performing the last rites entailed the chanting of vedic hymns. And by this time hindu society had decided that women were not entitled to chant the hymns of the vedas or the upanishads or perform sacred rituals. Manu generously grants to the baby girl her right to have certain rituals performed for her well being without however the benefit of the vedic hymns which were recited when the same rituals were performed for the son.
Having performed the last rites, the sons were expected to perform the annual srardha and other rituals to propitiate the spirits of their parents and their ancestors. And since the performance of these rituals entailed the giving of different kinds of 'daana', only sons had the right to the property of the father. Therefore, the wife or daughter could not perform the last rites for that would mean that they too would be entitled to inherit the property of their fathers and husbands.
From this it is only a step away to decide that not only does a daughter not have any claim to ancestral property, her member ship in the house of her birth ceases the day she gets married.From that day on, she is the physical and moral responsibility of the family of her husband. It is a thin line that divides responsibility and liability. And the severing of ties with the family of her birth became so final and so decisive over time that marriage for a girl was synonymous with a traumatic parting of ways with her family.
A striking feature of all these texts is that they all focus only on the body of the woman and the roles associated with the body - wife and mother. And all that is considered virtous in a woman or desirable are those qualities associated with the body or those relating to her role as wife and mother. All four texts maintain a deafening silence about her intellectual prowess.Women were not supposed to think or express an opinion in the presence of their husbands although Draupadi, being an exception al woman, speaks her mind in no uncertain terms on more than one occasion. Therefore Draupadi is neither normative nor ideal. In the Valmikiyam, both Tara and Mandodri, in those moving scenes where each is lamenting over the dead bodies of their husbands,try to come to terms with their deaths by enumerating all the sins of omission and commission of both Vali and Ravana. It makes us wonder as we read the Ramayanam, why did they not say the same things when their husbands were alive, for both of them were not only beloved of their husbands but are also depicted as intelligent women. And yet as wives they were not supposed to express an opinion on the deeds of their husbands, much less comment on what ought to have been their dharma. Sita's silence except on one occasion is of course deafening although it is the silence of wisdom and not of helplessness or meekness as is often made out.These are therefore the epitome of hindu womanhood. Infact, a popular opinion on Draupadi's vastraharan and Sita's agni pariksha is that they were both to be humiliated for showing spirit. Draupadi for daring to laugh at a man and Sita for all the unseemly words she says to Lakshmana when he refuses to go looking for Srirama leaving her unprotected in the forest. The Ramayanam even says in the uttara kandam that Brahmahati assumes four malignant forms to trouble people - the most terrible being menstruation in a woman which is the only way to check her natural waywardness. A menstruating woman is therefore a brahmahati.This idea about a menstruating woman being a brahmahati is also to be found in the Vasistha Dharmasutra. It is a terrible sin to eat or accept food cooked by this woman and this monthly excommuication of the woman during such times is prevalent in south India even today. We all like taking pot shots at the Koran but how are these texts different from the Koran or the Bible as far as their attitude to the woman goes?
A woman had no right to participation in public life. Her domain was the home. In the texts of these times we do not find any mention of women holding public positions or being entrusted with any responsibility that would bring her out of the home. An interesting exception is the Arthashastra where Chanakya is describing the living quarters of the king. He says that immediately adjoining the private chambers of the king should be a room with the king's personal guards - and these are specifically mentioned to be female archers.
Not only was the woman not entitled to formal education as was received by the men of the first three varnas, she could also not ascend to the throne. Not even if she was the first born and not even when the king had no sons. The putrakameshti yagna performed for Dasaratha by Rishi Rishyasringa was supposed to take care of both of Dasaratha's need - to ensure a male heir to the throne and to ensure for himself and his ancestors mukti from guilt.
Talking of rishi Rishyasringa, he was invited to Ayodhya from Angadesa where he was residing as the son-in-law of the king Romapada. The Valmiki Ramayanam tells us that king Romapada had to send the Vaishyas of his kingdom to the forest to lure the rishi to come to Angadesa. This tells us that even 2500 years ago when these texts were codified, the practice of employing women (as courtesans) to satisfy the senses of men as also their artistic and aesthetic sensibilities, was an accepted way of hindu life. It also tells us that for all the holy sentiments mouthed by hindu society about its women and the sins of the pleasures of her body, it was not above using the woman and her body for devious purposes. Chanakya's Arthashastra provides a very interesting and informative discource on how to use a woman's beauty and guile to kill the king, sow dissention in enemy ranks and to keep restive princes in check. The Ramayanam abounds in little stories of how Devendra used his apsaras who were heavenly courtesans, to lure and tempt several sages whose intense tapasya threatened Indra's supremacy.
It is not important whether big money uses women in beauty pagents and advertisements to make more money or whether king Romapada used vaishyas to lure a sage into his country to bring rains; the underlying fact is that women are considered commodities to be used, but not the women in our families. King Romapada did not send his daughter Shanta to lure sage Rishyashringa (she marries him later) and Indra did not use his wife Sachi to seduce the sages. There is a lesson in it here about the double standards adopted by hindu men when it comes to woman and her beauty.
The male centered hindu society 2500 years ago thus decided that a woman's domain was the home and besides doing everything to deaden her intellectual capabilities also decided not to allow her any control over her life. Manu declares and so do all the other texts that the woman is always under the protection of the men in her family - her father, her husband, her sons and if widowed and without sons, in the care of her brother. Hindu women were not permitted to question where this care ended and control began, and where protection ended and oppression began.
Since she did not have the right to ancestral property, a woman was given away in marriage with stridhana - some money, some jewels, some cows, anything that could be moved. A widow also received a share of her dead husband's property - a share equal to that of each one of her sons. Incidentally, while hindu society gave the woman the right to own property or wealth, she was not given control of it. She could not use or dispose of her wealth or property without the consent of the men in the family. Even today how many women have control over the salaries they earn and the property they own and more importantly how many women are allowed to be financially independent of the men in their families?
It is easy to understand now why a widow never remarried. Her husband's family did not have the right to whatever she brought with herself as stridhana and the ownership of her share of her husband's property was also absolute. But in the event of her remarriage her dead husband's family could retain her stridhana and she was denied any share in her first husband's property.
Hindu society thus discouraged and even disallowed widow remarriage. On the one hand it defined dharma for a widow as remaining loyal in thought and action to the memory of her dead husband and on the other forced her to make herself physically so unattractive that no man would feel any desire for her. All widows dressed in white or ochre with their shaven heads covered from view looked monotonously and uniformly like each other. And to pre-empt and terrify the more daring among the men and to prevent the widows themselves, from being attracted to each other, hindu society stigmatised the widow by declaring her to be inauspicious and even a sinner who was paying the price for past karma. The segregation and the isolation was so extreme that in north India, women preferred to commit sati rather than undergo the trauma of widowhood. And hindu society glorified sati by convincing the woman that to barbecue herself on the funeral pyre of her husband was the noblest of stri dharma. Even today there are lunatics in the hindu fold who defend and glorify sati. For hindu men, this took care of two things: a widow was a liability for the family in which she lived. So sati was one way to be rid of the liability and for another the family stood to inherit the properties of man and wife at the same time.
That hindu society could distort and pervert even the noblest of traditions is seen from the theory behind why hindu men could marry any number of times after the death of their wives. The hindu woman had no right to the knowledge of the sruti or the right to perform vedic rituals in her own capacity but she was a partner (a subordinate partner no doubt) in all the obligatory rituals that a householder had to undertake in his lifetime. She was his sahadharmini. It was established practice that a hindu man could perform his duties as a grihasta only with his wife. This was undoubtedly to bind man and wife in a common bond of shared responsibilities. But this itself provided a good reason for men to marry even when they were in their sixties and seventies, often girls from poor families who could not afford a sizeable dowry and who were young enough to be their daughters. The dowry as we know it today is the grossest perversion of stridhana.
Hindu society convinced the woman to accept the home as her only domain by employing two different but effective means. Stories from the puranas and the ithihasas conditioned her to believe that her husband was god incarnate in this her life. She owed him her total loyalty in body and mind no matter how undeserving he was. She was also told that her place was at her husband's feet and to serve him was the highest dharma. With him or separated from him, when he is alive and when he is dead she should have no other thought but thoughts of him and his well being. This is the sum and substance of the advice given to Sita by Anusuya, the wife of sage Atri, when Srirama visits his ashrama just before making Panchavati his home. Anusuya tells Sita that for a woman her husband is the only guru, only god. Whether he is good or evil, rich or poor, in health or in sickness, the wife should remain devoted to the husband. There is no mention in any of our texts if this loyalty and commitment is mutual and reciprocal. This ommission implies that either the woman alone had to be so advised because of her propensity to stray from the path of dharma or that it was not required of the man to be committed and devoted to his wife. That a woman had no control over the way she was treated by her husband, not even a woman from the royal family, is evident from what Kausalya has to say to Srirama when he comes before her to tell her of his imminent exile." Your father never treated me even with common courtesy. I have received nothing but scorn and contempt from your father and Kaikeyi. How can you even think of abandoning me in the midst of people who do not give me the respect due to a queen? However cruelly your father may have treated me, I found solace in the thought that as your mother, one day I will be accorded the proper respect and veneration". Even 'noble king Dasaratha' was not above ill-treating his wife. And these are the words of Kausalya in the Valmiki Ramayanam.
To keep the woman from brooding in the prison that was her home and to make it impossible for her to find the time to think or introspect, a woman was kept busy in the home throughout the day. Manu has such a poor opinion of a woman's ability to control or rise above her body stimuli and her sexual needs in particular that he recommends hard physical labour so that she will have little energy at the end of the day for anything else. Paradoxically however, in Manu as well as in the Arthasastra, a woman invited the strongest criticism and was even punished if she ever refused to oblige her husband sexually, even when she had excellent reasons for doing so. Hindu ethics leaned heavily on the side of the man. While a man could take himself another wife under certain circumstances, a woman could never abandon her husband for the same reasons. A woman was permitted to leave her husband only in extreme cases whereas a man could set aside his wife on the flimsiest of grounds. Manu says, " A husband should wait for one year for a wife who hates him; but after a year, he should take away her inheritance and not live with her". This is the attitude even today. It is best for a woman not to have independent financial resources because that will make her less amenable to her husband's waywardness. So at the slightest pretext, hindu society saw to it that a spirited woman never had money of her own. And Manu continues," If she transgresses against a husband who is infatuated with another woman, or against a husband who is a drunk, or ill, he may deprive her of her jewellery and personal property and desert her for three months.... A wife who drinks wine, behaves dishonestly or is rebellious, ill, violent, or wasteful of money, may be superceded at any time. A barren wife may be superceded in the eigth year; one whose children have died, in the tenth year; one who bears only daughters, in the eleventh; BUT ONE WHO SAYS UNPLEASANT THINGS MAY BE SUPERCEDED IMMEDIATELY....And if a woman who has been superceded should leave the house in anger, she should be locked up immediately or deserted in the presence of the family". Kautilya too holds similar views on the issue. Which only proves my point that the Indian classical texts of the time are the origins of hindu society's attitude to the woman. The Ramayanam begins with a description of the kaliyuga. And kaliyuga is said to prevail when the woman begins to care for her body more than she cares for her husband. It is kaliyuga when women find other men more physically attractive than their husbands and kali is said to become stronger when women leave their homes to gossip with neibours.
The Ramayanam also describes in the minutest detail the first recorded rape in hindu history. The raping of one's mother, when Indra makes a forced entry into Diti, his mother's sister and therefore as a mother to him also, to kill the foetus in her womb which when it would be born was supposed to kill Indra himself. That Indra is castrated (and remains in that state for a little time) as a punishment for this most horrendous of crimes is also a fact but most women would consider that he was let off lightly. The story of Ahalya and the story of Rohini on the other hand tell us of the disproportionate retribution that is meted to a woman for finding other men attractive and leave a very bad taste in the mouth. By putting the onus of proving her chastity on the woman the Ramayanam with Sita's agni pariksha has done more damage to the life of women in India than any other single incident. It has also set the precedent that the surest way to destroy a woman is to challenge her chastity and virginity - once again attributes of the body and those related to devotion to the husband. Sita took to vanavasa only because she was totally devoted to Srirama and the years of vanavasa was one long picnic for her because of her love for her husband and because she had him with her at all times for the better part of the fourteen years of exile, which may not have been possible if they had been in Ayodhya.
Even if the agni pariksha is considered inevitable, for argument's sake, all that Srirama had to do before leaving for Ayodhya, was to have convened a sabha of dharmic people of Ayodhya and requested Sita to enter the sacred fire just so she helped him to fulfil his obligations as a public figure who was subject to public opinion. He does not request her to enter fire for his sake but accuses her of being impure and magnanimously asks her to go her own way "in any of the ten directions" and concludes his diatribe against her by being even more offensive: " Ravana could not have resisted the temptation that your divine beauty poses to all men. With such a suspicion sullying your name, I cannot let you come back with me to Ayodhya. So you may choose to live with Sugriva, Vibhishana, or Guha. Or you can stay in the protection of Lakshmana, Bharata or Shatrughna". Typical of a man. Having decided unilaterally that she was impure because she stood accused in public opinion and has therefore lost the right to live with him, why should a man tell his wife with which other man she should live? It is a telling comment on the fact that a woman could never return to her parents' home after she has been married and when she was in trouble. Srirama does not ask her to go to her parents' home; instead he makes the offensive suggestion that she should stay with any one of these men. Years later when Srirama abandons a pregnant Sita, her motherhood is not considered sacred enough for her to be treated with respect and compassion, and she is not escorted to her father's home but is exiled without forewarning and abandoned alone in the forest, to live there for the rest of her life. The fact that Srirama or any one of his brothers never kept track of her or make any attempt to find out if she had had children comes through very clearly in the uttara kandam. And years later when Shatrughna sees Sita at the ashrama of Valmiki and when even thereafter Srirama still makes no effort to meet his wife or children until the Asvamedha Yagna, underlines the truth that Sita was abandoned by and not merely separated from her husband. It is difficult to read the Ramayanam and not be outraged or angry.
We need to study these texts attentively to see how the origins of some of our attitudes to the woman are to be found in them. As long as the vedas and the upanishads survive the test of universality, the hindu thought will not be eroded or damaged just because some of us make a critical study of the later classical texts. And this study is the only path to stri mukti. The right to knowledge and information - about our texts. The right to know the origins of the attitudes that influenced hindu society. The right to know the contents of the sruti so that women can find out for themselves just what is eternal and what is transient. So that, juxtaposed with the sruti, women can decide which practices are adharmic and unfit for the times.
No reform is carried out successfully through the state machinery alone or through force. Provisions in law alone do not deter crimes against women nor change attitudes. Therefore there is nothing more ill-advised and dangerous than the 33% reservation that political parties are talking about. We have seen casteism sharpening social tensions. Once reservation for women has become a reality, it will put a decisive end to any attempts at meaningful reform. Keep the reservation, don't ask for reform, will be the attitude.
Awareful ahcaryas and Gurus in the hindu tradition alone can bring about the necessary changes in our attitudes. They should now begin to take in women students for intense learning of our scriptures. This will create a new lineage of women acharyas and gurus. This could be the beginning. Not allowing men alone to interpret the sruti and other scriptures to tell us what the role of the woman is, what is stri dharma and what is the concept of hindu womanhood. To equip women with Vidya Dhana and Vidya Shakti so that no bearded lunatic like the politico-religious leaders in Iran and Afghanistan is ever allowed to interpret hinduism in a way detrimental to women realising their potential in the areas that they choose. To re-establish the intellectual tradition of Gargi and Maithreyi, the intellectual hindu women about whom hindu men do not talk with as much enthusiasm or with as much conviction as they talk about Sita and Savitri.
We all fight our battles with whatever resources and skills that we have. Western feminists have little by way of civilisational resources but they have the awreness and a lot of skill. Hindu women on the other hand have a wealth of civilisational resources which can weaken and destroy debilitating practices, but have very little awareness or the skill today to fight effectively the deep-rooted prejudices plaguing hindu society. The specifics of oppression are so widely different for women of different races and religion and there is so litle help for women from the men in their own societies that there is western white feminism, black feminism, ecofeminism, and even feminism in the Islamic countries where women are mobilising themselves as Sisters of Islam - the counter to universal brotherhood of Islam. The responsibility of asking for reforms if placed upon the woman alone will make the movement feminist in nature. If the reforms are spearheaded by committed hindu men and women together, then there is little danger of hindu society being polarised along gender lines.
RADHA RAJAN, 1st NOVEMBER, 1996.
GENDER BIAS IN HINDU RELIGIOUS LANGUAGE
Hindu societal institutions, whether family, caste or community have always arranged themselves and functioned on the basis of well-defined hierarchies. Authority is ideally vested in a person who commands the respect of all other members and who is perceived to be either a knower of dharma or one who lives life as an exemplar of it. Hindus with a consciousness of what dharma is in their own lives have had no problem with the hierarchical arrangement of their societal institutions. Even the most modern and 'democratic' organizations of industry and commerce need a well-defined hierarchy in terms of power and authority. As long as there are institutions and organizations there will be hierarchy in the interest of efficiency and order. The choice is therefore between hierarchy and anarchy. And our organic hindu societal institutions were unashamedly hierarchical. There is no such thing as total egalitarianism or equality as propounded by some schools of western philosophy. It is the reductionist philosophy of the west, which seeks to obliterate differences, which speaks the language of egalitarianism and equality in absolute terms. The hindu thought or the essence of it accounts for differences in being and yet contains within itself precepts which discourage oppression. The problem then is not hierarchy per se but the androcentric and by implication adharmic rationale which converts the differnces within the hierarchy into reasons for domination and then oppression. My argument holds good for both the intra societal domination and oppression of the fourth varna and the societal and intra family domination and oppression of the woman. The hindu thought needs to be seen not only in its entirety but also in its parts if we have to identify the origins of oppression and isolate the reasons from the eternal values contained in it.
My study of the Manu smriti, the Arthashastra and the Valmikiyam revealed a very crucial aspect of the hindu thought. Formal hindu philosophy which has grown and diversified from the Rg veda and the vedanta, is expanded around certain dichotomous truths and value dualisms, although we should not mistake the latter to be a part of the former. Purusha/Prakriti, Shiva/Shakti, Mind/Matter, and Paramatma/Jivatma are the intrinsic dichotomous nature of the Truth around which the hindu thought as a formal philosophy has been structured. The essence of hindu thought is that Brahman is the only Truth and the purpose of human birth is to know the Self which is to 'know' Brahman. To 'know' Brahman is to know that all creation is a manifestation of Brahman and that Brahman is the substratum of all being - both the sentient and the non-sentient. From this knowledge is derived the maxim that all things in creation are sacred. The intrinsic sanctity of all being therefore rejects any rationale for domination or oppression. The strength and uniqueness of the hindu thought therfore lies in the fact that the source is pure and truly sublime.
From these dichotomous truths however, there developed a very significant dimension to the hindu thought - ethical norms or the sutras. The grihyasutras, the dharmasutras, hindu neeti and vyavahara defined and codified the norms of ethics that governed a hindu's private and public life. The sruti, smriti, lives of good people in society and established tradition have been held as the pramana for dharma. Of the four, the sruti is considered the ultimate and inviolable pramana. That being the case, it is indisputable that hindu society in the last 2500 years, maybe more, has been largely adharmic as far as its treatment of women and the shudra goes. While hindu society is now beginning to accept its adharma towards the fourth varna, it is not mature enough yet to acknowledge its devalorising of the woman. It is important to identify the value dualisms that developed from the dichotomous nature of some truths. Some of the important dualisms that are powerful and influential even now are - Ishwara/Maya, reason/emotion, engendering/nurturing, provider/caretaker, strong/weak, private/public space, gnana/karma and bhakti. The social and cultural norms of hindu society were developed around these dichotomous truths and value dualisms. Over time even these truths acquired pejorative connotations and came to occupy their place alongwith value dualisms. These truths and dualisms constitute the very essence of conceptualised hindu thought for they account for and acknowledge the intrinsic differences and dimensions of being, acknowledge also, layers of human consciousness of the divine and differences in the level of understanding of dharma; but the value attached to one over the other transformed them into value dualisms where the right side of the pair is always associated with the woman and is always placed on a lower rung on the social and ethical ladder. Undervaluing all things associated with the woman signified the degeneration of hindu society which lacks even now the collective will to establish dharma in life.
Prakriti, Maya, Woman, Body, Emotion, Weak, Caretaker, Family or private space, Karma and bhakti.
Aborting female foetuses, female infanticide, abandoning girl children, not educating our girls, the evil of dowry, social unacceptability of widow remarriage, the ghungat or the veil, the social norm that a demure woman must decorously wrap the end of her saree around her shoulders or draw it over her head, the stigma of widowhood, the idea that the woman is impure at certain periods and therefore the monthly excommunication because of menstruation, unequal wages for equal labour, the continuing unacceptability of the woman in the public sphere and undervaluing her contribution within the home, marriage as the only acceptable identity of the woman and therefore her ultimate destiny and thereafter confining her role to within the home, the total absence of any festival or ritual in hindu tradition undertaken by men for the well-being of the woman for her own sake, and the vulnerability of the woman's body to physical aggression and abuse, are just some of the prevailing attitudes in hindu society which can be directly attributed to the value dualisms that took shape, to the detriment of the woman. No single pair of these truths or value dualisms can be studied separate from the rest, as we examine the language bias in hindu thought.
Hindu thought holds our birth as humans to be more blessed than any other form of existence in creation - only because we can liberate ourselves from the cycle of repeated births and deaths. This is the fundamental civilisational difference between western religion and philosophy and the hindu thought. While western religion sanctions domination of all nature and 'inferior beings' by man, as a birthright, because he alone (not even the woman) is created in the image of God, hindu thought enjoins upon all humans the greatest responsibility towards themselves and towards all creation because it is given only to them to know that all creation is a manifestation of the divine or the Brahman. Our rishis have therefore tirelessly reiterated that no matter what humans occupy themselves with, they should never lose sight of this truth. And because hindu thought speaks the language of responsibilities and not rights, there is a constant endeavour by dharmic hindus to rise above the normal self-centered and self-perpetuating actions to a higher plane of harmonious thought and action which integrates and does not fragment. It is the duty of every hindu therefore to practise and protect dharma at all times and in all roles. And the responsibility of that person, who is endowed with an extraordinary trait, gift or talent, to protect and sustain dharma in public and private life is greater than that of an ordinary person. Thus superior endowments in an individual in hindu tradition has conferred upon him only greater responsibilities and not greater rights. Dharma is context specific and specific to the individual who practises it; it is hence time specific, place specific and role specific. This is important because in the last 2500 years and more, hindu men have defined dharma and have defined in absolute terms the dharma (read ethics) for the hindu woman and any transgression has been ruthlessly punished. Hindu attitude of this period, ossified and detrimental to the woman, has been developed around these value dualisms.
Ishwara and Prakriti are the engendering and nurturing forms of Brahman that manifests as creation. Prakriti as manifested creation is the divine that is realised and known through the senses and so hindus have always worshipped nature and seen themselves as a part of her, as her offspring. Hindus have therefore always worshipped nature as their divine mother and so all things in creation are worshipped - the sentient and the non-sentient. From this worship naturally developed the hindu attitude of worshipping our mothers and according mothers and motherhood primacy over all other relationships and roles. Because the divine mother is all creation of which we are a part, and the woman as mother brought us into this creation through physical trauma and pain for herself, hindu thought holds that mothers are our first 'known' God and that they are our first Guru. So far so good.
But around the truth of Iswara and Prakriti developed an entire philosophy and ethics which is characteristic of the erosion of dharma in Kaliyuga. Firstly, the advaitic concept of Maya. In itself, the word or the philosophic concept it represents, is not the problem. Hindu thought acknowledges differences in being and also accords recognition to the dichotomy of being for humans - mind and matter. Therefore just as it is natural for all animals other than humans to act only upon the body stimulus, it is as natural for humans to be governed by intellect, reason, logic and other attributes of the brain-mind combine. The higher plane of thought and action to which hindu thought exhorts humans is the plane at which we overcome the propensity of the mind to satisfy the merely physical stimuli and employ our mind to recognize our responsibility to others in this world and also to use the mind to transcend itself to realise the nature of the divine. The problem however posed by hindu formal philosophy and ethics of the last 2500 years is the path for self realization - which was made the prerogative of the man alone.
Brahman is the only Truth and all else is at best a relative reality and at worst, an illusion. Adi Sankara defined and deleniated the advaitic truth of creation and the truth about the self. Advaitic Maya like Prakriti was also feminized. By re-defining Prakriti as Maya or illusion or the lesser truth, the physical or the manifested aspect of the dichotomous truth of Purusha/Prakriti became the lesser valued in the Iswara/Maya dualism. And from this it was a natural development in the formal philosophy to value the engendering cause over the manifesting and the nurturing principle. While Prakriti as Maya is known through the senses, Iswara is realised with the aid of the mind, through gnana or bhakti. And creation as Maya is a distraction to those who desire to 'know' the self. Which is why a man has to withdraw his mind from the external which is Maya and contemplate on the unmanifested using his mind. From this maxim it is only a small step for hindu ethics to declare that a man in pursuit of a serious goal in life or he who is embarked on a mission should stay away from the evil and the distraction that a woman poses to his vairagyam. The story of Vishwamitra and Menaka is only one among several such stories where the woman is always the seducer and the poor man, with his mind set on high goals is always led astray. Hindu ethics is silent on the concept of a man being an evil influence and a distraction to women who are embarked on vedantic sadhana or embarked on a mission in public life. We should perhaps re imagine the story of Vishwamitra and Menaka with the roles reversed this time. The very idea seems preposterous because a woman's space had shrunk to the home and in the home to within the kitchen. Hindu society decided that there was no need and therefore no opportunity was created for a woman to reflect, introspect or meditate. Hindu thought states categorically that by virtue of the six senses that they are born with, there are two levels of being for humans - the higher and the lower. Living at the level of the body is natural for animals and no value judgement is attached to that. But for humans to live at the level of the body is to live a gross life; which, says hindu philosiphy, is not the purpose of human birth. The Truth of the hindu thought, like our body, expresses itself both as the gross and the subtle in creation. The gross was associated with the body and the body with the woman while the subtle is associated with the mind and the intellect. And the attributes of the mind and the intellect were considered sublime and came to be associated with the man while emotion and home were mundane and came to be associated with the woman. Which is why it is always the man who left home - in pursuit of the sublime. And even today there are acharyas and ordinary men who will tell us that this association is justified. And because humans had to use the attributes of the mind to transcend the mind and the mind-intellect was associated with the man, and because these attributes helped fulfil the purpose of human birth, which is self-realisation, the woman and the fourth varna were held to be something less than humans at worst, and at best, inferior humans. And nowhere is this devaluing of the fourth varna and the woman so striking as in the institutional sanctions accorded to the violation of the privacy of their bodies.
The inter-connection between the value dualisms Iswara/Maya, Mind/body, engendering/nurturing, reason/emotion and the ideal (from idea) associations which humans make with them are now clear. We now come to a very difficult and little understood dimension of formal hindu philosophy and ethics which are here tangled up messily with each other. We must separate the reason/emotion, provider/caretaker, public/private space, gnana/bhakti and karma dualisms from the importance that hindu society accords to motherhood and the imposed dharma on the woman, devotion to the husband. 'Pativrata' was at best a convenient social ethic since the institutions of marriage and family were effectively protected by this inviolable socio-cultural attitude of the woman. It would have been a noble quality to aspire to if a similar attitudinal education had been prescribed for the man too. But hindu society, androcentric and adharmic by this time, laid the onus of nurturing and sustaining the marriage and family on the woman alone by imposing it on her as her only dharma. Hindu society which educated the man to worship his mother failed to educate him to see the mother in his wife and daughter. Thus, a hindu man would very naturally prostrate before his mother in unfeigned and true worship, but would also very naturally verbally or physically abuse his wife. And as long as the abuse did not border on the murderous, society did not intervene and even accepted the husband's 'right' to physical violence against his wife to be normal. Srirama's ethically correct conduct towards his mothers and his verbal violence against Sita is a telling example of a hindu man's ambivalent attitude towards the woman.The hindu man, because of the conditioning of tradition did not look upon his mother as just a woman. She was held to be the embodiment of all the self-denying and extremely noble qualities that make up motherhood. Similarly, they also failed to see the mother in their wives; not just the men, but both men and women were the joint inheritors of hindu society's concept of womanhood. This explains why the perpetrators of crimes and violence against women are both men and women of our societies and also how the victims are always the girl foetus in the womb, the girl child, the young woman, the wife.
The ambivalent attitude that hindu men have towards their mothers on the one hand and their wives and other women on the other, can be better understood by trying to understand the gender bias of the language of some of our classical texts.
Purusha Suktam, Purushartham, Purushatvam - these words connote three of the most fundamental concepts of structured hindu thought and ethics. And while there is nothing in the substantive content of these concepts that points to gender bias, because they are a part of the essence of hinduness, the words themselves imply an androcentric hindu society. All that is best in hindu thought, all that is high and noble, is associated with the Purusha or man. The first sloka in the 'Vivekachoodamani' of Adi Sankara best illustrates my point and also exposes the problem it poses for some of our gurus and Acharyas. The first sloka which begins thus, 'Jantunam narajanma durlabhamatah...... The interpretation given by one of the Sringeri Acharyas sticks close to the words of the sloka which means: rare is it for an atma to be embodied in a human body, rarer still for the body to attain maturity and rarest of all is it to be born a man and a brahmin at that. But Swami Chinmayananda who made it his life's tapasya to bring our texts within the reach of the ordinary person, probably realized that it would be difficult to get his sishyas, many of whom were women, to empathise with this interpretation. And therefore he says in his book," In the interpretation of this verse a lot of misunderstanding has crept in and some even glorify their misunderstanding on the score of a vedic sanction. According to such a thoughtless reading, women are not considered fit for Vedantic contemplation or self-realization. We must understand that these qualifications were not given with respect to the body. With the body, no Vedantic sadhana can be undertaken. The main practices in Vedanta are reflection and meditationwhich are to be undertaken by a healthy mind and keen intellect. SO IT MEANS THAT FEMININE QUALITIES OF MIND AND INTELLECT ARE TO BE ESCHEWED. A MASCULINE INNER PERSONALITY full of courage, discrimination, detachment, equilibrium, peace and cheer, IS THE FITTEST INSTRUMENT for a quick march to the goal indicated by Vedanta.......Here Sankara seems to emphasise that the text is meant only for evolved human beings since it explains and expounds a theory of spiritual perfection which can be understood, practised, pursued and perfected only by men of certain mental calibre and moral character. Such perfect ones who are ripe for a sudden and immediate spiritual self-development are always rare in the world at any given period of its history. Thus the Acharya ( Adi Sankara) says that to get a human birth is rare: having got a human birth, to have a masculine temperament is rarer still".
Swami Chinmayananda admits explicitly that 'evolved human beings'are those with an 'inner masculine personality'. Thus there is no getting away from the fact that hindu thought reserved the gnana marga for men alone if one interprets Sankara'a sloka literally or that it was the preserve of those that had the 'masculine temperament'. Either way, what is valued is the Purusha or Purushatvam. It now remains to be seen what are the 'feminine qualities of the mind and intellect to be eschewed'. Are the qualities of the mind and intellect necessary for Vedantic sadhana, namely courage, discrimination, detachment, equilibrium, peace and cheer, really masculine and are the qualities that are to be eschewed really feminine or is it that this kind of labelling of qualities merely an androcentric philosophic construct? The fact however remains that hindu thought did indeed devalorise the woman and all that it associated with being feminine except to the extent that these feminine attributes were necessary to keep her within the home as a devoted wife and mother. The catch was that while hindu thought exalted motherhood, it devalorised the context and the qualities that made up motherhood and our androcentric hindu society of the last 2500 years and more used this understanding to justify shrinking the woman's space to within the kitchen and the backyard.
I have quoted Swami Chinmayananda extensively here only to highlight the legacy we have inherited over the last 2500 years with regard to the idea of womanhood, the undervaluing of the dualisms associated with the woman, here the reason/emotion and body/mind dualisms, often incorrectly and with no justification, and also to highlight how hindu society in the persons of noble souls like Swami Chinmayananda is genuinely making an effort to demolish the androcentric bias in our philosophy and also how the effort is understandably slow and not going far enough to acknowledge that our sacred texts are indeed a problem as far as their attitude to the woman goes; but it is not an insurmountable or paralysing problem because we should courageously sift the eternal from the transient and accept the fact that such inadequacies reflect, not the inadequacy of the hindu thought but that they reflect the assumptions and the language of the society of the times in which these were composed or codified. Hindu societal institutions enjoyed a great deal of independence in their functioning and retained their sovereignty largely because the state as symbolised by the king had only a residuary role. These institutions of family, caste, clan, and community functioned autonomously and yet bound to each other because individuals of each group and with a multiplicity of identities voluntarily adhered to dharma as was understood by that person and by that group. And while different aspects of dharma have been emphasised in different times, which decided the ethics of that period, the understanding of what dharma is for this nation, has remained unchanged. The single unchanging concept which has determined the ethics at different times has been the Purusharthas - dharma, dharma artha, dharma kama and moksha. What the purusharthas stand for is noble and applicable to all in hindu society and yet the word in itself is interesting because once again a noble concept is associated by name with the man; this somehow implies that it is the man who is representative of all that is considered high and noble in hindu thought. It is either that the word 'purusha' or man is considered adequate to signify all humans or that dharma, artha, kama and moksha - the four pursuits or 'goals' of human birth is meant only for the man, to restrain and regulate his self-will and thus fulfil the purpose of human birth. That both presumptions are correct and the extent to which hindu society of the times demanded the subsuming of a woman's identity into that of her husband's is evident from a sutra in chapter nine of Manusmriti -" a man or 'purusha' connotes the man himself, his wife and children; but a wife, say the wise, is what the husband is". When a woman had no acknowledged identity of her own (she took on her husband's name, his caste, his gothra and his family), it is unlikely that she would have anything remotely resembling self-will. A careful study of the hindu tradition in the last 2500 years tells us that we began to speak not just what was dharma for the woman but moksha for her, independent of her destiny with her husband only with the development of the concept of bhakti. Not bhakti, as is formed with intense respect but bhakti as is evolved through intense love. Hindu thought had to create a Radha and hindu tradition had to acknowledge a Nandanar because vedantic sadhana through the gnana marga had excluded the woman and the shudra by this time. Which is why most of our bhakti saints are women or men from the fourth varna or outcastes. These evolved their own way, the madness of love or bhakti, to fall out of the oppressive mainstream which defined what was dharma for them and which consequently defined the path of their moksha. The woman and the outcaste had to turn to the divine to exercise their self will and to fulfil their thirst for moksha.
The Purusha suktham in the Rg veda is one of the most profound of vedic hymns. Hindu thought speaks about creation in several ways. The Purusha suktham hails the Primordial or Cosmic man who 'becomes' all creation. Again, this most beautiful of hymns is in itself not the problem except that in the later ethics, the man is widely considered to be superior to the woman because he is the primary and determining cause for being. Manu, in chapter nine of the Manusmriti has this to say in this connection," The woman is traditionally said to be the field and the man is traditionally said to be the seed; all creatures with bodies are born from the union of the field and the seed.....Of the seed and the womb, the seed is said to be more important, for the offspring of all living beings are marked by the mark of the seed". Manu could not have been so ignorant that he had never noticed children taking after their mothers in looks, talents and temperament. To reduce the woman to a non sentient field which simply incubates the seed without contributing anything to its becoming a human foetus, is indicative of the wilful undervaluing of the role of the woman in bringing forth a life form into creation. But this is not just Manu's individual opinion of the unimportance of the woman; he is merely codifying in no uncertain terms the prevalent attitude of the times towards the woman.
The valorising of the Purusha over Prakriti finds its echo in androcentric hindu society valuing the man (engendering) over the woman (nurturing and sustaining). Having confined the woman's role to within the home, the man takes upon himself the role of the provider and the woman is assigned the caretaker's role in the family. The problem is not the nature of these roles but the freezing of the woman in the roles of wife and mother and that this society valued contribution in the public spaces more than the contribution made to the home and held the role of the provider to be superior to that of the caretaker. This valorising of the Provider over the Caretaker, functions on the same basis as the valorising of the Purusha over Prakriti : which comes first? Which is why in most homes, the man is the decision maker. In the joint family and in the nuclear family the head of the family is entrusted with or assumes control of the money and he would naturally be the decision maker. When applications have to be made out for ration cards or any other government document, the head of the family is normatively assumed to be the man who is the provider, even when the wife is employed. The Provider/Caretaker dualism also explains why a husband does not like to have his wife earning more than him because his self-worth as the provider of the family is eroded. This unjustified and unchallenged feminizing of philosophical concepts and associating some of the dualisms with the woman, has devalorised women in hindu society. We could begin by asking why the Advaitic concept of Maya is feminized? Some schools of Vaisnhnavism believe that Vaasudeva Krishna as Paramatma is the only male whereas all other beings as Jivatma are female in principle, implying thereby that it is from the masculine principle that the feminine principle has come to be. The philosophic truth is that the jivatma is a part of the paramatma. But by attributing gender principles to philosophic truths we once again somehow minimise the woman by implying that independent of the man, the woman has no existence; thereby eroding the Ardhanariswara concept of man and woman together forming the whole. And even with the Ardhanarishwara concept, it is the man who is supposed to have given half his body to the woman.
The woman has been so created that biologically she alone is capable of nurturing life in her womb for nine months, thereafter bringing forth into creation a new life form. After birth, it is the life-sustaining milk which she generates in her body that nurtures the infant. A woman's body is biologically prepared for motherhood when she is a child herself, through the trauma of menstruation. The sole purpose of menstruation is therefore only to fulfil the biological and cosmic function of creating and nurturing life. To attribute impurity to it, to consider it to be one of the four forms of brahmahati and therefore excommunicating her for five days in a month not only devalorised the woman but also considered her unfit for core religious rituals. A woman's association with the body is perforce intimate; which is no reason to think that she is just the body alone or that she is worth only as much as her body.
The exalted position that marriage and family (grihastashrama) occupies in hindu thought, tradition and philosophy makes our nation an exemplar. It cannot be disputed that families are held together by our women who are the caretakers. But it is also true that when circumstances have forced a woman to take up the role of a provider, she has done so and remained a caretaker too. But a man has rarely taken upon himself the role of a woman or a caretaker. Hindu tradition has perpetuated the pernicious idea that it is 'unmanly' and somehow infradig for a man to do household chores. We talk derogatarily about men who help their wives with the washing and the cleaning. In most homes, after eating, men do not pick up the plates from which they have eaten. A hindu woman has to be a caretaker, a provider if need be, she must remain widowed and single even when she has been widowed young, she must bear with fortitude a wayward and irresponsible husband and continue to remain within the marriage and the family, and above all, always be self-denying and the sheet anchor of the family. Our grandmothers and mothers have indeed been such women. Then how is it that hindu thought considers woman to be impulsive, thoughtless, an evil temptress, lacking in reason and self control and posessed of every vagary generally called' feminine'? Indeed, hindu thought considered the woman so lacking 'weighty' qualities required for responsibilities in public life that a woman's space shrunk to within the kitchen and the backyard. Not only was she not to be allowed in public spaces, she was supposed to be invisible and silent too. A woman's 'invisibility' finds mention repeatedly in the Valmiki Ramayanam. Once, when Mandodari rushes across to the battlefield when she hears that Ravana has been slain and again when Srirama orders Vibhishana to present Sita before him and the vanara army and the people of Srilanka, after the war.
Weeping and lamenting over the body of Ravana in uncontrollable grief, Mandodari is saying," My lord, I have no veil over my face now. I have come walking to the battlefield from the citadel gates in full view of all the people. Why are you not angry with me for violating the norms of modesty? You loved all your women equally. Today your wives have left shame and modesty behind them, removed their veils and have stepped out of their quarters. Why are you not angry with them?"
After the war when it is time for Srirama to meet with Sita, it is evident that he is so afraid of adverse public opinion, that not only does he subject her to the most cruel ignominy of having her present herself before the vaanaras and the people of Srilanka, he says some of the most terrible things that a woman should never be subjected to hearing about herself. Valmiki describes graphically how she cringes and huddles close to herself, unable to bear the shame of the totally novel experience of presenting herself to the public gaze. Referring to the general invisibility of the woman in the socity of those times, Srirama says," In times of trouble, when troubled in body or mind, in times of war, during her svayamvar, and during yagnas, it is not an offence for a woman to be seen in public." If this general invisibility of the woman were indeed the social norm of the times, then does not Srirama's angry insistence that Sita present herself before strangers connote the grossest violation of the privacy of her body?
Thus, this 'to be seen in public' is to be construed as 'to be seen by other men'. This literal and figurative invisibility of the woman was infact a reality of hindu society and is a reality in several homes even today. Hindu ethics not only imposed invisibility on the woman, it imposed silence too. She is the listener all the time. Her's is the silence of suffering, of helplessness, and oftentimes, of wisdom too. It would be interesting to think about what would have happened to Srirama's image and what moral authority he would have had after returning to Ayodhya, if Sita had refused to enter fire and walked away from him. What dignity would have remained with Srirama if Sita had accepted his suggestion to stay with Vibhishana, Bharatha, Shatrughna or Sugriva and had indeed chosen to live with a man who was not her husband and even as her husband was alive! Some silences are indeed of the wise and the evolved and in stark contrast to others' verbiage.
Why was it necessary for the woman to be confined to private spaces? To protect her, will be the answer. But that is what Islam says about the purdah. But then this protection is protection by imprisonment. This ambivalence was inevitable considering that hindu thought did not call upon its men to observe physical restraint and decorum. He was all mind and reason and intellect, remember. And also combine it with the fact that a woman's body is both vulnerable and sacred because she is a potential mother.
Why are we silent on the fundamentals? A woman's protection can never come from the men in her family. Hindu thought has made her the repository of dharma and culture. Which is why she will always be the target and the victim of adharma and aasuric forces. She can be protected only when hindu society protects her by educating all hindus to see her as the repository of dharma in all her roles.
Hindu ethics allowed a man a lot of licence. The institution of marriage and family cannot survive if both men and women are permisive. The west is a telling example of this degeneration. But hindu ethics was farsighted. It acknowledged a man's general instability and irresponsibility and therefore imposed strict ethical norms for the woman. Which is why marriage and family have survived to this day in India. But resistence from today's women to this oneway approach to sustaining these institutions without reciprocity of loyalty and commitment, the refusal by men to take on the roles hitherto taken by women, and refusal by our women to be frozen in some roles which facilitates a man's way wardness, and the fact that she has been so conditioned for thousands of years, to remaining without a man if need be and the fact that she is capable of taking care of her family without a man, is making the woman less and less inclined to accepting the man's right to decide what is right and proper for her.
Abstract values like dharmikata, motherhood, ahimsa, and truth are the goals towards which hindus strive as a part of their own individual evolution. 'Dasatvam' is another such abstract quality. Western philosophy has always been preoccupied with abstract ideas and has not concerned itself with their embodiment. But in the hindu thought, we find not only the most profound and subtle intellectual arguments on the abstractions of hindu philosophy, we also find in the Ithihasas and Puranas every shade of human character exemplyfying these abstractions. Dasatvam is the most spontaneous and natural expression of bhakti - be it the bhakti of intense respect or the bhakti of intense love. Servants of Bhishma, Bharata and Hanuman are the most sublime examples of dasas. Similarly, Radha is another embodiment of dasatvam. But this dasatvam is elevated and revered only when the object of bhakti himself becomes the dasa of his bhakta. That is why, so the apocryphal story goes, when Jayadeva was unable to complete one of his Ashtapatis which sang of the passionate and intense love of Srikrishna and Radha, the Lord himself completes it for him by writing that He placed Radha's feet on His head. This is dasatvam at its most sublime and the natural and correct response to it. But when dasatvam is imposed on sections of people by those who consider it their right to be the objects of service, the very idea of dasatvam is corrupted and becomes just physical and mental bondage. It was this kind of dasatvam which was imposed on the woman and the shudra.
We can trace society's little attitudes towards the woman and her big problems to these value dualisms which shaped themselves thousands of years ago and which have'nt changed even today. The essence of Hindu thought is undoubtedly universal but we would be lying if we failed to accept the androcentric bias of some of our sacred texts and failed also to accept that it is dimensions of the same hindu thought which while exalting motherhood, has also undervalued the woman and practised some of the worst forms of cruelty and oppression on her.