Do organized religions suppress women’s rights? In the context of Hinduism my answer to this question of the hour is an emphatic “no.” My answer to this question is also an emphatic “yes.” The paradox in my answer captures, in many ways, the very essence of Hinduism. Before delving further into how, I would like to outline some definitions and disclaimers; after all, I am a lawyer.
First, Hinduism is oft referred to as a “way of life” rather than a religion. As such, in some ways, the presence of Hinduism may not be appropriate in a discussion of organized religions. Unlike some other traditions, Hinduism has no identifiable beginning in history, single founder, central religious establishment or sole authoritative scripture. Hinduism is premised then on realization, not revelation and is best described as a family of diverse spiritual and religious traditions with certain shared core beliefs. One core belief is that of pluralism. Ekam sat vipraha bahuda vadanti…The Truth is One, the wise call it by many names. Thus, Hinduism asserts that it is not only harmful, but inherently flawed to insist that one’s own path towards God is the only true and meaningful path.
Second, when I speak of women’s rights, I refer not only to the secular role of woman, including rights to education, equal pay, political power, property, divorce, personal safety, etc., but also her other-worldly role taking into consideration her right to worship, prayer, priesthood and ultimately salvation. In the Hindu context, both of these facets to women’s rights are in many ways inextricably linked.
Lastly, the term of “rights” is rather foreign in a Hindu context where “duty” or dharma is paramount. Dharma is the mode of conduct for an individual that is most conducive to spiritual advancement. So everyone in society, according one’s gender, natural propensities, personality, talents and occupation, have certain righteous duties rather than “rights” to the uphold social order. So, dialogue in the Hindu context would be more appropriate in speaking of one’s debts rather than one’s entitlements.
God and Goddess
Now back to the paradox: The apparent contradiction to my answers is best demonstrated by looking to the very essence of religion, that is the concept of God and man’s, or in our case, woman’s relationship with God. For Hindus, God or Brahman is both male and female. God is also neither male nor female, thus God is beyond gender. God is also beyond calculation, age or size, so God is nirguna or indescribable. But God is also saguna or describable through form and quality. The latter affords Hinduism its rich and magnificent images of the various forms or manifestations of God and Goddess, whether they are found in Scripture, devotional poetry and songs or artwork.
Among the four main deity traditions still followed to date, Ganapatya, Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shakta, the feminine divine plays a central role. The Shakta tradition, for instance, exclusively worships the feminine divine in the form of Shakti or Divine Mother. Shrines of the Shakta tradition are found all across the Indian subcontinent, unlike some of the male deity traditions, which often times are found in geographically confined regions. Furthermore, even in the male deity traditions, including Shaiva and Vaishnava, Shakti is the energy, which sustains everything, including the male deities. As such, Vishnu, including incarnations Lord Krishna and Lord Rama, is rarely worshiped without the Goddess Lakshmi by his side and Shiva without Goddess Parvati. In fact, in the Shaiva tradition, many murtis or iconic representations of God are displayed as Ardhanarishvara or God as half man, half woman, again representing God’s masculine and feminine aspects. According to Western scholarship, the women of cultures which worshipped goddesses generally enjoyed an elevated status in relation to their counterparts in cultures which honored a predominantly male pantheon.
Another source, which provides insight into how women are regarded in the rubric of Hinduism, is scripture. Hindu scripture can be categorized in two main categories, which are shruti and smriti. Shruti, literally translated as “that which is heard,” is considered to be revealed and eternal. Our knowledge of shruti scripture is the result of a long oral tradition dating back several millenia. Smriti is “that which is remembered” and is considered man made, canonizing the practical applications of the eternal principles according to changing times and circumstances.
The Vedas are replete with hymns extolling the spiritual sameness or equality of male and female deities while highlighting their differences in nature. Many themes center around courtship and marriage, while others focus on philosophical and educational engagement. Thus, the timeless role of male and female, whether divine or mortal, may be inferred to be one of setting aside innate differences and coming together for social and spiritual fulfillment; two halves of a whole or two wheels of a cart, pulling their weight in their own respective ways to move the cart forward. Within this framework, the traditional social role for woman can be inferred as primarily domestic. She is the revered caretaker of the home, provider of selfless love and emotional support, nourisher, moral pillar and keeper of the home altar or familial religious observances. The domestic role, which ultimately is that of mother, is revered and venerated.
It is important to note that of the 407 sages to whom the eternal Truths were revealed in the Rg Veda, the oldest of the Vedas, 28 were women. In many of the philosophical debates and conversations regarding the nature of God and purpose for life found throughout the Vedas, it is women philosophers who have elucidated or inspired the ultimate answers.
It is within the context of smriti texts, that is 200 BCE onwards, that we begin to find efforts for institutionalizing the suppression of rights previously enjoyed by women. Access to education, which was only religious at the time, becomes limited and in later times prohibited. Rights to property are restricted if not eliminated; the perception of women as “impure” because of menstruation emerge resulting in restrictions of access to temples and worship; an obsession with chastity rises thereby leading to early marriage (which obviously affected males as well) and prohibition of widow remarriage; treating of women as property of first their fathers and then husbands becomes prevalent; preference for male offspring also surfaces because of certain social practices related to the social costs of marriage. Despite these social, and in some cases religious limitations, women and their role as mother and as the backbone of family has always been exalted in Hindu society, even through medieval times. In the same lawbooks that state that a woman should never be independent of the supervision of her father or husband, passages extol a woman as a gift from God, whom a husband must honor and adorn.
Similarly, we find many texts from this particular age with derogatory stereotyping of women while others are in praise of women. One such example is the 72nd chapter of the Brihatsamhita in which the author states that women are superior to men because all men are born from women and because women are not only more faithful to their spouses and but are more faithful in upholding Dharma.
Remember, smriti is considered man-made and relevant to a specific time and culture and is distinguished from shruti or that which is eternally true. As such, Hindus can and should reform outdated practices, which have suppressed women’s rights, in our discussion, or a particular community’s rights, while still being able to maintain the essence of Hinduism.
Role in Ritual
Men and women, since Vedic times and until now, are understood as ardhangi and ardhangini, that is one another’s spiritual and religious halves. So important are these roles, that most rituals require a married couple to perform them as a pair. There are, however, many rituals that are exclusively female, dealing primarily with the prospect of marriage and reproduction, considered two of the primary goals in life for both men and women.
Women as Spiritual Leaders
Since time immemorial, Hindu women, albeit not in as great numbers as men, have profoundly impacted Hindu philosophy and practice. From philosophers of Vedic times to saints rebelling against all social mores during the Bhakti or devotional movements; from female renunciants to Hindu warrioresses; all have shaped and challenged the customary perceptions of women. To date, Hinduism remains one of a few major religions in which women have occupied and continue to occupy some of the most respected positions in the spiritual leadership including, Sharda Devi, The Mother, Anandamayi, Amritanandmayi Devi or Ammachi, Shree Maa, Anandi Ma, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda and Ma Yoga Shakti.
Areas of Reform
Many of the social practices that were codified during the Hindu middle ages still continue today, although they are often times limited according to levels of education, regional custom, rural areas and class. The Government of India has taken legal measures to remedy some of the socio-religious practices that have adversely affected the rights of Hindu women, including limitations on age of consent for marriage; granting of property rights; protection from spousal and familial abuse. Reforms have been taking place within the Hindu community at large as well, such as the reopening of religious education opportunities for women in various sampradayas or religious traditions; acceptance and encouragement of widow remarriage; access to traditionally male monastic orders; boycotts of families and communities perpetuating social customs which adversely affect Hindu women such as giving and taking of dowry; among others. Unlike other feminist movements throughout the world, many of these reforms have been initiated by men; and similar to the suppression of women in other cultures, many of the repressive practices are perpetuated by women. So, has progress been made? Certainly, but much remains to be done. But thankfully in the context of a dynamic and pragmatic philosophy and collection of eternal truths, reform is very much anticipated and accepted.
What is “feminism”?
Feminism, to me is about a woman’s ability to make choices regarding her social and spiritual well being in a dignified manner and with the respect of others. It is also about her having certain inalienable human rights of personal safety. It is about political power. Feminism at the same time is and should be culture specific. Too many times, we in the West, and I include myself in this “we” as having been raised with the influences of two cultures, are too quick to judge other societies or religions as repressive or backwards, without really making an effort to understand cultural context and more importantly, exercising some self-introspection. For example, in my work at the Hindu American Foundation, we respond too frequently to headlines in the American newspapers or TV programs like Oprah which have chosen to dedicate their time and space to blaming Hinduism as the root cause for things such as dowry murder, which relative to the 1 billion population of India, is not a common occurrence. But before we judge others, should we not pause to think about what American women face every day: that 5.3 million women are abused every year and 1200 women are killed each year by an intimate partner. The accusations of the media against Hinduism is akin to equating the rampant domestic violence faced by American women to Christianity since it is in the majority in terms of religious traditions.
Women in America continue to fight for equal pay for the same work, and I know I am among many who hope to see a woman president in my lifetime. But in India, women are not fighting for those rights because they already have exercised the right to constitutional equality; the right to political participation; the right to hold political office and equal wage for equal work. Indian feminism, whether in the context of Hinduism or any of the other religions that flourish on the subcontinent, has a different agenda with different objectives and should be given the distance and space for its fruition.