women and Hinduism

women and Hinduism
   Hinduism, because of its extreme diversity throughout the ages, has encompassed complex systems of thought and social hierarchies, which defy any simple generalizations. This overview of the status and role of women in Hindu India, and of the culture’s attitudes toward them, reflects that variety. It should be born in mind that social correlates of gender, such as CASTE, class, stage of life, age, and family membership, are all variables that significantly affect the position of women in Hindu society, so that women in Hinduism dem-onstrate significant differences in their lives.
   It is the case that in prehistory everywhere there were significantly more autonomy and sex-ual freedom for women (and men) than in later times. There are indications, certainly, that in pre-Vedic times in India (before 1500 B.C.E.), such freedom and autonomy existed among the pre-ARYAN tribal people who inhabited every corner of India. Tribal groups such as the Santals to this day do not restrict women’s sexuality and action in any way as their more staid counterparts in the larger culture do. Ancient Tamil poetry, dated as early as 300 B.C.E., shows women freely choosing sexual partners before marriage and relying upon love marriages rather than family arrangements. Also, groups such as the Nayars show that matri-liny and matrilocality, which must be associated with more supportive lives for women, were probably fairly common in the Indian, pre-Aryan substratum that provides the cultural undergird-ing for much of later Hinduism.
   A pattern develops, visible in the Brahminical texts, of women’s having roles in the early Vedic culture (1500–800 B.C.E.) that began to be denied them even in the late Vedic period. Some RISHIs, for instance, were arguably women, and in the White YAJUR VEDA there are chants that can be performed only by a woman who knows Sanskrit. Though Hindu tradition even up to the present day understands that women were never allowed to recite the VEDAS or even witness a Vedic ritual, these examples indicate that this rule was not strictly observed in early Vedic tradition.
   When hierarchies of society begin to be created in association with the creation of historical cities worldwide (in India beginning around 800 B.C.E.), such social developments generally result in the restriction of the rights of women. So was it in India, where women began to be subjugated more and more to family and husband and began to lose their role as independent actors. But as soon as the early urban period had come to fruition, perhaps as early as 400 C.E., women began to participate as direct actors in the devotional movements and play important roles there. A good example is Karaikkal Ammaiyar (400 C.E.), who became the first of the 63 Shaivite saints.
   Movements like these pointed toward spiritual equality for women and, though the women saints form the exception to the rule of social constraints for women, they were prominent and numerous for many centuries leading up to the modern era. More than one movement, such as the VIRASHAI-VA S of Karnataka in the 11th century, called for spiritual equality for women and equal access to spiritual leadership. Sikhs, starting in the 15th century, held similar views, and the saint-poets of North India directly questioned the notion that gender should have any role in determining spiri-tual development or accomplishment.
   When modernity comes forward in the 18th through 20th centuries and radically changes traditions such as child marriage, dowry, the ban on widow remarriage, and the custom of the childless wife’s burning herself on the funeral pyre of her older husband, it must be understood that these traditions had not been unchallenged and contested in different regions and different movements within Hinduism’s large umbrella. It is important to emphasize that modern India’s legal rectification of these negative cultural sanc-tions upon women was complete, even though legal actions have not completely solved these problems. Histories of oppression are not solved overnight by the passing of just laws, but these bold legal measures are significant for a young postcolonial, independent nation.
   Modernization is dramatically affecting the social and religious lives of women in India. Since inde-pendence, India has sought to throw off the cloak of traditional prejudices related to caste, race, reli-gion, and gender. While traditional practices that contribute to the low status of women in India, such as child marriage, sati (widow self-immola-tion), dowry, and female infanticide, are illegal, these practices continue in some areas and among groups who have low socioeconomic status.
   Traditional Indian cultural practices have usu-ally been given religious justification, even when the scriptural bases for such practices were non-existent, as was often the case with women’s issues. In the extremely heterogeneous society that is India today, cultural practices cannot easily be distinguished from the religiously sanctioned prescriptions and proscriptions of Hinduism.
   Hindu women in India occupy a broad range of statuses, varying from the most modernized, educated, and independent to some of the most traditional, least educated, and subordinate. Within India today, social class is more important in determining the status of women than is caste membership. Educated, urbanized women often marry outside caste, religion, and nationality. It is becoming more common for newly married couples to choose their own place of residence after marriage, so that they are not within the joint family system. As a result, many elderly women and men no longer receive care from younger generations but are being placed in nursing homes where neglect can be a problem.
   On the whole, Indian women, even proponents of women’s rights and equality, resist the term feminist, which is often associated with aggres-siveness, sexual permissiveness, immodesty, and a lack of womanly virtues; feminists are assumed to be against motherhood, family values, and men. For many the image of feminism is too directly discordant with the image of the “ideal woman” in Hindu society as defined in the Brahminic scrip-tures or puranas. Even filmmakers, writers, and artists whose work aims to castigate male privilege and sexist attitudes often reject the label feminist.
   Modern reform movements to improve the sta-tus of women first arose in the 19th century, after the country had entered the mainstream of world civilization under British imperial rule. Both K 500 women and Hinduism
   women and men worked together to improve the conditions of women’s lives. Reform was strongest in Bengal and Maharashtra and tended to focus on ideals of family and society, rather than the inde-pendence and autonomy of women.
   A new women’s movement emerged in India in the 1970s, unaligned with any political parties and uninfluenced by foreign or government funding. Primarily composed of female volunteers, these women have sought to highlight the misogynist aspects inherent within Hinduism, advocate for women’s rights over their own bodies and sexual-ity, and undermine tolerance for domestic violence. They have had to contend not only against nation-alist elements, but also against Leftist resistance to discussing the oppression of women.
   The opening up of the domestic economy to liberalization and globalization since the early 1990s has affected the outlook of the feminist movement in India. Various nongovernmental organizations funded by foreign aid have shown interest in some of the demands of the women’s movement.
   Hindu women have the feminine divine before them all the time, as the Hindu tradition preserves a worship of the GODDESS that probably dates from the Neolithic. Many divine tales recount the supremacy of the female aspect of the divine over the masculine. Through this access, women gain power in being and bearing; yet, in the social sphere, women have generally not been given freedom to reflect the powerful goddesses overtly. In Hindu society one can often hear a man say that his sister or wife is the “goddess” and, there-fore, should be treated well and respected. Social conditions, however, support significant oppres-sion of Indian women, especially those of lower social standing. The goddesses who become role models for Indian women are not those that show autonomy and independence but those that embody subordi-nate roles. SITA, the obedient wife of Lord Rama, is the traditional role model for Hindu women. Women understand that the fierce goddesses (which Western women often view as inspiring) are goddesses that are not to be imitated. Uncon-trolled by society and convention, powerful god-desses are not seen as role models. One of the greatest insults to an Indian woman is to be called a KALI. As is the case in most of the world, women in India have throughout the centuries been the main cultural transmitters of myths and story and simple religious practices. While history records the lives of great male SWAMIS and teachers, little is recorded of the prayers, vows, and devotions of Hindu women who take on the tasks of assuring the welfare of their families by asking for divine intercession and aid. Yet, it is this integrative func-tion performed by women that connects the every-day world to the cosmic order, even as it sacralizes the universe—an essential Hindu practice. While males, in the main, were free to develop philoso-phies and movements, women, forced into more limited roles, creatively reached out to the forces of the universe to preserve and protect their loved ones and provide for a harmonious and fruit-ful society. For every wandering ascetic who did his renunciation for higher spiritual gain, one could count, contemporaneously, thousands of individual women who practiced vows, fasts, and disciplines to ensure the welfare of those around them. This role of women as powerful religious and spiritual actors, although recognized in the culture, is largely unrecorded. The paucity of women saints in the history of Hindu tradition belies the agency that women have exerted in the temples, shrines, and households of India over the centuries. This agency has been central to the continuity of Hinduism over time.
   Further reading: Frederique Apfel-Marglin, Wives of the Godking (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985); Mandakranta Bose, ed., Faces of the Feminine in Ancient, Medieval, and Modern India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Thomas Coburn, Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi Mahtamya and a Study of Its Interpretation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991); Vidya Dehejia, Yogini Cult and Temples: A Tantric Tradition (New Delhi: National Museum, 1986); Rita M. Gross, Feminism and Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996); John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds., The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982); Alf Hiltebeitel and Kathleen M. Erndl, Is the Goddess a Feminist? The Politics of South Asian Goddesses (New York: New York University Press, 2000); Donna Jordan, “A Post Orientalist History of the Fierce Shakti of the Subaltern Domain.” (Ph.D. diss., California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, 1999); Julia Leslie, ed., Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1991); Sara S. Mitter, Dharma’s Daugh-ters (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991); Vasudha Narayanan, “Brimming with Bhakti, Embodiments of Shakti: Devotees, Deities, Perform-ers, Reformers, and Other Women of Power in the Hindu Tradition,” in Arvind Sharma and Katherine K. Young, eds., Feminism and World Religions (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999); Lucinda Joy Peach, Women and World Religions (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2002); David Smith, Hinduism and Modernity (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003); Katherine Young, “Hinduism,” in Arvind Sharma, ed., Women in World Religions (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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