Author: Aravindan Neelakandan
Date: March 7, 2017
India has the civilizational strength and spiritual heritage to evolve a holistic vision for the feminine movement not only for India, but for all of humanity.
The dominant religious-cultural structures of Western civilization have been systematically destroying the Feminine. The reacting feminine spirit has basically aped the masculine values already entrenched in Western society. The book considered as “probably the greatest feminist work of the 20th century” is Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949). The emancipated woman in this perspective was one who sought professional autonomy and financial independence, who avoided marriage and probably children as well. By the end of the century, however, feminist critics of the work were finding the “emancipation” portrayed in The Second Sex “a bleak prospect”—that the emancipated woman sounded just like that familiar 19th century self-made man. (Margaret Walters quoted by Mary Evans in Introducing Contemporary Feminist Thought, 2013).
Though self-mutilating, these Western “feminist” perspectives get exported to the so-called “developing countries”, particularly to ancient living Asiatic cultures. And on cue, the institutionally strong Left in India apes the dominant Western feminist framework in India, which results in confusion and chaos.
Of course, Indian womanhood faces myriad problems. Colonial impoverishment of Indian society, man’s inherent urge to dominate woman, alien invasions—all these have resulted in the dethroning of women in Indian society from the place she deserves in a just society. But, from Vedic women seers to the valiant women who fought colonialism, Indian women have a long heritage to look upon with pride and draw inspiration from.
Indian womanhood can be rightly proud that India alone is the land where women seers revealed eternal truths to humanity. Yet the greatness and independence enjoyed by Vedic women gradually underwent a degradation that was due to both external and internal factors. Buddhism formulated that idea that liberation or enlightenment cannot be had in the body of the female. Even though women were admitted in the Sangha of the Sakyamuni, they were strictly secondary to the male monks who were the heads of the institutions. Whosever compiled the Manu Smriti, took forward the Buddhist idea. So, despite the fact that there are eulogizing passages to womanhood, on the whole, the Manu Smriti was not favourably disposed towards women—there was no gender equality. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that Manu Smriti is only a smriti or a law book and not a revealed or experienced Truth as in the case of the Vedas or the Upanishads.
Even Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar concedes that Hindu women in pre-Manu Vedic society enjoyed “a very high position for women in any part of the world”. It is interesting that all the examples that Ambedkar gives to prove this are Vedic rather than Buddhist, like the testimony of Panini’s Ashtadhyai, Patanjali’s Maha Bhashya, and “the story of public disputation between Janaka and Sulbha, between Yajnavalkya and Gargi, between Yajnavalkya and Maitrei and between Shankaracharya and Vidyadhari”.
Maitrei rejects material compensation from her husband and demands her right to be a companion in his pursuit of truth. In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, one can prefigure an approach that declares the worth of a woman as a Self and not defined by worldly relations which during patriarchy became more and more male-centric: “Not, verily, for love of husband is the husband dear, but for love of the Self is the husband dear! Not, verily, for love of wife is the wife dear, but for love of the Self is the wife dear!”
The text Yoga-Vasishta presents how, when king Sikhidhvaha rejected learning the wisdom of the Self from his wife because of his gender bias, queen Cudala disguised herself as a Brahmin ascetic and taught him the self-knowledge. Then the “Brahmin” tested the equilibrium of the king’s mind through radical gender role-based illusions. The “Brahmin” said he would become a woman at night and the king should marry him, so that he can be satisfy “his” sexual needs as a woman in the night. Then this “wife” also creates a pleasure realm in which “Brahmin”-turned-“wife” makes love to a handsome youth with the knowledge that the king would watch. Then the “wife” blames it on the nature of woman. The king remains composed. At this juncture, the “Brahmin” reveals that “he” is none other than the king’s wife in real life. The bold characterization of gender roles in the story is proof enough of the Hindu attitude towards women in the context of knowledge.
The epics also portray women as strongly and fiercely independent and intelligent. Sita and Draupadi take their own decisions, based on their love and their values. Though often Sita has been portrayed by patriarchy and western observers of Hinduism as a meek woman obedient to her husband, the portrayal one sees in Valmiki is completely different. She rejects her husband’s order to stay at Ayodhya and decides to come to the forest. She does not hesitate to chide Rama when he vows to kill the Rakshasas. When in Lanka, it is her power that protects Hanuman from the fire lit on his tail. After Ravana is killed, when Hanuman wants to kill the demonic women who tormented Sita, she commands him not to harm them. Ultimately, it is she who decides to enter the fire to prove herself. And when at the end of the epic, Rama wants her to perform the test of fire before the public, she rejects Rama’s request and enters the womb of Mother Earth.
In the Bhagavat Gita, there is one verse which is often cited as proof of the scriptural downgrading of women in Hinduism. Verse 9:32 clubs women with merchants, labourers and others of “inferior origin”. However, this particular grouping only shows the prevalent social prejudice as the verse itself negates their inferiority by making clear their right for liberation. However, in absolute terms Gita, (10:34) speaks of fame, prosperity, speech, memory, intelligence, consistency and patience as feminine divine qualities.
Indian culture nurtured the environment in which the worship of the Feminine Divine evolved in its full splendour, colour and variety.
With the arrival of Islam, Indian women lost what was left of their independence. Abduction of women during war and even during peaceful times in order to humiliate Hindus and convert them was widespread. The purdah system was introduced. Hindu women practiced mass self-immolation to avoid a fate worse than death.
Of course, there have been notable exceptions like Meera. Again, wherever they were free from Islamic dominance, Hindu women chose their husbands even across community barriers and wielded a strong hand in administration and fought against alien invaders.
Rani Durgavati (1524-1564) is an excellent example of how Indian women lived in areas unconquered by alien views of inferiority of women. Born in the family of the Chandal dynasty who were known for their bravery as well as artistic accomplishments like the building of the temples of Khajuraho, she chose as her husband Dalpatshah, the eldest son of king Sangramshah of the Gond tribal community. Her husband died accidentally and she did not commit sati. Rather, she became an able administrator and soon the prosperity of her kingdom attracted Islamic invasion. She fought bravely in the battlefield and became a martyr on June 26, 1564, at the age of 40.
European colonizers discovered Indian women rulers as strong and fierce in protecting the freedom of their territories. Abbakka, (1525-1570) queen of Ullal, a small principality in South Karnataka, made strategic alliances across South India and fought the Portuguese, inflicting humiliating defeats upon them several times.
Rani Chennama (1778-1829) is another example. Guided by the Savira Samsthan Math Swami of Veera Saiva tradition, she fought the British and inflicted a heavy defeat on them in the first battle of Kittur in October 1824. She arrested the British officers and yet she not only did not execute them but even returned them to the British because of the traditional Indian magnanimity. However, the treacherous enemy attacked again, with reinforcements, and on December 5, 1824, the Kittur fort fell. Chennama languished for almost five years in jail and became a martyr on February 2, 1829.
Yet the slavery of women was also becoming a social reality in India. Swami Vivekananda rose as a social messiah to rejuvenate a religion and a culture, at a very critical time, when women were a marginalized section in society—exploited, abused, despised. The Hindu response to this degradation effected by the forces of history is phenomenal. It is not just an accident that every savant of the Hindu renaissance we see in the history of modern India has spoken so powerfully for the cause of women.
Vivekananda’s clarion call to the women of India was taken forward by Sister Nivedita. Born Margaret Elizabeth Noble, Sister Nivedita (1867-1911), became an epicenter of diverse activities of national resurgence in India. She contributed immensely to the development of an Indic school of understanding art and culture, which later sprouted as a great movement and institution through Rabindranath Tagore. She worked with Indian revolutionaries like Sri Aurobindo. She played an active down-to-earth role when plague ravaged Bengal.
In the face of opposition of a stagnant society that had forgotten its core values, Nivedita fought for the right of education to the girl child. It was her stern advice to Tamil poet Bharathi that he could not speak about India’s freedom while keeping his own wife confined to the walls of his house, that Bharathi became the voice of women’s liberation in Tamil Nadu which continues to galvanize generations.
Nivedita’s love for creating an institution of science was taken up by Jagadish Chandra Bose. Alas! When the dream realized into the wonderful structure of the Bose Institute of Science in 1917, Nivedita had already passed away.
Yet her memory became so sacred to the great pioneering scientist of India that he immortalized the ideal Indian womanhood in the Bose Institute of Science. Writes Bose: “Entering the Institute, the visitor finds to his left the lotus fountain with a bas-relief of a Woman Carrying Light to the Temple. Without her, no light can be kindled in the sanctuary. She is the true light-bearer and no plaything of man.”
Sarada Devi, who showered grace and love on saint and sinner alike, also became and continues to inspire the Indic movement for women’s empowerment. Swami Vivekananda regarded her as the ideal for women in the modern age. It is definitely not a coincidence that Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, one of the pioneering women medical doctors of India, who fought for the uplift of women and the ending of the abuse of women through certain distorted customs—should also be a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna and Holy Mother Sarada, the wife of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa.
India is also one country that continues to produce women mystics for ages and millennia. Today, seers like Mata Amritanandamayi share a dais with woman scientists like Jane Goodall—and voice their concern against the exploitation of women and nature.
Some of the most important paradigm shifts in science in the last half century have been pioneered by women scientists. Rachel Carson brought to the awareness of global community the danger of bio-magnification of pesticides. Her work Silent Spring essentially launched the global ecological movement.
Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock put an end to genetic determinism. Till the discoveries of McClintock, the genes were visualized on chromosomes as particulate, static beads on a string, but after her painstaking research for years, a more dynamic picture emerged. There are genetic “controlling elements” which do not have any static fixed positions on chromosomes. In 1951, when she presented her theory, she was ridiculed, and even called “crazy”. But in the 1970s, new discoveries vindicated her theory, and in 1983, she received the Nobel.
Lynn Margulis postulated the Gaia hypothesis which makes the pale blue dot in which we live as more a living organism in itself than just an inorganic spaceship lost in the cosmic wilderness. Goodall changed the arrogant perception that self awareness and tool making are uniquely human when she discovered them in chimpanzees. Each of these discoveries that have forced us to look at ourselves and the Universe in a more holistic way has come from women scientists. This speaks of how harmonized development of male and female components of humanity can make the third planet from the sun a better place.
India too has women pathfinders. Janaki Ammal (1897-1984) was from the Theeya community which was once considered very persecuted. A world-class researcher in cytogenetics and phytogeography, she was co-author with world famous geneticist Cyril Darlington on the atlas of the cultivated plants of the world. That a woman scientist from India which was then colonized, rose to this level shows her mettle. She pioneered ethno-botany in India.
“India’s position (and that of other developing countries viz. Brazil, Turkey etc) with respect to women’s participation in science careers is better than those of more developed countries like Japan, Germany, United States and United Kingdom...It is also found that the nuclear family which is the common characteristic of developed countries put strain on the woman scientist who lacks support structure in the domestic sphere. In comparison, the traditional extended family, still a common practice in developing countries, provides significant support for women scientists.” This is by a Jawaharlal Nehru University scholar Ms Arpita Subhash. (Etzkowitz and Kemelgor, Gender Inequality in Science: A Universal Condition?, Minerva, Vol 39, No.2)
India has again and again demonstrated that she has the strength and resources. It is up to the women pathfinders to understand this blessing of Indic culture to the empowerment and liberation of women and hence the whole of humanity. We have the civilizational strength and spiritual heritage to evolve a holistic vision for the Feminine movement not only for India, not only for the so-called developing countries but for humanity—a vision of the Feminine, which is not conflict-oriented but harmony-oriented.
This is not just an option before Indian women; it is a duty.