In my latest studies on Hinduism, we looked at gender within this group of religions. Having visited India last year with Husband, it was apparent that women can either be highly educated or they can fulfill a traditional role of being the homemaker. Such is Hinduism that it comfortably accommodates this duality. Below I briefly set-out the traditional role of women as well as changes to this role, focusing on 3 areas:
society, religious life, and the divine and deities.
In the ancient Indian texts such as the Mahabharata, it is stated that there is a different dharma (or duty) for men and women. Shocking to read today, are portions of the Manu-smriti which says that women should never be independent, are not intellectual and should never have free will; they need to be controlled at all times by men. I can feel myself getting goose-pumps when I read this. It continues further and says that a woman needs to be fully devoted, dutiful and fully supportive of her husband (whilst I am loyal and supportive to Husband, I am a free spirit). Where I would fail completely, is the requirement in the Manu that a wife must be dedicated to domestic skills. All of this amounts to the dharma of a woman.
The Manu also says that the reason for the lack of autonomy is because women could behave badly – they are apparently prone to sin and corruption. A man needs to impose order on her, especially as a woman is morally inferior to a man; she is thus akin to an accessory. Furthermore, her role includes her being fertile and ensuring or contributing to a successful family.
One of my moments of hysterical laugher came from reading this passage (in English) from the Manu:
Chapter 5: 150: “She [the woman] must always be cheerful, clever in the management of household affairs, careful cleaning her utensils and economical in her expenditure”. The less said on this the better!
Girls were married-off very young. Ancient texts (such as the Mahabharata) permit polygamy and dowry payments, with the latter leading to many cases of female infanticide. There used to be a practice called sati (or ritual suicide) whereby a widow would throw herself on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband. This has been illegal in India for 200 years and actually never had widespread following, and was not based on any scriptural foundation. The reason for the suicide was thought to be a final act of dedication to the deceased husband’s memory and the widow had lost her purpose upon his death. Widows could also not remarry.
Something that is interesting, is that a quest for spiritual perfection within Hinduism does not involve any sense of aversion for women as potential objects of desire.
Rituals in public life were very important in Hinduism (and so too today) as were priestly functions. They had to be officiated by a man because woman were regarded as being impure. The latter can originate from tears, blood, cutting hair, childbirth, menstruation or contact with a corpse. Impurity affects not only the impure person but those around them too.
This placed a limitation on the spiritual progress of women and they had to use other paths to progress, such as education or jnana (which means knowledge), being a poet, a renouncer or yogini. Women could also become gurus or tantras (the latter does not in the main have the sexual connotations as ordinarily associated with this in the West).
Women did, however, perform rituals in the home environment where, for example, food would be blessed by her with the ritual also being performed by her. The religious duty of a woman can be seen as serving her husband.
The divine and deities
This is where we notice an interesting occurrence: in the West, most deities are shown as male but in Hinduism there are many female deities. Shakti (the mother goddess), Lakshmi and Saraswati are a few examples of the more prominent female deities. One will realise that despite there being female deities who often have mythological and supernatural powers, this is not reflected in the treatment of women in reality, as mentioned above. The fact that there are female “figures” who are not dependent on men, did not benefit women as social structures including the caste system often prevailed over this.
Contrary to this, is one of the orthodox Hindu beliefs (Vedantic) that the soul (or atman) is neither male or female. It is the same neutral force for all genders. This reflects the possible thought pattern that Hinduism should actually transcend matters of gender and that since Hinduism is a diverse and adaptable group of religions, it should adapt to more modern views of the role of women. It is far better placed to adapt to new forms of gender relations because its reliance on scriptures is less binding and less absolute than other religions.
Also, the Supreme Deity, which does not apply to all forms of Hinduism, is portrayed as neither male or female. This Deity does not have any attributes of either gender. There are some forms of Hinduism which outrightly state that the Deity is female (i.e. a Goddess called Devi) and that all male deities are dependent on her for their divine nature.
It is important to remember that the treatment of women in Hinduism is not dictated by texts or scriptures. Many modern Hindus have not read the ancient writings and they are not held to be authoritative for many communities. Hinduism has inherent flexibility and women have been known to take the role of religious guides, teachers of spiritual enlightenment or even as sadhus (religious ascetisc) or saints. Gandhi advocated for an end to the mistreatment of women but the limitations were that poverty more often played a greater role as regards the treatment of women, than religion.