Hindu Woman in the Realm of Religion
(Compilation for a discourse by N.R.Srinivasan, March 2015)
International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “To be truly trans-formative, the post-2015 agenda must prioritize gender equality and women’s empowerment. The world will never realize 100 percent of its goals if 50 percent cannot realize their full potential”.
This year’s theme of International Women’s Day "Empowering Women--Empowering Humanity; Picture It" envisions a world where each woman and girl can exercise her choices, such as participating in religious worship, politics, getting an education, having an income, and living in societies free from violence and discrimination. In 2015, International Women’s Day highlighted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on March, a historic road map signed by 189 governments 20 years ago that set the agenda for realizing women’s rights. While there have been many achievements since then, many serious gaps remain. The object of this historic Meet was to uphold women’s achievements, recognize challenges, and focus greater attention on women’s rights and gender equality to mobilize all people to do their part.
In the realm of religion, among various other things, there is still lot of work that has to be done as many faith traditions continue to bar women from seeking ordination (priest hood, pastors, religious guides etc.) and fail to recognize the important role women play in the spiritual lives of their communities. In Christianity women have made serious strides in the last year, taking on new leadership roles in their denominations and houses of worship, expressing their faith through art and spearheading activist movements.
In studies pertaining to gender patterns in religions, it has been widely accepted that females are more likely to be religious than males. This is more so in Hindu American families. In 1997, statistics gathered by Beit-Halloumi and Argyle theorized this phenomenon into three primary causes. The first explanation is that women feel emotions at greater heights than men do, thus women tend to turn to religion more in times of high emotions such as gratitude or guilt. The second explanation is that female socialization is more likely to align with values that are commonly found in religion such as conflict mediation, tenderness, and humility. In contrast, male socialization is more likely to emphasize rebellion, thus making the guideline aspects of religion less appealing. The third explanation, which is also the most recent theory, is that females are more likely to be able to identify with religion as a natural consequence of societal structures. For example, since a majority of religions emphasize women as caretakers of the home, the societal expectation of women to take greater responsibility than men for the upbringing of a child makes religion an appealing commitment. Another example is that traditionally, men tend to work outside the home whereas women tend to work inside the home, which corresponds to studies that have shown that people are more likely to be religious when working inside of their homes.
“The stated role of women in Hinduism varies from one of equal status with men, to one of restriction in many aspects of life. Elements which determine the role of women in Hinduism include scriptural texts, historical era, location, context within the family and tradition. Some see Hinduism itself as the repressive force. Others argue that the lower status of Hindu women is the result of culture and custom rather than religion, citing the Vedic literature where women may be given the status of goddess, and noting their shakti (force) without which, the status of man would be nil. You may kindly recall how Rama had to make an icon of his wife, Seeta, in order to perform Asvamedha Yaaga ( Horse fire sacrifice)” says Wikipedia.
Recognition of the feminine aspect of God by Tantric Sakti religious leaders, has led to the legitimization of the female teachers and female Gurus in Hinduism. A notable example was Ramakrishna Paramahamsa who worshiped his wife as the embodiment of the divine feminine. Notable other women in recent years are Gurumaayi Chidvilasananda, a teacher in the lineage of Siddhayoga, Mata Amritananandamayi, Mata Karunaamayi, Mukthananda of Nityananda Group and Mother Meera referred to as a "female guru" by author Karen Pechili.
Upanishads, the philosophical part of Vedas mention several female sages and seers. Among them are Gaargi and Maitreyi. In Sanskrit the word acharyaa means a "female teacher" (in contrast acharya means "teacher" and an acharyini is a teacher's wife), indicating that some women were known as Gurus. The Harita Dharmasutra (of the Maitrayaniya school of Yajurveda) states there are two kinds of women: sadhyavadhu who marry, and the brahmavaadini who are religious, wear the sacred thread, perform rituals like the agnihotra and read the Vedas. Nothing bars a women graduating from Sanskrit Pathasaalas, the schools for Vedic Education and priesthood.
There are 11 highly venerated Brahmavadins, whose compositions of mantras have been recorded in the Holy Scriptures. The names of these famous revered woman who achieved the honorable and exalted status in Hindu Society through their own efforts and caliber are: Gargi, Maitreyi, Lopamudra, Apppala, Ghosha, Sulabha, Vaach, Romasha, Ambhirini, Vishwavara, and Saswat. In the Vedic period women were also allowed to remain unmarried, like present day Nuns in Christianity, and practice tough austerities. Dhritivrata, Sulbha and Srutaavati decided not to get married by their own free will and pursued spiritual life. The Brahmavadins of Vedic Period were epitomes of intellectual and spiritual attainments and distinguished themselves not only as great scholars but also as eloquent speakers and debaters at the religious conferences organized by the kings and learned sages of that period.
In the Vedic Era women dominated the social scene and were the virtual head of the family: “Samraajyedhi shwashu-reshu samraajyut devrishu nanaanduh samraajyedhi samraajyut shushravah”—May your father-in-law respect you as the head of the household, may your brother-in-law and sister-in-law accept your instructions and may your mother-in-law respect you as the Queen in the family (Atharva veda). In the ritualistic worship the woman’s role was very significant. Both husband and wife offered all the prayers jointly which practice is continuing even today.
Female spiritual scholars appear in plays and epic poems. The 8th century poet, Bhavabhuti describes in his play, Uttararamacharita (verse 2 - 3), how the character, Atreyi, travelled to Southern India where she studied the Vedas and Indian philosophy. In Madhva’s Shankaradigvijaya, Sankara debates with the female philosopher, Ubhaya Bharati and in verses 9 - 63 it is mentioned that she was well versed in the Vedas. Tirukkoneri Dasyai, a 15th-century scholar, wrote a commentary on Nammazhvar’s Tiruvaayamozhi, with reference to Vedic texts such as the Taittiriya Yajurveda.
“The woman should be respected and honored for blessing the family with children, and continuing the household chores with love, peace and humility. She illumines everything and brings good fortune and prosperity” says Manu in his Manusmriti (9.26). “Matru devo Bhava”, Let your mother be the embodiment of God to you says Taittreeya Upanishad. In Hindu homes it is the mother who motivates the child in learning alphabets, religious hymns singing and offering prayers. This is more so in Hindu American families where the father is often materialistic and opportunity seeking. Hindu American Woman often gets the nickname Helicopter Mother hovering around her child watching every-step of its progress and driving it to achieve even things which child feels impossible. In the case of parents coming from differing religious followings, it is the Hindu Mother that prevents the child from turning atheist confused by the parentage and brings home the merits of uniqueness of liberal Hinduism to her husband and children. She succeeds in convincing her partner that Sanatana Dharma the basis on which Hinduism is currently practiced in many ways could be followed by all in the world as Universal Religion and Religion of the Future. In such families the family either turns to Hinduism or become indifferent to any religious following. Of late one does not fail to notice such families attending Hindu American Temples in groups where Hindu temples are kept open for all unlike the sectarian, conservative and orthodox Hindu Temples of India.
It is interesting to note the status of women in Jainism which is close to Hinduism in its ritualistic approach differs between the two main sects, Digambara and Svetambara. Jainism prohibits women from appearing naked; because of this, Digambaras, who consider renunciation of clothes essential to Moksha (attaining heaven), say that they cannot attain enlightenment in the same life and are to be born as men. Svetambaras, who allow sadhus to wear clothes, believe that women can attain Moksha. There are more Svetambara sadhvis than sadhus and women have always been influential in the Jain religion. Some of the notable Sadhvis are: Mallinath, the 19th Tirthankara; she was female according to Svetambaras but male according to Digambaras; Marudevi, mother of Rishabha; Trishala, the mother of Mahavira.
From time immemorial Hindu Society is known for its devotional musicians, devotional dancers, Bhajan singers and Harikatha Kaalakshepam Pauranikas (narrators of religious discourses). Many run religious Asrams of their own too. But there are neither women Mathadhipatis in reputed monasteries nor women priests in famous temples. Probably this is because women have progressively given up the study of Vedas and do not also undergo Uppanayana samskara as in the case of Brahmavadins of Vedic days.
After Independence the democratic secular government of India has been constantly struggling to safeguard the women’s interest and bring back the ancient glory of Vedic Society when women were privileged with equal rights in almost every single field of life. Unfortunately it cannot go into conflict with religious orthodoxy in a secular government. It is for the religious heads to correct the situation and restore the glory of women in religious and spiritual fields of the Hindu Society as in Vedic Period.
This lecture is prepared by drawing assistance from “Status of Women in Hindu Society”, by Prabha Duneja, (Book on Hinduism), “Women in Hindu Society through the Ages”, by N.R. Srinivasan (Hindu Reflections, <nrsrini.blogspot.com), Wikipedia, various Internet sources and Huffington-post Religious columns by the compiler which is gratefully acknowledged.