Woman’s place in Hindu Culture


For centuries, the place of women in Hindu society has been a matter of discussion and often derision in the “western circles”.  Often the critics of Hinduism do not know the philosophical or historical place of women in our society and yet criticise us as if they are the only ones who know how a “civilised society” should be. 

In Hinduism, a wife is considered to be “saha-dharma-charini” someone who has an equal share of the huband’s duties.  She is also referred to as “ardhangini”, the other half of the husband.   She is not a spare rib (Christian) and certainly not someone whom you simply partner with in life (Muslim).  In Hindu ideology, a wife is an equal and is entrusted with the life and soul of her husband.  He is not allowed to perform any religious activity without his wife !  A man had to marry before he was considered “complete”.  Union of man and woman was considered to be central to maintaining the balance of family, community, state, universe and life itself !

Well before there were any ideas of “equality amongst sexes” in the west, Vedic rishis of Hinduism decided that the ideal of GOD should not be singularly male or female.  Each and every facet of the divine they worshiped was in unison – male and female, father and mother.   Though GOD is one and has no gender, we, as humans, crave to understand GOD in human terms.  How else can we understand GOD ?   If you ask a scientist to explain something to you, he will undoubtedly take a scientific route.  An artist will explain things in a way that will be full of art and colour.  A politician will undoubtedly see plots and subterfuge even in a simple nursery rhyme, as a psychologist will invariably find some link to your subconscious in your very need to ask the question !

Each and every one of us sees the world in our own way.  That is the only way we can make any sense of it.  So, the ancient Rishis decided to understand the divine in a Human way – to make it open to all humans, regardless of who they were, which tribe they belonged to or which locality they came from.

The religion of the Vedas is very inclusive, very open and very welcoming to one and all.   It sees the divine in all – male and female and indeed, the divine as male and female !

Just as in a fully functional society a man is considered to be incomplete without a woman and vice a versa, the “divine” is also seen as a couple, husband and wife, working in unison to achieve a fully functional universe.  In the Vedic thought process, the two were considered to be equally important and equally essential component of the universal whole. 

At a time when the position of women in the rest of world was restricted to being a mother, sister, wife or a slave, Hindus worshipped them as goddesses, honoured them as sages and saints, and respected them as rulers with brains aswell as brawn. 

Sarasvati, the goddess of knowledge,
Gayatri, the goddess of the Vedas,
Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth,
/ Durga, goddess of war,
Earth as the eternally patient mother goddess of all life forms,
Ganga and Yamuna as the main river goddesses, to name a few, were seen essential members of the divine pantheon.

Arundhati, Gargi were seen as great intellectuals.
Sita, Mandodari, Kunti, Drupadi were great queens of ancient times. 
Saiyogita, Padmavati, Durgavati, Jijibai, Allhayabai Holkar are queens of pre-modern era.
Mrs Indira Ghandi is but one of many political leaders of modern era. 
Only in
India, women have been regularly elected as CM in the states and as party leaders.

Unlike in the west, by this I mean in the Semitic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam,  were women were excluded from any active role in the religious life of the community, Hindu society actively encouraged the participation of women in religious life.  The very fact that “knowledge” is the preserve of a goddess means that “She” is invoked every time an ancient sage recites the Vedic hymns.  There were several influential female sages at a time when the position of women was not much better than chattel in the rest of the world .

Women, even as mothers, were seen as the custodians of the future of humans and were respected above all else.  As universal mothers, friends and foe alike protected them at all times.

You may ask, so what happened for them to fall from this exulted position to today’s mire?
In one word it was INVASION

India has seen many wars, victories, defeats, invasions.  But the invasions by fanatical muslims saw a downward trend in its social and cultural heritage.  Unlike previous invaders, these new ones respected no known norms of war or treatment of captured towns.   The religious zealots from Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Arabia etc were interested in conversion as well as loot and had no respect for anyone !  The women of India, till this time were free to move around as men were.  Due to the heat of the land, they wore few clothes.  The muslim invasions put paid to this.  The muslims were keen to abduct as many women as they could to satisfy their lust and propagate their brand of “religion” along with their illegitimate progeny from these slaves.  Women with uncovered faces and upper torso were seen as an open invitation to attack and rape by these biogted invaders.

Within a short time, women who once mingled freely in society, found themselves barricaded in their own homes so as to prevent muslims from abducting them.  They were covered head to toe in layers of clothing, though not as oppressive as their muslim counterparts, it was far more oppressive then it had been ever before.  The practice of “Sati” amongst Rajput women  also came into being at this time, reflecting on the only honourable solution to being captured, raped and enslaved by the enemy. 

As the muslim power became more entrenched in Northern India, the rights and freedoms of Hindu men and women became more restricted. 

You only have to look at how the women fared differently in the South Indian Hindu states to see the difference.  No veils, no restriction in education.  This difference in "attitudes" to women's position in society has carried over into the modern times.  Many artists come from South India, including M S Shubhalakshmi, Vajayanti Mala, Hema Malini, Rekha and even Ahishvarya Rai !

The British rule ushered in the missionary push from the west.  Hell bent on finding anything to denigrate the "pagan" religions of the east, they scoured our holy scriptures to find the most negative things they could and highlighted them again and again in front of any and all to see.  No amount of reasoning or “please put that in context” would be heard and soon, the so-called intelligent mass, often educated in the missionary schools, began to think badly of their own culture.  Many a misinterpretation, mis-quotations and out-of-context quotations were used to make it seem as if Hindus were an uncivilised lot who were mean to their women.

Sadly, this malaise reached the south of the Deccan just as fast as it spread in the North and perhaps for the first time in Indian history, the conquest of our land was really only complete when convent educated, indigenous intelligencia, began to neglect their own culture.

Sadly, our socialist and marxist leaders since the independence have done little to repair the damage done to our culture.  By politicising even education, they have done all they can to make Hinduism sound regressive, often citing incidences out of context to humiliate Hindus.  Lack of information has kept the masses ignorant of their own past, swallowing the lies, assuming them to be the truth.  In India, the aspiring middle class usually send their children the “convent” schools.  In such schools, children are not given a fair view of Hindu culture or religion.

It is really up to us, as individuals, and as social, religious groups to re-educate ourselves with our own history, our own culture and see how we can regain the self-confidence we once had.  Once we start to appreciate the beauty of our culture, we will see that we are not as uncivilised as the others want us to believe. 

We must respect our people, our own women, our own brethren, and our own land as the ancients did for us to carve our own destiny once again.

� Bhagwat    [email protected]


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