Women in Hinduism
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The stated role of women in Hinduism varies from an equal spiritual 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 while others argue that the lower status of Hindu women is the result of culture and custom rather than religion.
Hinduism is based on a large number of ancient texts which vary in authority, authenticity, content and theme. Among the most authoritative and oldest scripture is the Vedas. The role of women in Hinduism depends greatly on the specific text to which one refers and its context. For example, in the two grand Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, the role of women is mixed: Sita is often an object passed between men who commits suicide (sati) to prove her chastity. While a majority of women's oral retellings of the Ramayana depict autonomy as the rule rather than the exception, these versions have only recently garnered some popularity and acceptance. In earlier texts such as the Manusmṛti, a text relating to religion and legal duty, women's rights are strongly restricted.
However, although these ancient texts are the foundation upon which Hinduism is founded, they are not all-encompassing of the faith tradition. This religion is not limited to "a set of beliefs or propositional truths or practices", meaning that the other elements should also be remembered when examining the texts. This should be done because Hinduism, as well as women's roles as defined by Hinduism's ancient texts, is representative of the cultural traditions and celebrations as well as the texts. Ignoring other valuable aspects of Hinduism like dance, the arts, and music would be doing it a disservice. Despite these liberating undercurrents emerging, there is some reluctance to use the term "feminism" to describe them.
In modern times, the Hindu wife has been someone who must, at all costs, remain chaste or pure. This is in contrast with very different traditions of earlier times. For instance, in the Hindu kingdoms, the roles of women included the highly respected professional courtesans (for example, Amrapali the royal courtesan of Vaishali kingdom); the devadasis (girls whose life is devoted to worship); female mathematicians; and female magicians (the basavis, the tantric kulikas).
In the 1800s, Hindu women were described by European scholars as being "naturally chaste" and "more virtuous" than other women. However, being male and foreign, they would have been denied access to the most secret and sacred spaces of Hindu women of that time. The Mahabharata and Manu Smṛti assert that the gods are delighted when women are honoured, or else all spiritual actions are futile.
Gender of God
Hindu schools and sects vary widely in their teaching about the nature and gender (if applicable) of the supreme being. Some sects are skeptical about the existence of such a being. Followers of Shaktism, for example, worship the goddess Devi as the embodiment of shakti (feminine strength or power). Followers of Vaishnavism and Shaivism worship Lakshmi (and Vishnu) and Parvati (and Shiva), respectively, as equal beings (the male and female aspects of God). Followers of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, emphasise the worship of God's female aspect, Radharani over that of her paramour, Krishna. Followers of Hinduism believe their Gods have both male and female elements, that are integral to their origin. Male deities, such as Shiva and Indra are believed, in some traditions, to worship the goddess, Durga:
- "O Parameshwari, (supreme goddess) who is praised by the husband of the daughter of Himalayas (Shri Shiva)... O Parameshwari, who is worshipped with true feelings by the husband of Indrani (Indra) please give us the spiritual personality, the victory, the glory and destroy our enemies.
Hindu feminists such as Phoolan Devi have used Durga as their icon. However, traditions which follow the advaita philosophy, believe that ultimately, the supreme being is formless without any particular gender, or is transcendental to such considerations.
Women in the scriptures
Several female sages and seers are mentioned in the Upanishads, the philosophical part of the Vedas. Among them are Gargi and Maitreyi. In Sanskrit, the word acharyā means a "female teacher" (versus acharya meaning "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 kind of women: sadhyavadhu who marry, and the brahmavaadini who are religious, wear the sacred thread, perform rituals like the agnihotra and read the Vedas. Women may graduate from the schools for Vedic priests.
Female characters 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 Madhava's Shankaradigvijaya, Shankara 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 Nammalvar's Tiruvaayamoli, with reference to Vedic texts such as the Taittiriya Yajurveda.
- "Out of compassion, the great sage thought it wise that this would enable men to achieve the ultimate goal of life. Thus he compiled the great historical narration called the Mahabharata for women, laborers and friends of the twice-born."
Arthashastra and Manusamhita provide written sources about a woman's right to property or stridhan, (literally, wife's property). It is of two types: maintenance (in money or land), and secondly, anything else such as ornaments given to her by her family, husband, in-laws, relatives and the friends. Stridhan becomes the wife's personal property and she has exclusive rights over it. Manu further subdivides this property into six types: the property given by parents at marriage; given by her husband's family when she is going to his house; given by her husband out of affection (not maintenance, which he is bound to give); and property given by a brother, or mother or father (Manu IX 194). Pre-nuptial contracts are mentioned where the groom would agree to give a set amount to both the bride and her parents. Such property belonged to the wife alone and was not to be touched by the groom or his family or her parents except in emergencies (in sickness, in famine, threatened by robbers, or for performing holy deeds).
Manu insists that a mother's property belongs solely to her daughters [Manu IX 131], in order of preference: unmarried daughters, married but poor daughters, married and rich daughters. When a father died, unmarried daughters were given a share in their father’s property, equal to one-fourth from every brother's share. It was assumed any married daughter had been given her share at marriage [Manu IX 118]. If the family had no sons, the appointed daughter was the sole inheritor of the property [Manu IX 127].
The most sacred part of the Hindu wedding ceremony involves walking in a circle around the sacred fire in seven steps to a Vedic mantra where the groom addresses his wife. In the Manu Smriti eight traditions of marriage are specified: Brahma, Daiva, Arsha, Prajapatya, Gandharva, Asura, Rakshasa and Paishacha. Two involve the bedecking of the bride with costly garments and ornaments by the bride's family and the groom's family; two involve the groom's family giving a gift to the family of the bride; and the other four do not involve an exchange of gifts. The last four were not defined in religious terms and were condemned.
In the Brahma marriage, the prospective groom must have attained his Brahmacharya Ashram (religious student hood). His parents approach the parents or guardian of a girl belonging to a good family and ask them for the hand of their daughter. The father of the girl also considers whether the groom is well versed in the Vedas and is of noble character. The bride comes with only two garments and few ornaments. According to Dharmashastras, the "Brahma Vivah" is the best marriage among them all.
- "The son born of the Brahma marriage sanctifies 21 generations, that of the Daiva marriage 14 generations, that of Arsha marriage and Kayah marriage six each."
The Manu Smriti emphasises,
- "Let mutual fidelity continue until death. This may be considered the summation of the highest law for husband and wife." (Manu Smriti IX 101)
Rigvedic verses suggest that women who married at a mature age were probably free to select their husband.
- "A woman can choose her own husband after attaining maturity. If her parents are unable to choose a deserving groom, she can herself choose her husband." (Manu Smriti IX 90 - 91)
The practice of providing a dowry is not endorsed by orthodox Hinduism and "may be a perversion of Sanskritic marriage prescriptions." Dowries are linked to caste: among higher castes a dowry is expected from the girl's family; among lower caste families the dowry is paid to the girl's family. As a result, the prevalence of dowry giving increases with Sanskritization and urbanization. The modern Hindi word for dowry is dahej, which comes via Persian from Arabic loanword jihāz (جهاز furnishings or equipment, that is, chattels brought by a wife for her new family.
Widowhood and remarriage
In 2007, three percent of the population of India were widows. In traditional families, widows were, and in some cases still are, required to wear white saris. The presence of widows at religious ceremonies is considered inauspicious. Widows are expected to devote their lives to an austere pursuit of religion. These restrictions are traditionally strongest in the highest castes, in which the head is frequently shaved as well. The highest castes also have restrictions on remarriage. Such restrictions are now strictly observed only by a small minority of widows, although some sense of inauspiciousness about remarriage lingers.
Narada Smriti (12.45-12.48) notes three types of remarried widow (punarbhu): the virgin widow; the woman who abandons her husband to take up with another man and then returns to her husband; and the woman who has no brothers-in-law who can give her offspring. The list indicates that the punarbhu had particular characteristics, for example, whether or not she had children and whether or not she was a widow at all. A punarbhu is not given the same rights as a woman who was married only once. The son of a punarbhu, the punarbhava, is regarded as unfit to invite to a sacrifice (as is the husband of a remarried woman) and does not inherit naturally.
sati as a verb, is the act of immolation of a woman on her husband's funeral pyre and as a noun, refers to one who either immolated herself willingly or did so through societal inducement and compulsion. Sati represents an act of immortal love, believed to purge the couple of all accumulated sin. Although no scripture mandates sati, the Puranas, part of the Hindu Smriti, mention sati as highly meritorious in several instances. Only a few examples of sati are recorded in the Hindu epics, which are, otherwise, replete with influential widows. Some examples from the Mahabharata include some of the wives of Vasudeva (Rohini, Devaki, Bhadraa and Madira) (M. Bh. Mausalaparvan 7.18); and Madri, the second wife of Pandu, who held herself responsible for his death (M.Bh. Adiparvan 95.65).
Married women and dharma
When one looks at a married woman in the Hindu faith, karma explains her place in the social system, but what about her dharma. A women’s dharma can conflict with her social position as a woman. The dharma of a married woman is seen as the dedication and commitment to her husband. The ideal role model would be Sita of Ramayana. Sita being the idolized wife rejected her own comfort to enforce her husband’s dharma, his assigned duties. The story of Sita is also a message that any sexual conduct outside of the established terms is a threat to the honor of the male family members and the patriarchal agenda. The Sita of Ramayana is a role model to the attempt to recreate a woman’s dharma in terms to her husband.
Political role of Hindu women
Political catalysts such as Bharti, Indira Gandhi, and Rithambara have critical influence on the connotation of other Hindu women. They all have participated in the general elections of India. This shows that Hindu women are becoming more involved in the political landscape of India. Political power has not yet become available to all Hindu women in the subcontinent, but with women such as these the future of Hindu women politicians has a bright outlook moving forward.
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