Written by Suman Oak
All religions treat women as lesser beings as compared to men. The religions founded by prophets who are male, are naturally male oriented. They take care of the interests of the husbands and virtually imprison women within the four walls of their homes.
The Hindu religion or rather the Vedic religion is supposed to be Apaurusheya, i.e., not made by man. It has evolved over millennia of thinking by the ancient sages. It comprises of diverse philosophies, ways of worship, innumerable deities along with the ‘One All Encompassing Entity called Brahma’ and countless customs and rituals. But it is second to none other religion in male domination. Many Hindus claim that their religion honours women and quote the maxims like ‘the hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world’ or ‘the deities dwell in those places where women are worshiped’, etc. They proffer the examples of the erudite Gargi and Maitreyi to prove their claim that their religion does not discriminate against women. But the crux of the problem lies in how they are actually treating their women today. The treatment that is meted out to women now is illustrated in the dictums, ‘a shoe deserves to be put on the foot and not on the head’ or ‘a broom that aught to remain in the corner of the store room cannot be seated in the drawing room’. These are but the commands issued, of course in different words, by the ancient sages and thinkers and the present Jagadgurus and other sundry god men.
One of the oft-quoted dictums of Manusmriti - a typical male chauvinist code of conduct-says, ‘a woman should always remain obedient to her father in her childhood, to her husband when married and to her son in her old age. She does not deserve freedom.’ And this for the exemplary Gargi-the symbol of erudition of ancient Indian women! The sage Yadnyawalkya petulantly chastises her for asking unanswerable questions and warns and curses her, ‘Do not cross your limits (perhaps as a woman) Gargi, for, if you do, your head will separate from your body and fall to the ground!’ Even the somewhat liberal poet of the comparatively recent past, Tulasidas confers on his own sex the license to beat their women. Says he, “ Shudras, the insane, beasts and women all deserve to be beaten.”
All other religions are equally high handed towards and discriminating against women. According to the Bible, God made woman for (for giving company and comfort to) man, after he made man and from the man’s rib. This first woman-the Eve- committed the sin of eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, because of which both Adam and Eve the first man and woman of the human race were condemned to leave paradise and live their lives on earth.’ Among the Jews, a wife can be divorced on as flimsy a cause as burning a bread even if inadvertently. Among the Muslims the woman is made helpless and insecure by subjugating her in two ways. Polygamy is sanctioned and the right of a very easy divorce to the wife without alimony is bestowed on the man by the religion. According to the Jains a woman does not have enough intellect and capacity to understand the meaning and gravity of ‘austerity and penance.’ Gautam Buddha, one of the few ancient rationalists, too had a poor opinion of women. He did admit women into the congregation of Bhikkus as his beloved disciple, Anand, insisted on it. But he was sorry to do so, for according to him, Buddhism that was expected to last for over thousand years would, by admitting women into the ‘sanghas’, last for only five hundred years! Thus all religions seem determined to subjugate women.
One would argue here that all these are the things of the past. Have not our women got the right to vote in secret ballot? Have they not invaded all walks of life and displaced number of males from their jobs? We have a number of women leading in politics, industry, business, governance and even adventurous enterprises like explorations in space. Kalpana Chawla is an excellent example to illustrate that there is no discrimination against women. The answer to this is that it’s true that a few women do scale such dizzy heights. But they are exceptionally talented and have to put up a hard struggle against discrimination at every step. Swimming against the current, as do these brave women, is not possible for ordinary women. What is their lot in our society? Just look around and the subjugation of and discrimination against women sanctioned by religion and propagated by vested interests will glare into your face. Killing or aborting girl child, burning of young wives for not getting enough dowry, raping young girls and innumerable such happenings expose the outlook of our society as a whole towards women.
There is a place called Shani Shinganapur in Newasa Taluka of Maharashtra. The deity Shani presides there from a raised platform. No woman is allowed to climb up this platform. Four years ago, ANS held a big demonstration against this discrimination and insisted that women be allowed to go in the vicinity of the deity just like men. Many staunch Hiduist organizations opposed ANS, tooth and nail, in the name of protecting their religion. And not surprisingly the majority of them were women. How deeply has religion enslaved women psychologically! Do women really like to be lesser human beings and remain in slavery? Certainly not. Religions have taught them to accept their lot with forbearance and without complaint. To understand this female psyche we will have to turn to the various vows and observances, rituals and ceremonies, prayers and poojas and what not that engender this female psyche. This entire endeavour is meant not for the woman’s own enlightenment but for her husband, her sons, her family that is expected to give her happiness, and eventually a better life in her next birth. All these rites and rituals invented to enslave women will have to be discussed in a separate article.
Rituals, Vows and Observances that Enslave Women
Subjugating women seems to be one of the objectives of all religions. To achieve this objective they have imposed a number of rites, rituals, vows and observances on women to keep them engrossed in religious (euphemistically called spiritual) pursuits and away from the management of worldly affairs of family and public life. Religion bestows the highest honour and dignity upon those women who fulfill their natural (?) wifely and maternal roles. They are not deemed as autonomous beings, capable of interpreting religious dictums for themselves. Fighting for equality, so think the religious people, only brings disintegration of the traditional family and leads to the destruction of humanity. Even the first lady of the first nation, who does not pursue any profession of her own and is wholly engaged with her family is adored more than one who does. She is expected to appear on the public platforms only when her husband is in need of it.
Religion helped men to keep their women under their control and within the four walls of the home. This went on merrily for many centuries. However, the renaissance, the industrial revolution, the French and the American revolutions and the two world wars took place in succession, in the last five centuries and the foundation of the ‘Men’s World’ designed by religion started shaking violently. What happened in the first and the second world (to use the current phrases,) had repercussions in later period, in the third world too. Religion reacted by reproaching women for neglecting the family and loosing their virtue and for competing with men in pursuits not meant for them by nature. To bring women back on the right path, religions are trying to make them true Christians or Muslims or Hindus. The only way to achieve this objective is to engage them more and more in religious rituals, rites and observances. Although India is multi-religious, Hindu religion has affected the other religions to a large extent. Let us, therefore, analyse a few of the Hindu rites and rituals, so that we can understand as to how they engender a slave like psyche in the woman.
Dr. A.H. Salunkhe has examined and exposed many rituals for what they really are. One of them is the ‘Tulasi Marriage’. Like all rituals, the origin of this ritual is found in a Puranic story. In fact there are several stories explaining how this ritual started. In one Tulasi happens to be a great chaste and faithful wife of a demon called Shankhachud. In the other story, too she is an equally faithful wife of another demon called Jalandhar. In both stories the demons become invincible because of the spiritual power acquired by Tulasi due to her spotless fidelity and devotion to her husband. In both, Lord Vishnu appears before her in the guise of her husband and ravishes her destroying her powers. The gods then kill the demons easily. It is not possible to recite the whole stories in this short article. (Refer to 4th vol. of Bharateeya Sanskriti Kosh by Pandit Mahadevshatri Joahi). But this day when a womanizing god ravished a chaste and faithful wife is commemorated and celebrated year after year, for thousands of years, by marrying Tulasi the victim to her rapacious tormenter. Of course our Purankars did not forget to weave a web of episodes in Tulasi’s previous births when she pined to be Lord Vishnu’s Consort, to justify his womanizing. We apologize for hurting the feelings of Vishnu Bhaktas. But should we not see through the scheming of the Purankars who are the ones who vilify and belittle our deities by their weird imagination? What does this ritual of ‘Tulasi Vivah’ signify? It emphasizes that a Woman’s Strength lies only in her fidelity to her husband even if he were a demon. And secondly she should accept rape as her fate! Why do we women continue celebrating such humiliating rituals? Because we are taught, ‘yours is not to ask why but to obey and comply and toil for a better life in the next birth!’ Many more rituals and observances like Watapooja, Haritalika, etc., keep women immersed in religiosity or rather ritualism, so that they have no time to think of their own emancipation from the drudgery of life. Many rational thinkers like Swatntryaveer Sawarkar, Tarkateerth Lakshman Shastri Joshi who was steeped in the Vedic literature and others exposed the senselessness and mischief mongering in our rituals. Lakshman Shastri Joshi calls them acts of sorcery and conjuration performed to fulfill one’s wishes.
But our women have lost level-headedness and self-confidence and live their lives under the dread of some untoward happenstance in case they fail to observe this or that ritual. Not only do they persistently observe their own family rituals but also embrace rituals of other social and cultural groups from distant places. For example Karawa Chaud is an observance of married women of North India. However due to the influence of TV serials Maharastrian women have now started observing it. On this day women don’t even have a sip of water till they are offered water by their husbands after sighting the moon while the men merrily go on eating and drinking to their heart’s content. The most disturbing aspect of this is that women, well educated and earning and supporting their families (and at times a lazy or drunkard husband) too observe these excruciating rituals at the cost of their health and efficiency. In addition to religious rites and rituals, customs and traditions also play their part in subjugating women. For example, the Indian woman is not supposed to utter the name of her husband and she is threatened that if she calls him by his name she will reduce his life! Quite a few gullible women even now are afraid of calling the husband by his name. By observing these rituals and vows and keeping fasts women seem to get a ‘holier than thou’ feeling and think they are atoning for the irreligious behaviours of other members of the family.
Here we have examined only the Hindu traditions and customs. But other religions too mete out an equal or more dreadful treatment to women. The most horrendous example is the practice of genital mutilation of young girls in some Muslim communities of Africa. Women have to confirm to the orthodox codes of dress and conduct dictated by male zealots of all religions whose real agenda is the capture of power. Members of the priestly class have vested interest in keeping women on the right path so that they (the priests not women) can afford all luxuries of life and a say in politics.
These rites, rituals, vows and observances are supposed to be part of our culture that has to be preserved at all costs. It’s the duty of women and not the men to carry out this responsibility. If women ignore this duty, it will cause disintegration of the traditional family. More over this religiosity engenders the feminine virtues like endurance, sacrifice, graciousness, etc., without which a woman can get no respect in the society. A self-confident woman, who sees through all this ‘conjuration’ and thinks for herself, is branded flippant or flirt. The woman who refuses to be ‘lesser being’ is not acceptable to the society. The real motive of this all is perpetuation of discrimination, patriarchy, social distortions and male domination in the name of religion.
Its high time that a rethinking of the out dated religious rites and rituals is undertaken by the society and especially women and give them up as early as possible. We should stop looking for justification for our present actions in the ancient literature. Not ancient religious scriptures but human values should guide our present behaviour. The slave like psyche of women of all religions has to be changed. One has to admit that this cannot be done in one stroke. It will rather be a slow process of incremental changes. Women have to think and chalk out their own liberation. Sane and rational men will certainly come forward to help them. The conference on ‘Women’s Declaration’ is one step in the right direction.