Women have fought for their status and role in communities, religions, and the nation for years. And women in Hinduism are no different. Women traditionally would live the life of a mother and a wife following the footsteps of their ancestors. Women’s roles were laid out in Hindu law books such as the Dharma-Sastras, however basic rules in the Laws of Manu (200 C.E.) lays out how a women or wife should behave in the household and towards her husband. Nevertheless women’s roles have evolved over time and women are going against the social norm of their tradition and even their way of life.
Hinduism is a complex religion and unlike many western religions it is also a way of life. Family is very important in Hinduism and as keeper of the household women play an important role in the tradition. Women are revealed in the sacred scriptures as presenting a duality of being benevolent and malevolent exposing her with great contrasting powers. “In times of prosperity she indeed is Laksmi, [goddess of wealth] who bestows prosperity in the homes of men; and in times of misfortune, she herself becomes the goddess of misfortune, and brings about ruin” (see Wadley 113) Because of this changing power that a women possesses it is rational that man should want to control this mysterious power. Then, perhaps it may have been interpreted that women should remain stagnate, running the household, rearing the children, and participate in religious rituals as an assistant to their husband.
It is the female’s role as a wife to bear her husband’s children and educate them in their traditional practices. To maintain there dominance over the women men have their wives maintain the home and the family that he has made and provided for. The female’s prakrti,(nature), is like the soil where the male plants his seed to grow into “conjoined images”.(see Wadley 115 for in depth description). And therefore “the male controls the female; that Nature is controlled by Culture”(Wadley 115-116). Culture or society controls nature as it is motivated to change and evolve just as the man tries to control the women. Prior to marriage the female is regulated by her father and then when she is married she is controlled by her husband. During the marriage the wife must then be truly devoted to her husband and it is believed that she is able to transfer her natural female power to the husband for daily rituals and caring for his family.
Daily roles and activities of the wife involve more then just caring for the household; they also involve religious rituals. Although, only Brahman men can do the Vedic rituals women still play an important role in devotional rituals. The wives of Brahmin priests can act as assistants to their husbands on ritual occasions because there are no scriptural sanctions against such female ritual behavior. Many Hindu scriptures say women are to be honored, “religious deeds are said to be useless if women are not honored and cherished” (Pinkham 190). So, in a small village in North India, “women instigate and participate in twenty-one of the thirty-three annual rites…[and] dominate nine of the twenty-one annual rites” (Wadley 123). Although women have developed a stronger religious status they are still considered dangerous to men; whether it is because their inner power or another reason we cannot be certain and therefore they are accepted as active participants in the Vedic rituals.
Hindu women’s traditional roles in the household in India have changed a great deal over the past fifty or even hundred years. Western countries have had an influence on these changes. Scholars traveling to India are wanting to learn and study the Indian Hindu culture. And, therefore they have written many articles and books on the sacred scriptures including reviews on the Vedas and other religious scriptures that were once restricted from women. Because of the these reviews a new age has come and has been recognized by the world bring scholars from all over the world. The ongoing reconstruction of the social status of women has brought about many new changes in, “Education, health measures, rural and industrial welfare schemes, problems of early marriage, purdah, the positions of widows, women’s franchise rights, and the representation of women in governing bodies” (Pinkham 191).
The schools now allow young women to learn the Vedas and sacred scriptures that were formally restricted to only men of a certain class/caste. With this new revelation many people have spoke out saying, “No society can prosper without education for its women. By treating women as the lowest caste, …. you don’t raise them to a level of vidya shakti [educated power], they will end up being avidya shakti [ignorant power]”(Pechilis 77). Due to this modification of women roles in society infant mortality has reduced with better health measures. Young girls will are no longer forced to marry before they hit puberty, and widows are able to re-marry. Although there is more men then women being born in India the change in women’s status as independent women in governing bodies is expected bring a change to this as well.
To most women these changes seem radical and the feel that they are disrespecting their tradition. By accepting the changes as a new improvement to their past traditions they can keep their traditional values as well as become revolutionalized. Many women have accepted the lifestyles of their ancestors as the social norm. Many women have stepped out of the norm and made a difference in their village, society, and their country giving other women everywhere someone the look up to and follow in their leadership. The life of asceticism is now not only a part of coming of age for a man but women are more commonly choosing this lifestyle as well. An example of this growth and leadership is evident through the rise of the female guru.
Female guru’s are not traditionally accepted and the social norm in Hinduism. “The most radical challenge of the female gurus is not directed toward the received guru tradition but rather the received social expectations” (Pechilis 6). For instance, many female gurus are or were married that are some that have not been married which has created some conflict with their families who want them to adopt the traditional role of a women to be a wife and mother. Instead they live an ascetic lifestyle and do not try to define the difference between female or male gurus. Both are trying to attain the same goal, and gender does not affect how they come to their attainment. However, “[a]ll of the female gurus are associated with the Goddess through the concept of shakti, for they, like the Goddess, are paramount embodiments of shakti”(Pechilis 8). Female gurus are, for the most part, understood and accepted by their followers. The work they do with the people teaching and connecting with their students, illustrates the growing influence of women in Hinduism.
Although change has challenged the idea of the proper wife who remains under her husband’s control, change has also brought about many beneficiary factors. Women are much more able think and act independently should they choose to. They may better educate themselves not only in the religious texts, such as the Vedas, but in social inclement and activities as well. Women have a choice between becoming a wife who obeys her husband’s wishes and or “the Mother, the goddess who epitomizes the dual character of the Hindu female”(Wadley 124). Although most Hindu women will probably continue to follow their tradition and be a proper wife change has created possibilities for those women who want a different lifestyle involving religious power or as a business women, for example, should they choose it. The opportunity for change is among us all should we choose it. “women as [a] mother in Hindu thought controls others and becomes the Hindu woman in control of herself”(Wadley 125)
Pechilis, Karen (2004) The Graceful guru: Hindu female gurus in India and the United States. New York; Toronto: Oxford University Press
Pinkham, Mildred Worth (1967) Women in the sacred scriptures of Hinduism. New York: AMS press
Wadley, Susan S.(1977) “Women and Hindu Tradition.” Signs, Vol. 3, No. 1; Chicago: University of Chicago Press
References and Further Recommended Readings
Bose, Mandarins (2000) Faces of the feminine in ancient, medieval, and modern India. New York: Oxford University Press.
Chitgopekar, Nilima (2002) Invoking goddesses: gender politics in Indian religion. New Delhi: Shakti Books.
Denton, Lynn Teskey (2004) Female ascetics in Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Desai, Usha & Goodall, Sallyann (1995) “Hindu Women Talk Out.” Agenda: No. 25; Agenda Feminist Media.
Hiltebeitel, Alf & Erndl, Kathleen (2002) Is the goddess a feminist?: the politics of South Asian goddesses. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
King, Ursula (1987) World Religions, Women and Education. Comparative Education: Vol. 3, No. 1; Taylor & Francis. Ltd.
Sarkar, Tanika (2003) Hindu wife, Hindu nation: community, religion, and cultural nationalism. New Delhi: Permanent Black.
Sered, Susan Starr (1990) “Women, Religion, and Modernization: Tradition and Transformation among Elderly Jews in Israel.” American Anthropologist: Vol. 92, No. 2.
Sharma, Arvind (2002) Women in Indian religions. Toronto: Oxford University Press
Women and Indian History
Women and Religious aspects and India
Hindu women and social conditions
Women in Hinduism and India
India and religious life and customs
Monastic and Religious life in Hinduism
Women and Rituals
Article written by Jara Van Ham (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.