According to Knott within Hindu society women are given a lesser status than men (82). This leads to the oppression of women in both the public and private spheres of their religious and everyday lives. This pattern of oppression has led to a narrow and demanding vision of how women should behave. Women are expected to be submissive to the men in their lives, and to be the perfect wife and mother (Knott 81-82).
Through the possession of women by goddesses, they are allowed to express their frustration with the society that oppresses them in a socially acceptable way (Diesel 1998:76). Possession is also seen as a divine experience and those possessed by a goddess are honored. Possession may occur more than once in an individual’s life and there are even those who become possessed regularly and aid others in solving problems (Diesel 1998: 77). These individuals are regarded as a sort of “shaman” in their societies. Women who become possessed and help their community are seen as meaningful to their communities and are therefore held in high regard by society. This high status in the community also gives women a sense of self-worth they may not have previously had. Even if they are not appreciated in their societies being close with the deities they are being possessed by gives them dignity (Diesel 1998:77-79). Women may also use their prominence to aid other women and to increase equality in society.
The goddesses that are usually seen as role models for women are the goddesses that are “the ideal, selfless, submissive wife” (Diesel 2002:8) also known as pativrata. Despite this there are goddesses that are sometimes considered controversial that women see as role models for themselves. Kali, who is a fierce and wild goddess provides inspiration to many women in Hinduism and is viewed as a “redeemer of both nature and women” (Dalmiya, 126). Many of these goddesses have experienced trauma or abuse such as the wife of the Pandava brothers Draupadi in the Mahabharata. She had been subject to the humiliation of Duryodhana attempting to disrobe her in front of his court (Rao, 34-37). This humiliation that Draupadi endured is something that women can relate to. Because of the patriarchal nature of Hindu society women are expected to honour their husbands no matter the circumstance. Despite this expectation of women, there are many who find a model in controversial goddesses such as Kali and a variety of amman goddesses (Diesel 2002: 8-9).
There is also the issue of sexual violence within Hindu society especially when it comes to things such as devadasi [marrying girls to deities] who are often in ritual slavery or used for sexual exploitation (Black 180). One example of a deity who suffered at the hands of men is the goddess Draupadi from the Mahabharata epic. Throughout the epic she goes through many traumatic experiences but her ritual purity helps her overcome the trauma of these events unharmed and unaffected (Diesel 2010:9). There are also many tales of girls and women who are connected with the amman goddesses such as Mariamman or Podilamma. After being wrongly accused of indecent acts or killed because of actions that are deemed improper, the goddesses seek revenge on those who wronged them in their past lives (Diesel 2002:13-15). These tales give women a chance to relate to the goddesses through their mutual suffering.
Being a diverse and widely spread religion means that Hinduism has sects that are different from the rest of the religion. In some of these sects’ women are equal to men and are allowed to be a part of and perform ritual practices usually barred to women (David 337). One of these sects is located in England and is a Tamil diaspora from Sri Lanka (David 338). This sect is led by a man who is often possessed by a female deity and has claimed that his intention is to establish equality between men and women. The women within this Sri Lankan community are able to participate in rituals. They are also given the opportunity to become priests within these areas if they want to (David 341-343). This equality of men and women allows women to receive the same amount of respect as men. It also diminishes the influence of the caste/class system (David 341).
Women’s status in Hindu society is expected to be that of subjection and obedience to men. Despite this woman allow themselves moments of freedom through possession by goddesses (Diesel 1998:76). This gives them a sense of power even if it is only for a short period. Those women who do not experience possession find power through the goddesses in different ways such as accepting them as role models or relating to them through shared experiences (Diesel 2002:9). Often times, these connected events relate to oppression or violence by men. In certain areas of the world, these women are beginning to receive support to be empowered and participate in rituals banned from the majority of women (David 337). Through these and other experiences women are given empowerment and can begin to feel as though they are not just there to serve men. They can feel that they are valued members of their communities.
References and Other Recommended Reading
Black, Maggie (2009) “Women in Ritual Slavery: Devadasi, Jogini and Mathamma in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, Southern India.” Pakistan Journal of Women’s Studies= Alm-e-Niswan=Alm-I Nisvan16,1/2:179-205.
Dalmiya, Vrinda (2000) “Loving Paradoxes: A Feminist Reclamation of the Goddess Kali.” Hypatia 15,1:125-150.
David, Ann R (2009) “Gendering the Divine: New Forms of Feminine Hindu Worship.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 13,3:337-355.
Diesel, Alleyn (1998) “The Empowering Image of the Divine Mother: A South African Hindu Woman Worshipping the Goddess.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 13,1:73-90.
Diesel, Alleyn (2002) “Tales of Women’s Suffering: Draupadi and Other Amman Goddesses as Role Models for Women.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 17,1:5-20.
Knott, Kim (2016) Hinduism: a very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 81-82.
Rao, Shanta Rameshwar (2011) “The Mahabharata.” Telangana:Orient BlackSwan.
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Noteworthy Website Relating to the Topic
Article Written by: Lundyn Davis (February 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.