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A Hindu perspective on Gender

Seeta Lakhani's picture

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God as female

The archaeological evidence of the Indus Valley suggests that the most ancient concept of God in Hinduism was that of a Mother Goddess. In modern Hinduism there is a large sectarian movement called the  Shaktas who relate to the idea of the Ultimate Reality as Shakti - the Mother Goddess. The central prayer all Hindu sectarian movements relate to is called the Gayatri Mantra (1) which translates as: Let us meditate on the glorious effulgence of that supreme being who has created the universe, may SHE enlighten our hearts and direct our understanding. The highest dignity a religion can offer its women is to refer to the Ultimate Reality as SHE.


Female prophets

The figures of authority in Hinduism are called Rishi's from the Sanskrit root Drish, and refers to those who have seen or had first hand experience of God. Many of these personalities were female. Some portions of the scriptures of authority like the Rig Vedas were prompted by female Rishis like Vak, Gargi and Maitreyi.   


In Society

The Hindu scriptures of authority have promoted ideas of God as both male or female and have given equal status to women. But some of the medieval law-books of the Hindus such as the Manu Smriti have not been that generous when it comes to the status to women. For example there is one verse that says that females should obey their fathers when they are young, obey their husbands when they are married and obey their sons when they become widowed. But such scriptures, classed as dharma shastras or griha shastras, are viewed as contextual and come with a sell-by-date. They clearly specify that these laws are subject to evolution with the changing needs of society. In modern Hindu society, women participate equally in every field including politics (Indira Gandhi was the first woman Prime Minister of India).


Child Marriages, Sati & Dowry

In the medieval period when India was under Muslim rule, females were confined to the home to protect them from being abducted. They were not abducted if they were married; and this gave rise to the practice of child marriage. During the many battles between the Muslim invaders and Hindu kings, on the death of a Hindu king, Muslims used to take away the queens as concubines or slaves. Many brave queens decided to throw themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands rather than fall into the hands of their enemies. This is the background to the practise of Sati. It is not a Hindu religious injunction but the result of brave Hindu women preferring to throw themselves onto the funeral pyres of their husbands rather than lose their dignity. In later years this idea turned into a social custom, and no doubt was used to force some widows to climb onto their husband's funeral pyres to affirm their love for their departed husbands. Such horrendous practices are thankfully not visible in modern India. In medieval India when women were confined to the kitchen and not allowed to participate or work in greater society, they soon became a financial liability which could only be disposed of through marriage and by paying a premium called the dowry. When women are seen as the breadwinners and equal economic partners to their male counterparts, both the idea of a dowry or female infanticide disappear from the scene.               


Modern Hinduism

Modern Hinduism is rapidly discarding these outmoded and unjust restrictions on women and moving towards an endorsement of gender equality, as is demanded by the modern economic situation.  Moreover, the Hindu tradition has many resources that are being used by modern teachers who wish to improve the status of women. Swami Vivekananda employed Hindu philosophy in insisting on gender equality. On one occasion he said,


I shall not rest until I root out this distinction of sex.  Is there any sex-distinction in the Atman? Out with the differentiation between men and women - all is Atman! Give up the identification with the body and stand up!


Here Vivekananda is saying that if a person properly understands the Vedic teachings on the soul, the Atman, then he will realise that designations such as man and woman are secondary.  Ultimately, all of us are identical beings and one who discriminates on the basis of gender (or caste for that matter) is showing that he is ignorant of the higher principles of Hindu teachings

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