Women in Hinduism


Hinduism, from its Vedic beginnings (about 1500-500 B.C.E.), according to Katherine Young, “may be characterized as patriarchal, ethnic, family-oriented, and life-affirming (60).” Young’s work on Hinduism chronicles the role of women from the early “life-affirming” Vedic tradition in an “attempt to understand the Hindu woman’s deep and positive identification with the religion (64).” Young’s chapter continues to the classical period of Hinduism where the woman’s role evolved to one of continued exclusion from education and her subordinate, supporting the role of the husband, who was to be regarded as a “god.”

It is tempting, therefore, to view Hinduism as a religion that falls within the feminist anthropological view that “has treated religion as the ideological foundation of and justification for patriarchy; through religious doctrine and ritual, women and men are persuaded of the rightness’ of male dominance (Sered, 1994:4).” In this article, I will explore the role of women in Hinduism from the perspective of Hindu mythology and practices to determine whether Hindu practices and mythology form a “justification for the patriarchy” in Indian society.

If the Judeo-Christian tradition of patriarchy can be traced to the biblical story of Eve, there is at least one parallel in Hindu mythology. Krishna Dharma has written an extremely charming rendition of the Hindu classic Ramayana. An appendix to her work is “The Story of the River Ganges,” a mythic tale told to the main character Rama by Vishvamitra, a Brahman priest. The story begins with Himavan (the Himalayan deity) who through his consort Mena (the daughter of the celestial Mount Meru) “begot two charming daughters, both matchless in beauty.” Himavan gave one of his daughters, Uma, to the “unlimitedly powerful Lord Shiva” to be his wife (393).

The problem with this match was that the rest of the gods feared that the universe would not survive the marriage:

“Oh lord, the worlds will not be able to bear your seed should it be released into Uma. The combined power of you and your consort will surely be unbearable to all beings. Please, therefore, retain your vital energy within your supremely splendid self. You will thereby preserve the worlds from being burned by the brilliance of your progeny. (393)”

In compliance with their request, Shiva agreed to let his seed fall upon the earth, which was the only thing capable of withstanding its power, “bearing as she does the weight of all creatures (393).” When Lord Shiva’s seed covered the entire globe, Brahma set in motion a plan to collect Shiva’s vital fluid, present it to the goddess Ganga in order to impregnate her. Brahma’s plan was to provide the gods with an army commander “a blazing son who will become the general of the gods (393).”

Ganga assumed human form and Shiva’s seed impregnated her.

The power of Shiva’s coursed through Ganga’s veins but was too hot to bear. She, therefore, expelled it from her body. It fell upon the earth “forming vast veins of gold and silver. Even at a great distance mine of copper, lead and tin were created by that divine fluid (394).” (The metaphor of a god’s hot semen begetting precious metals is a striking contrast to the woman’s inability to participate in this saga.)

This poetic myth provides a “foundational” story in Hinduism that, according to William Young, functions “to create the basic patterns of order (cosmos).” The imagery of Shiva’s “seed” as much too hot for even a female goddess to endure is, in my opinion, unmistakably patriarchal in outlook. On the other hand, the seed needed its receptacle Ganga, who was not up to the task. Moreover, at the location where Ganga expelled the hot semen of Shiva, the Hindu god of war, Skanda, was born. (The god of war needed no female mother.)

There is a more interesting twist to the story of Shiva and Ganga.

Shiva’s original consort, Uma, became so jealous and angry at having been denied her own son “she pronounced a curse upon both the gods and the earth:
“As I was denied my desire of getting a son, so too shall all you gods remain always issueless. This earth shall have a jagged surface of many shapes and forms and shall have many masters. She shall never enjoy the delight of having a son since she has deprived me of my own child (394).”

Here, too, the imagery of a jealous, angry female, deprived of the honor of bearing a god’s son, gives one two powerful messages: (1) the privilege of bearing a son was one of high status and esteem; and (2) a female goddess denied that privilege wreaked grave consequences on the earth’s future.

Another interesting aspect of Hindus’ view of the deity is how they can believe in one God Brahman the supreme, but can at the same time also have their own personal or individual gods. According to Kingsland, the “individual need not be restricted to one god. Different gods have different attributes and you choose one for the occasion (17).” This lack of restriction also applied to choose goddesses.

Allied with their gods and forming a pantheon of male/female reciprocal relationships are the Hindu goddesses. Two of the most benign and revered are Durga, the mother goddess, and Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Katherine Young puts Hindu goddesses into an interesting perspective. She points out that while the female deity was related to the male gods in their female roles as mothers, sisters, and wives, it was as the role of wife that was most common. Hindus viewed their gods as a “pair of natural phenomena such as heaven and earth or moon and stars(63).”

Katherine Young points to “the nominal identification of women with a goddess” as providing them with a “respite from patriarchal and other hierarchical structures.” These temporary respites, Young contends, confirmed a woman’s worth “and spiritually elevated her existence (75).”

This elevated existence for women transitioned, according to Katherine Young, “when the Brahmanas sowed the seeds of educational disparity and periodically viewed woman as impure, a perspective which increased the hierarchal distinction between men and women (71).” The woman’s ordinary existence in classic Hinduism was to “focus on the husband; he was to be her god (73).” Her daily “sacrifice” to her “god” was in the form of a “barter” of marriage. The woman offered her wifely services in exchange for protection, economic support, and security.

According to Young, the self-sacrifice was understood as a type of religious offering. However, “a woman’s appreciation of her husband as god was more central to her daily religious life and spiritual values than wife as a goddess was to her husband’s orientation (75).”

The “supreme sacrifice” that a wife could perform in Hindu classic times was the option to die on the husband’s funeral pyre the practice of sati. This practice has been outlawed since the 18th century, but not quite defunct. Kingsland (1997) reports that 40 such deaths have been officially recorded since India became independent in 1947.

The alternative to sati was the more common acceptance of widowhood status. As Katherine Young points out, the contrast between sati (which meant “good woman”) and widowhood or vidhava (“the one whose husband is gone”) “was not only unfortunate but positively inauspicious, an “ogress who ate her husband with her karmic jaws (Katherine Young, 1987:83).”

Those same “karmic jaws” entrapped the Hindu woman in an ideology that, according to Katherine Young, “gradually developed with reference to sacerdotalism, education, and asceticism, and made the question of the status of women more complex (72).” During the early classical period, Hinduism changed in reaction to ascetic movements. Katherine Young points out that for the ascetic, “woman represented sexuality, reproduction, and the family, the very obstacles to liberation (70).”

Women in India were, it seems, caught in a “double bind.” Their personal and religious welfare was inextricably bound to the husband on one hand. On the other hand, she was regarded as an obstacle to religious enlightenment and obtaining liberation from the cycle of rebirth.

Does Hinduism fit the stereotype described in Katherine Young’s “Women in Hinduism”: “from the British Raj to contemporary North American journalists) as the tradition of suttee, female seclusion, and dowry-deaths (131)”? The difficulty in even framing this question properly, let alone answering it, in my opinion, lies in the complexity of ancient religion and society which disqualifies the outside observer. For example, in 1987 when an 18-year-old woman in a small village in Rajasthan burned herself on the funeral pyre of her husband (Kingsland: 1998), she became, according to her beliefs “a good woman.”

Knipe (1991) describes the foregoing incident as “one of many graphic illustrations of the manner in which India and Hinduism appear to inhabit multiple time frames.” Secular India epitomizes the modern and condemns sati. Hindu leaders, on the other hand, argued that sati is the ideal of feminine loyalty and has been demonstrated throughout Hindu mythology.

Knipe further points out that “women’s religious activities are understood to be the cement that holds together Hindu society at its basic level, the family (134).” Again, according to Knipe, “one vow (the Savitri) and certain others are directly concerned with the physical and spiritual well-being of males and they can be performed only by an auspicious woman” whose powers “must be properly channeled by traditional marriage 134).”

Knipe further recounts another marvelous Hindu myth illustrating the role of the female goddess in the life of India. It is the “well-known myth of the dismemberment of the goddess Sati, wife of Shiva, by the discus-weapon of Vishnu:

“Shiva, grief-stricken over the fiery suicide of Sati, abandoned his celestial duties and flew wildly about in the heavens with her body over his shoulder. To restore him to normalcy Vishnu hurled his discus skyward. Each time the discus struck the lifeless body a piece of Sati fell to earth, until finallycame multiple parts that returned to the ones of Goddess Earth (130).”

Today “Hindu pilgrims proceed with reverence into temples and shrines that incorporate each unique fragment the left little finger, the genitals, the tongue, the right breast.” India is in this way “the immortal Goddess (130).” For example, in the five-day fifty-mile circumambulation of Kashi (Banaras) women make these pilgrimages by carrying food, bedding, small coins and grains to give to beggars and ascetics “as well as to offer to deities of 108 shrines and temples along the path (Knipe, 133).”

My original goal in my research for this article was to determine if Hinduism is a self-perpetuating patriarchal, women oppressing religion. What I have discovered is that the dichotomy male-female complementarities versus subservience is so deeply embedded in Hinduism and India that I was unable to separate them. There are instances of what would be considered oppressive to women. On the other hand, there are deeply spiritual and complementary roles which support the Vedic ideal that women are “life-affirming,” that India herself is a goddess who sacrificed parts of her body to make the earth.

I shall, therefore, refrain from arrogance and take the advice of a Kenyan woman’s rights leader who was speaking in the context of the controversy surrounding clitoridectomy common in a number of cultures in Africa and Asia: “Let indigenous people fight it according to their own traditions. It will die faster than if others tell us what to do (William Young, 1995:61).”

If Hinduism is patriarchal and its women are oppressed, it is likely that our western intellectualism is not equal to the task of getting inside of three thousand years of Hindu tradition to correct it let alone understand it.

References Cited:

Dharma, Krishna (1998) Ramayana India’s Immortal Tale of Adventure, Love and Wisdom Los Angeles, CA: Torchlight Publishing
Kingsland, Venika M. (1997) The Simple Guide to Hinduism Kent, England: Global Books
Knipe, David M. (1991) Hinduism Experiments in the Sacred San Francisco, CA: Harper
Sered, Susan S. (1994) Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister Religions Dominated by Women
New York, NY: Oxford University Press
– (1987) Women in World Religions Albany, NY: State University of New York
Young, Katherine. “Hinduism.” Today’s Woman in World Religions Ed. Arvind Sharma. Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1994, 59-103
Young, William A. (1995) The World’s Religions Worldviews and Contemporary Issues Englewood Cliffs, NY: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

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