Those who believe that equality for women is a Western concept will be surprised to learn that ancient Hindus accorded women a place of equality, honour and dignity. In the Vedic society, women had the freedom to educate themselves, study the Scriptures and achieve the status of sages, saints and scholars. Hindu literature of ancient India features many women who excelled in intellectual endeavors. Among the most prominent female scholars who gave in-depth discourses on Vedas were Lopamudra, Urvashi, Yami, and Ghosha. The two most illustrious female scholars of Upanishadic age, Gargi and Maitreyi, had challenged and resoundingly defeated the Vedic genius Yajnavalkya in a theological debate in the court of King Janak. These and many other episodes shatter the myth that Hinduism relegates woman to a inferior status or being subservient to man.
Woman, the Goddess
Hindus were the first to conceive God both in male and female form. Hindu Scriptures extol the worship of God as divine mother. Goddess, the Divine Mother, besides giving birth, also gives to Her children all the good things in life; Goddess Luxmi gives wealth and prosperity, Goddess Saraswati bestows knowledge and fine arts, and Goddess Durga provides protection. Therefore, the relationship between the human beings and God is compared with that of a child and a mother who gives birth to a child, nurtures him, gives him life skills and showers him with love and tender care. It is because of this perfect analogy that Hinduism gives the mother a higher status than that of the father and teacher. According to Manu, the first Hindu law-maker of ancient India:
”The rank of a principal is equal to ten ordinary teachers, the rank of a father is equal to that of hundred principals. The rank of a mother is equal to that of one thousand fathers.” Manusmriti II. 145
Woman, the builder of society
Being the teacher of man, woman builds the foundation of society and shapes the destiny of the nation. Since the future of a nation depends upon the quality of the children it produces, motherhood occupies an exalted position in Hinduism. It is solely because of this reason that the role of a housewife is highly recommended for woman, although she does have the freedom to pursue any other occupation along with man. According to Hindu Scripture, Harit Smriti, “ There are two categories of women; those who study the Vedas and the other scriptures and opt to pursue a philosophical path and those who, when they come of age, marry and become householders.” In other words, a woman can either have a full-time career or be a full-time mother, but not both at the same time.
Being a housewife, according to traditional Hindu values, is not considered an inferior status for a woman. Many Hindus feel that the people in the West have difficulty comprehending this concept. That is why, they argue, when the Western world came into contact with India, they failed to understand or appreciate the Hindu attitude in respect of women; they erroneously formed the opinion that Hinduism considers woman as inferior to man.
Hindus who follow traditional family systems believe that the high quality of family life, conducive to bringing up virtuous children, cannot be maintained with part-time motherhood; the task of rearing children is too crucial to be entrusted to baby-sitters or nannies. Many Hindus hold part-time motherhood responsible for the lack of discipline in children, the decay in morality and other social problems of the younger generation.
A woman’s status in a Hindu family
Hindus refer to an unmarried girl as a Kanya, meaning radiant, illustrious, brilliant, and this implies that a girl must acquire all such qualities that can make her excel in every field of activity. During the stage of girlhood, she must develop herself physically, mentally and spiritually in order to enter the life of a householder, the Grahasth Ashram. According to Hinduism, the role of a woman in the household is equal to that of a man. The husband is called Pati, the protector and provider. The wife is called Patni, meaning the preserver and nourisher. Automatically, the division of labour is set out in the family. The Husband and wife team is compared to the two wheels of a chariot working in unison. Hinduism calls wife an Ardhangini, that is, one-half of the whole. The Hindu Scriptures state that no religious ceremony in a family is of any value unless both husband and wife participate in it sitting together. A wife is considered as manager and in-charge of the household, not just someone who cooks, cleans and makes babies. This is how a Hindu woman of Vedic age in India speaks of herself:
“I possess intellect. I have attained a high position in the family. I am a simple but intense individual who speaks truthfully and directly. I am capable of overcoming all difficulties and solving all problems. May my husband, favorably inclined towards me, abide by the rites and duties.” Rig Veda X. 159. 2
The Manusmriti, the first Hindu Code of behavior, outlined detailed rules for respecting women:
1.A lady who is the wife of another and is not a relative, should be addressed as Devi (Revered lady) or Bahen (Sister).
2.Sister-in-law, maternal aunt, paternal aunt, mother-in-law, and teacher’s wife are all worthy of reverence. One should rise and greet them.
3.The paternal aunt, maternal aunt and elder sister should be treated as the mother.
4.The ladies of the house should always be honoured by the father, brother, husband and brother-in-law. Their esteem should be enhanced with gifts of clothing and jewellery which is for the welfare of the family.
5.Divinity resides in families in which the women are respected; where they are not, there is ruin.
6.There is rapid destruction of those families in which womenfolk suffer; where womenfolk have no difficulties that family always prospers.
7.Where insulted, women curse the household and that family is destroyed as if killed by various types of poison.
8.Those who seek blessedness for their families should liberally present adornment, clothing and foodstuff to the womenfolk on festivals and auspicious occasions.
9.That family is certainly blessed where there is mutual satisfaction and co-operation between husband and wife.
10.When the women in the family are happy the whole family is happy. The unhappiness of women results in the unhappiness of the whole family
Although the woman of ancient India enjoyed equal rights with man, her status gradually declined as the Hindu society decayed over the centuries. Some Hindus would rather say that Hindu society decayed because of the decline in the woman’s status, and thus the prophecy of Vedas came true. The glorious ancient India impoverished as woman, once considered the builder, preserver and nourisher of society was turned by man into a dependent whose role was to produce children and be subservient to her husband’s commands. How did that happen ? Many explanations have been offered. Most importantly, her education was totally neglected after the Vedic period and, therefore, she was no longer equipped to play the important role that Vedas had assigned to her. Also, as Hindus moved away from the Vedic values, society became corrupt and no longer honoured woman. The man’s control over both power and money corrupted him, and he subordinated woman, his other and equal half. Some Hindus also believe that the Islamic influence on India made woman inferior to man.
Hindu women of modern India
During the 18th and 19th century, several reform movements that swept across India emphasized that restoring to women the prestige they once enjoyed was the key to the betterment of the society in general. The work of the Arya Samaj, a reformative movement founded by Swami Dayananda in 1875, is most noteworthy in improving the condition of Hindu women. Arya Samaj established schools and colleges for girls and once again, like ancient India, women were allowed to serve as priests. The Western influence on India also made a positive contribution to the movement for emancipation of women, which continued until 1947 when India became independent. India has made tremendous strides in improving the status of women in less than fifty years. However, the progress of rural Hindu woman has been much slower as a result of the lower level of education in the rural population. In urban India, the progress made by women is absolutely phenomenal. In the institutions of higher learning, the modern Hindu women have equalled or surpassed the intellectual prowess of their Vedic contemporaries. They are entering in all professions once considered the exclusive bastion of male dominance. India has now women lawyers, judges, engineers, doctors, scientists and even pilots. In April 1992, Preety Sengupta claimed the honour of being the first Hindu woman to trek from the Canadian Artic to the Magnetic North Pole with an international team of men. In December 1992, the first batch of women recruits, mostly Hindus, joined the Indian Navy. In politics, Hindu women of India play a more prominent role than that of their Canadian counterparts. While Canada has yet to produce its first woman Prime Minister or Premier, the Late Mrs. Indira Gandhi (after Mrs Bhandranayake of Sri Lanka) became the second female head of a government in the world, and an internationally acclaimed politician. India has elected more female politicians than the USA and Canada put together.
Among all the socio-psychological studies done in North America on educated women of modern India, the best known work is of M.L. Cormack of New York. In the forward of her book The Hindu Women, she states: “Most of us have long carried around in our heads a confused picture- dingy and colorful at the same time- of the women of India. This picture is montage of scraps from various sources- the ‘Mother India’ notion of the ‘downtrodden’ women of India…..and the exotic sensuous women of the orient…..When I reached India in the fall of 1950 I was astonished to find something different from this montage: women of dignity, charm, simple beauty in all classes- farm women in the villages, middle class women in the cities, government women in New Delhi- women who were neither helpless and downtrodden nor absorbed in erotic gratification of pampered husbands……..”
Whether or not the women of modern India are treated equally in family units is a question to which there is no simple or standard answer. The wife’s status in a family unit depends on the socio-economic and educational level of the family. In the rural population with low level of education, the husband is still the bread winner in the family and the wife takes care of the household. She is expected to be subservient to her husband. The less educated working class families in the cities also follow the male dominated family system. Violence against women in this population is still a major social problem. The victims, usually uneducated and lacking in skills, suffer in silence due to economic dependence on their husbands, and the absence of government assistance. Moreover, the concept of a single woman living alone is not socially acceptable. Many community groups, usually run by upper-class and westernized women, have emerged to rescue the victims, but they are not very effective due to lack of resources.
Their efforts, however, do raise the level of awareness of women’s issues.
On the other hand, the urban middle and upper-middle class women have made tremendous progress in the post-independent India. They are well educated, emancipated and modern in outlook. In most young Indian families, as in Canada, both husband and wife have to hold jobs in order to maintain a good standard of living. The modern Hindu wife has to juggle her job and household duties, for doing domestic chores is still a taboo even for an educated husband. However, most working Hindu housewives in cities are luckier than their Canadian counterparts in easing the burden of housework. Since cheap labour is in abundance, hiring domestic help is a common practice. In many families, the parents living with their married son take care of their grand-children and the housework.
It should be mentioned here that the modern Hindu family is paying a heavy price for following the Western pattern of lifestyle. Part-time motherhood is severely straining the family fabric. The neglect of children due to working mothers is cloning the North American social problems in urban Hindu society. Drug abuse, school drop-outs, pre-marital sex and pregnancies, lack of respect for parents and elders, poor work ethics and other adolescent problems that exist among the children of liberated, modern working parents, have become a source of acute anxiety to Hindu community leaders in large cities. They are seriously questioning the wisdom of accepting the North American definition of gender equality. They wholeheartedly support the concept of equal opportunities for women, which is consistent with traditional Hindu values, but they have trouble accepting the notion that being a housewife is an inferior status for a woman. They believe that the primary purpose of education for a woman is not to prepare her for a job; a well educated mother nurturing virtuous children and sustaining a wholesome family life makes a far more superior contribution to society than bringing home a pay cheque; only women possess the innate qualities that are crucial for this role; managing a household is a highly skilled task; the idea of a husband going to work and a wife running the household is an equal division of labour i.e. the two equal and well-balance wheels of the chariot. The leaders of the Women’s Lib movement in Canada may have trouble comprehending this Hindu concept of gender equality.
Hindu women in Canada
Since the large majority of Hindus come from the educated middle class of urban India, Hindu women in Canada are much better educated than any other religious group from South Asia. It would be very difficult to find a Hindu woman, with the exception of elderly women, with less than a high school education. However, their qualifications are lower than those of men. A large majority of them are working mothers. One will find Hindu women in almost every occupation ranging from university lecturers to industrial workers. Many highly qualified women are employed in clerical jobs either because their qualifications are not recognized in Canada or because of racial discrimination. Many employers would argue that the fault lies with the lack of job interview skills, and assertiveness, or effective oral communication due to shyness and a unique accent. For some women who lived a sheltered life in India and have never had to work, going for a job interview is a frightening experience. For the newly arrived Hindu woman, the cultural barrier makes it very hard to look straight into the eyes of a male prospective employer and to talk to him assertively to sell her skills. However, Canadian born women or the young urbanite women who were employed in India do not have those handicaps. Many Canadian Hindus believe that their girls are more studious and better academic performer than boys. They are able to balance the grace of a Hindu woman with the assertiveness of a North American woman.
On the domestic scene, Hindu women’s problems are no different than those of Canadian working wives. Most Hindu women have to juggle their job and their domestic responsibilities. To Hindu men, the idea of doing domestic chores is a humiliating one, an assault on their male ego. However, most educated and sensible Hindu husbands gradually do learn to tame their ego and start sharing housework with their wives. However, they usually keep it as a well guarded secret from their friends. Many Hindus men complain that their wives have become too assertive, and it sometimes causes friction in their relationships. The incidence of physical violence against women do occur in Hindu homes, but at a much lower rate than in the mainstream families. Many victims usually suffer in silence due to the fear of breaking up the marriage. The social stigma of divorce still exists. Many Indian community groups, run by women, and Hindu organizations have recognized this problem and provide assistance to women in distress.
On the whole, Canadian Hindu women are much more liberated than the women in India. Their Sarees should not fool anyone ! Most Hindu temples and cultural organizations in Canada have women members on their management committees and boards. Some are even lay-priests and religious scholars. These developments are certainly revolutionary considering the fact that the bulk of Hindus came to Canada only during the last twenty-five years.
Book: Hindus of Canada
Author: Ajit Adhopia