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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Women and Hinduism

The issue of women in Hinduism for me is as conflicted as the issue of arranged marriage (Arranged Marriage). On the surface it is easy to see that women are often treated as less important than men and leave it at that. The truth is much more complicated.

So, on the one hand: Within society women are often treated as less important, lower souls, whose only purpose in life is to cook, clean, and obey their mother-in-laws. For some reason an idea came up that to be born as a woman is a lesser embodiment and that all souls strive to be men in their births. (This is completely ridiculous, seeing as how we need both genders for the world to keep functioning. A human birth is the highest, but there is no distinction between what gender or race of human birth). Women are sometimes treated quite terribly in India. Families they are marrying into might require a crippling dowry from her family (even though dowries are now illegal) and sometimes young brides are killed by their new families for being "disobedient."

There is an ancient tradition called sati in which women would throw themselves onto the funeral pyres of their husbands and burn alive. This was seen as such a beautiful devotion that sometimes girls have been forced into funeral pyres. This practice is also illegal. Historically widows have been treated very poorly in society. It is sometimes seen as their fault that their husbands died, some bad karma of theirs. Until recently they would be forced to live secluded in "widows houses" for the rest of their lives and forbidden to wear nice clothes or jewelry.

When a young bride first goes to her new home, in some places it is tradition for her to be taken straight to the kitchen to cook a perfectly round roti (like a tortilla) to prove her worth in household duties.

All this from a culture who worships goddesses. A very mixed message, to be sure. I think the pure ideals of Hinduism have been somewhat corrupted by human thought. This idea of the man being superior is not part of the religion, it's just a habit of men to think that way because they have the power. There is such a strong ideal for a woman to worship her husband as her Lord, but too often people forget that the husband is also to adore his wife as the goddess.

The perfect marriage in Hindu tradition is that of Rama and Sita. Women are taught to strive to be like Sita, who is perfect in devotion. When her husband, a prince, chose exile in a forest, she willingly followed him in all his hardship. But he also cares for her and goes to the ends of the earth to rescue her when she is kidnapped. Even in hunting the golden deer for her, he always wanted to make her happy.

Being a modern and independent woman has been a tremendous struggle for me. I still have in my mind all the stories of good women who were meek, obeyed their husbands, and were phenomenal at housework. I was taught to always cook fresh food, never serve my family leftovers, to do housework with no expectation of praise or reward. I expected to be a housewife when I grew up and adjusting to the fact that I have come into a modern life and have to work has been difficult.

Sometimes I want very much to be strong and independent and capable and self-sufficient and all these things that women in the west are praised for. I am learning how to do that because I'm dating a modern American man and my plans for an arranged marriage did not work out at all. But sometimes I feel guilt over not being better at the housework. My instincts are still strongly traditional and old-fashioned. That is something that I will struggle with for a long time, I'm sure.

But my role model is no longer the woman who lit her husband's oil lamp for so many years that he forgot who she was, I strive now to be like the great princess Draupadi.

The most famous story of Draupadi is the dice game. For those who don't know it: Draupadi was married to five brothers (yes, at the same time). One of them was in a dice match with an evil Uncle who was cheating. As the brother became more and more involved in the game he was unable to stop wagering things and he staked and lost all of his brothers and himself and finally their wife.

Draupadi was dragged into the hall by her hair, while in her period. She looked to her husbands to defend her honor, but they were gambled away and were only slaves now. The evil cousins tell Draupadi that she is also a slave now and to take off her clothes. They call her a slut for having five husbands (there's a story behind that, it was her destiny and had to happen that way). She argues that because her husband had already lost himself before staking her that she no longer belonged to him and could not be gambled away. "Can one belong to someone who has lost himself?"

The king, presiding over this, says that it does not make a difference and she has been lost. One of the evil cousins comes over to strip off her clothes and she prays to Krishna. Her sari will not end. He pulls and pulls and pulls on the pallu and it just keeps going, never disrobing her. Soon he is in a mountain of cloth and she is still clothed. She raises her hands in prayer and a jackal cries.

The king is so freaked that he tells her to choose a favor. She asks that her husbands be free. The king does so and offers another favor, but she refuses. He asks her why she wants nothing for herself.

"Greed destroys all things," she replies, "I refuse greed. Save my husbands."

One cousin comments, "Husbands were drowning and Draupadi is the raft that saves them."

(all quoted dialogue is from the translation in the Peter Brooks' Mahabharata).

Now there is a fierce, strong role model for women. Still a great wife, but also confident and sure in herself. They needed her and she saved them.

It is my hope that Hinduism will move more toward revering women as goddesses and respecting their unique power to create life. I think the scriptures support the idea that all are equally divine. It is not just the female saints like Amma and those who call to mind the divine mother, it is all females. They deserve respect and love and to be cherished by their husbands and their husbands' families.


  1. The practice of Sati can be attributed to Sati herself, whereby she threw herself into the yagna because Daksha belittled Shiva in the presence of everyone. She did it out of devotion. The scriptures in no way say it is appropriate. Like you said, everything has been corrupted by humans. Women are still very much respected in parts of India, then again there are always people who disrespect women everywhere across different countries.

    While back in the days, women were confined to the kitchen, we can now thank everyone whose lobbied to pave a better way for women - feminists for instance. Education is the key. Nowadays in the metropolitan areas in India, equality is practiced. Women are allowed to pursue careers, do what they want and still are able to make a home. Dowry while illegal, I'm sure it's still being practiced in rural villages although as people venture out to the cities, they bring back a new perspective.

  2. The most common reason for sati was the muslim invasions, and Hindu women jumped into the fire to escape rape at the hands of muslim invaders

    Even in 1947, during Partition, thousands of Hindu and Sikh women, trapped on the wrong side of the border jumped into the fire than become breeding machines inside an islamic harem

    Even about 5 years ago, I read the case of some bangladeshi hindu women who had been abducted by muslims commit suicide by Sati

  3. Yes, Dhurga, the lack of respect for women is a problem across all countries and all races. And of course there are many wonderful men who do respect women. It's never all or nothing! And hey, if someone truly was devoted to her husband and wanted to die with him, I have no problem with that. It's the few cases where girls are forced into it that's scary!

    And to Anonymous, I don't know if it's called the same thing or not. In this post I'm not speaking of committing suicide by setting oneself on fire. That's a separate issue. This is simply talking about women killing themselves because their husband is dead and that is what they were expected to do.

  4. Amba,
    I think you are confusing 2 separate issues - Treatment of women in developing countries and Treatment of women in Hinduism as a faith. Both are separate studies involving complex socio-economic, educational, cultural, historical factors though sometimes they get intermingled at different levels. Due to my lack of time, I can not comment more right now. However, let me tell you that there's no dearth of strong-willed and courageous Hindu women either in Indian history or in scriptures like Vedas/Mahabharat/Puranas.

  5. Certainly, in the scriptures and the history there are great, strong women. I am asking for people to remember that. To remember that we worship female energy.

    I believe that what Basu was asking was the experience of being a woman in the Hindu faith today. My observation has been that there is a disparity between behavior and words.

    Though the scriptures say to revere women, so few people actually do!

  6. Oh and SM, if you have time at some point and want to put together an essay on the two topics and what makes them different, I could publish it as a guest blog. Just email it to!

  7. It's true that Hinduism has more male-dominated practices. Only recently women are legally allowed to be the main priests of a temple.(Not sure about Church though). Such practices are more due to the attitude of the society than the religion. They're part of the social customs and are not religious. They're more evident in marriage due to the undue favor done to the bridegrooms and there is nothing religious about them.
    Sita, the wife of Lord Rama, was asked to prove her virginity twice, by entering into fire, inspite of the widespread polygamy. Ramayana justifies it by saying that it was more due to social compulsions and it was expected from King.(something like Mr.Clinton's case). Hinduism no where suggests entering fire.
    And miserably, her last words were - "this world isn't suitable for women like me, take me into your lap mother earth". It's actually women like Sita,Savithri etc., who have to be blamed for setting the bar too high for rest of the women.
    Moreover, feeling unequal is more a personal, self imposed feeling than anything else.

  8. than you aamba for writing this.

    - basu

  9. Someone above has correctly pointed out above the Title should be Women in Developing countries NOT HInduism...

    Let me explain you.
    1) Arranged marriage is something which is something present in our Indian Society..& it is same thing which i common among Indian Cristians ,Muslims also..However Arranged marriage is always NOT arranged in some cases if Boy likes Girl vice versa they told their parents..If every one is Agee then one go for marriage..main thing is Approval of your Parents...
    Now Lets talk about Ancient India...and typical Hindu Time..At that time Girls choose their husband in Swamvar..Girl can choose the boy she like then marriage happens( e.g in case of Arjun -Draupdi) ,PrithviRaj Chauhan ..History is full of them..

    Now lets Discuss about freedom of womens our Hindu History is full of queens with Armours ,Combat Role e.g Rani Laskhmi Bai (The Queen famous for 1857 Rebellion,Rani Jodhabai etc detail is as below

    Lets Discuss about Sati Pratha...Sati Pratha was never present in hinduism before Muslim Invaders attacked us..Great examples are 3 Wives of King Rashrath ,kunti the mother of 5 Pandavas she never burnt herself...Vedas and Manu Smriti talks about Remarriage of Widow Girls..Now lets talk about its Origin when Islamic Invaders attached India which ever part they win they make women as sex slaves...If their husband get killed in War they have to become as sex slaves for muslims ..which was never acceptable to hindu Girls there in Rajasthan the womens of warriors starting them a fire known as Johar....Even during partition what ever hindu/Sikh womens left in Pakistan ..set themselves a fire or jumped in to well to save their honour from jihadis.till this day forced conversion thing happen in Pakistan where yong hindu girls abducted and converted to islam...Hoever there are some cases in past when women Immolated them selves with their husband because of immense love or something but they are never considered as ideal ..Detail about Sati Pratha ..

    I think hinduism is the only religion where number of Devis surpasses the number of Devts

    For Dowry :- details are here http://pushti-

    So Amba I feel that when you try to associate Sati with Hinduism this will be unfair with the souls of those brave women who Immolated themselves to save themselves from being DisHonoured by Muslims..No Hindu Scripture Permit this thing..However by last 100 year No Sati case has happened in India..

    One thing I want to emphasis that should refrain from associating these social evils with Hinduism...You always need to keep in mind India was in Colonial Rule for more than 1000 year's under Muslims and Britishers...The Bloodiest was the Islamic Conquest of India..We have Defended ourselves from Invaders ..that was a big responsibility of our ancestors to Save there Dharma and the honor of their womens...Our Womens also fighted till death to fight these Invaders...Those who accepted the Defeat become Muslim...Read the article how Queen Lakshmi Bai Bravely Fighted with Britishers when she she felt that there is No way left..she Immolated her self before Britishers touched her(for Info when she was in the battle of 1857 she was widow at that time). ..So it is Natural in a society to have some social evils some where introduced and some were self invented...and Yes the Hindus fighted against these evils and they are completely out of India.....Anyway it is unfair to link these with Hinduism as done in this article or the title itself is Wrong....So please never as such associate HIndusism with what is happening in India..Hinduism is present in other countries like Malasia,Nepal ,Indonesia etc where these practices are NOT Present....they are also Hindu

  10. Good description over about Women in Hinduism ..Please check

  11. May be people might don't know Many Hindu Women are world renowned spiritual leader in present time like 'Mātā Amṛtānandamayī Devī' ,Bhrahma kumaris etc