Part 1 – A reactive movement
Feminism – The word is tossed around a lot these days. In normal parlance it is understood as equal rights and opportunities for women in every walk of life – education, inheritance, voting rights, work pay, or even driving license in some cases.
If we trace the origin of the feminist movements, they started off largely in the post Industrial Revolution Europe of the 19th Century for the rights related to voting, inheritance and employment which were till then reserved only to men. Gradually the movement, the ideology spread to various parts of the globe – the US, the Middle East, China, and today is also finding voices in the Indian society.
If one observes carefully, it comes to light that the feminist ideology, like several other ideologies, was a reactionary ideology which came into existence to counter the exploitative patriarchal European society. Patriarchy is understood as men having predominant control of the society – which eventually leads to discrimination against women. However, this patriarchy was largely attributable to the papal authority in the medieval Europe which manifested into rampant “witch – hunting” across medieval Europe in counts of hundreds of thousands. (Pope John Paul II had formally issued a letter of apology in 1995 admitting the Church’s complacency in dealing with women inequality, among other things)
A similar scenario erupted with the advent and expansion of Islam in the Middle East resulting in further normalization of female exploitation. (For starters, the word for women “aurat” is derived from the Arabic word “awrat” which translates to defectiveness/imperfection, among other things)
Thus, the feminist movement was a reactive movement to counter the society’s atrocities on women largely attributable to the religious blindfolding of the society towards women, rather than creating a new, pro-active, independent school of thought. It can be considered as a revolution of sorts, which erupted to counter radical beliefs, mindset and malpractices against women.
So the question arises – Was religious patriarchy prevalent all across the globe? Or were there any other schools of thoughts that existed with respect to the way women were/should be looked upon? If yes, then would the revolutionary mindset which was required to counter the European and the Middle Eastern scenario still hold relevance?
Part 2 – The Bharatiya scenario
One such part of the globe – the cradle to the oldest of the civilizations is Bharat i.e. India. A deep dive into the Bharatiya civilization reveals that it is perhaps the most advanced and liberal civilization that has witnessed ideas and philosophies which are timeless (“sanatan”) and relevant till date.
Further, unlike the Western Abrahamic world, the belief system and the social system in Bharat is quite different and unique. Hinduism that we know today, also known as Sanatan Dharma (Dharma does NOT mean religion), is a broader, homogenous philosophy and not a single-scripture based, uniform religion (A way of life, as defined by the Supreme Court of India). The Hindu society draws its understanding on various scientific, spiritual and social matters, from hundreds of scriptures, written over thousands of years, followed in varying proportions by hundreds of communities and sects spread across the geographical landscape.
So in context of women rights, the question arises – what does the Sanatan Dharma (broadly, the Hindu Dharma – since Sanatan Dharma is practiced by majority residents of the Indian subcontinent termed as Hindus by foreign explorers and invaders) say about women and their rights, and how have we, as Bharatiyas, imbibed them in our lives. The answers is scattered, in major scriptures like the Vedas, Upanishads, etc. and can also be drawn from tales of the past ranging from Ramayan and Mahabharat right up to Savitribai Phule.
Patriarchy puts men in a higher position than women, leading to an oppressor-oppressed relation between the two. Hence equality becomes the first step and then comes further rights and independence of women. However, the Hindu outlook towards women has been one of independence rather than equality since women were naturally positioned as equals in the Hindu world wherein we talk about “Ardha-nareshwar” and if husbands are called “Pati-Parmeshwar” then wives too, are called “Ardh-angini”. There never existed an oppressor-oppressed relation to begin with. The word “Pati”, derived from Sanskrit, is often misinterpreted as “master/owner” and accordingly portrays “Patni” as “servant”. But the origin of both the words can be traced to the Nighantu Shastra, which is a thematic glossary to Sanskrit words, according to which; both these words come from the parent word “Pa” which denotes “caretaker” (“Paalak”). Hence we can say, “Pati” and “Patni” are caretakers of each other (equality) rather than master and servant (higher-lower equation).
And drawing similarities between a man and woman, especially in terms of who can do what and whatnot, would be like comparing fruit and flower – each having their own specialities and shortcomings – but meant to complement each other than be compared to each other. And if men and women were indeed meant to be similar, as propounded by modern-day feminists, then why would they be different from each other in terms of physical attributes as well?
The social structure may warrant women to perform certain duties – such as maintaining the household, raising children, etc. But similar principles apply to men too – except that the nature of duties is different (and require a longer discussion honestly speaking). At the same time, nowhere do any Hindu scriptures restrict women from doing anything over and above their duties – as compared to explicit “Do’s” and “Don’ts” preached largely by religious orders and authorities around the world leading to tacit patriarchy.
And whenever need be, women have stepped up to perform those duties that are usually associated with men. While the world is celebrating Kamla Harris’ vice-presidency in 2020, our country has witnessed many valiant women throughout the ages, who were queens even without a king and have successfully run and protected their kingdoms. Some of them are nicely highlighted in this verse below from the “Ekatmata Stotra” chanted in the RSS:
अरुन्धत्यनसूय च सावित्री जानकी सती
द्रौपदी कन्नगे गार्गी मीरा दुर्गावती तथा ॥१०॥
लक्ष्मी अहल्या चन्नम्मा रुद्रमाम्बा सुविक्रमा
निवेदिता सारदा च प्रणम्य मातृ देवताः ॥११॥
Arundhati – Wife of Rishi Vashishtha (Sapta-Rishi) who was known for her chastity (Arundhati – Vashishtha are symbolized by the multiple star systems Mizar and Alcor which, unlike other star systems, revolve in synchrony around its barycenter, instead of one revolving around the other – again, symbolizing equality and complementary nature of husband and wife)
Anusuya – Wife of Rishi Atri (Sapta-rishi) who was known for her chastity
Savitri – From the tale of Savitri and Satyavan
Janki – Another name for Sita
Sati – First wife of Lord Shiva
Draupadi – From Mahabharat
Kannagi – From the Tamil epic Silapattikaram who is today worshipped as goddess Pattini in Tamil Nadu
Gargi – Vedic philosopher whose tales are found in the Upanishads
Meera – Famous Krishna devotee from the 16th Century
Durgavati – 16th Century queen of Gondwana (Modern day MP/Vidarbha) who took on Akbar’s army
Lakshmibai – Queen of Jhansi in the 19th Century
Ahalya – Rani Ahalyabai Holkar of Indore in the 18th Century
Channamma – Queen of Kittur who fought the British East India Company in 1829
Rudramba – Rudrama Devi – the Kakatiya dynasty queen from the 13th Century
Nivedita – Disciple of Swami Vivekananda
Sharda Devi – Wife of Swami Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Guru Maa of Swami Vivekananda
Manusmruti – which has time and again been referred to prove the Hindu society as a patriarchal one – has verses like these which are kept away from the public limelight and lost in a lopsided narrative:
पितृभिर्भ्रातृभिश्चैताः पतिभिर्देवरैस्तथा । पूज्या भूषयितव्याश्च बहुकल्याणमीप्सुभिः ॥ ५५ ॥
3.55. Women must be honoured and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands, and brothers-in-law, who desire (their own) welfare.
यत्र नार्यस्तु पूज्यन्ते रमन्ते तत्र देवताः । यत्रैतास्तु न पूज्यन्ते सर्वास्तत्राफलाः क्रियाः ॥ ५६ ॥
3.56. Where women are honoured, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite yields rewards.
शोचन्ति जामयो यत्र विनश्यत्याशु तत् कुलम् । न शोचन्ति तु यत्रैता वर्धते तद् हि सर्वदा ॥ ५७ ॥
3.57. Where the female relations live in grief, the family soon wholly perishes; but that family where they are not unhappy ever prospers.
जामयो यानि गेहानि शपन्त्यप्रतिपूजिताः । तानि कृत्याहतानीव विनश्यन्ति समन्ततः ॥ ५८ ॥
3.58. The houses on which female relations, not being duly honoured, pronounce a curse and perish completely as if destroyed by magic.
अरक्षिता गृहे रुद्धाः पुरुषैराप्तकारिभिः । आत्मानमात्मना यास्तु रक्षेयुस्ताः सुरक्षिताः ॥ १२ ॥
9.12. Women, confined in the house under trustworthy and obedient servants, are not (well) guarded; but those who of their own accord keep guard over themselves, are well guarded.
(Self-dependency and self-defence – key ingredients towards women empowerment)
प्रजनार्थं महाभागाः पूजार्हा गृहदीप्तयः । स्त्रियः श्रियश्च गेहेषु न विशेषोऽस्ति कश्चन ॥ २६ ॥
9.26. Between wives (striyah) who (are destined) to bear children, who secure many blessings, who are worthy of worship and irradiate (their) dwellings, and between the goddesses of fortune (sriyah, who resides) in the houses (of men), there is no difference whatsoever.
(Concept of “Ghar ki Lakshmi” wherein the wife marks an overall prosperity)
काममामरणात् तिष्ठेद् गृहे कन्यार्तुमत्यपि । न चैवैनां प्रयच्छेत् तु गुणहीनाय कर्हि चित् ॥ ८९ ॥
9.89. (But) the maiden, though marriageable, should rather stop in (the father’s) house until death, than that he should ever give her to a man destitute of good qualities.
त्रीणि वर्षाण्युदीक्षेत कुमार्यर्तुमती सती । ऊर्ध्वं तु कालादेतस्माद् विन्देत सदृशं पतिम् ॥ ९० ॥
9.90. Three years let a damsel wait, though she is marriageable; but after that time let her choose for herself a bridegroom (of) equal (caste and rank).
अदीयमाना भर्तारमधिगच्छेद् यदि स्वयम् । नैनः किं चिदवाप्नोति न च यं साऽधिगच्छति ॥ ९१ ॥
9.91. If, being not given in marriage, she herself seeks a husband, she incurs no guilt, nor (does) he whom she weds.
अन्योन्यस्याव्यभिचारो भवेदामरणान्तिकः । एष धर्मः समासेन ज्ञेयः स्त्रीपुंसयोः परः ॥ १०१ ॥
9.101. ’Let mutual fidelity continue until death,’ this may be considered as the summary of the highest law for husband and wife.
Ramayan is often termed patriarchal every now and then. During a king’s coronation, traditionally, it is only the king who is crowned and is seated on his throne. However, the coronation of Ram is one such exception wherein, both Sita and Ram were crowned together and were seated on a common throne meant for both of them.
Also, the banishment of Sita from Ayodhya was on account of the people’s growing discontent on Sita’s character and not Ram’s own suspicion. Further, letting Sita remain the queen when the people were not content with it, would have only been termed as imposing personal decisions over people’s sentiment which needs to be respected by a king at all costs. Not many know that Ram had placed a statue of Sita made out of gold, next to him for the Ashwamedh yagna held years after Sita had left Ayodhya and he did not remarry out of his love for Sita.
Many more such ideas on women education, role in the administration, family laws and relationships, inheritance rights, etc. can also be found several other texts such as the Vedas, the Yajnavalkya Smriti, Chanakya Neeti, Kama Sutra, Ramayan, Mahabharat, etc. which would be termed as “progressive” today. However, their existence can be traced back to millennia ago. Unfortunately, as time passed, they seemed to have disappeared from the public eye – in letter and in spirit.