Empowerment and Disempowerment of Women in Hinduism

Articles that define the role of women in the Hindu religion are found in Hindu deities. The role of women in Hinduism is usually disputed across discussion groups with some defining it as intolerant while others deeming it to be fair1. There has been a reference to the perfect woman in the Hindu culture (usually stipulated in Ramayana and Mahabharata) as one who practices chaste and is pure. However, some texts such as the Manu and Smriti propagate the limitation of women’s rights in the wider Hindu culture2.

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In modern times, the role of the Hindu woman revolves around purity and chastity which have been the traditional principles of defining the Hindu woman. However, this is a drift from earlier traditions of the Hindu culture which defined the woman as highly respected and a professional courtesan. Such were the likes of Amrapali and Vesali who depicted a true representation of the traditional Hindu woman. Other definitions of the Hindu woman represented a spectacular magician, mathematician, and sacred devadasis3. European scholars have tried to define the Indian woman especially in the 19th century where many attempts have been made to portray the Hindu woman as naturally inclined to chastity and very virtuous. These definitions have however been a bone of contention with such representation being open to dispute. This study will therefore try to demystify the impact of Hinduism on the empowerment of its women.

Women Empowerment

Motherhood

The Hindu religion empowers women at many different levels. It accords respect to the mother in various respects that could be sometimes assumed prejudice. Various chapters in Hindu scriptures outline the privileges the mother enjoys which ensure that they are empowered throughout their life. Sons are required by the Hindu culture to take care of their mothers at all times. This is regardless of the age of the mother or her social standing. Moreover, Hindu texts stipulate that sons should take care of their mothers even if they are outcasts4. This provision empowers the Hindu mother against social constraints that might manifest in financial strains or social attacks from society. This guarantees the Hindu mother support from the son at all times. Comparison is made to an outcast father who is not accorded the same treatment as an outcast mother. Hinduism states that an outcast father can be forsaken but a mother cannot5.

The Hindu mother is said to exceed a thousand fathers. Fathers are also equated to a hundred professors6. This goes to show the level of respect or value the Hindu mother is accorded. Just to magnify this fact, the professor is equated to ten teachers. Undoubtedly, the Hindu woman is pit among the most highly regarded people in the society above teachers, professors, and fathers7.

Hinduism also outlines the way its followers can conquer the world. At the bedrock of this success lies the mother. Hinduism, therefore, states that for a follower to conquer the world, he/she ought to gain the respect of the mother first. This is however observed to be achieved through the respect of the father and service to the preceptor. The respect of the mother is the middle religion in Hinduism and is often referred to as the filament8. It is therefore evident that the Hindu mother is accorded a lot of respect though Hinduism and her wrongs are sometimes justified through cultural practices. This can be attested through the guarantee of care even if she was an outcast.

Property Rights

The clause on property rights for the Hindu woman is stipulated in Arthashastra and Manusamhita documents of the Hindu religion. Women’s property rights are also found in the Stridhan which denotes the woman’s right to possess or acquire property. This is usually summarized as financial assistance to the woman which might be in form of land or money. It might also involve other material stuff like ornaments which may be given by the husbands, friends, in-laws, or other external parties. However, the property is subdivided into various facets under the Hindu religion. One facet is the property women obtain from their parents before they are married while the other common facet is the property she obtains from the husband. The woman could also get property from the brother9.

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Prenuptial agreements are also observed under Hindu customs which protects the property of the woman. Prenuptials also bind the groom to pay a bride price to both the parents and bridegroom. The efforts placed are usually meant to ensure the security of the bridegroom. This, therefore, helps her in terms of finances. Such property submitted by the groom is to be untouchable to the husband, therefore, remaining exclusive to the wife except in times of emergencies10. However, some sections of the Hindu religion contradict the right for women to own property by stipulating that the woman has no right to own property and all property owned in the course of marriage remains exclusive to the husband. Some sections also stipulate that a mother’s property solely remains in the hands of her daughters upon her demise but under authentic Hindu law, sons and daughters both have equal right to inherit property11. Nevertheless, Hinduism empowers daughters by entitling them to their father’s properties; equal to a fourth of the value of the property the brothers get. The property inheritance of daughters from the father is however observed only on unmarried daughters because married daughters are assumed to inherit property from their husbands12. In the absence of brothers, the daughter becomes the only heir to the father’s property.

Female gods

Around the 5th B.C.E, alternative models were unveiled to redefine the role of the woman which was highly characterized by oppression from practices stemming from traditions stipulated by Upanishadic13. This new model not only defined the perception of Hindu women but also helped liberate men from lower castes against Upanishadic traditions. At some point, women were taken to be small gods. This made women to be regarded as very important in this religion. Some traditions were just meant to raise the status of women. These however have disappeared in recent where the has been a disregard for women. This was majorly emphasized on males changing their behavior once the women devoted their lives to them in marriage14. This new expectation of the male folks accorded women a certain degree of liberty from male dominance.

Other goddesses like the goddess kali who was attributed to the ability to produce energy also elevated the woman on various societal fronts. She acted as a role model for many Hindu women and men alike. Her power can be attributed to the enthusiasm of women to fight for their rights. The goddess also symbolizes the attribute of time and the need for Hinduism change15. This is where women stem their fight for change from. However, the goddess is also attributed as dark and violent. Her perception as a symbol of annihilation still exists to date.

Preserves of Tradition

Hindu women have in the past and present been the custodians of Hindu tradition through generations16. Their role as the custodians of culture and value has been protected by the Hindu religion as the bedrock to which children come to appreciate Hinduism. As opposed to women in different religions, Hinduism has had a great number of women religious leaders in the past. These women have been points of reference to practices of the Hindu religion17. This, therefore, accords them respect. The very essence of Hinduism survival therefore solely depends on women passing on their knowledge to their children.

Disempowerment of Women

Remarriage

Most Hindu customs allow the woman to remarry if the husband is impotent or unavailable for a number of years. However, the principle of remarriage is varied across the caste system. In higher castes, the woman is more restricted to remarry than in lower castes18. When women are widowed, they are subjected to strict religious practices that define the rest of their lives. The law on remarriage is therefore very rigid for most Hindu women. The presence of windows in families is sometimes sacrificial. In some cases, for instance, they are expected to devote themselves to fulfilling religious calls. This is more emphasized in women of higher castes.

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In the Hindu classification of widows, there exist three categories of widows: first-time widows, women who leave their husbands for another, and widows who lack brothers in law who can make them bear children. However, in the analysis of widowhood in Hinduism, it should be noted that widows in Hinduism involve those that have left their husbands willingly and those who have left their husbands because of the inability to produce offspring.

Some quarters of the Hindu faith however allow for remarriage but this situation is anything but ideal. There also exists a classification of rights for different classes of widows whereby women who are widowed as a result of the inability to have offspring cannot have the same rights as those who have been married once or twice. These oppressive religious practices observed on widows limits their ability to progress after the demise of the husband.

This situation leaves most women poor and dependant on charity. Research studies undertaken in 2007 show that about 3% of Hindu women in India are widowed.

Many widows are often destitute and beg for survival. Others however depend on the philanthropic to have a meal19. The study also shows that these women are chained by religious beliefs which make them fearful of overstepping the cultural barriers that prevent them from progressing.

Male Control

The Hindu woman is characterized by eminent male control in the course of her life. This leaves the woman is like a subordinate to the wishes of the males in her life. The dominance of the Hindu male over the female is majorly derived front the Manu. The Hindu woman is practically controlled by her father when she is still a maiden. This control is to be observed until the point to which she is ready for marriage. The husband then takes control of her life in marriage; which is a big part of her adult life. This is also the point to which she is very productive, but the dominance of the husband’s wishes is very prominent. The brothers then take control of her life when she is a widow until she dies.

In the course of her life, the woman is expected to practice certain personal actions that are male-centered. For example, when the woman is in her maiden years, Hinduism requires her to ensure virginity in anticipation of the husband. After her maiden life, the woman is expected to be married, and most often, the husband is chosen by the parents. In the course of her marriage, the woman is expected to totally dedicate her sexual life to her husband. This should be in form of rearing children and most preferably male. In her life as a widow, the woman is expected to be chaste and single for the rest of her life as a sign of dedication to the absent husband. These stages of the woman’s life are characterized by strong male dominance. There is therefore little room for the woman’s participation. In accordance with the law of Manu, the woman is at all times expected to be obedient and ready to sacrifice herself for her husband. This should be observed with much devotion from her part to the wishes of the husband.

This fact is evidenced in the story of Sita who observed staunch loyalty to her husband even after he denounced her severally because of the advice he got from his servants about her impurity. She sticks to the husband at all times with the sole ambition of cementing a relationship with the husband and giving him a child20. It should however be noted that women are being more independent and vocal against such religious expectations.

Worship

The caste system was never formalized. However, after the institutionalization of the Manu law, this happened. This is estimated to be around the first century. The caste system is itself about the Brahmin class. This class highly discriminated against women in observing worship rituals. Women were therefore prevented from attaining Moksha, which was a high-level worship status in religious Hindu practice. This was further compounded by the requirement for women to be prepared early enough for marriage. This created a barrier for women to ascend the religious ladder of worship because it tied them down to domestic duties.

Around 800 B.C.E, the Brahmin class was replaced by the Upanishadic which segregated the role of the man into four stages and the role of the woman into three21. Women were basically defined by maidenhood, marriage and eventual widowhood. These stages were however dictated by her relationship with men or her husband. The stages that defined the progress of women however did not lead to the woman attaining Moksha.

Conclusion

The way Hinduism treats the Hindu woman varies across decades, age, marital status, and other factors such as interpretation of the scripture. It is however important to note that the Hindu woman had been accorded much respect in the past than she is now. Traditionally, Hindu women were deemed small gods, mathematicians, and magicians. Present-day Hinduism has however redefined the role of the woman to be a subordinate to the wishes of the male.

Studies have shown that the Hindu woman is more entangled in regressive religious and cultural practices. These practices are believed to deter the development of the Hindu woman in all dimensions of life. Globalization is quickly redefining the impact of Hinduism on its women. Hindu women are currently observed to break away from religious practices that tie them down on economic, political and social fronts. The influence of religions is usually on a personal level. With this, and not all Hindu women fall subject to the Hindu culture. The role Hinduism plays in the empowerment or disempowerment of women is therefore set to evolve.

Reference List

  1. Abbe, JA, An analysis of Hinduism, Cosimo Inc., New York, 2007.
  2. Boraian, MP, Empowerment of rural women: the deterrents & determinants, Concept Publishing Company, California, 2008.
  3. Denton, LT, Female ascetics in Hinduism, SUNY Press, New York, 2004.
  4. Fowler, J, Hinduism: beliefs and practices, Brighton, Sussex Academic Press, 2004.
  5. Fuller, CJ, The camphor flame: popular Hinduism and society in India, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2007.
  6. Jayawardena, K, Embodied violence: communalising women’s sexuality in South Asia, Zed Books, New Delhi, 1996.
  7. Jean, A, Hindu manners, customs, and ceremonies, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1897.
  8. John, H, Women in religion, Continuum, London, 1994.
  9. Klostermaier, KK, A survey of Hinduism, SUNY Press, New York, 2007.
  10. Leslie, J, Roles and rituals for Hindu women, Motilal Banarsidass Publications, New Delhi, 1992.
  11. Majumdar, RC, The history and culture of the Indian people, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1951.
  12. Narayanan, V, Women and world religions. SUNY Press, New York, 1996.
  13. Newman, BM, Development through life: a psychosocial approach, Cengage Learning, London, 2008.
  14. Patel, R, Hindu women’s property rights in rural India: law, labour and culture in action,
  15. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, Mumbai, 2007.
  16. Pechilis, K, The graceful guru: Hindu female gurus in India and the United States, Oxford University Press US, New York, 2004.
  17. Pintchman, T, Women’s lives, women’s rituals in the Hindu tradition, Oxford University Press US, New York, 2007.
  18. Roy, KC, Institutions and gender empowerment in the global economy, Part 1, World Scientific, Washington, 2008.
  19. Sharma, A, Feminism and world religions, SUNY Press, New York, 1999.
  20. Stoler, MB, Sex and gender hierarchies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993.
  21. Tanika, S, Hindu wife, hindu nation: community, religion and cultural nationalism, Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2001.
  22. Vaman, KP, History of Dharmasastra, Oriental Research Institute, Bhandarkar, 1975.

Footnotes

  1. MP, Boraian, Empowerment of rural women: the deterrents & determinants. Concept Publishing Company, California, 2008.
  2. JA, Abbe, An analysis of Hinduism. Cosimo Inc, New York, 2007.
  3. LT, Denton, Female ascetics in Hinduism. SUNY Press, New York, 2004.
  4. A, Jean, Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1897.
  5. K, Jayawardena, Embodied violence: communalising women’s sexuality in South Asia. Zed Books, New Delhi, 1996.
  6. S, Tanika, Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion and Cultural Nationalism. Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2001.
  7. RC, Majumdar, The history and culture of the Indian people. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1951.
  8. MB, Stoler, Sex and gender hierarchies. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993.
  9. J, Fowler, Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices. Brighton, Sussex Academic Press. 2004.
  10. CJ, Fuller, The Camphor Flame: popular Hinduism and society in India. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2007.
  11. H, John, Women in religion. Continuum, London, 1994.
  12. KK, Klostermaier, A survey of Hinduism. SUNY Press, New York, 2007.
  13. J, Leslie, Roles and rituals for Hindu women. Motilal Banarsidass Publications, New Delhi, 1992.
  14. V, Narayanan, Women and World Religions. SUNY Press, New York, 1996.
  15. BM, Newman, Development Through Life: A Psychosocial Approach. Cengage Learning, London, 2008.
  16. R, Patel, Hindu women’s property rights in rural India: law, labour and culture in action. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, Mumbai, 2007.
  17. K, Pechilis, The graceful guru: Hindu female gurus in India and the United States. Oxford University Press US, New York, 2004.
  18. T, Pintchman, Women’s lives, women’s rituals in the Hindu tradition. Oxford University Press US, New York, 2007.
  19. KP, Vaman, History of Dharmasastra. Oriental Research Institute, Bhandarkar, 1975.
  20. KC, Roy, Institutions and gender empowerment in the global economy, Part 1. World Scientific, Washington, 2008.
  21. A, Sharma, Feminism and world religions. SUNY Press, New York, 1999.
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