Vivekananda on Womanhood
Madhuri Santanam Sondhi
HISTORICALLY the status of Indian women at least from Vedic times if not earlier, was not one of unadulterated subordination to men: women’s presence and participation in rites of sacrifice, access to Sanskritic learning and philosophical studies (a woman presided as judge over one of Sankara’s philosophical debates) are hallmarks of early Indian civilisation. The growth of patriarchalism, iconically encoded in Manu’s restrictive paternalism, gradually downgraded their status, but there was never a uniform picture of unqualified inferiority. Anyone observing the friezes on the walls of the 13th century Konarak Sun temple will find a paean to triumphal womanhood.
Modernity emerged from the medieval Christian era in the west seeking a total emancipation of the individual with consequences for social roles, culture, law, economics and politics. The embedded communitarian and religious values often secularized into non-religious forms, thereby retaining their acceptability in western societies. But modernity claims to be both sequentially and qualitatively superior to whatever preceded it throughout the world. Its science, technology, urbanization and spectacular innovations have made it the goal for all developing societies but they remain uncomfortable with its social and political implications Traditional Asian societies are neither communitarian nor individualistic: they are group organisations where individuals have value, except when they are renunciates, as members of groups, by birth, association or occupation. Hence it is not so easy for them to replicate the leap from the pre-modern to the modern. At the same time modernity appeals to the repressed individuality and desire for equality in these societies.
The western women’s movement for full membership in radically individualized societies seriously picked up in the nineteenth century. Educated women gave the lie to patriarchal assumptions about their intellectual inferiority and demanded social, political and economic equality. Asian reformers took their cue from these movements without ignoring the cultural differences between western and eastern societies.
The movement for the emancipation of Hindu women was rooted in the vigorous reform movements of the nineteenth century, many of which were spearheaded by religious leaders. Remarkably several but not all of the earliest champions of women were men such as the leaders of the Arya and Brahmo Samaj, individuals like Ram Mohun Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Narayana Guru, Subrahmanya Bharati, Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda. Stimulated by encounters with western humanism and Christianity they searched for springboards for change within their own cultural inheritance. They sought to reform Hinduism with new definitions of dharma, enlarging freedoms combined with duties towards society and the state. This entailed campaigns against sati or child marriage, for widow remarriage, for women’s education and their involvement in social, economic and public activity as full and responsible citizens so they could move outside the protective – or confining – walls of the home.
The framers of independent India’s constitution, modelled on those of western democracies, took advantage of the historical situation to inscribe equal rights, education and opportunities for women. Women at one stroke of the pen acquired the right to vote, to education, to equal pay for equal work, to inherit property, and once married, to be the sole spouses of their husbands.
Thanks to the new constitution women now serve in the armed forces as soldiers and pilots; they work as engineers, business entrepreneurs, if not at times priests; they become politicians, academics, lawyers, journalists, creative artists, doctors, scientists and technologists apart from their more conventional roles as nurses, social workers and school-teachers. Today women lead political parties, represent their country abroad: UP, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu have or have had women Chief Ministers, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha is a Dalit woman. But though significant, these women are the exceptions, not the norm.
Indeed to describe the female sex as heavily disadvantaged in India is an understatement, and this in a society that professes to place woman on a pedestal, worship her as Shakti, and respect her as a mother. Be it female foeticide, culling of female infants, deliberate undernourishment, female trafficking, inadequate education, child marriage, dowry murders, enforced sati, domestic violence, witch-killing or rape, all these sins of omission and commission existed in traditional India and continue despite the guarantees of the Constitution. It is simplistic to treat crimes against women as a post-Independence phenomenon, attributable to new modes of dress or other non-traditional behaviour – the bias against women and the power relationships between the sexes is ancient, only the spaces have changed. Alongside rape on the way to the field or the well, it is also now committed on a bus.
Interpretation and Reinterpretation of Tradition
It is instructive to revisit the philosophical premises on the basis of which early Indian reformers sought to upgrade the status of women to search for an outlook both enlightened and indigenous.
We may consider two relevant principles from the philosophico-religious heritage of Hinduism, one from the Vedantic and the other from the Tantric tradition. Fundamentally Vedanta regards every human being as an integral part of the cosmos, essentially one with Brahman, the quintessential Reality of the Universe in which there are no differences of any kind, neither of sex, race, colour, status or creed. To quote from Swami Vivekananda, the great spiritual teacher of the nineteenth century who helped revolutionize many aspects of India’s social and spiritual life:
“In the highest reality of the Parabrahman, there is no distinction of sex. We notice this only in the relative plane. And the more the mind is wholly merged in the homogenous and undifferentiated Brahman, such ideas as ‘this is a man’ or ‘that a woman’ do not remain at all….Therefore do I say that though outwardly there may be difference between men and women, in their real nature there is none.” (Collected Works of Swami Vivekananda vol. vii. p. 219)
Applying this principle at the social plane, Swami Vivekananda again said:
“We should not think that we are men and women, but only that we are human beings, born to cherish and to help one another.”(ibid., vol. v. p.412.)
Thus identity grades downwards from the cosmic experience of sex-less pure Being, to the social plane of a common humanity regardless of gender, finally to the biological level where sexual differences are indeed important (though not nearly so sharp as traditionally stressed), leading to complementary roles in families and society. These multiple identities can nest harmoniously inside one another given appropriate conditions. (Modern science and technology is working towards reducing these distinctions as well, not only through domestic labour-saving devices or birth control, but through radically changing the nature of biological reproduction).
If Vedanta stresses Oneness, Tantra speaks of the two energies that create and maintain this universe—Shiva and Shakti. Shiva, the meditator or conceptualizer of the world is said to be powerless, shava, without Shakti, the creative energy of the universe. Every newborn babe carries both these latent energies: nature and nurture (gender-based cultural training) decide which are cultivated and emphasized. To popularize this point in sculpture and painting, Shiva Ardhanarishwar is depicted as half male and half female, and in a striking corroboration modern researchers have isolated the left and right halves of the brain as centres of what are commonly described as male and female characteristics: for example, (male) rationality on the left and (female) intuition on the right.
Thus both Vedanta and Tantra in their separate ways reinforce the similarities between men and women and their common potentialities. Unfortunately Indian culture in its long patriarchal phase encouraged women to develop and define themselves only by their so-called feminine characteristics. Women, whenever they have been respected, have been so only as wives and mothers inside the home. But today women desire more general empowerment, they also want to cultivate their Shiva potentialities and act outside the sphere of the domestic.
Towards the Future
In pursuit of freedom western women have taken recourse to such policies as refusal of marriage and motherhood: in fact the women’s movement has passed through a phase of radical antagonism to men. In some cases they have participated in politics as an interest group, as for example with the Green Party movements in some European countries (with notable successes in Germany) and implementation of progressive women and family centric policies in Scandinavian countries. Ideas move swiftly in an electronically globalised world.
Moreover in several Asian countries like Japan and Korea, (and earlier in Russia) with men still expecting their women to double as earners and traditional housewives, women are also opting out of marriage: there is a dramatic rise in divorce, single women and single parenthood. Although in China and India such statistics are at present much lower, economic empowerment may well change the picture. The paradox is that men are desirous of a modern economy with all its industrial, economic and technological benefits, but women are an essential part of the workforce and integral to its success.
A change in gender relations, threatening male centrality is earth-shaking and revolutionary: it spawns insecurity, anger and violence. (Acculturating the young into violence through the small and big screens does not help). The best of Hindu-Buddhistic-Jain culture aims at reducing fear and anxiety: it should be invoked to guarantee and reassure both men and women of their respective worth and value, and give equal weight to their respective contributions.
Swami Vivekananda notably said that Indian women once educated, would themselves decide on their new role. It should be possible to continue the legacy of the early reformers who sought to connect the best spaces of received culture with women’s empowerment. Indeed if we work from the concept of inextricably interlinked dual energies, it can only be a joint project in which women move away from culturally over-feminized roles and men from the over-masculine, enabling the envisagement of new partnerships and cooperation.