Woman has suffered for aeons, and that has given her infinite patience and infinite perseverance. She holds on to an idea. It is this which makes her the support of even superstitious religions and of the priests in every land, and it is this that will free her. – Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume VII, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1989, p 107
Many controversies are surrounding us, especially when it comes to man-woman equality. Some are genuine while others are created. The issues of protection of women, temple entry movements, their right to survive and get healthy and educated life etc, still haunt us. This September 11, we will be celebrating the anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s historic speech at Chicago in the World Parliament of Religions. This one event, many perceive as the beginning of Hindu Renaissance. But his journey followed by that provide critical insights to social reforms in general and issues related to women empowerment in particular in three major ways.
Firstly, Vivekananda had a clear sense of nationhood and the nature of his audience. While speaking in front of his Western disciples he clearly elaborates the spiritual content of the glorious Bharatiya tradition and its Vedantic essence. Therefore, his repeated exposition on status of women in Bharat as superior, not only equal, as compare to the Western world. ‘The western ideal of womanhood is wife, while the eastern ideal is mother’, with specific reference to a Hindu women is the line he takes. The same Vivekananda after landing in Bharat exposes the contradictions between theory and practice and remarks, “There is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of woman is improved. It is not possible for a bird to fly on only one wing.” He in fact went ahead with the conclusion that the root cause of our social and national degradation is our treatment to the women who form 50 percent of our population. So he is clear about who he is addressing to and following the Sri Krishna niti he exhibits the positive aspects of our society, while preaching our own people he takes a staunch and educative reformist line.
Another important aspect regarding his views on women empowerment is his insistence on giving more than equal status to women as stakeholders. He in fact limit the right of men or other social institution entirely to giving education to women and says, “Educate your women first and leave them to themselves; then they will tell you what reforms are necessary for them.” So Swamiji shows complete confidence in women as individuals to make their own decisions. At the same time he provide substance to empowerment, by saying “women must be put in a position to solve their own problems in their own way.” Allowing woman to make her own choices as a woman is central to Vivekananda’s reform agenda.
Thirdly and most importantly, Vivekananda provides strong Vedantic foundation of ‘Spiritual Democracy’ to the man-woman equality. Though he is well aware of social and cultural constructs, he is unambiguous about the fact that the fundamental faith in the existence of multiple ways of seeking salvation is the cornerstone of Hindu civilisation, which includes all indigenous sects. The possibility of a replicable model of sustainable pluralism lies in acceptance and not just tolerance, of the fundamental equality and equal respect for all religions. Due to this foundation of spiritual equality, every individual has right to reach to the ultimate in his/her own way is essential to Vivekananda’s reformist thinking and action. This revival of true Vedantic philosophy is essential to make social reforms possible in Bharat is his firm conviction.
If we really want to address the issues of women empowerment or even caste based discriminations, then keeping sense of who is our audience, who are the real stakeholders and how to address issue, are the three fundamental parameters we can borrow from Vivekananda. That would be true celebration of his march towards assimilation and also will enable us to fulfil his goal of Reinstating Bharat as the ‘Vishwa Guru’.