The Western idea of social contract, that has for long provided the framing context to understand both family and state, is both inadequate and inappropriate. In fact, it underscores a paradox that Western societies haven’t been able to resolve. Does woman have an individual/spiritual dimension, as is often proposed by hedonistic philosophies of the West? Or is she an unfeeling creature who mechanically associates with those around him? To suggest that man-woman and citizen-state relationships are nothing but perfunctory agreements, in the absence of which the whole edifice of society will crumble, is to perpetuate this paradox. It may be fair to argue that West’s failure to resolve this paradox has not only shaken the foundation of state, but has inflicted a near death-blow to the institution of family. It has created the illusion that the question of woman’s liberation can only be answered in an antagonistic Hobbesian universe where woman will wage an eternal battle against man; where family will be seen a source of oppression.
Saji Narayanan CK’s Indian Woman, Feminism and Women’s Liberation provides an exhaustive and compelling intervention in the aforementioned debate. Divided in three parts—Indian Approach to Woman, Western Feminism and Marxian Women’s Liberation—Narayanan places the question of woman in the many milieus it has been associated with, offering inter alia a complete intellectual and social history of feminism. The very first chapter in the book, Transcending Gender Consciousness, takes us to the heart of the problem. Indian view of womanhood is not about man-woman tussle but about harmonious coexistence. As Narayanan points out, “it is the man-woman continuum that makes life successful.” His assertion is backed by Yajnavalkya who avers that the divine Brahma divided the body into two equal halves, with one half becoming husband, the other wife. Each of the two bodies has equivalent portions of the same Brahma. In other words, women and men are both manifestations of God; to the same measure, with nearly similar implications. It is characterized by interdependence and inseparability, like the Shiva and Shakti.
Furthermore, Narayanan’s book proposes a new teleology for progress and fulfillment, both personal and civilisational—a progressive erasure of all differences upon true spiritual realisation of the self. As Swami Vivekanand points out, “there is no sex-distinction in the Atman; it vanishes on spiritual realization.” This view of life, as Narayan appears to argue through all the thirty chapters of the book, is propelled by India’s unique civilisational mission of imparting balance, spirituality and harmony in all spheres of life. From family to state, from modern science to religious rituals and from commerce to interpersonal relations: as per the Indian view of life, every aspect of our being must strive for harmonious coexistence and sweet interdependence with other elements in the universe. In this sense, the Indian view of woman, as Narayanan seems to underscore in the chapter titled Identifying Woman Issues, is radically different from western strands of feminism that project themselves as ‘male-hate campaigns’ and speak of homoeroticism and homo-socialisation as alternative to family and society as we have known it. As Narayan argues, while “old feminists fought against government and legal systems, but radical feminists tried to turn that struggle against men and man-woman relationship.” For feminists like Mary Daly, men have a natural urge to destroy women and they flourish on that drive. But the Indian view of womanhood, by contrast, is constructive, assimilative and unifying. It accords special legal rights to women and does not view the question of women’s empowerment as independent of conjugal bliss.
Women in ancient Indian tradition, as Narayanan points out, have not only distinguished themselves in the domain of spirituality and literature, but have excelled in serious sciences such as mathematics and astronomy too— something which is unheard of in the Western society
It is on the strength of this worldview that Narayanan proposes Indian approach to feminism and women’s emancipation as an alternative to Western and Marxian views on the same. In a later chapter titled New Realizations of Feminism, Narayanan underscores how Western intellectuals, having abandoned all their faith in Western models, are gradually inching towards Indian view of family and man-woman relationship. Australian writer and public intellectual Germaine Greer, who is regarded as one of the foremost voices of radical Western feminism, has often waxed eloquent about Indian lifestyle and culture. In the same vein, many have contested colonial misreading of Indian society as one where women commanded no more respect than cattle and stray animal. To substantiate this argument, Narayanan quotes the great American writer Mark Twain who argued, “In spite of all western critics have said of Indian customs, I never saw a woman harnessed to a plough with a cow or to a cart with a dog, as is done in some European countries.” Women in ancient Indian tradition, as Narayanan points out, have not only distinguished themselves in the domain of spirituality and literature, but excelled in serious sciences such as mathematics and astronomy too; something which is unheard of in the Western society.
This laboriously authored book is a goldmine for researchers, social scientists and general readers who wish to familiarise themselves with Indian views on womanhood. Saji Narayanan weaves an exhaustive narrative, peppered with anecdotes from our scriptures, sprinkled with refreshing insights and embedded with detailed references for future writers to pursue. Apart from elucidating the grandeur of Indian feminism, the book’s broad sweep follows the emergence of Western and Marxian feminism all the way to its eventual failure, and proposes with aplomb the Indian alternative to it.