The Equality of Women is Integral to Hinduism
Pavan K. Varma (Author of Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker)
It must require a phenomenal level of illiteracy and prejudice to cite ancient Indian tradition as a reason to discriminate against women. For, the incontrovertible truth is that Hinduism must be one of the very few religions in the world that—both in philosophy and mythology—accord a status of absolute equality to women.
In philosophy, the highly evolved Shakta tradition equates Shiva with Parvati, in her form as Shakti. If Brahman is the omnipresent, omnipotent, immanent, formless energy pulsating through the cosmos, Shiva is chitta, the pure attribute-less consciousness within all of us, and Shakti is chittarupini, the power inherent in that consciousness. Shiva is powerless without Shakti. The two are complimentary to the point that they are indistinguishable. They are equal in every respect, be it abode (adhishtana), occupation (anushtana), condition (avastha), form (rupa) and name (nama). In the very first stanza of the Soundarya Lahari, Adi Shankaracharya bows to this union:
Only if Shiva is conjoined with You can He create Without You, O Shakti, He cannot even move O, Mother, Hari, Hara and Brahma worship You.
It is not surprising, therefore, that all the mutts set up by Adi Shankaracharya are also Shakti Peethas, the abode of the Female Power. In fact, Shakti upasana or worship of feminine power was compulsory in his mutts.
In mythology, the three chief deities of Hinduism are invariably depicted with their consorts: Brahma with Saraswati, Vishnu with Lakshmi, and Shiva with Parvati. In the Ramayana, Rama is incomplete without Sita; the traditional greeting is ‘Sita-Ram’. In the lore of Krishna, the blue God is inextricably linked with Radha. Devotees greet each other saying ‘Radhe-Krishna’. Who can ever forget the evocative lines of Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, where an imperious Radha orders Krishna to do her bidding, and he humbly—and contritely—obliges? In the Mahabharata, it is Krishna, too, who comes to the aid of Draupadi when she is being publicly disrobed by the Kauravas.
There is evidence that in the Vedic period, even though we cannot discount a male-dominated social structure, women were given near-equal status. The practice of Svayamvara shows that women could choose their husband. Gandharva vivah, or love marriage, was common. Some 700 years before the birth of Christ, we have the example of Gargi—known for her learning and erudition as Brahmavadini—fearlessly challenging in debate the most learned scholar-sage of his times, Yajnavalkya. Even when a yagya is held, all salutations are addressed to Swaha, the wife of Agni, not Agni himself.
The goddesses in Hindu mythology are hardly reticent, coy, shy and handicapped by the nature of their physiognomy. Durga is the warrior goddess, astride a lion, with weapons of different kinds in each of her hands, fearlessly slaying the demon, Mahishasura. Kali has always been regarded as the Mother of the Universe, the Adi Parashakti, and is often portrayed as dancing or standing on her consort, Shiva, who lies inertly below her.
There is a great deal, therefore, in Hindu tradition that should legitimise the reforms necessary to demolish the patriarchal mindset that justifies discrimination against women. The men in black chanting Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa would do well to read the majority Supreme Court judgment, and acquaint themselves too with the civilisational history of Hindu tradition.
The views expressed are personal
THE GODDESSES IN HINDU MYTHS ARE HARDLY RETICENT, COY, SHY AND HANDICAPPED BY THE NATURE OF THEIR PHYSIOGNOMY