The Equal­ity of Women is In­te­gral to Hin­duism

Pa­van K. Varma (Au­thor of Adi Shankaracharya: Hin­duism’s Great­est Thinker)

India Today - - COVER STORY -

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:

O Bhag­wati,

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


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