In every century, every era, it has always been up to the individual to realize her or his own Shakti and do what it takes to get what one wants.
Is there really a battle between genders? Are women being suppressed by men? Do women have no free will? Growing up as a Hindu female in India, I have realized that the narrative of the battle between genders has often been a false one. When issues are looked at holistically, there are so many layers that the gender narrative fades away in the Hindu context.
Take the narrative that women in India do not have the right to make their own decisions regarding their lives. When one digs deeper, one finds that in every century, every era, it has always been up to the individual to realize her or his own shakti and do what it takes to get what one wants. The society makes norms based on its realities – during the Vedic period, women were debating over complex philosophical tenets, composing shlokas, performing yajnas either solo or with their husbands; and there were no strictures on them to conceal their bodies. The principles of dressing in unstitched clothes called antariya (lower garment) and uttariya (upper garment) were the same for men and women.
In later periods, due to violent invasions, restrictions were put on women’s freedoms in order to protect them from rapes, kidnappings and conversions. From the 10th century onwards, when Muslim invaders began to control different parts of India it became common for Indian prisoners of war, especially women to be enslaved and sold in slave markets. Practices such as Jauhar-Shaka became common, where women jumped into fire rather than allow themselves to be raped and sold by barbarians. The society was in turmoil. Women were the easiest targets to inflict humiliation on entire communities. The natural tendency in such situations is for male members in families to cast a protective net around the females. Women’s clothing became more conservative.
When we look at the incidents of men suppressing or abusing women in modern India, these are often examples of “might is right” or bullying which are used by self-aggrandizing and non-spiritual people to display their power and control over others. Even though a gender slant is given to such incidents, they are actually power orgies. Take the case of dowry. Though it is projected as symbolic of the lower status of women in India, the truth lies somewhere else. A voluntary practice of gifting presents by a bride’s parents to the bridegroom’s family with absolutely no compulsion and in the spirit of binding two families was turned into an ugly exercise of power by unscrupulous elements of society. In recent times, with a draconian anti-dowry law in place in India, many women are using the law to blackmail and extort money from their husbands in false dowry cases. Perceiving this as a gender problem is a western construct. So also is the case with rape, domestic violence and subjugation of women. The Indic framework would analyse all these as a problem of poor understanding of Purusharthas; especially of Artha, Kama and Dharma as laid out in our ancient texts. Thus, the only way out of the depravity is to bring back an appreciation of the Purusharthas which is embedded in Vedic learning.
Male and female have always been seen as entities complementing each other in the Indic context, whether at the societal level or at the conceptual level. Women are bearers and nurturers of the next generation – providing for them and protecting them is the Dharma of men and in fact, the entire society or administrative apparatus. But, taking care of material needs is not enough. The Indic worldview gives responsibility to both men and women to preserve and transmit Vedic knowledge; this is why the educational ecosystem was so well developed in ancient India.
Indic wisdom recognizes that equality for the sake of equality is meaningless. Inter-dependence and complementarity of genders by understanding each other’s roles is the only way to move forward. For example, I do not claim to be equal to my husband, nor does he claim to be equal to me. He shoulders the main responsibility of financing my family’s needs while I manage everything else. He tries to support me in every pursuit of mine, I try to support his. This mutual effort did not develop by signing on a piece of paper; or by going through the traditional rituals of a wedding. It evolved with time – over arguments, fights and reconciliations – over thunderstorms followed by calm mornings. It evolved with a progressive understanding that once a couple gets joined in matriomy, the purusharthas have to be achieved jointly as one unit. And of course, nothing ever got achieved without a sankalpa.
Beyond sexual organs and reproductive functions, at the conceptual level, there is Purusha or Consciousness which is neither male nor female – it is just pure consciousness; still and deep. Then there is Prakriti or Shakti which is female; and she is characterized by creative energy, dynamism and ever-changing qualities. It is Shakti or Divine Mother or Mother Nature who actually creates this whole duality between male and female. In other words the male and female entities as we see them actually spring from feminine energy! As we go deeper into ourselves, the male-female dichotomy vanishes.
In the plane of human existence, there is no inherent conflict in the roles of men and women if both understand their responsibilities, goals and synergies. There is even room for doing things differently. Thus, we see in our Itihasa that even though women have the responsibility of giving birth and nurturing the next generation, there is an understanding that not all women are mentally wired to follow the path. Examples abound of women in ancient India who wished to pursue higher learning and therefore did not marry. Today, there are many husbands who are pursuing their passions while their wives are bringing home the bread and butter.
However, it is obvious that privileges are rarely given on a platter. Women have often needed to fight for what they wanted; they have needed to sharpen their arguments or find the right partners or allies or even just run away to achieve their goals. The same principles apply to men too; after all weaker men get dominated by stronger men and women unless they find their shakti. When we wake up to our Shakti and true potential, we are all unstoppable; there is no gender-divide in the Hindu context. No external empowerment is needed for a woman because she is herself the embodiment of Shakti. This is in contrast with Abrahamic theologies in which women are subservient and therefore need empowerment in the modern context.
There is a powerful scene in the Hindi movie “Damini” that has stayed with me all these years. Damini, the protagonist had been pursuing litigation against powerful people for their misdeeds and they had succeeded in getting her thrown into a mental asylum. She was subjected to severe mental torture and had lost her mental balance. She sat babbling inanities in the midst of dozens of people with extreme psychiatric problems and then relapsed into silence. It seemed as if she had lost the battle. Her oppressors had broken her. Suddenly, there was a piercing sound of a conch and beating drums outside. The crazed look on Damini’s face began to turn into resolve. She glanced out of the window grills to see a passing procession holding up a large moorti of Durga. As Damini focused her gaze on the Durga moorti, all feelings of weakness vanished. She remembered the dance of Mahishasura Mardini. She knew exactly what she had to do.
About The Author
Sahana Singh is an engineer, author, and commentator who specializes in water/sanitation issues and Indic history. Sahana is an avid traveler who likes to connect the dots across societies, civilizations and disciplines. She is Director, Indian History Awareness and Research (IHAR), a think tank headquartered in Houston and has recently joined the board of Ishwar Sewa Foundation dedicated to the cause of rehabilitating Hindu refugees. She can be reached at email@example.com.