Indian Womanhood: A Civilisational Perspective
Mahatma Gandhi once said that for him true independence meant a day when a woman can go out on to the streets alone at midnight and roam around freely. Generally, it is understood as a statement with respect to the safety of women. It indeed was. For Gandhiji, security and safety of women was of paramount importance. But what he probably also meant was that a woman going out alone at midnight would be respected and not disparaged.
Mobility, Morality and Safety
The typical value system of our society brands a woman as ‘fallen’, if she is mobile, especially during the night. I am reminded of an attack on a lady journalist in Delhi some years ago. The attack took place in the wee hours of the night when the said journalist was returning home in her car. A senior politician responsible for the security in Delhi had commented that the girl was partly to blame for whatever happened because she had no business to be alone on the streets at three in the morning. This raises the big question as to what needs to change when it comes to women – the security establishment or the mind-set.
There is no doubt that the security aspect needs to be taken care of. At a time when atrocities against women are on the rise, it is very important that we have stricter laws, more stringent punishments and stronger security measures. But mere laws or security measures can’t save women.
Some suggest that women should train themselves in self-defence. This is important because a man attacks a woman not only out of lust but also because of the fact that she is physically weak. In fact, that makes all physical attacks on women brutal because it is only in the jungles that powerful animals attack weak ones. Men who attack women merely because they are physically weak are no less than brutes. If a woman is strong, nobody dares do any harm to her. But does having physical strength solve the problem? Violence doesn’t happen only at physical level; it happens at emotional and psychological levels too.
Safety, Honour and Respect
In the name of protection of women, we sometimes end up caging them up. I have seen a weird suggestion by an ideologue that the government should bring in a law that would prohibit women from working after six in the evening. It is pertinent here to recall what Prime Minister Modi had said in his maiden Red Fort speech in August 2014.
“If a girl in our house comes home late, the parents grill her with innumerable questions, like, where were you, what were you doing until so late? But when the boy in the house comes home much later in the night, no questions are asked. In the name of women security we actually make their lives more difficult”.
What the Prime Minister meant was that safety of our women lies not in restricting their lives, but in regulating the behaviour of our boys also. Between security and honour, what a woman needs is honour and respect. Not that security is less important. But respect is more important. Once Swami Vivekananda was asked about his views on protection of women. As soon as he heard the words ‘protection of women’, Vivekananda started laughing loudly. ‘protection of women? You will protect her? She is Durga, Kali, Shakti herself. And you want to protect her?’ Swami ridicules. He adds ‘Respect her, so that her safety is automatically taken care of’.
In fact, that is and should be the essence of feminism. G D Andersen puts it very beautifully, “Feminism is not about making women stronger. It is about changing the way the world perceives their strength”. We need to teach our generation respect for women. We need to make them understand and respect the strength and glory of womanhood. It is about womanhood, not just about sisterhood or motherhood alone. A woman needs to be respected as an equal human being irrespective of who she is. No strings attached.
Women Through the Ages
The history and culture of India has been that of utmost respect for womanhood. Look at the two epic characters – Draupadi and Sita. Both the great wars in those epics revolve round the dignity and honour of those two women. The portrayal of Draupadi in Mahabharata was that of a liberal, self-willed and courageous woman. She was married to the five brothers, four of whom had wives separately.
Throughout the epic, her projection has been that of a strong-willed woman. But for her obduracy there wouldn’t have been a war of epic scale in which lakhs were described to have died. There was an occasion when an offer of five villages to five Pandava brothers was made in order to settle the dispute. Being Dharmaraj, Yudhisthira would have gone for it. Knowing it well, Krishna takes the proposal to Draupadi. Draupadi reacts with righteous anger. The brothers can accept the offer if they want; but she is not going to settle for anything short of the blood of Dushasana, who humiliated her publicly by trying to disrobe her. Nobody called her an arrogant and obdurate woman. Instead she is described as ‘Maha Sadhvi’ –woman of epic reverence.
In Mahabharata, while several instances can be chanced upon describing the strong-willed character of Draupadi, there are several other instances that portray the profound respect in which she is held by everybody. Towards the end of the epic comes the ‘Shanti Parv’, the chapter after the war was over. Bhishma, the grand old man was lying on the bed of arrows awaiting his death. Yudhisthira comes to visit him. He won the war and regained the kingdom from the Kaurava clan. He seeks to learn Raj Dharma – wisdom of statecraft – from Bhishma. Draupadi was passing by that place and laughs out loud when she heard Yudhisthira requesting Bhishma to teach him Raj Dharma. In Indian tradition, for anyone to laugh loudly in front of elders in a public place is considered indecent. Moreover Bhishma in this case is on the deathbed of arrows. Yudhisthira chides Draupadi, but the story goes on to say that Bhishma prevents Yudhisthira and states that Draupadi’s laughter was justified. ‘In a full house when she was being disrobed, I too was present, but did nothing. Am I qualified to teach you Raj Dharma? That is the question behind her laughter. It is a very valid laughter’, Bhishma was supposed to have told Yudhisthira.
Our epics have to be read and taught in this spirit. Even in Ramayana, the characters like Sita and Mandodari (wife of Ravana) epitomise woman’s dignity and honour. Sita is the epitome of self-respect and determination. Even under captivity, when Ravana comes to convince her to marry him, she keeps a blade of grass in between the two and addresses her refusal to that blade of grass only. Such was the portrayal of Sita as a woman of courage and determination.
There is a follow up story to the epic Ramayana called Uttar Ramayana. Ram discards Sita once again after returning to Ayodhya and occupying the throne. The reason was that questions were raised by a washerman about the purity of her character after it was known that Sita was pregnant. This was said in spite of the fact that she had already proved her chastity once at the time of the ‘Agni Pariksha’ – the test of fire immediately after the war.
In fact the narrative in Sri Lanka and some other parts of the world about that incident too is very inspiring. When she was asked to prove her chastity, Sita decided to take the fire test. When she was about to enter the fire, Agni, God of Fire, manifested himself before Ram and told him that Sita was so pure that even he couldn’t touch her. It might be a mere story. But the amount of respect attached to a woman in our epics is evident through such narratives.
In spite of that fire test, Ram wants Sita to be dismissed from his court and household. The pregnant Sita was sent away to the forests where she lived in the abode of an ascetic. The story goes on till the Ashwamedha Yagna – the gigantic Horse Ritual – performed by Ram for the expansion of his kingdom.
Luv and Kush, the two children of Ram born in the jungles, obstruct the progress of the horse and the army following it. Everyone is defeated and finally Ram himself was forced to come to the battle in order to free the horse. At that point, he gets to know that the two boys who have taken over the ritual horse were none other than his own children.
The narrative gets interesting here. Ram wanted all of them, including Sita back in his palace. He expressed his profound sorrowfulness for whatever he had done. Sita’s response was epic. ‘I am alive for this day’, she declared and added, ‘I am alive to prove that these twins were Ram’s blood only and not otherwise as accused by a citizen in Ayodhya. Now that you accept them as your children, I happily ask you to take them back’.
As for her return, she declared her intention to go back to her mother – the Mother Earth. ‘I am not someone who can be commanded to get out whenever you want and come back meekly whenever you order. Having cleared the blemish on my character I shall now go to where my dignity and honour are always upheld’. Stating this, Sita joined her mother.
This again might just be a story; but one can’t miss the message that was sought to be conveyed through the story, that a woman needs to be treated with dignity and honour; else she is free to find her place of honour herself.
Historically, in our civilisation, women are respected not for subservience but self-respect and dignity. World’s most ancient literature, the Vedas, contain a number of verses written by women scholars and saints. Gargi, Maitreyi, Lopamudra are some of them. There are at least 30 women authors of the Vedic hymns.
The famous dialogue between Gargi and Yagnavalkya over the concept of Brahman is a tribute to the scholarship of that great Vedic philosopher on the one hand while on the other it is also a testimony to the fact that women had enjoyed enormous respect in the Vedic period. In fact Gargi decided to challenge the renowned philosopher, Yagnavalkya after all the other male sages failed to match up to him in scholarship. She went on shooting questions after questions to which Yagnavalkya patiently gave answers. In the end, Yagnavalkya warned her that she had asked the most profound question after knowing the answer of which there can’t be any more questions. Thus, Gargi conceded in the debate.
A similar incident happens much later when Adi Shankaracharya and Mandana Mishra engaged in a scholarly dialogue. When Mandana Mishra failed to challenge Adi Shankara in the dialogue, his wife Ubhaya Bharati plunged in and challenged Adi Shankara for a shastrartha – scholarly discourse. Adi Shankara was forced to return to his studies before coming back to face Ubhaya Bharati. Finally, he successfully challenged her and defeated her in a debate.
These and many more such instances should be eye openers to those who think that women were always oppressed in India. At the same time, they are also an indication of how our women have been traditionally completely free and respected.
Feminism Vs Essential Freedom
The feminist movements of the west have been a product of the oppressive situations that prevailed in those parts of the world. There was a hilarious discussion in sections of the European philosophers until the 15th & 16th centuries as to whether women should be considered as humans or animals. Even at the dawn of the 21st Century, several Christian denominations like the Baptists and the Pentecostals were undecided over whether to allow women at the pulpit or not. They cite St. Paul’s dictum in 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man”) as a universal injunction to deny women the right to teach the Bible. That has not been the case in India. There is no denying the fact that there were certain aberrations in the Indian society over the treatment of women like Sati etc. But they were never universal in nature and more importantly, they never had any scriptural sanction.
It is time for such a system where women are respected for what they are, and not for what men want them to be, to be brought back. Once that is achieved, we wouldn’t talk about what dress the women should wear or what they should do. Today, we have missed the spirit and held on to the letter.
‘Yatra naryanstu pujyante – Ramante Tatra devatah’, says an ancient verse, meaning that where women are worshipped, the deities come to stay there. It is not expected of anyone to take the verse literally and start worshipping women. What women want today is not worship, but reverence. Irrespective of what she wears, how she behaves and what she does, can the society be trained into respecting women just as women? That is the real challenge today.
(This article is carried in the print edition of May-June 2017 issue of India Foundation Journal.)