Gender Bias in Hinduism

Gender Bias

by Jayaram V

Sometime ago, there was a story in news that a girl in India was physically assaulted by an angry mob and her mother was beaten to death, following an argument and altercation over the girl's decision to wear jeans and walk in the streets. Those who were responsible for this inhuman action thought that it was inappropriate for the girl to wear a jean pant and appear in public.

It happened in a world and at a time when in countries such as the USA and Canada both young and older women habitually wear half pants, skirts, shorts, etc., in public for convenience or to look attractive. The public at large do not care and do not considers it a social or moral problem. For most people, it is just a matter of personal taste, choice, convenience or freedom.

There are still many people in Hindu communities across the world who believe that women need to be told what they should wear, how they should look or how they should behave in public. They may do it for various reasons, out of concern or fear or to avoid social pressures, but it is an indication that they are still caught in the past. There are many predators in the country who do not let go a chance to molest women or harass helpless girls in buses and trains, movie theaters and solitary places.

This unfair treatment of women in Hindu society is not a new phenomenon. It has been going on for centuries and millenniums. We are gradually becoming aware of the number of atrocities against women by men because of the 24/7 news cycle and the social media. Let us be clear, it is not Hinduism or Buddhism or Jainism which is responsible for this. It is human nature and the vulnerability of human beings to evil conduct.

Outwardly, religions seem to be restrictive and encourage orthodox and outdated practices. However, if you dig deeper, you will realize that most of these rules were invented by men in the name of religion to control and dominate others or secure resources, power and wealth for themselves. A composite religion such as Hinduism is flexible and gives you freedom to take responsibility for your life and actions. You cannot solely blame it for your choices.

In the hands of the wicked, religions become oppressive, whereas in the hands of the wise and the awakened they become the means to express love and compassion. The arch villains of Hindu Puranas and epics were deeply religious people who practiced the Dharma according to their convenience. The Bhagavadgita succinctly describes how wicked people with demonic qualities practice their faith with egoism and delusion.

If religions tend to be oppressive, we have a right to reject them and follow our own conscience or intelligence. The Vedas loudly proclaim that intelligence is God himself (prajnanam brahma). Intelligence should be the rightful guru in this world of conflicting interests and approaches. We should put intelligence or discerning wisdom on the high pedestal in our public and private lives and discard superstition, blind belief and obscurantism.

The Shatras (law books) are manmade (smriti). Hence they are not inviolable. We can reject them if they appear to be outdated or flawed. The Buddha and many Upanishadic sages set an example long ago, suggesting that people should take refuge in their own intelligence (prajna or buddhi). We can each take inspiration from there and follow our own paths in the pathless land of eternal wisdom.

In this article we will examine how gender inequality manifests itself in Hindu marriage customs and practices, and how it limits women's freedom to make decisions for themselves or their children. For that we need to revisit some of the popular beliefs or misconceptions people have about our socioreligious dynamics.

Women are not goddesses

In Hinduism, tradition gives more importance to men rather than women in matters regarding marriage. Hindu world is essentially a man’s world. It revolves around patriarchy and continuation of male seed. Although many Hindus worship goddesses and female deities, they do not extend the same respectful attitude towards women in real life. In doing so, they do not seem to experience cognitive dissonance or suffer from any inner conflict.

It is as if in their worldviews they have compartmentalized reality and see a clear distinction between the goddesses they worship and the mortal women whom they see or interact with. In all fairness, we have to state that they do not also treat men as gods while they do worship many male gods. We have stated this to clear the misconception that in Hinduism women are treated as goddesses. It is true only in a limited sense. We might have culturally appropriated the idea that women are goddesses, but in reality we act differently.

Sanatana Dharma is meant for men only

The onus of practicing Hindu dharma or the Sanatana Dharma mostly rests with men. The law books abundantly support the idea. It is essentially men's obligatory duty as householders to practice it for their salvation and for the continuation of their families and lineages through male progenies. All other purposes, including the participation of women in religious rites and rituals are secondary. The Vedas, which are considered inviolable, are clear about gender roles in ensuring the order and regularity of the world. A family progresses from one birth to another through sons. Hence a father can marry multiple times for the sake of a son.

According to the Shastras, creation is for men and their enjoyment. God is Purusha (male archetype) and Nature (female archetype) is his instrument or property. A man lives through his sons, but a woman does not. Hence, only the father has the privilege to transmit his knowledge and powers through a transmission ceremony to his elder son, and women in the family are not even allowed to witness it. To maintain the purity of the caste and of the family name, lineage and progeny, men should not allow family women (kulastri) to live freely or on their own, unless they are ostracized or excommunicated. As a family woman, she must always be under guard and put in the care of a male person in the family such as the father, brother, husband, son or a close relation. She is not allowed to interact on her own with a man who is a stranger and does not belong to the family.

Women duty is only to serve, support and stay with men

These attitudes and the biases are reflected in the practice of religion also. For example, in many traditional Hindu rites and rituals, women play a secondary role. As dutiful wives (dharma patni), they have to serve their husbands and empower them to achieve the four aims of human life. They share the honors and the fruit of sacrifices with their husbands, but not on their own. Hence, a woman’s right to participate in religious rites and rituals depends upon whether her husband is alive or not. As long as he is alive, she is considered an auspicious and pure woman who is endowed with five virtues and fully qualified to receive social honors or participate in religious rituals. When she becomes a widow, she loses all her privileges (in the past her property rights too). She can no more participate in auspicious ceremonies and has to live a solitary life or live in the protection of her husband’s family.

These norms are gradually changing. Women can now go temples and worship on their own or perform domestic worship at home, without their husbands, children or family members. Traditionally, Hindu women took lead in the performance of penances (vratas) which required them to observe fasting, etc. However, the purpose has always been to ensure the protection and welfare of their families or husbands or children or overcome problems for peace and happiness. By that, the Shastras affirm that a woman fulfills her duty besides reaffirming her chastity, loyalty and spiritual purity.

These gender roles are reinforced in other way also. For example, one of the popular sayings is that a wife’s traditional role in a marriage is to assist her husband as a servant, mistress, counselor and mother. We can always talk about exceptions to these norms, pointing to historic women who participated in religious discussions, ruled as queen, fought in wars or stepped out of their bounds to live as free women. It is true that many women also lived free and were not subject to such restrictions. They either belonged to the lower castes or warrior clans or did not fall under the gambit of Vedic laws.

In Vedic Dharma man is the center the universe

As we have stated before, according to the Vedic tradition men are central to the practice of Hinduism. Women’s right to participate in religious duties arises from men only in their roles and relationship or association with them as mothers, daughters or wives. It is a man’s primary duty to support his family, earn livelihood according to the caste norms and produce offspring as a part of his duty to serve gods, ancestors and others. As the head of the family and upholder of Dharma, he has to protect his wife (or wives) and care for the elders and children. The welfare of his family, society and the world rests upon his shoulders.

His wife is a silent and dependent partner, if not a mute witness to the sacrifice of life performed by her husband, with herself becoming one of his sacrificial materials on the altar of duty. In the past, women played a subservient role in family matters. Whatever influence she had upon men was mainly through her conduct and personal appeal or the good nature of her husband while she was vulnerable to domestic abuse, calumny and marital unhappiness. Unfortunately, although a lot of it has changed in the last century, the traditional beliefs and practices still continue to exert their influence in many communities and families even now.

Child marriages helped parents get rid of girl children

Child marriages were the norm in the Vedic time, and perhaps until a few centuries ago. There might have been many reasons for this practice. People died young due to frequent wars, famines, natural calamities, disease and other causes. Having more children meant more economic burden and more mouths to feed. Hence, girl children were frequently married off before they reached the age of puberty, sometimes to men who were several times their age.

Apart from these reasons, child marriages also provided a convenient way for parents to get rid of girl children and focus their energies solely upon upbringing their sons in the interests of their families. Further, they provided older men and widowers with a convenient way to marry younger women and obtain children (sons). The Shastras supported the practice, affirming that a woman’s place was in her husband’s home and his family where she was destined to perform her duties to resolve her karma. Therefore, an early marriage presented itself as a better choice for her, her parents, her husband and her husband’s family.

Gender based abortions to get rid of girls

India is one of the countries with very high abortion rates. Although abortion is subject to government oversight and many laws, it is still practiced in many unauthorized clinics mostly to avoid girl children. According to newspapers, not less than a million abortions are performed in the country every year based on economic or gender criteria, without any noticeable public protest. In most cases, it is usually men or their elders who take the decision, forcing the women to go through the ordeal irrespective of their personal feelings. Unlike in the USA where abortion is a sensitive issue, no political party in India is willing to take a firm stand on it on ideological or religious grounds. It is paradoxical that in a community which reveres Mother Goddess and her numerous forms on a large scale and where cows are worshipped and protected, female feticide goes on and girl children are not only discriminated but also considered economic burden.

The plight of widows

Widowed and divorced women now enjoy considerable freedom although there is a stigma still attached to them in many parts of the country. Until a century ago, the plight of widows in Hindu households was pitiable. They were not allowed to remarry even if their husbands died at an early age or participate in sacraments and ceremonies. Women were blamed for any misfortune in the family, including the death of their husbands, and if there was premature death they had to carry that guilt and the burden of shame for the rest of their lives.

The very presence of widows on certain occasions was and is still considered inauspicious. Irrespective of the caste into which they were born, widowed women were (and in some cases still) treated on par with the untouchables. Under certain circumstances, the law books permitted a childless widow to marry the eldest brother of her deceased husband to bear children and save herself from the purgatory. The practice (which is still practiced in some parts) helped the family retain the ownership of the property, besides preventing the widow from marrying an outsider or losing her chastity.

Sati was a means to get rid of unwanted women

Sati was a common practice in some parts of India, until it was declared illegal in the 19th century by the British rulers. The practice is rooted in the ancient legends associated with Shiva and Sati. According to the beliefs, a woman attained salvation and ensured the salvation of her husband by immolating herself on the funeral pyre of her husband. This may seem barbaric by modern standards, but in ancient times it had its own justification. Women also had the freedom to make the choice.

However, one can imagine how difficult it must be for them to go against public opinion or family expectations and wish to be alive. Considering the alternative which was to condemn themselves to a life of widowhood, isolation and ignominy, they probably viewed Sati as a better option. Whatever may be its justification, the practice itself was discriminatory. Men had no obligation to die with their deceased wives. They were in fact allowed to remarry, while the same privilege was not extended to women.

Polygamy meant more women to serve the same husband

Polygamy was an approved practice in Hinduism until the government passed the Hindu marriage act. It was approved by the law books for various reasons. Men had the permission to marry and obtain another wife if the first wife was barren, mentally deranged, chronically sick, or unable to bear male children. Men from higher castes were permitted to marry more than one wife, without any of these conditions and without the need to justify it on moral or religious grounds.

Kings invariably married many women as a political expediency or for pure pleasure. The wives of a king participated in religious ceremonies and sacrificial rituals such as Asvamedha for the welfare of the king and his subjects. Sometimes, the king gave away (really or symbolically) one of his wives as a gift to the deity or to the priests who performed the sacrifices for him.

Polyandry was also traditionally practiced in certain outlier and tribal communities on a limited scale. However, presently polygamy is a defunct practice. Hindu men can still legally marry more than one woman under some circumstances, or if the existing wife gives her written consent. Because of the stigma associated with it and its social and economic implications, the practice is very rare. Monogamy is the standard practice.

The Hindu law books justified Gender bias as divine will

In Hindu law books you will find a clear bias against women in matters of gender equation, inheritance, obligatory duties, social and economic status, and personal relationships. According to Manusmriti (9.1-3) women are fickle and weak, and cannot be trusted. Hence, to avoid disrepute for their families and their husbands, they should be controlled and kept under constant watch. The law books do not consider gender equality as an important factor in marriage or social engagement. In fact, they take gender inequality for granted. However, they do suggest that in a traditional marriage the woman’s consent is important and she should not be forcibly married against her will. They also recognize the unique role each partner has to perform in a marriage, which cannot be compensated by the other. The husband is the upholder of dharma and the recipient of all ritual honors, while his wife serves him as his partner and associate (saha-dharma-charini).

In a traditional household, according to the Shastras a woman’s role is to serve the family, confining herself to the house and avoiding any action which may bring disrepute to her and her family. According to a popular saying, a woman is spoilt by going around whereas a man by not going around. She should avoid going out on her own to participate in public ceremonies or communicate with other men.

In comparison, her husband has the permission to go out and mingle freely. Life revolves around him as if he is the personification of the family deity (kula devata). Privileges to the family accrue because of him. Even his illegitimate children have rights under the laws of inheritance as suggested in them. His wife enjoys privilege and status as long as he is alive. After that, she loses everything, her wealth, identity, comforts, status and her right to participate in social and religious activities.

Gender bias in today's world

Thus, clearly and unequivocally the Hindu law books relegate women to a subordinate position in relationship to men. However, we have to state that in the last few decades there is an appreciable improvement in the status and treatment of women in India. It is more pronounced in the urban areas, where the pressures of urban life take precedence over gender inequality.

We cannot say the same about all women. Although the status of women in present day society and the equation between men and women have been slowly changing, gender discrimination is still a major social problem. The discrimination varies from caste to caste and region to region. In many parts of India women still suffer from oppression, domestic violence, dowry related deaths, forced marriages, honor killings and many social and economic disabilities. Love marriages across caste lines is still a major taboo, especially when the castes of the couples are widely divergent.

Bias towards women and girl children exists even today in many Hindu families, and even among highly educated and wealthy Hindus. Female infanticide in the form of abortions is a major social issue which not many people would like to discuss in public or admit as a gender issue. Due to the values bred by modern education, many do not consider it a major problem, but an expression of women’s choice. There is hardly any protest by the elitist sections in India against abortions of girl children. Many do not want to speak against it or speak about it because it contradicts their narrative to promote heterodox lifestyles and secular values.

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