Religion and religious texts are not just matters of faith but also carrier of social values, traditions, ideologies etc. so it becomes very important to know the influence exerted by religion not only in cultural sphere but also in the sphere of human ideas and values. In our analysis, we intended to study the pattern of gendered distinctions through religious texts. And we are not concerned with the religious texts which are beyond the comprehension of the masses but rather the mythologies and dogma that are imbibed in our subconscious mind and our popular culture and which we encounter in our daily lives and thus shape and reflect in our gendered behavior. Here I will discuss three Hindu religious texts namely Bhagwat-gita, Ramacharitmanas and Durga Shaptashati with which we will be discussing how religion and its interpretations and also the popular memory of religious texts affects and defines gender relations in those societies and how it is continuously affecting us in contemporary times.
Indian women are often seen as embodiment of virtues, upholding the ideals of a “pativrata stri”- a woman for whom his husband is the entire world. The status as well as the ideal itself has been conferred upon her through the sacred texts and scriptures from ancient times to the more recent texts such as the Ramacharitmanas, which depict Sita as an ideal wife worthy of being venerated by the Hindu women.
The predominant characteristic of the Indian society is its patriarchal nature through which any dissenting voice is easily suppressed. These texts then act as a moral guide for this patriarchal structure and their “holiness” guarantee that they shall not be subjected to examination and scrutiny.
These scriptures continue to serve as the moral guide for a large part of Indian population and they exercise an unparalleled influence on the way of thinking of Indian people.
Right from earlier times, women are subjected to be treated either as an object or a fragile being who requires protection. To see the structure of patriarchy inbuilt in these writings we first need to bust the myth of its divine nature and need to treat it as a text written by mortal beings (many beings over a period of time) who described and many a times, prescribed the rules and laws for the society of their time. Many of these rules over the passage of time and continuous change in the socio-economic structure of the society became obsolete and thus need to be re-evaluated. Look for instance the following shloka in the Bhagwat-gita-
“Adharma abhibhavat Krishna
Strishu dusthasu vasrneya
A patriarchal notion that reflects in this shloka is that it is the duty of men to present ideals for women or rather men are the prototype of civilization and order that is followed by women. In the absence of such norms the society will go into chaos. Similarly women will lose her morality if men don’t present him as an example of morals and ethics. Here Arjun says to Krishna that if he kills Kauravas, it will led to the destruction of the kul(clan), which would lead to women losing her morality, which will lead to “varnasankara”.
Here, varnasankara has a very different connotation than the historical understanding of varnasankara and should be seen in the specific context. Bhagwat-gita yathavat, a commentary on the text, translates the term as “illegitimate children” (unwanted progeny according to its English version). Their interpretation is patriarchal in itself- “children are very prone to degradation, women are similarly prone to degradation. Therefore, both children and women require protection by the elder members of the family”.
Chanakya’s Arthashastra states that- “women are not very intelligent and thus not trustworthy”. So family traditions of religious activities should always engage them and thus their chastity and devotion will give birth to a good population eligible to participate in varnashrama system. On failure of the varnashrama dharma women will be free to act and mix with men of unequal Varna (which is considered a much graver sin than the act of adultery itself). The Bhagwat-gita yathavat also points out that “irresponsible men also provoke adultery”. It seems that the Brahmins were wary of the instances of proliferation of mixed caste but the onus of the blame doesn’t fall upon men and women equally. Thus a union between high caste women and low caste men was more condemn-able than vice versa.
The text also states that “unmarried women are more prone to varnasankara”. This assumption could be located in the historical context of war. In a clan based society as that of Mahabharata, a majority of the population act as a warrior class at the time of war. Thus a prolonged war with many casualties can upset the ratio of men-women in the society and even more the Varna hierarchy, as after every war there is a scarcity of men for the unmarried women as well as the widowed ones especially the one without an heir. At this point women are more prone to marry outside their Varna. Perhaps this may also be a reason for the wide prevalence of sati (which need not be glorified as a sacrifice) in warring communities apart from the fear of enemy there is also a fear of varnasankara for newly wed and childless widowed women.
In a war, Arjun imagines a “kulshaya” (destruction of the whole clan) (shloka 1:38,1:39). In such a war situation, women are not even left with the option of “niyoga” (marrying her brother in law for an heir) leading to more chances of varnasankara.
Secondly, the elders in the family act as a guiding force for the family and the clan who try to keep the prestige and morality of the family intact. But death of these elders will loosen the grip of morality and guidance and women can become “directionless”
Historically, this shloka defines a society where men are treated as an enlightened and somewhat superior being, an active force and thus considers it his moral duty to regulate the sexuality of women in the direction of the welfare of the clan. Actually, this can be seen as an anxiety of the patriarchal to ascertain the purity of lineage as we know that “maternity is a fact but paternity is always an assumption”. So the idea of “kuldharma” (clan ethics, which are often patriarchal in principle) is used to control women through imbibing such “virtues” in women subconscious mind. As soon as the threads are loosening, women’s sexuality is unleashed which leads to varnasankara. Here, the blame of varnasankara is levied on women who are seen as a potential threat to the rigidity of lineage due to her sexuality and the uncertainty of the paternity which requires the control of women’s sexuality by men.
Here, we must emphasize on the fact that women’s sexuality is a vital issue in the Hindu religious texts. For example, female goddesses are seen as embodiment of fertility both in terms of fertility of land or that of children. Devdutt patnaik explains explain very well the conceptual distinctions between “Gauri” and “kali”. According to him, kali is the embodiment of nature in its wild form- unrestrained, naked, sensous etc whereas human being domesticate the wild nature and its forces to convert forest into farming land, fertility and sexuality are also tamed to serve the purpose of men. “Gauri” represent that tamed, domesticated form of the goddess. Similarly in a patriarchal society, women sexuality is also tamed to suit the requirements of the patriarchal lineage. But unlike in the land, which is unleashed once a year to its natural form to regain its fertility, in women sexuality, due to the fear of “varnasankara”, cultural tools and religious texts are used to make the bonds of patriarchy and sexual control look natural inevitable and timeless.
A symbolic embodiment of this control of women sexuality is also seen in the story of Ramayana where Lakshman draws a line for Sita beyond which she is expected not to go without facing disastrous consequences. Women’s sexuality is seen as a thing of vital importance so much so that the mere suspicion of losing it is seen as a sin. Sita was abandoned by Rama on similar grounds that she couldn’t have remained purified after spending 10 months in the place of Ravana (who can most probably be a non Aryan ruler and thus the suspicion of purity of lineage is even more severe here). Ironically, the same logic doesn’t seem to apply for Rama, but it seems the concept of purity applies predominantly on women particularly in the royal, elite class
In Bhagwat-gita, the question is posed about suspicion of women degradation more directly as a part of discourse whereas in Ramacharitmanas the question is dealt morally as well as metaphorically in the form of “Lakshman rekha”, “agnipariksha”, “mayasita” etc.
Chastity of women is seen as the biggest virtue of women and is often prone to be threatened by the external forces. The coming of Turks and later Mughals was for some, such a turbulent time. And we can see the emergence of the popular manifestation of Ramayana in 16th century in the form of “Ramacharitmanas” by tulsidas in that context. Also, Ramacharitmanas is a text which is most commonly found in most Hindu homes. In the aranya kand, there is a dialogue between anusuya and Sita where the former lectures the latter on “chastity” and “pativrata dharma” that is serving husband with full devotion.
“Amit dani bharta baydehi
Adham so nari jo seva na tehi”
Husband gives you eternal pleasure. That wife is sinful who don’t serve him well.
“Aiseu pati kar kiye apmana
Nari paav jampur dukh nana
Aikai dharm ek brat nema
Kaye bachan man pati pad prema”
Who disrespects his doting husband suffers in the yampur (abode of yama, the god of death). A woman has only one moral duty, one aim and one law, and that is to serve his husband’s feet with full commitment and love.
Such an interpretation could be seen as an attempt to resurrect orthodox “hindu” family and social system. Tulsidas is seen often as a voice of orthodox Hinduism during bhakti movement which was facing threat from Islam as well as more liberal formed of bhakti traditions. In the end of the discourse, anusuya says-
“Sunu sita tav naam sumiri
Nari pativrata dharihi
Tehi pranpriya ram
Kahiu katha sansar hit”
O Sita, women will follow “pativrata dharma” following your ideal love towards Rama. I have said this story for the welfare of the world.
Patriarchal nature of Hindu scriptures is even evident in books on goddesses. Most of the hymns seem to be written from the point of a male. For e.g. in the closing lines of the arglastrotam in Durga Shaptashati the shloka says-
Give me a pleasant wife who works according to my mind, will and intentions and who can take me away from the complex web of the world and is born in a noble clan. What we see here, that the idea of salvation seems to be the legitimate territory of men and women seem to be only a means for men attaining salvation.
Coming back to Bhagwat-gita, Arjun describes the consequences of varnasankara (the blame of which is levied on women) in shloka 42, 43 and 44 of chapter 1
kula ghnanam kulasya cha
Patanti pitro hy esam
Lupta pindodaka kriya
Dosair etaih kula ghnanam
Utsyadante jati dharma
Kul dharmas cha shashvata
Utsanna kul dharmanam
Narake niyatam vaso
Such undesirable population certainly creates a hellish situation for the family and destroys the family. Their ancestors certainly fall down from the cessation of performing offerings of food and water. Such heinous deeds by all those destroyers of the family give rise to a population of undesirable progeny completely eradicating the time honoured spiritual traditions of the family and nobility of lineage.
O Krishna, I have heard from the learned that those persons, whose spiritual family traditions have been destroyed, perpetually become residents in hell.
Now, we will be discussing some of the chaupayis from Ramacharitmanas (aranya kand), a conversation between anusuya and Sita, where anusuya is explaining the normative status of women in the society-
“Sahej apavani nari
Pati sevat shubh gati lahi
Jasu gavat shruti chari
Ajahu tulsika harihi priya”
A woman is impure by her very birth, but she attains a happy state (thereafter) by serving her lord (the happiness is due to her loyalty to her husband).
“Matu pita bhrata hitkari
Mitprada sab sunu rajkumari
Amit dani bharta baydehi
Adham so nari jo sev na tehi”
O listens, o princess! A mother, father and brother are all kind to her, but they bestow only limited joy. A husband, however bestows unlimited joy (in the shape of blessedness), vile is the human who refuses to serve him.
Women are incomplete by themselves and desirable of external support which according to text is ideally provided by their husband.
“Bhrata pita putra urgari
Purush manohar nirkhat nari
Hoyi bikal sak manahi na roki
Jimi rabimani drava rabihi biloki”
At the very sight of a handsome man, be her own brother, father or son, a woman gets exited and cannot control her passions, even as the sun stone emits fire when it is brought in front of the sun.
With this text we can also see the underlying motive of this text to restrict the mobility of women to the domestic sphere in order to avoid degradation of her chastity.
The texts taken into consideration in our analysis are Bhagwat-gita, Ramacharitmanas and Durga Shaptashati not because these are ancient sacred texts but because these are the texts found in the most Hindu households and are things of everyday use. These are thus more influential in altering the mindset of the people owing to their sacred nature. Most people are ignorant of gender discrepancies it portrays and such elements get imbibed in our subconscious memory. Also, these, texts and its iconography and visual imagery are reproduced more than any other text and this influence even comes apparently in the mainstream public space when such ideas get supported by a favorable and powerful power structure like the ideology of the state or powerful religious organization.