1. Festivals, rituals and mythology

Culture, rituals, traditions, morals, ideals, idioms etc all are essential part of existence of human as a social being. But these traditions also contribute in our popular memory, our way of thinking and personality. Patriarchy is expressed in a very potent form through these rituals and customs. Irony is that these customs and traditions originate from the socio-cultural dynamics of the period. Every festival we celebrate, every custom we follow has its roots in history. But popular memory is short lived; we remember the custom but forget the context and the origins of the customs. Thus we forget the inherent patriarchy that we subconsciously endorse through the traditions we follow. This ignorance plays a part in retaining the structure of patriarchy. We don’t know the meaning of our daily actions, our festivals, our customs and how symbolically we all adhere unquestionably to patriarchy that we wish to eradicate. Thus, it becomes very important for us to know our own rituals and customs, deconstructing its patriarchal structure.

We celebrate a lot of festivals in our life. Most of these festivals have their origin as local events or “little tradition” that over the time get incorporated in the “greater tradition”. So we have some pan Indian festivities like diwali, dussehra, eid, holi etc. but we also have occasions like karwachauth, vat savitri, Durga pooja which started off as local practice and slowly spread to other regions. Hindu rituals have three main sources- Vedas, Puranas and tantric/ agama literature[1]. Since Vedic rituals are no longer followed in popular sphere, in popular most of our rituals derive from Puranas and tantric/agama literature. Fertility plays a major part in these rituals. In fact maithun is one of the 5 characteristics of tantric form of worship. There are many historical and sociological causes for the importance of fertility in our rituals. First is the process of assimilation of cultures itself wherein domestic rituals got institutionalized and legitimized as and when they came into contact with the dominant brahmanical traditions. Second is the prominence of domestic rituals in our society which gives much emphasis to the material benefit than spiritual attainment. Thirdly is the close symbolical and analogical relation between land and women that dictated and were dictated by the cult of fertility. Fertility goddesses has a very long and deep history even before the origins of organized faiths but with the incorporation of tantric cults as well as local fertility cults into the dominant religious tradition these rituals became the norm and institutionalized to an extent. Fertility cults are part of almost each and every society and we get ample references on fertility norms even in monotheistic abrahamic religions. Thus what we see is that fertility (both of land and women) is a social process which requires its control and channelization in a particular direction. Sexuality is regulated by the society as a bid to create their closed kinship group. And religion acts as an important catalyst, an institution to enforce and regulate and legitimize the cult of fertility.


Coming to festivals and celebration, the biggest celebration that a person witness or be a part of is perhaps marriage ceremony. The whole purpose of a marriage is to institutionalize the relation between a man and woman, that is, to generally validate a heterosexual relation. And what purpose does marriage serves? It helps in carry forward the lineage, bring a new generation to existence, but whose lineage, whose generation- patrilineal lineage most of the times (barring a few exceptions). Even in matrilineal society, the way to the existence of a socially legitimate and “purity of lineage” is decided upon by the institution of marriage. Giving marriage a divine sanction (“marriage are born in heaven”, “you choose a partner not for 1 but 7 births”) actually acts as a way to ensure chastity of women and to channelize the sexuality of women towards serving as a means to an end for the patriarchal society. But is marriage an equal institution, is the ‘better half’ actually seen as ‘equal half’. Actually no. we can see two simultaneous trends that are actually interrelated. Firstly, it is assumed that women don’t have any life without the support and protection of a male figure- be it father, brother, husband or son. So, in a marriage, after few pheras (circumabulation around the sacred fire) wife asks for permission to come forward. This symbolize that if death comes to separate husband from the wife, the wife should come forward and say to the god of death- “let death come to me first before it touch my husband”. This has twofold implications- firstly; a woman is relatively weaker and need the support of a male companion. Thus being devoid of a husband also reduces her socio- economic and physical protection. Second it represents the anxiety of sexuality of women if uncontrolled. Maiden women and widows especially young widows are especially seen with contempt and suspicion, and with these suspicions grew customs like sati.  But rituals are complex phenomenon and they evolve in complex conditions. Take for example the sati tradition. Apart from the anxiety of sexuality there was an economic cause especially in Bengal for the proliferation of sati tradition. According to Bina aggarwal[2] unlike other parts of north India, which follows the mitakshara system of property rights, Bengal follow the “dayabhaga” system where women are also entitled to a share in the property. Thus the sati system was also means to retain the property in the hands of the patriarchal family or the male members of the family. Sati took a very dominant form in the 19th century and the reason this time was social. Many marginal classes started to adopt this practice which they saw as “high brahmanical tradition” and aping them assure them higher social mobility. Those reformers, who helped in eradication of these rituals, did this out of their religious and intellectual concern. According to Amiya p. sen[3], Raja Ram Mohan Roy was concerned not about the emancipation of women so much as he was about the inhumanity and the non adherence to scriptures. Thus he was initially only against “anumarana” (when men die in a distant place or in a war and the body is not present with the family, women lit a separate pyre to commit sati) but not “sahmarana” (women dying on the same pyre as her husband). Finally, the resurgence of sati in parts of Rajasthan in 1980s was a cultural phenomenon where both men and women supported sati in the name of their culture and tradition and divine nature of the custom. Thus, we can say that it is very important to know the origins and structure of rituals because most of the rituals reemerge and renovate under the garb of new meanings, new interpretations and new great rituals and creation of new myths. Deconstruction of such myths is very important.

In marriage, most of the rituals actually cater to this patriarchal structure that is very apparent in their meanings but the meanings are always ignored for adherence to ritual. Among many rituals of marriage, we have something called Kanyadan, where father or a father figure (mind you women are rarely if ever involved in this process) gives the bride to the groom asking her “to take care of her in all circumstances” and ensuring to the groom that the bride is “pure, noble and obedient and loving”. Purity is the most important aspect of marriage and there is always the onus on women to prove her chastity. Marriage doesn’t mean the loss of agency for women, but rather the transfer of the dependency and sub ordinance of women from father to husband and later son. Even in later Vedic texts and Dharmasastras, the ideal form of marriage was where father gave the bride to the groom and in a metaphorical form this process continues in the form of Kanyadan where the father willingly (his will to be precise) give bride’s hand to the groom.

We have already talked about the 7 circumambulations. But if we closely look at the vows taken up by the bride and groom, there is a wide gap between the vows of a husband and a wife which actually reflects how our definition of duties and work is gendered. The public private divide is so apparent in these rituals. Bride and groom repeat those vows without even knowing that these rituals if taken literally emphasize on the domestic role of women.

Priest’s preface: The world of men and women, united in the bond of marriage by Saptapadi, to further promote the joy of life, together listen with triumph

Step 1 Groom’s vow: O!, you who feeds life-sustaining food, nourish my visitors, friends, parents and off springs with food and drinks. O! Beautiful lady, I, as a form of Vishnu, takes this first step with you for food.
Step 1 Bride’s vow: Yes, whatever food you earn with hard work, I will safeguard it, prepare it to nourish you. I promise to respect your wishes, and nourish your friends and family as well.

Step 2 Groom’s vow: O! thoughtful and beautiful lady, with a well managed home, with purity of behavior and thought, you will enable us to be strong, energetic and happy. O! Beautiful lady, I, as Vishnu, takes this second step with you for the strength of body, character and being.
Step 2 Bride’s vow: Yes, I will manage the home according to my ability and reason. Together, I promise, to keep a home that is healthy, strength and energy giving.

Step 3 Groom’s vow: O! skillful and beautiful lady, I promise to devote myself to earning a livelihood by fair means, to discuss, and let you manage and preserve our wealth. O! Dear lady, I, as Vishnu form, covers this third step with you to thus prosper in our wealth.
Step 3 Bride’s vow: Yes, I join you in managing our income and expenses. I promise to seek your consent, as I manage our wealth, fairly earned, so it grows and sustains our family.

Step 4 Groom’s vow: O! dear lady, I promise to trust your decisions about the household and your choices; I promise to dedicate myself to help our community prosper, the matters outside the house. This shall bring us respect. O! My lady, I, as Vishnu, takes this fourth step with you to participate in our world.
Step 4 Bride’s vow: Yes, I promise to strive to make the best home for us, anticipate and provide necessary things for your worldly life, and for the happiness of our family.

Step 5 Groom’s vow: O! lady of skill and pure thoughts, I promise to consult with you and engage you in the keep of our cows, our agriculture and our source of income; I promise to contribute to our country. It shall win us future. O! My skilled lady, I, as Vishnu form, takes this fifth step with you to together grow our farms and cattle.
Step 5 Bride’s vow: Yes, I promise to participate and protect the cattle, our agriculture and business. They are a source of yoghurt, milk, ghee and income, all useful for our family, necessary for our happiness.

Step 6 Groom’s vow: O! lovely lady, I seek you and only you, to love, to have children, to raise a family, to experience all the seasons of life. O! My lovely lady, I, as Vishnu, takes this sixth step with you to experience every season of life.
Step 6 Bride’s vow: Feeling one with you, with your consent, I will be the means of your enjoyment of all the senses. Through life’s seasons, I will cherish you in my heart. I will worship you and seek to complete you.

Step 7 Groom’s vow: O friends! allow us to cover the seventh step together, this promise, our Saptapad-friendship. Please be my constant wife.
Step 7 Bride’s vow: Yes, today, I gained you; I secured the highest kind of friendship with you. I will remember the vows we just took and adore you forever sincerely with all my heart.

(Source: Wikipedia)

The following rituals never make women as an active participant in the marriage just a passive receiver of love, wealth etc and restricts her position as an embodiment of purity or manager of household (purity of behavior and actions, to manage the expenses, to feed the family and friends and raise the family). In Manusmriti we get a reference of how men and women can acquire wealth. while men can acquire wealth through trade, conquest, service, inheritance, treasury etc, women’s source of income was supposed to be-gifts from husband, gifts during marriage, gifts from relatives, gifts from parents etc!! More than its economic importance it helps us know how women were expected to limit her to domestic sphere. We hardly come across any ritual which gives any agency to women outside the domestic sphere. And rituals and hymns are great example of this.

In haridwar (and perhaps in many other religious sites) when a householder does a puja the man asks for his welfare, his family, his business and property and social prestige etc, a women conversely asks for (or is asked to pray for)the welfare and long life of her husband and children!!!

Similarly we find customs like wearing mangalsutra by the women as a symbol of union with the husband which is actually an obligation for throughout her life. It wards off evil and helps in protection and long age of the husband!! In short, all our rituals and traditions with the exception of few are written to men, for men by men. In fact the whole idea of heaven is male centric with the concept of apsaras etc. after life. In fact, these rituals don’t show the dominance of men over women but actually those of patriarchal hegemonic communities who try to dominate the socio-economic- culture sphere by demarcating the boundaries between men and women. Thus, even men are expected to fulfill certain obligations and these obligations differ with your social status, caste and cultural standing in the society. Neither men nor women are aware of the discriminatory system projected by these rituals and are simply “following the traditions”

Application of vermilion or sindoor is another important ritual in marriage. According to Devdutt patnaik[4], red is the color of fertility. Red powder is the symbol of blood and fertility. Application of vermilion acts as a sign of married women. By applying sindoor men seeks the right (to be precise, exclusive right) to the sexuality of women. It is also a visible expression of women’s desire for the “longevity of their husband’s life”. And vermilion remains with women till the death of either the husband or herself. Even in some traditions, if a married woman dies, she is dressed up with all the ornamentation and makeup of a married women- vermilion, mangalsutra etc. thus, vermilion is a symbol of a legitimate sexual orientation of a women validated by the society and through rituals. But at the same time, vermilion is a symbol of entrapment of women’s sexuality to the sphere of the domestic walls and limited to the legitimate heir of this right-husband. And how myths are utilized to legitimize this is also important. The origin of vermilion was traced mythically to that of goddess parvati who is seen as the manifestation of an “ideal wife”. How patriarchy creeps in so easily metaphorically is a thing to be seen here.

Apart from marriage, we celebrate a lot of festivals throughout the year. Patriarchy seeps in through the narrow rituals and symbols and myths, which as pointed by Devdutt patnaik, can be interpreted differently by different people. We need to lay bare the underlining structure often camouflaged under these symbols.

Karwachauth, a festival that originated as a ritual meant for strengthening the bond between a newly wed bride and a female compatriot (called god sisters or dharm behen or kangan saheli) who helps her to adapt in the new surroundings. As this ritual grew into a much larger festival, there were great modifications in the nature of the festival god sister was replaced by husband, and the festival became an occasion to pray for longevity of her husband. Another theory suggests that karwachauth originated as an occasion to see off warrior men before they go for war. The festival not only celebrate women in her traditional role as a “dutiful wife” who pray and fast for the long life of her husband, it also emphasize on womanly qualities like chastity, devotion and subservience to husband etc. karwa actually means an earthen pot which has its own significance. These earthen pots were initially used to store grains as karwachauth generally falls soon after the harvest season and thus this pot symbolize material prosperity. If we look carefully, most of the rituals and objects associated with domestic rituals are meant for enhancement of the material world. According to Devdutt patnaik, “most of the rituals are either domestic or monastic in nature where domestic rituals are meant for material pleasure whereas monastic rituals fulfills spiritual attainment. According to him, Fertility symbols are world-affirming, associated with life-giving ideas, and are concerned with materialistic aspirations such as regeneration, experiencing pleasure, having children, and gaining wealth and power. Monastic symbols are world-denying, associated with life-taking ideas, and are concerned with spiritual goals such as truth, bliss, and immortality”.

Karwachauth was exalted to an important religious festivals by associating chastity, devotion and welfare of husband with mythological icons like parvati, savitri, veervati, draupadi etc. thus, we come across series of stories and legends to symbolically assert the patriarchal meanings. Similar element is also found in festivals like teej which though originally is a celebration of monsoons, also involves married women praying for longevity of their husbands and idealizing parvati, who is believed to penance for 108 years to attain the companionship of Shiva. Thus women are expected to model their character on the ideal wife of parvati. Similarly, in karwachauth you come across many stories dealing with the power of chastity and “pati-vrata dharma”, and also the evil consequences if husband doesn’t adhere to these customs. The most common story that women actually repeat every year during karwachauth is that of  veervati. So the story goes like this- a woman named veervati had 7 brothers, she took vrata for her husband but couldn’t handle hunger and thirst and fainted. The brothers disguised artificial light as moon light and asked her sister to break her fast. Veervati break her fast and consequently her husband died. While she was crying over her fate, goddess indrani/parvati asked her to undertake strictly the karwachauth vrata and her husband revived. According to A.K. Ramanujan, “A tale effects changes. The people who refuse to listen are punished, and anyone who hears such a vratkatha becomes fortunate, acquires unusual powers like the young girl who can heal the sick, make a dry tree flower, restore lost treasure, and revive the dead. In Hindu texts, a phalshruti, or ‘recital of results’, is part of the text: it tells you what good results will occur if you read the text. The same is true of sacrifices, offerings to gods, pilgrimages and other ritual acts-people undertake them be- cause they know that such observances, if properly concluded, will bring  expected results, say, children to a barren couple or prosperity to a penniless family”[5]

Karwa Chauth

(Image credits: http://www.karwachauth.com/the-legend-of-karwa-chauth.html)


Savitri is another important personality associated with karwachauth and elsewhere as an “ideal wife” who out of her power of “pativrata dharma” and devotion of her husband, saved her husband satyavan from the clutches of god of death yama. Third story deals with the penance by draupadi for the well being of Pandavas. Interestingly, Mahabharata is one such text, where you find all perspectives, all ideologies from downright misogynist patriarchal norms to instances of women standing on their own and going against the patriarchal norms. This story, most importantly a folk tale uses legendary characters to give legitimization to the ideas it endorses. Fourth and last story deals with a woman called karwa who threatened yama with her power of chastity to send those crocodiles to hell that had captured her husband. Yama, threatened by the power of a devoted wife did as she asked. The patriarchal society plays a lot of emphasis on the chastity of women[6]. The anxiety of women’s sexuality and the procreative power that reside in her together make them venerate the sexuality of women albeit only if it remains channelized in the domestic sphere for the sake of the lineage of the man. Husband is the mainstay beneficiary of this chastity. Not only it helps him secure the fatherhood of the off spring (which otherwise is a sociological fiction), it provides stability to the institution of family required for the smooth functioning of the lineage. Thus through our myths, the power of chastity is considered a dominant force in the life of a man. A daitya called jalandhara could not be killed by the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh just because his wife tulsi was a very devoted and chaste woman. So Vishnu used treachery to break her chastity and then only jalandhara could be killed. Similar treachery is also seen with Ahalya who was duped by an Indra in disguise to break her chastity. Both Ahalya and tulsi are seen as models of chaste women and venerated in our country. But there is another thing worth mentioning here. In both the cases, the emancipation of women after their loss of chastity and the resultant punishment they received (death of her husband jalandhara in case of tulsi, curse by her husband which turned her into a stone for Ahalya) was initiated by a male (tulsi became associated with Vishnu as shaligram shila, Ahalya returned to human form due to Rama). It not only shows that loss of chastity is a morally condemn-able and punishable act in a patriarchal society it also shows that emancipation of such women is also in the hands of the “other” (usually men), thus women are incapable of their own emancipation. Another important story illustrating this patriarchal setup is that of renuka, mother of parshuram. According to Mahabharata, Renuka was so chaste that she had the power to collect water in unbaked pots. However, she lost this power when she had adulterous thoughts after watching a king make love to his wives on the riverbank. Her husband, Jamadagni, ordered his five sons to behead Renuka. Four of them refused. The fifth son, Parashurama, who was an incarnation of Vishnu, raised his ax and did what was needed. As he was pleased with his son’s unquestioning obedience, Jamadagni offered Parashurama a boon. Parashurama requested to have his mother back. So Jamadagni restored Renuka to life using his spiritual powers. The story involves all three characteristics of the “chastity myth”- glorification of the power of a chaste women, punishment for loss of chastity (chastity is to be followed not just by actions but also by thoughts) and finally, emancipation with the help of a male. But, as Sheldon Pollock points out in his analysis of this story, patriarchy not only commands authority over women but also the male younger and dependent members of the society[7]. So, parshuram is both the oppressor and oppressed in this story, playing the role of an obedient son of a male patriarch and at the same time a patriarch who kills her mother for her “immoral action”. Male can also be oppressed in a patriarchal structure like yadu in Mahabharata who refused to give his youth to his father yayati and was cursed, while puru sacrificed his youth for yayati so that yayati could enjoy marital relations. This is an inverse form of Oedipus complex called “yayati complex”[8]. Patriarchal authority dominates the life of all the subordinates of the family and through this unquestioned authority the patriarch (male or sometimes even female patriarch) exercise his power through set of obligations imposed upon others. Thus, sage jaratkaru was obliged to marry not out of his free will but due to the need of his male ancestors to carry forward their lineage. The need of a patriarchal society exerts pressure on both men and women[9]. It is also these patriarchal relations and requirement of a lineage that creates anxiety about the queer identity of the person because it becomes difficult to place queers in the hegemonic, hierarchical gendered structure. Thus, they are forced to live a life dictated by the patriarchal structure like shikhandi in Mahabharata.

Returning to festivals, apart from chastity and “ideal wife”, there is another generalization or rather social construct that we witness regularly in our life and which has an unmistakable marking on the gendered relations. This notion is about the power/powerlessness associated with men and women. Thus, men are seen as the “protector” of women. There has always been a strong martial legacy, especially among men, and chivalry and fighting skill were considered the requisite requirements of masculinity, whereas women were considered weaker and inefficient to protect herself. Also more than her life, her “loss of honor” was a more fearful consequence, so we have festivals like “raksha bandhan” and “bhai dooj” where sister ties a symbolic thread on the wrist of her brother and brother vow to protect her under all conditions. The origins of this festival are a bit obscure. Initially we get instances of its use as a diplomatic measure with neighboring rulers or enemy ruler. It is said that wife of Porus send a thread to Alexander as a token of respect asking him not to kill her husband, though the historicity of this event cannot be ascertained. Another legend relates the festival with queen of chittod who after the death of her husband send a thread to Mughal ruler Humayun asking for protection against another ruler Bahadur shah. Many Puranic myths are also associated with the relation between brother and sister, most popular being that of yam and yami (Yamuna River) her sister. When Yamuna was supposed to descend on earth she told yam that- “if I descend to earth, I will get polluted” to which yam vowed to her to protect her from all adversities. This story became the basis for celebrating bhai dooj.

What is common in these stories is the relation which never equal. Here, the brother assumes the role of a patriarch whose duty is to protect her sister (as if there is a need to protect her from something other than the same patriarchal structure). But not only brother, in different phases of life, different people assume the role of a protector. Though the festival no longer holds the literal value, the symbolic value continues to exist. The term itself is “raksha-bandhan”, in short, this is an occasion where women celebrate the fact that they have a strong “male figure” standing for them (or rather they are expected to celebrate this fact by the patriarchal society).

Navratra is another occasion to worship women in her different forms, from mild and benevolent to warrior form to the wild and untamed form, goddesses are worshipped in her different manifestations. At the end of the navratra, 9 virgin girls are worshipped and fed in the house. Have we ever questioned this- why girls and why only virgin girls? Because virgin girls are seen as source of purity (menstruating women are deemed impure) and source of potential sexuality, and thus in this form they are venerated. There are people who consider this as a symbol of greatness of our culture and sign of women empowerment that we are venerating young girls, but what we don’t realize is that we are actually adhering to the patriarchal structure, without even knowing about it.


So basically all the ritual objects we use in our day to day life are some or other way follows the cult of fertility. So it shows how subtly these fertility norms and customs enter our life without even our knowing. The objective of these cults is to glorify the procreation which celebrates sexuality and reproduction in a very symbolic way. We have often seen a kalasha in our puja, over which we keep a coconut under a pile of rice and pot filled with water. Now, surprisingly water, coconut, pot or kalasha are all symbols of creation and fertility. Woman itself is a symbol of fertility symbolized by the color red (thus this kalasha is tied with a sacred thread of red color). A kalasha is placed with due rituals on all-important occasions like the traditional house warming (grihapravesa), wedding, daily worship etc. It is placed near the entrance as a sign of welcome. It is also used in a traditional manner while receiving holy personages. Why do we worship the kalasha? According to the creation myth, before the creation came into being, Lord Vishnu was reclining on His snake-bed in the milky ocean. From His navel emerged a lotus from which appeared Lord Brahma, the creator, who thereafter created this world[10].

The water in the kalasha symbolizes the primordial water from which the entire creation emerged. It is the giver of life to all and has the potential of creating innumerable names and forms, the inert objects and the sentient beings and all that is auspicious in the world from the energy behind the universe. The leaves and coconut represent creation. In other terms, coconut is the male sexual organ kalasha as the receiver of the semen (female sexual organ) and rice or water represents the seed of generation. How sexuality is expressed in such symbolic terms is worth seeing here.

Almost every symbol used in our life has these symbolic meanings. Red represents the color of blood and menstruation (hence creation), white represents the color of semen (hence creation), green color is symbolic of new saplings that germinate out of seeds, flower and fruit are symbolic of creation as it contains the seeds of its own creation (pollen or seed), durva grass used in pujas regenerates rapidly (you don’t need to plant grass), sweet things are symbolic of material prosperity. All these things are essential in our day to day worship. And all these are symbols of material prosperity and/or reproduction. Again, we must need to point out that while these symbols are not detrimental to any sexes, they glorify sexuality as a very important aspect of domestic life. Patriarchy doesn’t mean just suppression; it also means a structure of living in a particular way which serves the purpose and anxiety of a system. Sexuality is a way of enhancing the patriarchal structure and these rituals, cults and myths acts as a way of legitimizing this structure, that too without our knowledge[11].



You have often seen different yantras (Lakshmi kubera yantra or shri yantra) or very common symbols often seen in rituals like a 5 point star or a 6 point star[12].




                6 point star

5 point star                                               6 point star


A 5 point star is a symbol of Venus (shukra) which is a symbol of fertility and feminity. In India, you often see a 6 point star.  A 6 point star is an amalgamation of symbols of male and female fertility.  Male fertility symbol is oriented upwards (erected sexual organ) whereas female fertility symbol is oriented downwards (receiver of the seed of generation).

Male – upward triangle


female- inverted triangle


(image source:google images)


You will find these symbols in the different yantras and altar designs. Male symbolize heaven, female the earth, men spirituality, women material pleasure etc.   Another symbol for depicting the male female sphere is a circle and a square. This classification is based on the truism “women is equal to nature, men is equal to culture”.  Circle doesn’t have any origin or end, nor does it have any boundaries, any edges, thus women and nature symbolize the wild untamed form- sensuous, wild, open, naked, and promiscuous. Men represents culture- civilized, tamed, clothed etc. so patriarchy is the process through which the wildness of the nature is tamed and channelized. According to Devdutt patnaik, female goddesses are seen as embodiment of fertility both in terms of fertility of land or that of children[13]. 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, sensuous 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.

Women=nature                                                       men=culture

(image source: google images)



But why is there a need to control and tame the nature? According to patnaik, “this quest for taming nature and creating society is expressed in rituals that offer the Goddess clothing, cosmetics, and ornaments such as bangles and nose rings. The devotee wants to see the Goddess not in her full manifestation but in an abbreviated benevolent form. The man of society wants Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune, not Alakshmi, the goddess of misfortune. He wants Gauri, the radiant not the kali the ferocious. The culture based on ideas of perfection is indicated by a square within the circle. The sharp edges represent the value judgment that is missing in nature. What lies within the square is socially appropriate, while what lies without is socially inappropriate. Outside, sex and violence are untamed. Inside, sex and violence are disciplined by the code of dharma”[14]



Assimilation of nature and culture.Whatever   square circle

Lies outside the square is deemed

Inappropriate & unethical, wild & promiscuous

(image source:google images)

You will find the prominence of sexuality in many symbols that we see even in modern times. The most apparent is the linga cult. The erected linga (or male genital) is stabilized by a yoni (female genital) perhaps emerged as a fertility cult and later got an exalted status with lot of spiritual meanings and myths woven around it. Khajuraho temples are manifestations of how Kama along with dharma, artha and moksha were important elements of spiritual attainment as for material pleasure. In north east India women sexuality is worshipped in the form of kamakhya Devi in Assam. Here female sexual organ yoni is worshipped as a cult associated with sati, consort of Shiva (with a lot of tantric influences). But contrary to the open display of cults of fertility, we also see simultaneous glorification of chastity and brahmacharya. Hanuman is a symbol of brahmachari,  Tulsi is another symbol associated with chastity worshipped along with Vishnu and is an important element of vaishnava food due to its medicinal as well as “spiritual purity” It is ironical that though fertility cults are mainstay of domestic rituals their symbolism and meanings are highly undermined in the public sphere. Divinity is never expressed in material terms and thus we find attempts to put spirituality above material bliss. Even if material benefit is the necessity of life, it is definitely not the goal of life. So our great deities are generally not given a biological birth, because biological birth is relatively impure and inferior, nor their offspring are born through reproduction as they are beyond the material world. Vishnu is omnipresent and omnipotent (and in Shiva tales, Shiva is the parbrahma), Brahma is born out of navel of Vishnu, skanda (kartikeya) is born out of a drop of semen of Shiva (but not born biologically, nor was ganesha), Buddha was a historical being but over the years in his hagiography “buddhacharita” he was born in an unnatural way through the backside. Similarly Jesus was born out of a virgin mother. Hanuman is considered a celibate deity so even if he is a father of a son in some tales of Ramayana the son is not born biologically but through sweat consumed by a crocodile! Needless to say, the public/private divide is also dividing between spiritual/material world and that’s perhaps why we have all the material cults in symbolic form whereas the spiritual world is expressed more openly.

By no means is Hinduism the sole source of all these rituals, cults etc and by no means this is the only aspect of any religion, society, culture, but we need to acknowledge that these rituals and their hidden patriarchal structure are part of each and every society which we follow subconsciously. Almost every society gives evidence of such ideas and rituals. The anxiety regarding sexuality of women is evident in Quran as well. In sura-al-bakra, marriage is seen a process in their expansion of communities, thus there are strict restrictions on marrying non-Muslim women (2:221). On puberty Quran says that it is an “impure state” and until and unless women cleanse her men are expected not to visit them (2:222) and Quran (2:223) states that “your wives are your tilths, go to your tilth as you desire, just keep in mind your future and avoid the wrath of god”. Similarly, aayat-an-nur asks women to be modest in her clothing, keep her eyes down, and protect her private parts (24:31)[15]. While the intention is not to point out shortcomings in any religion (and I am not qualified enough to comment on Quran at this point) the point is that even here we find norms in the society that are tend to regulate, control, restrict and channelize women’s sexuality to the confines of the household. Secondly, in a patriarchal structure women acts as a receiver of what her husband gives it to her and a relatively inferior sex physically, economically and socially. Religion and scriptures acts helps in legitimizing these social norms. In bible, we see attempts to legitimize the patriarchal structure as the consequence of the “sin” committed by Adam and Eve. In genesis (2:21-2:23) bible old testament states that “woman was born out of the ribs of man”. Similarly, in genesis (3:16) lord says to eve after they committed the ‘sin’- “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee”[16]. Religion can act as a catalyst to give divine sanction to the social structure that is inherently patriarchal in nature.

There are other symbols that exist in our day to day life that adheres to the patriarchal structure. Apart from these religious cults, a rudimentary phallus is also the symbol of male icon. This icon is formally known as the blade, and it represents aggression and manhood. The phallus symbol is still used today on modern military uniforms to denote rank (see the strips on the military uniforms, they are pointed upwards) whereas symbol of women is downward pointing (resembling a cup, receiver of seeds of creation




Secondly, rose is also a symbol of sexuality. Rose is also an anagram of Eros, the Greek god of sexual love. The Rose has always been the premiere symbol of female sexuality. In primitive goddess cults, the five petals represented the five stations of female life—birth, menstruation, motherhood, menopause, and death. And in modern times, the flowering rose’s ties to womanhood are considered more visual. The blossoming flower resembles the female genitalia, the sublime blossom from which all mankind enters the world[17]. So according to a theory, when a man gives a rose to a woman it initially meant asking for sexual favors from women!! The point is not just that symbols are interpreted in different ways but we actually forget the inherent symbolism with time and thus symbols of patriarchy continue to be present in our life in invisible forms because we don’t know the meaning of our own culture, own symbols, our own rituals. Symbols do come with new meanings but the inherent patriarchy is never lost, in fact it is camouflaged under a new symbolism, a new myth.

Finally we must also take into consideration the dynamism and resistance and alternative to the dominant patriarchal structure. For example, A.K. Ramanujan points out that women folk tales altered the symbols and patterns of a male centered folk tales. Thus, according to him the meaning of the elements, the interpretation of the symbolism, depends on what kind of tale it is. He also points out that Symbols, let alone being universal, ‘do not even mean the same thing as we move from genre to genre. So the gender of the genre becomes important in interpretation. A woman’s culturally constructed life forms and her meaning universe are different from a man’s in such tales. Also, according to Devdutt patnaik, Indian culture embodies both material and spiritual cults, rituals that follow the brahmanical patriarchal code and simultaneously we find cults and rituals that challenge the hegemonic rituals. For example- while Tripura sundari cult manifests brahmanical code, we also venerate Chinnamastika cult, which is a naked, blood drinking goddess (decapitated head drinking her own blood not only venerates goddess in wild naked sensous form, she challenges the patriarchal notion of sexuality by “copulating with her spouse or while sitting on a couple who are making love with the woman on top”. According to him, “she is a visual representation of the observation that is experienced in life. Having sex with the woman on top indicates material reality drawing the life force from spiritual reality. Chinnamastika’s violence (cutting the neck) is an act of defense (suggested by the scimitar) and nourishment (suggested by the drinking of the blood spurting from the severed neck). The image of the goddess is unabashedly sexual and violent. Her nakedness and lack of modesty in both the sexual and violent acts indicate the impersonality of sex and violence in nature, their only intention being to sustain life”. Finally as pointed out by A.K. Ramanujan, Indians are also exposed to customs, tales, and beliefs that may be quite contrary to what they find in the classics. For example the story of the “serpent lover” (a folk tale) mocks the classical notion of chastity and in fact reverse the story of chastity test of sita and here, infidelity is not punished as in case of Ahalya and story gives more emphasis to the pleasure of women than the moral correctness or implications of the act. Needless to say, patriarchal structure exists but simultaneously at a more modest level although, the protest against this dominant structure. But it also suggests that patriarchy is indeed a formidable structure that these alternative sources have to deal with. And the biggest problem in resisting patriarchy remains the same- we don’t even realize that it is a problem. We are living in the very structure that we are trying to resist. So our tools, methods and ideas to resist patriarchy have some bearing of the structure of patriarchy. This is what we call “the invisible hand of patriarchy”






[1]      Paṇḍit    Sriram    Ramanujacāri- theory and practice of hindu ritual and practice volume 1

[2] Bina aggarwal- “who sows, who reaps: women and land rights in India”

[3] Amiya p.sen- “ram Mohan Roy: a critical biography”

[4] Devdutt patnaik- “Indian mythology: tales, symbols and rituals”

[5]  A.K. Ramanujan- “the collected essays of A.K. Ramanujan”

[6] http://www.karwachauth.com/the-legend-of-karwa-chauth.html


[7] Sheldon Pollock- epic and argument in sanskrit literary history

[8] Devdutt patnaik- “jaya: telling and retelling of Mahabharata”

[9] Sankshipt Mahabharata

[10] Hindu rituals and customs- why do we follow them

[11] Devdutt patnaik- ibid

[12] Devdutt patnaik- ibid

[13] Devdutt patnaik-“ myth=mithya”

[14] Devdutt patnaik- “Indian mythology”

[15] Anudit Quran majid- maulana Muhammad farukh khan

[16]  The holy bible- king James version

[17] Dan brown- “the da Vinci code”