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Indian Women, Religion, and Society

a final paper

Prof. Triloki N. Pandey
Anthropology 130I: Cultures of India
Copyright © 1997 B. A. Collie Collier

A few comments by the professor -- yes, I'm still delighted about this! ;-)



A long-standing fascination for me has been how religion is frequently used to justify a society's institutions. Specifically, I find myself curious as to how religion is often applied within a culture to justify objectivisation and oppression of women, and by extension, as to whether religion is used in this fashion in India also. I will therefore be taking a closer look at how religion intersects with everyday life for women in India, as demonstrated by the readings I've done. I shall be using both some of the books we are reading for this class, and a few others from past classes.

Religion is defined by Durkheim as a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, which unite a moral community. A religion, to fulfill Durkheim's definition, does not demand a belief in supernatural beings, but rather contains both metaphysical speculations, and rules for moral discipline and conduct. Three of the most well-known and wide-spread religions of today are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, also known as the Religions of the Book (referring to the Bible as their common inspiration). All three of these religions fulfill Durkheim's definition of religion, and all three are integral parts of the structure of many of the societies in which they are prevalent. Thus a look at the collective effervescence of the religion can offer one a view (although that view is not definitive) of the collective representations of the culture.

In all three 'Religions of the Book' one finds a repeating theme of woman as untrustworthy seducer, destroyer, the cause of man's fall from divine grace. One can also see how little effort it takes within the holy texts to generalize these recurrent motifs, and define as sacred the hypostatised cultural norm: 'Man.' This religious symbol of Man allows the male-defined community to create and worship itself, and justifies a collective effervescence that seems to always exclude women. Women may contribute to collective effervescence -- but they cannot lead such rituals. Man becomes that sacred object which commands respect and obligation; woman, by contrast, are polluted, mundane. Thus woman, by her biological opposition to man, becomes of necessity the profane that defines the sacred, totemistic Man; because she is the 'profane' she can never be a part of the 'sacred.'

It is therefore not surprising to discover a similar attitude towards women within the actual cultures and societies wherein these beliefs hold sway. In the Islamic Middle Eastern countries as in Christian and Jewish Western societies, women are frequently considered the weaker sex, are seen as needing protection and guidance from men, and are defined as the dialectical 'other.' Indeed, religiously based collective representations are frequently used to culturally delineate and limit the role of women to one of subordination to men, and to justify oppression and/or abuse of women. A societal vicious circle of sorts is developed -- due to religious beliefs women are treated as second class citizens, if not merely as chattel. Due to women being thus disempowered there is no good way for them to regain agency, in order to counter hegemonic views as to their true 'nature.' Thus as the priesthood usually remains consistently male in its membership the religion consistently reflects and reinforces this view.

This is all, of course, a rather essentialist view of the intersection of religion and society. Durkheim did not allow for individualism in his studies, and unlike him I shall be examining specific individuals in order to gain a better understanding of how Indian religion both creates and is modified by Indian culture. Durkheim also did not allow for contradiction, or its growth over time within a society, and the subsequent cultural changes this implied. I, on the other hand, shall be looking at the readings chronologically, in order to see if there has indeed been any change discernible within both the society and its religious beliefs. However, like Durkheim I shall be using the works of others to draw my conclusions, and due to a lack of space and time I shall also (unfortunately) be viewing Indian culture as a somewhat homogenous whole. It is my hope that keeping these two faults within my study in mind will assist in critical examination of both this paper and the books to which I refer.


The earliest study in our readings is The Remembered Village, by M. N. Srinivas. Srinivas writes of an entire village that he studied in the late 1940's - early 1950's, and does not examine any specific person or their religious beliefs. However, he does give some close examination of three particular individuals within the village that were particularly helpful to him. It is noteworthy that these three individuals were all men. Thus his views on women's religious practice and how it informs daily life are somewhat hard to discern, as he does not often mention them specifically. He seems to see them as caretakers of tradition, mentioning often the headman's mother as the individual who insisted on correct religious behavior applied to life. Indeed, it is a young girl within the headman's family who notes disapprovingly that Srinivas himself is somewhat lax in his observance of the religious rituals. Srinivas also notes one man as being the most cosmopolitan amongst the villagers, stating that this individual alone thought to introduce Srinivas to his wife -- who was however so shy that she soon disappeared into the back of the house.

However, as Srinivas himself notes, he could not be an observer of the village women. For a man to talk freely with the village women would have been unheard of -- it was simply something that was not allowed. Had Srinivas insisted upon doing so he would have had to forego the role the villagers themselves desired for him: he was a Brahmin, and should be both treated as and behave like such. Thus we should not be surprised at how little information concerning women there is in Srinivas' book. Indeed, it is in this very lack of discussion by Srinivas that we find the information we seek: as is religiously stated, the good woman is not part of public life. Thus, from the perspective of a high caste male, daily life for the village women in the late 40's - early 50's is as close an approximation of religious ideals as possible.

The women I most remember from Untouchable: An Indian Life History were those I found the saddest, and so I find myself somewhat suspicious of my choices here. Nevertheless, I believe the Bauri women are also noteworthy in the contexts of how religion and day-to-day life intersect. Specifically, the Bauri women, while religiously considered unclean, are apparently not seen as so unclean that sexual advantage cannot be taken of them by higher caste men... as long as the appropriate ablutions are performed afterwards.

Untouchable, written of the author's studies performed in the 1970's, contained some of the strongest examples of day to day behavior diverging from Hindu religious ideals. This is not really surprising, considering these very religious ideals were created and are passed on by upper castes, while lower castes frequently can only strive at occasional emulation of those very ideals, as finances permit. Indeed, pragmatic behavior is to be expected from the lower castes, for two reasons. First, religious ideology generally fails before the need for survival, and second, it is quite probable that many of the religious rituals and beliefs set up by the Brahmins were set up specifically because only they, the Brahmins, could most perfectly and completely fulfill them. Thus the Bauri, one of the untouchable castes, is in a sense religiously set up to fail from the beginning.

In another sense, the portrayal of the Bauri women by Muli, in Freeman's book, demonstrates great accord with many Hindu religious beliefs. As it says in the Mahabharata:

The fire has never too many logs,
the ocean never too many rivers,
death never too many living souls,
and fair-eyed woman never too many men.

Thus the Bauri women, both married and unmarried, are portrayed as falling in love inappropriately, enjoying sex, and actively seeking out liaisons with men, even as they do their best to maintain a proper public facade. However, the portrayal of the Bauri women should be viewed with some caution. Freeman notes that Muli always casts himself in the passive role in most relationships, initially reluctant and always approached first and persuaded by others, both men and women, to make the arrangements for them. It is entirely possible that Muli is remembering selectively, and that the Bauri women he discusses were not entirely as he portrays them. Nevertheless, in the Bauri women we see a religious belief (women as sexual creatures) embodied, even as we see another set of religious beliefs (proper behavior for women) embodied only as a public facade assumed for self-protection.

In 1980 and 1984, Margaret Trawick visited Tamil Nadu, and those studies gave rise to Notes on Love in a Tamil Family. It was in this book that I most clearly saw a differentiation between the religious view of women and the actual day-to-day behavior of women. This is quite possibly due to the fact that of all the books I read, this is the only one where the indigenous women were actively pursued as informants on the culture. Nevertheless, while Trawick notes the religious ideal of pativrata, a gentle and yielding wife who views the husband as lord and deity, she also notes the actual demeanor of the women she was living with differed somewhat dramatically, to her view, from that religious ideal. She found the women of the household quite strong -- astonishingly argumentative and aggressive, in fact -- to the point that she was once exasperatedly asked by one if she ever stood up for herself. Interestingly, she is also honest enough to add that she had emotional problems living within the household.

This is not to say each of the household's women did not view themselves as proper streedharmini, or loyal and faithful wives. It is true that the Laws of Manu state:

She should do nothing independently even in her own house.
In childhood subject to her father, in youth to her husband,
and when her husband is dead to her sons, she should never enjoy independence...

Though he be uncouth and prone to pleasure, though he have no good points at all,
the virtuous wife should ever worship her lord as a god.

However, in the Mahabharata, another Hindu religious text, the story of Draupadi is related. Draupadi is described as both beautiful and 'spirited': she engages in philosophical discussions with her husbands, arguing the merits of mercy and revenge. She challenges one husband's judgment and plays on his emotions. This does not sound, initially, like behavior appropriate for a proper married woman. Yet Draupadi also views herself as a streedharmini, noting in several verses her dedication to her husbands and her selfless and uncomplaining service to them. She does not see this service as demeaning; it is instead a source of pride and self-worth to her, and assures her of her husbands' esteem. Through her actions and behavior as a wife she finds both fulfillment of her dharma and the source of her shakti or power.

Thus, examining the behavior of the Tamil women, we can see both the lack of a single defining religious text in Hinduism to prescribe women's daily life, and the textual ambivalence that allows for wide variations in personal behavior, while still allowing one to follow the dictates of individually interpreted religious beliefs. The Tamil women were thus indeed following selected dictates of their holy texts, and living as prativrata -- it is probable that to them there was no discernible conflict between their behavior and religiously defined strictures on their daily life. However, it is interesting to note that while the Tamil women felt they were living up to their religious ideals, the outsider's gaze found their behavior puzzlingly divergent.

From the Margins of Hindu Marriages described a few individual bhakti, and their own personal negotiations with counter-hegemonic thought. Of specific interest to this paper was the chapter by Paul B. Courtright on sati -- a secularly outlawed institution that is nevertheless still viewed even today with great reverence by both women and men. Courtright discussed in some detail his investigation of the Balasatimata within the context of his discussion of sati. As sati is a ritual with great religious significance, I find the Balasatimata to be an exemplary illustration of religious and secular modes of thought for that place and time.

Briefly, Rup Kumari, a young wife who was widowed early, announced her decision to become a sati. Unsurprisingly, since this practice has been outlawed since the late 1800's, her family prevented her from doing so. However, I found it fascinating that even though the Balasatimata was prevented from following religious ideals and immolating herself, the religious significance of and reverence accorded to the act of sati was such that she was viewed as one who had indeed succeeded in dying in order to benefit her husband in his afterlife. Even in 1987, shortly after Balasatimata (then in her 60's) had died, or 'left her body,' she was viewed as a saint or divine being by many in the region.

The ritual of sati itself speaks eloquently on the Hindu view of women. A good wife prays to die before her husband, to not be a widow. Sati allows a refutation of widowhood, a telling demonstration of one's sat or inner purity, and a public justification of one's behavior. It is, in a sense, the most graphic denial possible to any assertion that the husband's death is due to a lack of faith or propriety on the part of his wife. By her act of sahagamana ('going with' her husband) she has, religiously speaking, become the ideal pativratadharma, emptying herself in service to her husband's well-being and avoiding the ritual contamination and social marginality widowhood would bring down upon her and those around her. Thus we can see that religious beliefs were indeed observed in Balasatimata's life, albeit modified by secular law, even as religion modified the day-to-day life of both she and the region in which she lived.

Taking another perspective on sati, in "Hinduism: Sati and its Defenders," Roop Kanwar's 1987 case of 'successful' sati is examined. What I found noteworthy was again that while the act of sati is secularly illegal, there was a tremendous outpouring of religious feeling in favor of Roop Kanwar's illegal, but also supposedly self-determined, action. Whether or not it was a suicide, or a murder was committed, was irrelevant to believers -- apparently the possibility that a woman could even today contain such sat, such inner purity that she would successfully immolate herself for her husband was simply too religiously exciting for that to matter. Indeed, it would seem the authorities were well aware of this disturbing ground-swell of public religious feeling, as they were slow in investigating the sati, even when charges were pressed and even though the secular law was theoretically being openly flouted.

Sadly, ultimately no real punishment was administered against those who were supposed to have unlawfully either aided or murdered Roop Kanwar. As Hawley notes, it would be almost impossible to determine the truth of the matter at this point, for fervent belief, both sacred and secular, has caused all involved to either denounce the incident utterly as a barbaric murder, to refuse to speak of the sati to secular (and by extension non-comprehending) authorities, or to simply believe, with all their hearts, that it would be impossible for Roop Kanwar to be any less than the ideal pativratadharma. Interestingly enough, at the time there were protest marches attended by both men and women, to demonstrate against the lack of action taken against those who either planned or aided the sati. However, counter-demonstration marches were also held, and in each case they seemed to both be attended mostly by men, and to be approximately double the size of the initial protest marches -- at least by the evidence provided by photographs taken at that time. Thus, whether willingly or not, Roop Kanwar became a real-life example of perfect dedication to religious beliefs, to the extent of ending one's life for them.

Dharma's Daughters, by Sara S. Mitter, reflects on several years of living in India. However, most of her speculations and observations are mentioned as occurring in 1987 - 1989. It is interesting to see a correlation between religious teachings and everyday life embodied in the apparent need for a woman to marry very young. The example cited by Mitter was of a 17 year old "scheduled caste" girl living and working with her mother. She'd been quickly married off in the last year and had gone to live with her new husband. Not finding him to her liking, she'd simply left and returned to continue her life with her mother... which was now acceptable, since she was married, and thus no longer a danger to those around her, and since her mother's responsibility to get her successfully married was now complete.

This need to marry a girl child off while still young was apparently based on religious tenets expressed in some of the sacred Hindu texts, which stated that an unmarried menstruating woman was a danger to her parents' house. In addition, religiously speaking, the samskara of marriage is necessary to change the status of a girl in her father's house into that of respectably married woman who is now part of her husband's family. However, also noteworthy is the fact that the young married girl, Gouri, found no ethical or religious difficulty in leaving her husband and returning to her mother's household. Gouri found marriage liberating, in that it prevented gossip and social pressure upon her and her mother. She did not seem to feel any need to more closely follow the religious tenets which define a streedharmini, a loyal and faithful wife.

Also of interest was the chapter in From the Margins of Hindu Marriage on the legendary Mira Bai. Here we have a religious story of a woman who refuses to be a pativrata, to live the respectable married life accorded to her by tradition. She acts in a fashion that would ordinarily be considered shameless: she abandons parda and leaves her human husband's family to publicly sing and dance in honor of Krsna. Her justification of this behavior is, interestingly enough, to claim she is already married to Krsna. Even today, in the early 1990's, her story is both inspiring and troublesome to her devotees, most of whom are women. They admire and would like to emulate her devotion to her divine husband Krsna, even as they are made uneasy by her publicly unacceptable behavior and are troubled by the difficult times her behavior brings to her human husband's family. While hers is quite possibly among the most popular of stories repeated today in modern India (if the number of times that it is portrayed is any indication of popularity), she is a religious ideal that is not someone real women can imitate. Indeed, ultimately her subversiveness in the end supports and strengthens the institution of marriage, with all its religious connotations and associated rituals: she transcends her shameless and damaging secular behavior only by her religiously pure dedication to her divine husband. Thus her religious story, of necessity, diverges from real life occurrences in the lives of Indian women.



I think what impressed me the most about these readings was the lack of agency most women seemed to have. None of the people in these readings, female or male, really seemed to effectively challenge or change the perceptions of what a woman should be or want. The Indian woman still seems to find her day-to-day societal 'self' or 'location' within the religious samskara of marriage. Sometimes these women are the sole breadwinners of the family, either economically independent of their husbands or abandoned by them -- and yet none of these women seemed to have moved beyond the marriage ritual as their personally defining act. The ability to do so, the path to take to be more than just a married person, is there in the religious teachings and in the culture, but is invariably assigned solely to men. Why are none of these women interested in emulating these paths, in order to gain for themselves, both as individuals and as a group, more autonomy?

Perhaps this is due to the powerful hegemonic view of caste, e.g. women do not think of themselves as either individuals or as a group, but rather as wives and caste members. I realize the society itself has many barriers to such an act of resistance, and this would simply be yet one more. Hegemonic thought is massively difficult to counter, precisely because it is believed to be everyday 'common sense.' In this case, the religious teachings would be both instructive towards, and defining of, one's self: proper women simply do not behave in such a fashion, for it would never occur to them to do so. However, as can be seen by the examples I have given, there are stresses and contradictions between the strictures Hinduism places on women, and the actual day-to-day performance of those demands.

It is true that, like most religions, Hindu sacred texts seem to have some early basis of belief in women as individual and worthwhile beings. It is also true that much of the subsequent religious writings concern frequently mysogynistic thought on the nature of women -- thought which unfortunately often dominates religious exegesis more strongly than the original texts. But there is one main difference between the Religions of the Book and Hinduism: namely, in Hinduism there is no one text considered the holy book. For Judaism it is the Torah, for Christianity the Bible, and for Islam there is the Qur'an. Hinduism, on the other hand, has many religious texts, and this has led to a lack of the sort of fanaticism that is sometimes lamentably frequent in the societies and cultures that practice the Religions of the Book.

Indeed, it is the somewhat contradictory nature of many of the Hindu religious texts that may most encourage resistant and somewhat counter-hegemonic behavior in women, as is demonstrated by the still frequently repeated stories of Draupadi and Mira Bai. Also, as can be seen from the somewhat erratically but generally progressively more divergent behaviors of the women in the class readings, it would appear that more secular independent thought amongst women is slowly arising. However, two cautions must be noted in this context. Firstly, we have no way of knowing if Indian women have always been resisting and redefining religious norms, for we have no good early studies on them. Thus we cannot say with certainty that the increasing voice of these women is due not to more personal liberty, but simply to the fact that we have now, finally, started to listen. Secondly, even though we may view, with our Western gaze, the emerging counter-hegemonic voices of Indian women as reclaiming their agency and departing from what we may perceive as stifling religious demands, the Indian women themselves many not see their behavior in this light. As has been noted before, there is a plethora of often contradictory and sometimes confusing religious texts in Hinduism. Thus there is a very good chance that these women do not feel they are resisting their religion -- but rather believe they are merely redefining and clarifying it, reasserting its own proper tenets. As the Mahabharata notes:

Even a man in the grip of rage
will not be harsh to a woman,
remembering that on her depend
the joys of love, happiness, and virtue.

To remind of forgotten religious truths is not to abandon one's religion. The women of India who are revealed in my readings quite possibly would classify themselves in that fashion.

Thus the Hindu religion as interpreted by the daily lives of Indian women is demonstrated, through the class readings, as a societal structure that is not static, but rather endlessly permutable. It cannot be synchronically explicated, for by its very nature it defies rigidification. It is constantly being redefined and reinterpreted, on a daily basis and by innumerable and endless numbers of holy teachers and lay individuals. Its many sacred texts disallow a blind devotion to a single set of rules on how to live, and its acceptance of all interpretations of approach to the divine can be seen as nothing short of astonishing when compared to the Religions of the Book. It changes through time in a diachronic fashion, both determining the definitions and limitations of daily life, and limited and defined by the challenges and demands daily life puts upon it.

The Durkheimian definition of religion fails when applied to Hinduism, as it is demonstrated by the Indian women of our readings. While Hinduism is indeed the basis of moral order for these women it is also malleable, changing slowly or reinterpreted as necessary by the demands of the developing and growing society and castes these women live in. To Durkheim religion was a synchronic, static cultural element; a tool for understanding the society from a structural-functionalist viewpoint. The examples of the Indian women in our class readings show that Hinduism is for them not a structure within an organicistic society that cannot be affected by individual action, but rather a diachronic, ever-changing response to both the demands of their society and their own daily life.

Last Updated: Sun May 3 1998