The Image(s) of Modern and Contemporary Hindu women in
Media, Religion, and Politics.
Ama Marie Simard
In this paper I examine
the image of modern and contemporary Hindu Women in India. The concept of image
has multiple meanings. An image can be a reproduction of something that closely
resembles another, or it can be an opinion held by the public, or a set of
values. Image can also be a metaphor for an inner reality or innateness; a
personification of the true nature of something; and finally, a vivid depiction
of traits. When I say I wish to examine the image of the modern and
contemporary Hindu woman then, I am looking at all of these things within
specific examples. I must note that it is impossible to cover the diversity of
Hindu women in India, as they are numbering at nearly half a billion people; rather,
my aim is to examine how the reoccurring image of woman itself has changed from
a past or traditional reoccurring image in some specific instances. I hope to
catch some of the essence of change that I feel has occurred in the modern and
postmodern period in this regard. Firstly, I explore the portrayal of women in
media, as literal image is a good starting point, from this I progress to the
more metaphorical image of woman. Next, I progress to the examination of the participation
of women in politics and religion; two areas in which abundant participation by
women has been sparse. I begin with an examination of the religious female
identity within Hinduism, and then progress to consider the image of female
ascetics in Benares. Then I focus on one specific mystic to arise from Benares,
Ma Anandamayi. I continue to consider the image of women within the political
realm by using the lens of the nationalist movement. I analyze the idea of
women participating in the nationalist movement in general, focusing upon one
key figure in the movement, Sister Nivedita. Thus, I consider both the
spiritual and the political; the transcendent and the worldly in order to focus
upon the differences and similarities between the traditional image of woman
and the contemporary image of woman.
One of the first
things I encountered while inquiring into the contemporary image of Hindu women
was a journal article which examines the construction of hegemonic gender roles
that often arise in Indian television commercials. Chitra Radhakrishnan
examines this concept. She thinks that there are ideological beliefs and assumptions underlying and
reinforcing stereotypical definitions of Indian womanhood (Radhakrishnan).
She says that there are two stereotypes that permeate Indian television, one of
the overly sexualized female, who lies idly on the hoods of cars to seduce
people into buying products, and the other is the tamed housewife who doesnt
care about her own life, and only her husbands. The first image is destructive
in the sense that it is an example of how patriarchal corporations exploit womens
bodies and sexuality. It also shapes womens views of how they should look at
themselves and forces them to critique their own form, comparing themselves
with fashion models. The tamed housewife stereotype is also destructive in
other ways. She illustrates this problem with an example:
advertisement for Harpic, a toilet cleaning liquid, begins with a grand
sequence of shots showing a group of masked commandos wearing thick protective
attire. They land from a plane and search the entire locality with modern
equipment. When they reach the toilet they find the place swarming with germs.
At this point their chief removes her facemask and we see an attractive woman
tossing her hair and smiling at the audience victoriously. Then comes the
caption with the declaration Here comes the expert in cleaning toilets. After
zooming in on the smiling face of the woman, the Harpic container is shown on
the screen (Radhakrishnan)
Radhakrishnan continues with
another poignant example:
advertisement for Anandham (meaning happiness) gingelly oil starts with a
conversation between two women. One asks the other what real happiness is like
and the latter replies that it is to interview her suitor before consenting to
marry him. (This is an important ritual in the life of an Indian woman.
Accompanied by his parents and other relatives, the prospective bridegroom
comes to see the bride to ask for her approval. The bride would be asked to
sing and her parents list her feminine skills such as embroidery, creating
designs with coloured powder and cooking, while praising her docility and thus
her eligibility to be an ideal daughter-in-law.) The woman in the advertisement
adds that she would derive happiness from asking daring questions such as
whether he would drink liquor, if he would demand dowry and whether he would
beat her. Aspiring to put such questions to a man, by itself is an act of
revolution in the traditional Tamil context. The woman who is listening puts an
end to this attempt at puncturing tradition and says with rapture that
happiness does not lie in these but in buying the particular brand of cooking
oil. So, it is the feminine act of cooking that will bless an Indian woman with
happiness, and not her forthrightness or her courage to question male
From these examples we can draw a
few conclusions. The images often seen on television project women as being
primarily concerned with the domestic realm, therefore pleasing men and mens
needs, and as being sexual objects, with a similar result for men. If the media
is male-driven, this affects the image of women in the public eye. Although
some people tend to ignore television and movies as a definitive factor in
shaping identity, they do in fact create and maintain reality by displaying and
reinforcing ideas which are dominant within a culture. Thus, I agree with
Radhakrishnans analysis as television is a good indication of both what the
general society views as important cultural ideas, whether fantasy (in the
minds of men) or reality.
A summary of the
traditional domain of women is necessary in order to develop a paradigm from
which I can contrast the traditional realm to contemporary developments. Man
has four life stages
in which he travels through from student to householder, to forest-dweller and
then ascetic, while women have only two: girlhood, and then householder and
wife (Smith: 108). Women have the burden of dowry in a marriage, which their
family must pay. Even though this practice is illegal it continues in Indian
society. Further, the practice of sati, the suicide of soon-to-be widows
is common. This practice entails women throwing themselves upon the funeral
pyre of their husbands to gain honour. Many women conform to this practice
rather than face the circumscribed status of widow, where they are stripped of a
positive or auspicious identity. Further, women are thought to be impure while
menstruating, and thus unfit to be spiritual or religious at this time (105-9).
These realities are contrasted by the concept of shakti, and the
importance of goddesses. Smith points out that the power to create in the
divine realm lies within the female. Shakti is also power, force, electricity, a power
in the sense of a nation, the energy of a deity personified as his wife, and
the female genitalia (110). These images of women as impure,
disempowered and unable to live an ascetic life are contrary to the images of
woman as the powerful shakti which gives life to all. This dichotomy
will be explored in the pages to follow.
Lawrence A. Babb
considers the image of woman in view of the Brahma Kumari religious
movement. The primary image of woman he encounters in his examination is that
of woman as maya. Since worldly passions and attachments are the principle causes of bondage
woman [is often used] as a metaphor for the human situation. This concept has
deep roots in the bhakti tradition (Babb: 407). He continues to
full of vices, yet women are required to treat their husbands as gurus and
deities while they themselves are regarded as no more than the heel of the left
foot of man. As if this were not enough, to the degree that man has fallen,
woman is regarded as the temptress who pulls him down. According to a common
observation woman is harak la duar, literally the door to hell (Babb:
Thus, woman is not just a victim of
sexual lust, but they are the source. Babb astutely asserts that in the views
of this sect, woman is not the renouncer but that which is renounced
been considered to be exclusively within the realm of men by most Hindu groups.
Asceticism is considered to be a morally beneficial way of life and the common
practices are fasting and celibacy.
The term for female renunciants, which is not commonly employed, is sannyasini.
Lynn Teskey Denton, an anthropologist, discusses women who take this role in their
life in the modern period. Her study examines the experiences of one hundred
and thirty four women ascetics living in Benares. They had various different
ritual practices and lifestyles, for instance some were vegetarian and others
were not. Many of the women were people who had been denied full participation
as wives and mothers in householdership, while others claimed this life choice
as their own (Denton: 42). Most of the women however were from a Brahmin
background (one hundred and seventeen out of the one hundred and thirty four),
and there was an overwhelmingly large amount of women from Bengal (one hundred
and one). Other than these similarities there were not very many congruous
characteristics among the women who had varying approaches to their lives
above, many people do not like the idea of a woman being able to become an
ascetic or renunciant. The reasons for this are primarily because of
interpretations of traditional Brahmanic literature that states that only men
go through the four life stages and women have only two. In orthodox religion
then women are barred from being an ascetic because since they are relegated to
a woman caste, aurat jati, they are not allowed to hear or speak the
mantras. They are also thought to have a religious impurity, an overly
emotional nature which bars them, as well as a lack of natural disposition or
inclination toward religion (25). However, there are some arguments against
this interpretation of the literature. For instance, women are often delegated
to the shudra class for religious rights. Denton asserts, it is a well established fact that for the
purposes of most ritual activities women are allocated to the shudra class
(5). If a shudra is able to become a renunciant, then women, belonging to the
same class in regard to religious status, should be able to. Further, Vedic
literature provides historical evidence for the existence of female students
and renunciants in ancient India. Another argument for the naturalness of
female ascetics is that a mans wife is ardhangini, meaning half of his
body, and a necessary partner in domestic ritual (29), thus she is power
itself, and should be able to renounce. Whichever way it is interpreted, it is
clear that the different interpretation of the texts and instructions, affects
the lives of many women today. Even though many arguments are put forth toward
validating the right of women to participate in ascetic life, their presence
exists in a narrower vein than her male counterpart and their aim in their
practices is not in any way different. Female ascetics seek the same things
that male ascetics do: moksha and the end of samsara.
for women rests on two principles: fertility and nurturance and because of
these views young brides are often termed grhalaksmi, the good fortune
of the household (35). To be barren or a widow is thus extremely inauspicious.
As these aspects of the feminine are glorified, it creates a hierarchy for
other aspects of women. Denton claims that these two qualities and comes to the
conclusion that they as well reinforce the naturalness of woman as ascetic. She
and others reason that fertility implies that a woman is closer to the life
source or force itself; making moksha is more easily reachable.
Nurturance implies emotionality linking women to the emotion and dedication
that is often necessary to reach liberation, and in this way the concept of
emotionalism attributed to women is purified from its negative connotations and
is re-perceived as a spiritual force. Thus, the critiques which are used to bar
women from asceticism are inversely used to prove her right to ascetic life
(35-6). Although I do not agree that women are more emotional than men, I
feel that it is positive to take the characteristics attributed as innate to
women and turn them upon themselves.
One great woman
mystic to come from Benares was Anandamayi Ma. Many considered her to be the greatest living saint in India (11). I now turn to a
brief biographical sketch of Anandamayi Ma and look at her views, her impact,
and how she shifted the image of women in India. Sri Anandamayi Ma was
considered a great guru who was self-initiated. She was born April 30th 1896 and died August 28th, 1982.
During her life she
formed twenty eight ashrams, a charity hospital, and many schools. She is often
thought of as God in the form
of a woman (Pechilis: 86). She was also thought to have great powers of
revelation, to have received mystic hymns from trances, to be able to levitate,
and give divine insight and wisdom (Banerjee: intro). She also had the power to
affect peoples lives and dreams as many gurus do. An interesting account of
one woman explains:
night I had a dream. In the dream Ma was sitting so sweetly on a cot in a
beautiful garden. When I approached her, she garlanded me with a beautiful mala
of flowers and motioned me for her to touch her feet, which I did. I awoke with
a beautiful feeling. It was so sweet. Many years later I was preparing for Ma
to visit the house of my elder brother in Calcutta. When Ma arrived, she seated herself on a cot in the
midst of my brothers beautiful garden. Ma beckoned me forward. She took the
mala from around her neck and placed it around my neck. Then Ma said, Isnt
there something else you long for? She pointed to her feet. I touched Mas
feet. I was full of amazement (Pechilis: 88).
Many people report a complete
redirection of their life due to a darsan, a meeting, or thoughts of
her. Ma was considered above a mere saint by most. Her disciples say that she
was an incarnation of God and not a mere guru (Pechilis: 88). Ma said that
anyone can know and become God, united with the part of themselves that is the
All if they have the desire to do so. Most of Mas devotees were women. When
asked why God chose to incarnate into a female body, as opposed to a male body
some said that the gender chosen was arbitrary, while others asserted that her
femaleness provided a closeness which a male incarnation would not have (92) because they were
female ascetic devotees. One woman said that her incarnation as a woman enabled
women to have a greater
spirituality (94). Another said that Ma empowered the women close to her to learn new skills and
take charge of things that were normally within the male domain (101). Ma
herself asserts that she was not a gender. Ma says that gender is part of that
which needs to be transcended (108). She says: All the time, everybody is engaged in bearing a body and
feeding it everything it wants. But there is also a vibration inside and it tells
us to be free from this dehatma budhi (consciousness that I am
this body) (109). Body is thus seen as part of maya, the
illusory world. She pronounced that no god is truly male or female. Human and
divine gender is thus socially constructed in her view, and not innate or
affecting any part of the soul.
On the nature of God and the self
and their relationship Ma says:
that, He is all. He moves without feet, sees without eyes, hears without ears,
eats without mouth, whatever you may say He is that and that only. There is
mantra all around; there is bhavu, renunciation, [and] acceptance do
you get at it? You get at your own Self. Who is the Self? Lord, and servant,
Fullness, Atman in whatever line you travel you get Him you get your own self
The temperament of Ma was never
ruffled or wearied out and was always radiant and fresh. She had no sense of
duality and was joy, love, and wisdom personified (Banerjee: 35).
The impact that
Anandamayi Ma had for women ascetics and women in the religious and spiritual
realm was manifold. Firstly, the idea of gender being innate is challenged at
its core, as gender is not seen as the source of maya, (as was said to
be the case in Babbs study); rather, gender itself is seen as maya.
Consequently the notions of maleness and femaleness are openly challenged and
the dominant perception of the role of women in the religious realm is
challenged. The concept of gender as innate is certainly problematic to the
rest of the Hindu concepts of enlightenment, as it threatens the concept of the
unity of God. God certainly cannot have a single gender as each God needs his shakti
to empower him. As a result of Mas presence, and other women examples as well,
the insults leveled at women toward their spiritual natures seem to
disintegrate. Mas blissful beauty is though to be inspired by religion/God by
both men and women. Just by her living example she provides proof that women
can be equal to, and in her case above men in their spiritual success. She
provided a living example, and a living image to which many women can look to
for an exemplar.
Next, I consider
the political realm. Given the above traditional accounts of participation of
women in religious organizations and structures, certainly women were also
discouraged from outright leadership and participation in political roles. The
time I consider is from the beginning of the twentieth century to the middle.
The ideal woman at this time is wife and mother. The extent of women in
politics in India was usually limited to the capacity to inspire husbands and
sons to be heroic nationalists and there were salient patriarchal concepts
embedded in the Hindu Nationalist movements (McKean: 146). However, this image
as woman as non-participatory in this movement is clarified by many factors.
First, the nation itself is seen as Bharat Mata, Mother India. Neera
Desai, an academic who studies this period provides many examples in which this
idea is challenged. In the early twentieth century before Gandhi came to the
forefront of the national movement two women in particular had a deep
impression on Indian womens minds, these were Annie Besant and Sarojini Naidu.
Besant was the head of the theosophist movement and she and Naidu both
advocated strongly for home rule (Desai: 134, 218). At this time there was also
a movement to liberate women and elevate their status which Gandhi further
had the role of caregiver at this time period as they looked after hospitals,
kitchens, and their housework, but one event arose in which women participated
in and it altered their presence in the political world. This was the salt satyagraha.
The satyagraha offered great opportunity for women who could join the
men on mutual and equal ground to challenge the raj (Agnew: 40-3). This
participation demonstrated their capacity and ability to undergo strenuous work, to take responsibility
and to lead (40). Despite Gandhis feminism he did not originally wish
to include women in this form of peaceful protest. In fact they were not to be
included until one woman, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, challenged this orthodoxy
with the assertion that women were capable and helpful in this endeavor. She informed
Gandhi that women desired to be part of the movement. This effort succeeded as
the British government did not want their army to perform violent acts against
women because of the negative publicity that would have arisen, as they wanted
to paint Indians, and not themselves as cruel toward women (40-2). However,
some men did not like the idea of their wives and daughters joining processions
and public meetings and forbade their participation. Womens roles were also to
picket foreign cloth and liquor stores (44-5).
In addition to
this peaceful protest some women at this time chose to be a part of a more
extreme, sometimes violent, nationalistic movement. A strong image of woman was
exalted for these groups. Aurobindo Ghose wrote the following on the image of
woman in a pamphlet entitled Bhawani Mandir:
goddess of destruction, the mother of strength was created by the Gods to
destroy the demons who had usurped their kingdom. Kali was the avenger whose
many hands dripped with blood, was not a symbol of savagery but of selflessness
they taught as Kali drove out the demons so should the Bhadralok [an
elitist social class that emerged under the impact of colonial rule]
strengthened anew by the worship of Kali, drive out the British (Agnew: 66).
Kali and shakti are both
symbols of the motherland. This imagery was used by Vivekananda and Ghose to
encourage women to participate in their political organizations (65-7). Thus,
religious imagery was often used to reinforce political ideals. This image
contrasts with most of the imagery presented to us above, as it is an image of
woman as empowered and strong.
persuaded the next woman I consider at length in this paper, Sister Nivedita,
in 1902 to become a member of his political society (65-8). Nivedita was born
Margaret Elizabeth Noble and was born in 1867 on October 20th in Ireland.
I had previously thought Sister Nivedita was an Indian born woman and Hindu
from birth. When I realized she was a white woman from Ireland I had doubts to
use her as an example within my paper. After some consideration I decided that
she was Hindu, as she proclaimed herself to be, and lived in that manner, and
people refer to her as a Hindu woman, and not as a Westerner. I hope her race
is not a distraction to the goals of my study. She met Swami Vivekananda in England
in 1895 and traveled to India. There she realized that political independence
was necessary for its people to flourish. She was initiated on March 25, 1898 into the revolutionary society headed by Vivekananda
and given the name
Nivedita the dedicated (HinduismToday). She believed in Vivekanandas
interpretation of Hinduism. She spoke extensively in support of his views at
public meetings and of Indias great cultural heritage. Her house became a
secret meeting place for revolutionaries. She had a political view which was
imbued with her religious view. Niveditas political involvement with the
revolutionaries was in itself a religious act as Vivekananda preached that
Hinduism should lead other religious traditions given its superiority (Agnew: 65-8).
She also took up the cause of womens education and opened her school for girls
in Calcutta in 1898. She was asked to leave the mission immediately after Swami
Vivekananda died in 1902 and then she proceeded to Calcutta bringing Aurobindo
Ghose with her. She was very active in the liberation of Indian from the raj
and also with the motivation of people toward liberation (HinduismToday).
remains: why were women wanted in politics? Revolutionary political activists
had to make sacrifices for their cause. Womans perceived innate quality of her
sacrificial nurturing nature made her crucial for recruitment. The rationale is
that a woman enhances her stature and austerity by sacrificing her personal
interest for the well-being of her family. This concept of family was extended
to include a group of people, a society, and the nation itself (Agnew: 68). The
image of women in politics changed during this time period and underwent a
shift. The striking image of Kali was employed and contrasted the previous
image of women as unfit to participate in politics. The involvement in the salt
satyagraha utilized the presence of women and this participation linked
women as involved within the political world. Additionally, the perceived
nurturing innate imagery of mother was extended to the movement. After
independence since no national commitments to womens emancipation were overtly
developed women were not liberated from their involvement in the political
sphere. According to Agnew: womens
involvement in the nationalist movement was significant as it recognized that
given the opportunity, women had the capacity and the ability to participate in
politics (Agnew: 77), but this participation did not result in the change
in the role of women as a whole, but it was a step toward a new image as it
created a familiarity of women with politics. The resulting constitution of India
guarantees adult suffrage to all, both men and women, and pronounces fairness
and equality to all regardless of race, ethnicity,
gender, caste, and religion. There are many female ambassadors, parliament
seats, as well as cabinet ministers. In fact their participation is comparable,
if not exceeding those of Western nations. This fact is used to suggest that
women in India
are completely and fully emancipated (132-5). The role change that resulted in
the twentieth century is called almost natural, and their participation in
nationalist politics was largely not marked with disproval. It is important to
note that in the West when women wanted the right to vote there was a great
struggle, and this was not seen in India (140).
In this paper I
examined the change in many of the religious and political paradigms and
concepts. The adjustment of the status and rights of women has been a
reoccurring conflict for every world religion, as well as every culture and
nation. All the world religions have problems in modernity due to the conflict
between past conceptions or images of women and the current conceptions and
images of woman. Since religion is supposed to be rooted in eternal truth this
conflict is problematic in the sense that it challenges the authority that
religion wields. The history of the world is by a current feminist standard
patriarchal, but most people do not have the desire to completely eradicate all
tradition, both cultural and religious, so this adjustment is difficult, but
necessary. The two main areas which exercise control over people are the state,
or culture, and religion and these two concepts are united throughout history.
Political leadership has often made religion function in a certain way, and as
well religious leadership and instruction has often changed the body politic.
Both religion and politics permeate our realities about human nature and
experience, and govern our ideals about proper conduct. In this paper I
searched through the two worlds as if were separate areas, but as illustrated
in the paper, they are usually intricately connected.
In search of the
definitive image of women in India I have seen woman as maya, as Goddess, as
God, as shakti, as ascetic, as trap toward evil, as happy householder
with cleaning products, as bikini clad car advertiser, as beautifully
emotional, as dangerously emotional, as fertile, and life-giving, as mother, and
as India herself. I have learned there is no definitive image of woman in
India, as there can be no accurate representation, role, or concept that fits
half a billion people in their uniqueness. Self-definition of woman and choice
in her endeavor is the key to her true emancipation, and it is by example, such
as that given by Ma Anandamayi and Sister Nivedita, that many women, including
myself, are inspired; and we learn and model ourselves after the images with
which we are presented. We recreate the image of woman into ourselves and
extend that outward toward future generations; as image is something that is
passed down, lived in, and extended to others.
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