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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:


The 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:


The 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 prejudices (Radhakrishnan).

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[1] 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 say:


Men are 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: 408).

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 (408).

Renunciation has 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.[2] 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 (117).

As mentioned 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.

Lastly, auspiciousness 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:

That 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:


He is 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 (Banerjee: 29-31).

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.[3]

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 developed (133-8).

Women typically 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:

Kali the 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.

Aurobindo Ghose 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).

The question 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.



Works Cited


Agnew, Vijav. Elite Women in Indian Politics. Vikas Publishing House Private Ltd.

Bombay, India: 1979. Pp. 40-5, 66-77, 132-140.

Babb, Lawrence, A. Indigenous Feminism in a Modern Hindu Sect. Signs. Volume 9,

No.3 (Spring 1984). Pp.399-416.

Banerjee, Shyamananda. A Mystic Sage: Ma Anandamayi. Private publishing by Author.

Calcutta, India: 1973. Pp. introduction, and 29-35.

Desai, Neera. Women in Modern India. Vora and Co. Publishing House Private Ltd.

Bombay, India: 1957. 133-8, 210-18.

Denton, Lynn Teskey. Female Ascetics in Hinduism. University of New York Press.

Albany, NY: 2004. Pp. 5-11, 25-9, 35-45, 117.

McKean, Lise. Divine Enterprise: Gurus and the Hindu Nationalist Movement.

University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL: 1996. Pp. 135-45.

Pechilis, Karen (Ed)., Hallstrom, Lisa Lassell. The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus

in Indian and the United States. Chapter 3. Anandamayi Ma, the Bliss-Filled Divine

Mother. Oxford University Press. New York, NY: 2002. Pp. 85-119.

Radhakrishnan, Chitra. The

Image of Women in Indian Television. Women in Action Journal. No1. 2001. Isis

International-Manila: 1998-2001. Visited March 27, 2005.

Smith, David. Hinduism and Modernity: Religion in the Modern World. Blackwell

Publishing. Malden, MA: 2003. Pp.105-10. Sister Niveditas

Story. Himalayan Academy: 2004. Visited March 25, 2005.


[1] These life-stages are sometimes seen as options to life, where a person could choose one way to live instead of traveling through the stages consecutively. Thus, for example, a person could choose an ascetic way of life from youth.

[2] Many people demonstrate ascetic practices, but they are not primarily identified as an ascetic. For this paper the term ascetic will refer to ascetics who have decided to become renunciants, or professional ascetics.

[3] I know this is true because I am personally heartened by her presence by simply reading about it. Logically then, many women who shared a country and religion with her must be as well.

2005 - Ama Simard