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Debate on Hinduism and values >> Features Achieve >> Articles

Here is a debate among scholars and experts on Hinduism. Makes for interesting reading. If you are interested in Hindu temples, you may visit's Temples setion.

I read Mr. Shukla's comments with some interest, curious about how a Brahmin man could possibly reflect on the status of Hindu women through time. As I expected, I was disappointed.

Although I also do not appreciate the propensity of the Western press to assign its own values on India, the fate of poor mistreated widows in Benaras” is a historical reflection by one of our own. I have not seen Deepa Mehta's movie, but I am heartened by her bravery, by her willingness to take on such social issues. When I was a student, I had assigned school reading like Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, The Awakening, and it is very exciting to see a female tackling the issues of women's place in society, rather than more men speculating on topics with which they have no context, no empathy.
Indian culture in the 1930's was patriarchal. Though Mr. Shukla indicates that he had foremothers who were allowed to be free thinkers, examples abound from my family (orthodox Tamil Brahmins) of quite the opposite situation. Several of my great-grandaunts, married when they were barely nine and widowed shortly thereafter, had to keep their heads shaved and wear a brown wrap for the rest of their lives. Defiance of this tradition came at a high price: my great-grandmother, widowed at 21, refused to parcel her four small children to various relatives, refused to shave her head and be secluded from society. She was ostracized, excommunicated from all her husband's relatives. Uneducated and alone, she eked out a life for her and her children in a time when it was frankly dangerous for a woman to live alone. Widowers, however, could remarry and lead normal lives.

The women of my grandmother's generation were all married by the time they reached puberty. One of my grandaunts, wedded as a child, ran away from her husband because she feared the idea of sleeping with a stranger. Her parents convinced her to return to my granduncle, who had remarried, making her an unwilling participant in a polygamous marriage.

In my mother's generation, few women were allowed to go to college. Several of my aunts were sold in arranged marriages for family prosperity and ended up wedded to men who abused them. They could not divorce—to do so would bring shame onto the family.

Even in my generation, education for a woman takes second seat to getting married. Two of my cousins were married against their will, and have since left their husbands—they decided to brave the social stigma of divorce rather than be fettered unhappily like their mothers. These young women are barely 24.
The above examples are anecdotes of a wider and more pervasive phenomenon that still exists today, even among the more educated people. I call it the 'orthodoxy of Shiva Lingam.' When a woman is pregnant for the first time, she might have a Seemantham, where milk from a cow that has just given birth to a bull is snorted through the expectant mother's nose. This is done to pray for the child to be a boy. A standard blessing by elders says, "may you have a thousand sons." A man who has sired a direct line of three males is granted an automatic ticket to heaven, an occurrence honored in South India with a Kanagabishekam. And so on.

All this translates into an environment that allows and condones male chauvinistic behavior. Every young Indian woman I know has been the victim of ‘Eve-teasing’ and harassment when she dared venture onto Indian streets by herself in broad daylight. Families in India practicing prenatal selection abort more than half a million female fetuses each year, according to a Jan. 9, 2006 BBC report. According to the Washington Post group on April 6, 2006, a textbook in western India says that a donkey is like a housewife because donkeys "toil all day and…maybe give up food and water…[except that donkeys are] a shade better, for while a housewife may sometimes complain…you'll never catch the donkey being disloyal to his master."

Let us not bundle the truth in a nine-yard sari. Women have been and still are substandard citizens in Indian society. And if we cannot be honest within our culture group, how can we expect others, like members of the Western press, to accurately portray us?

Mr. Shukla's comments disturb me because of its willful myopia. Forget about how the press perceives us—if we cannot critique are own culture and our own history, how can we progress as a society? I get tons of Jai Hind e-mails from uncles and aunties who want to remind the children of their friends and relatives who live in the U.S. of the strength and power of India. India invented chess, these e-mails say. India invented the number ‘zero.’ Though we comprise only 1.5 percent of the U.S. population, 38 percent of doctors in this country are Indian; 36 percent of NASA scientists are Indian; X, Y, and Z Indians are the leaders of Fortune 500 companies. These uncles and aunties are quick to highlight what is good about India and the diaspora. But any hint of criticism, and people like Mr. Shukla get defensive.
Instead, they should see that it is a testament to the progress of our culture that we are producing such free thinking women like Deepa Mehta, who despite backlash from fundamentalists, have persisted in telling stories that need to be told. It is a testament to the progress of our culture that a female priest will officiate the thread ceremony of Mr. Shukla's nephew. I hope to see more examples in my lifetime of women exposing the fallacies of orthodoxy.
Hindus wash their feet before entering a temple, a literal and symbolic gesture to clean off grime and to purify themselves before entering a house of God. Let us follow this example and recognize that our culture and our history has stepped and continues to step in muck when it comes to how women are valued in society. Only then can we wash this filth away; only then can the rest of the world see us as we want to be seen. Only then, with clean feet, can we step forward.
Mohi Kumar
Freelance Science Journalist
Washington D.C.

As a regular reader of the press, I have always been struck by the negative coverage of Hinduism and have never quite decided if it comes from ignorance or the fact that it is a tradition so differently driven from those of the Abrahamic faiths that is familiar to most people in the US that it imagery disturbs the writer. Stories abound with comments on the horrible caste system which is always referred to as an integral part of Hinduism or more recently the fate of poor or mistreated widows in Benaras is given as an example of what Hinduism is about.

None of those stories every comment on the vast and fairly bloodless transfer of power by upper caste Hindus to the lower castes over the last 60 years, a transfer of power willingly undertaken and led by upper caste politicians (reservations for SC and STs is simply not controversial and considered dare I say it as expatiation for the sins of the past by upper caste Hindus - however no one seems willing to move on with a redefinition of the tradition that has already changed much and changed deliberately). The gender issues also are discussed in totally unrealistic terms and extreme cases become the case in point.

Real life examples from my family (an old fashioned Gujarati Brahmin one) are quite different from Deepa Mehta's, we have a great aunt who was a child bride and decided in her twenties that she wasn't married to her husband since she couldn't remember the marriage ceremony and moved him out and brought in a man of her own age into the bedroom (the three lived together for another 30+ years) with hardly any consequences or another great aunt who was a teenage widow and who wasn't made bereft but had a hundred people in the family calling her Ma when she died in her late 70s. Deepa Mehta's vision of Hindu widowhood while certainly based on reality is a very incomplete one and like all civilizations there are a vast range of behavior among Hindus and compassion has been more important more then cruelty within the tradition but one would hardly know it from reading the press.

Hinduism like all great traditions has the capacity to change and has changed over the long centuries of its life and is continuing to change quickly even today. This change though is being done completely from within tradition with its own symbols and stories and historic elements being reshaped for the modern context. There are many reference points within the tradition and at different times different elements have won the day, some of these elements we can only shake our heads at today but I imagine Christians must do the same when comes to the inquisition and just as they have moved on so have Hindus - today a new configuration of old traditions is taking center stage. For example to continue with the issue of gender in religion, Hindus have quietly but steadily reintroduced women priests without any great fanfare or controversy or rioting. There are many women priests around the country particularly in the western state of Maharastra who officiate at various Samskaras and Yagnas.

On the 28th of May, my cousin sister Neelima is going to be officiating at the Upanayan Samskara (sacred thread ceremony) for my younger son. No one in the family objected or even commented on it. Why? Because everyone knows she knows the tradition better than anyone else in the family in my generation - Neelima has a Ph.d in Comparative Religion from Harvard, is fluent in Sanskrit and the traditional rituals of the karma khanda are both meaningful and joyful to her. While the image in the press of Hinduism continues to be hidebound, the faith has never been what it has been portrayed nor are we traditional Hindus what we are portrayed. In fact many of us who are serious about our faith have moved on to modernity a long time ago.

I would really like it if some of our friends in the media would for once focus on the very real positive changes going on within the Hindu tradition even as we maintain our continuity with the past. The Janeo ceremony is a very ancient one, honoring the moment when a child begins his/her education and the sacred journey to what we hope will be enlightenment. Women performed these ceremonies in the past (the Vedas are full of references to women priests) and we are now doing so again as Hinduism moves onwards into modernity. Neelima officiating at this Yagna is the real face of modern Hinduism not the diatribes of contesting politicians in India trying to find a lever to power. I think this reality of Hinduism needs wider exposure. What do you think?
Best regards,
Himanshu P. Shukla []






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