I have to confess that I have never understood what ‘feminism’ means. ‘Women’s rights’ and ‘Women’s freedom’ become a common slogan and a rallying point in the beginning of the 20th century in India, but I never knew how it related to feminism. I finally found a helpful definition from David Smith:
…There are two basic positions in modern feminism. First, women are the same as men—any current differences are temporary and are socially constructed. Biology lies; and anyway, the future will free us from biology. Alternatively, woman is fundamentally different from man and represents a different and higher order of being; women are conned by patriarchy. All men are rapists by their very nature. Patriarchy oppresses women. Not only are pornography and prostitution oppression of women; religion, marriage, mother-hood, and heterosexuality are oppression, the imposition of male power on women. — David Smith, Hinduism and Modernity, Blackwell, Indian edition, 2003. p. 17
That a woman is either exactly the same as a man, or that she is “fundamentally different from man and represents a different and higher order of being” are two extreme views. I don’t want to take so many pages to analyse these issues here since I am not competent enough to venture into such unknown territory where even angels should fear to dread. Continue reading
There is a famous Tamil song that says, ‘தமிழன் என்றொரு இனமுண்டு; தனியே அதற்கொரு குணமுண்டு’ (There is an ethnic group known as Tamilian and they have special character.)
Of course such hyperbole and claiming of greatness for one’s own ethnicity can be seen in nearly all groups. But when it comes to Tamilnadu, the way they brag about their own greatness has some truth added with exaggeration. As another poems claims:
கல்தோன்றா மண்தோன்றா காலத்தே
வாளொடு முன்தோன்றிய மூத்தக்குடி
(Even before the stone and earth was formed
This is the primordial community which appeared with a sword)
So when it comes to the topic of women, as a Tamilian, I was a bit shocked how women are condemned and attacked in Tamil literature by saints like Ramalinga Vallalar. Though Tamilians tend to brag about the way they give freedom and show respect to women, they depict them in the worst terms in their literature and treat them badly in real life. Continue reading
Someone well said that, “The family is the shock absorber for society. It is the place to which the bruised and battered individual returns after doing battle with the world.” This is acknowledged by Indian scriptures:
Rig Veda 10.85.36. Again at 3.53.4 the RV states: “Wife is the true home”—jaayed astam. The Mahabharata (12.144.66) echoes the same thought: “The home is not the house, they say, but the housewife”—na grham grham ity aahu grhii grham ucyate.1
If the home is the shock absorber for society, the woman is the shock absorber for every home. A wife is the pivot of the home. She is called ‘dharmapatni’ as dharma is entrusted to her. A husband is never called ‘dahrmapati’. Continue reading
Though I glorify women for something special and peculiar in them, this is not an ‘extravagant celebration of motherhood’ as pointed out by Sumathi Ramaswamy. It is worth reading what she further says:
And yet Indian women themselves—as indeed women in so many other parts of the world—had been radically reconfigured by bourgeois discourses of modernity, for if a woman was idealized as the repository of all that was glorious and wonderful in one’s culture, she was also firmly put into her place, in the home and amid her family as ‘mother’ (George L. Mosse. Nationalism and Sexuality: Middle-class Morality and Sexual Norms in Modern Europe, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985). Many studies have demonstrated that the consolidation of nationalist ideologies in different regions of the world was accompanied by an ‘extravagant celebration of motherhood’ (Maxine L. Margolis. Mothers and Such: Views of American Women and Why They Changed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984:28). This was especially true in Western Europe, which provided the model for so many ideologies that crystallized in colonial India. There, bourgeois nationalist discourses were marked by the discursive and symbolic separation of the ‘home’ form ‘work,’ and of the ‘nation’ from the ‘world.’ The home and the nation were hallowed as noncompetitive, depoliticized arenas, and as sacral repositories of moral values and virtue. The reproduction of these arenas, as such, was ensured by insisting that women are ‘by nature’ self-sacrificing, virtuous, unambitious, and nonpolitical beings, destined to be child bearers and nurturers. As George Mosse notes (George L. Mosse. Nationalism and Sexuality: Middle-class Morality and Sexual Norms in Modern Europe. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1985: 97), ‘Women as national symbols exemplified order and restfulness. Woman was the embodiment of respectability; even as defender and protector of her people, she was assimilated to her traditional role as woman and mother, the custodian of tradition, who kept nostalgia alive in the active world of men.’ Such a representation was only further consolidated within nationalist ideologies seeking to put the nation on a pedestal as an iconic object of platonic affection and unconditional devotion, for how much more successfully could this be done than by recasting the nation itself as a selfless, compassionate, and de-sexualized Mother, disaggregated from the public realms of politics, self-interest, and sexual competition. — Sumathi Ramaswamy, Passions of the Tongue. Language, Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970. University of California Press, Ltd. London. 1997. pp. 122-23 Continue reading
Click here and here to see the earlier articles in this series.
Women in the Epics
Even in the major epics, women have had a tough time. They were blamed as the cause of misery in both the Ramayana and Mahabharata. At the same time, if we observe closely, it was actually the women characters who move and take the story to its logical conclusion.1 In fact women’s roles and characters generally dwarf their male counterparts in both epics. I’d love to see a deeper study on this.
Though Panchali was the main cause for the enmity between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, she was the one who redeemed the Pandavas through her powerful argument when they lost everything in the gamble. It was the boons given by King Drudharashtra to Panchali that ultimately gave the Pandavas their freedom.2
If it were not for Kaikeyi and Sita (along with Surpanaka) the entire Ramayana would stand still. Both Panchali and Sita epitomise the two side of a woman’s extreme nature: anger (revenge?) and patience. Continue reading
In my earlier article, I quoted the sloka yatra naari pujate; tatra ramate devata (where women are worshiped gods dwell there)1. I want to continue with some of my observations in my life rather than from scriptures.
Fighting for their place
It is a sad fact (and reality) that though women actually run the entire life of a family, they don’t receive proper recognition in our textual tradition. Though there are a few references, the way they are denigrated eclipse those few passages in which they are glorified.2 It is only in modern literature and particularly in visual media like cinema and TV serials that their worthiness and contribution is brought forth to some extent.
In India, their struggle isn’t easy. Even in the West where women enjoy more rights, they had to fight for them. Women got the right to vote in England only after a long and violent fight for it. In India women still fight a lot for their legitimate space in public life. For example although there are several village women presidents, their husbands run the office as their proxy. 2015 was the first year that separate women soldiers representing all three forces marched separately in the Republic Day Parade (and that because the theme was as set as ‘Nari Shakti’ (Women’s Power)). I still remember the various debates and discussion about including women in Indian army, particularly in placing them in combat on the front lines. Continue reading
Another rhetorical but useful debate on Vijay T.V. on 18-1-15 (9.00 to 11.00 pm, anchor Gopinath) on the same old topic of the relationship between husband and wife. This time the main theme was “Should a husband impose his own idealism at home without giving space for his wife?”
As expected, the wives shared their complaints about the husbands not understanding them and their needs. They complained about the dictatorial nature of husbands and how he would impose his idealism not only on the wife but also on the children.
The husbands shared why they wanted to mould and shape not only their wives but also the children to have a better life and make the best use of their time. They also shared their grievances about the lack of understanding and cooperation from their wives, not respecting them personally or professionally. Continue reading
Click here to read the first part of this article
Putting on the Saffron
When I became a ‘disciple’ of my guru Muktinath, I began to wear the saffron robe with some ritual, but not following the traditional one. No one knows what are the actual traditional rituals for a sannyasi, as each order has its own tradition. Above all putting on saffron cloth was more central to having an ‘identity’ more than declaring that I had become a sannyasi.
Of course I could have lived a single secular man. But Indian society doesn’t accept a single person, whereas it easily accepts a ‘sannyasi’. If I continued to remain as a single person with civilian clothes, the opportunity and openings to serve others would be restricted in many ways. Continue reading
The following is an imagined comedy, so please don’t take it literally or seriously as if I am degrading women. Even though I like to tease women sometimes, I have great respect for them. Read my article on women on my blog.
But now it is my turn to prove that Yamuna was wrong based on the very sastra.
A Missed Chance
I think the poor King missed one golden opportunity to claim a right for him as a husband. When I first heard the answer to the original riddle, I couldn’t understand and took pity on the King. Then I thought about what I would have done if I were in Achi’s place.
The origin for my imagined comedy begins with the promise given by the Queen. I still cannot believe a woman could give such a PROMISE to her husband that is practically impossible for her to follow (that she would she would never open her mouth to argue with him or disobey him on any matter, and would remain obedient for the rest of her life). At that time I reasoned out and prepared my refutation for Yamuna’s answer. But I wondered why Achi missed them?
That night in my dream, Achi came and told what actually happened. Continue reading
Click here for the Tamil version of this post.
There is a good saying in Tamil that ‘the old should be removed and the new should be introduced’ (பழையன கழிதல் புதியன புகுதல்). Those who promote this ideal do not encourage people to remove old things just for the sake of opposing old customs and traditions, but encourage the need and relevancy of them for our present time.
One such writer is Sri S. Venkatesan, who along with Dr. K. Sivaraman tour to important towns in Tamilnadu and share their views on this subject. They also share many good and important points regarding food habits. They warn about the modern food habits that cause many health problems and promote traditional foods that are quickly disappearing but good for health. Venkatesan also gives a lot of valuable information about our customs and traditions, and challenges us to think about their meaning and need for our time.
But one problem with such speakers is that in the name of saying something different or new, they oppose several traditional values, customs, and practices without knowing their background. Continue reading