Indian Womanhood in the vision of Swami Vivekananda and the Road Ahead


While the West fought for Women’s Suffrage, Swami Vivekananda showcased the greatness of Indian Women
Asha RP
Swamiji said, “It is very difficult to understand why in this country so much difference is made between men and women, whereas the Vedanta declares that one and the same conscious self is present in all beings. Atma has no gender. It is just that the atma takes the form or the body best suited for it at a particular time to attain it’s ultimate goal and purpose of sat-chit-ananda”. The goal or purpose of life for each one of us, be it man or woman, is to realise the divinity within us. Swami Vivekananda views woman exactly as he views man, an individual with a destiny. In the sphere of the pursuit of spiritual realisation, which is the highest reach of life, woman as well as man, has to walk in a single file. Perfect freedom, independence and responsibility are involved in the individual, be it man or woman, who longs for God alone. Swamiji said, “For India to emerge as Jagadguru, we need men and women who are committed, competent, confident, have an intense love for the country and selflessness.” “There is no chance of the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved. It is not possible for a bird to fly on one wing”.
Swamiji said “Perfect womanhood means perfect freedom and independence. How will you give power to one who is already powerful? Women have been suffering for ages with infinite patience and infinite perseverance. Give women education and they will decide for themselves their destiny”. He was also emphatic that women must be educated, for he believed that it is the women who mould the next generation, and hence, the destiny of the country. You educate a man and you educate only one, you educate a woman and you educate two families he said. He explains the point about how female illiteracy retards the progress of a society. “Educate your women first and leave them to themselves; then they will tell you what reforms are necessary for them. Our right of interference is limited entirely to giving education. Women must be put in a position to solve their own problems in their own way. No one can or ought to do this for them. And our Indian women are capable of doing it as any in the world. Women will work out their own destinies -- much better, too, than men can ever do for them. All the mischief to women has come because men undertook to shape the destiny of women”. “Who are you to solve women's problems? Are you the Lord God that you should rule over every widow and every woman? Hands off! They will solve their own problems” he said. With this we can safely say that Swami Vivekananda was the original feminist.
Today, we have mixed up entitlement with empowerment. In today’s world we think that getting an education, getting a job, being financially independent and being able to buy whatever we want is empowerment. We do not realise that is just materialistic pursuit of life’s goals. If you ask Marxist feminists, radical feminists and liberal feminists, from their point of view, wearing revealing clothes, smoking, drinking, breaking all bonds of family, not following our culture and traditions, disrespecting elders and leading selfish lives is feminism and freedom. We think having access to money, education, legal access etc makes us free. What we fail to understand is that Indian society is duty bound, relationship bound, human interaction bound whereas western society is individual oriented, rights driven and contract oriented. We assume that the solutions prescribed to us by the west, the western feminism are the universal solutions. But if we examine their society closely, are their lives in any way better? What has it given them? Teenage pregnancies, 50% or more number of children being brought up by their mothers or by a single parent alone, unwed mothers, divorce, abandonment of parents by their children in their old age, the list is endless.
The contemporary West has, in the last two centuries witnessed serious discourses, debates, differences, struggles and even violence, over the status, role and rights of women and on the equality of man and woman. There is historic background, which is specific to the West, for this struggle, without which it would be difficult to understand what led to the debate. (The purpose of this exercise is not academic. It is not to study the historical developments on the women’s rights issue). This exercise is being undertaken because the West has successfully exported its debate to the Rest of the world, which have no historical background which is brought out here and yet the experience of the West is being experimented on the Rest of the world, particularly India which has a very different philosophy, history and experience in this respect.
The Western society first rebelled against the brutal dominance by Church first and by the State later. The struggle against the “Dark Age” oppression had made the society in the West acutely rights conscious; later the West became almost obsessive about individual rights over even duties and obligations to the family and the near and dear. The oppressive Church and dictatorial State had made the rights of individuals non-negotiable in the West, which almost defines the Western civilization today. The obsession of the West with individual rights was directly proportionate to the hatred of the West for the “Dark Age” oppression. But the rights thus won by the society in the battle against the dictatorial institutions were monopolized by men and were denied to women, consistent with the basics of “monotheistic” religions loaded against women. With the result, women continued to be subjected to the same disabilities, which the “monotheistic” faiths had subjected the women to. This led to the women of the West fiercely to rebel against the inequalities that continued against them to get their share of the rights in the increasingly rights-conscious Western society.
But due to theological implications that distorted the Western view of women, even ordinary issues like the women’s suffrage became a matter for intense struggle for women in the West. As compared to the contemporary Western approach to women and issues related to them, traditional Indian attitude to women was a difference in contrast. Take the very issue of women’s suffrage, which tormented the Christendom. Once India attained freedom, and it had opted for democracy based on universal franchise, women’s suffrage was never an issue. No woman had to struggle for securing suffrage nor was any women arrested for demanding suffrage. Not one man did object to women’s suffrage. In contrast, On 14th November 1917, which is remembered as “The Night of Terror” every year, 33 suffragists were arrested and brutally beaten and tortured in a prison in North Virginia. The American women got Federal voting rights only in 1920, after several decades of struggle; the British women got equal voting rights with men only in 1928, after over a century of tussle. The Swiss men, in 1959 voted against granting voting rights to women in a referendum. By then we had had Sarojini Naidu and Sucheta Kriplani as Governors of Uttar Pradesh in 1947 and 1952 respectively. The Swiss women got their Federal voting rights in 1971, 6 years after India had elected its first woman Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi. Thus, in these countries, women could achieve their “suffrage” only after a century of debate and struggle, arrests, and violence. Given the Indian experience on women’s suffrage, there was no reason why there should have been any struggle at all over this issue in the West.
Why Indian men did not object to women’s suffrage in India? The reason is not difficult to seek. We need to understand the concept of Ardhanaarishwara present in the Indian consciousness since millennia. When Parvathi requested Mahashiva that she wanted to experience his experiences as her own he had to accommodate her in his own body, he has to shed half of himself. So he shed half of himself and included her. This is the story of Ardhanarishvara.
Why did the women of the West have to struggle for such normal right? Here is a probable clue. Even today, in the Roman Christian Vatican State, there is no suffrage for women. It is no shocking exception. The Vatican State, which was supposed to be the mirror version of the Kingdom of God, incorporated the Christian theological rules for the society and polity. The difference between Vatican, which continues to be the loyal to theology and the Rest of the Christendom today is because the Rest has repudiated the theological injunctions against women.
While the theological and social traditions of Christendom virtually outlawed women’s suffrage, there was NO religious or theological or social opposition in India to women’s suffrage. This is sufficient to demonstrate how bias against women inherited in the theological foundations of Christendom Sociology, while no such bias existed in Indian philosophical traditions. Yet the Indian discourse today looks to the West to position the Indian women on the model of the West. This certainly calls for a deeper reflection in India as to whether the West with its history, sociology and traditions rooted in a theological foundation that is entirely different from the Indian philosophic view could show lead to India on women issues.
The women’s rights movement, which seems to have by now peaked in the West, is threatening to yield diminishing socio-economic returns. With the intensification of the struggle for women’s rights gradually transforming into present day “extreme feminism”, now the men and women of the West find themselves in a seemingly unmanageable social crisis caused by huge erosion in family values, personal morals and social norms caused by unguided and extreme form of feminism.
Thus it is vital to avoid the use of trans-historical, trans-cultural concepts which obscure important differences in women’s experience throughout the world. Take the case of Marxist and radical feminists’ use of the concept of patriarchy. Women’s experience of patriarchal structures varies enormously due to economic, historical, geographical and cultural circumstances. It is a fallacy to suggest that there exists a global model of patriarchal domination. In western countries the notion of ‘self’ rests on competitive individualism where people are described as “born free yet everywhere in chains”. So, western feminism can be said as individual or libertarian feminism. In India the country’s entire social fabric, politics, economy and its very existence is driven by families, communities, traditions and customs. Indian women feel their happiness always with their families and rarely on their own. ‘Freedom’ certainly does not mean the same thing to all the women of the world.
Feminism is so vast in its concept that it is very difficult to describe its step wise progress. Western feminism is different from that of Indian Womanhood. No doubt, there is a similarity among the two. Hence I beg to reject the western view of feminism and propose the word Womanhood to be used by me from here on. Because, you all might agree with me here, that the word feminism brings to mind a very negative mental image. It denotes anger, attacking all existing structures of family, society, country as it exists today that we all love and cherish, bitterness, destructive tendencies, victimhood, claiming to have been repressed, exploited and claiming to oppose regressiveness/repression, rebellion, mockery, opposition and everything that would destroy the very basic fabric of everything that we covet and hold dear and close to our hearts. Tell me, who among us or even who among all the women outside, even in the far left, would be able to lead happy lives without our families, society, community or nation?
Courage, forbearance, tenacity and fortitude are all divine qualities exclusive to Indian women and have become somewhat unbelievable when the norm for western women seems to be that they are ready to come out of relationships on the flimsiest of excuses. The strength and ability to hold families together under any circumstances is the IDEAL that we Indian women specialise in and this is what we need to teach the west rather than lap up each and every glamorous concept that is dished out by the west to us.
Sati Savithri has always been idolized as the ideal woman who used her wits to win back the life of her husband, riches of her father and kingdom of her husband’s family. Unfortunately in the modern mind the label ‘Sati Savitri’ has assumed a negative connotation and used to describe paragons of virtue in regressive joint families, especially as depicted in TV serials.
As life becomes more complex, well connected to other parts of the world, every society needs contemplation and course correction in the flow of life. For that, we have to see both the road travelled through the ages, the difficulties faced and overcome and, through the present complexities, the road ahead.
Thousands of years ago, Indian women had enjoyed high status in fact a superior position to men. Bharatiya culture’s only words for strength and power are feminine -"Shakti'' means "power'' and "strength.'' Chetana, Daya, Shanthi, Buddhi, Vidya, Smrithi, Shraddha, Bhakthi, Lakshmi all exhalted qualities are feminine words. In the 10th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says that he resides in each woman in the form of kirtir srivakcha narinam smritir medha dhritih kshama - Fame, prosperity, eloquence, memory, intelligence, courage, forgiveness are all divine qualities exclusive to women.All male power comes from the feminine. Literary evidence suggests that kings and towns were destroyed because a single woman was wronged by the state. For example, Valmiki's Ramayana teaches us that Ravana and his entire clan was wiped out because he abducted Sita. Veda Vyasa's Mahabharatha teaches us that all the Kauravas were killed because they humiliated Draupadi in public. Madurai, the capital of the Pandyas was burnt because Pandyan mistakenly killed Kannagi’s husband on theft charges.
Gargi, Maitreyi and other women of Vedic lore illustrate the high status Indian women enjoyed in ancient times. The Gargi tradition in Vedic times was no exception as Avvaiyar of the Tamil Sangam period would testify. Several Vedic rishis were women. The tradition of “Brahmavadinis”, women celibates pursuing intellectual studies for life, existed in ancient India. Though less universal, the women intellectual stream did not dry up with Gargi and Avvaiyar but continued with the Karaikkal Ammaiyars, Andals, Akka Mahadevis, Meeras. Indian women, who have played a big role in moulding our culture, civilisation, arts, religion, have also handled statecraft from the time of Draupadi to Chola Royal women, from Rani Padmini, Rani Jhansi, Rani Chennamma, Rani Abbakka and many others to Nirmala Seetharaman today — something which no other society in the world can possibly boast.
In India, woman’s rights movement started due to influence of male social reformists first and later was joined by female reformists. It was Swami Vivekananda,Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Eshwar Chandra Vidyasagar, mahatma Gandhiji, mahatma Jyothiba Phule, Lokamanya Tilak, Bhartiyar in the south, were all men who first fought for Indian woman before they were joined by women later like Savithribai Phule and others. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose thought of inducting women into the Indian National Army headed by Capt Lakshmi decades before the Indian Army inducted women in its ranks. Indian traditional beliefs and inspirations are different from those of western countries. So, Indian womanhood and women’s struggle is different from western feminism.
As mentioned, the Ideal of Bharath is that of ONENESS. Vaisudhaiva Kutumbakam. Swamiji said “All differences in this world are of degree and not of kind, because Oneness if the secret of everything”. What do we mean by Oneness? To give an example - man or woman are not body alone, our expanded form is our family, whose expanded form is our community, whose expanded form is our society, whose expanded form is our state……. Country …… continent……., whole world….whole creation…….We see every being, be it living or non living as a part of the whole or paramatma resided in each atma. So each being is divine. That is the Ideal of Bharath. This as a part connected to the whole, a person has responsibility towards his or her expanded forms and in the wellbeing of the whole the part is taken care.
Indian womanhood comes from a reality rooted due to the suffering of women since ages. Indian womanhood has some specific issues to fight against. Traditionally Indian society is centered on the male child, as a result of this a number of atrocities such as female infanticides and abortions are growing. It is seen in rural areas the neglecting of the female child in general resulting in malnutrition and non education. The issue of abortion is individual choice made by the pregnant western woman. But in India it is not often a choice that is imposed by family and social pressure. The issue of banning dowry during weddings might actually be counterproductive as Indian families have skewed inheritance practices due to the prominence of male children, and the Hindu Succession Act needed to be amended to stop the routine disinheritance of daughters. So the woman is twice denied what is actually her equal right. She is denied respect in the family that she goes to if she goes empty handed. So, firstly we have to change the society, it’s norms and practices.
Women have to realize their power and have to avoid blaming others for their victimization. We need to change ourselves by self analysis, because we ourselves have to establish our own identity. No doubt today’s woman is marching towards a new horizon of freedom with vigor, shoulder to shoulder with men and with her head held high. But it is also true that the media regularly brings up a number of cases of atrocities against the female. Rape, human trafficking, sexual abuse, acid throwing, bride burning, female infanticide, Tripla Talaq / forced divorce etc are common news. So, all members of the society should be aware of the insecurity of women and treat this as a common problem of whole society and remove such evils hand to hand with each other. Every man should respect every woman. Because we should not forget that she is the creator of life as well as she can be the destroyer of life too. There is a wise saying about women which is very relevant here: “ If women, in the past, were strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, together women ought to be able to turn it right side up again.”
I conclude by saying ‘yatra naryestu poojyante, ramamnte tatra devataha”. "Where women are respected, there the god delight; and where they are not, there all works and efforts come to naught."
(The author is a speaker and writer based in Bengaluru)