Articles and Commentaries |
November 12, 2018

Not for the Faint-hearted: Observations on Women in Indian Culture

Women in Indian culture occupy an ambivalent position. Accordingly, this article confines itself to an overview of the cultural situation of the majority of Indian women, which is to say, women in Hindu culture of which the author is personally a part. Coevally, the article consciously stays away from discussing the noticeably difficult and far from enviable position of women in non-Hindu cultures in India, lest the author be suspected of minority-baiting in these perilous times. Whereas, as a devout Hindu herself, the author can claim to speak with belonging, ownership and reform-minded good intentions from within mainstream Hindu society, not outside it.

In the traditional patriarchal Indian mind-set, the Devi or prime goddess of Hindu theology is enthroned on a pedestal to be worshipped as the sacred feminine. The position of Devi or Shakti is thus greatly exalted. She is worshipped as the Parashakti or Supreme Power, as the Jagadamba, the Universal Mother who created the male gods and their feminine counterparts.

How does this translate vis-à-vis the situation of mortal women? The reality is that Indian tradition discounts mortal women unless they deliver the goods in their prescribed role as a service sector. In particular, the position of the respectably married woman is supreme in Hindu society. As in any other transactional relationship, this status comes at a price.

Drawn from preceding centuries, the wifely virtues postulated by the sixteenth century poet Goswami Tulsidas of Varanasi went out as advice for wives given to Sita by Rishi Atri’s wife Anasuya: “Devotion of body, speech and mind to the feet of her lord, the husband, is the only duty, sacred vow and penance of a woman.” This is found in the Sri Ramacharitamanas, Aranya Kand, Verse Four; a seminal book of pervasive and lasting influence across North India.

This job description was detailed in the sub-universe of South India in the thirteenth century, in a hugely popular verse. Written by the Telugu poet ‘Baddena’  or Bhadra Bhupala in Neeti Saara, his treatise on morals, it says:  “Karyeshu dasi, karaneshu mantri, bhojeshu mata, shayaneshu Rambha, roopeshu Lakshmi, kshamayeshu Dharitri, shat dharmayukta kuladharmapatni,” meaning “Like a servant in doing the household chores, like a minister in giving her husband intelligent advice, serving him food as lovingly as a mother feeds her son, as seductive and pleasing in bed as the celestial nymph Rambha, as beautiful as Mahalakshmi and as forbearing as Mother Earth: the woman who has these six qualities is the ideal married lady of the house.” This verse hold up an ideal that is very much around in South Indian families even today. Intriguingly, though, there is not one verse in the entire corpus of classical Indian literature that details the virtues and qualities required of a mortal husband.  The author verified this in 2008 with the renowned Sanskrit scholar Sundararama Dikshithar of Kumbakonam, a ninth century temple town and seat of learning in the Kaveri Delta.

This ‘pragmatic’ attitude towards women sprang from the old Hindu belief that only a son could save a man from the hell called ‘put’: hence the term ‘putra’ for son – the ‘deliverer from put’. A wife was the socially endorsed conduit for this outcome, of no earthly use unless she produced a fine, healthy son and fulfilled her ritual duties as a griharani, the ‘queen of the house’. Indian patriarchs in general did not see wives as precious individuals; any eligible woman from the caste-allotted gene pool would do to keep their lives going.

Of course, there were rebels and breakaways but this was the holding pattern that prevailed across society for millennia and holds even today in both deeply conservative and superficially modern swathes. This entrenched attitude still plays out in millions of ordinary Indian lives notwithstanding the many exceptions resulting from over a century of Hindu reform in the growing number of educated women in many spheres of national life. The author may also claim to be a legatee and beneficiary of Hindu reform in several ways and owes her present freedoms to the courage and conviction of preceding generations of enlightened Hindus who changed society for the better.

It is in the context of taking that positive, inclusive change further that it becomes necessary to review the entrenched nature of the patriarchal attitude that colours everyday life in twenty-first century India for Hindu women. To do so, it may be worth our while to look at stories rather than statistics, since culture comes from ‘a way of life’. But first, what is the way of life of ‘Hinduism’ or rather, Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Law? What are its components? We may call it the Pancha Darshana or five aspects.

First, the foundational books in Sanskrit – Sruti-Smruti-Itihasa-Purana, which are:

l  The four Vedas (Rik, Yajur, Sama and Atharva)

l  Vedanta (16 principal Upanishads)

l  The two epics (the Ramayana and Mahabharata) and

l  The 18 major Puranas.

Second, there is a strong tradition of philosophers who have successively replenished the heritage. Three principal views of the abstract human-Divine connect are the philosophies of Advaita, Visishta-Advaitava and Dvaita. Third, there is a strong living oral tradition of Katha (religious discourse) and Naam Sankirtan or Bhajana Sampradaya (religious songs) by saint-composers across Indian languages, which have kept this heritage alive in popular culture across India.

While philosophy is the intellectual articulation of a world view, the oral traditions of Katha and Naam Sankirtan are its popular expression, conveying those ideas to the layman through the medium of the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavata Purana. Katha and Naam Sankirtan are easily accessible on TV, on YouTube and in live discourses/satsang. Though Katha and Naam Sankirtan are expressed in the mother tongues, they often include quotations from and references to the Sanskrit texts, the source that feeds them and unites them.

They also rely heavily on the Bhakta Vijaya, the eighteenth century Marathi book which retold the lives of 108 important saints from the preceding five centuries. Its special focus is on saints between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries from the ‘Varkari’ tradition, centred on Krishna as the deity Vitthala in Pandharpur.  Its author, Mahipati, was a scribe turned hagiographer. His book was translated into several Indian languages in the last 250 years and into English in the 1920s. Its tone and content uphold the patriarchal status quo which is often repeated, un-updated, in twenty-first century religious discourses.

Fourth, the components above, from across time and space, are held together by the ancient Hindu concept of the sub-continent’s sacred geography, ‘AaSetu Himalaya’, from the tip of the Indian Peninsula to the Himalayas – from the southernmost shores to the northernmost mountains. This sacred geography is underpinned by innumerable living temples and by pilgrim circuits like the Char Dham, the Dvadasha Jyotirlinga, the fifty one Shakti Peeth, the Devi circuit in Himachal Pradesh, the Aaru Padai Veedu or Six Holy Places of Kartikeya in Tamil Nadu, the sacred rivers and lakes (tirtha) and the sacred landmarks (kshetra) across the length and breadth of India. The seven mokshapuri or ‘salvation cities’ also play their part in holding this grid of sacred geography together.  They are Kashi, Ujjain, Mathura, Haridwar, Ayodhya, Dwaraka and Kanchipuram.

You can find the hand of sacred geography in the waters, too. First of all, take the Arabian Sea to the west and the Bay of Bengal to the east. These are recent names. The old Indian names for these two great seas are ‘Ratnakara’ for the western sea and ‘Mahodadhi’ for the eastern sea.

Now take the rivers. There are seven sacred rivers of note: Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri.  Most Indian rivers flow eastwards. They are called ‘nadi’. A few rivers flow west like the Sharavati in Karnataka of Jog Falls fame, the Narmada and the Tapti. Technically, they should be called ‘nadah’, not ‘nadi’. However, since most of our rivers flow east, the common word for river is ‘nadi’.

It is well-known that the Ganga is India’s holiest river. The Mekong in South-east Asia is named after her. Mekong means ‘Ma Ganga’, Mother Ganga. Of all the towns on the Ganga’s banks, it is Kashi or Varanasi which has made Ganga pre-eminent. Kashi itself is made great by Lord Shiva. He is worshipped in Kashi as Vishvanath, Lord of the World. Every believing Hindu is supposed to make a pilgrimage to Kashi at least once. There are boys in places very far away named ‘Kashi Vishvanath’ because they were born after the momentous family pilgrimage to Kashi. In the old days, when people from other parts of India set out to Kashi, they said their final goodbyes at home because it was so far away and the journey to and fro was so dangerous and difficult. But go they did. Everyone was so emotionally invested in Kashi that they risked their lives for millennia to get to ‘Hindu Central’. So, in actual fact, what makes Kashi great is the living river of believers.

The flora of India is also deeply entwined in the country’s culture, in its epics, its temple architecture, its prayers, pujas and daily rituals, in every region of Sanatana Dharma. This concept is active from the notion of the ancient tapovan or sacred forest to the tulsi in each Hindu home, the sthalavriksh or sacred tree of every temple, the bilva leaves offered to Shiva, the presence of Sri Hanuman believed to grace the coral-jasmine tree (parijatatarumoolavasinam), the pipal, sacred to Vishnu, the banyan under which Shiva meditates as Adi Guru Dakshinamurti, and the lotus which is both the seat of the gods and their hand-held attribute, and also the philosophical metaphor for the seat of the gods in the human heart (hridaykamal).

Fifth, the panchang or Hindu lunar calendar of personal and public rituals, fasts, feasts and festivals serves to guide, affirm and keep all of the above alive in the daily life of the majority of Indian people despite the differences in region, language and local culture. The panchang, with some regional variations, is based on the vast Hindu cyclical concept of time. This Hindu concept of time informs and directs the above four components. The city of Ujjain is the prime meridian of the Hindu universe of discourse since ancient times.

The Pancha Darshana, as the author calls this scheme of things, is all-pervasive and deeply rooted across Hindu society for millennia. Within such a strong, vibrant culture that has been thought through to the last detail, it requires great courage for a Hindu woman to claim an individual identity. Her identity is usually subsumed in her husband’s and society is noticeably wary of widows, divorcees, single women and women who have to live alone. It is frequently as uncharitable to wives who do not bear healthy sons.

Regrettably, in this vivid, dynamic culture that marries a land to its people with both poetry and precision, besides the respectably married mother of sons, only two other kinds of women are accorded dignity – old women and celibate renunciates. Traditionally, therefore, the only escape route for Hindu women from the narrowly judgmental side of patriarchal culture was through religion. They could leave home only to become women saints.

The common link between the women saints is that they all wished to escape oppression or heartbreak at home. All except for the girl-saint, Andal, in the eighth century, who was in love with Lord Vishnu. She is believed to have disappeared into Vishnu’s image at the temple of Srirangam in Tamil Nadu. Her collected poems to Krishna, the Tiruppavai and Nachiar Tirumozhi, are acknowledged as a major influence on Sri Ramanuja, the tenth century founder of the Srivaishnava movement, which swept like wildfire over India. Sant Ramanand was Sri Ramanuja’s follower; Sant Kabir was Ramanand’s disciple and so on. The tradition includes deeply influential poets like Jayadeva in the twelfth century and Tulsidas in the sixteenth. This means that little Andal was a person of great influence in Indian history. However, our textbooks do not tell us that a girl child inspired a great and lasting religious and social reform movement.

Meanwhile, Karaikal Ammayar, ‘the old lady of Karaikal’, is the earliest woman saint known to us. Her real name was Punitavati. She lived in the port city of Karaikal in the sixth century, in the old Chola country. She is one of the sixty-three ancient Tamil Shaiva saints, collectively called the Nayanmar, whose statues are found in every major Shaiva temple in Tamil Nadu. The legend goes that Punitavati was a young woman devotee of Shiva who received a magic mango from him one day as a mark of his favour. Her husband, the merchant Paramadattan, refused to believe it and so she begged for another mango from Mahadev to convince her husband that she spoke the truth. When the second magic mango appeared, her husband could no longer think of Punitavati as his wife for she now seemed like a goddess to him. He moved to another town and married another woman. Punitavati was devastated. She begged Mahadev to turn her at once into an ugly old woman. She then went all the way north to the Himalayas and climbed Mount Kailash upside down on her head and hands, for she did not want to disrespectfully put her feet on holy Kailash. The positive interpretation of this story is very Shaiva, that she was liberated from a lifetime of worldly ties and went off to God sooner rather than later.

Besides Karaikal Ammayar, the most famous old lady saint of the Tamil country is Avvai, a composite of two personas. The legend goes that when her parents fixed her marriage, young Avvai begged her favourite deity, Ganesha, to turn her into an old woman so that she could escape having to be married and waste her human birth as a bond-slave of domesticity.

At this stage, let us look into the historicity of Avvai. Avvaiyar’, meaning ‘Respectable Woman’, was the title of more than one poet in different periods of Tamil literature. The first Avvaiyar is said to have lived during the Sangam period, c. 3rd century BCE and was greatly respected by the Tamil chieftains VelPaari and Athiyaman. She wrote 59 of the poems in the anthology called Purananuru. The second Avvaiyar reportedly lived during the time of Kambar, of Tamil Ramayana fame, in the reign of the Cholas, c. ninth-tenth century CE. She is imagined as an old and intelligent lady. Her poems remain very popular even today. Her aphorisms in the Aatichoodi contain a list of dos and don’ts for daily life. Avvai’s sayings, even after a millennium, are among the very first texts taught to children in Tamil Nadu.

After Karaikal Ammayar and Avvai, we have Akka Mahadevi of Karnataka in the twelfth century and Lal Ded or Lalleshwari of Kashmir in the mid-fourteenth century. They became ‘women saints’ after they were severely ill-treated by their in-laws. They left their families and actually wandered about naked in utter rejection of everything that their societies stood for. Akka was ten when she was married and Lalla was twelve. The Kashmiri language is reportedly full of Lalla’s sayings. Lalla had to eat last, alone in the kitchen, after everybody else. Her mother-in-law used to put a big stone on her plate and cover it with a layer of rice to make it look like a large helping. Her husband was of no support at all.

Why was the mother-in-law so unkind to a little girl? We do not know. Perhaps she was unkind because she had the culturally sanctioned power to be so. But it is too easy to sneer that ‘women are women’s worst enemies’. If that is so, is it not because their softer natures have been perverted over a long time by the social pressure to produce sons and quietly put up with bad behaviour as their duty? In this discouraging scenario, both Akka and Lalla transferred all their love to Shiva. They wrote poems to Mahadev that people still recite.

And then, in the 16th century, we have the most famous woman saint of north India, Meera Bai, who suffered extreme persecution from her in-laws because of her unswerving love for Krishna. Meera left home too, to take her chances alone in pursuit of Krishna, although she was a royal Rajput widow of only thirty-eight years.

Medieval Marathi women saints like Jana Bai, who loved Krishna as Vitthala Pandurang at Pandharipur, did not have an easy time, either. Jana Bai was left as a child at the temple by her starving parents. Sant Namdev rescued her and took her home. She spent her whole life as a servant to his family. Such examples suggest a consistent pattern that women saints sublimated their suffering and individuality into God-love.

To return to Akka Mahadevi in more detail, ‘Akka’, means ‘elder sister’ in Kannada, Marathi, Telugu and Tamil. She was called that later in life. The name she was given at birth was ‘Mahadevi’, meaning ‘Goddess Parvati’. Akka was born to a rich Hindu family in Udutadi village, in present-day Shimoga district in Karnataka. She was married off at the age of ten to a man named Kausika, who was a Jain chieftan. The Jains, then as now, were a prosperous community and Akka was expected to live the life of a medieval ‘corporate wife’ – to dress well, bear her husband sons and fulfil her prescribed biological, domestic, social and ritual duties. Instead, Akka ran away. Moreover, she cast off her clothes, possibly influenced by the Digambara or ‘sky-clad’ sect of naked Jain ascetics, and wore her long hair as her only covering.

What made a young, gently-bred girl reject her prescribed life and wander bravely alone into the aggressive, jeering world of the male gaze? We cannot begin to imagine what she must have endured, or the strength of mind and conviction she had to make and keep this terrifying choice. We can understand why Punitavati and Avvai wanted to be turned at once into old women.

Akka loved Shiva as ‘Mallikarjuna’, her ‘Lord, white as jasmine’, the way Andal and Meera loved Krishna. This love poured out in about 350 vachana or sayings in Kannada. After wandering around alone for some time Akka wished to join a ‘soul family’ of Shaivas. The Veerashaivas were a new and radically democratic group of Hindus in the region. She made her way to their camp at a place called Kalyana and asked to be one of them. Scandal had preceded her and she must have presented an unsettling sight; young, staunch and unclad. Allama Prabhu, the Veerashaiva leader, was caught between his heartfelt Shaiva empathy with all creatures and this severe test of his belief. Did ‘all creatures’ include a woman who broke so many male rules? Despite his great saintliness and impeccable credentials as a spiritual democrat, this democracy did not automatically include single, socially free young women.

Instead we see the overpowering need of the male mind to build a social context for Akka’s ‘wildness’, to fit her into society as ‘God’s wife’ if not man’s. This is how tradition reports the encounter. Allama Prabhu asked Akka, “Who is your husband?” Akka answered, “I am married forever to Mallikarjuna.” Allama Prabhu said: “Why do you roam around naked as though illusion can be peeled off by mere gestures? And yet you wear a sari of hair? If the heart is free and pure, why do you need it?” Akka said, with absolute honesty: “Until the fruit is ripe inside, the skin will not fall off”. By ‘fruit’ she meant that her mind was not ready yet.

Melted by her sincerity, Allama Prabhu accepted Akka into the Veerashaiva fold. But after some years, while merely in her twenties, Akka left to look for Mallikarjuna. Not one person supported her. The tale goes that she went to the holy peak of Srisailam, an ancient Shaiva temple in Kurnool district in Andhra Pradesh.  Adi Shankara, the founder of Advaita philosophy, is believed to have meditated under an ancient banyan tree at Srisailam and composed the Shivananda Leheri there.

It is possible that Akka was eaten by a tiger in the jungles around Srisailam. Her body was never found. Alas, there are many in our land even today who bear witness to Akka and the company of Hindu women saints. Nine hundred years after Akka, in the twenty-first century, little girls are still being married off early in India despite the modern law that forbids it. Although the present law of the land is on the side of Hindu women, society has yet to catch up with the law in many areas, for it is mentally held back by its old cultural reflexes as indicatively sketched above. It will take a collective and detailed effort across Hindu society to upgrade its attitude to its women while keeping much that it holds dear from its deep and vast tradition.

There is that vital, inexorable difference though between the past and the present to speed Hindu society along the margdarshan or path marked out by our Constitution. Today, a Hindu girl is legally empowered by Hindu reform to ‘get a life’ as the colloquialism goes without having to renounce normal human ties as her saintly predecessors were compelled to. In the eyes of Indian law, the Hindu woman is a free, equal citizen.

In sum, our society is a work in progress with regard to women in Hindu culture and the task calls for encouragement at every level to fulfil India’s human potential.


(Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture. Formerly an editor and a diplomat, her published books include The Book of Prayer, Faith: Filling the God-sized Hole,The Little Book of Indian Wisdom (Penguin),
A Madrasi Memoir (Academic Foundation), The Path of Light – Inspiring Tales from Upanishads, Jatakas and Indic Lore (Penguin Random House India) and Hindu Fables (Juggernaut). She has just completed a book on Lord Shiva for Penguin and is presently working on a life of Adi Sankara for Speaking Tiger Books.)

(This article is carried in the print edition of November-December 2018 issue of India Foundation Journal.)

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  1. Tulsidas writes, “ek narivrat rat sab jhari, te man bach kram pati hitkari.”
    (All men are devoted to single women, the women are for husband’s welfare from their mind, word and action.)
    We can say that in his writing Tulsi has shown path to men also, although not to the extent as he has written about dos and donts for women.

  2. How many will waste so much time in re-visiting history only to conclude, society is a work-in-process for Hindu women !!
    Every society is perpetually and eternally work-in-process in all aspects, in all disciplines of human activity. Women are excessively obsessed with women issues disregarding the fact that oceanic changes have taken place so far and more are coming at a great pace. These attitudes need moderation and rationalization.
    The article is a sheer waste of time.

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