lunedì 25 luglio 2016

Hinduism and women: the Hindu myths as a cultural model

Hinduism is possibly the most ancient religion of the world: the Vedic tradition dates back 4000 B.C. As a religion, Hinduism is characterized by different currents and conceptions that have been changing throughout history, manifesting in different ways in those regions where it became the dominant faith. As in other religious cases, Hinduism has notably influenced the way in which society perceived and observed women, who were often compared with goddesses belonging to the Hindu mythological pantheon.
If we consider the years 2500-500 B.C. – which represent the proper Vedic period – we can detect that women had the faculty to participate to philosophic discussions, could wear sacred vestments, could read the Veda and could sing the hymns of the Hindu holy books. Moreover, wedding was not compulsory, women could choose not to marry and widows had the faculty to marry again if they were still in fertile age.
Lord Rama and Goddess Sita
During the sixth century B.C., the worship of the Mother Goddess appeared and spread, but at the same time the Hindu civilization began to decline due to floods, pestilences, famines and above all foreign invasions. Women were the first elements to suffer from this decay being henceforth excluded from the active participation in the social life and losing all juridical acknowledgements and status both in the public and in the private sphere. It is in this particular time that the system of the castes was established, dividing ever since India’s social and economic groups into stark and exclusive blocks. The partition in castes provided for the creation of an unfair and unequal society divided into several social categories: the Brahmans (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaisyas (artisans and traders), and the Sudras (serfs). Each caste included several sub-castes and outside the castes were the so-called Dalits and the Adivasi (the aborigine folks). Typical of this historical period was the propensity to attribute to women the same characteristics the Dalits had, and thus to consider both as outcasts. Accordingly, women – even when belonging to a superior caste – could no longer participate directly to religious ceremonies and rituals. Weddings became strictly endogamous, being celebrated only among members belonging to the same caste, and the bride and the groom were chosen by their parents and relatives when they were still in a junior age. Furthermore, sexual relationships that occurred before or outside marriage were punished with eviction and often with death. The institution of marriage featured the obligation for the bride to correspond to her husband a dowry, and the latter could even kill his spouse if this compulsory endowment expired during the marriage. Likewise, the use of sati – the ritual sacrifice of a widow who decided to commit suicide on the funeral pyre of her dead husband – started to spread quickly as a logic consequence of the impossibility for a woman to marry again when the consort perished.[1]
During the Moghul rule over India, which began in the early XVI century, the Islamic religion introduced the institution of polygamy, which also Hindus accepted to embrace. Thus, ever since the end of the Vedic golden age women have suffered a totally subjected condition.
In terms of historical and cultural inquiry, the only object of concrete interest was the image of the woman of the upper-castes belonging to the Aryan lineage, whereas the Vedic dasi – i.e. the women in servitude – who had been captured, subjugated and enslaved by the conquering Aryans, disappeared without leaving trace of themselves until the nineteenth century history.[2]  
It will be only at the beginning of the British domination of India in the XIX century that the first reforms of the Hindu tradition will take place in favor of women.
The two great epics of the Hindu civilization, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, illustrate the life and the deeds of goddesses and heroines of the Hindu tradition that have strongly affected and still affect the way in which women are perceived and judged by the Indian society. Among these mythological characters we may cite three that typically personify different models of Hindu women: Sita, Draupadi and Kali.
Sita is one of the friendly benevolent goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. She appears in the Ramayana as the spouse of Lord Rama, the seventh avatar (i.e. manifestation or incarnation) of Lord Vishnu, one of the most significant deities in Hinduism. Sita is mostly known due to her virtuous and righteous qualities. In fact, Goddess Sita – who is considered to be an avatar of Goddess Lakshmi as well as the daughter of Mother Earth (Bhudevi) – embodies the ideal womanly virtues and stands before all Hindu women as a model of wifely and domestic qualities. Although she was exposed to intense suffering during her life, she always manifested a cheerful countenance, accepting sorrow in a stoic fashion, and this is what her followers try to imitate from her. Goddess Sita symbolizes a perfect example of loyalty and abnegation for having left the luxurious comforts of her palace to accompany her husband Lord Rama in the forest when he was banished there. Sita exemplifies also the ideals of fidelity and chastity because during this period of exile the Goddess was also abducted by a demon king named Ravana and imprisoned within his palace walls. At such a trying time she revealed endurance, bravery and resilience: despite Ravana’s attempts to having sexual relations with her, during her long period of imprisonment Sita’s honor and chastity remained spotless. Later, when she was rescued by Lord Rama, Sita attested her purity to him by undertaking an ordeal of fire. As a daughter, wife and finally mother, Goddess Sita fulfilled all roles with great devotion and rectitude, displaying the intrinsic strength of a woman who refuses to compromise on her ideals while behaving with the utmost grace. To understand how extraordinary the consideration for the example of Sita is we can underline that “a recent survey taken of one thousand young Indian men and women in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh revealed that from a list of twenty-four goddesses, literary heroines, and famous women of history, an overwhelming percentage chose for their ideal female role model Sita”.[3]
As for Draupadi, she represents one of the most important female characters in the Mahabharata. In the epic, she is the daughter of Drupada, King of Panchala and later she became the common wife of the five Pandavas. Draupadi was a beautiful woman and, like Sita, many men desired her. Her life presents some very interesting episodes of attempts of being seduced and even forced by men. Specifically, Jayadratha, the son of Vriddhakshatra, was crossing through a forest when he saw Draupadi. At that point, feeling astonished by Draupadi’s beauty, Jayadratha started pleading her to go away with him and desert her husbands who at that time had fallen upon bad times. Draupadi pointed out that it was wrong to desert one’s spouses when they were in difficulty and then gave him a rather long and deliberately delaying speech on exactly the sort of bad time her husbands would give him on their return. Failing with words, Jayadratha tried violence and forced her onto his chariot. When the Pandavas learned of their wife's abduction by Jayadratha they rushed to save her. On seeing the Pandavas coming after him, Jayadratha left Draupadi on the road and Draupadi was saved. However, the Pandavas caught Jayadratha after chasing him on the chariot and publicly humiliated him before setting him free again. Another episode is that with Draupadi and Kichaka. Kichaka was a commander of a king’s armed forces, and one day while her husbands were away he had happened to see Draupadi. He was immediately filled with lust by looking at her. He asked her to marry him, but Draupadi refused him saying that she was already married. She warned Kichaka that her husbands were very strong and that he would not be able to escape death at their hands. Disapponited, Kichaka tried to molest her, but she managed to escape and to run into the court of Kichaka’s king. At that point Kichaka kicked her in front of all the courtiers. Draupadi then cursed Kichaka with death by her husband's hand, but he did not take her words seriously. Later that night, one of the Pandavas, Bhima, in the guise of Draupadi, fought with Kichaka and killed him. The brutal way Kichaka had kicked Draupadi in the face may have influenced the violent behavior that some Indian men have shown towards women throughout history. Certainly, Draupadi, is somewhat an example of loyalty, fidelity and patience, but unlike Sita, the aggressive and outspoken behavior she displays – together with the inability of her husbands to protect her – prevents her from becoming idealized as the “perfect wife” who endures the most severe trials without complaint.[4] Moreover, the marriage of Draupadi with five men, a clear example of polyandry, was considered unusual by the society spoken of in the epic. The Indo-Aryan texts almost never mention or allow polyandry, although polygamy was common among men of higher social ranks: indeed her marriage to five men was controversial.
Goddess Kali
Sometimes Hindu women are also interrelated to Goddess Kali. The name Kali comes from the Sanskrit root word Kal that means time and this is to highlight that nothing can escape the all-consuming march of time. Kali is one of the major Hindu goddesses whose iconography, cult, and mythology commonly associate her with death, sexuality, violence, and, paradoxically in some of her later historical appearances, motherly love. It is partly correct to say Kali is a goddess of death but she brings the death of the ego as the illusory self-centered view of reality. In other words, worshipping Kali does not mean to worship death but rather it is to overcome the materialistic body-focused idea by reinforcing the awareness that the body is a temporary condition. Men’s attachment to the body gives rise to the ego, and Kali grants liberation by removing the illusion of the ego. Kali is the most compassionate because she provides liberation to her worshippers. She is the counterpart of Shiva the destroyer. The ego considers Goddess Kali and trembles with fear because the ego sees in her its own eventual demise. A person who is attached to his ego will not be receptive to Kali and thus she will appear in a fearsome form. Instead, a mature soul who engages in spiritual practice to remove the illusion of the ego sees Kali as very sweet, affectionate, and overflowing with incomprehensible love for her worshippers. In linking Goddess Kali to the Hindu woman, we may affirm that women should help men to overcome their material and egoistic feelings in order to liberate their souls. In other words, the Hindu woman incarnates the example of a spiritual being that through the rejection of materialistic ambitions helps men to reach perfection. 

[1] Cf. Flood, G. (1996). An introduction to Hinduism. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
[2] Sangari, K. and Vaid, S. (1990). Recasting women. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, p. 28.
[3] Sutherland, S. (1989). Sītā and Draupadī: Aggressive Behavior and Female Role-Models in the Sanskrit Epics. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 109(1), p.63.
[4] Ibid. pp. 72-73.

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