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Updated: December 14, 2010 17:05 IST

Have the Indian men been fair to the fairer sex?

Indira Parthasarathy
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Of the 25 authors writing about women and their issues, nearly half happen to be men in the true Saiva-Saktha (Tantra) tradition

Some of the scientists given to studying evolution and anthropology claim, on the basis of ancient skeletal remains found in Ethiopia, that the primary ancestor of the human species could be a woman, whom they endearingly called ‘Lucy'. Manifestations of Nature's fury like tornadoes and hurricanes are visualised as women in anger and, as such, given feminine names by the meteorologists. Has not Shakespeare said that ‘hell hath no fury like woman scorned?' The conceptualisation of Earth as mother, a symbolic representation of fertility and patience, is common to all ancient cultures and religions.

And yet, women have been dominated by men all over the world from time immemorial. In medieval Europe, unusual (or talented?) women have been put to abuse and were even burnt at stakes as witches, as it happened in the case of ‘the Maid of Orleans' (Joan of Arc:1412-1431 CE), who, by her exemplary valour, put to shame all the men soldiers. Most of the common references and proverbs from medieval times in many of the Indian dialects show women in the most unfavourable light, an attitude which is ingrained in the subconscious of the chauvinistic men.

Women in Ancient and Medieval India, brought out in the PHISPC (Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture) series, is a substantive volume edited by Bhuvan Chandel in association with Shubhada Joshi. It has contributions from scholars belonging to different disciplines.

Of the 25 authors writing about women and their issues, nearly half happen to be men, perhaps, in the true Saiva-Saktha (Tantra) tradition, which holds that man and woman together (meaning equal-sharing) alone could make a single human identity, as represented by the divine concept of ‘Arthanaareeswara'. The scholarly articles by Kamalakar Misra and Vidya Nivas Misra are on this theme.

Women in Vedic era

From what eminent scholars like A.V. Sugavaneswaran, Shashiprabhha Kumar, Shubhada Joshi, and Chandrakala Padia say, one could make out that the Vedic period was a golden era for the Indian women when they enjoyed an equal status with men in the field of education and social living. Some may question this and argue it was not all that hunky-dory for women during the Vedic period. Sindu S. Dange, in her article, quotes a Vedic text which says that in the Pravargya ceremony, the sacrificer should not look at a woman, a sudra, a dog or a black bird, for “these are untruth; otherwise, he will mingle excellence and sin, light and darkness, truth and untruth.”

Chandrakala Padia comes out with the names of as many as 19 women seers (Brahmavadinis), who excelled in philosophical wisdom and were on a par with their male contemporaries. Gargi, an outstanding ‘argumentative' woman-intellectual of the post-Vedic Upanishadic times, confronted Yajnavalkya — the most distinguished among the male seers of that period — with a volley of questions at a conference of philosophers under the auspices of King Janaka, according to the Brahadaranyaka Upanishad.

From G.C. Nayak's article on this subject, one could see that Gargi was ultimately silenced not by a convincing answer to her philosophical question but by a stern authoritarian masculine rebuttal, evident in Yajnavalkya's voice. This sounds almost like saying “beyond this don't enquire. Period.” Gargi, Maitreyi, and a host of other women-philosophers figuring in the Upanishads are illustrations of a spirit that keeps questioning ceaselessly in its eternal quest for truth.

Deteriorated

But during the period of the Smrtis, according to Shankar Gopal Neme, the status of women in society deteriorated and whatever rights they were supposed to have enjoyed, along with men in the early Vedic era, were denied to them. Manu and Chanakya could have been misogynists, if one reads the code of conduct they have prescribed for women.

The identity of a woman in Vajrayana Buddhism, as projected by Lata Chhatre, appears to be much more satisfying, and even overwhelming, than what it is in other religions. This concept can be historically traced to a period when society was matriarchal and the mother image was supreme. The problem with all the Tantric (Saiva, Sakta, or Buddhist) ideologies that glorified women is that they remained frozen as abstract theories within the framework of cultism and hardly ever found ways of becoming relevant as a broad social practice.

Two articles — one, a pan-Indian survey of ancient women-saints and the other, a historiography of religious women in Indian history, written respectively by Prema Nandakumar and Vijaya Ramaswamy — add an excellent dimension to the overall concept of this volume. They eloquently testify to the authors' refreshingly modern outlook as also to their comprehensive and contemporary awareness of women-related issues.

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