At the end of the 150th anniversary celebrations of Swami Vivekananda, dancer Padma Subrahmanyam asks Indian women to take a cue from the monk and redefine their agenda not only for themselves, but also for the entire world
The contemporary discourse credits the modern world exclusively with improving the status of women. But thousands of years ago, Indian women had enjoyed high status. 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 and many others, to Indira Gandhi — something which no other society in the world can possibly boast. That is why I could proudly present my dance programme “Stree Kavi Ratna”, based on literature, from Gargi to Meera, at the World Spiritual Women’s Conference organised by the United Nations in Geneva in 2002.
Feminist scholars abroad, not Indians, have recently begun studying how traditions have enabled women in India to participate in the public domain, contrary to the traditions in the West. Jane Freedman hypothesised that the Western political culture, drawn from its traditions ,which does not offer women any positive model of female power, excluded women from the political field. Taking the hypothesis further, in her essay “The Hindu Goddess and Women’s Political Representation in South Asia: Symbolic Resource or Feminine Mystique?”, Stephanie Tawa Lama studied the impact of the Hindu Goddess — a uniquely popular, positive figure of feminine power — on the political role of women in India.
Observing that the Indian freedom movement was driven by the symbol of Mother India and devotion to her in the song ‘Vande Mataram’, which singularly inspired the freedom fighters to undertake high sacrifices, she underscored the subterranean influence of feminine power in Indian political life. She connected it to how Indira Gandhi, who became the Prime Minister of India in 1966, was compared to Goddess Durga when she won the 1971 War and how Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was portrayed as ‘Mahishasuramardini’ (slayer of the demon Mahisha).
Ms. Tawa Lama says that in the West, tradition, which had classified women as the weaker sex, influenced the modern Western politics with their prejudice. But India’s was a contrast. In 1959, the Swiss had denied voting rights to their women in the national referendum. But in 1963 Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest State which had less than a third of its women literate at the time, had no difficulty in electing Sucheta Kripalani as its Chief Minister.
Finally, the Swiss women got voting rights in 1972 — after Indira Gandhi had already ruled India for a full six years as its most powerful Prime Minister! American women got franchise rights only in 1920 and the British women eight years later, centuries after the exclusively masculine British democracy came into being. Thus, gender conflicts inhered in the Western traditions. But such gender hostility has no philosophic source or traditional roots in India.
In India, from ancient times, Female Divinity has equated women with power. And, God as confluence of man and woman (Ardhanareeswara) symbolised gender harmony. The ultimate Reality [Brahman] which transcended all forms — man, woman and all species — is gender-neutral. But unfortunately, contemporary Indian women intellectualism does not internalise these profound ideas. It tends to copy the Western thoughts that have no philosophic or social comparability or compatibility with the Indian.
Indian traditions have struggled to foster a higher sense of respect for women. Therefore, the grammar of gender relations in India is universal respect for women. This automatically implied unasserted but well-recognised rights. Therefore, despite all the intellectual confusion and conflict, Indian Womanhood practices have preserved the uniqueness of Indian women and respect for them. The paradigm of respect for women in India transcended and avoided the conflict-prone gender rights paradigm. But the Western women, denied respect by tradition, repeatedly rebelled and fought for rights. This has resulted in the modern paradigm of rights without a sense of filial duties in the West and caused social disorientation. Here is its fallout: over 42% of the babies in the United States, 47% in the United Kingdom and almost 60% in Scandinavia are born to unwed mothers; almost half of them teenagers; more than half the marriages end in divorce in 10 years, as do two-thirds of the second and three-fourths of the third marriages; most families are run by a single parent.
Paradox of freedom
The ‘rights sans traditional duties’ paradigm scuttled the family system. But has freeing women from families made women happy? A 2009 study concluded that after three decades of feminism and development, women of Europe and the U.S. are less happy now than before and men, incidentally, are more happy than they were.
In the West, mental illnesses are on the rise among men, women and children. Way back in 1952, when my father, Director K. Subrahmanyam was honoured by the Hollywood Film Directors Guild in the U.S., the press asked him: “Why India does not have enough psychiatrists”? Pat came the reply that the joint family system had kept Indian society sane. The Dharma Sastra or Thirukkural or any other ancient text is unanimous on the householder’s responsibility to elders, the infirm, the unemployed and even unsupported strangers. But in the U.S., with the traditional families collapsing, their whole burden has fallen on the government.
According to economist and columnist S. Gurumurthy, the present social security cost of care of elders, infirm and unemployed is estimated at over six times the GDP of the U.S. — a totally unsustainable situation. He says that this has led to the corporatisation of the family kitchen and government takeover of parental obligations — as the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research warned in 1980. India’s cultural and spiritual values stabilise the national economy. The Indian value system, which constitutes the country’s culturally-devised social security system is the result of the carefully-nurtured continuum of Indian womanhood. This is the biggest Indian intellectual and cultural idea for export to the West. Time has come for India to introspect on what it needs to import from the West and what it need not. Here comes the relevance of Swami Vivekananda, the young Hindu monk who told the World Parliament of Religions what the world did not know, namely, that there exists in India the spiritual common denominator of mutual respect for all religions.
He therefore asserted that there need be no hostility among religions and appealed for harmony among faiths. In the same vein he appealed equally for gender harmony founded on the Indian idea of respect for women. When the West was learning the basic lessons of equality of humans, including women, Swami Vivekananda proclaimed that “the barometer to the progress of a nation is its treatment of its women”. As the nation gets set to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the monk’s birth and even as India is set to emerge, according to the U.S. National Intelligence Council, as one of the three world powers, it is necessary that Indian women redefine their agenda not only for themselves but also the world at large. An effort has been undertaken under the aegis of the Swami Vivekananda 150 Women's Initiative to hold a women’s convention in Chennai on the occasion on the theme, “Indian Women as the guide for the world at a crossroads”. It is a bold initiative. Hopefully such initiatives will set off the introspection and dialogue which is overdue in India.
This article has been edited to incorporate the following correction:
Women got the right to vote in the U.S. in 1920 and in the U.K. in 1928. U.K. achieved women’s suffrage in 1928 (women over 30 were enfranchised in 1918 but the Representation of the People Act was passed on July 2, 1928) and the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in the U.S. on August 18, 1920.