‘Why I am Not a Hindu Woman’ review: The ‘othering’ of women, Dalits and savarna trauma

Drawing on lived experience, Wandana Sonalkar explains the concerns about Hinduism as it is practised today, including misogyny, caste and violence

November 28, 2020 04:54 pm | Updated November 29, 2020 06:17 pm IST

Repudiation of a religion by a person born into it is a sub-genre by itself. Wandana Sonalkar’s Why I am Not a Hindu Woman invokes titles such as Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian , Ibn Warraq’s Why I am Not a Muslim , and Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s Why I am Not a Hindu .

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This book stands apart on two counts. Firstly, it’s by a woman. This is significant not least because every major world religion discriminates against women. Second, unlike the male-authored critiques, this one goes beyond intellectual arguments to also draw on lived experience.

Rooted in patriarchy

Sonalkar, a retired professor of gender studies, saves intellectual energy by declaring upfront that she is not interested in Hinduism of the past. What concerns her is Hinduism as it is practised today, and the starting point of her critique is her life as a woman born in a Hindu family, specifically, a family of Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhus, a small community of ‘almost Brahmin’ upper castes.

Reflecting on her formative years, mostly spent abroad, she notes that her privileges — of caste, class, and location — may have helped her recover, but they did not protect her from the lacerations of growing up in a dysfunctional family whose dysfunction was rooted in brahminical patriarchy, more popularly known as “Hinduism”.

Sonalkar was a little girl when her father starts an affair with a family friend. She writes, with devastating brevity, of the contrast in how the affair affected her mother, as opposed to the extended household. “My mother withdrew into even more lengthy puja rituals and more frequent fasts, eliciting outbursts of contemptuous anger from my father, but her religion seemed to be more and more inadequate in terms of guidance or succour.” And yet, “The extended Hindu family offered neither solace not support... My father enjoyed the same respect and affection as always.”

Negation of equality

What disturbs Sonalkar the most, “besides my mother’s pain, was the shroud of dishonesty that descended on all our interactions,” and even though she “grew up with a set of liberal values…the spirit of Manu hovered over us, making my father’s affair acceptable to many around us, even if not to be talked about openly.”

Comparing Hinduism to other religions, she finds it to be “inherently misogynist, where most religions are male-centred” and “as a religion, it does not believe in universal ethics or morality.” While some have argued that dharma is a universal Hindu ethic, she points out that it is not universal because it is “always determined by one’s social status and one’s gender... In Hinduism, dharma for the Brahmin is not the same as dharma for the Shudra.” It is partly thanks to this negation of equality at the core of Hinduism that a supremacist ideology such as Hindutva finds ready acceptance among so many Hindus, and “our liberal-democratic principles remain academic, they do not enter our hearts.”

If there is no universal ethic or belief system that defines a Hindu, then what makes one a Hindu? According to Sonalkar, “identification as a Hindu requires a performative act” such as visiting a temple or actions “that simultaneously announce one’s religion and one’s caste”. Hinduism does not have a singular belief system precisely because “Hindu identity is always a caste identity”. This anomaly explains the Hindutva anxiety to force-fit a geographically dispersed, disparate agglomeration of castes into a homogenous ‘rashtra’ united by adherence to a monochromatic version of Brahminical Hinduism that accords primacy to Lord Rama.

‘Deep roots of violence’

Throughout the book, as Sonalkar switches registers between the personal and the political, she unravels the intimate links between the violence of Hindutva and “the deep roots of violence in a caste-patriarchal Hindu social order”. Why does Hindu society tolerate violence against women, Dalits and Muslims, asks Sonalkar. She suggests that it is because of the different forms of “Othering” at work — the Othering of Hinduism’s internal inferiors (women and Dalits), and of the external enemy (Muslims). She contends that this dichotomy of interior/exterior set against a common dynamic of Othering is the reason violence against Muslims is sought to be legitimised, while that against Dalits and women is sought to be invisibilised.

Why I am Not a Hindu Woman has plenty to offer those seeking to understand the currents of divisiveness gaining ground in India. Insofar as anti-caste memoirs are over-populated by Dalit-Bahujan writers, this is a doubly important addition — for one, it’s penned by a savarna intellectual, and secondly, for a change, we have a first person account of caste oppression that details not Dalit suffering but savarna trauma.

Why I am Not a Hindu Woman ; Wandana Sonalkar, Women Unlimited, ₹350.

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