Thursday, May 27, 2010

Is Hinduism Misogynistic?

Is Hinduism misogynistic? While it is true that all the religions exhibit some amount of misogynistic tendencies, from the refusal of Vatican to ordain women priests and bishops to the overly oppressive stance taken by the Muslim mullahs when it comes to the treatment of women, I find the position taken by Hinduism on women particularly pernicious, as it goes to the very core of the religion, viz., the emancipation of the soul.

The issue at hand is this. Does Hinduism allow women to practice Hinduism in its purest? While Hinduism, as practiced by the common man had always been a barter system of quid pro quo, the philosophy and the idea behind Hinduism is anything but materialistic. Called the Vedanta it is concerned with the metaphysical aspects of our existence, our soul, the effect of our actions and thoughts on the soul and the issue of reincarnation and finally emancipation of our soul.

Vedanta in essence states, though there are a few variants of it, we are nothing but a forgotten aspect of God, the Brahman, who exists in all the life forms in this universe. The reason we have forgotten this is because in our ignorance, caused by Maya, we falsely associate ourselves with our physical bodies, instead of the eternal soul that is present in all of us. The moment we realize that our soul is eternal then we free ourselves from the cycle of birth and death, and reach a pure state of bliss, nirvana.

The one and only way for us to realize this, according to Vedanta, is by a focused study of the Vedas and by meditating on Brahman. Everything else we undertake, selfless action, conducting ourselves according to a strict moral code and acts of philanthropy are all just preconditions for purifying our mind to take on the final act of understanding Brahman through study and mediation. Without this final step, however meritorious our life might have been, we are condemned to be born again and again until we exhaust all our Karma.

Here is the catch though. Vedas states only certain people to study the Vedas and Women and Sudras (the lowest of the four castes in India) are persona non grata! While the authors of the Veda have the decency to explicitly prohibit the Sudras from learning the Vedas, they don’t even feel the necessity to do so when it comes to women. It is so obvious that women are not entitled to study it they don’t even feel compelled to deny it explicitly. They do it simply by stating that only after the performance of Upanayana, a religious ceremony exclusively for boys, can one start the study of Vedas, thereby denying entire female sex the opportunity to study the Vedas. Brahma Sutra 1.3.36 states only the twice-born who has gone through the purification ceremony of Upanayana is allowed to study the Vedas – thus effectively prohibiting Sudras and Women from any such attempts.

Griha Sastra clearly states in Sankhayana II-1 who are entitled for Upanayana.

In the eighth year after the conception, let him initiate a Brahmana, with an antelope-skin,
Or in the tenth year after the conception a Kshatriya with the skin of a spotted deer,
In the twelfth year after the conception a Vaisya with a cow-hide,
Until the sixteenth year the time has not passed for a Brahmana,
Until the twenty-second for a Kshatriya,
Until the twenty-fourth for a Vaisya
After that (time has passed), they become patitasavitrika (men who have lost their right of learning the Savitri).
Let them not initiate such men, nor teach them, nor perform sacrifices for them, nor have intercourse with them.

In addition, Manusmriti states unequivocally that ‘God’ for a woman is her husband and the only thing she can hope for is the privilege of being with her husband in her next life.

Chapter V.154 though destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure (elsewhere), or devoid of good qualities, (yet) a husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife.

Chapter V.165 She who, controlling her thoughts, words, and deeds, never slights her lord, resides (after death) with her husband (in heaven), and is called a virtuous (wife).

Chapter V.166 In reward of such conduct, a female who controls her thoughts, speech, and actions, gains in this (life) highest renown, and in the next (world) a place near her husband.

Needless to say, it is silent on the question of a husband who has the misfortune of going to hell or being born a Sudra in his next birth.

There are those who now want to denounce Manusmriti on the grounds that it is not part of Sruti – but Manusmriti is nothing but a distilled version of the Vedas, that deals with the code of conduct of the Hindus.

Even Sankara in his Bhasya on Brahma Sutra quotes the Smriti’s extensively in support of his arguments on the ground Smriti’s derive its authority from the Sruti’s.

This prohibition of women from reading the Vedas incidentally is why we don’t have any women priests in India.

Besides, the treatment of women as the property of man is codified in Vedas themselves. For example Brihadaranyaka 6.4.6 and 6.4.7 says how a man should overpower and rape a woman if she is unwilling to yield to his sexual advances.

Now, if a man sees himself (his reflection) in water, he should recite the following mantra: "May the gods bestow on me vigor, manhood, fame, wealth and merit." In praise of the wife who will bear him a son: She (his wife) has put on the soiled clothes of impurity; she is, verily, loveliness among women. Therefore when she has removed the clothes of impurity and appears beautiful, he should approach her and speak to her.

If she does not willingly yield her body to him, he should buy her with presents. If she is still unyielding, he should strike her with a stick or with his hand and overcome her, repeating the following mantra: "With power and glory I take away your glory." Thus she becomes discredited.

If this is not pure misogyny then you must be from Saudi Arabia.

They say Hinduism is the most tolerant religion; a religion that condemns 62.5% of its population (50% women and 1/4th Sudra men) direct recourse to God. I would hate to think what we would do if we were any less tolerant.