Feminism and freedom: The Indian way

The hold of Western feminism on Indian mindset is alarming, deadlier than colonization. Before taking out morchas for women’s rights, we must peep into the deep crevices of our own cultural history and determine whether we really have a woman suppressing tradition. Is the nickname “oppressive,” attached to our culture by manipulative western thinkers, justified? Should we retort that freedom and equality are intrinsic to Indian life, since Vedic times? The West, having no such cultural history to boast of, is incapable of guiding our women, who were empowered by our culture thousands of years ago. But we are too engrossed in imitating the imported western sensibility, to think about its incongruity in the Indian context.

Western feminist agitations have given birth to the concept of “ME”. This demon of “I” has overpowered the sensibility of women, who now want only rights, but choose to forget duties. This distortion of feminine sensibility is proving fatal to the very existence of women and womanhood. The male sensibility has become more hostile towards them, as western feminism has unconsciously fanned the male “I”.

A society exists for duties. Ancient Indian religious, spiritual and philosophical texts have propagated the gospel of duty, while the world boisterously talked about rights. Sadly, in contemporary Indian society too, there is a rising consciousness of rights, and abhorrence for   duties. Lack of values, on an intellectual level, has made man imitative of the west, rather than creative. This intellectual hollowness is mirrored in the modern values determined by internet, politicians, and film stars, and success means materialistic gains.

I do not oppose feminism, but am against the crusade that is solely tilted towards the demand for rights. Feminism emerged as a movement in the West, a socio- political reaction against social disparity, objectification and oppression of women. The Western culture inherently suffocated women, necessitating feminist movements, and demand for rights. Our fight is only with the grime of social evils which has tarnished our rich heritage for a few centuries. Indian Feminism calls for the evolution of women in the modern world, with the removal of the carcasses of prejudices and evils of the last seven hundred years. The oppression is social in the Indian context, while in the west it is cultural.

Historians and scholars, Vedas and Upanishads, and other scriptures show, that in the Vedic age women enjoyed equal status as men. They mention women philosophers, politicians, teachers, administrators and saints. Ancient grammarians like Patanjali and Katayayana mention the provision for education of women who were assigned the higher task of transmission of culture to children. The Rig Veda talks about women marriage at maturity and right to Swayamvara.  The Upanishads declare that the soul is neither male nor female. Hinduism does not justify maltreatment of others, on the basis of gender or otherwise. It is thus easy to estimate the high position of women in our ancient scriptures by comparing them with those of any other faith.

It is only in later Vedic ages, and then with the advent of foreign invasions around the twelfth century, that wilful confinement of women began, for protection. But sadly, evils like sati, and female infanticide seeped in creating unending sorrow. The position of women in modern India has changed considerably and the Constitution guarantees them equality with men in all spheres. More efforts are required to mould the mindset of the people to accept the importance of equality of the sexes and to reinstate the pride of womanhood, for a healthy society.

Feminist lobbies in India must realise that female oppression and materialism are social evils of the recent Indian past, having no base in traditional Indian sensibility. The deplorable condition of women today and acts of violence against them go against the tenets of ancient Indian philosophy. They represent the crisis of values and the modern man’s lust for pleasure.

 Modern Indian woman must not replicate the “new woman” of the West but must look within her own culture for reinforcement of her dynamism. She must demand the  freedom to discharge her traditional duties, and to do this amicably, she must be supported by her male counterpart. Men must realise that gender bias is equally detrimental for them. The image of Shiva, the Ardhnarishwar, as a perfect man becomes relevant here; he, who embodies both male and female elements harmoniously, is Supreme. The “new man” has to treat the woman not as an adversary and competitor, but as a partner. His happiness is utopian, if the female happiness is compromised. This will ensure harmony and re-establish the ancient family system.

Indian women must be the torch bearers of the values of humanity, love, and compassion, refusing to barter their values for materialistic gains. They must be a unique amalgamation of modernity and sensibility, ambition and humility. They must rise against social evils, but exercise caution against the conspiracy and callousness of the modern materialistic society.

The tragedy of our country lies in the failure to uphold Dharma, the path of righteousness, of spiritual discipline and moral codes guiding one’s life. Its observance helped humans to be contented and saved them from degradation. Dharma also refers to nyaya  (justice). Human society is sustained by the dharma performed by its members, for example, parents looking after the welfare of children, children obeying parents, and the state protecting the citizens.

Marriage in India is associated with piousness, unlike many western cultures where the marital relationships have collapsed. Indian philosophy believes in the peaceful resolution of conflicts in relationships and cementing bonds, rather than modern sensibility which implores one to break the ‘fetters’ and seek individual freedom. In Indian philosophy the individual must keep welfare of others before the ‘self’. This is the basic difference between the western and oriental philosophy.

The new woman must bring her man on the path of Dharma, whenever he falters. She must not become a doll. She must reflect her traditional pride, intellect and honour. She must be a sound educator. Her intelligence will be her shield and her sensibility- the guide. She must demand the familial rights bestowed upon her by her culture, and believe that life would be meaningless without the ideals of married life.  Ancient Indian traditions call for whole- hearted commitment from both the partners and the misdemeanour of one binds the other to destruction. This lack of commitment is leading to divorces, marital violence and suicides.

Ours is a country which treasured daughters. As the story of KingYayati, in Mahabharat goes, a Brahmin father relents to marry his daughter to a Kshatriya, despite the rigid caste system. There is no repression of female desire. This is in stark contrast to incidents of honour killings today. The West is infamous for its Witches! The story shows that thousands of years ago daughters were loved and pampered by their parents and not considered a burden as modern interpretations of Indian traditions want us to believe.

According to Indian traditions, a woman must be guarded, but because she is like a jewel, the pride and power (Shakti) of society. Our society’s cultural progress can be measured by the growth and development of our own sensibility, not by comparison with other cultures. What is correct for the West might devastate us. A woman is capable of achieving everything, but her perspective of rights and duties must be unbiased. Values are like endangered species. Preserved now, they shall preserve our future. And women were long back entrusted with this daunting but valuable duty. It’s time to welcome our own “new woman”.

Alka Jain is a doctorate in English Literature.

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