Religion And Women’s Rights: Can They Ever Go Together?

Posted: March 4, 2014

Are religion and women’s rights in India incompatible? Swami Vivekananda, whose 150th birth anniversary was celebrated recently believed differently.

Whether it is the rural housewife keeping to her fasts and prayers, or the urban woman scheduling time for meditation courses off and on, women are very much the engine that drives religion in India. They have been for ages. Without the faith of the average mother/ wife/sister, would places of worship germinate at every corner? Or, would they grow popular enough to sustain the livelihoods of the priests who depend on them? It is the women flocking to these places, whether out of superstition, devotion, or compulsion, who roll the juggernaut of religion on.

And yet, somewhat depressingly, women are also crushed by it. The religious disciplines that women adhere to, do not seem to compensate them in terms of tangible privileges. By privileges, I mean simply basic humanistic rights.  The constitution does guarantee them. But, in a society as saturated with religion as India’s, it is hard to effect real change without implicating religion in some measure. Yet, religion, at first impression seems antithetical to women’s rights.

Indian women today are in the thick of this flux. On one hand, they are being pushed or pulled into the outdoors, as learners, workers, and educators. On the other hand, India is becoming infamous internationally for its crimes against women, skewered gender ratio, and deep rooted gender biases.

Taking Hinduism as an example: age old laws and texts are used to buttress the most reactionary, and violent institutions of this society. Khap panchayats, sati pratha, or any other forms of organised misogyny – all cite religion (read tradition) as an authority. One prime textual source informing the misogynistic attitudes of Indian society is the Manusmriti. Here are some quotations, which many would recognise:

It is the nature of women to seduce men in this world; for that reason the wise are never unguarded in the company of females.

“Girls are supposed to be in the custody of their father when they are children, women must be under the custody of their husband when married and under the custody of her son as widows. In no circumstances is she allowed to assert herself independently.

Earlier generations of women learned to either submit or negotiate with these codes. But now, increasing awareness of women’s rights mandates that these repressive laws/attitudes be set aside, and if they are an inviolate aspect of the religion one is born in, then perhaps religion as a whole has to be set aside. Or else the result will be a pervasive spiritual schizophrenia. If women are emancipated, how can they be religious; and if women are religious, how can they also truly be emancipated?

Religion is east, liberty is west, and never the twain shall meet. Or so it seems.

Swami Vivekananda, however, would argue against such a conclusion. In fact, the mainspring of his teachings presented spirituality as the soundest foundation for modern humanistic values, not excluding women’s rights.

Who was Swami Vivekananda? And how did a spiritual teacher become an advocate for the rights of women?

Born in 1863, his birthday is today celebrated as the National Youth Day all over India. In 1893, he represented Hinduism at the Parliament of Religions organised in Chicago. Though not the only Indian representative at the parliament, he was the one to take American by storm. The newspapers titled him, ‘the Cyclonic Hindu Monk.’ Before leaving for America, he had undertaken a pilgrimage across the country, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, and had been aghast at the condition of the masses. He saw firsthand the social malignancies prospering like tumors on the national body.

Being the erudite scholar of eastern and western philosophies as he was, this left him thunderstruck. No school of philosophy provided any reasonable basis for the assertion of these evils. As a brother to six sisters, he was also deeply sensitive to the problems of women. And as a staunch Vedantin, he was steadfast in his perception of all humanity as divine; to him, women were manifestations of the Divine Mother, always worthy of deep regard.

When he travelled to America, the rights and freedoms of the women in that country made a huge impression on him. It angered him to compare the women of his country with this one. Charged with emotion, he wrote to one of his brother monks, Swami Ramakrishnanda:

Great God! I am struck with wonderment at seeing the women of America. . .
 “त्वं श्रीस्त्वमीश्वरी त्वं ह्रीः — Thou art the Goddess of Fortune, Thou art the supreme Goddess, Thou art Modesty” , “या देवी सर्वभूतेषु शक्तिरूपेण संस्थिता — The Goddess who resides in all beings as Power”  — all this holds good here. There are thousands of women here whose minds are as pure and white as the snow of this country. And look at our girls, becoming mothers below their teens!! Good Lord! I now see it all. Brother, “यत्र नार्यस्तु पूज्यन्ते रमन्ते तत्र देवताः — The gods are pleased where the women are held in esteem” — says the old Manu. We are horrible sinners, and our degradation is due to our calling women “despicable worms”, “gateways to hell”, and so forth. Goodness gracious! There is all the difference between heaven and hell!! . . .
Is that a religion, or the devil’s dance? 

He saw that all the enervating aspects of religion had been planted in the soil of this country’s consciousness. Women and other underprivileged sections had harvested the bitter fruits. Swami Vivekananda brought the practical and energising aspects of religion to the fore. Making tradition, and knowledge, and sterling spiritual realisation his foundation he targeted those traditions which made religion an aid to hypocrisy and debauchery. But his method was an affirmative one. He wanted to educate the masses, broadcast his ideas, so that every Indian could reclaim their true stature.

As he once wrote to a young British lady named Margaret Noble:

“My ideal can indeed be put into a few words and that is: to preach unto mankind their divinity, and how to make it manifest in every movement of their life.”

His words proved life-changing for Margaret Noble. She came to India, took the vows of lifelong celibacy and the name of Sister Nivedita. True to her new name, she dedicated herself to working for women. She built, and ran one of the first schools for girls in Kolkata, braving superstition and triumphing over local hostility.

So much for a single figure with radical feminist beliefs, one might say. But it is organised religion that quarrels with women’s rights, religion that relegates women to the backrooms.

Not so. Swami Vivekananda taught that organised religion is formed in several strata. The bedrock elements of philosophy, which are vital to its existence, are superimposed by secondary crusts of socio-moral codes which are formulated according to the age. These are different from each other. And where the philosophy is elemental, the dharma or codes must adapt to change.

So in Hinduism, the Vedantic philosophy is central. But dogma such as the laws of Manu, are secondary, and deserve to be eroded by time. New principles must settle in their place, in alignment with the basic ideals of Vedanta which say, as the Swami was fond of quoting:

Tvam Stri Tvam Pumanasi
Tvam Kumar Ut Va Kumari
(You are woman, man you are also
You are the boy, also you are the girl)

The ideal is of divinity immanent in the universe, and especially manifest in humanity. Practised thus, how can religion prove hostile to the rights of women? And if one does not practise religion with this spirit, then is one still religious?

A spiritual woman ought to be a strong woman free to achieve self determination. Just as a woman who has achieved true self determination, will be truly aligned with her spirit. Highlighting this possibility, not just of reconciliation, but of mutual reinforcement was one of the great achievements of Swami Vivekananda. Spirituality ought to engineer new values for a new age, and women had every right to take part in it.

All quotations sourced from www.vivekananda.org; image of Vivekananda courtesy www.ramakrishna.org

Skendha recently graduated with a Masters in Writing Practice and Study. The written word is

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1 Comment


  1. Every one in the World has one thinking that some unknown power is balancing the nature.
    This unknown, unseen power and the creator of universe is known as GOD. This God is existing only because of the faith which the ladies have. The ladies of India has the power to control GOD because of her true nature of worshiping.

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