Empowerment of Hindu Women in Scholarship
by Rajiv Malhotra
Over the past few decade’s feminist ideas have to a great extent succeeded in bringing to the fore women’s issues in the Western world. It is now proposed that these ideas are to be extended to other areas of the world. Western feminism now seeks to speak for the women who hail from the non-western cultural and religious world as well. What western feminism fails to identify is of course that the status and role of women in Hindu religious culture and civilization has been very different from that of the Western world -where Semitic ideas have played a great role. Western Feminism also claims that it is relevant to the needs and issues that are important to Hindu women in general. This claim to universality will have to be considered very carefully, so as to ascertain whether the claim is reasonable or merely culturally chauvinistic.
The academic fields of Religious Studies, Asian Studies, and Social Studies have a large number of women when it comes to specializing in Hinduism studies, many of them often tend to be devout Christians, strong ideological feminists and occasionally women of Indian origin who tend to hold strident anti-Hindu views. This pronounced asymmetry in numerical strength between those who speak for western religions/ideologies and those who hold Hindu values and culture shows up in the form of Hindu-bashing at human rights seminars, feminist events, religious and social studies conferences.
In American academia, Hinduism has been projected as being responsible for abuse of women. Social ills attributed to Hinduism include sati, female infanticide, dowry deaths, supposed inferiority of Hindu women, caste, and so forth. While these are valid research topics, they do not present the whole picture.
Hindu women’s issues are stereotyped and politicized. They are often taken out of context and are rarely compared to women’s conditions in poor Christian countries or Western nations. Environmental problems in contemporary India are seen as rooted in India’s traditions, rather than as an acute phenomenon that has particularly come into prominence over the past 150 years only. The focus is on caste, cows and curry. Indian philosophical and religious traditions, political institutions, vast cultural influence, maritime reach, civil engineering, scientific and rational thinking is ignored. The motive is to justify the case that globalization equals Westernization – the indigenous cultures are positioned as chronically and systemically flawed. What is rarely presented is that most social ills are either caused by or at least exacerbated by poverty. No historical background of invasions and colonization is presented.
While serious scholars act responsibly, in many instances Hinduism is depicted as merely meaningless superstitious rituals. Kali is used to depict scary images and deployed to indicate a negative and violent religion. Simplistic logic is used – Shiva is evil because he is the destroyer and because destruction is evil. Animal symbolism is interpreted to indicate animal worship, or animism.
In contrast to the serious scholars are others who subvert Hinduism by depicting it as an unscientific tradition lacking rational tendencies, compared to superior western intellectual traditions and ideologies. To dismiss Hinduism, it is sometimes portrayed as ‘world negating’ and socially backward, compared to the ‘rational’ West. It is said to exploit the underclass. Karma theory is interpreted as fatalism and as accepting one’s plight rather than taking responsibility. Hindu society is depicted as having been intrinsically poor throughout its history, without factoring in the massive destruction its academic institutions, multiple invasions and the decimation of its infrastructure by colonialists. All of India’s ills are too often placed on Hinduism. By using such one sided and prejudiced views, Hindu tradition and culture is seen in a distorted manner by young students.
This distorted projection of Hinduism has far reaching consequences. Hindu women scholars are under subtle pressure to distance themselves from their own culture and values.
The U.S. State Department during the Cold War created and funded many ‘Area Studies’ to contain the Soviet threat. One of these areas has been the `South Asian’ area. This ‘South Asian’ terminology is now used as a pretext to submerge and drown the concerns and issues that face Hindu women. Hindu women have their own issues and priorities that are different from those of other women in South Asia who belong to non Indic religions. However, since being ‘Hindu’ is projected as being backward and retrograde, many women are forced into the rubric of a ‘South Asian’ identity and have to give up their Hindu values and culture to be accepted. Raised Hindu and Indian at home, many Hindu women have become ‘South Asians’ on entering college – an identity concocted in the past 25 years!
Also, the recent politics in India has served as a welcome pretext for academicians to bash Hindus. Any person who calls herself or himself a Hindu and who questions any theory or misrepresentation of India or Hinduism by Western scholars is to be labeled as a fanatic and dismissed. The result has been that there is no dialogue or interaction. Hindu women in particular have to hide their Hindu identity and accept western ideologies in order to be accepted.
Hindu women have traditionally been the parent who passes down traditions, values, culture, and spirituality to children. Unlike many other religions, Hinduism has had a large number of women who have been major religious leaders, and many Hindu women have risen to prominence in all walks of life – facts conveniently skipped by many modern textbooks. With this neglect from its own scholars, Western Academics have found it very convenient to project their own view of Hinduism and Hindu women.
Because of all the reasons cited above, there is a need to establish a forum where Hindu women can find a voice of their own – a forum where Hindu women can interact, discuss issues important to them and project their own unique perspectives, rather than accept ideologies that have been forced upon them.
Many Latin and African women have already launched their own women’s movements that challenge this Western feminist hegemonic campaign to mold all women of the world as per some set Western ideology. Some Hindu intellectuals’ voices have also emerged individually in recent times. Professor Usha Menon of Drexel University, in the Fall 2000 issue of Daedalus magazine, has an excellent paper on how Western feminism’s attempt to portray Hindu women does not speak for most Hindu women – an article that has caused flack from Western feminists. It explains the history of how the colonialists manipulated the Manusmriti text into a tool for governance, including the downgrading of Hindu women. Many other Hindu women have broken away from this power structure and are also demanding self-representation.
The Infinity Foundation proposes a Hindu Women’s Think-Tank. This would be non-political, free to borrow ideas from the left and the right, and also free to criticize both. While politicians will come and go, Hinduism is too vast to be contained inside any political ideology. Many well-intended thinkers in the past have hoped to use politics as a distribution channel to spread their ideas, but in the long run this approach is a sellout to the politicians instead. (As an example from another religion, many historians of Christianity feel that while Christians felt glad that they had converted the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, in fact, it was Rome in the long run that ended up appropriating Christianity and remolding it into a tool for control.) Furthermore, why should free thinking women be held responsible to explain every (mis)deed of one or another political group, and why should irrelevant issues to be used by their opponents as distractions from the main items they wish to focus on in a given situation? In other words, why carry someone else’s baggage around? By no means would this proposed think-tank fight or oppose any political side. It would be an independent voice – in the same manner as Ralph Nader was before he unfortunately entered politics.
Among its activities would be the following:
- It would participate in at least 5 academic panels each year. These would include conferences ranging from religious studies, women’s issues, human rights, South Asian studies, anthropology and other relevant fields. The objective would be to provide a Hindu voice as opposed to letting the portrayal be defined and dominated by others, many with their own ideological agendas.
- It would provide mentoring to young women scholars so that they can maintain their self-esteem and do not have to give up their values while seeking legitimacy, emotional/intellectual support, or advancement in their careers.
- It would encourage high quality research and publish the results. This would include awards and grants to promote authentic portrayals from within the traditions.
- It would also challenge stereotypes and review writings and books.
The Infinity Foundation would evaluate proposals to provide the initial funding and guidance for this. Basing it in India with affiliates elsewhere would make it cost effective, would allow harnessing the huge talent there, would bring greater authenticity as compared to Western-based scholarship, and most of all it would strengthen the Hindu culture at its own roots. It is hoped that such a project would become a worldwide one with centers everywhere.
Comments and suggestions on this initiative are welcome. Please contact: Rajiv.Malhotra@att.net.