New York Times

New York Times

The editor of Room for Debate got in touch and asked me to write this piece

Respect the Sacred, Ignore the Sexism

Shoba Narayan
Shoba Narayan is a columnist and the author of two books: “Monsoon Diary” and “Return to India.
Updated January 8, 2013, 3:42 PM
I am a Hindu. I love my religion’s glorious and imaginative epic stories, in which seers chose the moment they die and goddesses kill the bad guy while riding a tiger. Within my family, I have Hindu role models who teach me how to conduct the pujas (prayers) and celebrate Hindu holidays.
That said, I still have vexing issues with certain aspects of Hinduism. Like most religions, it is patriarchal–something that the feminist in me deeply resents–and its rituals, though beautiful, can be tedious. But at the end of the day, the mantras, chanting, yoga and other Hindu traditions are what I know and cherish…and what I want to share with my children…but in a Hinduism-lite way.

I tell my daughters that religions are products of a certain era; they have outdated rules.

I believe that raising children within the broad precepts of a religion is good for them. Faith grounds them and gives them part of their identity. My hope is that it will help them later in life when life throws monkey-wrenches at them. I hope that chanting the mantras that they learned at home will give them the strength and resilience to deal with difficulties. Studies have shown that faith helps to preserve relationships, and enhance longevity, health and happiness.
Although Hinduism is an easy religion to follow—we don’t have to keep kosher or go on pilgrimages, for example–there are some constraints that continue to make me uncomfortable as the mother of two daughters. Sons have to cremate fathers, for instance, and mantras like the Rudram, a hymn in praise of Lord Shiva, are supposed to be chanted only by men.
Such sexist rules anger me. I combat them through disobedience. And I try not to expose my daughters to them. They don’t know, for example, that they are not supposed to chant the Rudram. They’ve certainly heard women in our community chant it enough times (and me attempt to chant it in bits and pieces). As for sons being in charge of cremating the parents, my daughters, at 16 and 11, are far too young to ponder this. Instead, we have tangential discussions. I tell my daughters that Hinduism–and indeed all religions—are products of a certain era. They all contain rules that are no longer relevant. They need to be reinterpreted to suit the times and our lives.
I want my girls to be strong women capable of anything. I want them to imbibe a faith that gives them strength but is also flexible enough to accommodate their dreams and circumstances. For now, Hinduism will do.

29 comments

  1. Wow this is a hot debate! Some are right and some are wrong. I don’t agree with many things in Hinduism and many other religions. As a woman my biggest peeve with Hinduism (was) child marriage but thankfully the law has taken care of it in most places. I think all religions espouse equality and belief in God, but people sometimes still carry an outdated view of it. It’s the people who should change I feel…

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    1. Thanks Naina. Let me use this space to park my comment.

      As a college debater, I relish a good debate as much as the next person. The points raised here are interesting. I find myself formulating arguments instead of attending to deadlines.:)

      But here’s the thing: I find that such debates are pointless. Especially those related to lightning rod issues: religion, sexuality, abortion, etc. We each are wedded to a point of view and it will take years to convert us.

      This does not mean that you cannot convince people to change their minds. But the method is not to berate or do a point-by-point counter-argument. The approach that seems to work is to take the tangential path. Now to the specifics below.

      Feel free to critique my work. But give me something to think about too!! Books to read, music, podcasts, whatever. The “You said this therefore you are that,” does nothing to change my mind.

      As moderator of the site, here’s what I am going to do.

      1. If I feel that people are just venting with respect to critiques, I am not going to respond.
      2. If I sense that they are open to other points of view, I will respond. A lot of this has to do with the tone of the writing.
      3. Clearly, I care about what gets said here, or else I would have just taken the moderator’s high-road and withdrawn instead of writing this.

      Thanks for all the suggestions/reading material. To help us take a chill pill, I recommend Sangam Tamil poetry from a site I frequent. It is called Karka-Nirka.org

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      1. Shoba I don’t think anyone berated you, or critiqued your work just for the sake of it. They have given a counterpoint or counterargument though. Your original article was written in “Room to Debate” so you got what you wanted I guess 🙂 If you have a strong argument then present the argument, it’s better than some other off-the-path reply. Too many of our sisters have left the field on spec! Girl power, yeah!

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  2. OK, so then you think “hijab” in Islam needs to be changed?
    You are confusing feminism with religion. If you don’t believe in some X in religion Y (whether Hindu or Islam doesn’t matter) then don’t follow it, but if you don’t understand the background of it then how can you dismiss it as [your favourite -ism]? I actually agree with Vinay w.r.t. my earlier post on ‘hijab’. The faith behind hijab is ‘total modesty’. In Hindu terms it is like “vegetarian” – a binary point. Lots of people call for hijab reform, but this is like you want to eat the fish and want to reinterpret “vegetarian” to include fish because that’s the flavor of the day. (Your so-called disobedience.) As I said about the RJ Sultana, you can’t go shopping for ‘halal’ when your money is ‘haram’. I really would hope a writer of your standing would do better than this.
    PS – I know the so called [feminist] in you may want to cry out that Islam is sexist etc. Many have that view and that’s OK. But at least do us the courtesy of understanding (e.g. reading and researching) the faith (yours or mine) before calling to change it. If not, then at least don’t take the double standard i.e. not understanding it and labeling it badly.

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    1. Dear Mohd:
      I think religion permeates our lives. Like culture and tradition, it is hard to separate religion from views on living– one of which is feminism. I know men who are feminist (not in this group :))
      I don’t understand the vegetarian fish concept either but these views are so personal and so bound to place, it is hard for us to judge.
      Islam fascinates me. I am not calling to change the faith (gosh, wish I had that kind of power). I only am interpreting it to suit my life.
      I do read religious texts but do not claim an expertise like some of you here. But as I said, knowledge and interpretation are two different things. Even scholars debate points in religion.

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      1. FYI it is those that “interpret” with anger that end up making it more violent etc. (You know what I mean.)

        Your piece calls Hinduism “sexist” – that is an accusation, not an interpretation. My point, which is not a debating point BTW, is that you first understand it in detail before labeling it “sexist”. You can’t say you “interpret” X as “sexist” when you don’t know what X really is. The problem then would be in your interpretation. To say that your label “sexist” is a “feminist” interpretation of X implies X could mean just about anything. How about “I find traffic lights sexist because they are not colored pink, so I will reinterpret red – my pink – to mean go.”

        Your points would be more cogent if you actually demonstrated some understanding of what the religion actually says, instead of just saying “you find it sexist”. Many people hold the incorrect view that Islam (as an example) is a “violent” faith – but they have interpreted it wrongly and they have not really understood it. So my point (and Vinay’s too) is to at least read and research it before “interpreting” it your way.

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  3. Dear Shoba,
    Thanks for your reply. Yes, my mother was an amazing woman. Another point that I would like to raise is the matriarchal ‘transfer of property’ from mother to daughter and so on…., as in Kerala.

    When I was born, four years after my parents got married, my maternal grandmother who was from Palakkad was dissapointed that ‘I was a ponu’ (daughter). However, my paternal grandmother, who hailed from Kerala, was thrilled that ‘I was a ponnu (jewel in Malayalam).

    Not all is lost – there is still a lot of hope for women!

    Warm regards
    Jayanthi

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  4. I think you are missing the point.

    Religion is a combination of beliefs and rituals/observances. Doing the ritual (e.g. puja or sloka or fasting) without understanding the belief is useless. Many people fall into the trap of attacking the ritual e.g. “why should I wear a sari when going to temple, I will wear shorts” without understanding the belief i.e. one must be suddha, smarana, namrata to go to temple. The belief – to be clean and humble – is what drives the dress.

    A philosopher friend of mine gave the example of someone who said “mathematics is outdated” because some of its rituals (e.g. using slide rule to calculate logarithms) are obsolete. The instrument did not define the math behind it.

    Chanting mantras/slokas without understand the meaning or belief behind them is pointless. All slokas have their roots in Sruti/Smrti and the real strength of reciting them is in their “ghanam” or final intonation. Certain slokas e.g. Lalita Sahasranamam, Soundarya Lahiri have greater affinity and benefit for women; Rudram Chamakam has greater affinity for men. Think of this as parts in a symphony where Rudram is a bass and Lalita Sahasranam is a soprano. Women saying Rudram is (the inverse) of men singing falsetto. It can be done, but it will sound, literally and spiritually, unnatural and toneless. Said another way, women who want to say Rudram are like women wanting to dress up like Rama in Ramayana. It is not defiant or rebellious, just silly. (As a technical point, Hindu theology does permit certain women e.g. rishi/r-patnis who have got, after long and rigorous training, the ghanam to properly intone things like Rudram.)

    What everyone – men, women and children – should do is really understand the beliefs of Hinduism e.g. samkhya, dhyana, karma and moksha. These are explained very well in the Gita. Though it is not for me to say, your children (really all children) will greatly benefit from studying Gita with a trained and age-accessible peer teacher. These beliefs are what can guide us when we are faced with decisions or difficulties or dilemmas in life. Remember that Gita itself starts with a real example, the despondency of Arjuna.

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    1. Vinay: you make good points, but you miss my fundamental point which is this: All religions are a product of the time that they were created in. They need to be reinterpreted to suit current times.

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      1. Your point is fine, your conclusion should be restated is all.

        To say “religion is a product of ” is like saying “trigonometry is a product of the 5th century”. Yes, trigonometry was invented at that time, but its theorems are actually timeless and need no further reinterpretation. Yes, we have changed from the old rituals (using sextants or shadowsticks) to new ones (using computers) – as we should.

        Religion = belief + ritual. Beliefs are timeless (and this is regardless of when they were created) but the rituals should change.

        For example “4 days” – the “ritual” – must be reinterpreted. But the belief behind it e.g. “anushtana” is timeless and needs no reinterpretation. Technical point here is that the separation was required in those days to prevent contact with the other “anushtana” activities. For example the layout of most houses was with a central compound (with sacred tulasi plant) and surrounding rooms. And back then the “vaidhikas” would perform “trikala agnihotra” which basically means sacred puja three or four times a day – and would be walking back and forth across the courtyards. “4 day” women would remain in one room so as to not accidentally bump into them. In modern times nobody does “agnihotra”. The point behind “no cooking” is not “it is a rest period”. Point is that food cooked first goes to “naivaidyam” and that is why a “4 day” woman cannot cook. As a purely theoretical point, if a family had separate kitchen and vessels i.e. complete “agni” separation, then women can cook whatever they want in their section.

        Nowadays when most families don’t do any “naivaidyam” or “agnihotra” anyway then there is no point of keeping “4 day” ritual and obviously women can do whatever they want.

        Some alacritous women may question “why separate anyway”. Hindu belief considers all bodily discharge (even saliva) as unclean. As an example if you accidentally drooled then you have to wash it off (technically full ‘snana’) before you get back to “anushtana” activities. That “4 day” period, by definition, is continuously unclean until after it passes and the woman performs ‘snana’.

        Simply raving against a “ritual” does not negate or affect the “belief” behind it. I am actually arguing that the “ritual” must be changed. But that doesn’t mean the belief is outdated.

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      2. I hope the value of these little expositions (as little as they may be) make up for the space they take on this blog…

        The deal with women in smasana (cemetery) is a twofold point. The first point is that the ‘atman’ (technically ‘preta’) hangs around for about 10 days after cremation until the ‘ottavan’ (lone brahmin) provides it with the necessary supplies to start moving up. Vibrations from this ‘preta’ (added with the very bad vibrations of the slokas at that time) are worst harmful to any woman esp to the womb. (Remember that Abhimanyu was able to imbibe part of the “Chakravyuha” method while still in his mother’s womb.) Some women may argue “they don’t intend to have [any more] children” but this is also pointless because of their husband.

        The second point is that people often incorrectly think the “smasana” is the final journey. Not so. Smasana is just “buying the ticket”. The final journey is on days 9,10,11 when women in the house have a critical role (e.g. first service to the seated ‘preta’). Again some women will argue they don’t just want to serve but they want to recite those mantras also. This is patently stupid – those mantras are purely male because of their glottal nature and women attempting to say them will actually confuse the ‘preta’ carrier. (Think about giving or taking directions when your throat is full of water.) In fact this whole ritual is morbid even for men.

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        1. What a load of bull, Vinay. To associate the male voice with mantras is patently chauvinistic. I am sure the original Vedic priests who were men used this theory to state that only males could say certain things. To say that the ritual is “morbid even for men” assumes that men can stand certain things that women cannot. It is patently sexist/

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          1. Nonsense. At least do your research before you write your post. You don’t need to believe me, go read Taittreya Samhita (2 chapters on tonality). By your logic every acapella group and every Hamlet play is “chauvinistic” or “sexist”. To say “morbid even for men” is just highlighting the morbid, not comparing what men or women can stand vis a vis each other.
            Someone once said “no zealot like a convert”. I guess it holds for writers too…

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            1. Vinay:
              I have no issues with heated debate– have done enough of it in the playground as a kid. I also enjoy your views in my site.
              But I don’t think we are going to convince each other. Our views are too divergent.
              Just as you encourage me to read Taittreya Samhita, please read feminist history. Why was Berthe Morisot the only female impressionist painter? Was it because of the power structure of the time or because there were no other women painters? Ditto for Shakespeare.
              I am going to take a time-out now.

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              1. Huh?

                I suggested you read T.S. because it contains a very good answer to your point re “associate male voice to mantras is chauvinistic”. I am not even sure what element (more precisely which “wave” – suffrage, interbellum, Title XIV) of feminism speaks to this. I’d like to remind you that even Friedan and Steinem focused their efforts on (their own words) pragmatic feminism i.e. political and social reforms, never religious. “Religious” in this sense btw is not about the ability to attend church or temple or practice. (FYI I am the Treasurer and Webmaster of a prominent Womens Lib group in NYC and am quite up on all my feminist literature.)

                There are, however, some nutjob feminist groups that call to equate Mary with God the Father or Begum Khadija with Muhammad. Their meetings, however, always occur in the same hall as the meetings of the Flat Earth Society. Real feminists rubbish such nonsense discussions and go back to real issues like paid family leave and fully funded mammograms.

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  5. Dear Shoba,

    What really vexes me about Hinduism is that only the men are allowed to accompany their parents to the cremation ground or an electric crematorium. I lost my mother to lymphoma last year – she was one of the most dynamic woman I have ever met – always brimming with self-confidence and boundless energy.

    She actively fought against male chauvinism. She was very blessed to have a husband who fought alongside with her. The day she passed away, my sister and sister-in-law accompanied my father, uncle, and cousins to the electric crematorium. We knew that she would have wanted us to be there for her onward journey.

    Although, our hearts were very broken, we felt that we had done the right thing and that the Supreme being was very proud of us, all!

    Warm regards
    Jayanthi Sankaran

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    1. Agreed, Ms. Jayanthi, as Shobha alludes in her write-up , age old practices formulated thousands of years ago need to be reviewed and moderated to suit our present day needs – Supreme Being would definitely concur and if practically feasible would endorse them. In our family too all our women folk attended funerals , even in days of traditional cremation ( without electric facilities) … Even when there are no boys in the immediate family ( one of Shobha’s concern) , Sanatana Dharma has provided amply to carry on with the post- death process ( I.e. cremation, post cremation ceremonies etc) … and any way in these days of electric cremation – who performs the cremation – the person who is minding the platform to push the body in to the furnace anyway !

      Rendered Gayathri, Rudram etc. are also permitted – well known vedantins like Swami Dayananda has approved the practice … in our family , We ensured that girls in the family always got their fair share … Let us be forward looking and adapt Santana Dharmic principles as judiciously as are possible. Let our girls be embodiments/ beacons of Sakthi, Lakshmi and Saraswathi – apostles of valour, wealth and knowledge . Let not the perceived short comings be held against Sanatana Dharma but let us evolve with the times and adapt to the situation as deem fit. Kind Regards. Raghava.

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      1. # arranged maarrige ! more like being matched by affectionate aunts. and what is wrong with that. among anglo saxon upper classes to bring two common friends together to a sit down meal hoping they will hit it off is not unknown. the working classes meet up at watering holes. among the educated classes for young people to work so hard at college that they did not have time to date seriously is not unusual. and then the demands of clerking for a justice, evaluating bonds or the long hours of surgical residency leave many successful people with little social skills or the felicity of witty observations. and there are the quiet ones who cringe at the idea of dating mr witty remarks convinced that below that he may in all probability be a deeply insecure person.

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  6. Totally agree. Until a few years ago, Hindu law did not consider daughters as legal heirs to property; also the only religion that treats women as ‘untouchables’ – 4 days a month. But having said that, given a choice between other religions, I’d still choose to be a Hindu.

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    1. Dear Ms. Deepa, the “so- called four days of untouchability ” was more of a “protection ” to a woman than be considered as “untouchable” for those three / four days – a practice which was easily implementable when families lived under one roof and other folks were around to take care of the domestic front and gave the woman much deserved “earned leave” from domestic chores … Men folk enjoy ” casual / earned ” leave from their official chores!
      Does it apply to the 20/21 century nucleus families where one is on the run 24×7 to earn a livelihood, run the home etc … Definitely not … Every so- called rule had a context / perspective… These days We have no luxury of listening to experiences of grand / great-grand mothers these days …(a good number of them have been transferred to retirement homes ) … Being brought up by grand mothers has its own advantages too ( as yours
      truly experienced during his childhood!) … Kind Regards. Raghava

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  7. Dear Shobha, this is Raghava – Ananth’s friend from S’pore. We met two years ago at B’lore. I appreciate your writings.

    How come you call Hinduism ( let’s try to back to its old order – Sanatana Dharma) – patriarchal – where Sakthi plays a predominant role in the scheme of things in our scriptures as well as deities Lakshmi and Saraswathi and a host of other famous characters in our epics …
    Hope I’ve not offended you … If so my sincere apologies…Kind Regards. Raghava.

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    1. Dear Raghava:
      I’ve been reading your responses to the comments here with interest. Your observations are very valid. My mother taught me the ‘four days’ during the monthly cycle as four days of rest too. I guess the only thing I can say is that when you are a Hindu woman and you think differently, there comes a point when you are up to the gills with all the double standards– how come there are no women Hindu priests for example, if we worship Sakthi? Christianity has women priests. So anyway, what you are hearing here from the women is the “I’ve had it” moment. Kind regards and hope you are well. No offense taken and I hope none given.

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      1. Thanks for the understanding, Shobha- absolutely no offenses at all … and I’m glad that your mother agrees with my views … my kind regards / namaskarams to her … Agree that double standards and hipocracy of any shade is totally unacceptable but they exist in the humanity in so many hues / shades … we shouldn’t be carrying them in our psyche … by the way at my home my wife is our priest … let us start the preisthood in our order at our homes and soon they’ll be in Srivilliputthur( Andal’s home – being Margahzhi Masam and a temple for a female deity) to Sriperumbudur … 6000 or more years of practice takes perhaps a little longer time to erase than recently found orders who could build over the older orders and improve on them without the disdavantage of a baggage to shoulder … we already have a number of female vedantins who go around the world giving superb pravachanams – you must listen to Ms. Poornima Ji at Sri Sri Muralidhara Swamiji’s Ashram – she is superb … who knows a new priest in the making … and she is hardly 30! these are our proxy “priests” if you wish … change is bound to happen … Kind Regards. Raghava.

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      2. As someone said before Hinduism actually does permit women to become priests. I’m not sure how many women will choose to devote their adolescent years to vedic training. It’s the same thing like not-enough-women as CEOs or doctors or lawyers. A lot of women do actually choose to take a different path. The profession is not the problem. People have to change their view.

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        1. This is again a long debate. Most of the priests I know come into the profession through their fathers. I am wondering if these fathers would ask their daughters to follow in their footsteps. Doubt it.

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          1. But “do [enough] fathers ask daughters” is a very different question than “does Hinduism permit it”. The “fathers” question is a societal problem. It’s very similar to women CEOs. Most fathers want their daughters to have a good life and good education and good family etc. In fact even lots of women CEOs (lately Facebook’s Sandberg) themselves say that it is a personal choice for each woman. They don’t say every woman should become a CEO.

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