The challenge for women in India’s 70th year of independence is to learn from the women of the past, and take inspiration as it is due and appropriate.
It is 70 years since 15 August 1947. The date is significant, not only for the departure of a colonial power, but also as a new dawn for signalling the reawakening of the oldest civilisation.
It may not be wrong to say that a latter-day Indic renaissance is now slowly under way. The elephant moves, but almost imperceptibly.
There is inchoate hunger, even confusion and despair; neither the past nor the future is very clear, and for women, there are, perhaps, as many reasons to despair as to cheer.
Who is the Bhartiya nari? Is she the demure Meena Kumari with a red bindi and pallu draped over her head or the svelte abs-revealing Deepika Padukone, or Priyanka Chopra’s evil Victoria Leeds of the 21st century? Is she the tragic Nirbhaya, the hustler Niira Radia; Indira Gandhi; the murdered Sunanda Pushkar; Sania Mirza or the victim of an honour killing?
How do we make sense of the chaos in India — where the ancient civilisation lives parallel, in several different ages, and where every woman is a palimpsest of past history? Can we draw some essence, an Indic model culled from the confusion of centuries which will help us move forward?
In Indic terms, the purvapaksha or the established narrative is that we need to break free from centuries-old shackles and embrace “progressive”, “feminist”, mostly Western views of the feminine. Going to the past for inspiration, as to the future, is anathema to this way of thinking.
Let us present the uttarapaksha — a critique of the rejection of all that is ancient and traditional. It is a fact that a plethora of regressive practices are sought to be defended in the name of that much invoked chimera — “Indian Culture”; centuries-old traditions which must be carried on at all costs. A deeper examination will bear out the fact that many of these ideas are anything but ancient, often toxic Islamic or Victorian imports from India’s vast history of invasion and colonisation painted on the basic bedrock of Indic practices.
Within the scope of a short article, consideration of a few aspects of society, polity and culture will be illustrative here.
A note before we begin the specifics. Not much can be said about the millennia-old civilisation on the banks of the Sindhu and Saraswati rivers until the script is deciphered. However, from the physical remains, seals, terracotta figurines etc, the centrality of the feminine principle seems to be indicated. There are more female figurines than male ones and the worship of a mother goddess is evidenced, which, of course, carries on till this day.
Now to the specifics. Education, first. The upanayan ceremony figures in the popular imagination as a religious and caste marker, but it started as a marker of the entry into the stage of education for a child. In the earliest days, both men and women were entitled to it.
The Rig Veda mentions women rishis and their lineages, which pre-supposes education. The sanhitas of the Krishna Yajurveda discuss the birth, education and bringing up and marriage of girls in detail. They recommend sending both boys and girls to gurukuls. The Manusmriti, that much maligned text, gives the education of the girl child an honourable mention.
If we wish to glean evidence from other sources, old plays in Sanskrit and sculptures up to the medieaval age depict education of women and even the upanayan thread sometimes. Over the centuries, this focus was diluted for reasons beyond the scope of this article. Would it not make sense to draw from this tradition of educating women?
Another interesting area full of many complexities is the area of clothing. In the Indic tradition, there have basically been two pieces of unstitched cloth, the uttariya for the upper body and the antariya for the lower body worn by both sexes and embellished with jewellery, decoration etc as per gender, individual inclinations, region and current fashion. This dress was gender neutral, advantage women, and its descendants continue to be worn up to this day. It was worn in innumerable different styles often designed to show women’s bodies rather than hide them. Women could use the drape to reveal or conceal as they would.
Today, dress is often gender neutral but women have adopted western male dress as the default — uncomfortable, warm and unsuited to our climes, as a power dressing statement; advantage men, one would say.
What about individual freedoms, the agency to take one’s own decisions and lead life as desired?
Education as a prerequisite has been noted above. During Vedic times, there is evidence to show that girls studied up to the age of 16 or 17, then were exhorted to choose a suitable life partner and establish a household, which they would take forward as the grihapatni with a grihapati.
Those who did not wish to do so, became brahmavadinis, pursued their studies and remained single. Sulabha, who crossed intellectual swords with Raja Janak, is a well known example.
Women who became householders were at the head of the welfare of their families and had to be knowledgeable in diverse areas including medicine, to run their households. They decided on the disposition of household resources. As the home was the locus of certain ancient industries such as textiles, they also contributed to economic activity in their micro capacities.
It may be noted that apart from the maintenance of the household fire and the rituals associated with this, married women also had the right to perform Vedic yajnas. Kaushalya, Seeta and Tara are three famous examples of mantravids who had this adhikaar.
As far as freedoms are concerned, a burning issue is that of sexual freedom, the questions of sex, marriage, the single state and choice of partners.
Let me start with a consideration of kama, one of the four purusharthas of human life. It refers to all the pleasures of existence with special reference to the pleasures of sex. Eroticism runs in the veins of the Indic fabric and the Indic woman. The Kamasutra is a manual for refined living and sensuous pleasures written well before the common era. Kama or desire is a human energy which the Kamasutra teaches us to channelise to maximum effect, whether relations are heterosexual or homosexual. It casts a measured eye on the art of sex and generally refrains from value judgements. Its voice is gender neutral in many cases; women have agency and a primary role.
It is said that the seventh book was in fact commissioned by the courtesans or ganikas of Pataliputra.
Of the eight forms of marriage, the gandharva vivaaha was the result of the independent choices of the two people concerned. Remaining single was a choice of brahmavadinis and female ascetics.
Stories, whether oral or written, are a reflection of society. Whether it is Kumarasambhavam or Sillapatikaram, Gatha Saptasai, Nachiar Thirumozhi, Geeta Govinda or the Manucharitramulu, one would be challenged to find more beautiful, sensual and lyrical examples of eroticism with men and women on an equal footing; again, advantage women.
If we now have a prudish Victorian attitude to sex as a national characteristic, blame it on Victoria Regina, whose subjects subjected us for centuries and added layers of alien values over what has been an Indic characteristic. Islamic attitudes to women and sex too were in stark contrast to Indic ones.
I must add the caveat — the followers of Gautama Buddha also negated the erotic and the feminine and this was an internal paradoxical stream. Read, for instance, the Manimegalai, which focuses on only “proving” that following Buddhist tenets will lead to spiritual salvation.
There is the great story cluster of the Bada Kaha, which was written in paisachi prakrit and holds up a mirror to ancient India and women in the multi-faceted roles they filled. Royal women, poor women, merchant women and servant women, all abound and live their lives with verve, gusto and independence.
Take the story of Kalingasena of Takshashila, who conceived a passion for the far off King of Vatsa, Udayan, travelled to offer herself in marriage to him, was seduced by a one-night stand while waiting for an answer and stayed to have a daughter, whom she married to the son of her erstwhile object of desire!
The purvapaksha and the uttarapaksha have had their say. The nirnaya, or some sort of conclusion now.
We have much to learn from the women of the past, even if some may disagree. This requires prudence and deep thought, not a slavish adherence; adapting with the times has been a fixed characteristic of Indic civilisation and so must we take inspiration as it is due and appropriate.
This is no easy task. How is this to be done? Can we go back to the past for inspiration? Is it even possible?
Can we be inspired today by the wisdom of Lopamudra, Sulabha and Gargi, the poetry of Vijjika or Avantisundari, the mathematics taught to Leelavati, the spiritualism of the Avaiyars and Sree Andal, the valour of Kaikeyi or Chitrangada or Rani Laxmibai, the resolution of Seeta and Savitri, the political acumen of Didda and Rudramadevi, the honour of Kannagi and Padmini, the courage of Draupadi to fight adversity?
It requires a switch, an introspection and societal consensus on many thorny issues. If the Indian woman is to reach her true potential, find her own peculiar genius to conquer the world, we will need all these and more. This is the challenge of 2017, the 70th anniversary of India’s Independence.