“There is a total and complete disrespect for women in Indian religious scriptures. The Mahabharata, Book 13 Section 40 (13.40), states, “There is no creature more sinful, than woman. She is poison, she is snake.” Other texts say that “Women are living lies” — The Daily Beast, March 24, 2016
It is true that one may find passages that portray women negatively in Hindu texts, just as in the scripture of every other religious tradition. However, insinuating that the denigration of women is a focus of Hindu teachings and that select passages are part of the tradition’s key teachings is egregiously blindered in regards to the central, deeper message of Hindu thought — that all of existence is Divine regardless of its outer characteristics. It also ignores entirely the reality that Hindu women are respected as pillars of religious life, as well as the fact that Hinduism has always had a profound tradition of worshipping the Divine in feminine form and today is the single example among the world’s largest traditions where the Divine Feminine is revered.
Moreover, selective lifting of passages shortchanges the average reader of the necessary context that the full storyline and countless subplots of the Mahabharata, a text of nearly 100,000 verses, provides. Bhishma, the character to whom the quote is attributed, is a celibate as a result of a vow he had to take when his father made certain promises in order to marry the woman he had fallen in love with. And according to some tellings, Bhishma also had a boon in which he was blessed to essentially be invincible, but would die at the hands of a woman. These are only two episodes that could provide the reader broader insight as to the possible intent of the character as well as historical context.
More importantly, the Mahabharata features many women who are deeply revered. Savitri and Amba, for example, are featured in the epic performing rituals while reciting from the Vedas — an activity that is both respectable and respected because of the level of knowledge and austerities it requires. Then there are stories about female characters such as Sulabha, a woman ascetic, who has a robust philosophical debate with a male king, or Chitraangada, the wife of one of the protagonist, who is a woman warrior.
That there has been and remains a disconnect between teachings of equality and respect for women and Goddess worship, and examples of patriarchal treatment of women in Hindu society is indeed unfortunate. However, to claim that the norms of Hindu society are any more patriarchal or oppressive in its treatment of women as a whole than those of any other culture, in comparable historical time periods, or today, simply isn’t true.
“Pooja’s case was the latest in a series of well-publicized incidents in which brides have balked at dowry demands, suggesting that some young women are losing patience with the age-old Hindu tradition” — The Washington Post, March 27, 2005
Dowry is the practice of payment to the bridegroom’s family by the bride’s family along with the giving away of the bride during the marriage ceremony. The practice originated as a means of helping with marriage expenses and became a form of insurance against mistreatment by a bride’s in-laws. Dowry was outlawed in 1961, but remains a social evil that is practiced across several religious traditions throughout South Asia. Dowry is not a part of Hindu spiritual practice.
“There is a complex history of fire and women in India. In Hindu mythology, the goddess Sati set herself alight in a family dispute centering on preserving her husband’s honor. That story is tied to a centuries-old historical practice, also known as sati, in which widows would immolate themselves—or be forcefully immolated—on their husbands’ funeral pyres.” — The Wall Street Journal, July 22, 2015
Sati (sometimes spelled Suttee in historical documents) was an uncommon practice in the Indian subcontinent dating back to ancient India. The practice, which had no basis in the Vedas or Upanishads, was voluntary self-immolation by widows, primarily among aristocracy, who wished to follow their dead husbands instead of re- marrying or remaining a widow.
The historical record shows it being practiced by Hindus, and later by Sikhs as well. There is also evidence that it was practiced by people living on the Central Asian steppe, in southeastern Europe, in Tonga, Fiji, Indonesia, and elsewhere. Throughout human history, in cultures on every continent, it is possible to find examples of family members, of retainers and slaves, of aristocracy or warriors being ritually killed as part of funerary rites. By contemporary concepts of human rights such practices are categorically abhorrent. But by historical norms the practice of sati is clearly not unique.
Sati was outlawed in British India in 1861 and in Nepal in 1920. Further laws criminalizing the practice were passed in India in 1988, following a highly-publicized incident the previous year. From Indian independence in 1947 to that point there were some 30 cases of sati in the entire nation, in a nation of hundreds of millions of people.
In the past three decades, while occasional incidents of sati or attempted sati have occurred, the total number can be counted on one’s fingers — and this, again, in a nation of more than one billion people. Such incidents are unquestionably horrendous, but to present them as something condoned by contemporary Hindu society, or occurring with any significant frequency, is entirely erroneous.