During the annual festival celebrated in honor of goddess Gangamma in the South Indian city of Tirupati, men assume the form of women. This festival lasts a week and the town is full of men wearing saris and the women increase the intensity of their domestic duties in order to exude the feminine power known as Shakti in Hinduism.
An example of this female worship is another ancient tradition in India and Nepal which involves the selection of prepubescent girls as incarnations of a goddess. In India, the girl, or “Kumari,” is usually only worshipped for a day, but in Nepal the worship of the goddess is extended for a longer period of time. The girl is isolated from society and she takes her throne at the temple in order to be worshiped by locals and royalty. However, once she reaches puberty, she is replaced by another girl and the process starts over again.
While goddess worship is meaningful in Hinduism, the question remains whether it empowers women. Joyce Burkalter Flueckiger is the author of the book “When the World Becomes Female,” which details the Gangamma festival. In it she writes, “Where do we get the idea that because there are goddesses, women will have higher status? It’s a big assumption about the relationship between human and divine worlds.”
Some NGO’s, like the Joint Women’s Programme, find that these religious practices are sometimes used to excuse negative cultural norms. For example, Indian devadasi practices involve the dedication of young girls to the goddess Yellamma, who are then unable to marry, and forced into prostitution. However, since this practice is seen as religious, those who are chosen feel honored. This practice essentially “dedicates” girls to a life of sex work in the name of religion, and although the system was made illegal in India in 1988, it remains a cultural phenomenon. These practices are committed in the name of respecting goddesses, women, and the female body.
Hinduism, as shown above, is a religion known for its extensive worship of the feminine form. However, how does this religion connect with Indian culture and society? Hinduism is a huge influence on Indian culture and yet there are still extremely brutal crimes occurring against women in large cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore.
“India’s Daughter” is a documentary directed by Leslee Udwin, BBC. The film is based on the 2012 Delhi Gang Rape and the murder of a 23 year old woman. In her documentary, she spoke to two lawyers who defended the murderers of the woman:
“In our society, we never allow our girls to come out from the house after 6:30 or 7:30 or 8:30 in the evening with any unknown person. You are talking about man and woman as friends. Sorry, that doesn’t have any place in our society. We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman.” – ML Sharma
“If my daughter or sister engaged in premarital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight. This is my stand.” – AP Singh
There is an obvious discrepancy between the way Hindus are raised to worship the divinity of the feminine form, and the way individuals in Indian society actually treat their women. Why is it that Hindus go to temple, and pray to goddesses Saraswati, Lakshmi, Parvati and Durga etc., but refuse to acknowledge that the women who share the same physical form as these deities should have equal rights and be treated with respect?
There has been significant work in this area to correct the damages committed against women in India. Pathfinder International has started opening dialogues with religious leaders from different faiths, including Hinduism, encouraging these faiths to advocate projects in their communities. One such project is called Prachar which is based in Haryana, which focuses on reproductive health and education to decrease early pregnancies and marriages. The project manager, Binod Singh says, “According to Hindu mythology, girls are treated like goddesses, but in practical life they are deprived from many opportunities and are victims of deep rooted discrimination. It is certainly an important and positive approach to address religious beliefs for behavior changes in terms of girl’s empowerment and delaying marriage”.
Religion is a personal, private, and sacred way of life which should not interfere with basic civil and human rights. Hinduism, with its multitude of female deities can be incredibly empowering for the women who practice the faith, but the same religion can also be used to oppress females. The Hindu community can refocus the faith by discouraging patriarchal practices and inhumane acts of violence that manipulate girls into feeling they are not worthy of the same respect that is given to a deity.
This article only reflects the views and opinions of the author and not the Hindu Students Association