Struggling to Find a Voice. Women’s Position in Hindu Tradition and The Novels of Shashi Deshpande


Master's Thesis, 2014
97 Pages, Grade: 1,0

Excerpt

Contents
1. Introduction...3
2. Women's Position in Hindu Tradition...6
2.1. The Highs and Lows of the Role of Women in Ancient India ...7
2.1.1. Relative Equality in the Early Vedic Age ...7
2.1.2. The `Ideal' Wife, Sita, in the Ramayana...11
2.1.3. The Condemnation of Women in the Code of Manu and the Puranas ...13
2.2. The Degradation of the Role of Women during the Medieval Period...17
2.2.1. Domestication and Patriarchal Rule...17
2.2.2. Anti-Feminine Practices...19
2.2.3. The Bhakti Movement: A Way Out of Purdah...23
2.3. The Colonial Period: From British Non-Interference to the First Reforms ...25
2.3.1. Social Reform Movements Discussing the `Woman Question'...27
2.3.2. Women's Organisations Pressing for Change...32
2.3.3. Female Participation in Gandhi's Freedom Struggle ...35
2.4. Post-Independent India: Caught Between Tradition and Modernity...37
2.4.1. The Constitution and the Hindu Code Bills Promising Equality ...38
2.4.2. Women's Movements Defining Feminism ...40
2.4.3. Rape as a Manifestation of Patriarchy...46
2.5. Summary: Changes in the Status of Hindu Women ...48
3. Breaking Free from Traditions and Prejudices in Shashi Deshpande's Novels ...50
3.1. Shashi Deshpande ­ A Feminist Writer?...50
3.2. Saru's struggle in The Dark Holds No Terrors ...52
3.2.1. Narrative Structure: A Fragmentation of the Self ...52
3.2.2. The First Trauma: A Childhood between Patriarchy, Guilt and Rebellion...55
3.2.3. The Second Trauma: Caught Between Career Success and Marital Rape...59
3.2.4. Homecoming: Bringing Light into the Darkness ...64
3.3. Jaya's struggle in That Long Silence ...70
3.3.1. Narrative Structure: A First Step towards Agency...71

3.3.2.
Marital Crisis: The Dream of the Ideal Wife Falls to Pieces ...73
3.3.3.
The Ambivalence of Writing: Between Expression and Suppression ...76
3.3.4.
Self-Realisation: Breaking the Silence...79
4. Conclusion: Struggling to Find a Voice ...86
5. Works Cited ...90

1. Introduction
The South Asian country of India immediately evokes an array of preconceptions in the Western
mind: be it the land of Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, of extreme poverty and
extreme wealth, of colours, fragrances and spices, of the holy cow and its connected cultural and
spiritual richness, or of Bollywood. Nowadays, however, the media focuses more and more on
one issue: India's ill treatment of women. Since the middle of December 2012, almost every
week has brought another atrocious gang rape to light. Not even tourists travelling through India
and young girls are immune. The outcry started on December 16, 2012, in Delhi, when a 23-year-
old female college student was violated, gravely wounded and thrown out of the bus by a male
crowd of six
1
, while she was on her way home from the movies accompanied by her boyfriend
(cf. Faleiro). Thirteen days later, the victim died in hospital due to her severe injuries, which
resulted in multiple organ failure (cf. Faleiro). The protests that followed this incident first in
Delhi and then nationwide were the largest ones against rape ever experienced in India (cf.
Faleiro).
The debate did not stop at these bestialities, but grew into a worldwide debate about the
role of women in Indian society. The stance of the Western media tends to be that India remains
highly patriarchic and consequently refuses to allow the majority of its female population to raise
their voices. Their struggle to find a voice will be the focus of research in this paper. The
silencing of women, and the connected gender inequality, is also reinforced by the latest Global
Gender Gap Index of 2013, which examined 136 countries in the areas of economics, politics,
education and health: According to the index, India ranks 101st and performs especially poorly in
the field of `health and survival', in which it comes second to last (rank 135), and `economic
participation and opportunity' (rank 124) (cf. The World Economic Forum 13). Along these lines,
the frequent reports of female infanticide
2
and gender bias at work are not surprising. In
comparison, Iceland claims the top spot for five consecutive years displaying the least gender
disparities, followed by the Scandinavian countries, while Yemen occupies the last rank (cf. The
World Economic Forum 13-16).
1
Four of the offenders were sentenced to death by hanging on 13 September 2013, after one had been found dead
in his cell (11 March 2013) and a 17-year old boy had been convicted to three years in a reform facility (31
August 2013) (cf. Majumder).
2
A study carried out by the Lancet in 2011 revealed that about 12 million girls were being aborted since the 1980s
(cf. Pidd).
3

India's notably poor results in the Global Gender Gap Index can be partially explained by
the country's history. As a matter of fact, India and its relationship to its female Hindu
population
3
have always been an ambivalent issue. On the one hand, femininity and its attributes
are praised beyond recognition, such as in the case of female goddesses, but on the other hand,
sati
4
, child marriages, dowry
5
, and rape, among other anti-feminine practices, frequently hit the
headlines and contribute to India's negative reputation concerning Hindu women. As the Indian
authors Rattan Singh and Mehak Ahuja state in their essay on domestic violence: "[W]omen are
[...] worshipped and honoured as Goddesses [...] but [...], they are [also] considered as an object
of contempt and ridicule, a commodity for barter, an expendable asset and a plaything for mere
sexual enjoyment" (89). These contradictions with respect to women raise the question of what
role the Indian nation attributes to its female Hindu population. Is it true that "boys are brought
up to be served, girls to serve" (Singh and Ahuja 90)? Are the only career choices for Hindu
women those of becoming a mother, housewife or saint or can a female born in the 21
st
century
hope to lead a self-determined life? Are `Westernised' Hindu women mere sexual objects or are
they breaking free from traditions? A common feature is that women are assigned an inferior role
with respect to the male sex and are struggling to be heard.
The famous Indian writer Shashi Deshpande, who is considered one of the "[t]hree
leading women novelists of post-independence India" (Nitayanandam Prefatory Note)
6
, depicts in
her novels the difficulties Hindu women have to face in a society, which still bears many
patriarchal features, and which oscillates perpetually between tradition and modernity. This paper
will address two of Deshpande's novels, namely The Dark Holds No Terrors (1980)
7
and That
Long Silence (1988)
8
, that deal with the struggle to find a voice and a constant search for identity:
The Dark Holds No Terrors presents the life of Sarita, often called by her nickname Saru, a
successful woman doctor who experiences her personal traumas not only by the hands of her
3
This paper will focus on Hindu women and leave women belonging to other religions aside. There are two
reasons for this decision: addressing all of India's religions would be beyond the scope of this paper, and Shashi
Deshpande's protagonists are Hindu women.
4
According to the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Bill 1887, sati refers to "the act of burning or burying alive of a
widow, or any woman, along with her husband or relative" (Gandhi and Shah 223).
5
According to the Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act 1984, dowry denotes "any form of
property/valuables agreed to be given by either party in connection with marriage before, during or after the
marriage" (Gandhi and Shah 219).
6
The other two leading women novelists are Anita Desai and Bharati Mukherjee (cf. Nitayanandam Prefatory Note).
7
The primary text The Dark Holds No Terrors will be abbreviated "DHNT" in the following.
8
The primary text That Long Silence will be abbreviated "TLS" in the following.
4

husband in the form of marital rape, but also as a result of her loveless childhood. Meanwhile,
Deshpande's popular novel That Long Silence introduces Jaya as a housewife, mother and writer
whose life falls apart because of her husband's wrongdoings. The reason why both The Dark
Holds No Terrors (1980) and That Long Silence (1988) will be compared in the course of the
paper is that their female protagonists share the following similar characteristics:
Deshpande's protagonists, Saru and Jaya, are both Hindu wives who belong to the rising
middle-class in the post-Independence period. They are caught between tradition and modernity,
i.e. between the role models of old and their desire to be respected, actively contributing
members of society. They wish to unify the public and private sectors in themselves by not only
occupying the traditional role as a housewife and mother, but also pursuing a career at the same
time. The problems arising through this conflict and their respective struggle to find their own
space will be the focus of research.
This Wissenschaftliche Arbeit by the title of `Struggling to Find a Voice' will be composed of
two major pillars: women's position in Hindu tradition and the study of two novels of Shashi
Deshpande. The first part will focus on the changing role of Hindu women throughout Indian
history, from its beginnings in the Vedic times until today. The paper intends to address the most
important stages in what could be called a rollercoaster of prohibitions, submission and rights:
from a quasi-equal position in ancient India, to a slave-like existence in the Middle Ages, a dawn
of hope during the British Raj and the post-Independence period, up until recent events and
struggles. As Deshpande's protagonists, Saru and Jaya, both belong to the Hindu middle-class,
the historical overview will concentrate first and foremost on Hindu women. The insights gained
in the first part will then provide the backbone for the analysis of the novels to follow.
The second part will be an in-depth analysis of Shashi Dehpande's novels The Dark Holds
No Terrors (1980) and That Long Silence (1988). Both of the two novels' protagonists, Saru and
Jaya, form part of the educated, Indian middle-class and are ­ because of their sex ­ caught
between the traditional, orthodox image of a Hindu housewife and the modern, `Western',
concepts of emancipation and equality. The paper intends to examine how they struggle to come
to terms with this fragmentation of their selves and how they find a balance between their
traditional roles as a housewife and mother and their own `modern' expectations. The
relationship of being silent to oppressing one's own identity will be looked at more closely, as
5

well as the factors which help them to raise their voices in the end. Finally, the conclusion will
not only summarise the findings, but also link the first part of this Wissenschaftliche Arbeit with
the second part under the heading `Struggling to Find a Voice'.
2. Women's Position in Hindu Tradition
The position of Hindu women in Indian society has been subject to many changes over the
centuries, from a high position during the Vedic Age to a deterioration in the Middle Ages,
undergoing a slow improvement in the 19
th
and 20
th
centuries leading up to the role Hindu
women occupy today. During these periods, the status of women varied considerably among
different classes, castes and regions of India. For example, while the northern Aryan society was
considered patriarchal, there were some matrilineal communities in the south
9
(cf. Vishnoi 169).
The historical part of this paper intends to present the most popular views of acclaimed
scholars concerning the changing position of Hindu women from the first Aryan settlements until
today, and the milestones in the improvement or pejoration of their status. In that regard, it
pretends to be as objective as possible. By doing so, the date of publication of critical texts and
the point of view of the author have to be considered. Savita Vishnoi argues, for example, that to
approach ancient India from a modern point of view would not be appropriate, because such a
study "is bound to colour our vision and prevent us from obtaining a proper understanding of the
condition that prevailed in ancient times" (173). Nonetheless, a contemporary Western view
cannot be completely dismissed, as some of the secondary literature is highly subjective, in that it
supports either feminist or patriarchal lines of thinking. Moreover, the paper cannot display the
whole complexity of the topic. Even the scriptures introduced in the following do not present a
clear-cut picture of the position of Hindu women throughout the ages. Although there are some
recognisable tendencies, many passages are contradictory or have been interpreted differently in
different ages and by different scholars (cf. Bose 61). A common feature of the history of Hindu
women, however, is that the religious practices and the way they changed over the centuries have
always influenced the status of women (cf. Chakravarti 127).
9
Some communities in North Kerala, such as the Tiyyars and Nayars, are known for their matrilineal culture
(cf. Arya 55). Though their lineage is carried on by women, this does not imply that women possess more power
than men (cf. Arya 57). As Sitara Khan points out, men are still the ones in power (cf. 9). Therefore,
matrilineal and matriarchal societies are not to be equated with gender equality (cf. Arya 57).
6

The historical background to follow presents the changes to Hindu women's position in
ancient India, the Middle Ages, the British Raj and post-Independence India. Each of these
periods contains turning points in the fostering or weakening of the position occupied by Hindu
women in contemporary India.
2.1.
The Highs and Lows of the Role of Women in Ancient India
The historical background of ancient India
10
is not easy to reconstruct because only a few
sporadic references in literature, along with archeological remains and foreign accounts have
survived (cf. R.C. Majumdar 47-61). What seems to be certain is that, in comparison to
subsequent ages, women were much better off in almost all fields of life. The epics composed in
ancient India created influential female role models, which embodied `ideal' character traits for
any woman to follow. While the beginnings of the Vedic Age generally provided women with a
number of opportunities, later periods of ancient India also saw the onset of anti-feminine
practices which would undergo both support and contention over the subsequent centuries.
2.1.1. Relative Equality in the Early Vedic Age
"During the Vedic age women enjoyed more or less the same rights as were exercised by men"
(Chhaya 116): Between 2000 and 1500 B.C. (cf. T. Sharma 25), a period known as the Vedic
Age
11
, Hindu
12
women occupied a respected role in their families and in society
13
. Although their
position proved lower than in pre-Vedic times, it was nonetheless relatively equal to that of men.
10
The period known as ancient India refers to the beginnings of civilisation in India until the outgoing 12
th
century A.D. (cf. R.C. Majumdar 47). Among scholars, there are contrasting opinions about the date of arrival of the
Aryans: K.P. Bahadur states that they settled down in the Ganges' and Vindhyaa's valleys about 8000 B.C. and in
the Indus valley approximately 4000 B.C. (cf. vii). Meanwhile, S. Khan believes that they inhabited the
subcontinent from 2000 B.C. onwards (cf. 9).
11
The Aryans conquered the Indus Valley Civilization (cf. Bahadur 19) and composed texts such as the Vedas ­ the
first written documents found in the Indus Valley (cf. Nehru 90).
12
Jawaharlal Nehru argues that it is difficult to speak of `Hindus' or `Hinduism' in ancient India, because the
term was mentioned for the first time in the 8
th
century (cf. 86). It served as a synonym for the people living in
India and the Indus population outside of India (cf. Nehru 86). Due to the fact that ancient Indian literature, such
as the Rig Veda, is considered to form part of Hinduism (cf. P.S. Gupta 141), this paper will refer to
`Hindu' women throughout.
13
The Aryans were pastoral nomads (cf. Bhattachariji 1) and their religion was defined as "patriarchal,
ethnic, family-oriented and life-affirming" (Vats and Mugdal 94). They lived in a monarchic society (cf. Apte 352)
and were subdivided into four classes/castes: the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras (cf. Ali 10). It is
furthermore believed that the cohabitation as a joint family came into existence during the Vedic Age (cf.
Bahadur 51). This system serves as proof for the patriarchal nature of the Aryan people as the family's head was
male (cf. Bahadur 51).
7

Women did not have to stay ignorant, but shared men's access to literature, considered the
highest form of literature at the time (cf. Vats and Mugdal 1). The scholarly world is divided on
the question of the degree to which Hindu women's status differed to a period such as Europe's
Middle Ages. Some scholars argue that although women's position was higher than in subsequent
centuries, their every step was controlled by men, while others speak of quasi-matriarchal times
in which men worshipped not only female goddesses but also their women. Because of these
contrasting opinions, Vishnoi believes that "the social status of women in ancient India still
remains somewhat obscure and even controversial" (1).
According to Maya Majumdar, "[t]he pre-[V]edic society was basically matriarchal" (8)
while the Aryans upheld a patriarchal system. A common feature of the two societies, however,
was that they both worshipped goddesses (cf. M. Majumdar 8). Archeological findings affirm
that the indigenous pre-Vedic people adored the Mother Goddess and developed a cult around her
(cf. Pusalker 186). This cult of the Mother Goddess may have influenced the Aryan religion, as
evidenced by the fact that Hinduism still counts many goddesses
14
today. Another potential link
to the matriarchal society of pre-Vedic people is to be found in the Vedas themselves; the
characters and tribes introduced in the work do not carry on with the names of their fathers but
with the names of their mothers (cf. Thomas, Marriage and Customs 55).
The Vedas
15
in general and the Rig Veda
16
in particular attributed many rights to Hindu
women which were later lost due to the revision of religious laws and only partly retained many
centuries later. The wedding hymns of the Rig Veda, for instance, stressed the equal status of
husband and wife and attributed a superior position to women in the household (cf. T. Sharma 9).
Moreover, they also emphasised her function as a role model for her offspring (cf. T. Sharma 9).
According to the Rig Veda, Hindu women not only were respected in their roles as mothers, but
also received an education outside of the homes, were free to move around; chose their own
14
Vedic people worshipped, alongside with their male Gods, Goddesses like Aditi, Ushas, Shri, Vach, Ila,
Dhishana and Puramadhi (cf. Bahadur 32). Aruna Asaf Ali even goes as far as stating that the patriarchal
Aryans and the matrilocal Dravidians developed the Hindu religion together (cf. 10).
15
The Aryan literature known as the Vedas comprises the Rig Veda, the Sama Veda, the Yayur Veda and the
Atharva Veda. It is a "collection [...] of hymns by a number of priestly families, recited or chanted by them with
appropriate solemnity at sacrifices to the gods" (Ghosh 225).
16
Nehru states that the Rig Veda is probably the oldest book of humanity (cf. 93), and S. Vats and
Shakuntala Mugdal claim that the work "contains the seeds and sources from which the entire course of Hindu
thought through the ages has been derived and flowed in so many streams" (1). In that regard Padmini Sen Gupta
calls it rightly "the primary source of Hinduism" (141).
8

husbands
17
, owned their own property
18 19
, and were allowed to perform religious ceremonies
20
,
as well as to become priestesses
21
. The following quotation demonstrates that women were not at
all confined to domesticity in Vedic India:
Rig Vedic hymns show that in those days women took part with men in every activity of
life whether it was the toil of the field or the pleasures of a festival. They even went out
with men to fight marauding tribes and cattle-lifters. If men could sing the praises of gods
and goddesses, there were lady-Rishies, too, who could compose hymns. (Thomas,
Marriage and Customs 61)
The quotation stresses that women's status was so high that they even worked alongside men
during periods of unrest or war. T. Sharma reaffirms that in early Vedic times, women took part
in political life and mobilized for war if necessary (12). The practice of purdah, female seclusion,
was not referred to in the Vedas, because of which it may not have existed in this period (cf.
Bahadur 55). In contrast to the relatively egalitarian period of the Vedic Age, women in
subsequent ages were mostly restricted to domestic roles (cf. T. Sharma 13).
Motherhood was considered the highest goal of life, the summum bonum, for any female
(cf. J.A. Khan 52). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the foundations of the Vedic society
were the home and the family (cf. M. Majumdar 8). Hindu women were highly respected as the
heart of the family and as the ones who endured the survival of the population (cf. M. Majumdar
8). Girls received an education in both temporal and spiritual subject matters (cf. M. Majumdar
9), which meant that they acquired knowledge in areas such as "language and literature, the fine
arts and military science" (M. Majumdar 10). Unlike the later tradition of arranged marriages,
girls, from the age of 16 onwards, chose their own husbands (cf. Chhaya 116), and even after
their wedding vows, they maintained freedom of movement (cf. M. Majumdar 10). Once the
wedding vows were spoken, the wife was considered `the right hand of her husband' and from
this point onwards, her task was to support him in any way possible (cf. P.S. Gupta 141). The
17
Tripat Sharma argues that the marriage was arranged and that women could not choose their own husbands but
only between different suitors (cf. 9). Meanwhile, Vishnoi believes that there were many love marriages as well
in the later Vedic Period (cf. 171).
18
The property rights of women are also known as Stridhana (cf. Vishnoi 159).
19
V.M. Apte, however, states that the land was owned by the father (cf. 358). Vishnoi also confirms that women did
not officially possess any rights to property, but that they counted on many other liberties (cf. 173).
20
Ali stresses that femininity was contained in Hindu divinity, which the Semitic religions lacked (cf. 7). As a
matter of fact, a religious ceremony performed by a husband in the absence of his wife proved invalid (cf. Vats and
Mugdal 2). This has been taken as proof for the equal status of men and women in the Vedic Age (cf. Vats and
Mugdal 2).
21
Women seers were called Brahmvadinis or Rishikas (cf. P.S. Gupta 141). Among the famous Lady Rishis were
Ghosa and Lopamundra (cf. M. Majumdar 9).
9

relationship of a married couple was described in terms of "two wheels of the same chariot" (M.
Majumdar 10) or with the concept of Ardhanarishwara ­ a figure image containing both the
Hindu deity Shiva and his wife Parvati (cf. M. Majumdar 10).
Contradicting M. Majumdar's favourable description of the role of women during Vedic
times, Jalaluddin Ahemad Kahn argues that though women were worshipped as mothers, their lot
was far from equal to men's. M. Majumdar agrees that a male child was always favoured, but she
stresses that a female child as a future provider of offspring was still generally welcomed (cf. 9).
J. A. Kahn, however, focuses on the patriarchal traits exhibited by the Vedic era. In his view,
married women were controlled by men, expected to provide their husbands with male offspring,
and, once married, denied the benefits of education (cf. 53). According to Khan, an ideal wife did
not expect to have a life of her own (cf. 50). Instead, her whole life revolved around her partner.
"The definition of a good woman is one who pleases her husband, gives birth to male children
and never speaks back to her husband," writes Khan (50). J.A. Khan goes as far as stating that the
concept of motherhood contributed to their hidden exploitation (cf. 55). He reinforces his
argument by mentioning that barren women were excluded from society
22
and that those unable
to bear a son were stigmatised (cf. J.A. Khan 50). The husbands of the latter were allowed to
remarry, while their former spouses were not even allowed to pursue a living of their own (cf.
J.A. Khan 50 and53-54). An unequal inferior-superior relationship resulted:
Keeping the women in abject subjugation was made possible by denying them the
opportunity to earn their livelihood; the husband was their Lord. Therefore, they were
totally dependent on the bread winner and felt that by bearing children to the husband
they were but practically repaying their debt to their masters. (J.A. Khan 53-54)
M. Majumdar and J.A. Khan's account of the position and rights of Aryan women differ
significantly from each other, which might be due to different readings of the Vedic hymns.
While M. Majumdar stresses the liberties a female experienced at the time, J.A. Khan contradicts
most of her points and focuses on the subordinated role of women. Even though the scholarly
world is divided with regards to the rights women enjoyed at the time, it nonetheless seems
accurate to conclude that in contrast to the Middle Ages, during which anti-feminine practices
22
J.A. Khan underlines the sad fate of childless women and the pressure on Vedic women to bear sons in general,
stating that "[w]hile the barren women could be discarded after ten years, a woman who gives birth to [a]
daughter only after twelve years and the woman of still born children after fifteen years" (50). In contrast, a
male child provided her with a higher social status (cf. J.A. Khan 51). However, as soon as the mother delivered,
her status was once again lowered at least until the next childbearing (cf. J.A. Khan 51).
10

such as child marriage, female infanticide, and sati were mainly introduced, Vedic times still
proved a relative haven for Hindu women. As P. Thomas sums up: "[The Vedic woman] had no
traditions of slavery to man as later woman had, and no husband worship as a religious duty"
(Marriage and Customs 64). Unlike the Vedas, the Upanishads (1500 to 500 BC)
23
barely
mention women in the context of philosophy and religion (cf. M. Majumdar 20), which is a clear
indicator that women's role became more and more confined to the domestic sphere. P. S. Gupta,
however, argues that the golden age for females was during the Gupta period, when women were
treated with the utmost respect and provided with rights such as that of remarriage (cf. 142-143).
S. Khan also believes that the period was a tolerant one, both socially and religiously, which set a
revolt in motion against orthodox Hindus and resulted in the Bhakti Movement among others (cf.
10), which will be examined under `2.2.3. The Bhakti Movement: Reintroducing Religious
Devotion to Women.'
2.1.2. The `Ideal' Wife, Sita, in the Ramayana
The great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata (~ 150 B.C.
24
) and the Ramayana (~ 6
th
millennium
B.C. ­ 4
th
century A.D.
25
), which were composed in ancient India, have created legendary role
models which are still referred to in the 21
st
century and which "have become an integral part of
the Indian psyche" (Ali 8). Their female protagonists are the embodiments of devotion,
faithfulness, and purity. The central women characters of the Mahabharata are Draupadi ­ "a
perfect wife, wise counsellor and dear companion to her husbands" (M. Majumdar 13), Queen
Kunti ­ "an ideal wife and mother" (M. Majumdar 13) and Queen Gandhari ­ "the noblest of
mothers" (M. Majumdar 13). These women of Vyasa's monumental work define themselves
through marriage and motherhood, which were considered the highest goals of a woman's life
(cf. Jhanjii 41-44). "The ideal woman is the devoted wife who is willing to suffer all kinds of
adversities for the sake of loyalty to her husband," states Arya (27). The female characters of the
Mahabharata are characterised by their sheer blind sense of obedience to their husband, their
23
Cf. T. Sharma 25.
24
The core of the Mahabharata was probably written by Vyasa about 150 B.C. (cf. Ali 10). The Mahabharata
tradition is considered older than the Ramayana one (cf. Vats and Mugdal 27).
25
The scholarly world is divided about the date of its composition (cf. Goldman 14) and its historicity (cf.
Goldman 29). The oldest manuscript of the Ramayana, however, dates back to the 11
th
century A. D. (cf.
Goldman 5). The story itself plays during the Threta Yuga (cf. Vats and Mugdal 9).
11

parents and other family members (cf. Vishnoi 19). Their self-definition, as well as the fact that
they were in constant need of male protection has been often criticised (cf. Jhanjii 41-44).
Just like the Mahabharata's female characters, Sita, the female protagonist of the epic
poem Ramayana, is still considered today the `ideal' wife and an example for every traditional
Hindu wife to follow. She was married by her father, King Janaka, to Rama, who `conquered' her
by lifting and destroying a powerful bow, which no one else had ever before managed to lift (cf.
Goldman 5). Sita lived her life by high moral principles. She supported her husband, followed
him into exile, and was abducted by the evil demon Ravana, but she remained virtuous
throughout, and after her rescue she agreed to go through a fire ordeal to prove her faithfulness
and purity. Thus, she embodied "the apotheosis of wifely devotion" (Llewellyn 50) and a
"paragon of virtue" (M. Majumdar 12).
Although Sita clearly has many positive attributes, her character is still controversial.
Some scholars criticise her submissiveness as being a probable cause of the inferior role Hindu
women have today. M. Majumdar likewise believes that Sita's example contains in itself "the
subordination of women" (12). As a matter of fact, her marriage was arranged, she suffered
greatly throughout her life (cf. M. Majumdar 12) and was always connected to men (Dengel-
Janic, Home Fiction 168), be it to her husband Rama, her brother-in-law Lakshmana or the
demon Ravana. While the latter kidnapped and intended to seduce her, the former tried to protect
her but also questioned her faithfulness to him: Lakshmana saved her from the sister of Ravana
who sought to kill her (cf. Goldman 9), while Rama was reluctant in receiving his wife back from
Ravana, because she might have given in the demon's art of seduction (cf. Goldman 12).
Therefore, he ordained Sita to go through a fire-ordeal in order to prove her purity and even
abandoned her in the forest when the rumors continued (cf. Llewelyn 50-51). Even though Rama
knew of his wife's faithfulness and she was the one carrying his sons, he stuck to his resolution
(cf. Goldman 13). J.E. Llewellyn regards Rama's suspicion as a major flaw of the story that casts
a shadow on his seemingly perfect relationship with Sita (cf. 50-51). Years later, when Rama
found out about his sons, he asked Sita to return to him, but she refused and instead left the
earthly plane forever (cf. Goldman 13). Robert P. Goldman believes that her great suffering led to
this decision (cf. 13). Vats and Mugdal share the opinion that from the time of Rama's exile
onwards, Sita was held in constant suffering because of which "the whole epic is dominated by
the tears of Sita" (17).
12

Vats and Mugdal argue that Sita should not be perceived as a role model for every Hindu
woman to follow as she lacked human traits; as a matter of fact, Sita was not conceived by
humans (cf. 17) and, perhaps more importantly, she was an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi
(cf. Bose, Women 37). Therefore, she should be seen "more as a symbol, a conception, an ideal
than a character or personality" (Vats and Mugdal 17). Vats and Mugdal also believe that the
story of Sita demonstrates that even the perfect wife cannot fulfill masculine or patriarchal
expectations and that, therefore, her life "is more of a warning than an example" (Vats and
Mugdal 27). Their comment ends with a critique as they believe that, in contrast to the
Mahabharata, the Ramayana exhibits "a general degeneration of the freedom of women" (27).
Other scholars, such as Goldman, stress that Rama's wife could not be called passive or
dependent. They argue that Sita was not a servile wife, but became active at moments, such as
when she persuaded Rama to take her along into exile, when she refused to get saved by
Hanuman (cf. Goldman 11); when she withstood the brazen advances of Ravana (cf. Nayak and
Swain 10); and finally, when she preferred death to returning to her husband.
Even though the female characters of the epics have received critique ­ especially for
their obsequiousness ­ these `heroines' still form an essential part of Hindu culture. They have
become icons all over India, also because of their powerful presence in the media.
2.1.3. The Condemnation of Women in the Code of Manu and the Puranas
Brahmanical
26
Hinduism produced two main works that contributed to the degradation of the role
of women: the Code of Manu (200 B.C.
27
) and the Puranas (~ 200 B.C.-1000 A.D.
28
). According
to Bahadur, the historical period during which the Puranas were written was characterised by
societal decay (cf. 469). The Puranas, scriptures that make up 18 volumes of "mythology and of
social injunctions" (Ali 16), assign a secondary role to women and comprise the rule of Manu in
the Matsya Purana (cf. Bahadur 400). While the work continued to worship goddesses, the
position of Hindu women was dramatically lowered (cf. Ali 16). Consequently, the birth of a
daughter was considered a tragedy and the task of finding her a suitable match as early as
possible was treated with the upmost importance (cf. Kantawala 63). Thus, child marriage was
26
Brahmins belong to the highest Hindu caste.
27
Cf. Ali 18.
28
Cf. Ali 9.
13

fostered. The Puranas strongly recommend marrying a girl off before puberty and, according to
the Vishnu Purana, to a husband three times her age (cf. Bahadur 462). The husband-to-be should
then be held in veneration like a God (Matsya Purana; cf. Bahadur 462). The attitude of a woman
serving her husband lovingly up to total self-sacrifice is comprised in the concept of pativrata
proclaimed by the Puranas (cf. I. P. Singh 2).
Connected to pativrata is the idea of sati, understood as an eternal attachment to the
deceased husband achieved through the immolation of widows (cf. I. P. Singh 3). S.G.
Kantawala, however, argues that some passages of the Puranas are progressive and liberal when
it comes to women (cf. 72). The Padma Purana (~ 750 A.D.
29
) is the longest (cf. Bahadur 398)
and probably the most anti-feminine of the volumes, as it ranged women in their domestic
environments on the same level as Sudras, the lowest varna
30
(cf. Ali 18). As a result of this
downgrading, women were expected to perform the lowest, most filthy jobs connected to their
domestic role: "[F]etching fuel and water, cooking, sweeping, washing clothes and cleaning up
the excreta of children and the ailing" (Ali 18).
The Code of Manu, also known as Manu Smriti and "the highest authority on Hindu social
customs" (Chhaya 29-30), contains Hindu laws regulating the way one should behave in
everyday life. Although the Code has been subject to a lot of criticism, traditional Hindus still
trust in its laws and quote from it (cf. Thomas, Marriage and Customs 66). Orthodox Hindus
regard Manu Smriti as "the most sacred of Hindu Law books" (Thomas, Marriage and Customs
66) and consider Manu's example impeccable (cf. Thomas, Marriage and Customs 66). The
mythical figure Manu probably does not refer to a single lawgiver but to "an abstract noun
denoting the activities of Manas, the mind" (cf. Thomas, Marriage and Customs 66)
31
. In some
of the twelve chapters of Manu Smriti, the distinct duties of a married couple are described. As in
the epics, a woman is always defined in terms of her relationship to men (cf. M. Majumdar 29).
According to Ali, she is prescribed a secondary role as "a perpetual minor" (18), and is supposed
to treat her husband as God no matter how he treats her (cf. 18). Furthermore, only through
serving her husband can a woman attain salvation (cf. M. Majumdar 11).
29
Cf. Ali 17.
30
The four varnas are the four castes.
31
Thomas also remarks that the Code was composed over several centuries, because of which there could not have
possibly been a single author (cf. Marriage and Customs 66).
14

Similarly to the Padma Purana, women are classed to the lowest caste and viewed
similarly to "slaves and children" (Thomas, Marriage and Customs 66). This classification
reflects the same lack of rights and freedom of movement that Manu Smriti attributes to women.
Most scholars agree that the Code condemns women to being second-class citizens (Thomas,
Marriage and Customs 66). Unlike the Vedas, which stress the union of the sexes in marriage,
Manu states that "the wife is simply lost in the husband" (Thomas, Marriage and Customs 67).
According to the Code, if a wife does not keep her promises, her husband is free to beat her (cf.
Thomas, Marriage and Customs 67-68).
One passage in particular has often been quoted and interpreted in different ways in order
to stress either the women's honoured position or her secondary role. In the ninth chapter, the
relationship of women to their direct male relations is described as follows:
(IX-3) The father protects the girl in her childhood, the husband protects her after
marriage and her sons protect her in old age. At no stage should a woman be left free.
(Jois 32)
On the one hand, the passage is clearly intended to restrict female mobility (e.g. Thomas,
Marriage and Customs 66) and might be an indicator that a woman was not an independent
individual, but rather an inferior of her male relations who was always bound to them (Pruthi,
Devi, and Pruthi, Vol.1, 75). On the other hand, however, the Code's invocation could also be
read as a protection mechanism for women, inhibiting rape and preventing other dangers.
Another controversial statement of Manu Smriti concerns early marriages. The code states
that girls should be married at a young age without having a say in the choice of husband (cf.
Thomas, Marriage and Customs 67-68). This could be interpreted again as either oppressing
women or protecting them. Regardless of the interpretation, the Code recommends the, from a
modern point of view, anti-feminine practice of child marriage: "A man of thirty [...] should
marry a girl of twelve, a man of twenty-four a girl of eight" (Thomas, Marriage and Customs
93). Once married, the woman is prohibited to remarry, even in the case of widowhood (cf.
Thomas, Marriage and Customs 67-68).
The Code stresses the distinct natures of men and women and the tasks that go along with
their distinct roles. Women were expected to fulfill a domestic and motherly role, but they
remained nonetheless important in religious ceremonies:
15

(IX-96) To be mothers were women created and to be fathers men. Religious rites
therefore are ordained in the Veda to be performed by the husband together with his wife.
(Jois 39)
Furthermore, after the marriage vows, a woman was no longer regarded as part of her own
family; she now belonged, to her husband's family (cf. Jois 32). She had no right to property,
even the property of her husband's family (cf. Jois 32). Instead, women themselves were
regarded as the property of men (cf. Bhattachariji 158). Even today, the notion of a wife seen as
the `property' of her husband persists. Justice M. Rama Jois, however, also accentuates passages
in which mutual friendship, loyalty, and fidelity are mentioned as the basis for a successful
marriage (cf. 41), but also where adultery begins (cf. 86) and why it should be avoided at any
cost: "There is no offence which is more ruinous to a man's life than adultery" (Jois 85).
In comparison to the above mentioned Padma Purana, Ali considers the Code of Manu "a
liberal document" (18). Thomas holds the opinion that there are passages in the Code which
demand husbands to treat their spouses well and to protect them (cf. Marriage and Customs 69).
Other than that, however, the Code stresses woman's inferiority, her damnation and advises
choosing a wife on the basis of superficial beauty:
In the whole code the mental and intellectual qualities of women are treated with supreme
contempt and in the selection of a wife only her physical appearance is taken into account.
(Thomas, Marriage and Customs 69)
Other scholars emphasise that Manu intended men to honour, respect and protect their women:
"Manu Smriti mandates that the highest respect and regard must be extended and full protection
should be given to women throughout their lives" (Jois 30). Jois quotes passages of the Code,
which indeed reinforce his argument. The third chapter, for example, recommends that men treat
women with the upmost respect (III-5): "Women must be honoured and adorned, by their fathers,
brothers, husbands and brothers-in-law, who seek their own welfare" (Jois 30). He also describes
the privileges that newly-wed women, girls, daughters-in-law, and child-bearing women enjoyed:
"[They] should be served with meals even before the meals are served to guests" (31). At the
same time, Thomas remarks that "[a]n Aryan, according to Manu, cannot eat with his wife"
(Marriage and Customs 69). Taking all these contradictory statements into consideration, what
seems certain is that the Code of Manu contains "both praise and dispraise for women" (Bose,
Women 150) and that the work continues to be a controversial subject.
16

2.2.
The Degradation of the Role of Women during the Medieval Period
2.2.1. Domestication and Patriarchal Rule
Formerly nomadic, the Vedic people began to settle down to lead an agricultural life (cf.
Bhattachariji 10). Thomas argues that the domestication of men correlated with the suppression
of women:
[W]ith the march of time, agriculture was invented and improved upon and men gave up
their hunting habits and took to a settled life. [...] And with this domestication of man
began the degeneration of women. (Marriage and Customs 52-53)
Along the same lines, S. Khan speaks of a power struggle in which men triumphed and started
ruling over women (cf. 9). With regards to Hindu women, their position deteriorated in the
Middle Ages (~ 13
th
­ 18
th
century
32
)
33
, mainly because of a politically unstable society (cf.
Mullatti 2), the intrusion of foreign cultures starting from the 10
th
century (cf. P.S. Gupta 143),
and an increasingly anti-feminine attitude. As a result of the Muslim invasions, Hindu women
were deprived of their freedom of movement and were kept inside their homes for their own
protection (cf. Shandilya 17). The practice of female seclusion, purdah, was on the rise (cf.
Shandilya 17), and along with it, a number of patriarchal rules and regulations. According to the
Oxford Dictionary, the dominant ideology of patriarchy is "a system of society or government in
which men hold the power and [which] women are largely excluded from" ("Patriarchy"). In the
Indian context, the husband was considered the master and lord of his wife (cf. Bhalla 4). Amrita
Bhalla observes that in some Indian languages, the way in which a wife addresses her husband
suggests to this very day an unequal, hierarchical relationship (cf. 4)
34
.
Patriarchal rule affected women in medieval India in all fields of life, be it "political,
economic, cultural, religious [or] legal" (Bhalla 4). The decline of the status of women was
closely linked to the popularity of Brahmanical Hinduism (cf. Ali 9). Brahmins lowered the status
of Hindu women by introducing "excessive ritualism, rigid taboos on women and lower caste
members" (Mullatti 2). As all religious texts and codes were written by the male elite, the
32
Cf. R. C. Majumdar 47.
33
Prof. M. A. Indra argues that the deterioration of their position cannot be said to have started at a fixed moment
in time (cf. 8). However, he agrees that once their downfall had begun, their status was further lowered
straightaway (cf. Indra 8).
34
The address "swami, shauhar, pati [and] malik" (Bhalla 4) reveals the unequal relationship between the sexes as
they refer to the husband as "owner in all spheres" (Bhalla 4).
17

privileges Hinduism assigned to the male sex are not surprising (cf. Bhalla 6). The Brahmin caste
regarded women as "a necessary evil" (Thomas, Marriage and Customs 65), whose most
important task was to make for the continuity of the clan possible. Sons were always given
preference over daughters. In fact, fathers prayed that their temple gods would bless them with
sons and spare them from female progeny (cf. Thomas, Marriage and Customs 65). In the
unfortunate event of the birth of a daughter, the Brahmins took care that both her sexuality and
her mobility was always controlled (cf. Bhalla 5).
To justify these strict regulations, they made use of the Sita myth: The Brahmins argued
that Ramayana's Sita was only abducted due to her stubborn nature which made her follow her
husband into exile (cf. Bhalla 5). In order to avoid Sita's fate and to upkeep the family's good
reputation, a woman should always remain in her four walls, thus practice purdah, and dress
accordingly to avoid attracting male attention (cf. Bhalla 5). Marriage meant for a woman that
she, from then onwards, belonged to her husband's family (cf. Arya 73). Accordingly, women
had no rights to property (cf. Mullatti 2), and her function was a "mere machine of reproduction"
(Mullatti 2). In order to demonstrate male superiority, it was agreed on that the `seed' bears more
importance than the `field' (cf. Arya 73). Vishnoi, however, remarks that not all women were
doomed, but that mothers kept a high social position just as they did in ancient India (cf. 117).
Only girls, unmarried women, barren women or widows suffered marginalisation and
exploitation.
Due to these exceptions, many medieval Hindu women suffered greatly under the
patriarchal hegemony
35
. Thomas summarises their sad fate as follows:
[T]he lot of medieval women was very wretched. They were seldom treated as decent
human beings with ordinary emotions and aspirations. [...] All that a woman was
supposed to have was an unwavering fidelity to a man [...] who was forced upon her by a
society with perverse values of life. (Marriage and Customs 70)
35
Still, it should be mentioned that the 16
th
century brought an improvement in the position of women (cf. P.S.
Gupta 143). The arrival of the Mughals and their famous queens initiated an artistic and cultural movement in
which women were allowed to participate actively (cf. P.S. Gupta 143).
18

2.2.2. Anti-Feminine Practices
The Puranas and the Code of Manu mention anti-feminine practices, such as purdah and child
marriage, that often formed part of a Hindu woman's life in the Middle Ages and have been
fought against in the subsequent centuries. Most Hindu women had to undergo at least one of
these practices, provided they had not been killed as infants
36
(cf. Das 38). G. N. Ramu argues
that during the time of the sutras, shastras and epics (500 BC-AD 500)
37
"the actual decline in the
status of women, both in the family and outside, and a corresponding consolidation of patriarchal
authority" (18-19) had already started. Women's position in society clearly deteriorated along
with the introduction of anti-feminine practices, and the sad reality is that some of these customs
are still present in contemporary India, though they have been legally prohibited. Marriage as the
primary goal of a medieval woman's life was connected with many of these practices, which
appear derogative from a modern point of view. The traditions of child marriage, dowry, purdah,
widow remarriage, and sati shall be introduced in the following.
Child Marriage
The tradition of marrying a girl off at an early age was omnipresent in the Medieval Period.
Scholars are still debating whether Sita's marriage in the Ramayana can be regarded as a case of
child marriage or not (cf. Goldman 19). Vats and Mugdal state that Sita was married at the age of
six, which would be a clear case of child marriage (cf. 17). The main reason for the Brahmins to
marry their daughters off at a pre-pubescent stage in the Middle Ages was to safeguard their
chastity (cf. M. Majumdar 128). As girls tend to reach puberty quite early in the hot climate of
India, fathers endeavoured to marry their daughters, as the Manu Smriti suggested, at 12 or even
8 years of age (cf. Das 39). Child marriage was welcomed, because there would be less resistance
on the girl's part to submit to an arranged marriage at such a young age (cf. M. Majumdar 128).
In that way, the risk of the girl choosing her own husband, someone possibly unsuited to her
family's expectations, e.g. of another caste, was eliminated (cf. M. Majumdar 128). Economic
reasons also played a role, as financial responsibility for the girl would be assumed by the
36
Female infanticide was secretly practiced among some of the upper classes, mostly due to economic - dowry
-reasoning (cf. Das 38-39). The practice proved utterly brutal: "At many places the child was destroyed
immediately after birth by filling the mouth with cowdung or by immersing the head in cow's milk or by coiling
the umbilical cord around the face" (Das 39).
37
Cf. Ramu 19.
19
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Title
Struggling to Find a Voice. Women’s Position in Hindu Tradition and The Novels of Shashi Deshpande
College
University of Tubingen  (Englisches Seminar)
Grade
1,0
Author
Year
2014
Pages
97
Catalog Number
V375588
ISBN (eBook)
9783668529410
ISBN (Book)
9783668529427
File size
1927 KB
Language
English
Tags
Indian Women, Hinduism, Women's Position, Novels of Shashi Deshpande, The Dark Holds No Terrors, That Long Silence, Women's Movements, Between Tradition and Modernity, Role of Women, Code of Manu, Puranas, The Bhakti Movement, Social Reform Movements, Sita in the Ramayana, Gandhi's Freedom Struggle, Women's Organisations, Constitution and Hindu Code Bills, Rape as Manifestation of Patriarchy, Struggling to Find a Voice
Quote paper
Eliana Briel (Author), 2014, Struggling to Find a Voice. Women’s Position in Hindu Tradition and The Novels of Shashi Deshpande, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/375588

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