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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 24 New Delhi June 4, 2016

Right to Opium: Women, Holy Places and God

Monday 6 June 2016



by Pradeep Nair, Navneet Sharma and K.B.S. Krishna

Karyeshu dasi, karaneshu manthri; bhojeshu mata, shayaneshu rambha; Roopeshu lakshmi, kshamayeshu dharitri; shat dharmayukta, kuladharma pathni—Neetisara

(Works like slave, helps like minister, cooks like mother, beds like a consort, beautiful as goddess of wealth, is as bearing as the earth, carries hundred religious virtues, is the righteous familial wife.)

The above ‘pearls’ of wisdom not only eulogise the idea of ideal woman but simultaneously places men at the centrefold of the very existence of women.

The physiology and psychology of women has always been shrouded in mystery as stated in the proverb: “triya charitram, purushasya bhagyam, devo na janati kashchit manushya (women’s character/trait/behaviour and men’s destiny is unknown to god even, how the mortal man can fathom)”. In every mythological explanation of the genesis and origins of earth and humankind women have been portrayed as playing second fiddle to men and most of the time are depicted as secondary creations of the divine self. The women are not even, according to Hindu mythology, directly the atman as a part of parmatman. They have to approach god via men or it is better if they perceive man as god. The pati-parmeshwar idea succinctly expresses this. Women, moreover, are not entitled to ‘swarg’ (Hindu-heaven) as they cannot pay back three ‘rinas’ (debts), namely, Guru-rina,Matri-rina, and Pitra-rina, which, as per the scriptures, clears the path to heaven. Women and non-dwijas cannot seek education/knowledge, as it is in Samskrita (dev-vani — language of gods), and women were forbidden from learning the language. In fact, there were specific provisions in Manu’s constitution on how to punish women and non-dwijas who learn/hear Sanskrit whether inten-tionally or even by chance. Matri-rina/Pitra-rina (debt to mother and father) cannot be paid back as women again cannot perform the last rites (antim sanskara/shraddha) of their parents. At the best what a pious, chaste, and devoted woman can get is to be re-born as a dwija-man (Brahmin in particular) to seek salvation and heaven. Women across religions and mythologies are portrayed as sinful or satanic; it is even suggested in Christian mythology that every month they bleed (menstrual cycle) as punishment for not obeying god and persuading Adam to eat the forbidden apple. Across civilisations menstrual bleeding is treated with different and multiple taboos—most prominent being banned from worshipping gods, touching pickles, entering kitchen, seeing mirror, and prohibiting sexual intercourse. These taboos vary and are weird in many cases, and have given rise to numerous superstitions such as if a menstruating women makes papad, they all will turn red or if she touches a banana she will be impregnated. Moreover, people have started looking for ‘scientific’ explanation of these taboos and construct and establish theoretical linkages to pre- and post-menstrual syndromes. The menstrual blood is considered not only impure but as having strange powers and is used for certain tantric rituals and hypnotism. Menst-ruating women (or for that matter women as a homogenous entity) are not allowed to enter temples or at least the sanctum-sanctorum of most of the religions across the world.

Women and Religion

Women have always been central to religion, and historically, they have played significant roles in religion. Nuns, in the Christian tradition, had huge power at certain times in history. They worked as independent groups without having clerical control. They have also played important roles in faith communities. But what we see today is male leaders, clergy and others having control over the religion and over women—notably in fundamentalist movements. In Britain, the Church of England denied the demand of women to have equal positions and leadership as bishops -as they have in the United States’ Episcopal Church. In Buddhist countries, from many decades bhikkhunies have been demanding equal status to monks. In Islamic countries, educated women who are interpreting the Quran are challenging men for leadership position. Hence, there is a struggle for power in religious places.

According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Centre, religion is a significant part of women’s lives. The study says that 80 per cent of women are religiously affiliated and they consider religion as an important part of their lives. But when it comes to their role in religion, they are mostly assigned the duty to teach children, maintain a godly household, refer to husband on familial and religious matters and maintain social and volunteer groups in places of worships. In Islam, they are active in politics and religious organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood, but are still assigned the role of assisting their men in political and religious decisions and retain and care for familial assets. In Judaism, as far as female responsibilities are concerned, interestingly, less emphasis is laid on gender roles, as God is considered both male and female. However, women are expected to perform more intellectual tasks, while men take care of physical tasks. Same is the case with Buddhism. Although, women have defined responsibilities, scriptural presence and specified role in all religious realms, but equality and authority for women in religion is still a contested terrain.

In advanced civilisations, women are fighting for religious rights, but the older theories of the Church and other religious entities largely remain the same even today. Christianity down the ages has tried to sustain the concept of superior and inferior sex possessing different rights in Churches across the world, assigning different code of morals to men and women. Women are mostly viewed as a creation of god to serve men and they found excuses in the Bible for illicit conduct.

Simultaneously, in Hinduism, women were created by the Brahman as part of the duality in creation, to provide company to men and to facilitate procreation, progeny and continuation of family lineage. The Vedas suggest that a woman’s primary duty is to help her husband in performing obligatory duties and enable him to continue his family tradition. Her primary duty is to give birth to his children and take care of them. More or less, whether it is Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism, every religion is male-dominated to the core. where women always play a secondary role. All the religions had placed greater duties and responsibilities on the shoulders of men and exhorted women to help men perform those duties. In every religion, the religious ceremonies and sacrifices revolve around men, they are mostly performed by men for men, and if women were involved, it is for the welfare of men. In Hinduism, women cannot officiate in any Vedic ceremony. They can perform only domestic rituals such as puja or perform austerities, but the host of a sacrifice shall always be a male.

Women and Holy Places

While answering a question raised by the Bombay High Court on the rules barring women from entering the ‘sanctum sanctorum’ of the dargah of 15th century Sufi saint Haji Ali, the trustees of the dargah said that entry of women in close proximity of the grave of a male Muslim saint is a grievous sin in Islam. The trustees further defended that Article 26 of Indian Constitution confers upon the Trust a funda-mental right to manage its religious affairs on its own. The Trust, which manages the shrine, argued that the ban on entry of women is meant to protect women from ‘uncomfortable situations’ and is restricted only to the sanctum sanctorum. Such incidents happened earlier as well. In 2012, the authorities of Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari banned women from entering the sanctum while giving the reason of ‘appropriate clothing’. Later on it was revealed that they were banned to protect the area from a ‘potential danger’—women can at any time have menstrual periods. For the same reason, the Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabrimala bans girls and women between the ages of 10 and 50 from entering the temple. Women are also not allowed to enter the Jain Temple, Renakpur because of the same old reason of menstruation.

Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiru-vananthapuram has an odd rule when it comes to women: the temple authorities’ permit women to pray but they are not permitted to enter the temple vault. Simultaneously, the sanctum sanctorum of the Hindu monastery in Assam—Patbausi Satra—had no written instructions or decisions not to allow women to enter the sanctum sanctorum, but it was the tradition practised from centuries that women don’t come to the holy place. When in 2014, Assam Governor J.B. Patnaik took a group of women into the temple, they felt guilty due to the reactions of the locals. India’s largest mosque, the Jama Masjid, allows women, but only if they are accompanied by a male. Furthermore, they are not allowed to enter the mosque after the maghrib (evening) prayers.

Interestingly, in Lord Kartikeya temple in Pushkar, there is no official restriction regarding women entering the temple, but the temple mythology/legend has a story which warns them off: when Lord Kartikeya was doing meditation, Devraj Indra got jealous that Brahma might give him more power than himself, and sent some beautiful Apsaras to distract him. By this act, Kartikeya got angry and cursed that ‘any woman who comes to this place in future will turn into stone’. Now this story has become a belief and women don’t enter this temple out of fear that they might be cursed instead of being blessed. While taking a serious note on the religious customs and temple-entry restric-tions, the Supreme Court of India said that no temple or governing body of holy places can bar a woman from entering the place as it is a serious violation of women’s constitutional right and also the violation of Articles 14 (equality before law), 25 and 26 (freedom of religion) of the Indian Constitution. But serious efforts are still required to draft guidelines regarding gender inequality in religious practices at places of worship.

Mythologies: Practising Religion

Women are given a short shrift even in mytho-logy—be it Occidental or Oriental. In Hindu mythology, the abandonment of Sita by Ram, and Damayanti by Nala in the forest are regularly considered as examples of renun-ciation and sacrifice on the part of the males, rather than instances of oppression of women. While Ram is worshipped as a god by Hindus, the Nishada king Nala is eulogised no less. However, it is the poor women abandoned in the forest who actually suffered for no fault of theirs. Similar is the case of Draupadi and Taramati: both were treated as property by their husbands; while Yuddhisthira waged and lost Draupadi in a game of dice, satyawadi Raja Harischandra sold his wife to the highest bidder as a slave to pay off a debt of honour.

Greek mythology, too, treats women in an equally shabby manner. The apple of discord given by Zeus to the three goddesses results in their behaving in a petty manner and they attempt to bribe Paris to win the fruit. This event culminates in the war between Greeks and Trojans. Such depiction of women as given to jealousy and desire shows them in a poor light. Furthermore, the portrayal of Helen as a frivolous woman who is seduced and taken away to Troy suggests the lack of respect that women are given in Greek mythology. The case of Eve being tempted by Satan to eat the fruit of knowledge, and how she later blackmailed Adam to taste it in Christian mythology, is yet another example of how women are portrayed as weak, not just physically but also psychologi-cally and morally. Women in mythology, hence, are regularly portrayed as negative sources of energy. However, it is undeniable that this is only in later additions to mythology.

The earliest depiction of woman in Hindu mythology is, for instance, as Shakti or the goddess of power. She is depicted as someone who is stronger than the gods, and more competent than them in her ability to destroy demons. She was considered as the hub of learning, strength, and wealth. Following closely on this is her portrayal as Prakrati, or nature. While man or Purusha was considered as one half of the universe, Prakrati was the other half. However, just as man had colonised wild nature through domestication and cultivation, Shakti also was considered to be too powerful and hence the gods deemed it necessary to subdue her. Hence, they divided her into Lakshmi, Parvati, and Saraswati, and shared the spoils amongst themselves.

This is uncannily similar to the manner in which Lilith is exterminated in Christian mythology. Lilith was first created by God in a manner similar to Adam, from the soil of the earth. However, the strength she possessed frightened even God. Hence, he destroyed her, and created a docile version called Eve from the rib of Adam.

What these tales bring to light is how women have always been suppressed by men. This oppression is a result of the fear of the Saidean ‘other’. This fear has led to the creation of women as ornamental, fragile, vulnerable, yet dangerous. This last portrayal of women seems paradoxical and strange, as the term ‘dangerous’ suggests that women are depicted as strong. Sadly that is not the case, as even in such portrayals women are depicted as rather wily and vicious, and thus radiating negative energy. Examples of these are the depiction of women in mythology as Kamini or Succubus. Kamini or Mohini in Hindu mythology is not to be confused with Vishnu’s avatar, but as a femme fatale out to harm men in the world with her charm and guile. Kamini is depicted as the embodiment of lust, and considered as an evil form out to lead men to their doom. Succubus of Western mythology is a parallel creature that visits men in their dreams and sucks their life-blood leading to dissipation and eventual destruction.

Women: Multiple Positionalities

A frequent error made in the studies of women as discriminated against, vilified by, and subsequently oppressed by the other, that is, men, is to consider them as homogenous. Just as it is with men, women too belong to various groups and cannot be classified as a single entity. The identity of a woman is not restricted to her sex and gender, but is also based on her class, religion, region, race, caste and sexual orientation.

It is silly to assume that the Queen of England would face the same kind of problems or discrimination as an illiterate tribal girl living in the hinterlands of India. Of course, even the queen might have experienced certain restrictions on her activities and proclivities due to her gender; however, such impositions are hardly comparable to those faced by a woman who is discriminated against not only on the basis of her gender but also due to her class, caste, region, etc...

This has led to critics such as Frances Beal to come up with terms such as ‘Double Jeopardy’ in their feminist studies. Beal coined this term to explain the kind of problems faced by women on the basis of their race along with gender, mainly African women; but this still ignores the vast divisions that exist in our world. Hence, the term ‘Multiple Jeopardy’, coined by Deborah King, suggests the numerous discriminations that a woman has to face in everyday world. Yes, it is true that men too face discrimination based on their economic class, their skin colour, the place where they live in, the kind of education they have, the gods that they worship, and the person they hope to love; but, women, in addition to such discrimination, have to live with the burden of being the other in a patriarchal world.

This discrimination is nothing new. Even in the mythologies hitherto mentioned, women have been classified. Hence, the treatment meted out to Sita is different from Surpanakha, Putana is distinguished from Yashoda, and Athena from Hera. While Sita is depicted as the epitome of feminine virtue, Surpanakha is portrayed in Ramayan as lustful and spiteful. Similarly, though Yashoda and Putana both nurture Krishna in Mahabharat, Yashoda is the loving foster-mother, while Putana is a demoness sent to kill the little baby with poisoned milk. The Greek goddesses, Athena and Hera, too are depicted likewise. Athena, the goddess of wisdom and courage, is regularly portrayed as just and helpful. On the other hand, Hera, the goddess of marriage, is depicted as petty and vengeful. In Christian mythology, the case of Eve and Lilith, as noted earlier, runs on parallel lines. Such classification of women is a convenient way for patriarchs to impose a code of conduct on women, coercing them to behave in a meek and obedient manner.

The current divisions are different, and are formed due to hegemony arising out of various factors such as caste, creed, race, class, etc. It is not only being simpleton but also irresponsible to ignore these divisions, and treat women as a homogenous entity. The ‘Bhoomata brigade’ which steered the campaign for the entry of women into temples was nowhere and has no concerns about the issue of entry of Dalits into temples.

The very idea of religion and its institutiona-lised form is a piqued one for women. In religion you either follow the dictum or you are blasphemous. One cannot ask questions in religion. It is more of contradiction to ask a constitutional right from a religion. Religion and Constitution both are about the code of an individual and the social conduct whereby the former establishes hierarchy and the latter denigrates it. Even if one gets and achieves the constitutional right from a religion s/he is no more a ‘religious’ one as being devoted and a devotee one should not question the lord and his incarnate agents—men. One cannot ask for a 17th century right to liberty and equality from a religion which emerged and evolved aeons ago. Women cannot challenge the patriarchy which institutionalises itself by and via religion by asking entry into holy places but by rejecting them in totality; at least, till a machine is invented which can detect a Dalit woman from a non-Dalit woman, and/or a menstruating woman from others.


Beal, F.M. (1969), Black Women’s Manifesto; Double Jeopardy: To be Black and Female, New York: Third World Women’s Alliance.

Hargrove, B., Schmidt, J.M., and Davaney, S.G. (1985), ‘Religion and the Changing Role of Women’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Religion in America Today, 480: 117-131.

King, D.K. (1988), Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist Ideology,Signs, 14 (1):42-2. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lefkowitz, M.R. (1985), ‘Women in Greek Myth’, The American Scholar, 54 (2): 207-219.

Pintchman, T. (2007), Women’s Lives, Women’s Rituals in the Hindu Tradition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Said, E.W. (1978), Orientalism, New York: Pantheon Books.

Pradeep Nair, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor and Dean, School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala.

Navneet Sharma, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teacher Education, School of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh.

K.B.S. Krishna, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and European Languages, Central University of Himachal Pradesh.

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