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Religious Studies Essay Semester 1 Hinduism

Nurulkamilah Matkamil
Micheal Agnew
Oct 21 2011
989 words
Question 4: The Faithful Wife: Construction of Gender and Traditional Role of Women in Hindusim.

            Central to Hindu teachings is the concept of dharma, which in itself has multiple meanings, one of which is the societal roles or responsibilities that one must fulfil in order to achieve liberation or moksha (Creel). Smriti texts such as Dharma Shastra and the Manusmriti explicitly define the dharma for each respective caste, including women (“Smriti”). Marriage is perceived as a vehicle for spiritual discipline, service and advancement towards a spiritual goal (Fisher 65). In doing so, each man and woman has their own roles to play according to their gender, acting as a complement of each other (Pandit). However, the man supposedly has better capacity to attain liberation as compared to women, so this is where their dharma differs (Scovill). A woman’s liberation does not come as a result of her own practices, but it is through her husband’s practices and in fulfilling her duties as a faithful wife (Fisher 65).

            As a contrast to the men who have four stages in life, a woman has three stages of life: maiden, marriage and widowhood or sati, all of which is defined in relation to her relationship with the man (Scovill). When she is a maiden, a woman must be submissive to her father, in marriage, to her husband, in widowhood, to her sons and her husband as well. A woman is never to be independent of those men otherwise it will bring disharmony to the families (Manusmriti 5:147-149). In marriage, the ideal woman is a pativrata, which means a chaste, loyal, dutiful woman who vows to worship her husband (“Pati”). Since the path of liberation of a woman is only through her husband, the husband is worshipped as though he is a god, as the intermediary level of her path to moksha (Manusmriti 5:154),. The woman devotes herself to being a good wife with hopes that her dharma will be fulfilled and she will be reborn as a man of higher caste to get a better chance at attaining moksha. In being a virtuous wife, she does her best to please her husband, and control her behaviour so that she will be exalted in heaven (Manusmriti 5:155, 165).

            Among the prescribed good behaviour of a virtuous woman is being economical in expenditure, obedient, always cheerful and clever in managing household affairs (Manusmriti 5:150). Even any religious actions such as fasting must be done with permission from her husband (Manusmriti 5:155). She must also always please her husband if she wants to live with him after death (Manusmriti 5:156). Apart from that, a woman also has designated tasks she must perform in respect of her husband after his death. She is to not insult his memory and she cannot mention another man’s name nor remarry as it is more important to remain chaste than to procreate (Manusmriti 5: 151, 157-160). However, if a woman desires to remarry, she will lose her place in heaven with her deceased husband and is disgraced. A woman who forsakes her husband for a man of higher caste is also chastised in the Manusmriti (Manusmriti 5:161, 164). Some women even go to the extent of committing sati, or burning herself on her husband’s funeral pyre as it was perceived as the highest merit of a faithful wife (“Sati”). This prescription is effective in a way that it explains the negative consequences as well as the rewards a woman shall have if she either disobeys or obeys the prescriptions. At the same time, the Manusmriti also encourages men to honor their women (Manusmriti 3:55). So, it does in fact balance the seemingly harsh view on women with the emphasis of treating their women well.

            Despite the texts heavily prescribing a woman’s devotion to her husband, her life is still essentially about fulfilling dharma, and eventually attaining moksha, as any other Hindu. A woman is viewed to be equal to men spiritually, as all life is fundamentally the same essence of the divine entity Brahman. Even on a divine level, femininity is also regarded with high esteem as the Divine Mother, Devi; another facet of the same divine entity. Goddesses like Lakshmi and Sarasvati are associated with positive values of wealth and knowledge. The female aspect is also regarded with equal importance in propagating the life because without it, the male aspect cannot act (Fisher 50). The Manusmriti itself is also a secondary text as compared to the Vedas, and is mainly a guideline of how one should fulfill dharma and is not the “word of God” itself. It is secondary to the Vedas and is based on societal positions, time, place and climate (Sivananda). Vedic teachings advocate that any person has equal chances to attain moksha as it is the ultimate goal of every individual. Due to the fact that the Hindus believe in reincarnation based on good or bad karma, the prescribed dharmas are justified, because if one fails in fulfilling dharma, they will get another chance being reborn in another lifetime, whereas those who fulfilled their dharma but have yet to achieve moksha will be reborn as a more ideal being. For the woman, her only hope is to be a good Hindu wife in one lifetime to be reborn as a man of higher caste and achieve moksha.
            In conclusion, gender roles in Hinduism are just as prevalent and justified based on religious texts as in other world religions as well. This is due to the fact that men and women are fundamentally different in creation and nature and play different roles in society. The dharma puts much stress on one’s responsibility to the society as well as the harmony of the society. The differences in dharma of men and women actually help the two complement in each other in a marriage in order to achieve the ultimate goal of moksha. Differences in social responsibilities also do not make one better than the other, it is just a different means of achieving the same goal.

Works Cited

Creel, Austin B. “Dharma as an Ethical Category Relating to Freedom and Responsibility.” Philosophy East and West. Vol. 22. No. 2. (April 1972): 155-168. JSTOR. Web. Oct 17 2011.

Fisher, Mary Pat. “Living Religions.” 8th Edition.  United States: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2011. Print.

"Manusmriti: Chapter 5." Pearson MyReligionLab. Trans. Georg Bühler. Pearson   Learning Solutions. Web. 15 Oct. 2011.

Pandit, Bansi. “Explore Hinduism”. Google books. 2005. Web. Oct. 15 2011.

“Pati.” Telugu to English Dictionary. n.d. Web. Oct 15 2011.

"Sati." Women In World History. Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, 2006.Web. 15 Oct. 2011.

Scovill, Nelia Beth. “The Liberation of Women in Religious Sources. Section 5: Hinduism.” Religious Consultation. n.d. Web. Oct 15 2011.

Sivananda, Sri Swami. “All About Hinduism”. Divine Life Trust Society. 1999. Web. Oct 15 2011.

“Smriti- Definition from the Miriam-Webster Dictionary.” Dictionary and Thesaurus - Merriam-Webster Online. n.d. Web. Oct 15. 2011.


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