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Feminist Movements in Religion: Hinduism and Christianity

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To what extent can a cross-religious feminist movement help create an egalitarian society in Hinduism and Christianity?

Religion in all of its forms has existed since the very beginning of mankind. From the beginning of civilizations on Earth up until present day society, religion has consistently impacted the behaviors, culture, and beliefs of societies by offering the answers to the unanswerable, and by providing a method for achieving liberation, or an ultimate goal after death. Hinduism and Christianity, two of the oldest and largest world religions impact society in multiple ways, an example of which being the role of women. In spite of the feminist movement's impact on the stereotypical view of females in society, the greatly androcentric traditions of these two ways of life have lessened the impact feminist movements throughout the globe, and have led to limited developments in the lives of women living in these highly-structured societies.

Feminism was an idea that was created by a French writer, Alexander Dumas, in 1872, that attempts to define the movement in which women try to reach "equality with men in the religious, social, political, professional, educational, economical, and other spheres". [1] Many feminist movements have, over time, attempted to bring about a more gender equal world, but influences from Hinduism and Christianity have halted their influence in certain parts of the world. Because of past failures, it seems vital that people create a global feminism movement which, through pressure and influence, can hope to combat the deeply entrenched viewpoints in the minds of people regarding women and their role in society. Although this solution seems plausible idealistically, issues can be created when attempting to bring together the vastly different ideologies of Christianity and Hinduism into a single feminist movement. The impact the hypothetical movement would have would be limited as a result of solely religion, as people are often unable to work with people who are unlike themselves. In order to create a feminist movement that can surpass religion, individuals must recognize and accept the similarities between Hinduism and Christianity in various aspects of the religions, such as the role of women in society and how God is represented, to create an efficient movement that can begin to form an egalitarian society.

To better comprehend the role of women in Hindu society, one must discern the concept of dharma. This idea "has a wide range of meaningsand it has more to do with duty" than with "rights"[2]. Dharma has a profound impact on the role of all individuals on society. It governs the way in which people lead their lives not by giving them rights, but by telling them to do their duty. However, the presence of patriarchal scriptures in Hinduism, such as The Laws of Manu from the Dharmashastras, have created an eminently androcentric society and religion in which women are subordinates to men [3]. While many scriptures do emphasize the equality between men and women, those texts that "contain liberating images of women have hitherto been given scant attention" [4]. This partisan analysis of the sacred texts has helped to foster and entrench the disparity between genders that is present in Hindu life today.

Dharma is an idea that is specific to Hinduism. However, inequality between men and women is also present in Christianity. Christianity in its raw form stresses the importance of equality between both genders. Schussler explains, "Christians understood themselves as a new community, in which all members shared equally in the freedom of the children of God." The equality that was present in early Christianity drew people, specifically women, to the religion. However, women still had to deal with a subordinate role in society because of clear bias in the interpretation of the Bible. Stresses is placed on excerpts like 1 Timothy 2:9-15, which states that "both commanded [women] to keep silent and behave modestly, and explicitly forbidden to teach or to have any authority over men" [5]. Additionally, essential teachings, like women being "equally created in the image and likeness of God, redeemed by Christ, graced by the Spirit" [6], are neglected and dismissed. Because early Christian interpretations of the Bible were scribed only by men, "they transmitted only a fraction of the rich tradition about significant women and their contributions to early Christianity" [7]. Therefore, the tendentious history provided by male scholars helped to create the androcentric society present in Christianity today.

Although the essentials of both religions try and construct an egalitarian society, the flawed analysis and clarification of scriptures shows that in both religions, societies revolved around men. Therefore, the dominance of men in society helped form greatly androcentric societies. The affinity of the two religions will help to bolster the new cross-regional feminist movement. The movement should bring forth and argue upon the reexamination and reinterpretation of holy texts by providing proof of biased interpretation in both Hinduism and Christianity, evidenced by the presence of male focused societies in the two religions. A reexamination would bring to light the man passages that emphasize equality between men and women in society. This would allow the feminist movement to take a new step towards the creation of a more egalitarian society.

Even though some key similarities between the two religions are present, there are also many differences that need to be addressed. A key feature of Hinduism which has allowed an androcentric society to flourish is the presence of both the caste system as well as an innate family hierarchy. Both of these structures, which make up familial and societal norms, are based on the aforementioned concept of dharma and its impact on the roles of both men and women. Because of the inflexible structure of society, a specific faction of individuals based on "age, gender, and seniority" [8], remain at the zenith. Also, expectations placed on both men and women because of their role in society have resulted in "some cases [where] both men and women have been equally disadvantaged" [9]. This injustice has, in certain cases, positively impacted social change, as "Women's issues have not been seen exclusively in the domain of women. Some Indian men have espoused and championed the cause of women" [10]. The inferiority felt by both men and women as a result of the impact of dharma and an uncompromising society has been powerful in leading to social reform that is attempting to create a more egalitarian society.

The joint effort of black men and women in Christianity has also aided in bringing about change. The coordination of these individuals along with the white majority has increased unity within the religion. "If Rosa Parks had not sat down, Martin [Luther] King would not have stood up."[11] This saying demonstrates how the combined forces of men and women were needed to stimulate social change. Considering how an "entire African American family - mother, father, children, and black kinsfolk - was oppressed and confronted by systemic violence"[12], actions of both women and men were vital in bringing about change to the blatant racial prejudice of the time.

Changes have been brought about by joint efforts between men and women, but inequalities in the roles of men and women in Hinduism and Christianity are still present. A major cause of this is the lack of a large enough demands for social and religious change such as equal social status. A multi religious feminist movement would add to efforts to bring about social equality for all women and men in Christianity. Although the movements seem to be strikingly unique on the surface, the issue of equality between genders and their roles in society is a universal one. The increased demand for social change due to the combined efforts of both religions will aid in bringing about a more egalitarian society.

The struggle of equality is present in both Hinduism and Christianity. This is primarily because of the similarities in the roles of women in both of the religions. The description of Sita in the Ramayan can be interpreted to clearly define the boundaries in which a woman must act in Hinduism. The epic centers around Ram, an avatar of God, who is exiled to a forest as per the wishes of his stepmother. In the forest, his wife, Sita, is kidnapped by the demon Ravana. Ravana hopes to marry Sita, and therefore he keeps her locked in his kingdom on the island of Sri Lanka. Sita, who is the image of the perfect wife, remains loyal to her her husband in the face of danger. Ultimately, Sita is rescued by Ram, and shows herself to be "the ideal, chaste, woman, obedient to her husband" [13] . Despite scriptures like the Dharmashastras, an example being the Narada Smriti, "were liberal in their attitude toward women" [14], the obligations a wife had towards her spouse "valued qualities that were mostly based on the portrayal of women", which were portrayed in epics such as the Ramayana in contrast to the Dharmashastras, were the true definers of the role of women in society. [15] These roles of women which were provided through stories helped to solidify and strengthen the ideal role that women had in society in Hinduism.

Also helping to form the androcentric nature of Christianity is its limited depiction of women. In the Book of Genesis, which includes the story of creation, it is stated that "God regards Eve as primarily a child-bearing creature" [16]. Although Eve was equal to Adam, this quote from the Bible transforms her role as a human into a simple helper who "exists for the procreation of children" [17]. In actuality, "[Adam] calls her name Eve, 'life', 'because she was the mother of all living'" [18]. Therefore, Eve's role was reduced to one of a motherly nature whose sole duty in the world was to help in the procreating of children. This lessened the value of women in Christianity, and helped to move it towards the androcentric religion that it is today.

All women, in both Hinduism and Christianity, should concentrate on being good mothers and dutiful wives. Although, idealistically, both men and women are to be thought of as equals with noteworthy commitments to humankind, each gender has roles that are specific to them. Women are supposed to "bear, nourish, and deliver new persons into life [, and] carry out the responsibilities of raising children into maturity" [19]. Although this stereotypical responsibility of women lessens their true worth, it can be used to help in creating an egalitarian society. Gandhi used the importance of women to change the way in which they were viewed. He "valued the qualities such as non-violence, self-denial, self-sacrifice, and endurance that were normally associated with womanhood, and he expected men (including himself) to emulate these values'" [20]. Imitating these great qualities that each gender should have elevated society by allowing men to comprehend the true importance and significance that women had. Their roles were just as, if not even more, important as those of men. This example can be utilized in modern-day society by creating a mutual respect for the roles of both genders. By looking at and comprehending the significance of both genders, people can help to progress the combined feminist movement and help to create an egalitarian society.

Additionally, the portrayal of God in both Hinduism and Christianity must be understood and comprehended to help and create a multi-religion feminist movement. The ideas of a 'God' in both religions vary slightly. Hindus believe in one supreme being. Although the presence of all the avatars of God are acknowledges, a Hindu believes one of those aspects to be supreme. "Devotees worship every God or Goddess whom they addressas the supreme reality" [21]. Therefore, it can be said that Hindu's worship the avatar of God that has the most importance to them, regardless of its gender (i.e. the worship of the goddess Laxmi to grant a Hindu wealth). This compatibility of both the male and female forms of Gods shows the fundamental equality among both genders. Male and female avatars of God do play different roles in the universe, but each is equally important to the whole. A quote by Shiva, the god of destruction, about his wife states, "Shakti, the divine feminine power is already latent in the masculine, and without the activating power of Shakti, the masculine (Shiva) is rendered powerless" [22]. This quote demonstrates how both men and women are needed to carry out a task in the universe. "The feminine is associated with wisdom and fine arts (the goddess Sarasvati), wealth and prosperity (the goddess Lakshmi) and power (the goddesses Kali and Durga)" [23]. The values that these goddesses represent are important in society. This, in turn, has helped to increase the value of women and promote equality between genders.

Bibliography

Clines, David. What Does Eve Do to Help?: And Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament. England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990. Book.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. "A Theological Case for God-She: Expanding the Treasury of Metaphor." Commonweal (1993): pp. 9-14.

Narayanan, Vasudha. "Brimming with Bhakti, Embodiments of Shakti: Devotees, Deities, Performers, Reformers, and Other Women of Power in the Hindu Tradition." Sharma, Arvind and Katherine K Young. Feminism and World Religions. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999. pp. 25-77.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Christology and Feminism: Can a Male Saviour Save Women ? 1981. 25 April 2015.

Schussler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. "Word, Spirit, and Power: Women in Early Christian Communities." Women of Spirit: Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.

Sugirtharajah, Sharada. "Hinduism and Feminism: Some Concern." Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (2012): pp. 97-104.

Wiliams, Delores S. "Black Theology and Womanist Theology." Antonio, Edward P. and Dwight N. Hopkins. The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology. Cambridge University Press, n.d. pp. 58-72.


[1] "Narayanan, Vasudha. "Brimming with Bhakti, Embodiments of Shakti: Devotees, Deities, Performers, Reformers, and Other Women of Power in the Hindu Tradition." Sharma, Arvind and Katherine K Young. Feminism and World Religions. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999." pp. 25

[2] "Sugirtharajah, Sharada. "Hinduism and Feminism: Some Concern." Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (2012)": pp. 100

[3] Sugirtharajah, pp.100

[4] Sugirtharajah, pp.100

[5] "Schussler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. "Word, Spirit, and Power: Women in Early Christian Communities." Women of Spirit: Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979."

[6] "Johnson, Elizabeth A. "A Theological Case for God-She: Expanding the Treasury of Metaphor." Commonweal (1993)" pp. 9

[7] Schussler

[8] Sugirtharajah, pp.100

[9] Sugirtharajah, pp.101

[10] Sugirtharajah, pp.102

[11] "Wiliams, Delores S. "Black Theology and Womanist Theology." Antonio, Edward P. and Dwight N. Hopkins. The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology. Cambridge University Press, n.d." pp. 58

[12] Wiliams, pp.62

[13] Narayanan, pp. 35

[14] Narayanan, pp. 35

[15] Sugirtharajah

[16] "Clines, David. What Does Eve Do to Help?: And Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament. England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990. Book." pp.35

[17] Clines, pp.36

[18] Clines, pp.36

[19] Johnson, pp.13

[20] Sugirtharajah, pp.102

[21] Narayanan, pp.66

[22] Sugirtharajah, pp.102

[23] Sugirtharajah, pp.102


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