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Women in Hinduism

Shambhavi puja to Para
March 8 2014

Happy International Women’s Day! For at least three decades, women in Buddhist traditions have been speaking out, writing, meeting and sharing about their experiences as women practitioners, renunciates and teachers. They have been supporting each other to create more possibilities for women in Buddhism to express themselves and share their wisdom.

For the most part, we women in Indian/Hindu traditions have not been so bold. We don’t write or talk honestly as much about our experiences as women. In a couple of lineages with which I have been associated, there is a definite atmosphere of fear, even as the initiation and promotion of women is a point of pride.

Sometimes we have let self-defined progressive male leaders tell us what our “feminism” should look like; what shape our leadership should take; what we should talk about with each other and in public; and how we should express the fruits of our sadhana. We have sometimes been embarrassed about expressing ourselves because we have internalized the concept that caring about gender discrimination is not “spiritual,” and that surrender means never speaking up, or being out of line.

When female discourse did erupt uncontrolled in any Indian/Hindu lineages with which I have been involved, it never led to an on-going, transparent conversation about the role of women in those lineages. Instead, the eruption was focused on a male leader who done wrong, sexually or otherwise. When male teachers vilified women who spoke “out of line,” there was little public support for those women.

As a younger person, I was one of those who did not speak out, or offer support. Why? Because I was too busy courting favor with the teacher.

This is down to us women.

If you have been in my shoes, I ask you to contemplate: What is my reason for not speaking out, or supporting other women? Or for not sharing honestly with other women in my tradition?

This is not about ordinary politics. Our fundamental experience of separation from others—the root of suffering—is expressed in my tradition as the experience of separation of Shiva and Shakti. Realization is gaining access to their unity.

The contested dynamics of male-female relations arises together as one phenomena. It is an expression of the most basic and universal karma: that of forgetting the ground of unity, or continuity. Gaining more freedom of expression as women, alongside men, is integral to the path of waking up.

Gender discrimination in Indian/Hindu traditions has had some interesting effects. It has at times caused the most accomplished women to leave, or never join, traditional lineages and institutions. The hallmark of realization is a degree of naturalness, honesty, fearlessness and creativity that cannot be contained or legislated against.

I always admired Swami Sivananda’s way of working with his most accomplished students: he sent them away to do their own thing. Sometimes he sent them away after only six months, sometimes after many years. He saw the uniqueness of each person, and he honored the self-expression of his students without attachment. He wasn’t threatened by the realization of his students. This applied to both men and women as far as I can tell.

Big openRecently, I read the application from my diksha (initiation) lineage for a two-year sannyasin training program. Sannyas is an expression of both total surrender to the path of waking up and total independence. It is an extremely creative, joyous, no-holds-barred way to live in service to God, one’s own essence nature. The (male) heads of my lineage have written movingly about sannyas many times.

Yet, in the application, it states: “The training . . . is open to both Indian and foreign nationals, males and females between the ages of 18 and 60, who have the minimum qualification of High School Matriculation. Indian females must have written consent from both parents.”  [italics mine]

This is uncomfortably ironic given the nature and history of the sannyas tradition. The requirement, if enforced, would surely prevent some women from attending the training.

I was playing around with what the application requirements would look like if the cultures of female applicants from outside of India were “respected” as is the culture of restricting women’s independence in India.

  • Female U.S. citizens must submit a minimum of two yoga teacher training certificates and a letter of recommendation from an approved list of certified yoga teachers.
  • Women from any country enforcing Sharia law must be accompanied by a male guardian and must pledge not to ride a bicycle or drive while attending the program.
  • In general, women must undergo a five-day waiting period and receive counseling before submitting this application.

In any case, I haven’t spoken out sometimes in the past, so I thought I would today.