Women and Religion – UPSC GS1

  • Women’s spaces within religious traditions were neither a given, nor were they static; in early India, there were several contexts in which women sought spaces for themselves, had to face resistance, and, at times, succeeded in overcoming it.
  • Vedic literature has many references to women in the context of religion and ritual, particularly the sacrifice, but there is not a single instance where the woman is seen as the primary performer. TheTaittiriya Brahmana (circa 10th to 7th century BCE) states that a sacrifice is no sacrifice if the wife is not present.
  • Buddhism, itself a religion evolving out of the questioning of existing beliefs and practices, provides us with the first such instance, when women demanded to be a part of the monastic institution founded by Buddha. They were rejected thrice by him. The determined women shaved their heads and adopted the saffron robes of the monks. They followed the Buddha.
  • Gender also intervened as a social demarcator, and women were compared to those at the end of the social ladder, the sudra It is this brahmanical tradition that poses the greatest complexity in the attitudes revealed towards women’s participation in ritual, be it in its Vedic postulation or its sectarian Puranic articulation.
  • In Bhakti traditions we see women (and lower caste men) with agency, seeking to be a part of the community of bhaktas, attempting to break social taboos and creating spaces for themselves in a male-dominated domain.
    • Tamil saints Karaikal Ammaiyar and Andal present two different paths to salvation for the woman bhakta.
    • Other women saints in different times and different tongues expressed similar ideas that were radical in content
    • Undeterred by social norms, they staked their claims to enter male religious bastions and, in their own ways, some of them succeeded.
  • There are numerous sources that indicate that some categories of women certainly had access to the temple. Royal women are prominent as donors and some are even portrayed in sculpture and bronze casts.
  • The notions of ritual purity and pollution were invoked to camouflage the social exploitation and economic deprivation of the lower castes and those outside the pale of caste society
  • The extension of the idea of pollution to women, whose menstruating bodies were seen as impure.
  • There appears to be not much of a transformation of the normative structures of society.
  • Across time, religious traditions have sought to codify rules, control entry and regulate participation within the institutional and ritual domain. Obviously, these are archaic practices, originating in very different contexts from the present, and hence need to be discarded in keeping with the ethos of a liberal democracy as envisaged in the Indian Constitution.
  • In modern India, there have been movements seeking entry of untouchables into temples, the famous Travancore Temple Entry of 1936 being one such successful movement.
  • It is high time that a similar challenge that has been raised by some women’s groups Recently With regarding to Sabarimala temple or Shani Singnapur temple and in keeping with constitutional provisions for equality of women, their entry into religious places which currently keep them out becomes a reality.
  • The law gave an impetus for the women’s cause by allowing them to enter the sanctum sanctorum in the Shani Singnapur case .



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