Being believers is problematic for women in a world saturated by religions that are patriarchal and androcentric. The belief systems within this rubric accord women a secondary position. Various rituals and symbolism derived from these belief systems legitimize and naturalize unequal positions between men and women. Social practices normalize such relationships by replicating them through generations. This process produces structural conditions where change in this state of affairs appears almost impossible.

Within the Hindu religious context it is believed that a female is closer to matter (prakriti), while a male is closer to spirit (purusha). Everything that changes and decays is feminine, while everything permanent and unchanging is masculine. In the reproductive process, it is believed that a male provides the seed, while a female provides the soil to nurture the seed. Female personifies energy (Shakti) while male personifies consciousness (gyana).   Consciousness without energy remains dormant, while energy without consciousness is undirected, thus dangerous. They need to come together for life to happen in an orderly manner. Thus there is mutual interdependence of male and female, but the principles are hierarchically organized with aspects pertaining to the male considered superior, legitimizing male hegemony and female subordination. As Victor Turner points out, various rituals and symbolism naturalize and normalize such hierarchy. Women are socialized to accept their position without question since it is believed to be ordained by nature.   Structural arrangements ensure that women are under control and surveillance.

Sociological insight that if situations are defined as real they will be real in their consequences helps us to understand the significance of belief systems in organizing gender relations to ensure the intended consequences. Everything that is mundane and ordinary, susceptible to change and decay, is associated with female, and women are assigned daily maintenance activities pertaining to here and now. Men on the other hand are free to explore and engage in activities that are considered important. Historically it has been considered appropriate for men to use women as resources, according to their convenience, to achieve their goals. Flexibility and adaptability are considered as feminine virtues, and women are expected to accept that it is their duty to accommodate men in their endeavors by relieving them of duties considered mundane and ordinary. Having individual aspirations of their own which are not in sync with the men that they are expected to serve is considered selfish and unwomanly.

Theoretically multiple paths are available for men and women to achieve salvation. But women in general are exhorted to follow paths in keeping with their station in life. Selflessness, Self-sacrifice and service orientation are considered most conducive for women to achieve salvation. Doing whatever that is necessary to help men achieve their goals is considered a duty for a woman.   It is a common sense understanding that the sins committed in past lives have resulted in being born a woman. Living up to the ideals of womanhood in this life is their path to salvation. Men often consider women as a hindrance in their efforts to achieve salvation. There is vibrant literature commenting on the difficulties men face in their struggles to achieve salvation because of the temptations provided by women. Their association with worldly affairs is evaluated as being less important, and thus considered as a hindrance. Since transcending worldly affairs is considered necessary to achieve salvation, women are thought of as a constraint in this process. Women are exhorted to be conscious of this fact and to try their utmost to not place any impediments in men’s paths as they endeavor to achieve their goals.

Such a belief system desensitized people to women’s suffering in their daily life. During my research in an Indian village, when I expressed deep sadness to the predicament of several young widows who were forced to serve others without paying attention their own wellbeing, I was admonished to mind my own business. I was told that I have no right to stop these widows from achieving their salvation by serving others through self-sacrifice. On another occasion I wanted to share some information with other women regarding empowerment of women so that might become assertive enough to take care of themselves. I was told by more than one person not to be a busy body. Injustice and exploitation were considered part of normal life, and any attempt to change was considered as interference. Raising women’s consciousness was considered unnatural and unacceptable. One can sense the dislike and disapproval of feminism and feminists on a visceral level.

Under these circumstances, feminists in general focus their attention on improving women’s lives in aspects of life other than religion. These feminists are convinced that, within the existing religious contexts, it is impossible for women to consider themselves worthy, valuable and deserving. They opt to reject these religions with the conviction that it is impossible change them to make them woman-friendly. Thus women have to look elsewhere to nurture their humanity.

On the other hand, with firm convictions that changes in religious outlook are possible, some feminists are expending considerable energy to transform existing religions to make them woman-friendly. These convictions are based on a firm belief that it is necessary to separate men from patriarchy to envision the possibility of change towards equality in gender relations. Besides, catering to the spiritual needs of women is necessary for them to successfully engage in all other aspects of life to bring about changes. As it is often pointed out that without a spiritual anchor it is easy for anyone to get burnt out in the struggles to transform aspects of social life. The dedication and commitment of these feminists to this project are commendable. They show how possibilities exist to reinterpret the existing religious canon to make it gender inclusive. They also show how women’s engagement in leadership positions can help to hasten this process. Their insightful efforts to introduce gender inclusive language are meaningful since language does affect consciousness. Including rituals and ceremonies that speak to women’s life experiences helps to validate women’s humanity. Thus these feminists are trying to find ways and means of transforming existing religions by making them gender inclusive with regard to rituals, language and symbolism without hierarchy in terms of race, class, and caste.

There are also those feminists who are attempting to establish new religions that speak to women’s needs. They are endeavoring to draw upon woman-centered religions in prehistory, goddess traditions in various religions, and religious practices that validate and affirm women’s ways of knowing, living and doing. It is a work in progress which requires widespread support from women. As Gross points out, all of these efforts are necessary to respond to the current neglect of women’s needs for a spiritual anchor. Just as men, women also need answers to the ultimate questions faced by humanity.

I grew up in a small village and was part of an orthodox Hindu family. Watching the experiences of believers in the basic tenets of Hinduism in my formative years, I learned to seriously question the wisdom of following that course. I did not have any alternatives readily available to me since I was surrounded by deep and unquestioned faith. That did not prevent me from wondering if there could be any alternatives. One way I coped with the situation was to be selective in accepting aspects that made me feel good, and participating in such instances with enthusiasm while simply tolerating the aspects that made me feel unhappy. Growing up with five male siblings during my childhood and adolescence made me acutely aware that I was singled out for differential treatment simply because I was a girl. This perhaps partly explains my preoccupation with gender inequality from the time I was very young.

I still recall the sting of experiences I considered unfair and unjust.   For example all of my male siblings went through several life cycle ceremonies such as initiation to learning and adulthood with pomp and ceremony. But I had none of these. The only one I had was when I started to menstruate. But that ceremony was so traumatic that I almost hated my body. The upshot of this ceremony was to let me know that my body was susceptible to pollution through sexual intercourse before marriage.   I was made to understand in no uncertain terms that I should be very careful in my relationships with men and boys. I was kept in seclusion for three days until the bleeding stopped, and I was not allowed to touch anyone, nor was I allowed to move among people during this time.

I also remember feeling great as a girl during the worship of the goddess in her many forms. I used to be dressed in finery, decked with gold jewelry with flowers adorning my hair, while I worshipped the great goddess with earnest devotion. It felt that I was a part of her and she was a part of me. At that time I no longer felt that my body was polluted or susceptible to pollution. Instead I felt that it was in fact auspicious with the presence of the goddess in me. Saraswathy, the goddess of learning, music and the arts particularly made me feel special because it was all personified in the feminine.

I remember having similar experiences during the worship of the patron goddess of the village. The both men and women in the village were convinced of the power of the goddess to make improve the lives of the villagers by providing resources for a bountiful harvest, and with protection from all harmful effects, internal and external. She was envisioned as compassionate, caring, wise, brave and powerful. The awe and reverence I felt for the divine feminine was very similar to what all the villagers felt.

Thus even though my feminist sensibilities dictate that I should stay away from patriarchal and androcentric religions which most of the world religions are, I have found myself searching for aspects that sacralize the feminine within their belief systems and religious practices. The only way in which I can explain such a quest is the yearning I feel within my being to relate to something infinite and overarching. The number of questions that crowd my mind regarding the meaning of my existence here and now, and the mystery that surrounds the future and the hereafter, lead me in that path. Somehow I have never been able to embrace secular belief systems exclusively while rejecting all aspects of religion. I realize that it works for many people and I strongly support them in their endeavors.

In my search I have found that gender inclusive meditation practices in Zen Buddhism promote equality in gender relations. It is equally popular among men and women. Emphasis on mindfulness and awareness in teaching and spiritual practices has the potential to change work and domestic arrangements and relationships. Teachers in North America are careful to use gender inclusive language even though there are more male teachers than females. Meditation practices take place in gender neutral environment.   The Zen Buddhist belief system promotes gender neutrality in a spiritual realm.

Practices in Art of living weekly kriya have similar practices. As we regularly gather to breathe together in a gender neutral environment, each one of us is encouraged to pursue the individual goal of self-realization. Spiritual quest is considered as common to both men and women and similar strategies are suggested to work for both. Meditation practices and spiritual discourses are also gender neutral. Having both male and female teachers leading the kriya is also helpful.

My fond wish is to have a religion that is gender inclusive in language, rituals and beliefs without hierarchy in terms of caste, race, or class among others. Such a religion will provide powerful, pervasive and long lasting moods and motivations as Clifford Geertz states, to usher in a society where justice, equality, peace and harmony will prevail. Until such day we have to search for openings in the existing religions to fulfill our need to deal with ultimate questions.


References:2002. Dhruvarajan, Vanaja. “Religion, Spirituality and Feminism.” In GENDER, RACE AND NATION: A Global Perspective, Co-authored with Jill Vickers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

1989   . Dhruvarajan, Vanaja.   Hindu Women and The Power of Ideology. Granby, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

1988   . Dhruvarajan, Vanaja. “Religious Ideology and Interpersonal Relationships within the Family” in Journal of Comparative Family Studies. l9,2:273:85

2010.   Dhruvarajan, Vanaja. “Women as Leaders in Hinduism.” Gender and Women’s Leadership: A reference Manual,     Edited by Karen O’Conner. New Delhi: SAGE.

1973. Geertz, Clifford. Interpretation of Culture. New York: Basic Books.

1996. Gross, Rita N. Feminism and Religion. Boston:Beacon Press.

1969. Turner, Victor W. The Ritual Process. Chicago: Aldine.

Vanaja Dhruvarajan is an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University. She is mother for two and grandmother for four children. She completed her B.A. in India and Masters and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. Her teaching and research interests include Globalization, Family and Socialization, Gender, Anti-Racism, and Knowledge Monopolies. She has done research in India and Canada and has published several articles and books, including Hindu Women and the Power of Ideology, GENDER RACE AND NATION: A Global Perspective co-authored with Jill Vickers. She has served as President of Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association, President of Canadian Women's Studies Association, and Ruth Wynn Woodward endowed Chair in Women's Studies at Simon Fraser University. She has served on the boards of several Professional, University, Government and Community Organizations.