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Women Images

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Edited by Pratibha Jain Rajan Mahan

0 Rawat Publications Jaipur and New Delhi

ISBN 81-7033-306-9 © Contributors, 1996

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No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the publishers. Published by Prem Rawat for Rawat Publications 3-Na-20, Jawahar Nagar, Jaipur 302 004 India Phone: +97 141 567022 Fax: +91 141 567748 Delhi Office G-19, Vijay Chowk, Laxmi Nagar, New Delhi 110 092 India Typeset by Rawat Computers, Jaipur Printed at Nice Printing Press, New Delhi


Recent researches have emphasized that by overlooking the con­ tribution of women to human evolution, as social actors who re­ inforce both continuity and change in society, the social sci­ ences have grievously undermined their fundamental objec­ tive—the objective of understanding social reality. This anthol­ ogy strives to redress this imbalance by exploring the enduring linkages between cultural ideas, women images and the perpetu­ ation of gender dichotomies. The basic endeavour has been to locate the enormous variety of women images, identify the ideo­ logical inspiration and underpinnings behind these images, and comprehend the manner and processes through which these im­ ages affect, shape and even determine the reality of women’s lives in the subcontinent. However, the editors make no claim whatsoever that the present study provides an exhaustive or even representative coverage of the wide gamut of issues and themes that might well be expected of a book with such an evocative title as Women Images. The essential objective of the volume has been to investi­ gate not so much actual women as ‘ideas’ about them and to fo­ cus upon the manner in which women and women’s potential



have been perceived in India’s social ethos and cultural heri­ tage. The fifteen essays in this collection are grouped under three sections which address themselves to three inter-related themes. The first section highlights some of the major ‘Concepts and Categories’ that are relevant to an understanding of women images. The second section examines the manner in which ‘Art and Literature’ have reflected images of the feminine. The final section furnishes ‘Historical Perspectives’ to the images of In­ dian women in medieval and modem times. These articles es­ tablish that female images have perceptibly influenced attitudes towards women in at least three major ways. At the societal plane, the perception of different categories of women is dis­ tinctly shaped by the popularly accepted female images; at the inter-personal level, within the family, these images frequently impinge in a variety of ways with regard to the rights and roles of women; and at the individual level, these images leave a deep imprint upon women’s self-perception. In cumulation, these ar­ ticles confirm that Women Images do exert a powerful influence on the social order and the situation of Indian women in a vari­ ety of ways ranging from the ostensibly normative to the dis­ tinctly causative. Contributors to this anthology belong to a variety of disci­ plines history, political science, sociology, art and literature. We are deeply indebted to each one of these distinguished scholars but for whose whole-hearted cooperation it would not have been possible to bring out this volume. While the views expressed in the individual contributions are solely those of their respective authors, wc acccpt full responsibility for all limitations and shortcomings which, despite our sincere efforts to the contrary, may have inadvertently crept into this collection.

Pratibha Jain Rajan Mahan


Preface Contributors Introduction

5 9

11 Part One

Concepts and Categories 1

The Image o f Woman in the Indian Tradition: Some Reflections


G.C. Pande 2

W omen in Classical Sanskrit Literature


R.C. Dwivedi 3

Gender Theme: Issues and Perspectives


N.K. Singlii 4

Cinderella’s Stepmother: An Analysis of aCounter-Image


Jasbir Jain 5

Widows: Role Adjustment and Violence

Ram Ahuja




Part Two Ait and Literature 6

Images of Women as Reflected in Sculpture Neelima Vashishtha


The Image of Woman in Ramcharitmanas Anand Kashyap



Women Images as Reflected in Late 19th Century Gujarati Literature Shinn Mehta



From Indignity to Individuation: Women in Indo-Anglian Novel Asha Kaushik




Hisorical Perspectives 10 Women in Medieval India: A Study of Position and Images V.S. Bhatnagar


11 Indian Renaissance, Concept of Womanhood and Dayanand Saraswati Sangeeta Sharma


12 Women in the Freedom Struggle: Invisible Images Pratibha Jain and Sangeeta Sharma


13 Nehni’s Vision of Women Pratibha Jain and Rajan Mahan


14 Gandhi on Women: Imaging a New Identity Pratibha Jain


15 Unveiling the Valorous: An Exploration of the Veerangana Image Rajan Mahan





Ahuja, Ram, Former Professor and Head, Department of Sociology, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur. Bhatnagar, V.S., Former Professor and Head, Department of History and Indian Culture, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur. Dwivedi, R.C., Former Professor and Head, Department of Sanskrit, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur. Jain, Jasbir, Professor of English and Director, Academic Staff College, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur. Jain, Pratibha, Head, Department of History and Director, Gandhian Studies Centre, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur Kashyap, Anand, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur. Kaushik, Asha, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur. Mahan, Rajan, Research Associate, South Asia Studies Centre, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur.



Mehta, Shirin, Professor and Head, Department of History, Gujarat University, Ahemdabad. Pande, G.C., Professor of History and Former Vice Chancellor, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur. Sharma, Sangeeta, Research Officer, Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur. Singhi, N.K., Professor and Head, Department of Sociology, Univetsity of Rajasthan, Jaipur. Vashishtha, Neelima, Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur.


Pratibha Jain and Rajan Mahan

This anthology has emanated from our growing realization that cultural ideas, symbols, values, and mores have played a crucial role in the creation of women images and the reinforcement of gender dichotomies. The complex interplay, the correspondence as well as the contradiction between the image and the reality of women in the Indian society have captivated both the scholarly community and the common citizenry. An exploration of this phenomenon is being attempted in this volume which seeks to investigate some of the images of women and femininity from ancient to modem times as reflected through epics, literature, art, classical and folk traditions, and politico-nationalist polem­ ics. The present endeavour has been motivated primarily by a desire to locate and identify the multiplicity of women images and, as far as possible, to comprehend the manner in which these images affect and shape the reality of women’s lives. There can perhaps be no direct bearing between consciousness and causality or between symbolic constructs and the systemic



ordering of social relations. However, it needs to be emphasized that images (in the form of ideas, symbols, traditions, values, models, etc.) do impinge upon and sometimes exert a powerful influence on the social order and the productive processes in a variety of ways ranging from the normative to the distinctly causative. As such, in examining the images of Indian women, the effort has been to study not the actual position or status of women but rather one significant set of conditions which in our view have considerably shaped and influenced the situation of Indian women. In short, the basic attempt has been to investi­ gate not so much actual women but ideas and constructs about them. The main effort has been to focus upon the manner in which women and women’s potential—both constructive and destructive—have been perceived in India’s social ethos and cultural heritage. The Indian subcontinent manifests infinite variations in the status of women, diverging in accordance with caste, class, fam­ ily structure, property rights, ethics morals and the overall cul­ tural milieu. Besides, the role and position of women have been far from static ranging from what is believed to have been a po­ sition of considerable esteem, authority and independence to one of equally considerable subordination and subservience. In­ evitably, the condition of women in Indian culture and, there­ fore, also their images, reveal a peculiar amalgam which repre­ sents a unique intermitting of low legal status, ritual contempt, sophisticated sexual partnership and an abject (and fearful ?) deification. Although it may sound somewhat facetious and flippant, yet it is perhaps not inappropriate to observe about a country as plu­ ralistic diverse and complex as India that for any one statement made, the exact opposite is also likely to be true. Indeed, India abounds in paradoxes. For instance, we witness not merely the familiar contrasts between India’s poverty and India’s democ­ racy as well as the apparent process of ‘dynastic succession’ in a democratic system but also the far more baffling contradiction



between India’s high level of political violence and its undis­ puted success in sustaining a democratic polity. Similarly, in the economic sphere, most statements of fact are confronted by and have to contend with conflicting evidence. For example, most economists (whether they support or oppose the government) agree that the gulf between the rich and the poor is steadily in­ creasing; simultaneously, however, they do acknowledge that the country has abolished the spectre of famine and that most In­ dians are generally better off now than they were at the time of independence from the British Raj. In a largely similar vein, Indian women are placed in an es­ pecially paradoxical situation. The country that has produced In­ dira Gandhi (perhaps the most powerful woman of the modern world) is also the home for millions of illiterate and impover­ ished women. While Indian men may ill-treat and beat up/batter their wives, they also worship, and pay the most abject obei­ sance to goddesses and some of the mightiest deities in the Hindu pantheon are female divinities like Durga and Kali. Al­ though a tiny (but growing) segment of highly educated, profes­ sional women (as administrators, academicians, scientists, en­ trepreneurs, etc.) in the larger cities are striving to transform contemporary Indian society, the vast multitude of Indian women continue to labour under the ‘double depravation’ of be­ ing both, poor and female. Consequently, in a civilization that has spawned, accepted and revered the cult of shakti (or female power) through most of its recorded history, an overwhelming proportion of women remain powerless victims, unthinking col­ laborators or simply mute witnesses to a wide variety of inhu­ man practices being perpetrated against helpless women such as bride burning, dowry deaths, female infanticide (more recently, female foeticide) and, occasionally, even sati (widow burning alive with husband) which have persisted till the present day. These-conflicting women images appear to be inherent and inevitable in a multilayered society riven by caste-class in­ equalities. regional disparities, linguistic distinctions, polarized



communal identities and a cultural diversity that draws suste­ nance from a civilization which dates back to 2500 B.C. Given the plurality and complexity of India, it is perhaps futile and in­ appropriate to search for and locate one dominant image of a ‘typical’ Indian woman. At the same time, however, consistency and continuity have characterized the evolution of Indian cul­ ture, especially in the sphere of social institutions such as vama, jati and family which have manifested a significant bearing on the construction and determination of gender in Indian society. Consequently, the normative model/image of Indian woman­ hood has displayed a rather remarkable consistency and ubiq­ uity, although intervening historical processes involving socio­ religious and politico-economic considerations/changes have significantly influenced and shaped the construction of feminin­ ity in different periods. ~p> The pervasive nature of this normative image/ideal can per­ haps be appreciated by the fact that even the vibrant movement for social reform in the nineteenth century India (despite accord­ ing extensive space to women’s issuesKsoupht to construct a ‘new femininity’ without dismantling (or ‘de-constructing’) the traditional virtues, images and roles of women (as devoted wives,competent house-makers and benevolent mothers) which had been inherited from the past. As a matter of fact, the move­ ment appears to have been based upon the retrieval of certain dominant ideals/images of women through the veneration of a ‘glorious past’ (sanctioned by and reinforced through classical scriptures) which provided a legitimacy to the endeavour in a society inextricably linked with ancient traditions. As such, the traditional values/virtues prescribed for women (like self-sacri­ fice, tolerance, benevolence, competence) were not substituted by but rather supplemented with the more contemporaneous val­ ues of orderliness, thrift, intelligence and an enhanced sense of social responsibility. As a consequence, the social reform move­ ment was constructed in such a manner that it eventually rein­ forced the dominant cultural images (of benevolent mother and



virtuous wife), although it must be admitted and appreciated that its focus on women’s issues/evils helped to incorporate the same in the nationalist agenda and succeeded in imparting visibility to and urgency about the need for effecting an improvement in the situation/status of Indian women. While acknowledging that there is no universally applicable image of an archetypal Indian woman and that images of women have undergone numerous changes and subtle innovations, cer­ tain basic motifs and models have enjoyed a sustained, if surrep­ titious, existence and have won wide social acceptance and even approval. Among the most dominant motifs is the notion of the pativrata, the devoted and virtuous wife. Since marriage is re­ garded as the noblest avocation and the ‘true’ destiny of Indian women, there is an enormous emphasis on the cultural ideal of faithful and uncomplaining wifehood. Thus, the pativrata re­ gards it as her saubhagya (good fortune and well being which is, however, contingent upon having a living husband) to willingly suffer all kinds of adversities and privations for the sake of her husband and accepts service (sewa) to her spouse, parents-inlaw and other members of her conjugal family as her basic gen der duty (stridharma). The predominance of this pativrata im­ age has led to the veneration and idealization of a model of wifehood committed to and constrained by virtues like chastity, fidelity, patience, tolerance, unswerving devotion, uncomplain­ ing self-sacrifice, etc., and this ideological construct has not only led to the strict management of female sexuality and re­ stricted women’s social interaction and mobility, but has also ensured that women remain in an inferior, subordinate and dis­ tinctly dependent position in the marital equation. While ac­ knowledging that the subcontinent has invariably witnessed the simultaneous presence and prevalence of the ‘Great Tradition’ of the classical elite and the literati and the ‘Little Traditions’ of the common folk (which appear to have been more liberal for women) and while accepting that traditional values, ideals and norms have undergone a distinct dilution in recent years for the



urban upper and middle classes, it is difficult to deny that large sections of Indian women still identify with the pativrata image which, therefore, continues to affect and shape their lives is a subtle but significant manner. Closely associated with the notion of the pativrata is the im­ age of glorified motherhood. The positive estimation of the mother’s role in Indian mythology, folklore, contemporary cin­ ema, political ideology and everyday family life is so well-es­ tablished that it requires little elucidation. Thus, as a life-giver and protector of her children, the mother has been elevated to a very high position in Hindu sacred texts and her offsprings, es­ pecially sons, are asked to give their total respect and devotion to her. Throughout India the very idea of motheihood is ac­ corded enormous reverence and it is usually believed to be a role of great spiritual power and potency. Indeed, even if . a sannyasi (who is normally supposed to transcend all kin rela­ tionships) happens to come across his parents, while the biologi­ cal father touches the feet of his sannyasi son, the sannyasi is the one who is expected to touch the feet of his mother. As such, j t can be contended that whereas western civilization empha­ sizes^ the sexual role of woman as wife, Indian civilization Stresses her maternal role as mother and in the subcontinent, motherhood implies the spiritual transformation of the social role of wifehood. Although the significance of the idealized ‘Virgin Mary’ image in Chrisdan tradition can hardly be ig­ nored, it would not be incorrect to state that it has not received the same kind of cultural sanctity and social acceptability in the western world as the motherhood ideal has been accorded in In­ dian tradition. Not surprisingly, therefore, veneration for the ‘mother god­ dess’ (the goddess of the fertility cult?) in its various manifesta­ tions remains to this day perhaps the most widely worshipped deity in India’s villages and towns. However, these divine moth­ ers or devis are far more meaningful than simple fertility cult objects. While they are frequently worshipped in the specific



context of desired human or crop fertility, they appear to be more often appealed to in the hope that they will not unleash their destructive capabilities. As a matter of fact, the image of divine motherhood represents, in most Hindu philosophical sys­ tems, the idea of universal or cosmic energy (shakti)\ an energy that is not only creative but can also be both, destructive and sustaining. ^ Whether the worship of this powerful mother goddess image strengthened the fear of woman (as symbolizing the power of procreation) or whether it reflects a subconscious compensatory gesture for the multiple gender disabilities women have tradi­ tionally suffered, are issues that can be debated endlessly. What is indubitable, however, is that through all its different manifes­ tations (from the crude images of Harappan culture, to the con­ sorts of the great gods, and to the more esoteric shaktis of the tantric cults), the mother goddess has not only remained one of the most powerful deities of-the Hindis pantheon, but has also constituted one of the most enduring ideals/images for Indian women. However, by idealizing the qualities of unselfishness and sacrifice in it mother and by eulogizing her maternal capa­ bilities, the Indian mother (as represented in iconography, my­ thology, folklore, etc.), as recent feminist scholars have high­ lighted, has in reality been placed under rigorous control of men; and the exaggerated glorification of maternal self-effacement (or, at least, subordination of self to the needs of others) has resulted in the substantial removal of women from the worldly arena of power and wealth. Notwithstanding the valid­ ity (or otherwise) of such criticism, it needs to be understood and acknowledged that the deep reverence for the motherhood ideal has in a certain sense led to the empowerment of women since, in the authority structure of the Indian family, the mother is regarded as parallel to the father. Despite her lack of educa­ tion, economic strength and/or cultural refinement, the Indian mother remains central to the decision making processes in the family not only in terms of social interactions and religious ritu­



als but also in the context of the utilization and distribution ot economic resources and financial transactions of the family. Given this background, it seems only natural that the bur­ geoning nationalism in colonial India (especially in Bengal) of the last quarter of the nineteenth century employed the image of the mother to represent nationalist aspiration. The ancient re­ deeming image of the Bharat Mata as the presiding deity Shakti was used in a big way, particularly in the phase of militant/ex­ tremist nationalism. Since the sense of personalized well being generated by the warm affection of the mother was beyond the reach of an impersonal concept such as the ‘nation’, the nation­ alist revolutionaries appropriated the mother image into their politics of heroic sacrifice. The cultural artefact of Deshmata— the country as motherland—inevitably gained strong legitimacy during the nationalist movement and the nationalists used three basic and powerful mother images (i.e., “mother that was, mother that is, mother that will be”) to inspire and mobilize their subjugated countrymen. Innumerable novels, songs, poems and other artistic creations glorified the Indian mother and the ideol­ ogy of motherhood became one of the most significant emblems of the emerging nationhood of India. Rabindranath Tagore in Ghare Baire, Bharatendu in Bharat Durdasha, Bankim Chandra in Anandmath and the numerous writings of Aurobindo and Subramaniam Bharati are striking examples of the use of the ideology of motherhood to invoke nationalist forever. In sharp contrast to the positive women images encom­ passed in the ideal of the pativrata and the glorification of moth­ erhood, Indian tradition also manifests a variety of overtly nega­ tive images which appear to be distinctly hostile to certain cate­ gories of women. Chief among these sinister/destructive images are those of the widow and the witch. Since it represents the converse of the notion of marriage as women’s destiny and the married state as the most desirable, widowhood is inextricably associated with the idea of inauspiciousness and results in the Ipss of the right to full participation in socio-religious life. As



the widow is alleged to promote inauspiciousness in those around her, ‘demanded withdrawal’ from social life is enforced upon her and she is particularly excluded from celebrations like weddings and other auspicious occasions. In reality, of course, the presence of a widow, especially if still capable of sexual and reproductive activity, seems to have been a delicate and difficult problem for her husband’s surviving male kin. Even if her celi­ bacy could be ensured by imposing severe restrictions on her so­ cial contacts, the widow represented a fearful and ever-present threat to the status of men defined traditionally by references to the purity of their women. The fear of widows acquired its most extreme form in the practice of sati and the image of widow­ hood has invariably been one of unalleviated misery. Although the strict code of conduct prescribed for widows is mercifully no longer operative in its most restrictive/oppressive/exploitative aspects, a distinct contrast between the status of a widow and a Suhagan (i.e., one whose husband is alive) remains an abiding characteristic of Indian society. The other major type of female harmer who is believed to be capable of causing debilitating effects is the Churail, or the witch. Although women in general are regarded as capable of becoming witches, witch suspects are typically either those who are arid (baanjh) or those who are widowed at a young age. Such is the devastating potential of the witch suspect that the supposed malevolent powers of her gaze are shielded off from such ‘nurturing’ entities as the cow’s udder, mothers milk, eater’s meal and the bride’s sindhoor in the hair and her con­ comitant reproductive potential because the evil eye of the Churail on such items will make the associated individual seri­ ously ill. The particular items regarded as vulnerable to the gaze " of a witch indicate a negative relationship between the typical witch suspect (as widow or arid woman) and the life-generating processes which these items invariably symbolize. This negative equation and the generally negative attribution for the witch im­ age is in conformity with the imposed or natural infertility of the



usual witch suspect. Despite the discrepancy between the al­ leged harm potential of the two types (which for the widow is merely ominous but for the witch is definitely horrific), both types of female harmers are said to be capable of provoking baneful effects. Consequently, the images of these supposed malevolent feminine categories have two common features : they are both regarded as capable of inflicting/causing some kind of harm through supra-normal means; and, because of this, there is an invariable pattern of avoidance towards both, widows and witch suspects. As the foregoing discussion clearly reveals, the cultural heritage of the subcontinent manifests a multiplicity of women images wherein the woman has been alternately viewed as pure/impure, rreative/destructive, benign/sinister, ally/oppo­ nent, goddess/witch. The present volume is an attempt to un­ ravel and, as far as possible, understand this symbolic ambiguity regarding Indian women. Given the wide prevalence, easy ac­ ceptance and, in many cases, the sanctity and veneration implic­ itly associated with them, the need for a study of these diverse women images can hardly be overstated. Nevertheless, what makes this onerous undertaking more vital and indeed essential is the fact that these female images have perceptibly influenced attitudes towards women in at least three fundamental ways. First, at the societal plane, the perception of different categories of women is distinctly shaped/conditioned by the popularly ac­ cepted female images/stereotypes. This can be easily observed in the manner in which most people even today withdraw from widows and are apprehensive of a normal human/social relation­ ship with them. Secondly, at the interpersonal level within the family situation, these images frequently impinge in a variety of ways. This ranges from the father’s special fondness and affec­ tion for daughters (who are viewed as paraya dhan which will remain in the parental family only for the short duration before marriage) to the excessively protective sentiments which broth­ ers harbour for sisters. The obverse side of this coin is, of



course, the fact that as over protected daughters and sisters, In­ dian girls grow up with a deep-rooted sense of fear and insecu­ rity which not only restricts their social mobility in the mundane day to day life but also often psychologically cripples them to face the hardships of life in general and resist gender based dis­ crimination in particular. These gender dichotomies, flowing al­ most directly from the popular images fostered about girls/women, are reflected quite sharply in the manner in which work distribution is effected in most Indian families. Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, these images leave a deep im­ print upon women’s self-perception. Indeed, it is tempting to ar­ gue that the most crucial consequence of a standard female aakriti or image is the profound impact which it has on the self-im­ age of different categories of women. Although the shaping of one’s self-image is a subtle and largely intangible process, the fact that identity formation involves the internalization of re­ ceived values and wisdom implies that the popularly accepted female images play a critical, if not central, role in the crystal­ lization of women’s self-perception. In a' nutshell, therefore, the present study of women images is inspired by the desire to evolve a more comprehensive and detailed picture of Indian women and seeks to understand why and how women reached the position/status which they have come to acquire in Indian society. n The fifteen papers included in this volume are grouped together under three broad sub-sections of unequal length which are se­ quentially entitled ‘Concepts and Categories’, ‘Art and Litera­ ture’ and ‘Historical Perspectives’. The opening contribution is provided by the eminent historian G.C. Pande who furnishes an erudite elucidation of ‘The Image of Woman in Indian Tradi­ tion’. The author claims that the word ‘image’ (as rupa, bimba, murti, pratima, etc.) is used in many different ways and in di­ verse contexts. He argues that though images regularly accom­



pany desires, feelings, actions, perceptions and images, their ul­ timate value lies in their being rooted in a spontaneous and reve­ latory power of the mind. The author believes that images, ideas and symbols do not merely have a certain kinship but are in fact never totally separable, though they are logically distinguish­ able; in their essence, all three are intentional mental acts which not only refer to some object beyond themselves but also seek to ‘represent’ it, that is, to present it in absentia. In his view, while ideas claim to represent reality and symbols are generally de­ signed to represent them, images themselves function as quasi reality which is symbol-cum-reality. The author asserts that while most images enable one to compare present actuality with possible alternatives (in the context of social engineering), yet beyond those lie these images which are expressive of prophetic vision, i.e., visionary ideas or profoundly-felt values. Citing the famous Purusa Sukta which images society as a person whose different limbs are different functional estates, Pande contends that the fact that men and women are not spe­ cifically distinguished is an indication that in Indian tradition there was no gender discrimination in terms of religious, politi­ cal and economic functioning; rather the roles of men and women were adjusted on the principle of complementarity. However, he concedes that m the sphere of wealth and power (