Tuesday 8th March 2016 will be celebrated as International Women’s Day. Worldwide, the contributions of women will be celebrated and pledges will be made to bring about new changes. It will stand as a reminder, a solitary day in our calendar of the greatness of women. But it will remain just that: a solitary day.
If one day a year is dedicated to women, what of the other 364 days? To whom do they belong? Is every day not women’s day? What is the role of women in the Hindu worldview?
To a Hindu, every day is women’s day. Just as every day is Mother’s Day, every day is Teacher’s Day. The Vedas proudly proclaim it, and gave birth to a culture that celebrates greatness in every moment, in every day. Of course, International Women’s Day is hugely valuable and has inspired many movements and initiatives that continue to empower women. But the question stands: “what is the role of women in the Hindu worldview?”
We remain the only living major tradition to still consider God a woman. Throughout the ages, many mystics and saints have sang the glories of God as our Mother, the most recent of which of note is Sri Ramakrishna. To him, the relationship between mother and child was as divine as that of the bhakta and Bhagavan. Our scriptures tell of Durga as the amalgamation of all deities, as the Supreme. In fact Lord Brahma, the creator, asserts in the Devi Mahatmya “By You, even He who creates, sustains and devours the world is put to sleep / who here is capable of extolling You?” [1.83]. Even the word Hindus use to describe the ultimate power that is the very the flux of our universe – the power that causes atomic vibrations and the collisions of galaxies – is the same word used for the feminine principle: “Shakti”. To us, God is a woman.
The Vedas too, exalt great women and the tradition has given some of the highest social and spiritual responsibilities to women both in its mythology and history. The ancient branches of the Vedic hymns are blossoming with the brilliant ideas of the likes of Maitreyi and Lopamudra. Gargi’s conversation with Yagnavalkya in the mighty Brihadaranyaka Upanishad not only shows the depth of her insight, but the respect that was conferred upon her for being a “brahmavadini”: an expounder of the Veda itself. Vedic women were powerful women.
And the contributions of Hindu women in recent history would be impossible to list. Lakshmibai (Jhansi ki Rani), Jijabai, Sister Nivedita, Kalpana Chawla, Ahalyabai Holkar, Kiran Bedi, Sarojini Naidu, Sri Sarada Devi and many hundreds more have etched their names into world history.
Our world today pays a woman less than a man for the same job and watches silently as she gets tormented in all walks of life. It is testimony to the fact we are forgetting these Hindu ideals. We dedicate one day to the betterment and celebration of women when they have dedicated their lives for as long as history can recall. Women world over have nurtured our society with their thoughts, their actions, their leadership. Perhaps this International Women’s Day is an opportunity to remind ourselves that women are embodiments of the very Shakti we worship in scripture and shrine. Because, as Swami Vivekananda boldly stated: “There is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of woman is improved.”
At National Hindu Students’ Forum (UK) we feel strongly about this. So the latest edition of our Hum magazine is themed “feminine power”. It is written by students, for students. It can be read online at: http://www.nhsf.org.uk/read-hum/