Education and the Symbolism of Women in IndiaColor

By: Scott Oyen

The ancient religious and social texts of Hinduism provide an abundance of information on the historical treatment of women in India. In Hindu Women Normative Models, Prabhati Mukherjee uses historical Hindu texts to evaluate the generation of social structures and customs that led to the specific roles of men and women in Hindu society. Through an analysis of epics such as the Mahabharata, and legal and social texts such as the Arthasastra (c. 400 B.C.E) of Kautilya and the Manusmrti (c. 300 C.E.) of Manu, Mukherjee presents reasons for the subservient position of Hindu women that began in ancient times and continues today. The focus of this paper will be on Mukherjee’s argument that the lack of formal education has been one of many factors that has led to the deterioration of women’s status in India. In order to better understand Mukherjee’s argument, it is helpful to compare it to Susan Starr Sered’s feminist article, " ’Woman’ as Symbol and Women as Agents." Sered’s article is a study on the symbolic nature of religion and its relation to a group’s access to social resources. Sered argues that in religion the symbolic construction of the "Woman" is the result of women’s lack of access to social resources. Using education as one example of a social resource that women have had limited access to in India, Sered’s theory of the relationship between symbolism and resources can be used to interpret Mukherjee.

In Sered’s article she analyzes the impacts of gender analyses on religious studies. When studying gender issues in religion, she says it is necessary to understand the two different issues or categories involved. The first is women, "actual people who have varying degrees of agency within specific social situations…. women as agents can demand rights, enter into negotiations, and protest unfair treatment." The second set is Woman, "a symbolic construct conflating gender, sex, and sexuality, and comprised of allegory, ideology, metaphor, fantasy, and men’s’ psychological projections." Sered’s symbolic Woman is associated with strong religious and mythological structures within societies and deeply affects the lives of women. Religious symbols, because they are eternal and show a belief in the nature of reality, are extremely important to those men and women involved in the tradition; thus, the symbols can be extremely difficult to change .

If women are being symbolized in a negative or oppressive manner, why, according to Sered, do they allow the continuation of such symbols? Sered argues, "Symbols are generated and sustained in settings in which some people have more access to resources than do others, and so can impose their interpretations of situations and practices on the less privileged." The more agency women have the more ability they have to interpret and create religious symbols. Without access to social resources, however, women have little ability to change or modify the current symbolic structure. According to Sered, "In situations in which women have limited agency and therefore are dependent upon men to support and protect them, the symbol Woman tends to take on greater salience, leading to efforts to impress upon women’s bodies and souls the imprint of Woman. The elevation of Woman is achieved through the suppression of women’s autonomy." Sered uses numerous studies to show how the symbolization of women is related to resources. In several case examples, women in the twentieth century have become more involved in religious activities that had at one time been only for men. The connection for Sered is obvious: "A theme in many of the studies looking at these situations is that the expansion of women’s religious role is linked to women’s expanded access to significant resources."

As agency is increased for women, they often demand more religious rights, which can easily lead to conflict. The conflicts and resolutions can be better understood by examining in each case the perception of women or Woman. Sered uses the example of ordination in Christian churches. In Protestant churches, women have been ordained as ministers. Catholic Churches, however, continue to be reluctant to ordain women as priests. The reason, according to Sered, is that the role of the minister as a teacher in the Protestant churches can be understood as one of agency. The Catholic Church differs in that priests are symbolic and "can be considered ‘Man’ rather than merely ‘men’."
Sered summarizes her argument as follows:

"When the subject [women] has access to significant social resources, and thus comes to the text from a position of agency, the text is likely to be critiqued, deconstructed, reconstructed, and perhaps ultimately rejected and replaced. When the subject lacks significant social resources, the objectified Woman in the text functions to suppress the readers’ agency further."

Sered’s "social resources" cover a broad spectrum and is dependent upon each particular culture and social structure. Education would certainly be a key resource for women in nearly every society.

Mukherjee asserts that the position of women in Hindu society has gradually declined through periods of history. In pre-Vedic times, women enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy; however, their position began to decline as religion started to influence the status of women. Social and legal texts such as the Arthasastra and the Manusmrti are evidence of how the position of women in Hindu society declined during the period they were written: "One may get an inkling of the shape of things to come from the Arthasastra and Manusmrti as evidence, where attempts were made to curtail their [women’s] independence…. Women lost many of their social and economic rights…. It was a slow process of coming down from and arriving at a stage where they had practically none." According to Mukherjee, religious texts such as the Mahabharata claimed "the vices and faults of women were so numerous that a man would find it inadequate to relate them all even if he had one hundred tongues, lived for one hundred years and did nothing else but narrate all of them." Mukherjee cites the Rgveda as claiming, "Women are fickle-minded and controllable." Mukherjee concludes from her analysis of the historical religious and social texts of Hinduism that women were valued as wives, not as women:

"Proceeding down the ages we find that the ideal held up before a woman is to be a submissive, dutiful and loyal wife totally dependent upon her husband. An ideal woman is she who is an ideal wife. In other words, it was rather an ideal wifehood, and not an ideal womanhood, that all these authorities were describing at great length."

Mukherjee claims women in the religious texts were defined by their husbands. This definition of womanhood as wifehood is indicated in religious and mythological texts as well as in the social and political texts of Manu and Kautilya.

Mukherjee gives six primary reasons for the decline of the position of women in Hindu society. One of these six reasons is the "lack of educational facilities for women." Mukherjee finds a few scattered examples of women being educated in ancient times, however, "Evidences, though slender, of women’s education in ancient India were soon forgotten." Mukherjee thinks it is likely that any education of women was "confined primarily within the brahmana varna." The limited formal education of women that did exist soon ceased to exist "as child marriage (of girls) came to be widely practiced. The only training they needed was how to run their homes efficiently." The decline of women’s education was a result of women being identified solely as wives. The virtue of intellect, even in the brahmana varna, had been replaced by the virtue of wifehood: "The womanly virtues accentuated henceforth were fidelity and constancy in love to their husbands, undivided attention to the affinal family, and acceptance of the guardianship of men." Mukherjee poetically describes the few examples found in history of women who had a passion for learning outside of any formal training as "stars in a dark night, appearing intermittently, visible and illuminating for a while and then disappearing forever."

Efforts to educate women were not made until the nineteenth century. Mukherjee cites two reasons for the decision:

"First, social legislations like banning sati and permitting widows to marry again could not be effective unless women themselves…. became aware of their rights. Secondly, the attitude of the foreign rulers convinced the Indian leaders that no real progress, social or political, was possible unless they took the initiative and encouraged women’s education."

Despite the push for formal education of women, people believed and continue to believe that a woman’s priority should be to household duties. Mukherjee states that the education of women "was handicapped by a different perception of sex roles…. [and] this limited outlook, unfortunately, continued after Independence, and does to some extent even at present." Despite these prejudices, women did seek formal education. As women’s literacy began to increase, "Women also became more conscious of their inadequacy when they came out of their isolation and stepped into the outside world to participate in the economic reconstruction of the country." Women still have relatively low literacy rates, especially in rural areas because of the domestic demands on girls. Mukherjee’s conclusion is that a larger capital investment and an improved infrastructure are necessary to improve the current educational situation of women.

Seder’s theory of the religious symbolism of women as a problem of access to resources can be used to interpret Mukherjee. It is obvious how the lack of an educational resource for Hindu women have contributed to the continuation of oppressive symbolization. Applying Seder’s system to India, Hindu women would be the less privileged ones that have been symbolized for centuries because of their lack of resources. Mukherjee shows in-depth how the lack of education of women has been a major factor influencing their status. Hindu women have been defined as wives and mothers, not as women, largely because of their lack of education. The religious and social texts that Mukherjee cites indicate that men were the ones who imposed this symbolization of women. The agency of women in India throughout history has been suppressed by their lack of resources; Seder asserts only through the acquisition of social resources can a religious text be deconstructed and even reconstructed. Seder claims, "When women acquire greater agency, they often are tempted to demand a larger piece of the religious pie." Access to social resources, according to Seder, empower the oppressed—Indian women--to demand more autonomy. Mukherjee’s statement that "mere legislation would not be effective until and unless women themselves were conscious of their own rights" would support Seder’s theory. When women become more exposed and educated as to their rights, they are more likely to demand their rights. As women in India gain the ability to evaluate their situation through resources such as education, the ancient symbolism of women can be modified. Supporting Seder’s theory, Mukherjee implies that the initial push for the education of women in the middle of the nineteenth century led to further demands for political and legal equality. The status of women, however, in India "has been altered to a great extent but not dramatically." This also would support Seder's contention that religious symbols are difficult to change because of their eternal nature. Mukherjee’s conclusion, as well as Seder's, is women’s access to resources such as education is necessary to break the bond of the oppressive symbolism of women. Mukherjee argues, "Lack of education, general awareness and economic independence make women depend more on men…. without necessary education and opportunities available, women are, as if imprisoned." Currently in India, women’s education is slowly improving, as is the symbolism of women. Mukherjee, like Seder, emphasizes the need to continue to improve the education of women in order for women to gain greater autonomy.

Sered, Susan Starr. " ‘Woman’ as Symbol and Women as Agents." Revisioning Gender. Ed. Ferree,
Judith Lorber, Beth Hess. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1999. P. 194.
Sered. " ‘Woman’ as Symbol and Women as Agents." P. 194.
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Sered. " ‘Woman’ as Symbol and Women as Agents." P. 196.
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Sered. " ‘Woman’ as Symbol and Women as Agents." P. 207.
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Sered. " ‘Woman’ as Symbol and Women as Agents." P. 209.
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Mukherjee. Hindu Women Normative Models. P. 11.
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Mukherjee. Hindu Women Normative Models. P. 126.
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Mukherjee. Hindu Women Normative Models. P. 126.
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Works Sited:

Mukherjee, Prabhate. Hindu Women Normative Models. London: Sangam Books Limited, 1993

Sered, Susan Starr. "Woman as Sybmol and Women as Agents" Revisioning Gender. Ed. Ferree, Judith Lorber, Beth Hass. Thousand Oaks:Sage Publications, 1999. 193-221.