Swami Vivekananda on the Women Question

Review of the contributions of a Major Thinker. 
This issue of Samyukta highlights the contribution of Swami Vivekananda.

Swami Vivekananda ( Narendra Nath Datta, 1863- 1902), the leading spokesman for modern Hinduism in the late 19th century is known globally for his enchanting vision, spiritual wisdom of universalisation of Hinduism, a comprehensive understanding of all significant aspects of human life, societal and gender concern and national life in India. Among the modern Indian reformers and leaders, who stood for complete equality of men and women, the most outstanding was Swami Vivekananda. He was highly sympathetic towards the oppressed position of Indian women and insisted on their regeneration, and argued for gender equality. His theory towards that equality was of gender interdependence so that both genders can live peacefully in the society. This was based on the Vedic notion of spiritual sex equality, in the highest reality of Parabrahman. His attitude towards femininity was markedly condescending. Since post-independent India still has problems of women which are to be solved in a meaningful way, in the Indian feminist literature, his position has much scope for using to a feminist deconstruction towards a paradigm shift in the Indian society. To this end, the following is an attempt to analyze and examine his concept of womanhood, the ideas he stood for on women’s equality and education.

It is the Hindu culture and the Vedanta philosophy on which Vivekananda’s position on women is based. The “Hindu ideal of woman’ is the very ideal of woman he evolved for India. According to Vedanta philosophy, men and women and all beings are divine in their essential nature. Men and women have been endowed by nature with the organic capacity to enquire into and realise this great truth. Men and women have equal access to education. Hindu culture views all social evolutions as the process of truth into the texture of human relationships. This view of Hindu culture provides the values of freedom, equality and the dignity and the sacredness of the human personality. As per the Vedic philosophy, men and women are essentially the ever pure, ever free, ever illumined Atman, the sexless Self. Associated with body and mind, this Atman becomes conditioned as male and female. In the realisation 1 of manhood of man by man and the womanhood of woman by woman, in the context of the equality of the marriage relationship, Hindu culture recognises a significant experience of spiritual education. It points out that there is no real independence in this sphere for either man or woman: here interdependence is the law; it alone leads to happiness and fulfillment for both. But true interdependence cannot come if man is free and woman unfree. To elaborate this in the words of Gandhi, “woman has as much right to shape her own destiny as man has to shape his and rules of social conduct must be framed by mutual co-operation and consultation” (Sharma, 1981: 49) towards realising true interdependence.

In the modern times, the history of women shows that they have come across many changing statuses. The Vedic period is said to be of complete equality for women . Then came the feudal period, foreign invasions which took away women’s freedom, and the national movement against foreign domination, which also took women’s rights and sexual equality as important along with other issues. But now gone are those days and women of post-independent India encounter many new problems which urge them to rise to the highest level of self-development, self-expression and self-esteem. In this millennium, equal access to education for both men and women is an important step towards greater gender equality and empowerment of women. In post-independent India, even though there has been perceptible rise in the activities directed towards women’s emancipation for social, economic and political justice, most of the women in the rural areas are illiterate and trapped in a vicious circle of poverty and deprivation. It is, therefore realised that the women have to be provided with the vital educational inputs, if they are to become a powerful force in the society, and participate in the developmental and decision making process. Through education, the gender inequality, created through the erotisation of dominance and submission, as feminists argue (MacKinnon,1993:201) is to be rectified. Since the man-woman difference and dominance/ submission define each other it is necessary to identify the socio-cultural factors that influence the formation of female identity. Contemporary feminists argue that gender roles are culturally determined and inequality between the sexes results from socially constructed power relationships. ( Haralambos & Heald, 2002: 369). Even though women have gained many rights, their gains have not eradicated sexism or revolutionised the gender relations. Therefore, post-modern feminists argue for identifying the fundamental difference between men and women for the purpose of emancipation and equality. For thinkers like Irigaray sexual difference as the difference that women make has to be constructed. This means woman does not yet exist and that she will be unable to come into being without women’s collective efforts, which empower and symbolise her specific sexuality, political vision, etc. (Braidotti, 1994: 64).That is, women must seek an identity of their own and not just “disappear” into the mirror image of men as happened in the past. This aims to construct women’s specific, unique subjectivity and not to allow them enter the dominant patriarchal world on terms under which women’s subjectivity would remain hidden.( Barnett, 1998: 150). Swamiji’s ideals on womanhood premised upon Vedanta can be suggested as the guiding principles for women to identify themselves regarding their status–ethical, ontological, religious and social. In today’s context, his ideas have vital strength to be used for a critique of modern thinking or a change in perspective. It is for helping such a necessity that the visions and views of Vivekananda are important in the modern or post-modern context.

Concept of Womanhood

Vivekananda concentrates and believes in the ideals that Vedanta says on women’s position. He glorifies the ideals contained in the rich Indian heritage and Vedic scriptures. It is in the background of Vivekananda’s understanding of the causes of the degeneration of women in the modern age that he evolved his ideal of “Indian womanhood”.

Vivekananda saw that there is no distinction of sex in the highest reality of Parabrahman. He observes, “ The more the mind becomes introspective, the more the idea of difference vanishes. Ultimately when the mind is wholly merged in the homogeneous and undifferentiated Brahman, such ideas as this is a man or that a woman do not remain at all….Therefore,… though outwardly there may be difference between men and women, in their nature there is none. Hence, if a man can be a knower of Brahman, why cannot a woman attain the same knowledge? Therefore… if even one amongst the women became a knower of Brahman, then by the radiance of her personality thousands of women would be inspired and awakened to truth, and great well-being of the country and society would ensure”. ( Complete Works of Vivekananda, Vol.7: 219).Swamiji pointed out that any idea of privilege and superiority, either mental, physical, or spiritual, for anyone was inadmissible to a true Vedantist. He said, “The idea that one… is born superior to another has no meaning in the Vedanta; that between two nations, one is superior and the other inferior has no meaning whatsoever. Put them in the same circumstances and see whether same intelligence comes out or not.”( Bose, 1998: 285-86). According to this position if men and women are also given same opportunity, it is possible to attain same level of development. He said, “We should not think that we are men and women. But only that we are human beings born to cherish and help one another”. He warned that until the women learn to ignore the question of sex and to meet on a ground of common humanity they will not really develop and remain merely as playthings in the hands of men. (Ranade, 1963: 108). There were times when Vivekananda’s mind was dwelling in a transcendental realm and those times gave rise to expressions like these: “There is neither man or woman (in Vedanta) for the soul is sexless… It is a lie to say that I am a man or a woman or I belong to this country or that. All the world is my country, because I have clothed myself with as my body.” Such was his sense of identity at that moment. He never tried brushing off the well meaning concerns of men who would ask him about “women’s problems”, “Hands off”, he exclaimed “women will solve their own problems”. “Men had no business attempting to solve them for them”. Always Swamiji’s call had been that women have to develop their own personality and try to know themselves and their problems.

In the Vedic and Upanishadic age, Maitreyi, Gargi and other ladies of revered memory had taken the places of Rishis through their skill in discussing about Brahman. When such women were entitled to spiritual knowledge, Swamiji asks, then why shall not the women have the same privilege now? What has happened once can certainly happen again. History repeats itself. (CW.,Vol. 7: 215). Swamiji pointed out another example for female eminence that when Yajnavalkya was questioned at the court of Janaka, his principal examiner was Vachaknavi, the maiden orator– Brahmavadini, as the word of the day was. Due to her skill in questioning, her sex was not even commented upon. The Vedas proposed feminine modesty in the qualities such as their character, skill, courage, spirit of service, affection, compassion, contentment and reverence. He felt that it was much against the ancient ideal of India that women were not given enough opportunities for self development. It is the spiritual ideal of Sita or Savitri that Indian women have been following through the ages. Faith in god, self abnegation and service also marked their character. Chastity has been the guiding motive of their life. It is necessary to intensify the ideal of womanhood in the Indian woman so that they may feel the necessity of coming up along with men. Indian women should try to attain greatness and strength that Sita had shown.

On Indian womanhood he said, “The highest of all feminine types in India is mother, higher than wife. Wife and children may desert a man, but his mother never. Mother is the same or loves her child perhaps a little more. Mother represents colourless love that knows no barter, love that never dies. Who can have such love? – only mother, not son, nor daughter, nor wife”.(CW, Vol.6: 149). He saw their love as eternal. By worship of women Ramakrishna had meant, he assured us, that to him every woman’s face was that of the Blissful Mother and nothing else. The ideal of womanhood in the East is an ideal for which “Motherhood is the beginning. Motherhood is the end of Indian womanhood”. (Maithilyananda, 1959). To him women were living images of Shakti–the Divine Mother. He said, “Mother is the first manifestation of power and is considered a higher idea than father. With the name of Mother comes the idea of Shakti, Divine energy and omnipotence, just as the baby believes its mother to be all powerful, able to do anything. The Divine Mother is the Kundalini (“ coiled up” power) sleeping in us; without worshipping Her we can never know ourselves. All-merciful, all-powerful, omnipresent are attributes of Divine Mother. She is the sum total of the energy in the universe. Every manifestation of power in universe is “Mother”. She is life, She is intelligence, She is love. … Established in the idea of Mother we can do anything. … The worship of even one spark of Mother in our earthly mother leads to greatness.”(CW, Vol.7: 26-27). Mother deserved worship because she was “a saint in bringing …(her child) into the world” by keeping “ her body pure, her mind pure, her food pure, her clothes pure, her imagination pure, for years” in expectation of becoming a mother. (CW, Vol.8: 61). He pointed out the universality of Hindu worship of motherhood in other religions also. He asserted that “In the religion, Jehovah, Jesus and Trinity are secondary; there the worship for the Mother –She the Mother with child Jesus on her arms. The emperor cries –Mother, the field marshal cries– Mother, the fisherman in his rags cries Mother, the beggar in the streets cries Mother! A million voices in a million ways, from a million places– from the palace, from the cottage, from the church cry Mother, Mother, Mother! Everywhere is the cry Ave Maria, day and night– Ave Maria, Ave Maria”.( CW, Vol.5: 506).

Swamiji was critical of Radha prema– the divine love which Radha had towards Shri Krishna. He opined, through the preaching of that love broadcast, the whole nation has become effeminate- a race of women! The whole of Orissa has been turned into a land of cowards; and Bengal running after the Radha prema, these past four hundred years, has almost lost all sense of manliness! The people are good only at crying and weeping; that has become their national trait. Look at their literature, the sure index of a nation’s thoughts and ideas. Why, the refrain of the Bengali literature for these four hundred years is strung to that same tune of moaning and crying. It has failed to give birth to any poetry which breathes a true heroic spirit. (CW, Vol. 5: 345). In his opinion the sex love can never be the property of the masses. But the preaching of Vaishnava Gurus about sex love rather than renunciation was beyond the comprehension of the common people. Failure to grasp and assimilate that high ideal of divine love, naturally made of it the worst form of love between man and woman. These notions suggest that Vivekananda identified two concepts of women: (1) woman, the mother-de-crotised (maternal) and (2) woman, the fallen, the sexual being (carnal). The former is pure, nurturant and spiritual and the latter is the sexual female with negative qualities of effeminacy such as lethargy, cowardice, immaturity, etc. Robert Goldman observes, “ in many texts women are idealised as pure, spiritual, and nurturant when they are de-erotised and placed in clearly defined and sexually tabooed blood relationships such as those of mother, sister, or daughter. In other words when emphasis is placed on their sexuality, they are often vilified for this aspect of their nature and condemned as temptress, seductress, or whore”. (Goldman, 1993: 375-76).

Vivekananda studied about the history of the Indian women and women of other places and compared those with that of the Vedic concept of women of the Aryan race. “Aryan and Semitic ideals of woman” he said, “have always been diametrically opposed. Among the Semites the presence of woman is considered dangerous to devotion, and she may not perform any religious function, even such as the killing of a bird for food: according to the Aryan a man cannot perform a religious action without a wife”. (CW, Vol.5, 1997:229). To him, “the ideal womanhood centers in the Aryan race of India, the most ancient in the world’s history. In that race men and women were priests, “sapatimini (saha-dharmini)” or co-religionists as the Vedas call them… There man and wife together offered their sacrifices, and this idea was carried so far that a man could not even pray alone, because it was held that he was only half a being, for that reason no unmarried man could become a priest. The same held true in ancient Rome and Greece”. (Burke, 1966:541-42). Then he shows how the position of women degenerated, i.e., in the feminist point of view the origin of the patriarchal ordering of society.

Swamiji found the advent of various priest class, change in the system of marriage, rise of the Vedic idea of personal purity, development of monasticism, etc, as the reasons responsible for the degeneration of women in the later periods. He said, “ with the advent of a distinct and separate priest class, the co-priesthood of women in all these nations steps back. First it was the Assyrian race, coming of Semitic blood, which proclaimed that girls have no voice, and no right, even when married. The Persians drank deep of this Babylonian idea, and by them it was carried to Rome and Greece, and everywhere women degenerated.”(Burke, 1966: 542).

Swamiji observed that in the primitive stage there was no marriage. Later emerged the matrimonial marriage system; that is one in which the mother was the center, and in which the girls acceded to her position. Here the women have advantageous position, but this led to a system of Polianders (polyandry), where five and six brothers often married one woman. “There was not much fixity about the father, the children were named after the mother; all the wealth were in the hands of women, for they were to bring up the children. In the course of time, wealth, the women included, passed into the hands of male members. As in the case of wealth the male said on women, “all these women are exclusively mine; if anyone encroaches upon my right in them, I will fight him”. Women became as much the property of man as his slaves and chattels. (CW, Vol.5: 522). This is how men traditionally assumed supremacy and maintained it in society. Here Swamiji sees the origin of the modern marriage system, which subordinated the position of women. In the ancient times he found many places like Tibet, Malabar and Southern India where females led in everything. In Malabar he noticed that exceptional cleanliness was apparent wherever there was the greatest impetus to learning. There he found women spoke good Sanskrit, while in the rest of India not one woman in a million could speak it. The Dravidians of Southern India, according to him were the most civilised and women with them stood higher than men. Later he sees mastery elevates and servitude debases (CW, Vol.5 :50). Therefore he felt that if one is not allowed to become a lion he/she will become a fox. “Women are a power, only now it is for evil because man oppresses woman; she is the fox, but when she is no longer oppressed, she will become the lion.” (CW., Vol.5: 22). Swamiji very clearly demonstrates here that women are deliberately deprived of their opportunities for development. And this match the feminist view that gender is “constructed as a socially relevant differentiation in order to keep (gender) inequality in place”.

Swamiji observed that the development of all monasticism whether it is Buddhist or Christian, always contributed to the degeneration of women. According to him, under monasticism, “all the blame was cast on to women, and even the proverbs warned against them. ‘What is the gate to hell?’ was one of them to which the answer was: ‘woman’. Another read: ‘What is the chain, which binds us all to dust? Woman’. Another one: “Who is the blindest of the blind? He who is deceived by woman”. Even though Buddha was one of the greatest among men, Swami said, “he introduced for the first time the community life of religious houses and thereby necessarily made women inferior to men, since the great abbesses could take no important step without the advice of certain abbots”. (CW, Vol.5: 230). Therefore by learning from the defects of monastic ideals, he evolved a different conception of womanhood. In the West he found this ideal in the wife and in the east (Orient) in the mother.

Feminists are critical of the Indian cultural symbols which glorify the woman’s role as mother-goddess. She is projected as the symbol of productivity and welfare, spreading happiness and nullifying both wrongs and the perpetrator. This notion of motherhood has served as an institutionalised form of oppression for the subjugation of women. This view blamed the religious teaching which advises young girls to model themselves on Sita; and this contributes to some extent, to the low status of women in the society. (Kumari & Kidwai, 1999:16).

Swamiji seems to have explained the bad condition of women in India on the ground that Hindu men had such respect for women that it was thought best not to allow women out. The Hindu women were held in such high esteem that they were kept in seclusion. He saw their seclusion as a part of protecting the chastity of women, which keeps the society pure. He justifies the household confinement of women, even though it is terrible, on the ground that it makes society pure. (CW, Vlo.7: 292). He also favoured the outcasting of unchaste women on account of keeping the society pure. Swamiji saw chastity as the most important virtue of women. He explains how women’s biology affect their position which is similar to the feminist argument of “biological determinism” as the cause of the subordination of women. He saw that women’s chastity is influenced by nature and said, “the tendency of nature is to multiply the population, and the chastity of women helps that tendency. Therefore, being more anxious about the purity of women, than of men, every society is only assisting nature in the fulfillment of her purpose”. (CW., Vol.5: 514). Almost all nations of the world, therefore, tried to preserve the chastity of women and this lowered their position. But this argument is challenged by the feminists, given the changing role of women in the modern society and development in reproductive technology. This argument is controversial among them.

When he was in America he denied the incidence of widow-burning in India. He asserted that widow-burning was voluntary. He explained this old custom on the ground that the wives loved their husbands so much that they could not live without them. They were one in marriage and must be one in death. He and Pandita Ramabai confronted each other on this issue. However, at last Swamiji agreed that widow-burning is occurring in India. This Swamiji might have deliberately done for the political reason that was used by the colonialists to justify their domination by depicting the inferior position of women so that it needs outside help to get them emancipated. He argued that a nation should not be judged by its demerits but by its merits, because bad things occur everywhere as in India. Swamiji said, “we should not allow the sudden influx of European criticism and our consequent sense of contrast to make us acquiesce too readily to this notion of the inequality of our women. Circumstances have forced upon us, for many centuries, the woman’s need of protection. This and not her inferiority, is the true reading of our customs.” (Ranade, 1963: 105). Thus it is the circumstances which brought the inequality of women to be fought against.

According to him the intensest love is that between the sexes. “The husband-wife relationship is the all-rounded relationship. The relationship of the sexes as all the other loves is concentrated into one. In the husband, the woman has the father, the friend, the child. In the wife, the husband has mother, daughter, and something else. That tremendous love of the sexes must come from God– the same love with which a woman opens herself to a man without any bond of blood-perfectly, fearlessly, and shamelessly. … She would no more hide anything from her lover than she would from her own self.” He compares this love to that of love for God. In his opinion divorces do not occur in India at any cause because, “the strongest love in the world is that between man and woman, and that also when it is clandestine”. (CW., Vol.6: 115). That is, love should not be for fulfillment of lust only.

On the Position of Women in India

Vivekananda’s position on women is scattered around his numerous sermons, speeches, comments, conversations, writings, etc. When he travelled through America one of the important topics of discussion was of women’s position in India. He compared the position of Indian women with those of the West. In this comparison he found no reason for the inferior position of Indian women. In a letter written from Chicago when he was there to participate in the Parliament Of World Religions, he mentioned “Nowhere in the world are women like those of this country. How pure, independent, self relying and kind hearted! It is the women who are the life and soul of the country. All learning and culture centered in this country.… There are thousands of women here whose minds are as pure and as white as snow of this country”. Then he said about the Indian women, “Look at our girls, becoming mothers below their teens!… I now see it all”. He understood the paradox of Manu’s dictum, “The Gods are pleased when the women are held high in esteem” and the reality of women’s position and says, “We are horrible sinners, and our degradation is due to our calling women ‘despicable worms’, ‘gateways to hell’ and so forth’ (CW,Vol.6: 252- 5 53) He was aware of their subordinate position.He was not satisfied with the condition of women during his days.

He had seen the misery of his own younger sister, Yogendrabala who committed suicide, and it had deeply affected his thinking. “If women cannot act, neither can man suffer,” he responded. The tragic death by suicide of Vivekananda’s sister as well as his experience with western women had made him conscious of the tribulation and degradation of the Indian women. In a conversation with a visitor at Belur he expressed his indignation , “Look here Baba, you have cried enough about sati [chaste woman] and burnt thousands of widows on the bamboo pyre … are all women guilty of passion and lust?[You] hypocrites and selfish to the bone!… quit humiliating the Mother of the Universe and you will see how quickly the country prospers”. Swamiji wanted women to be worshipped as the same way as Goddess Kali is worshipped. Selfishness and greed are the evils which bring suffering. According to him the principal reason why India has degenerated is that there is no respect for women. Though the ideal of mother has its own merits, the millions of women in villages are still the victims of violence, ignorance, superstition and disease, and are relying still on age- old distorted customs and traditions. Even today despite the constitutional guarantee of gender equality, women’s position has not improved for the better.

In the United States he found that American men profess to worship women, but in his opinion they simply worship youth and beauty. They never fall in love with wrinkles and gray hair. At the same time he could clearly see that in America alone there was now the social freedom to rise up and take equality with men. But he felt that the spiritual aims of human life are not important in the West as it is in India. He charmed and mystified the women of America and England with his handsome appearance, baritone voice, colourful silk robe and turban and sweet chanting in exotic Sanskrit. Swamiji met many women in the West– patrons, admirers, helpers, disciples and with all of them he dealt in his own natural and spontaneous way. They sometimes expected of him the gallant chivalry of that Victorian era, but he flatly refused, “You can take care of yourself” he would say, “you are as able as I am, if not more.” Swami was th prophet enough to foresee what the 20 century will bring. He came to the conclusion that “Asia laid the germs of civilisation. Europe developed man. America is developing woman and the masses”. American women are “aware of the fact that it is the affirmative and positive side of every thing that shall be stored up, and that this very act of accumulating the affirmative and positive, and therefore soul-building process of nature, is what destroys the negative and destructive elements in the world”. (CW., Vol. 6: 249). Swamiji observed that the work of thinkers like John Stuart Mill also helped the advanced position of women in the West. Moreover, it was a time when feminists like Mary Wolstencraft, Hariett Martineau, Josephine Butler, Emily Davies were campaigning for equality in education in the West.

Education for Women 

Swamiji found education as the best and only device to solve all problems of women and thereby emancipate them. According to him, for women problems can be many “ but none that cannot be solved by that magic word ‘education’”. He conceived of an “ education by which character is formed, strength of mind is increased, intellect is expanded, and by which one can stand on one’s own feet”.

He said that in ancient times when… religion first began, women were distinguished for spiritual genius and great strength of mind. In spite of this, as he seemed to acknowledge, the women of the present day had degenerated. They thought of nothing but eating and drinking, gossip and scandal.(Ibid: 150). Therefore he prescribed an education that would create “great fearless women – women worthy to continue the traditions of Sangamitra, Lila, AhalyaBai, and Mira Bai–women fit to be the mothers of heroes.(CW, Vol.5: 229). Such an education was emphasised on Swamiji’s concept of true womanhood, which is vested in “the old-time intensity of trustful and devoted companionship to the husband” and hence his message to Indians was “forget not that the ideal of thy womanhood is Sita, Savitri, Damayanti”.(CW, Vol.4: 479-80). For him development of true ideal of womanhood was the primary goal of education.

According to Swamiji, one can hardly find statements that women are not competent for knowledge and devotion in the scriptures. On the deprivation of women in education he said, “In the period of degradation, when the priests made the other castes incompetent for the study of Vedas, they deprived the women also of all their rights. All nations have attained greatness by paying proper respect to the women. That country and that nation which do not respect women have never become great, nor will ever be in future. The principal reason why your race has so much degenerated is that you have no respect for these living images of Shakti.” (CW, Vol.7, 215) His view reflects that of Marx’s in whose theory the social progress can be precisely measured by the social status of their fair sex (woman). He quotes Manu to substantiate this, “Where women are respected, there the gods delight; and where they are not, there all works and efforts come to naught”. He asserts that there is no hope for that family or country where there is no estimation of women, where they live in sadness. For this reason they have to be raised first. (CW, Vol.7: 215). He put the blame of the low status of Indian women partly on the barbarous invaders and partly on the people of India themselves. They have all the time been trained in helplessness, servile dependence on others, and so they are good only to weep their eyes out at the slightest approach of a mishap or a danger. Along with other things they should acquire the spirit of valour and heroism. In the present day it has become necessary for them also to learn self-defense. See how grand the queen of Jhansi was! (Vol.5,342).His great heroine was the Ranee of the Indian mutiny, who led her troops in person.

To make a beginning in women’s education, his argument centred on chastity because it is the heritage of Hindu women. Firstly, “intensify that ideal within them above everything else, so that they may develop a strong character by the force of which, in every stage of their life, whether married or single if they prefer to remain so, they will not be in the least afraid even to give up their lives rather than flinch an inch from their chastity”. (Vol.5, 542). Therefore he advised, “Educate your women first and leave them to themselves; then they will tell you what reforms are necessary for them. In matters concerning them who are you? Liberty is the first condition of growth”. He advised the Indian women to believe in India and Indian faith. Be strong and hopeful and unashamed, and remember that with something to take, Hindus have immeasurably more to give than any other people in the world”.

To reform Indian women he suggested such an education with which women will solve their own problems. However, he disapproved of their modern education. According to him, “ education is not the amount of information that is put into your brain and runs riot there, undigested, all your life. We must have life building,… character making, assimilation of ideas. If education were identical with information, the libraries would be the greatest sages of the world and encyclopaedias the rishis.” For him the use of higher education was to find out how to solve the problems of life. Swami Vivekananda warns that “getting by heart the thoughts of others in foreign language and stuffing … brain with them and taking some university degrees, you consider yourself educated?… education which does not bring out the strength of character, a spirit of philanthropy and the courage of a lion is not worth being called education.” It is true that our modern education system in post independent India is not free from this defect. This also points out that the tendency in the feminist movement to emulate and transplanting the western theories should be taken care of for not repeating the same defect. Swamiji supported the indigenous system of education in which the history and culture of one’s own nation would be taught. He was against the alien model of education in tune with the West which compels the youth to study the alien culture, traditions and practices at the cost of what has evolved and developed in their own countries. He held that the mind of an individual is an infinite reservoir of knowledge, and all knowledge, past, present and future, is within the individual, manifested or non-manifested. The aim of every system of education should be to help the mind to manifest it. (Basu, 1969: 101). For this he insisted on the old system of education, for females also. He emphasised women studying religion, science, art, housekeeping, cooking, sewing, hygiene, etc. Along with these, japa, worship and meditation formed an indispensable part of teaching. He said, “their education must be an eye-opener in all matters. Ideal characters must always be presented before the view of the girls to imbue them with a devotion to lofty principles of selflessness. The noble examples of Sita, Savitri, Damayanti, Lilavati, Khana and Mira should be brought home to their minds and they should be inspired to mould their own lives in the light of these (CW.,Vol.6: 493-94). He desired that schools for girls be opened in every village. For imparting education he finds it necessary to train Brahmacharinis who would go to the villages and other places and do hard work without any hesitation. For this he planned to build up Math which he could not materialise during his lifetime. Later, he fulfilled his desires and Advaitha Ashram is propagating Swamiji’s ideals.

In his view, educated women would inculcate virtues and values amongst the children and thus prepare the new generation of people who could distinguish st themselves in virtues and values. The development agenda of the 21 century also acknowledged education as the key to women’s empowerment for the same th reasons as Swamiji foresaw in the 19 century. The millennium development goals envisage that education of women “increases their productivity, raising output and reducing poverty. It promotes gender equality within households and removes constraints on women’s decision making – thus reducing fertility rates and improving maternal health. It increases children’s chances of surviving to become healthier and better educated because educated women do a better job caring for children.( World Bank, 2002: 9). “It is only in the hands of educated and pious mothers that great men are born”. ( Nair, 1987: 50). Therefore he insisted that “daughters should be supported and educated with as much care and attention as the sons.” (CW.,Vol. 5 : 26). He asserted that in ancient times both boys and girls were instructed, but now only the boys are favoured. An effort is being made to rectify the long-existing wrong. A good share of the philosophy and laws of the land is the work of women during the ancient times, before barbarians started to rule the land. In the eyes of the Hindu the women now has her rights. She holds her own and has the law on her side. When a student returns from college, he is allowed to marry and have a household. Husband and wife must bear the work and both have their rights. The wife has her property rights also. Flavia Agnes observes this right as the right over their stridhan. According to her the Smritikars made it clear that a woman’s husband, father, brother or son have no control over their property. A Hindu woman was not bound by the husband’s contracts in respect of her individual property. He had no power to take her property without her consent or execute any document affecting her right to her property. ( Agnes, 2000: 113). However as Gandhi says, “Hindu culture has erred on the side of excessive subordination of the wife to the husband, and has insisted on the complete merging of the wife in the husband. This has resulted in the husband sometimes usurping and exercising authority that reduces him to the level of the brute”.(Sharma, 1981: 45).And Swamiji’s attempt was to rectify the errors by modernising Hindu culture. At present in India, violence against women, including domestic violence, became a serious crime. Its statistics mounting day by day despite the implementation of various legislations. From womb to tomb women is under various kinds of discrimination and injustice. Subordination of women is now a universal fact and the measures for their empowerment is discussing worldwide included in all the development agenda. In such discourses it is important to notice Swamiji’s argument that, men and women are equally good in her or his way, When judging them, it should be by the standard of their respective greatness.( CW., Vol. 2: 26).

Swamiji wished the ancient Shradha to return as remedy to solve problems of women. And to change the parental attitude towards girl children that somehow they have to dispose of a girl to marriage if she be nine or ten years old, and rejoice when she deliver a child at the age of thirteen. Through educating the masses this situation should change. And men and women should be married at a ripe age. But even today as Swamiji mentioned “as soon as the girl grows up a little, every one of the female sex, beginning with the mother down to the relatives and even neighbors even, will begin to cry out that the father must find a bridegroom for her, and will not leave him in peace until he does so. This is very much prevailing even today without any change. Girls are brought up so that their life is only to marry someone and not to develop as a fully productive citizen by using the potentialities within her.

He prescribed the secular education for the masses, that is, an education which brings all the ideals slowly down among the masses and raises them to equality. He prefer to impart this secular knowledge through religion, that is st Vedas. The 81 Report of the Committee on Value Based Education of 1999, did highlight the need to inculcate the principles of truth, righteous conduct, peace, love and non violence, which are the religious values propagated by Swamiji. This report suggests to teach the basics of all religions and their values so that students become aware that the basic concept of all religions are common, only practices differ. This shows that the modern India also has to accept the th virtue of religion as Swamiji reiterated in the 19 century.

For him without Vedanta everything was superstition, with it everything becomes religion. According to him except Vedas every book must change. The authority of Vedas is for all time to come; the authority of everyone of our other books is for the time being. For instance, one Smriti is powerful for one age, another for another age. Great prophets are always pointing to the way to work. Some prophets worked for the lower classes, others like Madhva gave to women the right to study Vedas. (CW.,Vol.5:215). Swamiji believed that there is infinite power of development in everything. He suggest the realisation of Vedantic ideals through constructive methods according to the need of the time. Therefore, there need reform to solve the problems of women so that to reach its benefit to all women belonging to various sections in the society. His method of solving things was “to take out by the roots the very causes of the disease and not to keep them merely suppressed”. (CW.,Vol.5: 334). To take out the causes of female subordination feminists seek women’s identity, women’s language as a means by which to secure political and social equality for women. For them the main task is to challenge ‘the foundation of social and cultural order” which made the women’s situation worst. Swamiji’s idea is also the same but by using the constructive Vedic and religious methods in reforms.

According to Swamiji every high ideal one meets with anywhere in the world had its origin in India. “From time immemorial India has been the mine of precious ideas to human society; giving birth to high ideas herself, she has freely distributed them and broadcast over the whole world”. (CW.,Vol.5,355). He finds that Kantian discovery of time, space and causation are the modes of thought in the Vedantik concept of ‘Maya’, and Schopenhauer’s reason rationalises Vedanta.(CW.,Vol.7:50).

Swamiji said, “it is very difficult to understand why in India so much difference is made between men and women, whereas the Vedanta declares that one and the same conscious Self is present in all beings. … Writing down Smritis, etc., and binding them by hard rules, the men have turned the women into mere manufacturing machines ! If you do not raise the women, … don’t think that you have any other way to rise”. (CW.,Vol.7: 214).The internal manifestations of women , such as knowledge, devotion, discrimination and passion make man omniscient, of unfailing purpose and a knower of Brahman. She, when pleased , becomes propitious and the cause of the freedom of the man.(CW., Vol7: 216). Similar is the idea behind today’s concept of empowerment. The process of women’s empowerment will also liberate men. In the words of Srilata Batliwala, empowerment freed men “from the roles of oppressor and exploiter which distorts and limits their humanity and potential. They will… be relieved of gender stereotyping …..will be free to discover, develop and openly express the … ‘feminine’ traits within them which have been suppressed or distorted”. ( Batliwala, 1994: 24). At any cost educating women was the most important way of salvation for India according to swamiji. Swamiji’s ideals have a strong commitment to the emancipation of women and he had great concern with the oppression of women in the contemporary Indian society. He was one of the first of his era in the field of religion to recognise the indignity and oppression which women were subject to in this world of men. After having done great work for the upliftment of th masses, including women Swamiji passed away on 4 July 1902. At his death bed he said, “I shall inspire (people) everywhere until the world shall know that it is one with God”. And his work remains as he said as eternal in the modern literature.

1. This ideal of womanhood by woman can be equated with that of Irigaray’s quest for the identity of the ‘feminine’ not in the male constructions, but in women’s own terms expressed through the voice of the feminine.

2. Some feminists disagree with the argument that Vedic period was the golden age for women’s equality. According to them this is the result of the interaction between colonialism and nationalism. The colonial domination was justified and legitimised by depicting the inferior position of women so that they need outside help to get emancipated. The British rulers try to show the superiority of the West. Then Swamiji reiterated the superiority of India and Hinduism and projected all its ideals have impacted upon modernity.

3. The feminists also challenges intellectual equality and sholarship of women in the Vedic period. Historians like Uma Chakravarty point out that the debate between Gargi and Yajnavalkya is not one of superior position of women. At the end Gargi is silenced and eliminated from the contest by Yajnavalkya, not by force of his arguments but by threatening her saying, ‘Gargi, do not question too much, lest your head fall off….’.(Menon, 1999:4).

4. The ideal of Sita or Savitri is criticised by the feminists on the ground that it helped to reaffirm their subordination in modern times.

5. According to feminists Manu has a great influence on Hindu personal law which impacted upon to the subordinate and oppressed position of women even today. Manu who codified the societal role of women as the one in which she is subjected to her father in the childhood, in youth to her husband, and in old age, to her sons has great impact in defining the female identity even in the modern period.

6. Whenever he mentioned the ranee he would weep, with tears streaming down his face. “That woman was a goddess, he said, “a devi. When overcome she fell on her sword and died like a man”. It was strange to hear the other side of the Indian mutiny, when you would never believe that there was another side to it, and to be assured that a Hindoo could not possibly kill a woman. It was probably the Mohammedans that killed the women at Delhi and Cawnpore. This old mutineers would say to him, “Kill a woman! You know we could not do that”; and so the Mohammedan was made responsible. (Burke,1966: 26-27). The political climate of India at that time that was the one of mounting separatist and communal divide in national life, especially among the muslims themselves, might have tempted him to express such views.(Radice, 1998: 29).

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USHA, K.B.. 
U.G.C. Research Associate at the Department of Politics, University of Kerala. She has taken her Ph. D on Soviet Studies from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Currently working on the topic “Political Empowerment of Women – A Critical Study of the Indian Experience.” Has made significant contributions to research journals.

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U.G.C. Research Associate at the Department of Politics, University of Kerala. She has taken her Ph. D on Soviet Studies from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Currently working on the topic “Political Empowerment of Women – A Critical Study of the Indian Experience.” Has made significant contributions to research journals.

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