Indians, especially Bengalis, delight in proclaiming their reverence for the woman. A woman is mother, daughter, or sister. In fact, in a Bengali family it is apparently the mother of the household who traditionally plays the role of a matriarch or materfamilias, the Bengali counterpart of the ancient Roman paterfamilias. Like the mother at home, the Universal Mother (such as the Goddesses Durga or Kali) presides over the spiritual world of the Bengalis, as also of Indians elsewhere. It appears that Hindus command a commendable appreciation for gender equality or, at least compared to the male-oriented West, accord the highest esteem to the woman as mother, sister, and daughter. By implication, then, Hindus appear to be more gender democratic than Christians, Muslims, or even the Buddhists (didn’t the Buddha remark that women suffered from an ontological incapacity for achieving nirvana?).
If I may borrow a metaphor from the Ethiopian language Amharic, the Indian image of woman is constructed basically of wax with a layer of gold on the outside. Once the outer layer is stripped, the basic stuff underneath reveals itself. In other words, shorn of all rhetoric and hyperbole, the Hindu woman emerges as a truly vile creature—unpredictable, unreliable, languorous, lazy, and lecherous—who is out there to lure men astray from the path of God, the manly path of activism, asceticism, and altruism. “Never let yourself feel the air from a woman’s body. Cover yourself with a thick wrapper lest their air should touch your body”, Ramakrishna the Great Master, advised his young devotees. He prescribed constant cooking activity for women. As he said, “Only cooking helps them become good.” They [he meant his wife Sarada and his cousin sister Lakshmi] would, he feared, keep on staring at men if they were not kept busy. Ramakrishna, after all, was a quasi-illiterate ecstatic who grew up in a traditional rural society of the nineteenth century Bengal away from urban sophistication and enlightenment.
His famous disciple Swami Vivekananda, on the other hand, with his urban upbringing in an eclectic household presided over by his cosmopolitan father as well as with his education in a missionary college, harbored a typical misogynist attitude despite his rhetoric for women’s liberation and uplift in society. Thus, he railed against the injustice and oppression suffered by Indian women historically: “You are hypocrites and selfish to the bone! Quit humiliating the Mother of the Universe and you will see how quickly the country prospers.” He even claimed in a public lecture in the West that “the Hindu women are very spiritual and very religious, perhaps more so than any other women in the world.” Nevertheless, his real attitude to women—Western or Indian—remained basically anchored to his Bengali cultural moorings that associated a set of negative qualities with effeminacy such as lethargy, cowardice, volatility, and immaturity. “I am a fighter and will die in the battlefield,” an ailing Vivekananda wrote from the US to his monastic brother in Calcutta in 1897. “It does not behoove me to sit idle like a woman here.” He took a disciple to task for not coming out against the missionaries of Madras: “I know my son, I shall have to come and manufacture men out of you. I know that India is only inhabited by women and eunuchs.” He confessed to his favorite Irish devotee Margaret Noble (Sister Nivedita) that manliness was so meaningful to him as an adult that he considered it beneficial to “do evil like a man.”
For both Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, woman basically stood for kamini, that is, a lustful being and she was classified with greed or kanchana [literally, gold]. Thus, both proclaimed to the world their indifference to kamini-kanchana. For them, women, properly speaking, ought to remain as mothers loyal to their spouses. Their goal in life ought always to be a helper to their husband’s spiritual mission and to provide him with a son who could be trained as a hero. “Mother to heroes”—this was Vivekananda’s ideal woman! The image of women as cowardly and “unmanly” (whatever that means) has so possessed the psyche even of modern Indian women that only over a couple of decades ago, a group of educated and progressive feminists of New Delhi heckled a disgraced male politician who had been accused of molesting a tribal woman by dangling a bunch of bangles in front of his face and calling him a “woman” for his unmanly conduct (which, ironically and properly speaking, was quite a “manly,” albeit despicable, behavior)!
However, the time has come for us to reorient our concepts of the positive and negative qualities of human character without gender typing them. We ought also to rethink sexuality and not equate it uniformly with license or unabashed carnality with the sole exception of the habitually lecherous and the nymphomaniacs. We need a new Goddess figure who is neither a mother nor a daughter, nor even a self-effacing and shy lover of a dominant male, but who presides over the world of Eros, and exercises hegemony, resplendent in her glory, without a peer or a rival. We need a new mythology of such a divine female and she is the nymph Urvasi, the celestial dancer of the Hindu Paradise. We have had a long tiresome dalliance with the Universal Mother figures such as Durga or Kali.