Gender and Sexuality
Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard
In Hindu social and ethical texts, women often seem to be hierarchically inferior to men. One of the most widely known of the Dharmashastras, the Manu Smirti, or Laws of Manu, depicts women as being entirely subservient to men: a girl is governed by her father, a married woman by her husband, a widow by her sons. In other texts, women are prohibited from hearing the Vedas, from engaging in certain crucial rituals, from holding positions of religious leadership, and so on. Some texts also hold that even women of the higher castes cannot be considered twice-born (dvijas), and must be reborn as men to make serious religious progress. Women are also depicted in some texts as being impure because they menstruate.
Women in classical Hindu texts are thus often perceived to be inferior beings, sometimes relegated to the level of Shudras, regardless of their actual caste affiliation. This, however, only gives part of the picture. For as much as it is true that women are often denigrated, there are also images of women, in the form of various goddesses, that are decidedly more positive. There is a whole range of mainstream goddesses who are the models of dharmic women.
Lakshmi, for instance, the consort of Vishnu, is the embodiment of female virtue; she is the model wife, the bringer of prosperity, the embodiment of compassion. Parvati, the consort of Shiva, is, likewise, the model wife and devotee; she is also often depicted as the model mother.
There are also more ambiguous and more powerful images of women in the Hindu tradition. In contrast to the consort goddesses, Durga and Kali are tremendously fierce and cannot be controlled by any male god. Here is an image of women that is in stark contrast to the docile, subservient wife, and even in contrast to the consort goddesses such as Parvati or Lakshmi. Durga is born out of the combined tapas, or ascetic heat, of the three great gods—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—in order to slay the evil buffalo demon Mahishasura. In slaying the demon, she restores order; however, because she is created out of the combined power of the gods, she is also understood to be potentially more powerful than they are.