Mangala Gouri Puja, or how to practice as a feminist

Mangala Gouri Puja is a day of fasting for wives in the first five years of marriage, where they dress up and perform puja on behalf of their husband, praying for his well-being, prosperity, and longevity. I think this is a good post to talk about some of the difficulties with observing Hinduism, particularly from a feminist point of view, and from a Western perspective. But before I go any further, let me tell you that I am observing Mangala Gouri Puja. We’ve been married for four years. I’ve got make up on; I’m wearing bangles and a nice skirt; I used my devotions this morning to pray on behalf of my husband.

Let it also be no secret that I am a feminist. I know that for some it’s another ‘F’ word (I love that other F word too!) and many women I know have told me ‘I think women can do anything they want, but I’m not a feminist.’ That always breaks my heart, but this isn’t the place to go into why. Instead, I want to talk about the challenge of being a feminist and practicing a religion, any of them. I have a master’s degree in religious studies and I’m part of the way through a PhD program in theology (which is a topic for another day), in which my emphasis has been feminist theology. I am well versed in the challenges and rewards of pursuing feminism in religion.

When I began researching Hinduism I noticed several things that annoyed me. First, the vast majority of writing on the subject is by men for men. Practitioners are assumed to be men, often with wives as the supporting figure. Secondly, God is always referred to as He. The Shakta tradition sees the Divine as She, but that’s a small part of Hinduism. The Ultimate Divine, while intellectually non-dual or beyond all of creation and non-gendered is still referred to as He. Thirdly, there are holidays, such as Mangala Gouri Puja where the woman fasts for her husband. I haven’t seen a single instance where a husband fasts for his wife. (Please correct me if I am wrong!)

Thankfully, I can push my irritation aside. I know that no culture, aside from some tiny ones I’ve never come into contact with, is free from male privilege. Historically, men have been the priests, men are the majority of monks, men are considered more holy than women. Whether or not this is explicit in the holy texts or implicit in the theology, the lived experience of most traditions upholds that men are prioritized and their religious experience is more important than the women’s.

This male privileging makes sense in many ways. I understand this more now that I’ve got two kids of my own. When the babies are young they need mama in a way that does not allow for easy substitutes. Early societies had divisions of labor that made sense for less-technological societies than our current one. For example, formula wasn’t an option, so mothers had to be on call for nursing 24/7 for many years. Even with daycare and formula and more technology freeing up the physical labor needed to sustain life and a household, women remain the only ones who can bear children. Let me tell you, that is hard work! So all of that is to say that I fully understand that men have more freedom to explore their spiritual path than do most women.

Biology aside, there’s the problem that societies then take that biological breakdown and instead of finding ways to support women’s spiritual lives, assume that men are holier and women aren’t at all cut out for the holy life. Thereby instituting rules and traditions that exclude women. What we’ve got is culture dictating religion. Does the Great God really intend that only men are suitable for priesthood? I absolutely cannot believe that. There is not a single theological argument that I can get on board with that suggests such a thing – and believe me, I’ve read a lot of arguments in favor of a male-only priesthood!

What we’ve got is culture and religion intertwining. I don’t think the two can be fully separated. But what aspects of culture do I accept as authoritative? What aspects of my external religious authority (because I am the internal priest of my own life) do I accept as Divine or take as cultural?

What I find is that many of the anti-feminist practices and ideas in Hinduism are not supported in the theology. They seem to be cultural remnants that people have taken on as ‘the way it is.’ I think Hinduism has far greater liberating possibility for women than many other religions.

So back to Mangala Gouri Puja. Yep, it annoys me that a woman would fast for her husband and for her marital happiness, but a man has no such call to do so. Wouldn’t it be great if they did? That annoyance aside, I think the idea itself is a loving one. Obviously I care deeply about my spouse’s well-being and his prosperity is my prosperity. I want every happiness for him, because I love him! Therefore, I’m observing this puja joyfully, willingly. I realize that it’s just an external form of prayer – a prayer I’d make for him anyway, just as I pray for my children and my friends and other loved ones. I see that I could easily do puja on behalf of the well-being of anyone I love! And I might do just that.

A final note that seems relevant to the topic: this is all incredibly heterosexist. I know almost nothing about queer identity in India, but my guess is that if the mainstream religion is sexist towards women, then it’s even more isolating for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans-people. Again, I think there is nothing that I’ve seen in the Hindu theology to exclude these ways of being. What is exclusionary is the cultural aspect, not the religious one. However, those cultural forces are not at play in my life and I get to take all the life-giving, liberating aspects of Hinduism and apply them as I wish. I’m not in any way saying that Western culture is better than Indian culture! We have loads of issues of our own and we are not much better in our attitudes toward women, LGBT folk, and Others in general.

But I am observing Managala Gouri Puja. I’m spending today looking pretty (more or less), fasting (eating vegetarian, not drinking wine, and avoiding social media), performing puja for my husband’s well-being and prosperity, and taking extra good care of him (more or less).

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