The Third Part of our Shakti Series of Posts is one that is both long-needed and the need of the hour. In parts I and II, readers may recall our exegesis on the importance of restoring feminine balance and the power of Stree Dharma. Part III asserts that the need for Raising Durgas.
In this concluding installment, we will discuss the imperative of raising powerful warrior women who can contribute as citizen, guide as leader, nurture as mother, and if need be, protect as fighter.
Modern Indic Society and modern Indian women are at a crossroad. Traditional Society vs Modern “my choice”.
What’s more, recent controversies have rocked the nation and parliament, and have brought the story of Mahishasura Mardini to the fore. The story of Durga destroying Mahishasura is a well known one from the Siva Purana.
But she is in the news today for all the wrong reasons. She has been defiled in the most derogatory terms by students of JN University and it has taken a Durga-like form in Smriti Irani to call out the dishonor meted out to her.
In these times when Devi Durga has been so maliciously maligned, it is time we parents looked into how we should bring up our daughters. Our civilization looks upon the feminine as divine, worships it and looks upon it as that which sustains and nurtures. However, today, we live in a completely globalised world where other cultures and other worldviews easily flow into our living rooms via the television and internet. Other worldviews have not had a civilizational trajectory like ours and don’t necessarily understand ours either. As is amply evident from this infuriating article, condescension and often a dismissal and denigration of our culture is what goes for reporting about us, and now, even Indian women are not spared.
So for all you girls who stupidly think foreigners are coming to save you, think again. Yesterday they demonised old conservative men, today it is mummy jis, tomorrow, by virtue of being a different race, the one being demonised will be you. You may be able to change your passport, you may be able to change your religion, but you cannot change your race. Even if you get plastic surgery, you, like Michael Jackson, will always be reminded of who you really are. And if even this is not enough to convince you, remember, 1 day, you too will become a mummy ji or a behen ji.
In their cultures, mummy ji may be feared, but in our culture, mata is respected. They may have no regard for women of a certain age, but in our culture, the wisdom of and respect for women only increases with age. Recent attempt to malign Goddess Durga perhaps demonstrates underlying euro-abrahamic fears of strong women & the divine feminine. Rather than caving in by acceding to girls being exploited as “trophies” or “exotic erotic assistants” in the name of “my choice”/”liberation”, perhaps it’s time we revive their Shakti by Raising Durgas.
On the one hand we have the uber-conservative traditionalists who advocate pativrata and on the other we have those who advocate “my choice” debauchery. But in this dichotomy of Sita–Sati–Savitri vs Surpanakha, I choose none of the above. Instead, I choose Durga and it is a natural choice for me coming as I do from a state that is famous for its matrilineal traditions.
As mentioned by Neha Srivastava, to face the challenges of the coming years, the answer should not be to lock up your daughters (though common sense during riots is advisable), rather, we should be inspiring them to think like Durga. As such, Part III of our Shakti Series of Posts is to inculcate Stree Dharma by “Raising Durgas”
Raising Durgas – A Curriculum
Durga is Mahishasura Mardini and she represents the fierce and valorous side of feminity which is invoked only in the most extreme circumstances. In normal circumstances, she is the soft side of feminity but when Dharma is in danger, it is Durga who is invoked. Hence a woman needs to be prepared not only with the soft and nurturing side of her nature but also as the fierce side which is unleashed only with due care and under extraordinary circumstances. Durga unleashed is very potent and can consume everything.
Not all women have the same inclinations, and hence the preparation to be Durgas differ for each of them. Education is a lifelong process and does not stop once you leave the halls of a formal educational institution. It is not for nothing that it is said that life is the greatest teacher of all. However, formal education has its place and access to basic literacy is a must for ALL women. Some however want to go beyond basic literacy/primary education, and they specialise in one stream and become well-educated. A tiny fraction however love to go deeper and do super specialisation in their chosen field thus becoming highly educated. So basic literacy is a must for all girls while going beyond depends on the girl’s interest and inclination.
Formal education is only one aspect. Sanskriti as practised in homes through immersion in rituals, stories, food habits, festivals, and celebrations, embed the vitals of the civilization in a girl. Niti (lessons of life) comes from problem solving which should be promoted through exposing the girl to real life problem situations. Finally, Dharma is the bedrock of any Bharatiya and so dharma should be ingrained in the girl by helping her understand that pursuit of Artha or Kama are always in line with Dharma. She will imbibe these as she watches her immediate family living their lives. Apart from all this, and specifically to keep the fire of Shakti burning for today’s circumstances, every girl must be trained in some martial art like kickboxing or krav maga, though traditionally it would have been Kalaripayattu or karate.
Seemantam is a samskara that usually is conducted in the 7th month of pregnancy. It literally means parting of the hair.
It is an auspicious ritual praying for the well being of the foetus and a safe delivery for the mother. It essentially prepares a mother for her new role.
II. Infancy (birth to 1 year)
Various samskaras are performed in infancy. Namakarana (naming ceremony), Karnavedha (ear piercing ceremony) and Annaprashna (first taste of cooked food) are some of the samskaras that are performed in the first few months after the child is born. Rather than recognise dowry for greedy bridegrooms, restore the traditional Streedhana to be given to the daughter at her wedding. Saving within means for that purpose will ensure she will be empowered as an adult, to use the money as she deems necessary.
Each of them is a milestone of the child becoming an individual separate from the mother. The child should be welcomed and an auspicious environment should be created with a positive view of the birth of a daughter, bringing music and laughter to the home.
III. Childhood (2-9 years)
Vidyarambham is a samskara which signals that the child is now ready to start education. It is usually performed around the age of three now but in earlier times, it used to be around the age of five. Essentials such as puja, pranayama, and mantra should be taught, and she should be regaled with tales from her mother and grandmother. While this is the time for play, it is also the best time to learn and absorb, especially languages.
- The girl should at this stage be enrolled in an educational environment where she will start interacting with peers for the first time. These are important lessons in community behaviour.
- Various practical exercises to introduce the alphabet and the basics of maths should be started.
- While the school imparts some lessons, sanskriti is the domain of the family. If you want your daughters to grow up dharmically inclined, then this is the time to fill their environment with dharmic symbols: exposure to classical music, classical dance, visits to temples, kirthana, flowers in hair, bangles, anklets, traditional dresses, stories from the Panchatantra, Ramayana and Mahabharata, stories of veerata (valour) both from women and men and so on. Slightly older children should be introduced to Amar Chitra Katha. There is no better source for stories from our puranas and itihasas than these. The child will be wonderstruck by the magic and drama in Uncle Pai’s comic books.
- It is imperative that the girl picks up her mother tongue in these formative years. Conversation at home should be only in the mother tongue. Other tongues (i.e.English) will be learned at school. Foundational thinking should be in the mother tongue.
IV. Youth (10-16 yrs)
Upanayana is the formal initiation into the serious world of study. In vedic times it is believed to have been done even for women, but in later times ceased to be a practice for women. Whether this is done or not, essential values and morals should be communicated and also explained as to why they are important.
- At this stage, focus on studies should become more pronounced. This is the time when the girl starts to decide how she would want to steer her adult life.
- As they learn to read, write and decode the physical world around them, they should also learn to understand their own physical self and the changes it undergoes as they move from childhood to youth. Today most families have done away with the coming-of-age rituals, but in times of yore, a girl who attained puberty was feted and celebrated as passing from girlhood to womanhood attaining the ability to bring a life into being on her own. The rite was called ritu kala samskaram.
- The girl should also pursue interests in the arts. She could take up music or dance or drama or any of the 64 traditional arts (prescribed by the sastras). This is the time to hone the skills both academically and aesthetically. It is a way to channelise the energies constructively. Talent at this time should be nurtured and given opportunities to excel.
- Training in any one of the martial arts is a must for the present world is not such a safe place for women. Sastra should be balanced by Suhstra.
- Of particular importance is the art of debating. If your daughter is exhibiting a flair for language, get her to understand logic and use it to hone her skills at debating. It is a big asset to have if your daughter is going to go into the public domain where she will need to be an effective communicator with conviction in her ideas. If possible introduce her to Sanskrit education which has excellent potential to helping her develop logic, wisdom and conviction and thus help her in debating.
- As the physical changes appear in the girl, the mind also changes. Attraction towards the opposite sex is also very natural at this stage. Traditional parents advise against dating, and there are good reasons for this advice. These have to be explained tactfully to the girl by someone older to her in the family, i.e. aunt or elder sister.
- Mother, aunt, or elder sister should also educate her (not just lecture but also examples/news items) to ensure she is worldly-wise and knows how to avoid dangerous people, and if she decides to have relationships anyway, to be wise enough to avoid being taken advantage of.
- A girl should be taught that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and strange men may seek to ply them with flattery, attention, gifts, or wine for bad agendas.
- Self-respect should be inculcated by teaching that true beauty is inner beauty. While it is good to look good, one should be healthy too, and external validation or magazine models should not negatively affect a girl’s self-image and sense of worth.
- Just as there are many types of intelligence, there are many types of beauty. Because not everyone sees it, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
V. Post-secondary Schooling
All women may not wish to go beyond secondary schooling, but for those who want to, this should be the period to consolidate the knowledge they have acquired. Women in Ancient India were not only Upadhyayinis (teacher’s wife) but also Upadhyayaa‘s (lady teachers). Irrespective of whether she becomes a traditional teacher or professor, a girl should be taught to stand on her own two feet, give sound advice, and even lead when required. Girls must become complete women, like the three forms of Goddess.
- They should start building the capability to expand on this knowledge and probably look to take it further with their own new insights.
- They should learn how to dharmically generate wealth, manage it, and give charity
- They should know how to wield power (social, political, financial) effectively and for collective and societal good.
- As for the arts, this should be the period when the public performances should begin. For music and dance, there is the ritual called Arangetram (the first formal solo stage performance) which should be undertaken at this time. This sets the stage for the formal entry of the girl into the adult world.
- Even if she doesn’t go to college or even vocational school, she should be taught a valuable and honourable occupational skill so she can be self-reliant.
This is also the period when girls are deciding whether they want to go for the traditional way to marriage or whether they want to go for ‘love marriage’. Better to introduce her to our stories rather than simply “ban” or disourage reading. This will captivate her imagination in positive ways. For girls who decide they want ‘love marriages’ however, here is some practical advice as well, that parents or at least elder sisters/cousins should impart.
- It is good to broaden horizons, but also smart to avoid bad influences.
- Understand if the men in your family tell you an area is not safe.
- Be aware of surroundings and timings, be careful of accepting drinks, be wise about choosing friends.
VI. Single Woman
The single woman is a phenomenon from the recent past since in earlier times girls were married at a younger age. Hence there are no clear cut samskaras defined for this group, only preparation for vivaha, if not previously done. It is the period when the woman is most often in an earning position these days and when she enjoys financial independence. It is also the time when the girl potentially leaves the parental home because she has found a job elsewhere. But increasingly, this is also the time when women can get carried away and indulge in inappropriate behaviour drunk on the intoxication that financial independence brings them. It is the time when the sanskars they have imbibed from their upbringing play a decisive role. If these are strong, the woman stays steady to her sanskriti and starts to become an actively contributing member to her rashtra and desa.
- Pay attention to societal issues facing community, state, nation
- Read widely (history,etc )to understand how world works,not just how we want it to
- Give guidance to younger women, particularly those in college so they make wise and responsible decisions. Teach them to use technology carefully.
- While it’s good to be empowered, keep family or at least sisters/female cousins in the loop about decisions. The world is not a Bollywood movie.
- Socialise responsibly. Avoid bad company and keep good company.
- Do not trust strangers easily, especially strange men. Test them, trust your instincts, and avoid risky situations where you don’t have friends you trust around.
- Values and advice exist to protect us. Seek wisdom over gossip.
- Being a patriot doesn’t mean being a jingoist, but it doesn’t mean being anti-national either. Take pride in your culture, but critique intelligently.
- Be cosmopolitan and appreciate the world, but stay connected to your roots. No matter where you are or what your citizenship, you will be seen as Indian only. Be a good citizen, and a good Indian person. Appreciate without losing your culture.
For girls who decide they want ‘love marriages’ , here is some practical advice as well that parents or at least elder sisters/cousins should impart.
- Learn to distinguish between men who are superficial and flattering you only to gain your acceptance. Relate to men who respect you, and care for your safety and comfort and make sure you are not drawn into vulnerable situations.
- In this age of size zero and chemically aided beauty treatments, it is important for you to feel comfortable in your own skin. The natural look is always preferable to peroxide and is safer for you in the long run. Do not obsess about body but do not become obese or anorexic. Eat healthy and keep positive thoughts.
- Rights come with responsibilities. The law is there to protect you, not for you to use it as a weapon for personal anger.
- It’s all about inner beauty, moral independence, and strong character, and if you are comfortable on the inside, naturally it will show up on the outside.
- To find a good mate, a girl must respect herself first (without ahankar). This is the path to not just finding a stylish or fashionable man, but a good man.
VII. Married Woman
Vivaha completes the cycle of samskara for the woman. The woman who is grounded in her sanskriti will be at this point a very attractive and intelligent person whether she has studied only till the secondary level or whether she has gone on to earn further accolades. From here, the married woman has to be the other half of her husband within the family and grow to become the mother that Bharatiya society venerates, fiercely protective and nurturing of all that is hers to shape. Increasingly, she is also playing the role of shaper of the rashtra’s destiny outside her home too because she is an active contributor to its economy. And in this, she becomes the Durga, the one capable of holding her own within and without the traditional home and hearth.
- Marriage is about creating a culture. Women are the fountain of culture
- Raising a big family is not a burden, but a societal good. Single child families might raise entitled, selfish children. Larger families of 3 or 4 teach children how to share, work together, and ensure retirement security for parents(rather than gov. security).
- Modern education of children should be balanced by cultural education. The world is not a Bollywood movie.
- Just because a movie says some people can be trusted with your children, doesn’t mean its true.
- Don’t just gossip with other women, form committees to improve your community
- Get to know your neighbours, especially if they follow your sampradaya, and take care of their children when they need you to, so they will do the same for you
- Encouraging women to perform prayers for family well-being (like Lakshmivratha, and Durga Puja) is good. They re-emphasise respect for wife as Griha-Lakshmi
- Understand if the men in your family tell you an area is not safe or if people are attempting to take advantage (financially, etc). Women know motives of other women. Men know motives of other men.
- Learn to be a wise woman like Upakosa, who protected her family, outsmarted her enemies & defeated lecherous men with her wits. She was honoured by her people
- It is always good to be prepared for a rainy day or an emergency. It’s just good common sense.
Streeya Maryada Uttama
Conclusion: Reviving Shakti
In our culture, we have the concept of Ardhanareeshwara, of Shiva and Shakti, of Purusha and Prakriti. These two are complementary and one is not complete without the other. Indic society is not complete without the other gender. Here we are not talking of equality. We are talking of complementarity.
I don’t want to ask for reservation of any kind as a woman. For instance, I think it is simply more beautiful to have a man vacate his seat in a bus on seeing a woman than a woman forcefully demanding it as a right or complain if he vacates. Chivalry still makes a woman feel special and helps to keep her softer feminine side alive. I believe that when a man vacates a seat of his own volition, he does so because he respects the woman and values her as a person. When you force the man to do it because of a regime of rights and reservations, it is done under duress and with some level of dissatisfaction of having been forced to do something. This in turn affects the respect one feels for the woman because inherently, one is having to forego one’s rights to accommodate another. This breeds a certain transactional value in relations which can then turn into disrespect and at its worst, abuse.
It is becoming increasingly clear that not only the media but entire governments are turning a blind eye to the subject of women’s honour. True, many men out of genuine concern for the safety of women, object to them being in the armed forces or being outside in the late evening due to realities about rape, abduction, and unit cohesion.
While there may in fact be a very good argument against inducting women into regular combat as part of mixed units, the time may be fast approaching where every day women will need to know the basics of combat. I am personally not for women taking to combat roles. Woman is the protectress of society. She should be invoked onto the physical battlefield only as a last resort. It is not because woman is not capable of fighting alongside men. Durga herself is a fierce form. And we have many examples ranging from Rudramma Devi to Jhansi ki Rani, women warriors who never flinched from fighting for their land. But a woman is not made for the warfront. She is the one who keeps society from becoming barbaric. She is the check and balance to a man’s natural aggressiveness.
Our civilization of course has had very principled rules for warfare. In times of yore in Bharatvarsha, women were not called to the battlefield and not used as trophies. But other ideologies from other lands seldom have the same respect for women. A woman even today values her honour immensely and I can only imagine the devastation of a woman who might fall into enemy hands at the battlefront. War is about baser instincts and a woman is made for finer things. We don’t have to go far to know about what war can do to women. A cursory look at the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971 or the tragic case of Captain Saurabh Kalia, is enough to make one’s blood go cold, and help us understand why men are so protective of women.
At the same time, if called to fight at last resort, then the Bharatiya naari has vaunted lineage of warrior women from which to take inspiration. Rani Naikidevi famously defeated Ghori at the Battle of Mt. Abu, with her son Rajkumar Mulraj in her lap. Even beyond Rani of Jhansi or Rani Rudramma Devi or Rani Durgavati, even the common women have fought beside their men. In fact, when the Turkic Khiljis invaded Maharashtra under the Seunas, these warrior women did just that. “The opposition was organised by Kanha the local administrator and consisted of soldiers provided by his friends and two noblewomen of the area with their armed retainers. According to Isami, the Marathas charged the invaders who were nearly swamped and forced to fall back but a counter-charge led by Ala-ud-din ended with the withdrawal of the Marathas after suffering heavy loss. Ala-ud-din addressed his troops and pointed out the difficulty of their undertaking because in a country whose women could fight so well, the men were bound to be formidable foes.”
We need to rediscover ourselves. We need the Durgas only to intervene at the most crucial moments to restore the equilibrium between Shiva & Shakti. Our Durgas must be empowered and equipped to strike: strike with both words and weapons, sastra and suhstra. They must be trained in the art of self defense as also the art of vigorous and fearless debate. When Durga strikes, it should be to restore Dharma. And such a day is now approaching in Bharatavarsha.
- Kane, P.V. History of Dharmasastra. Poona. Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. 1941.
- Sandhu, p.222
- Kumbhare, Arun R. Women of India: Their Status Since the Vedic Times. Ne York: iuniverse. 2009
- Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli. The Principal Upanisads. London: Unwin Brothers.1968
- Mathur, Ashutosh Dayal. Medieval Hindu Law: Historical Evolution And Enlightened Rebellion. Oxford University Press. 2007