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Hinduism - The Hindu Woman

( Originally Published 1916 )

To a Hindu his home is a Temple, and in that Temple, the Hindu woman is High Priestess. She has kept indeed sacredly the sacred traditions. The first duty that a Hindu woman learns from her cradle is to make home sacred. Sanctity is the watchword of her life. In outward affairs, in household duties, within her heart of hearts, she tries to preserve that sanctity. Purity is her ideal both in body and in mind. Man's training begins when a child, and he goes through his Ashrama life stage after stage. Woman has her Ashrama life within the home. Education, both for men and women, has not the same ideal in India as it has in the West. In the West education is material and intellectual, in India purely spiritual. Thus woman from childhood grows within such an atmosphere that in her after life, when she attains maturity and becomes the mother of the family, she trains her children up to the same ideal.

Let us consider what are the main factors in moulding the thought and national life of the Hindu woman.

With the growth of her knowledge, she is instructed to take bratas, or vows, of various sorts. She will have, at certain periods of the day or month, to water small plants of her little garden, and some particular plants are impressed upon her mind as something sacred. By serving and protecting the plant, so that its peaceful growth may not be disturbed, she learns to understand its life and to love it as her very own. One of our greatest poets, Kalidasa, describes Sakuntala leaving her father's hermitage, where each plant which she had reared and watered and caressed is weeping to hear of her departure to her husband's house.

Kanna, her foster-father, thus addresses the woods surrounding their hermitage —

" Hear, all ye trees of this hallowed forest; ye trees in which the nymphs have their abode; hear and proclaim that Sakuntala is going to the palace of her wedded lord; she who drank not, though thirsty, before you were watered; she who cropped not, through affection for you, one of your fresh leaves, though she would have been pleased with such an ornament for her locks; she whose chief delight was in the season when your branches are spangled with flowers! "

A chorus of invisible wood-nymphs reply: " May her way be attended with prosperity! May propitious breezes scatter for her delight the fragrant dust of rich blossoms! May pools of clear water, green with the leaves of the lotus, refresh her as she walks! And may shady branches be her defence from the scorching sun-beams! "

It is not only the plant-life that is a recognised part in the Hindu woman's education and training, but love for animals is also a sweetest part of her childhood. The wonderful care that Sakuntala gave to a deer at the hermitage shows the spirit that runs even now in its fullest intensity in Hindu homes, among the children of the family — especially the little girls.

" Ah ! what is it that clings to the skirts of my robe, and detains me," says Sakuntala as she is leaving her forest home.

" It is thy adopted child," replies her foster-father gently, " the little fawn, whose mouth, when the sharp points of Kusa grass had wounded it, has been so often tended by thy hand with the healing oil of Ingudi; who has been so often fed by thee with a handful of Syamaka grass, and now will not leave the footsteps of his protectress."

Sakuntala bursts into tears as she turns to her little pet: " Why dost thou weep, tender fawn, for me, who must leave our common dwelling-place? As thou wast reared by me when thou hadst lost thy mother, who died soon after thy birth, so will my foster-father attend to thee when we are separated, with anxious care. Return, sweet thing, return, we must part."

By this training from her childhood, the Hindu woman is initiated into the deepest mysteries of life. This purity and sweetness of character has been preserved to such an extent by the woman of India that she has never been able to bear the thought of animals being killed.

In India animals are killed, but not so much as in other parts of the world, and you will never find a butcher's shop within the range of the village.

Hindus are, as a rule, not meat-eaters. The Hindu woman does not eat meat. She never cares for it. In India it is not the custom for men to go abroad and eat food prepared by different people. The Hindu, as a rule, takes his meal in his own house. Fire and food are to him sacred, and their purity must be guarded. The preservation of purity in body, mind and in spirit has been primarily the order of Hindu society, and this ideal has been kept up to its fullest extent by the women-folk of our country.

The Hindu woman will not cook any food with-out first having a complete bath, and she will never start any cooking without having made her pu jas, which does not mean a prayer for ten minutes or so, but a complete disciplinary system of meditation. And in her cooking she tries to infuse her spirit of devotion — her bhakti.

The Hindu says that you can tell when food is cooked in love. You can taste the love in it. This is the real spiritual reason for the man's eating at home. Thus in fire and food, as in bathing, strict ceremonials are observed. They originated in love and devotion.

Purification of body, mind and soul, so allied that the disturbance of one is the disturbance of the other, appeared to the Hindu as the foundation principle for the purification of society, and this came into the hands and control of woman as the high priestess of the Hindu ideal.

It is not only in this ceremonial part of life that a Hindu woman is responsible, but she is in fact the very life and soul of the Hindu race. She is herself sacred. She has kept the sacred fire in her home sacredly. That fire which the Hindu saw and invoked the spirit of in Agni, that fire she has kept all these years.

In the Hindu home the fire is unquenchable. Together the bride and bridegroom light the flame which is never allowed to die out. And this fire is a symbol of that spiritual fire which their love shall keep ever burning. That which the Hindu wishes to realise he has been able to keep the vision because of his women. It is they who have held it and still hold it, in spite of the outward influence of the material world.

Teaching in India, both for men and women, has always been to a large extent oral; a method that in many ways cannot be surpassed. The Hindu woman hears the Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas read and expounded. She has a complete knowledge of the mythology and poetry of her own country, with all that that connotes of culture and imagination. She understands to a hair's breadth, and realises in her daily life, philosophical doctrines such as Maya and Nirvana, which have bothered the heads of more than one Western savant.

Book knowledge is not education. You can have any amount of learning, but if it does not build up character, what availeth it to you? It is a question whether the circulating libraries of the West tend toward character-building in the young. It is character that is the object of real education, as the West is beginning to realise. And that character can never be built without the solid foundation of various disciplines. For this purpose, bratas (vows) are taken by both men and women in India. These bratas are schools to our Hindu women. Through these she learns devotion, in-tensity of faith, love for every living thing; love and affection for her family, for her clan, for her village, and gradually that love takes her to that higher love which both Hindu men and women share and in which the whole universe is their kin.

There are certain bratas by which she tries to realise God in her husband; others, to realise God in her children; still others to realise Him in trees and flowers, in water, in all the elements, in every-thing " living and non-living," for she knows there is nothing which is not living, nothing in which the life of God does not breathe.

The affection in Hindu families is peculiarly strong. The mother is worshipped. She is the great symbol of the Motherhood of God. And it is this deep love and reverence that makes the Hindu love to call his country, not simply Motherland, but Mother.

The tie between brother and sister is intensely sweet. In India there is one day in the year, called " Brother's Day," on which brothers visit their sisters with presents and receive their benisons. On that day, the sister will rise very early in the morning and gather dew from the grass and flowers. This she places in a small bowl with sandal. She then brings flowers and cocoanuts, sweetmeats of various sorts and rice from the fields, and putting all these things on a new plate, she comes at the appointed time to the place of the ceremony. Brother and sister sit facing each other upon the floor. The sister puts the dew-drops mixed with sandal upon the brother's forehead, saying, " May you live long and work for God and Humanity." She then places the rice upon his head if he is younger, or if elder, at his feet, and they exchange greetings. If the sister is married, the brother may live at some distance, but he will always come to perform this ceremony, also a symbol of the great brotherhood and sister-hood of the world.

Such ideal the Hindu woman realises not only in her family and within her own home, but out-side the family and outside the home. It is a mistake to suppose that Hindu women are always shut up behind their purdah. They are not. But they do not run about in search of diversion.

There seems to be a remarkable idea current in the West that a Hindu wife never sees any man but her husband. This is manifestly absurd. In many Hindu families there are as many as two hundred or three hundred people living together in harmonious freedom under one roof; or more truly, many roofs, since the Hindu houses are built around courtyards. Thus the family forms a community by itself, all the members of which the women naturally see more or less. Moreover, the friends of her childhood, men she has played with from babyhood, as well as the friends of her husband, father, or brothers, are informally welcomed as of the family. She does not, it is true, meet strangers, comparatively unknown to her family, at balls and parties, as women do in the West. But this does not mean that she never goes out of the house. With all her care for the home, she goes out as much as she wishes; she visits her neighbours, her girl friends, her relatives, goes to distant places, even from country to country.

Where else in the world lived there a race, the women of which went about, before railways and steamships, on foot from pilgrimage to pilgrimage? They did not mind hardship. They do not now. And Hindu pilgrimages are not only to one place, but they are all over India. From the heights of the Himalayas where rests the famous Temple of Kedarnath, to the southern-most part of India and the great Temple of Rameshwar, from the Temple of Juggernath at Puri in the east to Dwaraka with its Temple of Sree Krishna in the west, who go year in and year out? Who are the people that gather together round these wonderful places? Who have kept the sacred traditions of these historic Abodes of Peace? It is the Hindu women. They wear a veil, but that veil of a Hindu woman which covers the head is not to veil her face, but to shadow to a certain extent the purity of her symbolic face. The Hindu woman who ever tries through all the days of her life to realise God in every part of her life, in service and in devotion, she has incarnated in her face the goodness of love and the goodness of purity. She is pure. From beneath the veil of her face, even if covered, there comes like a lightning flash the beauty and the intensity of sweetness that lies behind. She is matchless matchless because of her devotion as well as her courage.

These two ideals have been so developed in the Hindu woman that they are recognised in India, and when the history of Hindu women will be written the world will accept their truth. The chief characteristics of Hindu women are courage, humanity and sweetness, and above all a belief in God which they have acquired through their path of devotion.

From time immemorial they have been drawing their inspiration from the life of Sita, the wife of Ramchandra, the great King-Ideal of the Ramayana. " Rama, the son of Dasaratha, went into exile for fourteen years. He wished Sita to stay at home, but Sita, this model of a devoted wife, would not listen to the proposal. She desired to leave home and kindred to follow her lord into the pathless wilderness." From that day the Hindu woman's ideal of life has been fixed. She does not exist alone. She exists with her husband. In Hindu homes the two become one.

" For the faithful woman follows where her wedded lord may lead,

In the banishment of Rama, Sita's exile is decreed,

Happier than in father's mansions in the woods will Sita rove,

Waste no thought on home and kindred nestling in her husband's love!

Therefore let me seek the jungle where the jungle-rangers rove,

Dearer than the royal palace, since I share my husband's love,

And my heart in sweet communion shall my Rama's wishes share,

And my wifely love shall lighten Rama's load of woe and care!"

Not the ideal of Sita alone. There are hundreds and thousands of nameless Sitas living the same ideal, and Indian literature and history are full of such glorious types of womanhood. Draupadi, whose faith and devotion inspired the Pandava brothers. Savitri, who followed and conquered death to bring back her husband. Damayanti, whose love and courage nothing could daunt. Khana and Lilavati, famous for learning as well as sweetness. Meera Bai, the saint and devotee whose songs of love and devotion rival those of Jajadeva. And of more modern times: Pudmani, the Flower of the Rajputs; the Rani of Jhansi who led her own troops; the Rani Bhabani, Ahalya Bai, and the Rani Swarnakumari, noted for their administrative powers and wonderful charities; all these and many others have set an ideal for which the Hindu race is proud. They have governed states, but their ideal of government first formed itself in the school of the family.

Marriage to a Hindu is not a contract. It is a reunion of the two souls. Two souls actually unite to fulfil the ideal of life, and prepare themselves as pilgrims to realise the fullest spirituality. One cannot surpass the other. In all our social functions husband and wife are equal partners. The moment a man and woman unite in marriage, separation ceases for ever. For good or for evil they are one. In the marriage ceremony each says, " Let the heart that is in me be thy heart, let the heart that is in thee be my heart," then together they watch for the Pole star, the symbol of constancy and faithfulness. They are one soul. Death cannot separate them.

Suttee was not the forced thing which we read of. It was the ideal of oneness. The Hindu woman did not care to live apart from her husband. Body meant nothing. It may encase the soul for the time being, but that is all, Death is nothing beside eternity with him.

"Lamp of my life, the lips of death
Have blown thee out with their sudden breath,
Naught shall revive thy vanished spark
Love, must I dwell in the living dark?

Tree of my life, death's cruel foot
Hath crushed thee down to thy hidden root,
Naught shall restore thy glory fled
Shall the blossom live when the tree is dead?

Life of my life, Death's bitter sword
Hath severed us like a broken word,
Rent us in twain who are but one
Shall the flesh survive when the soul is gone?"

" It was a splendid courage and a beautiful faith," says Edwin Arnold, " that inspired these Indian wives. ` Witness that I die for my Be-loved by his side,' was the farewell of the Sati. It was not very wrong of me, it may be hoped, to lay a flower upon the carved stone which recorded where the Sati had last set her fearless little foot upon this earth of selfish hearts and timid beliefs." Even now we sometimes hear of women going to Suttee, in spite of legal prohibition. But whether they seek Suttee or not, the ideal of our women remains the same, and she carries the memory of her husband and her husband alone all through her life. This heroic devotion is found in all our history. When Prithi Raj, the last of the Hindu Emperors, was defeated and slain by the treachery of his foe, and the Mogul Emperor demanded his beautiful wife, Sanjugta, to be his bride, the Empress, putting aside her grief, begged only to be allowed to pay the last rites to her husband. The funeral pyre was prepared, the Mogul Emperor with his men standing by. Then as the flames soared up, Sanjugta, with one cry, " I come to thee, my be-loved! " leaped to the side of her husband, and winding her arms around his body, perished in the flames.

Those who have read the history of the Rajputs know the heroic part that Rajput women have taken by the side of their lords. They have encouraged husbands and fathers, brothers and friends, to go and fight or come back on their shields. That was their farewell. Not only that, they themselves, on horseback and on camel-back, have ridden miles and miles and have fought by the side of their husbands to defend their home and country.

This devotion and heroism are the legacy of the Hindu woman to-day. All over India you will find her going from house to house, village to village, to nurse the sick, to console the bereaved. She does not care for the hurry and rush of life. She faces all struggle boldly and devotedly. She may learn many things. She may receive Western education. But the education that she gets every day in her home, her sanctuary, the inspiration she draws from pilgrimage to pilgrimage — these are the lessons, more than the lessons of the book.

She goes, every day almost, in the evening to hear the expounding of the scriptures, many and varied, by the pandits of the country. She stands on the height of love; and from that height speaks to man one word: devotion. By woman we understand devotion. And this ideal she is bequeathing to her race from Vedic times. She gives this message to the world: Devotion.

As in the Ashrama life of the man he rises from that discipleship at the feet of his guru and becomes the disciple of the universe, ultimately sinking himself into the vast ocean of Humanity, so the Hindu woman also rises from the bed-rock of her family school, and when she passes middle age she also enters into that last stage of life. There are thousands of Hindu women all over India, widows, mothers of children, who, giving up the entire management of their households to their children or relatives go about in holy pilgrimage. Whether they wear the gerua cloth or not, they are the Brahmacharinis or Sanyasinis of India. Tremendous is their influence. You will see them at Benares and at Puri, in the heights of the Himalayas, at Ramshwaram, at Dwaraka, at Brindaban. They wear no veil. They have passed that stage of life. They are above ordinary human beings. They are the super-women of our country. They spend hours and hours in devotion. Not one or two, but thousands of these sit alone, sometimes in groups, meditating, each in her own way. Religion to a Hindu is individual as well as national and universal.

Picture, not as an hallucination, but as a reality, hundreds of these Hindu women sitting on the banks of the Ganges or the Jumna. Their very look magnifies one's soul. Before them, you feel a holy presence. You feel the Motherhood of God. They look so enchantingly pure. You see them and forget the anxieties of the world. They have conquered the worries of life. These are past and gone. They do not fill their memory any more. To such women Humanity is one. To them sectarianism does not apply any more. They know the Gita, they know the Upanishads, they know the secret of religion. They will speak of all religions as springing from the same source. They master the very principles, the greatest teachings of Sree Krishna — service, knowledge and devotion. They serve Humanity in every way. They go from door to door, console the people, speak to them, inspire them. They are beyond purdah. They are above all. Men respect them as their mothers, respect them as their sisters.

There is a floating humour in the outside world that all Sanyasis are a pest of society; they are idle folk; they are a set-back! But if in any country in the world there is a class of people who deserve our homage, these are the Sanyasis and Sanyasinis. What an impression they leave be-hind! Their look, their dress, their footsteps, all awaken a passion for spirituality. They do not speak much, only to the few, but their speech means holiness. They say one sweet word that conveys the whole meaning.

A personal story will not be out of place. I happened to know a Sanyasini at Brindaban, where I spent a few weeks of my life. She had passed middle age, but it is difficult to think of age in connection with them. My little " bower," or grass hut, was just by the side of hers, where she used to sing almost all the day and night. That dwelling of the Sanyasini was on the banks of the Jumna, that enchanting stream! What a history is repeated in every wave and wavelet! The waves have heard many a sweet song, sung by the flute of India's greatest ideal and idol, Sree Krishna. Even the peacocks used to dance when they heard that enchantment. That Jumna is still there, and still the same river. The music is there. The songs are there. Nothing is dead. Men and women hear that music and it enters into their hearts and maddens their soul. Not the madness of the world. It is the madness for God. That Sanyasini I am speaking of sings in praise of Krishna all day and night in her little grass hut. She bathes in the Jumna every morning before the sun rises, cooks her own food, which is very simple, reads a few lines from the Bhagavat Gita, and sings the songs of Radha and Krishna. She had given up all her property to become a devotee. She is known as a great saint in the place. Hundreds of men and women come only to see her. She exchanges a sweet little word here and there, but she sings all the time. The hundreds that come to see her go away as if fully satisfied in heart and soul. If you look at her eyes, you see in them a wonderful look, a great spiritual passion for Him who is the husband of her soul. I do not know whether she is still alive, but she, through her speechless words, has left an abiding influence of spirituality in my heart.

But, she is not the only woman. There are thousands. We do not hear of them. They do not advertise their work and history. But they have kept the torch of spirituality alight all these years. They are keeping it alight now. India's torch is burning—burning in the bush as well as in the homes. The Hindu woman sang and is singing to-day. Sree Krishna is ideal and idol. The Jumna has become the very symbol of her life.

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