To stay abreast of the ins and outs of the Hindu world, I subscribe to a news service called Hindu Press International (HPI). HPI sends out daily digests of stories from India and around the world about Hindus and Hinduism. Most days, I quickly scan the short blurbs which cover a variety of stories -- from detailed holiday celebrations in Mauritius to violations of Hindu human rights in Kashmir; discoveries of ancient ruins in Cambodia to the inauguration of a new temple in some remote corner of the world. Indeed, many of these stories are enlightening, but today one particular story brought a huge smile to my face and a moment of connection to the shakti (feminine energy) that manifests through every woman around the globe.
Here is an excerpt:
A group of women activists, belonging to Maharashtra's BJP Mahila Morcha, created history on Wednesday by storming into the sanctum sanctorum and performing puja at the famous Mahalakshmi temple at Kolhapur in western Maharashtra, where only men are allowed to enter the "garbha-griha" ... as many as 20 activists, led by State BJP Mahila Morcha chief Neeta Kelkar, took the temple authorities by surprise by entering into the sanctum sanctorum of the Mahalakshmi temple ...
The women activists not only ignored the persistent efforts by the priests and police personnel present to prevent them from entering the 'garbha-griha', where the temple management has over the years steadfastly disallowed the entry of women, but they also dressed the presiding deity with a new saree and performed puja."
The Hindu tradition personifies shakti, or the Divine power by which all is created or changed, as feminine, hence the central role of Goddess worship. Shakti is quiet yet strong, graceful yet fierce, subtle yet capable of unmatched rage. Hindu society, a primarily patriarchal society (with some exceptions), has always elevated the softer virtues of shakti in defining the "ideal woman," but at the deepest levels of our collective conscience, I believe Hindus recognize that it is the compassion and benevolence inherent in the feminine that compels woman to exercise restraint in displaying her strength all at once.
But on many an occasion, women throughout Hindu history have demonstrated their ability to stand up to the status quo, to right wrongs, or to simply lead the way, and have done so with elegance and humility. These courageous women have spanned the ages, from as far back as the time of the Vedas to, well, last Wednesday.
Gargi, the Vedic philosopher, for example, is credited for having brought out the answer to the most profound questions of Vedanta -- the nature of the Soul (Brahman) and the origins of the universe, during a public debate with Sage Yajnavalkya (chronicled in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad). In a court filled with male philosophers, Gargi fired question after question at the great sage, stumping a man who had never before been stumped. At one point Yajnavalkya even warned Gargi that her head would fall off if she continued, so she humbly stepped aside, in the hopes that others would continue where she was leading the sage. Others piped in, but failed to elicit the answer she was clearly aiming for, so she spoke up one last time. It was her final two questions that led Sage Yajnavalkya to definitively articulate the nature, or lack thereof, of the unmanifested, unknowable, formless Brahman.
In the Middle Ages there was Mirabai, who fought the conventions of royal life and against what was considered "appropriate" behavior for women of the time. A prolific devotional poet-saint, Mirabai was the first of religious freedom advocates. She rebelled against her in-laws by continuing to worship Lord Krishna, the deity of her childhood, rather than being forced to pray to the deity of her new family. Later, she would escape several attempts on her life by her in-laws because they did not approve of her very public practice of religion. Imagine a princess singing and dancing without abandon, and that too amongst other Krishna devotees, including commoners. She rebelled against societal norms and tradition to pursue her life's one focus -- selfless surrender to God.
Others have graced the pages of more recent history like my namesake (more like my nick-namesake amongst family members), Jhansi ki Rani (Queen of Jhansi). Lakshmi Bai, her given name, had humble beginnings. The daughter of a priest, she was trained in the art of warfare as a result of her father's influence with the royal court and perhaps too because of his open-mindedness. At the tender age of 14, she was married to the king of Jhansi, but was quickly recognized for her inborne leadership skills. Long acknowledged as a key player in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, she died a fearless warrior on the battlefield, sword in one hand, reins in the other, fighting for the freedom of her kingdom and her people.
And today we have amazing women like Ma Yoga Shakti, the adopted guru of my in-laws and a person with whom I have had the honor of spending time. She, amongst others, in following a higher calling, have entered the traditionally male-dominated world of Hindu ascetics. She is an embodiment of maternal and wisdom-filled love to all those who approach her. But unlike many other monks who are part of a larger sampradaya (tradition) or guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student lineage), she has tread a path of her own -- inspiring, educating, and counseling thousands of souls along the way in a distinctly feminine way.
At the risk of being accused of judging the relevance of these remarkable women through a western feminist lens -- after all I was born and raised in America and despite my best efforts to balance East and West -- I see their tenacity, not so much as a quest for equality, but a quest for freedom -- the freedom to think, the freedom to question, the freedom to worship, the freedom to be free. On their journeys, they've also toppled many of the assumptions about women imposed upon us by society or sanctioned through religion -- that we're incapable, we're weak, or we're impure.
Will Neeta Kelkar and her 19 sakhis (friends) or the countless women around the world who are compelled to let their full-form shakti arise from time to time, make the kind of history other great women have before them? Only time will tell. Nevertheless, I am inspired by these some ordinary and some extraordinary women who bring about change, bucking many man-made traditions one graceful step at a time.
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