International Women’s Day: Swami Vivekananda and the ‘Woman Question’

Swami Vivekananda, mostly taken to be a prophet for modern India, had some intriguing views on women and women empowerment.

This article is a part of Saha Sutra on www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India.

The ‘woman question’ formed an integral part of Hindu reformism in 19th century India and this was a question on which Swami Vivekananda, not unlike his forebears, wrote copiously and conservatively.

This ‘question’ did not adopt an argumentative framework that was meant to empower women – at least not in the foreseeable future. Rather, it was an attempt to suitably come to grips with and circumvent emerging modernist critiques that bemoaned the despicable status of the Indian woman and the burden of various social and cultural obligations that society placed on her.

For instance, the Hindu intelligentsia of the day found it hard to fully ignore the argument that the developmental status of a society could be reasonably judged by the way it treated its women. Given this historical context, Hindu reformist discourse on women was characterised by an inner tension and ambivalence which also, on occasions, defeated the very agenda of meaningful change or reform. This discourse encouraged female education but disallowed the educated woman a free choice of a vocation, the age at which to marry or the choice of a partner.

Widow remarriage

In principle, it did permit the remarriage of widows but distinctly preferred it for child widows rather than women widowed in adulthood. In the self-understanding of most male reformers, what was at stake here was the notion of the woman’s chastity (satitwa) which, in their perception, was one of the pillars supporting Hindu society.

On this question, the most conservative voices were simply horrified by the alleged ‘unfaithfulness’ of the widow. Located as he was in late 19th century India, Vivekananda was also deeply influenced by the conservative backlash of this period, which took Hinduism to be visibly endangered by alien thought and ways of life.

Also read: The Varied Notions of Motherhood

Significantly enough, Vivekananda perceived women differently in their religious and social roles. As a repository of traditional religious or domestic values, the Hindu woman was undoubtedly important. As a mother, she was the keeper of progeny and as a wife, the pivot on which revolved the Hindu’s domestic economy.

Not surprisingly, then, Hindu conservatives (including some of the greatest names in the Bengali literary world of the 19th century such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, Indranath Bandyopadhyay, etc.) were greatly offended and worried by the newly-educated woman allegedly falling prey to a growing consumerism and making unreasonable demands on already paltry, clerical budgets.

The woman’s pining for her beloved (reminiscent of the mythical Radha in Vaishnava folklore), Vivekananda believed, represented the highest metaphor for the realisation of God. As a social object, however, the woman still needed to be handled carefully.

Female sexuality and threat to male continence

For one, female sexuality was still the biggest threat to male continence and evidence suggests that particularly as a monk, the Swami felt threatened even by the doting affection and admiration he received from his most celebrated female pupil, Sister Nivedita (1867–1911).

Sister Nivedita. Credit: Wikipedia

Sister Nivedita. Credit: Wikipedia

Like his guru, Sri Ramakrishna (1836–86), Vivekananda advocated the idea of de-sexualising the woman by conferring upon her the status of the mother. The Hindu’s domestic and social ideal was indeed the mother, not the wife and, far less, a sister. A woman and wife could easily forsake a man, never the mother. Not surprisingly, then, the Swami’s preferred ideals were Sita, who willingly withstood every test of loyalty, and Savitri, whose single-minded devotion supposedly brought back a dead husband to life.

It is intriguing, though, that this list of ideal Hindu women also includes the 16th-century female saint-poet Mira Bai, who is known to have challenged both patriarchy and the burden of domestic obligations for the woman.

Vivekananda took the woman to represent not merely the frailty of body and mind but an emasculating influence that visibly robbed the man of his manliness. She was occasionally capable of courage and heroism, but importantly, this emerged only in the context of her fidelity or chastity being put to test. Vivekananda had great admiration for Padmini, the ‘brave’ Rajput princess who, rather than surrender to another man’s lust, chose to immolate herself in her husband’s funeral pyre.

Also read: How Cultural Nationalism and Women’s Rights Locked Horns in the 19th Century

In the context of a burgeoning Hindu nationalism of the period, virile and vigorous in its ambitions, the emasculation of the man was something to be deeply frowned upon and here, the Swami’s target was both the lyrical – if also erotically charged – poetry of Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) and Vaishnava devotional culture.

Vivekananda warned Nivedita to steer clear of the influences of the Tagore family which, allegedly, was spreading “erotic venom” among an already effeminate people. “… This jumping about with the accompaniment of the khol and kartal has ruined the nation… ” he once admonished a disciple. “Do we not have the drum and bugle? Let our children hear their sonorous, soul-stirring sounds… Listening to womanish kirtan has rendered this country into a country of women!”

Indefensible positions

His patriotism at times persuaded Vivekananda to take indefensible positions. Once, when answering accusations made by an American audience about the ill-treatment of the Hindu widow, he denied that they were subjected to “any particular hardship”. Sati, he claimed, was no worse than the burning of ‘witches’ by the church in medieval Europe.

However, his patriotism or conservatism on social questions would not fully explain such postures because some of his Hindu contemporaries and near contemporaries – otherwise known to be orthodox – did assume reformist postures.

Thus, Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824–83) and the Arya Samaj seriously agitated in favour of widow remarriage. In Bengal, Pandit Mritunjay Vidyalankar (1762–1819) of Fort William College, who accused Raja Rammohun Roy (1774–1833) of misplaced innovations in Hindu religious life, anticipated him in the matter of seeking a prohibition on the practice of sati.

There is a particularly interesting statement made by Vivekananda which can be read in radically different ways. Several times in his life and career, Vivekananda warned men against determining the course or pace of reform related to women, arguing that this was best left to women themselves.

He said, “No man shall dictate to a woman nor women to a man… Women will work out their destiny better than men can ever do for them. All mischief has come because men undertook to shape the destiny of women.”

On one level, surely, this carries elements of feminist self-determination and yet, a very different meaning may also be read into this statement. It is quite possible that here, the Swami was warning ‘zealous’ male reformers against overreaching themselves on so delicate a matter.

Perhaps it was also his intention to focus greater attention on what he himself termed as “root and branch reform” – to bring basic literacy to the illiterate; to suitably educate upper class men and women in the modern philosophical and scientific discourse coming from the West; to adopt constructive self-help programmes that would instil both a sense of pride among colonised Indians and help alleviate India’s mass poverty.

An effective critique of this position, however, was given by a reformer from contemporary Maharashtra, Mahadev Govind Ranade (1842–1901). He argued that it was incumbent upon men to speak up for marginalised social groups like women and children, who could not speak for themselves.

Swami Vivekananda and many men of his generation were caught in the critical dilemma of choosing between political liberation and the social. It is now common knowledge that, over time, our anti-colonial movement turned more socially conservative and the argument often given in support was that whereas social issues divided Indians, politics united them. It was left to Gandhi to meaningfully attempt to draw the two paths closer.

Amiya P. Sen is a historian with an interest in the intellectual and cultural history of modern India, and has written extensively on Swami Vivekananda, including Indispensable Vivekananda