Who is a Hindu? Shunning the feminine

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Giving women the short shrift has been a feature of religions the world over.Historians of yoga focus their attention on Patanjali, Vasishtha, Vyasa and Goraknath. Postmodern gurus transform Shiva into the fountainhead of yoga who reaches out to humanity via seven male preachers, the sapta-rishis, mimicking the God of Abraham whose commandments reach humanity via male prophets. Neither gives much importance to yoginis or rishikas, the female fountainheads of yoga, until a ‘feminist’ points out the incompleteness of such popular discourses. Only when chastised, is the female considered, but only as an afterthought, accompanied by a nervous patronising chuckle.

Religions around the world have always sidelined women. In Western mythology, the patriarch takes the form of a violent herogod, like Marduk or Zeus, who overpowers and organises the ‘chaotic’ Mother Goddess. In Hinduism, this happens through monastic orders which venerate the Mother Goddess, but simultaneously see women as temptation, delusion, and material for entrapment. They are obstacles to ‘higher goals’.

How many of us know that the Indian Parliament’s circular shape was inspired by a Yogini temple? Such circular temples, open to the sky, are found in Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. Built a thousand years ago, their inner rim is lined with images of 64 different women in different moods and different roles: some are warriors, some are dancers, some are mothers, some are cooks, some are scholars. Such rings of confident women are found on the outer fence walls of most Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples. But even art historians dismiss them as nymphs and damsels and female guards of the harem, not yoginis or rishikas.How many of us have been told the story from the Mahabharata of Sulabha, the nun who challenged and defeated Janaka by declaring the soul has no gender, and that she is not inferior by choosing not to marry? How many us have been told the story from Yoga Vasishtha of Chudala, the queen, a yogini, who used her powers to shapeshift and convince her husband that women, and wives, can be gurus?

Monastic orders have historically rejected the feminine. In Buddhism and Jainism, the female anatomy is said to prevent an organism from attaining the highest state, which is why male leaders dominate, despite there being more nuns in the community. Tara, the Buddhist goddess, is accepted by Mahayana Buddhists, but not the older, more conservative Theravada Buddhists. Conservative Digambara Jains deny the Shvetambara claim that Marudevi (mother of the first Tirthankara Rishabhadeva) and Mallinatha (the 19th Tirthankara) attained kaivalya despite being women. Amongst Hindus, Nath lore informs us how Gorakhnath, the yogi, liberated his own guru Matysendranath, the tantric, from the clutches of the yogini queen and her female kingdom, but the yoginis remain sources of great power.

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