Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Hindu Ideal of Womanhood


    The greatest of the South Indian poets says: "The Woman that worships not God, but her husband, when such an one says, 'let there be rain,' it descends." Here is a religion given to the woman to follow, a faith to observe, quite in accordance with the genius of the nation, which in each of its component parts and states of life requires in the matter of religion an individuality and speciality to faithfully follow and take pride in. Milton's ideal has a close resemblance when he speaks of Adam and Eve:

    "He for God only; she for God in him."

    Such is the belief instilled into every Hindu girl before she becomes a wife, and a wife she should become. Marriage is binding on her, and no woman is said to fulfil the conditions of the ideal, until and unless she goes through the marriage rites and performs her duties as married woman. And marriage is a sacrament, a union sanctified in the presence of God before the sacrificial fire, and not a civil contractual relationship.

    The first and most important commandment which the Hindu woman is bound to obey is: "Thou shalt have not others as lord but thy husband." She shall not marry another, either while he lives or after, if her lot be cast with an unworthy husband, she must bow to the inevitable. If the husband by accident becomes permanently maimed or subject to some loathsome disease, the partner of his joys and woes as well must cheerfully accept the new condition in the spirit of the teaching of her religion. If the husband predecease the wife, she must face the new situation with a courageous heart and remain to pray day and night for the repose of his soul or if unable to bear the pang of separation, she wishes to wilfully ascend the funeral pyre to be consumed to ashes with her dead husband, religion allows her to do so. But such an extreme step was purely voluntary, and never was made compulsory. The writer of "Indian affairs" in the Times has missed his mark when he wrote of the "wretched woman" occasionally seeking in death an escape from present affliction and a miserable widowhood." "Miserable widowhood" ! But ask the widow, who cheerfully bears her condition, and she will give another answer.

    Voluntary immolation on the funeral pyre of the husband was of frequent occurence before Lord William Bentincks' suppression of it; it is of rare occurrence now, no doubt, on account of the act. In olden times the tendencies of thought and feeling gave an impetus to the doing of such deeds. Those times were more romantic, and influenced the minds of women more readily than times modern, when thoughts and feelings have changed according to the altered circumstances of the country, and women think it more noble to live and endure, and serve better their departed husbands according to the ideal set before them. The exemplary lie which the late Queen Victoria led had the cordial approval of her Indian subjects, and it enhanced their admiration for her, and the women of India regarded her more as one of them than of the people of the far-off island, whose modes of life they have become familiar with from those of them sojourning in this land.

    This devotion to the departed husbands is not confined to the widow only. It is expected in the wife, even in circumstances of unnatural conduct on the part of the living husband. He may spurn her, care not for her; still she should not only bow to her lord without a demur, but be loyal to him. Said the South Indian poet: "If the husband should act so as to be the laughing stock of everyone, the woman nobly born knows no other than him to whom she was wedded."

    As to Nalayani, the good and faithful wife of her leper husband, what difficulties she suffered, what trials she went through in tending him affectionately and guarding him with the utmost vigilance, denying comfort and rest to her wearied body, are they not related in the songs of very tongue in the land? Although the daughter of a king, she performed her wifely duties without the least disgust, and took a noble pride in doing this humble service to her lord in sickness. Thus, loyalty consists in being true and faithful to the husband, and remaining spotless and untarnished to receive back the sullied but penitent husband, who comes to her after all the bitter experiences of life to find at home peace of mind and rest to the conscience; aye, in being faithful to him after he is gone, and guarding his name most zealously. The story of the South Indian woman who was extremely keen about the good name of her departed husband may not be familiar to English readers, and I make no apology for recounting it here. A thousand years ago in deadly battle between two powerful kings of Southern India, some of the soldiers of the routed army came running from the battlefield to take refuge in their homes. "What became of my son who went to fight with you?" said the mother to one of them. "He was in thickest of the fight," replied the soldier, "but I do not know whether he fell or ran away." The mother concluded that her son must either have fallen on the field of battle or run away to some other place of safety, for fear of being chided at home by the mother for cowardice, and discovered by her if he returned. Then, taking a sharp knife, she ran to the field of battle, determined to cut away her breast if she did not find him there dead or mortally wounded, in which case he must have run away with the rest. She was certain that in that case the son's cowardice must have been acquired from the milk which he sucked from that breast, and not inherited from her brace husband. At last she was overjoyed to find the worthy son of her husband lying dead on the field of battle gored with wounds, and her husband's name preserved from eternal stain. Such is the spirit of devotion of the Indian woman to her husband, and a Dutch writer, Dr. Van Limburg Brewer, has indeed caught the spirit of devotion of the Hindu ideal in his romance of "Akbar" better than the writer of the Times article. When the suggestion was made to the heroine Iravati to bestow her affections on Akber's son Prince Selim, afterwards better known as Emperor Jehangir, when she had clear proofs of her husband's faithlessness, the brave Hindu girl made answer: "Our women know nothing of temptations of greatness where duty and honour are concerned, and to their husband they remain faithful, even if their love is repaid by treachery. There are no bounds to the loyalty of a woman to her husband; and you know, though you may consider it only the consequence of superstition or exaggerated feeling, with what willing enthusiasm they will throw themselves on the burning pyre that consumes the body of their dead husbands. You must have heard of our holy legends and heroic traditions, which describe the devotion of a wife to one unworthy of her. Doubtless the touching adventures of Damayanti must have come to your years. Well, as far as in me lies, I will be another Damayanti. Sidha has deserted me, but which he awakes from this enchantment he will return another Nala, and find me pure from any spot, and acknowledge that I know better than he how to watch over the honour of his name."

    If any condition of life be considered low or miserable, it is because the poetry of it has not been written. It is Emerson that wrote in this strain. And how could poetry be written unless there is the living reality to draw the inspiration from ? In truth, there is no condition of life in God's world that is low or miserable. The meanness or the misery is not in the life, but in him who lives that life, who, by importing higher thoughts and nobler passions into that life, makes it really divine. If you wish to know what that life is, go to the land, to the homes of the women who bear their pleasures with calmness and their difficulties with fortitude and dignity, hear them sing of the sorrows of Damayanti and Chandramati, the trials of Nalayani and the troubles of Savithri, and note with what evident satisfaction and pride women similarly placed bear their condition.    

    The next great condition in that ideal is implicit obedience to the husband. She must obey the husband in whatever he commands her to do. If he enquires her to taste of the forbidden poison which brings on death, she is bound to obey for disobedience brings all woe and sin into the home - her little world. Woman is born to serve and not to rule; to obey, and not to command; to be dependent, and not to be independent of the husband. Like the tender creeper, entwining the mighty tree to beautify it, with its flowers, and emitting fragrance all round, she is born to shine in the household, to add dignity and grace to life, and give perfume to the ideal household; to assist the husband, to make life pleasant, and make a little heaven of his home. To be obedient is to be good. To be obedient is to be chaste. To be obedient is to be divine. She must resign herself entirely to the will of her husband, for it is better to serve in heaven than reign in hell.

    Such is the Hindu ideal of womanhood; and well was it understood by a Hindu girl when a Brahmin preceptor asked his pupils as to their future ambitions in life.

    "I wish to marry the king," said one of them and shine as a queen among the daughters of the land." Another, more intellectual, perhaps, than the rest of her sisters, answered; "I wish to marry the Minister of the country, and be a true helpmate to him in governing the people wisely and well." A third: "I wish to be the wife of the general of the army, to put on his armour when he takes leave of me to go to the field of battle, and receive him back with pride and pleasure when he returns home crowned with success." But the little heroine, when her turn came, answered: "I wish to be the good wife at home, to be the queen of my house, the friend and counsellor of my husband, and the general of my little household troops." In this short answer is summed up the poet's ideal of

    "A perfect woman, nobly planned,

    To warn, to comfort, and command."

    Supposing an up-to-date English girl wore asked about her ambition in life how different would be her answer! She would like to become a Member of Parliament, and a Senior Wrangler, or an accomplished athlete. It is this tendency in modern life that made "Rita" deplore. "The intrusion of women into every active or intellectual sphere has broken down much of the reserve and reverence of sex for sex. They hail each other equals, and often rivals. But they no longer seem to feel that imperative need of each other which leads to marriage; in fact, marriage is becoming a tattooed institution and maternity an evasion, instead of an obligation." This, if true, reveals an awkward state of things. Why, if the woman were to work with man in the sphere which is legitimately his, the world be richer in its thoughts, in its stock of knowledge, and richer in material acquirements. But Oh! how much power poorer would it be in the softer and sweeter side of its life! There would be less of passion and feeling, less of romance and poetry. Chivalry would be gone, sentiment divorced altogether from the world, and the prosaic dullness of life laid bare in all its dryness; and perhaps another kind of chivalry forced into existence, where women would go forth armed with the bow and the arrow, or the sword, or even the modern pistol, to avenge the wrong done to weak men. Science would then try hard to find ways and means for women to bring forth children free from the burden of pregnancy and the pains of travail. Then the bearded lady of Barnum's would be no more a freak of nature, but a common enough sight, for women to found and argument upon for poaching on man's reserves, exciting no wonder or surprise; and women would be found vying with men in lecture rooms and University halls, in the councils of the Empire, and even on the battle-fields of the world. But I do not wish to look on this picture, which is given to my subject, but only look on that picture the Hindu ideal of womanhood. The Hindu marriage system has its dark spots, no doubt, notably that part of it which allows man to marry another wife when his wife begets no children or when she dies. Even here man has admitted himself to be the inferior to the woman, and has ranked himself with a lower order of the human kind. He took care to keep her highest. He expects from her a higher order of human virtue, purity, and love and to this high and hard ideal set up, our women in all ages have willingly bowed. - The Nineteenth Century.

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