THE EMANCIPATION OF WOMEN - THE ROLE OF SREE NARAYANA GURU
THE EMANCIPATION OF WOMEN-THE ROLE OF SREE NARAYANA GURU
The problem of women must have started with creation. A passage from The Digit of the Moon quoted by Jawaharlal Nehru in the Discovery of India gives this complex picture. When the creator felt the need to create a woman, he found that he had exhausted all materials in the creation of man. So he started gathering building material. The rotundity of the moon, curves of the creepers, clinging of tendrils, trembling of grass, the slenderness of the reed, the bloom of flowers, the lightness of leaves, the tapering of the elephant’s trunk, the glances of the deer, the clustering of rows of bees, the joyous gaiety of sunbeams, the weeping of clouds, the fickleness of winds, the timidity of the hare , the vanity of the peacock, the softness of the parrot’s bosom, the hardness of the adamant, the sweetness of honey, the cruelty of the tiger, the warm glow of fire, the coldness of snow, the chattering of the jays, the cooing of the kokila, the hypocrisy of the crane and the fidelity of the chakravaka compounding all these together he made woman and gave her to man.
As literature is the mirror of the society, this description tells, what the society thought of the woman in those days. Coming to the physical qualities of the woman, the objects used are beautiful and enchanting, no doubt. But look at the objects representing her mental qualities: it is a bundle of contradictions, joy and sorrow , timidity and vanity, sweetness and cruelty, softness and hardness, warmth and cold, hypocrisy and fidelity. There is nothing to indicate wisdom or the power of discretion to distinguish between good and evil. Her mind will be a battlefield full of contradictions. He character is unsteady. Feminine nature is disastrous like a flood. The society felt that she was foolish, ignorant, fickle minded and untruthful. The society had no confidence in her. The society was afraid that if she was given freedom to mingle with men, she might run away with someone. Then the prestige and dignity of the family would be burnt to ashes Hence the social law givers Goutama, Boudhayana, and Manu decided that the woman did not deserve freedom. She had to be under the care and protection of a man, either her father, husband or son.
The role allotted to her was that of a glorified servant, a cook, a nurse and a help to her husband in his religious rites. For this, she did not need education. The society and the law givers (The composers of the Dharma Sastras & Smrities) felt this or they were afraid that education might stimulate the intellectual faculties dormant in the woman and she might start asking awkward questions. The lawgivers were circumspect and to avoid all these complications, declared that the women of all castes were not eligible for education. As the Shudras were convinced and coerced to believe that they did not require education for the work they did, the women of all castes were convinced that they would be happy without the botheration of education and they were content to live in the bliss of ignorance.
There is a sociological explanation also. The woman is bestowed with maternity and the responsibility of baby care by nature. Being physically weaker than man, at some stage of her life, she needed physical help, support and protection of man. She chose her mate and protector. Family units were formed in this way. As protector of the family the man had to use his physical strength and restrict the woman at times. The man started to feel that the woman was his property and he had a right to own her. As families grew to become society, the woman became totally under his control. Denial of freedom and education were devices to keep her under control. Women came to be considered a possession of man.
Coming down to Kerala specifically, the restrictions and sufferings were caste based For the Sarvarnas – Nambudiri and Nair women – the problems were different from those of Avarna Women.
Among the Nambudiris, the women had a miserable fate due to the rule of “primogeniture” followed by Nambudiris. According to this rule, only the eldest son of a family inherited the property. In order to keep the property in tact, only the eldest son was allowed to marry, that too from his own caste.
Resultantly, as many men who were not the first sons could not marry, and the axe fell on the Nambudiri women (Antarjanam). Many of them had to suffer life long compulsory maidenhood or become one of the many wives of an old Nambudiri. Hence young widows and suicides became common among them. A character, created by Lalithambika Antarjanam (short story writer) prays “Even if I am to be born as a dog ten times, please do not give me the life of a Nambudiri woman”. These words express how unbearable life was to these women
The predicament of Nair women was some thing different. For the convenience of the younger sons of Nambudiri families, who could not marry, a peculiar custom called Sambandham – a morganatic marriage – with Nair or Kshatriya women was devised. According to this, the Nambudiri could cohabit with a Nair woman, and produce children. But the woman did not have the status of a wife, nor did the children have any filial rights. They were not even allowed to touch their father, lest they pollute him. The children became the responsibility of their maternal uncle as per the matrilineal system followed by the Nairs. The status of a Nair woman was decided by the number of Nambudiri husbands she had. These poor women were brainwashed to believe that it was their god – given duty to please the Nambudiri, and the seed of the Nambudiri would produce clever and smart children. The women were in a fools paradise.
THE CONDITION OF AVARNA WOMEN BEFORE NARAYANA GURU
In public all the Savarna women were allowed the dignity of covering their body. But the Avarna woman had to go around half naked. In 1829 there was a royal edict by which all Avarnas, including women, were forbidden from wearing clothes on the upper half of their bodies, and jewellery made of silver and gold. The purpose of this edict was to identify Avarnas, so that the Savarnas could maintain untouchability and unapproachability, but in the case of Avarna women it was too indecent to make her go half naked in public. If at all she had covered her bosom, she had to uncover it in the presence of an upper caste person.
Another royal proclamation of the ruler of Venmani derogates the Avarna woman outright as the object of pleasure for any man. The proclamation says if an Avama woman does not surrender herself to the passions of any man of her own caste or uppercaste, she is considered immoral and deserves the death sentence. Untouchability was only towards Avarna men, not women!.
The Avarna woman had no claim to chastity, or self respect. Look at the stanza in “Bharatha Gatha”.
Aarana narimaarenniye yarume
Charitryam sankichu nilka venda
(In Kerala, no woman, except the Brahmin, has to be concerned about chastity).
If a poor tenant got married, he had to surrender his bride to the Feudal Lord on the first night itself. Added to all these was the infamous “breast tax” imposed on Avarna women.
By the good sense of Rani Laxmi Bai of Travancore and the British interference, these beastly uncivilized rules were revoked by royal orders, in 1851. but the women continued to be illiterate, ignorant and slavish. She had no voice, no individuality and no identity of her own.
This is the seen that Narayana Guru saw from the pinnacle of Advaithic Vision.
What he had experienced through withdrawal and meditation is an exultation of the Self into the Absolute – The Eternal Existence or Universal Consciousness. To a person who has identified himself with the Universal Consciousness, the suffering of another person is his own suffering and a blemish on the Universal Consciousness. Narayana Guru saw around him humanity suffering from untold miseries caused by poverty, ignorance, superstitions, religious dogmas which defile human dignity, and atrocities and blunders in the name of tradition. To him all these appeared as “blemishes” on the purity of the Universal Consciousness. As a person who has identified himself with the Universal Consciousness, he took it upon himself the unlimited responsibility of removing all these blemishes. In other words, the Brahmajnani became A Jnani of Action, to uplift the downtrodden people and ease their suffering. In this great “Yagna” his contribution to the Emancipation of Women is the topic I have taken up to discuss.
In these modern days of feminism, demands for women’s empowerment, and the Women’s Reservation Bill dangling in the air, this topic is quite relevant. What the Guru has done for women’s advancement almost hundred years ago, is something radical, and fundamental, the first step for a never ending journey of progress ie., the education of women. A Chinese proverb says that even the longest journey starts with a first step.
The UN Declaration of The Elimination of Discrimination against Women came only in 1967. The 9th Section of this says, “All necessary steps are to be taken to ensure that girls and women, whether married or unmarried, have equal rights (as men) to education in all fields”.
About 55 years earlier to this declaration the Guru had given instructions to the volunteers of SNDP(Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam), about education, through Vivekodayam.
“……… Tell them (people) that hereafter there should be no Ezhava male or female without at least primary education…….”
In a letter to the Vignana Vardhini Sabha, a leading socio-cultural and literary organization of the day, the Guru had said, “……. In the society, not only men, but also women must be educated. Do not neglect them in such matters…….”
Three points emerge from these statements.
1) He did not discriminate between men and women. He considered them integral parts of the society with equal status and responsibilities.
2) The Guru had understood, much before the UN had thought about it, that the liberation of any society is complete, only if the women are emancipated. This emancipation does not mean liberation from male domination, but liberation from the different social forces that curb her freedom and stunts her individuality.
3) Education is the only means to emancipate women.
Those were the days when the women of Kerala were pushed aside to the confines of kitchen and child-bearing, nursing the sick, and serving the men. While many orthodox families thought that education for a girl was an unwanted luxury, some others felt that education would spoil her morals. Into such a society, Narayana Guru introduced the revolutionary idea of educating the girl child. It was shocking and shaking the foundations of tradition.
So, when the volunteers of SNDP went from door to door to implore the parents to send their girls to school, the elders had a sceptic look. But the Guru developed an effective technique. Well-to-do households with good social status among the Avarnas were approached first. Of course, the volunteers had to face first a firm refusal from the parents, who slowly relented to a stage of hesitation, and finally gave silent approval. When girls from such homes started going to school, the common people had no hesitation. They readily sent their girls to school.
Schools sprang up, and girls started going to school in large numbers. The trickle became a torrent. Then, higher education became a problem. At that time, colleges were established only in Trivandrum and Cochin. The Avarna girls were legally permitted admission to Government Women’s hostels. But rooms, kitchens and dining rooms in the hostels were separated on caste basis. Because of this discrimination even well-to-do Avarna families did not send their girls for higher education. The Guru understood the problem and found a solution for it. The Solution was “Sree Narayana Vidyarthini Sadanam”.
He invited his able and efficient disciple Smt. T.V. Narayani Amma, gave her a soverign with blessings, and instructed her to start a hostel for Avarna Girls at Trivandrum. Following the Guru’s instructions, Smt. Narayani Amma started SNV Sadanam, in a small rented building in Trivandrum. From that simple beginning, the SNV Sandanam has grown today to a very big establishment which houses hundreds of girl students and working women without any caste or religious discrimination.
A similar institution was started at Ernakulam also, under the leadership of Tapaswini Amma, with the help of Panavalli Krishnan Vaidyar and K.P. Karuppan Master.
When the Guru visited Madurai it seems he had instructed eminent men like George Joseph (Editor of Young India) to start a similar institution in Madurai.
SPIRITUALITY OF WOMEN:
The Second revolutionary declaration for the emancipation of women is in Stanza 260 of Sree Narayana Dharma. In this he permits. Sanyasadeeksha to women
(A women who is desirous of peace and salvation, and has the wisdom and ability to distinguish between good and evil, and total detachment from worldly affairs is eligible to receive Sanyasadeeksha.)
The revolutionary nature of this declaration becomes evident when viewed in contrast with what the smrithis and shrutis have ordained for women. Per haps during the Vedic period the women must have enjoyed equality and equal opportunity for education as exemplified by philosophers like Maitreyi and Gargi. They had access to the highest knowledge of the Absolute or Brahman. However this liberal attitude changed in course of time. The scriptures were given new interpretations and women came to be considered inferior to men, both physically and mentally. They women were forbidden from reading and even listening to the scripture ( Vedas) and entering some places of worship (Some religions believed that a soul exists only in a man not in a women) The Guru, born as a Hindu and well versed in Hindu scriptures had perceived the degradation of women in Hinduism in this basic in equality. As a true religions reformer, he brushed it aside and granted the women fundamental equality with men through this declaration. (The story of Amba in Mahabharat, the arguments against her taking up Sanyasa in Parasuram’s Ashram, will make an interesting study – refer “Bharataparyatanam” by Kutti Krishna Marar).
A stanza from his short poem “Ashramam” shows Guru’s unified vision of integrating the spiritual and the temporal for the emancipation of women.
Yadvada thrive thadvaccha
Streenam pumsam prudhak prudhak
Vidyalaya dishi dishi
Kriyantham ashramam sadda
(For men and women, separate educational institutions and Ashramams are to be started in all places wherever possible).
Schools and Ashramas are equally important for the allround development of a human being – man or woman.
Two women who had first received Sanyasadeeksha are Swamini Juothirmayi Mata, and Swamini Amrutha Matha.
Matha Jyotirmayi had received sanyasadeeksha from Guru Nitya Chaithanya Yati and started Mangala Bharathi Ashram at Thotuva, Ernakulam Dist. in 1984. The Ashram conducts regular study classes for women on the philosophy of the Guru and study camps for children. This Ashram is under Sree Narayana Gurukulam. All the functions of the Ashram are conducted under the direction and leadership of Sri Muni Narayana Prasad Swamy.
Sree Narayana Sevika Ashram at Palyathuruth in Ernakulam District, was established by the efforts of Swamini Amrutha Matha. Swamini Amrutha Matha was one of the first women to receive Sanyasadeeksha from Sivagiri. This Sevika Ashram was started for a special purpose.
While the Guru was in Ceylon in 1918, he published a message asking for the establishment of Dharmapalana mattoms for women. The message reads,
“……… There is need for establishing an institution like a convent, where girls can live and pursue their studies. The main objectives of these Dharmapalana Muttoms are to train girls in certain compulsory requirements like good character, good behaviour, knowledge of languages, expertise in child care, house keeping, nursing the sick, and handicrafts like stitching which are useful for house keeping. They must be trained in these, so that they would become the goddesses of prosperity of homes…….”
This Ashram at Palyathuruthu is the first institution to be stated to implement these principles. A “Brahmavidyalayam” to train the women as sanyasinis, has also started functioning here. It was one of the dreams of the Guru to get committed women ascetics to spread his messages. That dream is being fulfilled through this Brahmavidyalayam.
The crowning glory of all women’s organizations, is the Sree Narayana Sevika Samajam, and its Multipurpose Welfare Centre at Sree Narayana Giri, about 5 Km away from Aluva Advaithashram. The idea of forming the Samajam was the brainchild of Sahodaran Ayyappan, and Smt. Parvathi Ayyappan took up the responsibility of starting and developing the Multipurpose Welfare Centre, for the benefit of women. The location selected to house it was “Valmikikunnu”, a hillock sanctified by the foot-steps of the Guru. While living in Advaithashram, the Guru used to go on long walks, medidate and rest for a while on a block of stone on this hillock, watching the glory of nature around it. The stone on which the Guru sat, is still preserved here, as a holy spot of pilgrimage.
Though the Welfare Centre was started as a carehome for orphaned children, under the able guidance of Smt. Parvathi Ayyappan and other devoted sevikas, it has become a center of service and relief to the helpless.
A Third factor that contributed to the emancipation of women is some important social reformation measures adapted by the Guru.
In those days, a girl child was a financial burden to the parents, as there were four expensive rituals to be performed for the girl. The scale of celebration of these functions seemed to be the criterion for assessing a person’s status in the society. Families vied with one another is spending money for these functions and had gone bankrupt. Consequently the girl child was considered a curse.
The four function to be conducted were Minnukettu Kalyanam, a mock marriage, Thirandu Kalyanam – to declare a girl’s puberty, Podavakoda Kalyanam – Wedding, and Pulikudi Kalyanam – at the time of the first pregnancy.
The Guru strictly forbade three of these functions, except the wedding which he modernized. By stopping three expensive functions, the parents of the Girl child heaved a big sigh of relief as the girl child became less of a financial burden.
The modernization of marriages was a great social debut. The Guru insisted that the proposed bride and groom must be allowed to meet and talk to each other and understand each other, They have to find out by themselves whether they suit each other. The marriage has to be performed after getting their consent, in a very simple, inexpensive way.
This modernization of marriages served two purposes. It gave a fillip to the woman’s self respect. She was given the freedom to choose and exert her will. This is the greatest gist to the women. The parents were also happy because expenses were reduced.
Following the example of SNDP, Paralled organizations like Yogakshema Sabha, N.S.S and Sadhujana Paripalana Sabha etc were formed and introduced reformatory measures. The rule of primogeniture and morganatic marriages came to be abolished
The Change in the Society
After the Guru administered the supreme panacea of education, spirituality and social reformation measures there is a magical transformation in the women. The women developed an identity, individuality, dignity, and a voice of her own, and gained a respectable place in the society.
The change is reflected in the literature of 20th Century. From 13th to 19th C, the poets of Kerala (mostly Manipravalam) described only the physical charms of a woman. The heroines of Unniyadi Charitam, Unnu Neeli Sandesam, Unnichirutevi Charitam, Chandrotsavam etc., have only one character, a beautiful body, to give pleasure to the man. The had no mind or soul. This mind and soul which was absent in the women characters, were re-invested in them in the imaginative creations of Kumaran Asan. Asan’s heroines, Nalini, Leela, Savitri, Seetha, Chandalika and even Vasavadatta emerge as women with not body alone, but mind and soul also, who are capable of analyzing and expressing situations in life in philosophical light. They are ideal women conceived in the mind of the poet, influenced by the vision of Sree Narayana Guru.
THE IDEAL WOMAN - The Vision of Sree Narayana Guru
To conclude the paper, it becomes necessary to look at the picture of the ideal woman, as envisaged by the Guru. The statement made by the Guru from Ceylon says that girls must be trained to become goddesses of prosperity for homes. In a poem by the Guru “Bharya Dharmam” (Duties of a Wife) he gives utmost importance to the lady of the house. A woman having qualities suitable to her home, and capable of controlling the expenses to be within the income limit, will be a support to the man of the house. She is expected to be virtuous, chaste, loving and respectful to her husband. It is her duty to look after herself and preserve the name and fame of the family. Such a woman will be respected not only by the husband but also by the gods. The prosperity of the home and the well – being of the children depend on the qualities of the lady of the house.
This poem has to be viewed in the framework of the social conditions of the day. As the title of the poem indicates, this is a home oriented vision of a woman. The ideas are similar to those in Thirukkural. In those days, when the woman was confined to the house, the accepted role of a wife was that of a glorified servant. But Narayana Guru elevates the wife to a high pedestal, as the financial controller of home, the custodian of the reputation of the family, the defender of herself, and the dispensor of destinies of all the members of the family. If the man is the bread- winner, she is the home- maker and commands his respect, as her role is equally responsible and respectable. In the social set up of those days, this picture of the ideal wife must have appeared like a revolutionary outburst.
The women in general are career-conscious now, and they are willing and ready to take up any challenging career. The women of Kerala are certainly in the forefront in this. But the Avarna women of Kerala should realize that, they are what they are now, because of Narayana Guru. It was he who kindled the light of knowledge and opened the doors of the school to their grand mothers or great grand mothers. This seed of revolution – women’s education – which he had sown, had grown and borne fruit, which the modern women harvest as “Women’s Empowerment”. They should not forget their benefactor and the rich legacy which he had bestowed on them.
Smt. Sathya Bai Sivadas
Author of “Sree Narayana Guru, The Practical Philosopher” &
Sree Narayana Guru, The Social Philosopher of Kerala”.
Paper presented at The Conference on Education and Organization as the part of the Platinum Jubilee Celebration of Sivagiri Theerthadanam
By Sree Narayana Mandira Samithi, Mumbai on 16-12-07.