The idea of a woman, amongst Mahasbahaites. Gita press and the birth of Hindu India, Akshaya Mukul.
Gita Press’s advocacy of patriarchal control over women’s public and private spheres was not as out of tune with the times as one might expect. The reformist zeal that had marked the second half of the nineteenth century had not progressed, as it logically should have, to second-generation social reform at the beginning of the twentieth century. Just the reverse had happened, and by the time Gita Press came into existence, the situation was ripe to further the conservative agenda, at the centre of which stood the hapless Hindu nari (woman).
What went wrong? Historian Ghulam Murshid has attributed the slowdown in social reform to the rise of nationalism that ‘glorified India’s past and tended to defend everything traditional’, but Partha Chatterjee contests Murshid’s claim as based on ‘rather simple and linear assumptions’.3 Chatterjee is more in agreement with Sumit Sarkar who highlighted the ‘limitations of the nineteenth-century renaissance’ in which ‘instead of any autonomous feminist pressure to improve their lot’, the ‘initiative came essentially from men’.4
Further, Sarkar argues, the campaign for social change could not metamorphose into a full-blown movement because the efforts made in the ninteenth century had a ‘strong personal dimension’. Reforms in Hindu society were focused on ‘upper-caste social evils like sati, the widow-remarriage taboo or kulin polygamy’, leaving intact the ‘emphasis on puritanical norms and restraints’ that had a ‘strong patriarchal aspect’.
As early as 1926, the year of Kalyan’s birth, among the dozen-odd books brought out by Gita Press was a forty-six-page monograph Stri Dharma Prashnottari (Questions and Answers on Women’s Dharma), a sort of compendium of a woman’s duties, by Hanuman Prasad Poddar. Its popularity can be discerned from the simple fact that it is still in print, over a million copies having been sold over the decades. It is currently priced at Rs 5.
Stri Dharma Prashnottari provided the model for the Gita Press’s oeuvre on women. Written in the style of a conversation between two women, the monograph stands out for its misogynist intent. The choice of the women’s names is interesting: the one seeking knowledge is Sarala, the simpleton (saral meaning simple or uncomplicated), and the one educating her about women’s duties is Savitri, the devoted wife of ancient Indian mythology, the ideal Hindu woman. Each answer Savitri gives to Sarala’s questions is an instruction, a lesson that liberally cites the shastras.
In all Gita Press publications on women, the language used is reformist in tone and prescriptive in nature. Poddar and others made it clear that a woman’s non-adherence to the set rules could affect the broader Hindu society. The onus was on the woman to be the flag bearer of morality, purity and chastity. Only then could an ideal family — and by extension an ideal nation — be formed.
One factor that possibly played an important role in Gita Press’s overemphasis on women and their purity may be the Marwari community’s trajectory of migration from the small towns and nondescript villages of Rajasthan to the then colonial capital Calcutta or other big cities. It was common practice among first-generation migrants to leave the elders, womenfolk and children in Rajasthan, where a well-lubricated network of relatives provided support for each other. However, this practice came with a huge social cost. In November 1929, the hugely popular Hindi journal Chand published a special issue on the Marwaris that, as we saw in an earlier chapter, shook the Marwari world. The articles primarily focused on the uncontrolled sexuality of lonely and unfulfilled Marwari women, citing at length the pulp literature coming out of Jaipur — works like Khayal Chhote Kanth Ko (Thinking of a Younger Husband), Kaki Jetuth Ka Khayal (Thinking about Aunt and Nephew), both published by Kanhaiyalal Bookseller of Jaipur’s Tripolia Bazar, and Do Gori Ka Balma (A Lover of Two Women) by Ishwarlal Bookseller. These were all written in Marwari and claimed to be based on real incidents that highlighted the promiscuity of Marwari women and related tales of sexual escapades and incestuous relationships within households.
Now Sarala pointedly asks what kind of education should be imparted to women; should it be of the kind prevalent in schools? Savitri replies that education for girls should on the one hand help them to understand the teachings of the Ramayana, Gita, Manusmriti, Mahabharata and other religious texts, and on the other enhance their domestic skills — cooking, sewing and needlework, taking care of the male child and following the orders of her husband. She disapproves of the education currently being imparted in girls’ schools: ‘English and English (Western) culture has entered these schools, destroying the Hindu ideals. Fashion is on the rise and so is the love for sensuous pleasure. Women despise and have lost interest in housework.
With school education denied to a girl, Sarala wants to know if she should forever remain under the command of her parents. Savitri says this is not only necessary but also dharma for girls: ‘According to our shastras, in all situations the stri-jati (women) should not become independent . . . At a young age, the girl should be under the command of her father, in her youth under the control of her husband and after the death of her husband under the care of her sons.’ Goyandka had expressed fear about what such freedom could do in India ‘where women are so murkh (foolish) that they cannot even count till 100’.12 At the very start of his book he stated that ‘educated women get nasht-brasht (destroyed)’.13 He believed there was a lack of teachers with good character, which led to illicit relationships in educational institutions becoming the norm, though these rarely came out in the open. He stated that such relationships had become common even in temples, places of pilgrimage and religious congregations, and the solution lay in men and women having minimal contact with each other.
Dismissing the solution of having women teachers, Goyandka said it was a difficult task to find those of good character — ‘As a result hardly any of the hundreds of girls’ schools in the country are run as per the ideals of sanatan Hindu dharma.’ Goyandka denied there was any evidence in the shastric texts of schools, gurukuls or universities for women or the practice of co-education in ancient times. The education of females traditionally took place in the home, he said.
In 1936, in an elaborate essay — ‘Vartaman Shiksha’ — Poddar regretted the new wave of modernity that aimed to put men and women on an equal educational footing, so much so that even women were becoming ‘teachers, clerks, lawyers, barristers, writers, politicians and members of municipalities and councils’.15 Such ideas of progress, Poddar said, were turning women anti-God and anti-religion. Though, due to their inherent qualities of gentleness, kindness, devotion and shyness, women had not yet begun defying the tenets of religion like men, Poddar felt that the seeds of such defiance had been sown.
Modern education, as Poddar saw it, was creating a parallel universe, an immoral one, in which women were writing letters to men who were not related to them, were joking, playing chess and dancing with these men. The most important aspect, Poddar wrote, was the loss of virtue. Never short of instances to prove his argument, he cited a letter in a reformist newspaper of Lahore in which a reader opposed to co- education had written about a report by a lady health officer of a school which indicated that 90 per cent of girls above twelve had become pregnant at some point. Poddar wrote that it was possible this figure was a printing error, but the situation was alarming enough even if 10 per cent of girls were getting pregnant. He said Lahore-like incidents were on the rise because in the co-education system there was a high probability of schoolgirls ‘losing their character’.
The concept of co-education, Poddar argued, interfered with the basic purpose of education, which is to highlight and draw out the inherent strength of an individual. Since in his view shakti (power) was not evenly distributed between boys and girls,p.it was wrong to give them similar education in the same schools. Besides, he argued, co-education could bring about great mutual attraction between a boy and a girl, because of the difference in the physical constitution of the two sexes: ‘It is impossible to resist temptation if one stays in close proximity.’
In 1929, writing to an unidentified woman who was in a bad marriage and who seemed to have bared her pain and sought his advice, Poddar displayed the conflict between his sanatani Hindu core and pretentious reformist face.27 Possibly the woman had experienced physical torture at the hands of her husband, which made Poddar hesitate to give the usual advice that she should display the classic tolerance of Bharatiya matri jati (Indian mothers). Addressing the woman as behen (sister), Poddar took an unprecedented stand, saying that he would not find it wrong if she walked out of the marriage and left her husband’s home.
But then his sanatani self got the better of him, and Poddar cited the glorious tradition tradition of sati dharma (sati in this context exemplifying wifely devotion) among Indian women as the reason for his hesitation in advising her to leave her husband. As if to console her, Poddar predicted doom for the husband, but this was a ploy to reignite the sati in her. ‘God only knows the evil plight that awaits such a man. I am hesitant to spell it out as the Indian sati does not want to hear anything untoward about her husband, even if he is the meanest and the worst human being.’
After creating considerable confusion about what he stood for, Poddar dished out the standard sanatani fare and told the woman to have faith in God and to pray, not for his end but the end of his base thinking. Though Poddar had earlier supported the idea of the woman leaving her matrimonial home, he now painted a picture of a highly immoral outside world, one she should not step into. So, in the end, he left the woman to languish in her abusive marriage.
Poddar’s position was hardly surprising. For him, Hindu marriage was a religious rite, a spiritual quest that did not require registration or a contract of the type prevalent in marriages of other religions, as there was no question of it breaking.
Presenting his skewed understanding of female sexuality, Poddar wrote that, during her menstrual period, a woman had an uncontrollable urge for sex, and ‘to channelize this vasana (sexual urge) there is the system of marrying girls by the time they attain puberty. In her husband’s shelter, a woman’s sexual desire does not reach others and she is saved from getting polluted. If she is not married, her sexual desire degenerates into debauchery, just the way it is happening in Europe.’32
The core job of a woman was to serve the world. How? Poddar used two terms — utpadan (literally translated it would mean manufacturing or production) and nirman (literally construction or creation). Thus a woman’s job was to procreate and nurture ‘quality men’.33
Poddar’s Sarala is not as naive as one might believe, as she asks whether husbands do not have any dharma (duty). Citing instances of wife abuse, Sarala innocently asks if the shastras sanction such acts. Savitri at first makes the right noises, and quotes Manu to say that God resides where women are respected. She even states that men who do not treat their wives properly, or do not give them enough food, are neglecting their dharma. But then she chides Sarala for deviating from the subject of their conversation which is ‘stri dharma’: ‘Men have a different dharma. To argue that since men do not follow their own dharma, women should also give theirs up, is neither justified nor a valid argument. For us (women) it is important to follow our own dharma. Whatever be the husband’s behaviour towards us, it is not the job of a pious and devout wife to assess him. I am of the firm belief that if a wife is devoted to her husband, her purity of heart can bring him back to the right path.’
Keep the house clean, put things in order.
Spend less than the income; keep a tab on the expenditure.
Have knowledge about how to protect health.
Take care of the children; pass on to them your character and knowledge.
Do all the household work with your own hands.
Know the family’s relatives and friends and behave with them as required.
Never feel lazy.
Have knowledge about religion and show enthusiasm in religious activities.
Serve your husband, suppressing carnal desire in a sweet voice and with love; keep your husband satisfied.
Be content with whatever is given.
Do not encourage buying of luxurious items.
Remain alert and retain purity.
Be affectionate to all relatives and friends of your husband; all your actions should enhance your husband’s name, fame, wealth and happiness.43
For Gita Press, nothing was more serious or posed a greater threat to the religious sanctity of Hindu marriage than divorce. While the dharmashastras ‘liberally permitted the husband to remarry during the lifetime of the first wife’, they denied the ‘remedy of divorce’ to the wife, ‘even when completely forsaken by the husband’.67 Livia Holden makes a compelling argument when she says: ‘It seems, in other words, that the indissolubility of marriage is not particularly mobilized to prevent the celebration of subsequent marriages altogether, but rather to prevent the conceptualization of the Hindu divorce on the woman’s initiative.’
twelve rules that comprise vidhva dharma:73
• A woman should become sati after her husband’s death. This is considered illegal today, but dying on her husband’s pyre is not the sole way of becoming sati. A widow should consider God as her husband and immerse herself in worship, suppressing her inner desire. This is how one becomes sati.
• A widow should detach herself from worldly pleasures and study texts like the Gita and Ramayana that inculcate the virtues of gyan (knowledge), vairagya (renunciation) and bhakti (devotion).
• A widow should not participate in festivities. She should avoid listening to conversations of young girls and married women, discard jewels, stop braiding her hair, eating paan (betel leaf) or using any aromatic product. (As an afterthought, or probably to keep up the pretence of being a reformist, Stri Dharma Prashnottari explains why widows should shun festivities — it is not, as popularly believed, that the shadow of a widow is inauspicious, but that a woman has uncontrollable sexual urges that need to be kept in check. ‘They are advised not to attend festivities so that the pomp and glitter do not cause deterioration of mind.’)
• To the maximum possible extent, a widow should sleep on the floor, avoid a soft bed, eat food that does not provoke desire and wear hand-spun thick clothes and not colourful garments.
• Widows should resist eight kinds of sexual union (maithuna). These are: seeing a man; touching a man or woman; enjoying the company of another in a lonely place; talking to others; reading or talking about a man or woman; playing together; thinking about a man or woman; and actual sexual intercourse.
• A widow should undertake fasts without water or food.
• A widow must not sit idle, but immerse herself in household work.
• A widow should attend religious and moral lectures, and completely give up bad company.
• A widow must remain within the control of rakshaks (protectors) like her mother-in-law, father-in-law, jeth (husband’s elder brother), devar (husband’s younger brother), father, mother or brother. She should not do anything without the permission of the rakshak.
• A widow is advised not to talk too much or express anger; to stay happy by remaining helpless; to believe in religion and never let the heart be led astray.
• A widow must not sit in the company of young women, but always be with elderly women who strictly follow dharma. As regards immoral women, widows should not even glimpse them.
• If a widow has money, it should be spent on the impoverished, orphans and other widows. If a widow does not have enough money, she should earn to survive and never ask anyone for monetary help.
He quoted from the work of one Dr Louis Berman who had said that ‘since the presence of thyroxin (secreted by the thyroid) in tissues determines the rate at which they burn themselves, it is obvious that, if there were no mechanism for retarding its action, the tissues would set fire to themselves’. Based on this, Poddar said, if the condition of a woman grieving for her husband reached the extraordinary stage of affecting her thyroid gland, it was possible her body could catch fire. Thus, ‘becoming sati is a completely natural phenomenon and not possible through outside influence’.
Gita Press’s overemphasis on women’s hygiene emanated from the premium the Hindu social system laid on ‘purity’. A woman was considered intrinsically ‘impure’, the ostensible reason being her monthly menstrual cycle. But the subtext was deeper — to stress that women were not equal to men physically and thus counter the growing forces of gender equality.
Women’s hygiene and health were strangely limited to gynaecological issues, and Gita Press thus not only accentuated the gender distinction but also managed to underscore woman’s vulnerability. This was used as a pretext to control her sexuality that, as we have seen, was already declared to be a patriarchal business since women were believed to be incapable of putting a lid on their sexual urges. Goyandka’s advice to women to avoid ‘father, brother and son’ in a lonely place ‘since the ‘strength of senses can attract even the most intelligent of men’79 loudly proclaimed where Gita Press stood on women.
By reducing a woman’s childbearing capacity to a mechanized process carried out by her ‘sexual apparatus’ from the age of puberty to serve the race, Gita Press was papering over the menarche versus menstruation debate. Mitra’s long essay, serialized over the next two issues of Kalyan, ignored the fact that, during the period of menarche, it could be dangerous for a girl to give birth. Instead, he justified the ‘use’ of the ‘organ of maternity’ (matritva ka ang) from the time a girl began menstruating to serve the Aryan race.
Thus, for a man, fulfilling his sexual desire was seen almost as a right, while a woman exercising her sexuality was overstepping the patriarchal line. This acceptance of the ‘difference between the bodies and sexual urges of women and men accentuated the power of the husband over the wife, whereby the man could escape with many wrongs but the woman could not’.85