Where Does The Identity Of Female Ascetics Lie In Hinduism?

The phenomenon of asceticism in Hinduism is often regarded as the essential feature of the religious doctrine. Contrary to popular belief asceticism and religion are not synonymous with each other. The ascetic tradition is an embodiment in a person rather than a doctrine. Interestingly, this embodiment is understood as a manifestation solely in males and not in females. The discourse on asceticism in Hinduism allows both sexes to follow the path to attain Moksha or liberation. However, the difference becomes obvious when a female ascetic is given the status of an ‘outsider’ and the male that of an ‘insider’.

The non-conforming, non-familial, non-normative female ascetic thus, remains an invisible being in an overwhelming masculine world of asceticism, where women fight taboos to create a space for the woman as an ascetic.


Since the beginning of the 21st century, there have been debates amongst scholars on the topic of alternative subjectivities regarding which are the notion of revolutionary identities in mainstream discourse. Female asceticism is one such ‘rebel’ identity. However, the question which may arise in many ascetics as well as non-ascetics is — ‘Can a woman be a legitimate ascetic?‘ Yes, she can, but in terms of orthodox religious doctrine, she can become an ascetic only if her renunciation of the domestic realm is accomplished.

In simpler words, Hinduism has always been focused around the upper castes, the Brahmins, and to some extent on the Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. The contradictory nature of Hinduism reveals its misogynous inclinations by limiting renunciation to the Dwij or the twice born man. It is important to note, that the twice born man has the freedom of choice between two modes of life — the householder, and the renouncer. But, for women, only a single mode of life has been prescribed — marital life.

Such a mechanism of exclusion in Brahmanic orthodoxy operates on the principle of menstruation — perceived as ‘impure’ and ‘sickly’ by Vedic literature. As a result, women are believed to be innately lacking the ‘natural’ tendency towards achieving Dharma(religious duty), and so they must follow a series of rituals and ceremonies in order to gravitate towards a ‘state of purity’. Such notions of purity and pollution form the foundations of gender relations in the ascetic tradition, thereby making the female ascetic invisible in society.


With so much patriarchal discrimination in the ascetic tradition, I wonder, why do women become ascetics in the first place? Or what kind of women may become ascetics? Sociology and Anthropology suggests that women adopt an ascetic lifestyle upon becoming widows, in order to escape the social stigma attached to widowhood imposed by sectarian chauvinism. Others believe asceticism is a path adopted by these women to escape the inevitable condition of beggary after the death of their immediate family members, most importantly, their husbands.

There are some young renouncers who are submitted the responsibility of the care of a group of pious women since their families cannot afford dowries. In such situations, young girls meet their gurus in ashrams, who then initiate unmarried young girls into their sect and take them under her/his service.

For a woman to become an ascetic, is to question the ascribed cultural norms laid out for them. Attempting to step outside this normative structure gives the female ascetic the status of an ‘outsider’. This is because she has not only chosen to adopt a certain way of life, a life which is primarily prescribed for males, but has also chosen to be critical of, and to question the existing social order. This ‘deviance’ in ascribed gender norms (as Brahmanical orthodoxy would call it), is perceived as a threat to the existing power structure which gives privilege to male ascetics. As a result, there is no surprise that male ascetics would protest against women being ascetics at all.

When it comes to asceticism, the initiation ceremonies mark the separation of a woman from her householder duties. These initiation rituals release women from their previous social identity, which at times can involve shedding of various identity markers that help people to identify one’s social role and status. Feminist artist and activist Sheba Chhachhi in her work ‘Ganga’s Daughters’ (1990) traces the transformation of ordinary women into ascetics as they part with their clothes, hair, name, caste, and familial relations. In search of Moksha, these women embrace their new ascetic identity. An identity, in which they are no longer anybody’s parents, sisters, or wives.


That being said, the life of a woman ascetic in Hinduism is under appreciated, and holds a complicated position. As they step out of the orthodox Brahmanical system of surveillance into newly formed identities as ascetics, women are perceived as beings who have conquered their right to be granted individual freedom. It’s almost as if women have been reincarnated into different beings after performing the last sacrifice of their prior identities.

As a result of these women’s sense of self, their new found identity can be understood as a way of creating a new space within the folds of the Hindu religious doctrine. It is truly extraordinary to see how these women courageously defy traditional gender norms, and carry a will force to raise themselves to the level of their male ascetic counterparts.

Article published on: https://feminisminindia.com/2017/05/11/identity-female-ascetics-hinduism/

Can The Dreams of Secular Education Ever Be Achieved By Indian Society?

As citizens of India, we are citizens of a secular nation. “Secularisation is the process whereby religious institutions and practices become peripheral or almost invisible in a society in which they were perceived to be central and pivotal” (Copley, 2005:7) However, in the case of India the definition of secularisation takes a different turn. India rests on the principle of “dharma nirpekshta” which means indifference to religion to be observed by the State. As Gandhi said, it was vital for India to have respect and tolerance for all the religions in India and that was crucial to govern on bases of common citizen interest, permitting free expression of religious practices.  Having understood this, it is a precondition for a secular nation to promote secular education. Unfortunately, the Indian state is far from promoting secular education.

Education is a social institution which plays a pivotal role in shaping the future of India, through the youth, who are the agents of social change. Education goes beyond the domain of classroom learning and can be inculcated through experience, debates and different modes of conversation. What holds importance in education, is the power relations and the quality of content involved.

Karl Marx, has spoken about the ‘superstucture’ in society that comprises of the people who hold immense power and are capable of moulding nearly all social institutions, the most important being education. In India the educational system is controlled either by the government or by elites. What goes into what we call ‘book knowledge’ is governed by the ideologies of what the people in power follow.

Andre Beteille claims that the Indian education system has suffered from the ‘bad advocacy’ of academics. Hence the educational system becomes defective and encourages the people to think in terms of groups and communities and promoting feelings of ethnocentricism or having the view of being superior against another culture. This practice further encourages feelings of communalism and alienation amongst the citizens of India.

Today in many schools, especially in the rural areas (in the urban as well) of India one can find the textbooks being dominated by pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses and slokas from Hindu scriptures. There is barely any other representation of other religions of the country.  The aim of education is to foster critical thinking and broaden the vision of individuals, this is not being done with the current practices being followed by the educational system of India. Instead the schools are encouraging conservative thinking which is inclined towards going back to barbaric stages of evolution rather than civilised. This also leads to a vicious cycle where the teacher who was once a learner, was placed in an environment which encouraged sectarian thinking, propagates the same ideologies to his or her students. Hence the claims of ‘educated’ people promoting sectarian ideologies does not come across as much of a shock in todays day and age.

Many textbooks till date still promote casteism. There is difference between understanding the ideology of caste and promoting the ideology of caste. Many teachers purposely label the Dalits who belonged to the lower strata of caste, in a more negative light. Their status in many books is linked to that of a crow whose lifestyle thrives on living in garbage. How is it possible to cultivate broad thinking when the malleable minds of young children are getting brainwashed to believe in a particular way? Many have questioned this stand.

India has innumerable tribal population living in its interiors. They constitute 8.61% of the total population of the country, figures go upto 104.28 million and cover about 15% of the country’s area. (2011 Census). Very conveniently textbook authors has ben ignorant about this fact and have labelled them as a part of Hindu tradition. Many tribals have different Gods, rituals, ceremonies and many do not have the concept of caste, but this goes unnoticed. Their tradition has been labelled as an inferior ‘local’ tradition compared to the ‘great’ dominant tradition of Hindus. Hence their have been claims that the tribals have been “sanskiritsed” into the folds of the great Brahminical tradition. The unfortunate part is that the tribes due to their isolated lifestyle are completely unaware of the exploitation done by the people in power.

Education not only revolves around text but is also achieved through various discourses. The religious discourse of Hindutva, has in recent times intensified the struggle to achieve secular education. This ideology glorifies Hinduism and one of the principles which it adheres to is that of “pitra bhumi”, meaning an individual’s forefathers must be born in India for him or her to call it ones land. According to them, Muslims and Christians have their lineage originated from else where and hence are ‘foreign elements’ to India. Thus being ‘foreign’ is given the status of an outcast encouraging feelings of communalism. This ideology is being promoted in various rural areas of India where there are high levels of illiteracy, leading to the moulding of the minds of the villagers.

As every nation envisions itself as being successful, India is no exception. If a modern India has to be built, the government has to have a broader outlook with aims of encouraging healthy thinking and achieving a society which is not based on caste. The panel for framing the syllabus in schools all over the country should themselves have an open mind and not just get elected on the basis of religion. Critical thinking is the key to achieve progress, existing societal structures and epistemological claims to knowledge theories should be questioned by the citizens themselves. With these fundamental changes, India as a country will no longer be far from achieving progress in terms of secular education.