By Arundhathi Subramaniam
Considering that society indoctrinates girl children with legendarily low levels of self-esteem, surely the woman’s way is towards growth and empowerment rather than shedding the ego?
First, the clarifications. Yes, I’m feminist. And no, I’m not apologetic about it.
It’s not like I’ve transcended ‘femaleness’ and arrived at ‘humanness’, or performed any such feat of advanced ontological gymnastics. Anyway, anyone who understands feminism knows that it isn’t opposed to being human in any way. Nor is it opposed to men in any way, as some facile interpreters suggest.
So yes, I’m feminist. But that doesn’t mean a state of having arrived. It means being a work-in-progress – and accepting that the process of questioning the ways in which gender is constructed, is a perennial one. Being human isn’t a condition I’ve figured out either. I’m still growing into it.
And finally, while on definitions, let me add that I don’t consider my ‘faith’ a matter of certainty either. The spiritual journey has been important in my life, and finding a guru a huge discovery. But the operative word here is journey. My faith is not a destination, but a ride – sometimes bumpy, sometimes smooth, with its share of doubt and euphoria, fear and elation. There is deep gratitude for the guidance. But the ride is far from over.
For a long time I believed that my feminism belonged in one category and my spirituality in another. Being a seeker is tough enough. Why claim that being a female seeker is tougher?
Organised religion has never seemed adequately sensitive to gender issues, of course. I’ve always felt a deep empathy when reading of Mahaprajapati Gautami’s plea for gender equality. She entreated at first to be ordained as a nun. Though the Buddha initially denied her request, he eventually agreed, but reluctantly. Later, she asked that monks and nuns be allowed to pay homage to their seniors, irrespective of gender. She was uncomfortable with the rule that required even a senior nun to stand up and salute a monk, whether he was a veteran or a novice. The Buddha, despite his remarkable spirit of egalitarianism, refused her plea. It didn’t take away from my admiration of him, but it certainly reinforced my mistrust of institutionalized faith. What I’ve heard of other religious orders didn’t reinstate my trust either.
But I always believed that the spiritual quest was essentially gender-neutral. It seemed like this was one area of life where we were all equal – all of us groaning, finding and losing our way, as we trudge up the garden path of phenomenality! Surely as seekers we were all on par? It was feminist theologian Mary Grey who put things in perspective for me. Although steeped in a Christian context, her question speaks to women seekers across the board. There’s an urgent need, she believes, to reinterpret the symbol of the crucifixion for women. The crucifixion represents self-abnegation, self-denial, the death of the ego – something that all spiritual traditions enjoin. But given that society indoctrinates girl children with legendarily low levels of self-esteem, what does this double dose of self-denial produce for the woman seeker? Predictably, even more guilt, selfflagellation and self-loathing.
The spiritual journey has been described in many faiths as the journey from being somebody to nobody, and finally, to everybody. But if you have felt like a nobody all along, surely you need another spiritual road-map? If you are trying to give up an ego that you consider worthless anyway, what is the value of that surrender? Surely God (if you want to adopt a theist perspective) deserves better?
This often implies that women are called upon to amputate a self they may never have experienced. No wonder Valerie Saiving Goldstein posits that if the male ‘sin’ is hubris or pride, the female counterpart could well be passivity – ‘a dependence on others for one’s self-definition’. The challenge, then, is to interpret the female spiritual quest as an invitation to growth and self-empowerment, a ‘call to end crucifixions’, as Grey says, ‘not to prolong them’.
Maybe being a woman seeker isn’t any worse than the male counterpart. But it’s certainly different. Simply shrugging off the ‘woman’ prefix doesn’t necessarily mean freedom from gender. The seeker certainly doesn’t want to be a woman to the exclusion of her humanity, but surely she doesn’t want to turn into a surrogate male either? She may want to belong to the ‘mainstream’, but can she forget that that’s often simply a euphemism for being ‘one of the boys’?
The differences can, in fact, be a source of strength. I do believe that women have something very special to contribute to the spiritual journey. Not just all the virtues we know so well – nurturance, gentleness, compassion. But also the fast-vanishing quality of subtlety in a world thick with dogmatism; a receptivity that isn’t spinelessness; a flexibility that isn’t a lack of commitment; a capacity to value process over product, journey over destination; to recognise that mysteries are to be experienced, not decoded. And above all, an ability to recognise the qualitative and the non-utilitarian over the quantifiable and crassly instrumental.
The Shakuntala legend has always touched me deeply. It’s often seemed like a story of the prodigal son, but significantly, with a female protagonist. There’s something about this restless confused woman, the daughter of an apsara and a sage, trying to understand who she is and where she belongs – her mother’s celestial abode or her father’s terrestrial one, her wise foster-father’s home or her attractive worldly lover’s, forest or court, heaven or earth. She seems in the process to re-enact that ancient fable of humanity – caught between an urgent sensuality and a flickering divinity, and never quite figuring out how to be human .
In the new world, the lion, we are told, will lie with the lamb. And the last shall be first and the first shall be last. For me these are wonderful metaphors to suggest, among other things, the long-awaited awakening to the values that femininity represents. The lion and lamb can only lie together in a world of radical inner disarmament. In a world that relinquishes the male project of territorial expansion and conquest. In a world that allows for a blurring of boundaries – between predator and prey, seeker and sought, human and divine.
That blurring, hopefully, won’t mean neutrality. It won’t be about women becoming men or lions becoming lambs. After all, neutering the self isn’t androgyny, and sameness is not equality.
But it will be, I like to imagine, about recognising that some seeming polarities – maiyka and sasuraal, forest and court, heaven and earth, nirvana and samsara – aren’t quite as opposed as they have seemed down the long and violent road of human history.
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