Modern India with a past

Tradition and Liberation
April 21, 2000

It is intriguing to reflect critically on how past ideals are used to shape the present and the future. Such fascination is justified when examining what is loosely termed the "Hindu tradition." This complex reality stands in stark contrast to the kind of "liberation" sought by modern women. To juxtapose tradition and liberation in reference to the Indian women's movement opens up exciting perspectives that reveal how specific aspects of the religio-cultural heritage have been used with great effect to enhance modernisation or retraditionalisation.

The Indian women's movement includes women from many backgrounds - Hindu, Muslim, Parsee and western. This study is concerned with the Hindu tradition, as used by the Indian and sometimes western women, to advance the position of Indian women in society, rather than looking at the more specific question of how religiously committed women reinterpreted Hindu religious ritual and practices in modern India. Following the typology of others, Catherine Robinson speaks of first-wave feminism in terms of "women's uplift" and equal rights and of second-wave feminism in terms of empowerment. Her study of a wide variety of Indian sources (in English) moves swiftly from the late 19th to the 20th century, from the imperial to independent India. She paints a large canvas with a broad brush, often leaving the reader wondering where the boundaries of frequently used terms and topics lie.

Robinson first sketches the background of the "woman question", as debated by male Hindu reformers and revivalists, before moving on to the women who developed the Indian women's movement through numerous autonomous organisations. Like their male compatriots, these women were elective in their critical appropriation of the Indian past. It was particularly the ideology of women's uplift that drew on the modern construct of the "golden age" of Indian civilisation. This provided a model society, just as female characters of Hindu sacred literature presented lofty ideals of womanhood. Those fighting for equal rights developed contrasting styles of reading their Hindu past, finding arguments both for and against women's social and political rights. Much of this debate continues in India where the issues of sati , dowry, death and foeticide figure, and where traditional attitudes to women are reinforced by the Hindu radical right.

The value of this book lies in its use of some lesser-known sources. Students of modern Hinduism and of Indian women's issues will find much of interest here, although the bibliographical references are not always comprehensive. For example, there is no mention of Nancy Auer Falk's annotated bibliography Women and Religion in India (1994). As the struggle for Indian women's liberation in relation to Hindu tradition has not been examined in this way before, the author has mapped out a dynamic field, but unfortunately it has not been ploughed deeply, given the lack of clear definitions and nuanced discussion. It is more a series of vignettes than a thoroughly theorised study, even though the introductory chapter raises brief questions of definition and methodology. Occasionally some postcolonial, postorientalist and feminist concerns are mentioned, but theoretical issues remain rather veiled. Key concepts such as the Hindu renaissance or the Hindu tradition are neither sufficiently problematised nor rigorously analysed. Much is unsaid about women and Hindu religion, and some passages are marred by the didactic heaviness of their earlier incarnation as a thesis. Fascinating historical data has been gathered, but the field is so rich that the meaning of tradition and liberation for Indian women deserves to be explored further.

Ursula King is professor if theology and religious studies, University of Bristol.


Tradition and Liberation: The Hindu Tradition in the Indian Women's Movement

Author - Catherine A. Robinson
ISBN - 0 7007 1143 0
Publisher - Curzon
Price - £40.00
Pages - 230

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