Picture: Painting by Manisha Raju
During my soul searching days, I wanted to get familiar with religious scriptures. It was worthy ambition, but with a lot of spare time in hand, I thought I could accomplish it. Very quickly I realized reading them cover to cover was not just a daunting task but also a treasure trove to explore!
As I was digging in them for the first time, I started to look for themes or areas which were of particular interest to me. I started looking for the role of the woman and place of the woman in these religious texts.
I make no such claims that I have read everything, or I fully comprehend whatever little I read.
There were a lot of contradictions regarding role and equality of women in the texts. At some instances, it is stated that men hold the authoritative positions, but at some places, more freedom is given to females. The possible reason could be that most of these texts were written at different points in time and by different people. So they reflect the thought processes and the prevailing culture of that time. But more or less they were patriarchal and male-centric in nature.
But Tantra was an exception to this. I never took Tantra seriously because it is often portrayed as dramatic, sensational and sexual in the West or as sorcery or black magic in India. The Indian television has reduced Tantra to stones, gems, and some weird superstitions and blind faith.
But thankfully, I read few books by Sir John George Woodroffe, known by his pen name, Arthur Avalon. Arthur Avalon was a British Orientalist who worked tremendously to familiarize West with Hindu philosophy and Yogic practices.
I must say, it was an eye-opener. I am stunned to see the way Tantra is being distorted. It has become a form of entertainment and a device for gaining sexual pleasure, more money, for having extramarital affairs and what not!
Arthur Avalon has explained the philosophy and rationale behind the ancient yogic tradition of worship. I was particularly happy, to read about the role of the women in this ancient practice.
These are some of the main points concerning women that I came through in his writings about Tantra. I am still reading on Tantra and will hopefully add to them.
Tantra considers Divine Mother as supreme and gives immense respect to womankind, as they are all born of the family of the Divine Mother. Tantra does not consider a woman, merely as a woman. She is the inner Sakti, the inner energy that is lying asleep or dormant in the ordinary being and is to be awakened. Women or feminine is not seen as the sexual object but as an attribute which is present in both the sexes. Even the God is half man and half woman; he is Ardhnarishwar.
The woman is considered as an equal partner in this yogic tradition. In the performance of the Tantrik rituals, Sakti must be possessed of the same powers and competency as the Sadhaka. In other words, a Sahadharmini (an equal partner in the rituals) must have the same skill as the Sadhaka (the chief worshipper) with whom she performs the rituals. She is considered not less than the central sadhaka.
‘Sakti’ is to be served and attended to patiently. There should be no rush in the meeting of Sakti and Sakta. Women are not an object of mere cohabitation. If liberation were to be achieved by mere cohabitation with the woman, all creatures would stand liberated by female companionship.
The worshipper or the performer has to bow down to the woman, who is to be worshipped in certain rituals.
According to the Tantra Sastra, a woman is considered as the Guru as she can initiate the Mantras and also give it.
There is an intense fervor for sexual equality. The ill-treating woman is a crime and deserves the highest punishment.
Women need to be honored, cherished, educated before marriage and advanced. She is the life force herself.
Avalon quotes from Gautamiya Tantra, Sarvavarnādhikārashcha nārīnām yogya eva cha; which means Tantra Sastra is for all castes and women and a lower caste person or a woman cannot be refused to be initiated.
I think it can be said that Tantra is not discriminating, it is liberating and empowering!