Strands of the Sacred

Having presented the C. Henry Smith Peace Lectures for Goshen (IN) and Bluffton (OH) colleges in 1988, I chose to publish the two lectures—“Strands of the Sacred” and “Strength, Struggle, and Solidarity.” Content emerged following my having been with ten women from the University of New Mexico on a Fulbright Scholarship/Study Tour titled “Women, the Family, and Social Change in India” for seven weeks of the spring of 1988. My 98-page book [Strength, Struggle & Solidarity: India’s Women] was printed by Pinch Penny Press at Goshen College in 1989.

Friends and family members helped with this project: daughters Lynda and Gretchen served as editor and artist while husband John was computer assistant. Jerol Shaum helped with layout design/graphics and Sumitra Himangshu, Mary Metzler, and Gayatri Patnaik read the ms. in advance of publishing. Other Content included in the book are: Profiles (10 noteworthy Indian women including visionary history-maker Sarojini Naidu and poet Amrita Pritam who I was fortunate to meet in her Delhi home), “Indian Women Speak for Themselves” (data from over one hundred Indian women who responded to a questionnaire that I created), and “Annotated Bibliography” (paragraphs about thirty books by or about Indian women).

While the entire book abounds with useful information that highlights the time when written, I here copy excerpts from:

“Strands of the Sacred.”

What is the connection between seeing my mother kneel in prayer before going to bed at night in Iowa and seeing women bow in devotion doing puja (Hindu prayer ritual) in India? That question has intrigued me for some time. Deciding who-what-where God is absorbs many people from the villager to the swami (religious teacher)

Truth is sacred. How it takes shape varies. With Mahatma Gandhi, I believe that Truth is in everyone, that no one has a monopoly of it. While firmly rooted in ancient Hinduism, he welcomed contact with other religions. For him “a friendly study of the world’s religions is a sacred duty.1 He further says: “If we exalt the particular creeds over universal truths, we tend to become intolerant and intolerance is an expression of religious conceit.”2

What else draws me to study strands of the sacred in the experience of India’s women? My own quest for familiarity with the sacred. My sense of connection to a culture not my own by birth. And honest desire to resonate with other women’s insight into what about the sacred matters.

The sacred permeates life in India. Saffron robes are indicators, as are echoing calls from a Muslim minaret or Bible women circled around a text. Personal meaning and social survival meet daily. Duty is sacred. It involves the neighbor. It confronts the inner being where ‘Godness’ dwells. Some understand Creator Brahma to be half female and half male; others realize little more than fate’s latest blow. Strands of the sacred come woven in scripture What the Bhagavad Gita or The Teaching of Buddha or The Holy Quran offer varies, depending on personal experience, literacy, and tradition. How to bridge ancient texts with today’s concerns is no easy task for followers of any major religion. Meshing caste or shifts in law or details of ritual or socialized gender patterns or philosophy involves integration of a unique sort.

When I watch a villager shape clay female models of a deity for a festival, what do I learn? What happens to my being? When religious processions give meaning to a woman’s day, to what does she return after that involvement? When mantras are chanted or psalms sung, what defines due respect for another’s view? When a poor man meekly reaches out his hand after a worship service, how much courage was required to ask for help?

More questions present themselves. While response to them remains in process, some concerns also crystalize. For me, routine church experience leads to periods of restlessness. Limits of congregation and denomination set into gear a basic ecumenical yearning. Convinced that learning from or valuing strands of a faith other than mine pose no threat to firm roots. I value the strength of a broader base. Yet, discontent with how patriarchy distorts all major religious faiths, I long for Justice and Truth. Perhaps this study will aid understandings between faiths. Comparisons are inevitable, of both difference and the similar. If these can be observed through fewer value judgments and more open learning, the result can be redeeming. As women stress cooperation more than competition, strands might lead to com-union.

Due to limits of time and space, I am not able here to include Muslim women’s insight into the sacred. That omission is unfortunate. From helpful interviews and reading, I have some awareness of how Christian women leaders in India are reshaping theology. Whether in small groups or slums, through seminars or seminaries, they interact. I believe that Hindu women also explore interactions—like between being empowered and self-sacrifice. As women are freed from making gods of men who traditionally shape thought and practice, sacred strands will multiply.

Strands of the sacred follow different paths. Few remain static. These include rituals, patterns for the ideal, sainthood and devotion, writings, power, and energy, and birthing. Both the common and the unique deserve expression. In this lecture they appear—sometimes to be explained, at other times just present for your musing.

Strands of the sacred: from what do they emerge? Each woman determines that—as she seeks resources, as she lends support, as she communes with ‘Godness.’ How too are segments of society affected? Through woman’s wisdom, experience, and inherited tenets. Examples of these abound; I begin with three.

First, woman saints of both East and West remind us of “the greatest common bond between all people: ‘the belief in God and the yearning to worship (God).’”3 Yet, some credit fate and others deny that God exists.

Second, a young woman who daily practices four hours of personal puja (worship) later “attained virtue” (in some people’s eyes) through sati (sacrifice). I also experienced a devout Hindu guide leading people through temples and a museum of Hindu artifacts. Her sense of the sacred could not have been more genuine.

Third, Hindus deify the feminine as Shakti—as power, energy or goddess. Yet, women are often treated as ritually impure or as targets of oppression. And a Christian Indian woman may wonder just why “women often believe even more fervently in the ‘divine’ oppressive content of the bible or other scriptures.”4

From these three—wisdom, experience, and tenets—people shape faith. Philosophy, fate and ritual draw adherents. Temples, altar rooms, and forehead symbols connect the visual with spirit. Pilgrims and priests, sadhus (holy men) and swamis (teachers), deities and duties—these daily intersect. But within a land that teems with the sacred, the secular co-exists.

To design patterns of the kaleidoscopic puzzle that is India is no small task. Major religions as well as minor ones at times clash; at other times they bond together. A religion’s authority often springs from either its institutions or thoughts. Within Hinduism, ideas are powerful. For the literate, philosophy pervades. Yet, “the correct form of practice is more important than correct formulation of belief.”5

To understand India’s women, the spiritual cannot be overlooked. Devaka Jain suggests that “women are the main practitioners in every religion.”6 Religion offers support: for the young bride; a deity can replace her absent mother. Burdened by her domestic oppression, religion can become a court of appeal. It provides courage when deep fear nearly overwhelms.

Having introduced the topic before us, we turn to sections on history, to religious ideology with a few points of comparison, women saints, and organizations. How much history the reader needs is hard to anticipate. Selected features that have shaped Hindu religious thought or practice matter. Points of difference and similarity that surface between two faiths interest me. But why the sections on saints and organizations?

From reading and observation, I begin to explore an idea, wondering if these two categories reflect a valid difference between Hindu and Christian expression of the sacred for women. While Hindu religion is more often practiced individually, Christianity stresses community. Not meaning that either is exclusive in the approach named, the pattern is present. Whereas women in Hinduism will be observed through more private, mystical activity, Christian women know definition through group-oriented social activism or reshaping of theology.

Behind all religious teaching is concern for the quality of life.7 Aware of misery, people long to remove human suffering. They hope to overcome. To assist with suffering, Hinduism offers a theory of Karma or Re-birth. How one lives this life determines the next.

Human life can be improved by achieving goals—of enjoyment, wealth, or moksha which is freedom from the cycle of births and deaths. Dharma or duty is another goal—a Hindu believes that people have duties, rather than rights. To again the goals, Aryan social order, after 1500 BCE (Before Common Era), began to classify people into major varna or castes. Social differences were prescribed—through a person’s previous actions.

Beyond the initial three groups of men—brahmins (priests), kshatriyas (warriors or aristocracy), and vaishyas (commoners)—came a fourth category of sudras (servants). Part of male property, all women belonged there. Excluded from the Vedic religion, sudras were outsiders until a further grouping, untouchables, were given a label. Because only Brahmans could bestow divinity on a king, their caste became primary. Their law-givers shaped social rules. Over time, thousands of subcastes came into being each with its purpose, roles, or duties defined.8

India’s prominent Hinduism is very ancient—5,000 years. In 2000 BCE, invading Aryans brought religious practice from the northwest. Muslims invaded several times—during the eighth, thirteenth, and sixteenth centuries, CE. Both Hinduism and Islam absorbed from each other. Changes were inevitable. From Hinduism, related but distinct strands broke off. Dissatisfied with some idea or practice, a leader and followers formed rebellions.

That pattern describes Jainism and Buddhism in 500 BCE.9 Jainism seeks to pave the way to universal happiness and peace; it is nonviolent toward all living things. Buddhism emphasizes monastic life as liberation from life’s burdens. It started orders of monks and nuns. Although Gautama Buddha was born in India and received enlightenment under the bodhi tree in Gaya, Buddhists live and practice their faith in other Asian lands.

Then fifteenth century discontent with Hindu caste birthed Sikhism. Guru Nanak is that group’s spiritual master.10 To credit eighteenth or early nineteenth century missionaries with having planted Christianity in India fails to note earlier Portuguese influence. It overlooks the claim that St. Thomas—one of Jesus’ Twelve—extended the first century Church into this Asian subcontinent. While Christians comprise less than three percent of India’s 800-plus million (in the 1980s), its number of followers still exceeds Canada’s Christian total. While eleven percent of Indians are Muslim, 80-81 percent claim Hinduism. Christians number more than Sikhs or Jains.

Popularists have also appeared at times in India. They denounce all religious codes of conduct and live as either ascetics or through the pursuit of pleasure. Other groups have remained within Hinduism but carried out reforms. Bhakti, or devotion, groups are of this type. While some deny the social order of India’s ancient law-giver Manu (in the Dharma Sutra), most do not denounce the caste system. Taking cues from the Bhagavad Gita—a poetic, sacred text in which Lord Krishna teaches his pupil—devotees are urged to follow their own nature. Vedanta groups were formed; Vivekanada’s Ramakrishna Movement is one. These think human beings are equal in essence, but different in actual life.

Noted reformers include Rammohan Roy, Ranade, and Mahatma Gandhi. Roy founded the Brahma Samaj movement in 1828, partly to work at sati reform in Bengal. Because it is in the category of tradition, he rejected Manu’s text. Older, revealed texts—Vedas and Upanishads—had valued equality for women with men. About sixty years later Ranade reformed child marriage and widow remarriage practice And Mahatma Gandhi is credited by some to have led the nations’ conscience against injustice toward untouchables.

With a few facts of history related o Hinduism noted, points of ideology will be examined next. I do not comprehend the gamut of thought. But some principles and ideals—notably several that affect a woman’s experience of the sacred—need introduction. With this lecture prepared for a western audience, I will note distinct points of Hindu thought and then move to a few comparative comments. Classical Hinduism is known for its laws, epics, and pervading philosophy. Popular Hinduism blends oral tradition with folk lore; included is more informal puja. Classical and popular are known as the “big” and “little” traditions. Women’s experience of the sacred appears more within the latter.

Sources differ about women’s involvement in the “big” tradition. A point of difference reflects on authority invested in their participation. Yet, few limits are made upon their practice in non-textual or folk rituals. For the most common activity of bhakti, or devotion, they directly worship a deity.They ask for family protection, prosperity, and health. For this request, the risk of their being “dangerous” does not interfere with the sacred. No priest needs to intervene. And for one category, devadasi (votary of God), only females qualify.

Scripture is an important aspect of the sacred in India. The Quran and Bible texts, plus their interpretation, prescribe and describe thought and practice for believers. By contrast, Hinduism has no single text with comparable authority. Yet, thousands of Hindu texts have been produced. Without institutional hierarchy, a strong system of social order finds expression through these writings. Writings vary. Distinctions exist between the puranas and the smriti, between the Rig Veda text of psalms (pre-600 BCE, brought by Aryan migrators) and the Mahabharata epic with its noted Gita (of about 200 BCE) The essence of the Upanishads—the Bhagavad Gita—teaches a way of life. Just one part of a purana (the Devi Mahatmya) has a “seven hundred verse poem which celebrates the triumph of Devi (the Great Mother) over various demons.”11

Deity pairs of the Hindu pantheon include Saraswati with Brahma and Radha with Krishna. Sita is the ideal wife of Rama and Lakshmi the beauty of Vishnu. Two of Shiva’s many wives are Kali (destroyer) and Parvati(energy). Another approach states that a goddess like Kali has several names—Sati, Parvati, and Durga. Lakshmi is the goddess invoked for wealth and good fortune. Associated with prosperity and fertility; she protects. Srinivasan elaborates: “If her sexuality is controlled by men, she remains the fertile and benevolent Lakshmi, but the female controlling her own sexuality is potentially malevolent and destructive Kali.”12 The implications for women are clear; men are blessed for keeping control. How female deities are portrayed establishes a prescribed role for woman in Hindu society.

In contrast to Lakshmi’s passivity when dominated by her husband, Kali represents a female’s aggressive potential. She holds weapons of destruction. She can be most vengeful of any who offend her. Yet, as symbol of eternal time, “she both gives life and destroys.” Again, a prime message to women suggests to avoid autonomy.

Background to Hindu understanding of creation adds insight.

Creation begins in Hinduism with Godhead conceived as a unity containing both male and female principles. Brahma, the Creator, is thought to be half male and female. At the moment of creation Brahma causes [his] body to separate into two distinct parts: purusha (male) and prakriti (female); the union of this male and female principle leads to creation.13

Kumari explains how both female and male are direct emanations from the divine body; both have divine power. But note the law giver Manu’s division: “By the sacred tradition, the woman is (said) to be the soil, the man is declared to be the seed. Production of all corporeal beings (takes place) through union of the soil with the seed.14 But the seed is more important: “for the offspring of all retained beings is marked by the characteristics of the seed.”15 Representing fertility and growth, woman (earth) is the receiver of man’s seed. Each completes the other to create. But woman’s power is explained as creative and helpful only when joined with the male. Separate from (or not under the control of) the male, her power is dangerous. The destructive Hindu goddess, Kali, embodies this fact. “The benevolent goddesses in Hinduism are those who are married and who have transferred control of their sexuality to their husbands.16

From this idea of female nature, the Hindu ideal of womanhood emerges. Religious texts reinforce that man must control woman and her power. To be scripturally feminine is to “look upon the husband as a God, to hope for salvation through him, to be obedient to him in all things, never to covet independence. . . ”17

For Indians, religion and philosophy are fused. In addition, these establish principles for life. Even newspapers instill such thought. “The Indian woman, thanks to her social and religious culture, is marked by modesty that borders on self-effacement. Self-assertion is not her quality. For that very reason, she deserves to be treated with utmost consideration.18 And what is the outcome for Indian women from such a directive? Just what is “utmost consideration.” What strength comes through Hinduism for women? Also, what marks women of India’s minority faiths—Christian or Muslim? To generalize is risky; what is stated can be wither affirmed or denied by different women.

Religions tend to define the ideal—the ideal man, woman, family, or society. Frequent use of the term ideal becomes obvious when reading about Hinduism. Gods or goddesses, through qualities that are known, become heroes for Hindus to pattern in their own behavior. So, how is the ideal woman portrayed? An entry point is the Hindu woman’s understanding of duty. The upholder of tradition, she is both subservient to her husband and one who influences him. Cultural duty involves seeing that her husband is happy and comfortable. In spite of shortcomings, he is to be thought of as god. She is to worship him. She is to run his household properly which includes giving him children, especially sons. A virgin before marriage and chaste ever after, she is to accept his traditional control over her. While widowers have been free to remarry, for centuries a widow was believed to be inauspicious. She deserved restriction—in religious and social activity. Then through self-immolation, she could “earn bliss for three generations of the husband’s ancestors.”19

As directives suggest, “classical Hindu laws focus almost exclusively on women as wives . . . they emphasize women’s behavior in relationship to men . . .”20 Hindu ideology presents the female as a duality: “she is fertile, benevolent—the bestower . . . she is aggressive, malevolent—the destroyer.” She can provide either prosperity or misfortune. (This idea relates to the Hindu understanding that each individual possesses purusha, meaning kinetic energy, and prakriti which refers to potential energy. The latter results from relative position, rather than from motion as in purusha.)

From Hindu lawbooks (dharma-shastras/the Rules of Right Conduct), like the Laws of Manu (ca. 200 CE), the need to control woman is clear. Her power/energy is good only when controlled. Her prime duty or being “ideal” finds expression in submission. Details of the law can hardly be mistaken:

Nothing must be done independently (by a girl/woman) . . . A female must be subject: in childhood to her father, in youth to her husband, and when her lord is dead to her sons . . . A husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife (regardless of the qualities he shows). If a wife violates her duty, (after death) she is punished (enters the womb of a jackal or is tormented by disease) . . .21

If texts and traditions define the “ideal” woman as one who does not try to break out of rigid control, is autonomy never good? If the best wife (Sita) ignores abuse in order to worship her husband, what is mercy? Countless men are also limited. Only male members of the top three major castes have access to Veda texts. And only the priest caste (Brahman) men are to use these in rituals. While women, like untouchables and sudras, can be excluded from knowing the Vedas, they may recite mantras in rituals.

Ambivalence lingers. While a few women achieve status within religious circles, the majority remain inferior. While Hindu law-givers left some honorable statements about women, more tend to be negative. But not only Hinduism reflects that pattern. Of growing personal interest is comparative study of Hinduism and Christianity, particularly in relation to women, Not having set out to discover these details, their recurrence leads to reflection.

Many aspects of the religions regarding women differ. Where there are commonalities, the influence stems from patriarchy. Both Israelite/Christian and Hindu practice reinforce patriarchy—the rule of the father and submission for women. Where Hindu and biblical texts counter patriarchy, Truth prevails. But through both religions’ history, men have interpreted the sacred. They have been the priests and preachers, the most prominent sadhus and saints. Only as, and always when, women are truly empowered to interpret sacred texts, does their Truth or experience emerge. Androcentric thought develops when male translators identify their experience as if it is normative. Just what will result from India’s women having more access to scriptures banned to them for the past two thousand years could become profound.22

Other comparisons or shifts in attitude about women are observable within the two major faiths. Writers refer to the ancient Hindu Vedic era as more positive for women: more active in the cult, women could also remarry, for example. Then followed a long era when her worth was diminished, when her purpose was focused primarily in procreation. Currently, among the more educated, these limitations are being refuted.

In a similar pattern, researchers find that women were more involved in ancient Israel’s cultic activity prior to centuries of male dominance. Kingship and a male priesthood for a perceived male God triumphed. Gradually “excused” from sacred tasks, women were defined by motherhood. The radical Jesus tried to alter patriarchy’s oppression of the powerless. He charged both women and men with one prime purpose—to witness to Truth. But only fragments of the Church have practiced that Redeemer’s call.

Other parallels appear among philosophers. When excused as extreme, people may also deny their influence. Both Church Father Tertullian and the Bhagavata Purana state: “ . . .woman is the door of gateway to hell.” From Arthur Schopenhauer (“Of Women”): “You need only look at the way in which she is formed, to see that woman is not meant to undergo great labor, whether of the mind or of the body.” From Devi Bhagavata, 1.5.83 read: “Falsehood, vain boldness, craftiness, stupidity, impatience, greed, impurity, and harshness are the natural qualities of women.”

Aware of some dimensions of India’s history and a few Hindu teachings, how have women in fact expressed the sacred? Again, only a small measure is here described. Notable have been Hindu women saints—achievers of the spiritual stage of renunciation. Sri Sarada Devi, born in 1853, is one to note “ Her life symbolizes the essence of Hindu womanhood, fulfilling its twin aspirations: dedication to duty and through its performance the attainment of spiritual glory.”23

From maybe four thousand years ago, perhaps directly through the Supreme Being Brahman, is Hinduism’s most sacred book, the Rig Veda. In it many hymns (called suktas) were written by as many as twenty-seven women seers. Known for devotion and wisdom, these saints performed religious rites, discussed philosophical issues, and sang holy hymns. They acted as arbiters in debates. Then, during the Smriti-Purana period (500 BCE – 500 CE), early marriage and limited education for girls led few to sainthood. Buddhism endorsed monks and nuns during this era, but no order of Hindu nuns was encouraged. By the eleventh century, when women were denied Vedic privileges, the bhakti cult found expression. All Hindu women saints followed one of these bhakti or devotion schools.

Following the period of Manu Smriti, Hindu society became more rigid. Saints tried to reduce this trend. Through democratic teaching they tried to loosen the rigid caste structure, expose hollowness of rituals and of the brahmins, and extol the principle of equality. 24 Not needing to worship through a priest and free to use the language of the people (rather than Sanskrit), saints were often non-traditional. Yet, they lived in a patriarchal society. Bhakti gave women access to the religious field; its intent did not include similar change in their social life.25

These women wrote—poetry and ethical works—and offered personal friendship. Consecrated to knowledge, they modeled total surrender to God. Well-known were Avvaiyar. Karaillal Ammaiyar, and Andal. Meaning “she who dives deep into the ocean of love divine,” Andal lived in the middle of the seventh century. With divine bridal longing, she craved to do total service to Sri Kriahna. Her thirty-stanza poem sung daily in every Vaishnavat shrine (Tiruppavai/”The Song Divine”) combines “artistic excellence, metaphysical symbolism, and devotional fervour.”26

From fourteenth century Kashmir, Lalla preceded a large number of eminent saints. Legend associated with her suggests that “after six births in the animal world, . . . she was born and then married to the same boy to whom she had given birth in her previous human life.”27 Only those who attain self-realization can recall past lives like that. Due to intense leaning toward religion coupled with family discontent, she became a wandering disciple who sang and danced with divine ecstasy. Her sayings are deeply mystical; travail and suffering preceded God consciousness for her.

Among the greatest saints of India was Mira Bai. Born in the early 1500s during widespread political turmoil, she knew disruption first-hand. By her early 20s, her father, Prince husband, and father-in-law had all died. She refused to submit to sati or to let religious zeal be diverted through imposed hardships. She went on pilgrimage. Intent to achieve union with the divine, she worshipped the Krishna incarnation of her Beloved (God). In this devotion, she practiced the dutiful wife ideal. Later recognized as a writer, her several hundred poems of deep love for God continue to be sung by both rich and poor.

Gurus or spiritual teachers have traditionally been men. Inheritors of ancient tradition, a guru links with an uninterrupted chain of succession. While major Hindu sects traditionally refuse women the right to be gurus, there are exceptions.28 Women who qualify to receive religious knowledge and to pass it on to disciples may be called mataji. Circumstance or personality or proper guru initiation led women like (Sharadvallabha) Betiji and Shobha Ma to symbolize the ideal life. Hindu tradition divides the ideal into four stages; renunciation is the last.

Now in her later 40s, Betiji’s dedicated religious pursuits are practiced in the Vallabha community of Varanasi (Banaras). A dasi or slave of Lord Krishna—with whom she longs to be reunited after death—she serves people through diverse social work. Initiated by her father and entitled to transmit the same, she teaches her 800 women disciples, many from the wealthy strata of society. Administrator and priest (ess) of a new temple, she invites Hindu authorities and conducts seminars or debates in philosophy and theology.

Having now read about a number of Hindu women saints, a final section will focus on organizations of Christian women. As they offer dignity, a voice, reconstructed theology, or shelter, they translate the sacred. They seek to join hands with secular and religious women.

Begun in 1977, the Delhi-centered Joint Women’s Programme works in eleven states. Often church-based and increasingly focused on legal and socio-economic rights for women, the movement hopes to “create a new society with equal partnership of women and men.”29 It works to combat the total system of oppression. Staffed by people from different religious and socio-cultural backgrounds, it organizes rural and urban women. Not just talking about need, programs are action oriented. Grateful for a heritage of strong Indian women’s organization, JWP knows the importance of networking. Priority work focuses on the struggle for justice and freedom for underprivileged women. Campaigns for Uniform Civil Code or against sati and all injustice rooted in patriarchy take place.

JWP publications address immediate needs and underlying causes, often based on data gathered from other print media. Intent to improve living conditions, health centers work to both prevent and cure. Cultural expression through dance, street plays, and displays enhance awareness. Christians are encouraged, through studies and support, to act against dowry or to change laws within the Church. Herein is discipleship. When 1987 was declared by the United Nations as “International Year of Shelter for the Homeless,” All JWP centers used that theme for March 8, International Women’s Day events. A national meeting on Housing Rights preceded JWP’s sending two recommendations to officials, including the Prime Minister. Their united efforts made a difference. JWP offices will continue to promote joint husband-wife registration of property and rights for single or dependent household heads.

The nature and scope of JWP tasks appear in two reports. One describes the outcome for women when, between 1975-77, seven hundred thousand Delhi squatters were moved to 17 settlements on the city outskirts. Seriously hurt by the move, 27% of the women had to give up their jobs. Male employment fell by only 5%.30 Second, as AICCW (All India Council of Christian Women) called church women from all over India to collect signatures in protest of amniocentesis and sati, the returned responses spoke of solidarity.

With integrity, social action is balanced with personal growth in understanding the liberation of women in Christ. Three books of Bible studies have been published in this decade by JWP. Groups discuss the texts and directly integrate the learning. After reviewing Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, participants were asked to help another woman gain dignity and self-reliance. After studying the Eph. 5:21 call to true partnership in marriage, women were nudged to organize local protests against dowry. Joined “in Christ” is not just an individual matter; action is required to change the fact “that 60% of India’s population lives below the poverty line.”31

Indian Christian women leaders define theology as recapturing the Gospel message of liberation for those (especially women) who struggle against injustice. Not content with western, male dominated translations of scripture or theories of Truth, they search for ways to respond to “the many ugly faces of patriarchal violence (women) experience every day.”32 Not driven to goddess worship as a solution, they know how patriarchal Hinduism also is, how subjugated goddesses become the ideal for women. Not convinced that the Bible’s dependency on male interpretation has been acknowledged, they admit that the Bible has both liberating and oppressive strands. Not blind to, but indeed pained by the loss of women’s dignity and freedom, they intend to defeat hierarchal pyramids. They wish to join other Asian Christians in creating a revised symbol of relating—the rainbow.33

Fortunate is India to have birthed women like Mira Bai and Pandita Ramabai; Sarojini Naidu, Indira Gandhi and Durgabai Deshmukh. Fortunate also is the Church in India for women like Aruna, Jessie, Prasanna, Hilda, Stella, Jyotsna, Monica, Jamila, Sarah, Raja, Caroline, Priscilla, Mother Teresa, Mary Leelamma—and on and on. And fortunate are those women to share with bible teachers like Samuel Rayan and S. J. Samartha—men free to stand tall with women.

Indian women doing theology know how important even broader solidarity will be. They call Christians to join the secular (“being not obviously religions”) women’s movement in transcending “narrow divisions of faith and ideology (to) come together to reflect and act on issues of national importance.”34 Religious labels dare not hinder cooperation in a multi-religious society, for all religions need to be liberated. All major religions begun since three thousand BCE need to more fully empower their women. Indeed, as Aruna Gnanadason knows: the liberation of church women in India is “linked with the liberation of all women and all oppressed people in Asian society.”35

Key Indian women perceive and will proclaim “that any theology of humanhood has to be rooted in that section of society from whom human dignity is most effectively withheld.”36 Being powerless to influence decisions or change what endangers them is the basic problem for women. If each could be convinced that she is a child of God and therefore blessed with strength, how different the sacred cause could be. For a November 1984 consultation of 66 women and men in Bangalore came recommendations including these: “to strengthen commitment to liberation . . . to develop a new form of spirituality . . . to revitalize theological education . . . to provide new forms of inclusive language and rituals, ecclesial structures, gender-free imagery for God, and revised concepts of the family and human sexuality.37

Another cause to which these leaders are committed is the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988-98). Since the UN ’75-85 Decade for Women had not addressed churches, this fills that gap. “A New Community: A Living Community” will be the theme in India. Obstructing the path to such community could be stones of Patriarchy, Poverty, and Casteism. Five main purposes for the Decade are to empower, affirm, give visibility to women, to enable and encourage churches to counter oppression, and to act in solidarity with women.


How does one conclude a subject so complex that of necessity is dealt with so briefly? By nudging you the reader to follow on your own the strand of the sacred that most draws you, realize that it is but a part of the whole. Ever pervasive, father rule and the subordination of woman profoundly limit the human quest for God. Believers in all major religions deny that fact. Like Gandhi or others like Ambedkar’s effort to restore dignity to untouchables and conscie3nce to those who so cast them, to reclaim sexual solidarity is a sacred mission.

I observe pockets of both Hindu and Christian women committed to reform. As they overcome barriers and as they join other religious or secular efforts, justice will increase. The Sacred will be freed or re-born through intersections of humanity. And mothers will rise from prayer or puja through devotion to new awareness of strands of the sacred calling them to pursue justice.