Women and the Gita

  • There are only two verses in the Gita that mention women. In 1.41, Arjuna argues, “O Krishna, when adharma prevails, the women of the family are corrupted and from the corruption of women, O Varshneya, the intermixture of class arises.” Here Arjuna could be taken to reflect a societal anxiety that seems to correlate purity (or corruption) of women to stability and order. In 9.32 Krishna comments that those who take refuge in him can reach the highest goal even if they are “born of sinful wombs,” namely, “women, members of the vaisya caste (business caste) or even a member of the sudra caste (servant caste).” Given just these two mentions of women, the Gita could be taken to have rather little to say about women.

  • However, the Gita plays a far more significant role in determining a response to the “women’s question.” When discussing women’s experience in India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, what post-colonial theorists like Partha Chatterjee call the “women’s question” can serve as a point of departure. This concept features prominently in the discourse around modernity within the colonial context of British India.

What is typically referred to by the “women’s question” is the phenomenon where women—their socio-economic conditions and plights—are viewed as location, indeed ground zero, for the modernist discourse. In British India, this location was conceived in terms of a debate between colonial orientalists and traditional nationalists. While the orientalist perspective argued for reforming and changing the conditions of Indian women, the nationalist rhetoric opposed such arguments by creating a glorification of India’s past. More specifically, as Lata Mani notes, women became “emblematic of tradition and the reworking of tradition” was done through “debating their rights and status in society” (1989, 121). The Gita played a central role in this “reworking” as it came to be viewed as the “essence” of Hindu scriptures and its authority came to be “considered as most sacred by Hindus of all persuasions” (Robinson 2006, 5 quoting Raja Ram Mohan Roy). So even though the Gita directly doesn’t say much on women, it plays an important role in creating a version of what it means to be a traditional Hindu woman.

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