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Book review: Women’s Lives, Women’s Rituals in the Hindu Tradition

Women's Lives, Women's Rituals in the Hindu TraditionThe anthology Women’s Lives, Women’s Rituals in the Hindu Tradition edited by Tracy Pintchman (Oxford University Press, 2007) explores the ways that Hindu women’s engagement in ritual holds agentive and transformative capacity beyond the immediate ritual context, and complicates the limited idea of “domestic” space as an analytic category. As Tracy Pintchman points out in her introduction “In many cultural and historical contexts, including contemporary India, women’s everyday lives tend to revolve heavily around domestic and interpersonal concerns, especially care for children, the home, husbands, and other relatives; hence women’s religiosity also tends to emphasize the domestic realm, and the relationships most central to women. … the domestic religious activities that Hindu women perform may not merely replicate or affirm traditionally formulated domestic ideals; rather these activities may function strategically to reconfigure, reinterpret, criticize, or even reject such ideals.” (p6)

The first section of Women’s Lives – “Engaging Domesticity” – comprises of five essays examining different aspects of women’s ritual lives within the home. The first chapter, Laurie L. Patton’s “The Cat in the Courtyard: The Performance of Sanskrit and the Religious Experience of Women,” describes how contemporary Hindu women are re-appropriating Sanskrit as a domestic language – and are taking on new roles “as caretakers of a classical language which has been prohibited to them for millenia” (p21).

Joyce Flueckiger’s essay, “Wandering from ‘Hills to Valleys’ with the Goddess: Protection and Freedom in the Matamma Tradition of Adhra” focuses on a South India tradition of marrying young girls to the goddess Gangamma who are, thereafter, called matammas. via the exchange of talis (gold pendants often associated with marriage) which signals both a binding relationship to the goddess and signals that the matammas are under the protection of the goddess – thus granting a freedom “to move across the traditional social and spatial boundaries observed by most Hindu women in similar stages of life” (p36). Flueckiger explains that this practice is being impacted by social reform movements, modernization and middle-class sensibilities which cast the tradition as exploitative of women, and as such it takes place “under the radar”. Drawing extensively on interviews with two women who had exchanged talis with the goddess, Flueckiger shows how this relationship may potentially provide a space for women’s expression of agency and power, and act as a site of refuge and protection – although of course, this does not guarantee a trouble-free life.

in “Lovesick Gopi or Woman’s Best Friend? The Mythic Sakhi and Ritual Friendships among Women in Benares,” Tracy Pintchman examines women’s sakhi rituals; avowals of lifelong friendship which, according to her informants, are rooted in relationship between the goddess Radha and her sakhis – or the bond shared by Radha’s sakhis. Pintchman points out that “Like marriage, the sakhi relationship is considered unique, deeply intimate, and entailing specific rules and obligations” and that it “deploys religious and marital imagery in ways that sacralize ongoing relationships among female friends, according them social and even religious legitimacy and establishing a socially valid place for them in women’s lives” (p57). The sakhi bonding, Pintchman argues, higlights two key issues. Firstly, that even within religious traditions which primarily accord institutional authority to men, women may “appropriate and reshape traditions in ways that are uniquely meaningful to them”, and secondly, that although the sakhi bond mimics a husband-wife bond, it is a relationship in which both women have equality, and affection and care are assumed to be mutual – “Generally, Hindu women living in this part of India do not freely choose their husbands; but they can, and do, choose their sakhis” (p62).

Lindsey Harlan’s essay, “Words That Breach Walls: Women’s Rituals in Rajasthan,” addresses the performance of women’s ratijagas, – celebratory night wakes in Rajasthan and challenges the idea that women’s “domestic” rituals are entirely circumscribed by the home in a locative sense. Harlan draws attention to an important point, that: “women’s rituals have always been subject to change, which should not be linked simply with modernity. The so-called traditional has always changed, and so ‘‘traditional’’ ritual has changed with every performance. It has been filtered through the sieves of performers’ diverse improvisational strategies and inspirations. It has also been apprehended and interpreted variously by those who participate in it, even if ‘‘only’’ as attendees or auditors, whose presence, expression, bearing, and commentary are, in any case, noted by and reacted to by performers, whose actions are not only influenced by audience but also, at least partially, motivated by a desire to impress those who attend” (P67). Using the novel approach of “thinking through” some of the dynamics in the film Chocolate, Harlan examines the ways in which women invite and incorporate others into their households – that whilst guests may come and go, but their influences modifies women’s social praxis; that women’s social praxis “overflows” the boundaries of domesticity and “seeps into, or even floods public dynamics and institutions” (p73); and that in travelling between homes (as ritual attendants or brides) women encounter different modes of praxis – such as encountering different rituals and godesses, which they can bring into their own lives.

The fifth chapter, “Threshold Designs, Forehead Dots, and Menstruation Rituals: Exploring Time and Space in Tamil Kolams,” by Vijaya Rettakudi Naragarjan explores the relationship between Tamil women’s ritual drawings – kolam which mark the thresholds of homes and other spaces, and the ritual mark – the pottu (Tamil) or bindi (Hindi, Sanskrit) with which women mark their heads. Naragarjan explains that these two kinds of ritual design “mirror and echo each other as parallel ritual expressions of complicated and nuanced concepts, such as auspiciousness and inauspiciousness, purity and pollution” (p86) and that they act as silent forms of communication – as external markers of bodily states. The presence or absence of a kolam at the threshold of a house, she explains, signals that the household is open or closed to the world – that it’s presence is a signal of hospitality to guests, visitors, and strangers. Absence of the kolam “announces” the household as “closed” due to events such as a death, or its women being in a state of ritual pollution – which in turn may signal visitors to offer comfort or aid. Naragarjan then moves on to the significance of the the pottu – that it signifies that a a young woman is ” past her first menstruation and is therefore eligible for betrothal and eventual marriage” (p91) – and that like other bodily marks such as the tali or henna on her hands and feet, it signals her power to create auspiciousness. Tackling the thorny issue of women’s ritual isolation during their periods of menstruation, she argues that this isolation can be “simultaneously and paradoxically a period of welcome rest and conviviality” (p92). Drawing on her own family experiences of ritual seclusion, she reflects on the ambiguities of this practice, both positive and negative, and locates it within the wider context of household ritual and the generation of auspiciousness.

The second section of the book “Beyond Domesticity” moves the focus of attention to women’s ritual activity outside the domestic space. Leslie C. Orr’s contribution, “Domesticity and Difference/Women and Men: Religious Life in Medieval Tamilnadu” searches for evidence for whether a “domestic religious orientation, engaged with the personal and the particular” (p110) can be located in precolonial South India. Drawing on Tamil inscriptions engraved on the walls of Hindu and Jain temples between the 9th-13th centuries, Orr finds the presence of women’s vrata (“vow”) practices in stones commemorating their achievements; examines gifts to temples, and evidence for women setting up the images of deities, and adorning deities with gifts of jewelry, including the gifts of talis. She argues that “we see that women were far from marginal and that the religious activity of gift giving had a profound impact on the shaping of ritual life in the temple, giving form to new services and establishing new deities to be worshipped” (p119). Orr concludes that these inscriptions indicate that “The records of women’s gifts portray them as participants in networks of property transactions, as sponsors of land improvement projects, and as parties to contracts and compacts. The epigraphs, although engraved on the walls of temples, speak to issues of identity, position, and power—and not only mark the special gestures and achievements of individuals but are themselves constitutive of the shifts in status that accompany these acts.” (p123)

Elaine Craddock’s chapter “The Anatomy of Devotion: The Life and Poetry of Karaikkal Ammaiyar” introduces the reader to the life of the 6th century poet-saint Karaikkal Ammaiyar, whose poetry and hagiography describe her rejection of the ideal of the role of “the dutiful wife” for that of an ascetic life devoted to Siva (see Multiplicious Becomings: tantric theologies of the grotesque – I for some discussion of Karaikkal Ammaiyar). Craddock points out that not only does Ammaiyar pursue her own path to liberation, but that she was also working to create a “community of devotees”. Craddock suggests that “The intimacy of Ammaiyar’s relationship to Shiva combines with her living beyond social norms to create a powerful model of the devotional path. … Her poetry urges people to give up a life rooted in family relationships and bounded by conventional rituals and goals, and instead to live their lives as offerings to Shiva.” (p143)

In “The Play of the Mother: Possession and Power in Hindu Women’s Goddess Rituals,” Kathleen Erndl examines Hindu women’s religious empowerment in relation to goddess possession rituals. Erndl argues that possession experiences are, both for the women who become possessed and their devotees (both male and female) are continuous with their ordinary lived experience. She explains how, over time, women in whom “the goddess plays” attract followers who address them as mataji – a term which encompasses not only the ordinary sense of “mother”, but also a respected holy woman, or even a goddess – and that, over time, matajis become divinised “even in their nonpossessed state” (p152). Erndl explores how possession rituals create community – and how mataji status allows women to critique social norms and expectations.

June McDaniel’s chapter “Does Tantric Ritual Empower Women? Renunciation and Domesticity among Female Bengali Tantrikas,” addresses the issue of women’s agency within contemporary tantra practice in India – and the contrast between the roles for women as described in tantric texts – which, she says, are mainly threefold – women as incarnations as goddesses; as ritual consorts; and as gurus – and women’s lived roles. She comments, for example, that the female tantric gurus she has encountered are not the graceful, delicate beauties as described in tantric texts, but “older, unmarried, sometimes bald nuns, often toughened from ascetic and outdoor life, looking strong and sometimes grizzled” (p165). Drawing on her fieldwork in West Bengal with female shakta tantrikas, McDaniel examines the issue of agency via five roles: Celibate tantric yoginis; Holy women or grihi sadhikas; Tantric wives; Professional consorts; and Celibate wives and widows. Her conclusions complicate western assumptions about women and tantric ritual – particularly sexual ritual: “In West Bengali society, tantric spiritual practices may sacralize a woman’s life and actions, or cause her to be rejected by the community, depending on the type of ritual involved” (p174). She points out that the majority of female tantrikas she interviewed were “not only celibate, but insistently so” (p166) and that all of the female gurus stressed that lata sadhana (“sexual ritual”) was peripheral, rather than central to practice, and sometimes, an indication of men’s “weakness”.

In the final chapter “Performing Arts, Re-forming Rituals: Women and Social Change in South India,” Vasudha Narayanan explores contemporary performances of classical Indian song and dance in public spaces – such as television shows – and how women use these art forms use these forms both as expressions of religious devotion and as vehicles to raise social consciousness. Beginning with a historical review of the importance of dance and song in Hindu culture, Narayanan examines, in turn, the influence and legacies of the 8th century Vaishnava saint-poetess Andal; Bangalore Nagaratnammal (1878-1952) who created a music festival in honour of a male composer Tyagaraja (1767–1847) which has become one of the most popular music festivals in India; Balasaraswati (1918-1984) – a famous female dancer who played a key role in the public performance and popularity of classical Indian dance, and Rukmini Devi Arundale, who is best-known for establishing a school of classical music and dance. She then examines the school of dance created by Dr. Mallika Sarabhai, and how her performances express some of the injustices done to women.

Overall, Women’s Lives is a fascinating and engaging book, drawing on a wide range of practices and settings, and showing how women’s religious experience in different Hindu contexts can enhance – and restrict – their agency. Admittedly, I was first drawn to this volume by the contributions of Elaine Craddock and June McDaniel, but I found every chapter to be thought-provoking, interesting, and occasionally, challenging. If you are at all interested in contemporary women’s religious experiences -within or beyond the Hindu traditions, then this book should not be missed.