A civilisation as ancient as Indian has well-developed perspectives on key questions of human existence, human development, aims of human life, culture, identity, womanhood, relation between individual and society, etc. which not only shape and contextualise women’s awareness of themselves and their experiences, but also facilitate a keener and deeper perception of the world around.
In a post-graduate course titled ‘Rethinking Feminism from Indian Perspectives’ which I designed and taught at Pondicherry Central University in 2019, my students and I explored several such aspects as they play out in women’s experiences in the Indian cultural context. A rich variety of learning materials comprising of scholarly articles, stories of women from Indian itihāsas, scriptural and literary evidence from Indian tradition, and films concerning women in ancient times as well as contemporary realities and concerns of women were used for our exploration.
Also included were Sri Aurobindo’s and the Mother’s keen insights on several aspects related to the topic of women and society, and particularly the societal evolutionary processes, which helped us explore the evolving nature of ideals necessary for our future growth as individuals and societies in the light of the eternal Indian view of gradual and progressive evolution of consciousness.
One such set of study materials included selections from a book titled ‘About Woman’ – a collection of essays written by Nolini Kanta Gupta, one of the earliest associates and close disciples of Sri Aurobindo. The book ‘About Woman’ is an English translation by Satadal of the Bengali essays, written between 1932 and 1949 and compiled under the title ‘Nārir Katha’. The 95-page English translation published in 1999 by Sri Aurobindo Center for Advanced Research (SACAR), Pondicherry opens with the following preface:
“There is hardly any subject that is outside the purview of a yogi—from the sublime to the mundane, from the mystic to the obvious, all are within the ken of his assessment. At least, that was the case with Nolini Kanta Gupta.
“His yogic insight surveys the world from a spiritual angle— an angle that is characterised by a comprehending and integral vision of things. It is only such a unified vision that can study in a proper perspective the complex problems of existence, be they on the level of the society, the nation or the world.
“One such problem that Nolini Kanta Gupta took up, between 1932 and 1949, was that of woman, especially in the backdrop of Indian culture and social values. At the time when these articles on women were being written, not even the Western countries had taken up the problem of women very seriously, busy that they were with the aftermath of World War II. But a yogi sees things and events that are on the horizon of the future, and as he sees so he foretells. That is what Nolini Kanta Gupta did—to put seed-thoughts in the earth’s atmosphere. Today’s seed-thoughts of a yogi are the seed-truths of tomorrow.” (Ananda Reddy)
In my class, selections from the works of Sri Aurobindo, the Mother and Nolini Kanta Gupta were discussed within the larger context of the deeper vision of life, aim of human existence and human development that Indian cultural thought has emphasised. Also keeping in consideration the time-frame of some of these original writings and the contemporary realities of today’s India helped us explore the idea that unless we understand the deeper evolutionary truths behind the surface phenomena – truths that help us make sense of the surface changes in the societal conventions and structures, – we fail to make sense of why despite the outer appearance of ‘change’ and ‘progress’ not much really changes on the inside. We came to appreciate the point it requires a wide, all-encompassing and deep vision of a yogi to see the interconnections among the cultural, the historical, the psychological and the spiritual aspects of what many may think of it as a merely sociological problem, often brushed under the commonly used word ‘patriarchy.’ To appreciate such an interconnected view of things is of immense importance if one has to widen and deepen one’s understanding of the Indian women’s experiences and issues in a culturally sensitive way.
Much seemed to have changed with regard to the outer context in which women of today’s India are living and experiencing the world. This is especially true when we consider that all across the world there have been variants of ‘women’s movement’ and ‘feminism’, owing to which equality and freedom for women are now generally recognised as two of the most important values to which any modern or modernising society aspires.
But we can’t deny that Equality, when taken to an extreme can also lead to Uniformity, as commonly understood or interpreted in the West-centric sociological parlance. Freedom, when taken to its extreme and seen only from a rational-individualistic perspective, can have disastrous effects on communities and societies. Is it possible that the values of Equality and Freedom could have different or deeper dimensions when seen from the view of Indian cultural perspectives? Diversity and Harmony may also be offered as an additional set of culturally grounded sociological values which can help us explore the uniqueness, intricacy and complexity of the social-cultural milieu in which Indian women live, create and experience their realities.
In this essay I explore the themes of Equality and Freedom, particularly with regard to the context of education and marriage – the two issues of much significance in our present times. This inquiry primarily revolves around a few selected insights from the book ‘About Woman’ by Nolini Kanta Gupta which are contextualised in the deeper vision of Indian cultural perspectives as well as contemporary contexts. This helps reveal the profounder dimension of the values of Equality and Freedom, when seen from a yogi’s vision. Relevant passages from Sri Aurobindo and the Mother further deepen and enrich this exploration.
Gupta’s book covers a range of topics including the dharma of man and woman, economic independence of women, conjugal love, fidelity in man-woman relationship, the ascetic attitude toward women, and many more. But in order to facilitate a deeper reflection of the author’s essential points concerning equality and freedom in the context of education and marriage, I have kept my focus limited to a few key passages from the book. However, even these few selections will give the reader a peek into the deeper insights of a yogi on what we think is a ‘modern’ issue (perhaps the ‘issue’ always existed and was addressed in various ways across the climes and times), and an appreciation of how the “seed-thoughts of a yogi are the seed-truths of tomorrow.”
The analysis presented here also highlights the deeper spirit and evolving ideals of both education and marriage, which can enable full and true blossoming of an individual – woman or man, while also facilitating greater harmony in the collective life. Finally, this exploration also reveals that the underlying essential equality or rather oneness of all beings – a key Indian philosophical truth – does in no way undermine the rich diversity of expressions in which this equality or oneness manifests, nor need the deeper, truer freedom for an individual to discover his or her true potential come in conflict with the ideal of harmony in collective life. It is this fourfold value system of Equality, Freedom, Diversity and Harmony – grounded firmly in the principle of gradual inner growth of consciousness, which may be the basis of a more India-centric or Indian perspective on feminism.