Why I am not a Hindu woman: a personal story by Wandana Sonalkar, New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2021, pp 169.

Wandana Sonalkar is a self-proclaimed atheist and in this autobiographical account titled ‘Why I am not a Hindu Woman’, Sonalkar critically reflects on her position on why she has chosen to renounce her religion. This work adds to the list of works where authors are writing to declare their religious positions like Kancha Illaiah’s ‘Why I am Not a Hindu’, Shashi Tharoor’s ‘Why I am a Hindu’, Bertrand Russell’s ‘Why I am not a Christian’ and Ibn Farraq ‘Why I am not a Muslim’. But this work stands unique in two ways. Firstly, Sonalkar was a Hindu woman born in an upper caste, but not a Brahmin. She belongs to Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu, who performs the upanayana ceremony and has the right to perform the Vedic rituals. Her caste community is small but economically well-off. In such conditions, her rejection of religion came from experiences of Brahmanical patriarchy within the family and the society.

Secondly, this book is not merely a critique of patriarchal Hinduism, but also the forces of Hindutva, which she describes as ‘political Hinduism’. Sonalkar declares that she does not want to call herself a Hindu woman because “caste hierarchy, is Brahminical power and patriarchy, are integral to Hinduism as it is practised in our society” (p 6) and because Hindutva that bases its political ideology “on hatred of other religions and on reinforcing the caste hierarchy among Hindus” (p 8). The emergence of Hindutva led to an upsurge of moral policing, mob violence, murder, and increasing social tolerance of violence against women. The phenomena of hate speech that is unleashed by political Hinduism is “heavily laced with a venomously misogynistic declaration of patriarchal power” (p 20). Sonalkar postulated that the rise of Hindutva is impossible without the inequities perpetuated by Hindu society and sustained by caste.

Sonalkar also critiques the limitation of leftist writing in India. Declaring herself as Marxist and Feminist, she states that “liberal Left in India has generally been silent on Hinduism, on the actual daily practices of faith, while being critical of ‘fundamentalism’ or virulent Hindutva” (p 17). She aims at covering this gap by attacking the discriminatory structures of Hinduism and misogynist sensibilities of Political Hinduism.

Being born in an upper caste, there is innate responsibility for their family to stay a ‘happy family’ which is “nested within moral boundaries and the social and sexual regulations of patriarchal hetero-normative religiosity” (p 31). In Hindu society, a happy family is epitomised by Brahmin families. This preceding notion is popularised through scriptures in which brahmin male is shown an embodiment as purity and virtue, and brahmin women as completely dependent on their husbands, and obediently following the orders of the men. Women are “not expected to be independent, so their only morality is to obey the men of the family” (p 32). Severe punishments are placed on women if they choose to act independently. But altogether different rules are applied for men- “When the patriarchy is the lynchpin that holds the family together, how does a Hindu family cops when he himself strays? The first reaction is to brush everything under the carpet, to pretend that nothing is amiss” (p 49).

These regulations found within the family structures don’t stop with the family but extend to the whole society. In Hindu society, the “relationships outside the family, in the workplace or in civil and political life, are spoken of, and thought of, in terms of relationships within the family” (p 86). This is done through the imposition of caste patriarchy using the dichotomy of purity and pollution. What is unique about contemporary times is that many “Brahmins among Hindus are eating more meat now, some pollution-related beliefs and restrictions based on them are conveniently relaxed” (p 99) and in this condition, to protect the caste purity, the idea of ‘polluting Other’ is professed. Women are considered as ‘polluting Other’ from within the Hindu society and they are denied equality by reinforcing a variety of exclusions like “social death of the widow and her exclusion from auspicious ceremonies; the exclusion of the (polluting) menstruating girl from the temple and the hearth; the exclusion of women of reproductive age and of Dalit from the temple” (p 114).

Sonalkar extends her analysis of patriarchy to other religions and she identifies the distinctive nature of patriarchy within Hinduism. In religions other than Hinduism, it is possible to “talk of moral laws for all mankind, of a universal ethics, even though that ethics, too, is patriarchal in the last instance” (p 88), but for Hinduism, there is no single undisputed text or overarching central authority that has the final word on the norms of the religion. It is completely based on “relationships between people; it lays down norms, and leaves it to us to censure each other if we do not follow them” (p 11). This gave the opportunity to upper-caste males and Brahmin males to impose and censure the caste and patriarchal rules in Hindu society.

Further extending her analysis to the varied lived experiences of upper caste, Dalit and Adivasi women, Sonalkar emphasises the need for understanding the women’s conditions with the idea of ‘intersectionality by acknowledging multiple “structures of exploitation, subjugation and Othering” (p 166) that women are caught up in.

Sonalkar concludes her text by highlighting the need for foregrounding the analysis of women’s question in India in terms of intersectionality and the necessity of critiquing the violence of both Hinduism and Hindutva alike because they reinforce each other. This text reflects how an upper-caste woman experiences exclusion and violence at a subconscious level within the family and in society. This polemical text is certainly an important contribution to feminist studies in India and fills the gaps left by texts that came in this genre.

Mucheli Rishvanth Reddy: I am currently pursuing final year in BA Economics, Political Science and Sociology at Christ University, Bangalore


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