Feminine Empowerment Coded in Ritual

Last Friday, many Hindu wives performed the Varalakshmi Puja. This is a ritual that is ostensibly supposed to be for the protection of the husband and family, and the granting of all wishes (as a side note, the well-being of the family is generally assumed to be all that the ideal Hindu wife wishes for).

The altar is elaborately decorated, multiple dishes are prepared as offerings, other married women are invited to receive symbolic gifts, the ritual itself is performed and the accompanying story is read aloud. Having played the game right, the good wife then touches her husband’s feet to get his blessings.

In this version, the potential for outrage immediately becomes clear, especially if you are an educated woman who sees no way to justify your ideal of equality in marriage with this clearly asymmetrical power balance. I admit that for many years I performed the puja a little unwillingly, more to fulfill cultural and family obligations than out of any personal spiritual conviction.

To understand the level of outrage, you really need to know the story. And so, here is the nutshell version:

The goddess Parvathi asked her Lord Shiva to recommend a ritual that even (significant word) women of any (significant word) caste could perform. We gather from this that generally rituals were performed by Brahmin men. (Since my focus is on gender here I won’t deal with caste for now. But I am aware of the elephant in the room.)

Shiva described the Varalakshmi Puja as one such ritual, and explained how it was to be done, as well as what benefits it would confer. In response to Parvathi’s question about who had done the ritual before, Shiva narrated the story of Charumathi, a Brahmin lady who did Everything Right (I can’t seem to keep the sarcasm out. Forgive me.) She would wake up at an unearthly hour, do all the housework, pay obeisance to her husband and her in-laws, and generally was a paragon of wifely virtue according to the Hindu creed.

As a reward the goddess Varalakshmi appeared to her in a dream and described a ritual to her. She woke up and told all the ladies in the town about it (clearly a very efficient system of communication) and got them all so hyped up that when the day came they didn’t let her forget and descended on her house ready to perform the ritual. They cooked the offerings and decorated the altar. Then they proceeded to walk three rounds around the altar. When they had completed the first round, anklets appeared magically on their feet. At the end of the second round it was bangles on their wrists, and after the third round they were covered in assorted jewelry. Presumably this was supposed to be the reward for their devotion.

As a young bride I was horrified at what I saw as a shallow tale of materialistic gratification under a thin veneer of religious manipulation. I know of people who perform the ritual and leave out the story because it makes their hackles rise. There are others who simply pay no attention to the story, focusing on the decoration of the altar, the entertainment of their visitors and the general sense of wellbeing that any communal event seems to give rise to.

But years of performing the puja, and recent transitions in my life, have given me a new paradigm within which to place the ritual. I think that the story of Charumathi is really a form of coded feminine empowerment.

It seems to me that the chastity and faith of the woman sanctifies the man and his family. It places a terrible moral burden on the woman, but if you are in a position to do the ritual then that indicates a desire or at least an opportunity for the attainment of a higher spiritual plane.

Despite the discomfort about the story details, it’s not really about the man or his parents at all. It’s about the investment of divine power in the feminine, in a context of male-dominated ritual. In Rigvedic times there is supposed to have been more equality between men and women, but that was a really long time ago. Along with changes in socio-political contexts come modifications to religion, since this is possibly the easiest way to control whole populations while making them believe it is for their own good.

In any case, there developed a situation in which men were the custodians of ritual, and this of course invested them with a certain amount of social status and power. The overt empowerment of the feminine in this context would have been impossible without upsetting a few apple carts. Hence the coding of the ritual as a sub-level of spiritual empowerment, apparently trivializing women’s aspirations by representing them as mere baubles, but perhaps in reality using the trinkets as a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. And the women were in control the whole time.

I have written in a previous post about Indian women and our resorting to passive aggression in the face of learned helplessness. Whatever Charumathi was, she was far from helpless. And you have to hand it to her- that was one kickass stunt she pulled. Who knew if her dream was even real? But more importantly, who would dare to mess with her after that?

In many parts of the world, it could be argued that education is moving women forward, but large numbers are still subject to terrible discrimination. In that kind of situation anything that advances the cause of women is a good thing but only if it is viewed as such. In these countries, Western models of feminism are often seen as strident, alien and unfeminine. Perhaps the answer lies in decoding traditional tales and rites, and investing them with meanings that invoke the power of the feminine.

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4 thoughts on “Feminine Empowerment Coded in Ritual

  1. You made a very valid and brilliant point regarding this ceremony being seen as a situation/act/history of empowering women. However, falling at the feet of one’s husband can never be empowering or equal or even right, no matter which angle you see things. I think unless the husband also falls at your feet, that’s one “ritual” that should be abandoned.

    1. I did not really cover the wider social context in which these practices occur, but the idea of touching the feet of an older person is one that is based on a complex web of concepts related to humility, the sharing of blessings and the journey of the soul towards enlightenment, both through the seeking and the giving of those blessings. Children touch their parents’ feet, younger brothers touch their older sisters’ feet…age confers status and the obligation to confer one’s heartfelt blessings on whoever seeks them. The husband blessing the wife falls into this context, and it comes with a huge responsibility on the part of the husband to protect his wife and treat her with respect. But I admit I have had my problems with this, even though the connection between touching the feet and the notion of blessings/humility etc is one that appears across religions and cultures.

      1. I absolutely understand the theory of what you mean. However, in some cases the husband is younger, or not much older than the wife. Is he really worthy of reverence simply because of a couple of years? Or worse, if he’s younger than you are, are you showing humility before him simply because he’s a man and you’re not?

        I also question why can’t a man seek the blessings of a woman in the same humble way? Or are blessings only a one way street? Also, shouldn’t a woman also protect and respect her husband as much as he’s doing all of that for her, and shouldn’t a husband fall at the feet of a wife for keeping house for him, or cooking for him and taking care of him? I simply can’t see blessings and duty as a spouse being a “man’s thing” only – it should be applicable to both genders in a marriage with equality. I think the notion of falling at a husband’s feet (and never the other way around) is enveloped in bold sexism, which sadly some cultures are still immersed in.

        I also don’t agree at all that “age” somehow confers respect! I would respect a small child who was thoughtful, caring and loving rather than someone older who was mean and nasty. I am Asian myself, and know that our culture thrusts a lot of emphasis on “age” as if it magically makes a person worthy of reverence and “age” is really a poor measurement of worthiness of respect/reverence. In the same vein, being male doesn’t make one’s blessings anymore sacred and doesn’t make one deserving of reverence/humility any more or less than a woman/wife.

      2. I have to say that I agree with you. Still seeking a way to reconcile these two positions. I have a feeling that in the end it doesn’t matter- both deal with the issues at a very basic everyday level that affects us most deeply when we are mired in that level. Perhaps this is the sort of thing that encourages people to seek detachment as they grow disillusioned with all the rules and the barriers that the rules create.

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