Re-transcribing Hindu religion; locating gender in the literature of the Upanishads and the Vedas.

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Tapati Bharadwaj
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Re-transcribing Hindu religion; locating gender in the literature of the Upanishads and the Vedas.

This is a call for papers for a collection that will construe Hindu religious texts as literature, and examine them within a gendered analytical framework. What prevents us from examining the Upanishadic or the Vedic texts within a literary or a gendered perspective? If the basis of religion is "revealed knowledge," which was made evident to men – then is it not obvious that these notions of the Absolute Being would but be defined within gender inflected terminologies?

Let me explain with an example from an Upanishad. In the Aitareya Upanishad, the first stanza reads in the following manner:

"Om! In the beginning this was but the Absolute Self alone. There was nothing else whatsoever that winked. It thought, 'Let Me create the world.'"

We have to keep in mind that the Vedic texts are partially truthful – they are correct in their explanations on the notion of Absolute Consciousness which becomes matter, and there is no gender ascribed to this Absolute Being. The "Absolute Self" is denoted within gender neutral terms and is referred to as "It."

But there is a slippage which occurs in the Vedic texts, making these texts suspect: it reveals the fact that those who were writing about this kind of revealed, divine knowledge were men and their interests are evident in how the notion of Absolute Consciousness is defined and described. In the same Vedic text, we will find gender specific characteristics of the Absolute Being. The second stanza of the Aitreya Upanishad reads in the following manner:

"He created these worlds, viz. ambhas, marici, mara and apah. That which is beyond heaven is ambhas. Heaven is its support. The sky is marici. The earth is mara. The worlds that are below are the apah."

A shift occurs whereby, "It" becomes "He": and we all assume, and accept, that the Absolute Being has to be male. To follow this statement to its conclusion, we can state that as the Vedic texts equate the "Absolute Self" with the masculine, men are seen as being agents; in the second part of the Aitreya Upanishad, the first stanza reads: "In man indeed is the soul first conceived"; the implication is that men are agents in determining the birth of children while women are mere passive receptacles.

Biological sciences make use of these dichotomies, and feminists have critiqued how biology (which should be an objective science) makes use of the dominant trope of the "passive" female egg and the "active" male sperm. It is a notion that was also used by Aristotle and by St. Thomas (M.C. Horowitz, 1976, Aristotle and Woman).

There is no attempt by any religious institution to undress these entrenched misogyny that exists in Hinduism; and these dominant mainstream institutions simply reiterate the status quo. If we pick up a random text on religion that has been published by a well-recognized, religious institution, like the Ramakrishna Mission (that is seen as epitomising modern Hinduism), we find a similar trope operating as the subtext.

In How is a man Reborn, a short text that was published in 1970, by Advaita Ashrama, the publishing house of the Ramakrishna Mission, Swami Satprakashananda makes use of the same above mentioned dichotomy (pp.43-48); he cites instances from the Chandogya Upanishad, the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, one Dr. Sturtevant, the Aitareya Upanishad and Sankara to prove the same point, whereby women are seen as passive agents whose only role in society is to procreate while men and sons do all the active work.

The collections of essays will focus on ways to rewrite the Hindu religious texts, and read them as literary artefacts, and in the process, make them gender neutral.

For more information, please write to Tapati Bharadwaj:

This is a collaboration with Open Windows: A feminist research center ( The collection will be published by Lies and Big Feet: an independent publishing house (

Deadline: September 15th, 2015.