Why religion got it wrong? Conceptualising new methods of reading.

deadline for submissions: 
December 31, 2016
full name / name of organization: 
Tapati Bharadwaj
contact email: 

Why religion got it all wrong? Conceptualizing new methods of reading.


Literary scholars need to throw open the doors of what texts constitute the study of literari-ness and the methods of doing so; such an act will allow the discipline to examine and interrogate socio-discursive practices which affect the lives of women all over the world.  Religious texts codify culture and gender norms and it is imperative that literary scholars engage with these texts that perpetuate and maintain oppressive hegemonic institutions.


The Hindu Shastras.


The Indian Constitution in 1947, declared equality as a Fundamental Right. Equality was constructed as being accessible to all and did not take into account that each individual, being located within different social realities, was not similarly positioned to enact this concept. This rhetoric, which existed at the discursive level, did not affect women materially. The Indian Government’s commitment to equality was seriously challenged and critiqued in 1974 when Towards Equality: Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, a report on the status of women, was published. (Towards Equality: Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India. New Delhi: Govt. of India, Ministry of Education & Social Welfare, Dept. of Social Welfare, 1974.)


Even if women are given parity in the realm of the polity and the state, would the value systems and the cultural standards change? The system of “religious tradition” was mentioned as being a root cause that contributed to maintaining the cultural values, but no means were mentioned in the report that would systematically address ways to undo these value systems. If, as the report Towards Equality stated, a “woman’s role and her position in society” in India is determined by cultural values which in turn are defined by “religious traditions,” then we have to examine the nature of these religious institutions; interrogating the Hindu shastras will allow us to conclude that they are incredibly sex-ist and caste-ist in nature and unconstitutional. 


What we can take as a given is that these texts that constitute our Hindu shastras are unreliable with numerous variants existing simultaneously; it, therefore, stands to reason that there is no authentic version that we can refer to as being the original. Who is to tell as to which part comprised “revealed knowledge” and which sections were subsequent add-ons? - for all we know – these texts might have been amended and changes made as they were handed down generations.

The Oriental scholar, Max Mueller, in the introductory comments to his translations of the Upanishads, (Different Classes of Upanishads) wrote about the numerous manuscripts he had to consult, and how these texts had many variants.  (Sacred Books of the East; Clarendon Press, 1879.)


One Upanishad may give the correct, another an evidently corrupt reading, yet it does not follow that the correct reading may not be the result of an emendation. It is quite clear that a large mass of traditional Upanishads must have existed before they assumed their present form. Where two or three or four Upanishads contain the same story, told almost in the same words, they are not always copied from one another, but they have been settled independently, in different localities, by different teachers, it may be, for different purposes.


Lastly, the influence of Sâkhâs or schools may have told more or less on certain Upanishads. Thus the Maitrâyanîya-upanishad, as we now possess it, shows a number of irregular forms which even the commentator can account for only as peculiarities of the Maitrâyanîya-sâkhâ. That Upanishad, as it has come down to us, is full of what we should call clear indications of a modern and corrupt age. It contains in VI, 37, a sloka from the Mânava-dharma-sâstra, which startled even the commentator, but is explained away by him as possibly found in another Sâkhâ, and borrowed from there by Manu. It contains corruptions of easy words which one would have thought must have been familiar to every student. … But here again the commentator explains that another Sâkhâ reads 'vigighatsa, and that avipâsa is to be explained by means of a change of letters as apipâsa. Corruptions, therefore, or modern elements which are found in one Upanishad, as handed down in one Sâkhâ, do not prove that the same existed in other Sâkhâs, or that they were found in the original text.


Biblical texts.


In a similar manner, why should we accept the misogyny that seems to be the bedrock of the Biblical texts? What is surprising is that no one questions as to why exactly should the Bible be so rabidly misogynous? Can we argue that as it is impossible for there to be a single definitive text of the Bible, we should be able to rewrite out those parts which really are nonsensical and misogynous.


An epistemic shift occurred in Europe, in the modern period, with the introduction of printing presses where diverse occupational groups worked with each other in the new workshops that were set up by the early printers. Elisabeth Eisenstein describes the numerous processes that were involved: “The advent of printing led to the creation of a new kind of shop structure; to a regrouping which entailed closer contacts among diversely skilled workers and encouraged new forms of cross-cultural interchange.” Thus it was not uncommon to find university professors and “former priests among early printers or former abbots serving as editors or correctors,” thus, coming into closer contact with metal workers and mechanics. (Elizabeth Eisenstein, “Defining the Initial Shift: Some Features of Print Culture” in The Book History Reader, ed. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 156-157.) As the Bible was being set into print, who is to tell the extent to which the abbots and the priests, who now worked in the printing presses in the early modern period, set about fixing and rewriting the text?


There is a need to engage with all religious texts and conceptualize ways to re-read them; doing so will allow for parity across society.


For more information, please write to: Tapati Bharadwaj at: tbharadwaj@yahoo.com.

The collection will be published by Lies and Big Feet, an independent publishing house. (www.liesandbigfeet.wordpress.com)