Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction

By Kim Knott | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
Challenges to Hinduism: Women and Dalits

In the mid- 1970s and from 1980 until her assassination in 1984, India's prime minister was a woman, Indira Gandhi; in 1997, as I write this, a dalit or untouchable, K. R. Narayanan, holds the office of Indian president. Does their attainment of these positions suggest that women and untouchables have now achieved equality with other groups in Indian society? And, turning to religion, could a woman or a dalit be appointed Shankara-acharya (see Chapter 2), perhaps the most revered religious office within orthodox Hinduism?

These questions raise important issues regarding social and religious traditions in India. But are they related? Are social/political affairs separate from religious ones? In thinking about Hinduism, is it appropriate to ignore the former? As this discussion will show, such a distinction would be artificial and unworkable. In India, caste and gender issues are not simply social matters demanding a secular response; they are underpinned by religious ideas and maintained by ritual customs and brahminical institutions. The very nature of Hinduism as a religion, even 'religion' itself, is challenged by this interrelationship. But we will return to this consideration in the final chapter. First, we must investigate what lies behind questions of caste and gender in Hindu thought, and the contemporary claims of their chief protagonists, dalits and women.

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