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Depiction of Women in Hinduism and its Temples
Hinduism is the oldest religion in the world. Many do not consider it a religion, but a way of life.Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle and one can say that Hinduism is a religion that encompasses all aspects of everyday life. One aspect that must be stated at the outset is that Hinduism is the only religion that accepts a woman as a goddess on par with other deities, but gives. it an exalted position. Thus the Goddess Durga in all its forms is almost equal to any other Hindu God. This itself makes Hinduism a distinct religion.
This concept of a goddess has meant that a woman is on a high pedestal and it stands to logic that women carvings will be there in almost all Hindu temples. There are very few temples that have no carvings of women.
Hindu religion also extolls the beauty of a woman and this finds expression in the various sculptors in the temples. Most of the women are shown as big bosomed with flaring hips. They are adorned with jewelry and that perhaps explains the love of the Hindu woman for gold and jewelry.
Hinduism is the only religion that talks of woman power exemplified by " Shakthi". Women are also the vehicle to reach moksha or salvation as per the concept of Hindu Tantra. This by itself is an exciting field and its manifestation is in the Hindu temples all over the world.
Concept of Woman Power
From ancient times Hinduism does have the concept of a woman god. This is not so in any other religion, where the concept of God is a man. We must accept that in both Islam and Christianity, the concept of a woman god does not exist and believers would be extremely upset in case they were told that God could be a woman. This belief in the fact that God is a man is a hangover of ancient times when women were thought to be inferior to men. An interesting anecdote about Aristotle, the father of Logic can be mentioned. It appears he stated at one place that women have fewer teeth than men. It was a bland statement and mirrored the belief that women are always inferior to men. The point is this great philosopher had 2 wives and the least that he could have done was to count the teeth of any one of them. This is related in the biography of Acharya Rajneesh by Joshi.
Hinduism is the exact opposite and in its philosophy, a woman is the peer of man.
An interesting tale will illustrate this. I will refer to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. This is the longest tome on Hindu spirituality. The translated version of the book is available and makes excellent reading. The book in one of its chapters describes goings-on in a spiritual meeting.
The story is related that the great Sage Yajnavalkya was having an animated debate with other sages who were his peers. When the debate seemed to stall a woman sage Gargi Vachnavi rose from the gathering and stated that in case the sage could answer all her questions, then whatever the sage Yajnavalkya said would be accepted by all the sages present. The point here is that as the lady sage spoke all accepted her spiritual leader.
The Concept of Woman God
Hinduism has a unique concept. It translates to that fact that a woman is half a god. In the Shaiva tradition, God is often represented as half a woman. This is a concept that is difficult to comprehend for a man who is a non- Hindu, but in reality is quite simple. It accepts that a woman and man are one and the same thing and the only difference is in appearance.
In the Vaishnava tradition Vishnu, the supreme Hindu deity often takes on the shape of a woman to protect Dharma. He takes the form of the Goddess Mohini. She is another Avatar. When God is worshipped as a parent, the mother takes precedence. Both man and woman are manifestations of God. This subtly differs from the Abrahamic religions where a woman was created out of the lung of a man
I might point out that Vaishnavism is one of the major branches of Hinduism and it s focused on the veneration of Vishnu. Shaivism is a school of thought that venerates Lord Shiva. There is a third concept denoted by the goddess Shakthi and she lends credence to tantric rituals that show that the path to salvation or moksha can also be through the act of a physical union, where the goal is not orgasm, but a higher plane. Here orgasm is just a milestone and not the aim. Thus the temples at Khujaraho with explicit images of men and women in the carnal association is, in reality, the manifestation of the Goddess Shakthi and Shiva.
Hinduism is a religion that demands deep study. Not that there are no ills in Hinduism. But they are not part of the original and pristine concept of Hinduism. Ills like Sati are interpolations of a later age and not condoned by the Vedic scriptures. Similarly, a caste which has become a big bugbear in had a different concept. It was linked to the profession and it was there very much in the west as well where names like Smith, Carpenter show that classes did exist in the west.
Hinduism is a different religion and many western men and women have converted to Hinduism. But Hinduism does not believe in the spread of the Gospel with missionaries or the use of the sword, as in both Islam and Christianity, but in gentle persuasion. That is the reason it did not spread in the world, otherwise, the entire world would have been Hindu. In any case, the concept of a woman goddess is something new for westerners and they may like to think about it.