Are women entitled to become ascetics? An historical and ethnographic glimpse on female asceticism in Hindu religions
AbstractThis paper looks at the position of women in Indian asceticism through an historical and anthropological perspective. Introducing at first the traditional view that Brahmanic texts offer on the topic - women are innately impure therefore they do not have a natural inclination to dharma- the paper goes on demonstrating that women have always found ascetic paths to answer their religious quests. However, for these paths were jagged by social obstacles, women often lived their religious experience as a private one or had to cut the social norms in a revolutionary way to follow them. As a result of this discouragement, female participation remains low to be acknowledged and to become a normal reality rather than an exceptional one by the Indian lay and ascetic societies. Through examples from the past and the present, this paper shows that asceticism was and still is a path to realize an individual empowerment for those women who deliberately choose it. In contemporary India, the role of female ascetics is improving thanks to the new historical background: some have gained a position in traditional orthodox groups, others have created their own sect, and some others have become predominant activists in political and social movements. However, these female ascetics and gurus are still recognized as extraordinary, exceptional individuals. Women in the sādhu samāj continue to experience sometimes discriminations and difficulties, as they cannot strive for the highest assignments but in exceptional cases and outstanding characters. Therefore, as the case study of Rām Priya Dās presented in this paper demonstrates, the path to asceticism is still hard to follow and it needs a deep motivation and a strong personality to face the opposition of family and society.
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