In this course we mark the evolving conception of women in Hinduism, their religious roles, and their social status. We begin with the earliest stages of Hindu society and move to the present.
Is there a mismatch between the central role of the feminine as the source of cosmic power and the actual role of the women in Hindu society?
In Women in Hinduism we will see how religious principles can turn into social and political rules and conventions. We will also discover the opportunities that exist within Hinduism for women to achieve self-determination – socially and spiritually.
Session 1: Women in Hinduism – The Divine and the Feminine
Hindu belief and practice have located the feminine both in the material human world and in the realm of the spirit. How much force does that tradition still exert on Hindu culture today? This intriguing question leads to emotionally-charged positions among Hindus and non-Hindus alike. We will explore the traditions of Goddess worship in sacred texts, beginning with goddesses revered in Vedic hymns. We then look at the worship of the Goddess as the single Supreme Deity before considering how (or if) devotion to the Great Goddess translates into respect for women generally.
Session 2: Hindu Women and Sacred Knowledge
Hindu society has traditionally regarded sacred knowledge as the source of prestige and power. As women’s access to knowledge has varied, so has their social and religious position. From the Vedic period’s open opportunities, through to insurmountable obstacles in later times, through to increased access to education in the 19th century. But even in medieval and early modern times, when women were held within the narrowest bounds of domesticity, there were Hindu women revered for their religious insights and learning.
What do Vedic sources tell us of the lives and education of women in the early period and what do later texts reveal about women’s access to spiritual education? What is the path from the post-Vedic era to modernity?
Session 3: Regulating Women’s Lives – Scriptures and Injunctions
Women’s lives in pre-modern Hindu society were confined by rules for every aspect of life. These were set down by priests and religious scholars, based on arbitrary notions of women’s nature that led to the erosion of women’s freedom. Earlier freedoms were replaced by control of women’s activities within the home, away from public life. To find out how this happened, we look at the injunctions and opinions of Hindu books of conduct that aimed to regulate women’s lives and consider how far they prevailed in reality. We will also see how the culture of women’s dependency has fared in modern Hindu society, including diaspora communities.
Session 4: A Room of Her Own – Women’s Writings
Enquiry and declaration of belief are at the heart of Hindu religious life. Women’s contributions to these have been complex and rich. In the Vedic age, women expressed in poetry and song their philosophical perceptions and their quest for the divine. In doing so, women often flouted social rules, enriching Hindu spirituality while asserting the independence of faith. In this session we examine women’s contribution to Hindu religious writing, noting in particular the devotional poetry composed by women.
Session 5: Women at Worship
The home is the primary location of worship for women in Hinduism. Responsible for the well-being of their families, women turn to the divine to obtain blessings for these families and for others. They perform traditional rituals and ceremonies designed to please particular deities. Differing as they do from Vedic and Brahminical practices, these rituals are a living part of Hindu religious life. Although males are by no means excluded from these devotional tasks, the main performers are almost always women. In this session we learn how these rituals are performed and how they affirm women’s connection to the sacred. The outsider’s experience of Hinduism often relates to temples and visible rituals, but here we see how home rituals are equally important and is where women lead.
Session 6: Women, Art, and Religion
Sacred imagery is woven through the arts in the Hindu cultural world. It is an enterprise that is as social as it is devotional. Women’s contribution to the arts is especially enriching. In this session we look at the role of women in musical composition and performance, in visual arts, and in traditional dance.
Session 7: Women in Hinduism Today – Arriving at Modernity
In recent times, the liberalisation of Hindu social culture has alleviated gender prejudice, and Hindu women’s devotion to their faith has increasingly been recognised as a root cause of Hinduism’s longevity. Hindu women have mostly been deeply observant of religious rites, even orthodox in their practice. With modern education and secularism, some women have questioned Hindu principles and practices while holding on to the essential spiritual positions on which belief and practice are founded.
Here we discuss the changes wrought by liberalism and the demand for universal education across the gender divide. These changes have led to a revision of the consciousness of Hindu women in relation to their religious identity, crossing the boundaries between religious, social, and political issues.
HOW IT WORKS
Course delivery is 100% online
7–9 weekly sessions
Study in your own time
Your tutor is available by email and forums
Communicate online with your fellow students
All course materials are delivered via the web
Student forums with tutor participation
Recorded lectures available in video and mp3 format
All required lecture notes included
Audio interviews with specialists in Hindu Studies
Supplementary materials taken from the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies teaching and research programme
Assessment is optional and is on the basis of successful completion of a single essay of 2000 words, with the exception of our Sanskrit courses which are assessed on weekly course work.
Courses can be completed in as little as seven weeks. There is a final deadline for essays or course work of twelve weeks from the beginning of the course.