Sexism in Hinduism and Buddhism

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Has religion had a generally negative impact on Hindu and Buddhist women? By Habib Tannazi; Tutorial Group D

Unknown to the Western world for thousands of years and the dominant religion in the “Oriental” world since the Ancient times, Hinduism and Buddhism have had a profound effect on countless individuals, communities and entire nations. In the past few centuries the Western world, with improved communication and transportation, has been exposed to a class of religion unlike any it had experienced since the pagan religions of Ancient Rome and Greece. Following the initial exposure to Hinduism, Western scholars have been trying to decipher and make sense of what seemed to be a “total social phenomenon” (Introduction Ch. 5; qtd. in Kessler 2009: 99). Originating in India, Hinduism began to take form around 1500 b.c. with the arrival of the Indo-Aryans. “…The earliest scriptures of the Indo-Aryans, the Vedas, have been acknowledged for thousands of years to embody the primordial truths upon which Hinduism bases itself” (Hinduism; qtd. in Kessler 2009: 45). In the seventh and sixth century b.c. many Hindus unwilling to fully embrace the scriptures of the Vedas began meeting in camps known as Samanas. Through the sharing and discussion of philosophies and spiritual ideas, soon a new religious movement began to rise in India; today, we call this religion Buddhism. As stated earlier, these religions have had profound effects on their followers since their outset, but the impact can be seen most vividly in the effect they’ve had on their female population. On the surface of many scriptures it is clear that women are depicted as inferior to males and their opportunities within a community are heavily restricted. The effects of these scriptures and teachings can be seen when the history of women in Hindu and Buddhist regions are closely studied. This essay will examine the origin of these ancient religions, explain the negative portrayal of women in their beliefs and teachings, discuss why, and more importantly how, these portrayals have been put into practice for thousands of years and the effects it has had on women through the course of history.

The foundations of Hinduism lie in its belief and worship of multiple gods, its caste system and the cycle of rebirth called samsara. The caste system is an ideology that ranks followers in different classes, or varnas, which determine their rank and duties within the community. The Brahmins, descendants of the Indo-Aryans who created the caste-system, are placed in the highest class followed by the priest and warrior classes. These are the top castes which hold the most prominent positions and enjoy the most lavish luxuries. The rest of the population is split up into the merchant class and the peasant class which, in more modern terms, encompassed the lower class of society. The teachings of rebirth state that everybody is re-incarnated after death and the varnas they are born into is dependent on the karma they develop in their previous life. Karma is the idea that every action has an appropriate reaction. Good karma is gained when an individual adheres to the dharma, or duties, of their respective caste. By fulfilling one’s dharma it is possible to develop positive karma and possibly move into a higher caste through the process of rebirth. This is a very important element of Hinduism because the ultimate goal of a Hindu is the realization of moshka, which is the liberation from samsara and all suffering, and only the Brahmins can achieve moshka. So, it is clear that those who truly believe in the teachings and scriptures of Hinduism would find it favorable to fulfill the duties of their caste and stay within the restrictions of their rank. It is also clear that one of the reasons the original writers of the Vedas, who stated that the writings were authorless to achieve the “illusion of objectivity necessary for authority”, would instill this belief into their writings is for...
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