Subversive Hindu Thought

“In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent….If a wife obeys her husband, she will for that (reason alone) be exalted in heaven.” –Manu Smriti[1] ***

“I have nothing to do with the husbands of this world”- Akka Mahadevi

Akka Mahadevi. Image source.

Akka Mahadevi in samadhi, nude but draped in her flowing hair.  Image source.

I’ll try to reserve most of my comments for the end of this post. The following is a collection of verses by female, often low caste Bhakti (devotional) poets which I’ve collected from various books and journal articles. They challenge the way we normally think about women in Hinduism. Caste rules to gender norms, and even the Vedas and Brahmins all are opened up for fiery criticism. This is a part of the Hindu tradition, which often doesn’t get much press. You normally read about how caste is inherent to Hinduism, and how if one Brahminical texts says it, then it is the official, textually certified Hindu position on the matter. Not so. Hinduism is a much more anarchic tradition than that.

The Role of Women:

By Akka Mahadevi (12th century AD):

“The preceptor became the giver;

The Lord Linga became the bridegroom;

And I became the bride.

All this the world knows

The innumerable devotees are my parents

Hence Chenna Mallikarjuna is my husband,O Prabhu,

I have nothing to do with the husbands of this world” [2]

 This is an inversion of Manu’s claim that a woman should treat the husband as God. She treats God as her husband.

“On a frame of water, raising a roof of fire,

Spreading the hailstones for the bridal floor-bed,

A husband without a head, married a wife without legs,

My parents gave me to an inseparable life,

They married me to Lord Chenna Mallikarjuna” [3]

Verses such as these can be read as conservative, but remember that this poet, like many others Bhakti sants, did refuse to get married to any man. This wasn’t just talk. Given the stigma attached to unmarried women in Indian society, this was a radical statement. In Akka Mahadevi’s case, she rejected a Jain king named Kausika rendering it an even more powerful act of defiance.

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Book Review (sort of): Poems from the Sanskrit


Cover art from the Ellora Caves Image source: Buddhism for Vampires

“If learned critics publicly deride

My verse, well, let them. Not for them I wrought.

One day a man shall live to share my thought:

For time is endless and the world is wide”

Bhavabhuti (p.53)

I try not to saturate this blog with book reviews, but I have a justification in this case. This review contains a slew of poems excerpted from the book, which are worth far more than my review, and my numerous tangents. Hit “Continue Reading” and scroll down if you just want to check those out.

John Brough’s Poems from the Sanskrit[1], despite its confusing title, (what is the Sanskrit?) is actually a very charming anthology of translated Sanskrit poems, ranging from roughly the 4th through 10th centuries.

The translator’s stated purpose for compiling this volume is as follows: Normally Sanskrit translators, focus on conveying meaning at the expense of poetic or prosaic style. But since Sanskrit and English grammars differ considerably, meaning focused translations often come across as stilted or sometimes even unreadable. Sanskrit Poetry compounds this problem, because so much literary value is vested in the poetic structure itself (for example: The number, repetition, and weight of syllables.) This is a translation, which attempts to give equal weight to content and form.

Translating a Sanskrit poem into rhyming verse while keeping the original meaning intact is an impossible task. Perhaps a more accurate description of the book is: an anthology of English poems by John Brough, based closely on Sanskrit classics. The purist in me recoils at this prospect, but if you read the poems without wringing your hands over the potential “butchery” of the originals which preceded them, they are actually quite lovely  on their own merits. And based on the samples and explanation of his technique as delineated in the introduction, I have faith that he has amply conveyed at least the basic sense of each work.

I’ll jump right into the verses and save my criticisms for the end:

I noticed some recurring patterns:

Anti-Clericalism: There are a surprising amount of poems in here, which are highly critical of priests, focusing on their hypocrisy foolishness, or exploitation. These are mostly secular poems, but it still surprises me. One has to wonder: Were they talking about priests generally or about “the bad ones” i.e. the heterodox ones?

“‘So, friar, I see you have a taste for meat.’

‘Not that it’s any good without some wine.’

‘You like wine too, then?’ ‘Better when I dine

With pretty harlots.’ ‘Surely such girls eat

No end of money?’ ‘Well, I steal, you see,

Or win at dice.’ ‘A thief and gambler too?’

‘Why, certainly. What else is there to do?

Aren’t you aware I’m vowed to poverty?'”

Sudraka (p.79)


According to Doniger’s theory (described later), this is a “friar” similar to the one who is under critique in the above poem. He is an Aghori, a sect which split off from the Kapalika. The Kapalika would have been contemporaneous to Sudraka. Image source: Flickr

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Bengali Feminist Sci-Fi: “Sultana’s Dream” by Roquia Hussain

Read the story here! If you find the writing style basic, keep in mind, English was her fifth language. Its an early work of both feminist literature, and science fiction. I think you’ll dig it.

sul·tan·a [suhl-tan-uh, –tah-nuh] (noun)

1: : a woman who is a member of a sultan’s family; especially: a sultan’s wife

2: a mistress or concubine of a sultan

3: A female sultan *


The Zenana Deodi in the middle of Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, Rajastan. This is from a royal palace, probably a tad fancier than the one Hussein grew up in.

A note on Purdah: This is a customary practice wherein the sexes are segregated, and the movement of females is restricted to the zenana (women’s quarters) with varying levels of severity. It also usually entails the requirement that females wear a veil, burka, or some sort of covering. This was much more common in the middle and upper class than amongst the poor populations. While it exists in both Hindu and Muslim communities, Muslim implementations are generally more severe, hence Roquia Hussain’s consciousness raising efforts.

Some Context: Muslim Reformers in the Bengal Renaissance: Calcutta 1900! A bustling early-capitalist metropolis with a sizable bourgeois and upper class– A set of intellectuals economically capable and philosophically inspired to paint, write, make scientific discoveries, and root out social evils. What a time it must have been to be alive!

Like many intellectual renaissances, the Bengal Renaissance (broadly defined: 1775-1941) entailed a simultaneous harkening back to ancient traditions for inspiration, and a striving for modernity and progress.** Hindu writers and thinkers revived and reinterpreted Vedic/Upanishadic philosophy to combat social ills like sati and the caste system. Likewise, The Muslim intelligentsia entered a period of self-criticism wherein writers looked back to their Islamic traditions for sources of inspiration, and reinterpreted their texts to liberalize Islam from the inside.

Muslim scholars like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, advocated a “continuous, unending process of ijtihad, interpretation according to the needs of the time” and wanted to overhaul the Madrassa system of education much like Hussain. The author Kazi Abdul Wadud honored the prophet Muhammed as “a great man,” and referred to him as “just like a light-house to the sea-voyagers” but denied that he was “omniscient” or an “all-pervading master.” Wazed Ali, another writer, observed “the arrival of a religious reformer is essential for the removal of filth from life. In Muslim society too, high-souled men appeared from time to time to remove filth and to make religion time-befitting.”[1] Do you see a pattern emerging?

Now examine some quotations from our author, Roquia Hussain:

“where there is much rigidity in religion, there is greater oppression of women”[2]

“[religious books are] nothing but man made code.” [3]

“Allah has made no distinction in the general life of male and female — both are equally bound to seek food, drink, sleep and pray five times a day.” [4]

“The opponents of female education say that women will become wanton and unruly. Fie! They call themselves Muslims and yet go against the basic tenet of Islam, which gives women an equal right to education. If men are not led astray once educated, why should women?”[5]   ***

A similar pattern emerges, no?


Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein

Well-intentioned scholars sometimes try to contextualize Roquia Hussain within the global or even western feminist movement.[6] I’ve seen her described as a “contemporary” of Mary Shelley, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Virginia Woolf. But in what sense are they really contemporaries? Hussain’s consciousness raising mission was extremely focused on her own social group. She wrote almost entirely in Bengali, and about issues, like purdah and zenana, which impacted the Bengali Muslim upper and middle classes. [7]  Her writing was not intended for, nor read by western audiences.

Hussain may have been more radical than most of her Bengali cohorts, but she was still firmly within their social and literary milieu. The pattern evident in her nonfiction writing is the same pattern we see in other Bengal Renaissance socio-religious reformers: Liberal reforms are advocated through appeals to religious tradition, while simultaneously jettisoning negative or outdated aspects of that same tradition. Hussein’s religion played a major role in her approach to feminism. Her opposition to purdah coexisted with her encouragement of wearing the veil.[8] She believed in universal education– so long as it was segregated by sex and included Arabic in the curriculum.[9] She believed in the earthly origins of scripture, and also in the God of the Qur’an. This is the tension, or confluence (depending on your perspective) at the heart the Bengal Renaissance.


Other cool Bengal Renaissance stuff:

Complete works of Rabindranath Tagore (Bengali) (English)

Paintings by Abanindranath Tagore 

“The Renaissance in India” a collection of essays by Sri Aurobindo (PDF direct download link)

The Torch Bearers of Indian Renissance,” a PDF detailing the scientific and mathematical minds of the Bengal Renissance


* This is an amalgam definition from,, and wiktionary. I include it because I think the name “Sultana” was intentionally chosen for it’s mixed connotations in regards to female power.

** Call me a colonial apologist but… I think its obvious that the British colonial presence in Calcutta (the capital of British India until 1911) had something to do with the Bengal renaissance, particularly in the contribution of what we conceive of as “modern” ideas. Calcutta received contact with the west earlier, and more strongly than the rest of India. British critiques of Indian culture, classical liberalism, the English language, British artistic and literary techniques, the presence of a colonial hegemon to inspire nationalist reactions– These are all indispensable parts of the Bengal Renaissance. This is not to credit the Bengal Renaissance to the British, but merely to observe that cultural diffusion and the importation of new ideas from abroad has a destabilizing, influence on existing cultural patterns.

*** In Sultana’s Dream when Sultana asks Sister Sara about religion, this is what occurs “What is your religion, may I ask?’

‘Our religion is based on Love and Truth. It is our religious duty to love one another and to be absolutely truthful.”

Hit “Continue Reading” for citations.

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Book Review: Yajnaseni- The Story of Draupadi


Yajnaseni by Pratibha Ray and translated by Pradip Bhattacharya is a retelling of the Mahabharata from the viewpoint of Draupadi. In the original epic she is the wife of the five Pandava brothers, the protagonists. This book makes Draupadi into the protagonist, similar to “The Palace of Illusions”. Readers who are unfamiliar with the original tale will probably find this book confusing. The Mahabharata has a huge cast of characters and this book doesn’t thoroughly them all. It was written by an Indian for Indians, so it presupposes a base level of knowledge about the original story (remember, this was originally written in Oriya). The sentence construction is also obviously Indian, seeming imitative of the protracted, overly dramatic dialogue style of ancient texts. Before I rant against the core message of the book, I should note that I enjoyed reading it for its unique perspective on gender issues, which is rarely heard in the West. Also, while the dialogue may have been a bit stilted or odd at times, the descriptions of war, death, sorrow as well as of natural beauty, urban beauty, courage, and strength were quite lovely. I’m a sucker for descriptive prose.

Despite being a tale told from a female perspective, this is basically an anti-feminist work in my evaluation. Draupadi constantly endures hardship because of her gender, and the frankly unreasonable expectations, which the Pandava brothers have of her. Even accepting arranged marriages as a given social norm, she is forced into a polygamous marriage, which she is initially quite hostile to. Throughout the story she is forced to live in the forest, forced into a scheduled mating pattern with her five husbands, has her children killed in a war due to the actions of her husbands, is humiliated in court due to her oldest husband gambling her away as an article of property, etc. etc. etc. She bears all of this willingly, and even lovingly. She is the epitome of the “good Hindu wife”. She worships her husbands (particularly Arjuna) literally as Gods. Jai Patidev.

Now, it would be one thing if the story were written for us to read this and say “What a tragic character! She had to endure all of this abuse because of the faulty moral beliefs of her day. If only she could have broken out of that paradigm and seen her own enslavement.” But it isn’t written that way at all. It is written for us to admire her for her submission, and willingness to live entirely for her husbands’ sake and for Krishna. Her obedience and submission, i.e. her adherence to her wifely Dharma regardless of any consequences is supposed to be admired. This is precisely why the morality of the Bhagavad Gita if followed diligently (and God forbid, in conjunction with the moral goals of Manu Smriti) is pathologically self abusive. Thankfully, there is a much better moral model in the story: Karna. But before I get to that, here are some quotes relating to Draupadi to illustrate what I’m talking about:

Draupadi: “I have made an offering of my life to keep the five Pandavas bound together”

“Removing pride from within me, I pour out my femininity like an offering of flowers before my husbands, made fragrant by the water of desireless action. I try not to be envious under any circumstances…. I never eat or lie down before my husbands eat or lie down. I am up before they get up. I am never lazy in their work. If they return from a long journey, I keep seat, water, food, resting place ready for them. Despite servants being available, I keep watch on household chores. I cook their favorite food myself and serve it with my own hands. I do not burden them with my own worried and anxieties. Rather, participating in their concerns, I offer my views. I do not spend too much time on toilet, bath and dressing. If my husbands are far away, I refrain from decorating myself. I do not make interest in matters which they dislike. Without their having to tell me I am able to sense their likes and dislikes. I am never interested in arguing fruitlessly or in rolling about in meaningless mirth. The most important thing is that I never doubt them, nor do I ever shower them with unnecessary compliments. Similarly I never keep anything secret from them… I anticipate their wishes, even their commands to servants. I never describe the wealth, prosperity, luxury of my father’s house before my husbands… I do not mention any woman as more fortunate than myself. I do not feel it necessary to display my innumerable desires before my husbands. I do not spend time in private with another man. I avoid women who are of a cunning nature. In front of my husbands I try to appear fresh, beautiful, ever youthful.”

Raja Ravi Varma

The next quote requires some context. All of the Pandavas have barely escaped death, and Draupadi is clasping Arjuna’s feet in joyful relief that he has survived. Arjuna is the husband who she is most truly in love with, and she has just poured her heart out onto him:

“Arjun quickly removed his feet, ‘As a wife, all [the Pandava brothers] are your husbands. You ought to behave in the same manner with all… If we countenance injustice then the defeat of the Pandavas is inevitable. Draupadi, remove this mountainous burden of unjust love from me. That is all’ I thought my grief would provide Arjun with some encouragement. But lecturing me regarding justice, law, rules, he again turned me into an untouchable. My tears keep flowing, washing away the guilt and sin of loving my husband.”

Ok. After I read this book I checked to see what people on Goodreads were saying. Some were critical of Draupadi’s depiction, but some were not. Examine this user’s review of the book:

“I must admit that I have always had a sneaking fondness for the proud princess of Panchal. I have found in her a strength that is lacking in most other mythological heroines. Sita, I have always visualised as a doormat, but masculine culture will portray her as the womans softer side, while Draupadi is unabashedly and prominently a queen, with a womans pride, a sharp intellect and a strong will. Very few women in Indian mythology were strong enough to speak their own minds. Imagine then, my delight in coming across a novel in which Draupadi finally comes into her own.”

Even considering all of the above passages, this (presumably female and presumably Hindu) reviewer still considers Draupadi a strong and proud character. Clearly, the system of morality represented by Draupadi is alive and well.

Thank God Karna is in the tale.


In my eyes, this retelling makes Karna into the greatest hero of the story. He is kind to those who treat him well, and spiteful to those who denigrate or abuse him for no reason. He is also supremely generous, courageous, and honest. The reader is supposed to think that he is deeply flawed because of his pride, egoism, and “arrogance”. However I see these as virtues, especially when compared to the slavish nature of Draupadi and the servile obedience exhibited by the Pandavas towards Krishna. Karna’s boldness in combination with his more traditionally “moral” traits (honesty, generosity, loyalty etc.) makes him a well-rounded character, and (almost) an ideal Man. He is the greatest warrior who has ever lived. He has reason to be proud. His greatest flaw is supposed to be that he relies on himself to achieve greatness rather than relying on Krishna. This is to me, his greatest virtue.

Perhaps Draupadi should take some lessons from Karna.

“Mocking, Karna said, ‘Lady! I acknowledge that your husband [Arjuna] is brave. But I fail to understand what sort of man he is. If I were in Arjun’s place and Ma [Queen Kunti] had ordered that the woman I had won in the svayamvar [contest to win a bride] was to be shared by other brothers, I would have left that kingdom…I do not consider blindly obeying improper directives as the sign of manhood. This is the only difference between Arjun and myself.

Karna is the best.

Again, while it might look like I’m highly critical of this book I actually really enjoyed it. Characters like Draupadi almost never exist in American books (outside of 50 Shades of Grey). Besides, if you have a more dignified, achievement oriented moral outlook there is always Karna to root for.