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The Role of Women in Jainism

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The Role Of Women in Jainism

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Introduction

Through many centuries women’s role in society has always been under men, men have been dominant in the relationship whereas women are not. In many countries, men are usually the ones that would manage the things outside of house such as jobs and women have a role to maintain the household, such as taking care of the child, and doing chores around the house. In the religion Jainism, it is somewhat the same as other religions, women were inferior to men but throughout time women found their place in the society. In Jainism there are many big figures that are women such as the deities and nuns which is why women are the same as men. There have been many issues in the society regarding women in Jainism, such as women being naked and women having menstrual. Despite the issues women have in Jainism they still play an important role in their religion and society, such as cooking food, taking care of the household, taking lead in the religion activities, and also sing hymns at the temples. In Jainism, despite some of the issues that women face they also contribute and help grow the religion of Jainism.

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Nuns and Monks

Even though there are no inequalities between men and women in Jainism, when it came to the nuns and monks, nuns were inferior to the monks. ‘Sometimes nuns are under the authority of junior monks for a very long period, in order to reach high positions in the religious hierarchy, the female nuns need to serve for a longer period than their male counterparts, their religious titles are generally at an inferior rank to those of monks, many canonical texts are difficult to study as the nuns are perceived to have lesser intellectual capacity as their male counterparts, which has been disputed in recent times’ (“WOMEN IN JAINISM”).

Menstruation

In the society of Jainism, there are few issues that vary regarding women for example the menstruation cycle, which is known as the period. The period is when blood and mucosal tissue is discharged from the lining of the uterus. This is an issue because they believe that menstrual blood kills microorganisms in the female body which makes the woman ‘harmful’. In Jainism they believe in karma which is a particle that attaches to one’s soul if they disobey one of the principles of Ahimsa. This is one reason why Jains attend the temple to shed the karma through meditation and prayers to the deity. In the past women were prohibited from attending the temple when going through menstruation, because it came from the Vaishnava Faith. Even if a person is bleeding they should not enter the temple or touch the deities. Jains are so strongly attached to Ahimsa, which means they strongly believe in non-violence. That is why people from society do not like the fact that women should be able to attend the temple because they believe the women are “killing”. The fact that they believe women are being “harmful” when they are undergoing a period, the society does not want the woman to be worshipping their deity.

Nakedness

Another issue that varies in Jainism is the ban of nakedness for women. In Jainism there are two types of sects which are the Digambara and Svetambara. They have similar principles, but have different approaches such as scriptures, liberation, and how one dresses. In Digambara, they believe in achieving liberation a person must not wear clothing. Which is why Diambaras believe women cannot achieve nirvana or liberation, and must be reborn as a man. The reasons why they believe this is because Digambara monks are completely naked, and it is not possible for a women to be naked because ‘a woman will feel ashamed of being naked and the feeling of shame would hinder their progress to liberation'(“Religions – Jainism: Women in Jainism.”). Even if a woman chose not to wear clothing, the monks believe it would be a distraction for the men because they will start to feel sexual desires which will affect their progress to liberation. On the other hand Svetambaras believe women are capable of achieving liberation, and due to the fact they don’t believe in the principle of not wearing clothes makes it easier for the woman. Digambaras also think poor in women because of their status in the Indian society, ‘for example, because of the rule of primogeniture only sons, not daughters, may inherit a king’s throne and in every household the man, not the woman, is the master of the house. The idea seems to be that women’s inferior social position reflects her inferior spiritual position’ (“Religions – Jainism: Women in Jainism.”). This issue is an example of Digambaras using sacred texts to arise the issue of women not wearing clothing, while the Svetambara do not agree with this.

The Equality of Men and Women

Despite there being issues in the role of women in Jainism, it does not take away the fact they have the same equality as men. In other religions, men are superior than women which makes the woman inferior but this does not occur in Jainism. “The Jain scriptures and history is full of names of Jain women who have done a lot more for the wellbeing of the society and for their religion in particular” (Chidandamurthy). Many of the women have done plenty of things to help shape and practice Jainism. The women were not equal to men in the beginning of time, during the Vedic period women were excluded from religious practices. Later on ‘Lord Mahavira opposed all such evil practices and he did not make differences between male and female in observance of religious vows’ (Chidandamurthy). Women did not have an issue when it came to education and knowledge. Women later led the Jains religious activities, regarding food such as fasting, they would have an important role in the performance of worship. The women would also be the ones that would sing hymns at temples. When it came to reading the scriptures, the men would read rather than the women due to their low education knowledge. “The Jain monastic tradition, as we have seen, upholds both the idea that women are not fit for independence and should be guarded by men, and the notion that women are eligible to pursue the life of renunciation” (Male Guardians of Women Virtue:”). Women did not have independence, most of the time a man would be present. This not fair for the women even though it is for their own safety, it takes away their privacy.

Cooking

Women play a huge role in preparing food on Jainism. Food is crucial in this religion because women have to make sure the meals are to be eaten after sunset during fasting, they have to cook the correct type of meals during certain festivals, and most importantly during fasting. In Jainism, the reason Jains choose to fast is to get rid of the karma that is attached to one’s soul. ‘Jains have strictest dietary practices of any religion. They avoid all food products that involve injury to any life; thus animals, including seafood, or products of animals are not eaten'(Fieldhouse). Which is why cooking meals during the fast is important because the woman has to prepare the food for the men after sunset.

Women Deities

In the religion Jainism there are many women deities that are worshipped by the Jains. ‘The female spiritual attendants of the Jinas occupy prominent places in worship and are revered as the female deities of Jain tradition like Padmavati, Ambika, and Chakresvari by both men and women'(“WOMEN IN JAINISM.”). ‘As a goddess, Padmavati is a soul subject to the cycle of birth and can intervene in human affairs, unlike Jinas, who are liberated, perfect souls, completely detached from everyday human experience'(Article: Padmāvatī.). Many people when they pray to goddesses they seek for blessings, good health, and to shed the karma from their soul. ‘The legends and hymns of the sola satis are illustrious role models to women as they remained faithful to their husband in the face of difficult circumstances'(WOMEN IN JAINISM.). This is a good thing because it builds trust in the relationship, and this is promoting a great example for the younger women.

Famous Women

In Jainism there are many famous women that have impacted their religion and society. One woman that brought light to the women in Jainism was Devaki Jain who was born in Mysore, Karnataka. She is an economist and a writer who fights for the rights of women and the poor people in India. She had studied Mathematics and Economics with graduating with three gold medals. During that time women were not allowed to attend school, which made her attend St. Anne’s College, Oxford University where she continued to pursue economics which later on she became a professor at a Delhi University teaching economics. What inspired Devaki to fight for women’s rights was when she edited a book for a publisher. In the book it talked about the status of women in India, and how men and women are divided significantly. She was also inspired with her friend Gloira Steinem who was also a feminist. ” During one of their conversations, Steinem spoke to her about the importance of women working together to empower themselves and this left an indelible mark on Devaki who came to identify herself as a feminist even she was met with derision in India for the very fact” (Subramanian, Aishhwariya). She used the skills she inherited from economics to fight for women’s rights and also used Mahatma Gandhi’s morals and techniques for help. A quote that Devaki said was, “in statistics, you define a worker as main, subsidiary, supplementary etc. Women are usually categorized as a supplementary. But I was able to argue nationally that amongst the poor, women are the main breadwinners as they are willing to do anything; sweeping, cleaning, selling scraps, anything to put food on the table. Then I realised that I had to visualise what women are as economic agents” (Subramanian). Till this day Devaki is still fighting for the right for women and for the poor.

Another prominent figure in Jainism is Lord Malli. Malli is the 19th of the 24th Jinas, Jinas ‘ describes a human being who has achieved omniscience and then teaches other people the path to liberation'(Article: Malli). There is a different conception between the Digambaras and Svetambaras on whether Malli was born a boy or a girl. Digambaras believed that Malli was born a boy, and the Svetambara believed a girl. Malli was the reason why there is a debate between the two sects whether women can attain salvation. These women have both contributions to change the perspective of women in Jainism.

Conclusion

In Jainism, women have faced many issues but have also contributed to the religion. In many religions, women are inferior to men but in Jainism that does not occur. During the Vedic period women were excluded from religion practices but throughout time women became an important part in the religion. The women would prepare food for fasting, would sing hymns and performance of worship. There were many famous women that changed the perspective of women in the society such as Devaki Jain who fought for the right for women and the poor, and Lord Malli who has different views from the sects whether Lord Malli was born a boy or girl, which also created the differences between the Digamaras and Svetambara whether people should wear clothing or not to achieve liberation. Women in Jainism also face issues for example women should be able to worship or attend the temple when they are going through a period. This is because many believe women are ‘killing’ microorganisms in their body, and Jains are really strict regarding the principle of nonviolence. Another issue was women and nakedness, Digambaras believe to achieve liberation the person must wear clothing and this was an issue for women because if the women did not wear clothing it would bring sexual desires to the men. Women play an important role in Jainism and it is important they are treated equally.

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