Mangala Gouri Puja, or how to practice as a feminist

Mangala Gouri Puja is a day of fasting for wives in the first five years of marriage, where they dress up and perform puja on behalf of their husband, praying for his well-being, prosperity, and longevity. I think this is a good post to talk about some of the difficulties with observing Hinduism, particularly from a feminist point of view, and from a Western perspective. But before I go any further, let me tell you that I am observing Mangala Gouri Puja. We’ve been married for four years. I’ve got make up on; I’m wearing bangles and a nice skirt; I used my devotions this morning to pray on behalf of my husband.

Let it also be no secret that I am a feminist. I know that for some it’s another ‘F’ word (I love that other F word too!) and many women I know have told me ‘I think women can do anything they want, but I’m not a feminist.’ That always breaks my heart, but this isn’t the place to go into why. Instead, I want to talk about the challenge of being a feminist and practicing a religion, any of them. I have a master’s degree in religious studies and I’m part of the way through a PhD program in theology (which is a topic for another day), in which my emphasis has been feminist theology. I am well versed in the challenges and rewards of pursuing feminism in religion.

When I began researching Hinduism I noticed several things that annoyed me. First, the vast majority of writing on the subject is by men for men. Practitioners are assumed to be men, often with wives as the supporting figure. Secondly, God is always referred to as He. The Shakta tradition sees the Divine as She, but that’s a small part of Hinduism. The Ultimate Divine, while intellectually non-dual or beyond all of creation and non-gendered is still referred to as He. Thirdly, there are holidays, such as Mangala Gouri Puja where the woman fasts for her husband. I haven’t seen a single instance where a husband fasts for his wife. (Please correct me if I am wrong!)

Thankfully, I can push my irritation aside. I know that no culture, aside from some tiny ones I’ve never come into contact with, is free from male privilege. Historically, men have been the priests, men are the majority of monks, men are considered more holy than women. Whether or not this is explicit in the holy texts or implicit in the theology, the lived experience of most traditions upholds that men are prioritized and their religious experience is more important than the women’s.

This male privileging makes sense in many ways. I understand this more now that I’ve got two kids of my own. When the babies are young they need mama in a way that does not allow for easy substitutes. Early societies had divisions of labor that made sense for less-technological societies than our current one. For example, formula wasn’t an option, so mothers had to be on call for nursing 24/7 for many years. Even with daycare and formula and more technology freeing up the physical labor needed to sustain life and a household, women remain the only ones who can bear children. Let me tell you, that is hard work! So all of that is to say that I fully understand that men have more freedom to explore their spiritual path than do most women.

Biology aside, there’s the problem that societies then take that biological breakdown and instead of finding ways to support women’s spiritual lives, assume that men are holier and women aren’t at all cut out for the holy life. Thereby instituting rules and traditions that exclude women. What we’ve got is culture dictating religion. Does the Great God really intend that only men are suitable for priesthood? I absolutely cannot believe that. There is not a single theological argument that I can get on board with that suggests such a thing – and believe me, I’ve read a lot of arguments in favor of a male-only priesthood!

What we’ve got is culture and religion intertwining. I don’t think the two can be fully separated. But what aspects of culture do I accept as authoritative? What aspects of my external religious authority (because I am the internal priest of my own life) do I accept as Divine or take as cultural?

What I find is that many of the anti-feminist practices and ideas in Hinduism are not supported in the theology. They seem to be cultural remnants that people have taken on as ‘the way it is.’ I think Hinduism has far greater liberating possibility for women than many other religions.

So back to Mangala Gouri Puja. Yep, it annoys me that a woman would fast for her husband and for her marital happiness, but a man has no such call to do so. Wouldn’t it be great if they did? That annoyance aside, I think the idea itself is a loving one. Obviously I care deeply about my spouse’s well-being and his prosperity is my prosperity. I want every happiness for him, because I love him! Therefore, I’m observing this puja joyfully, willingly. I realize that it’s just an external form of prayer – a prayer I’d make for him anyway, just as I pray for my children and my friends and other loved ones. I see that I could easily do puja on behalf of the well-being of anyone I love! And I might do just that.

A final note that seems relevant to the topic: this is all incredibly heterosexist. I know almost nothing about queer identity in India, but my guess is that if the mainstream religion is sexist towards women, then it’s even more isolating for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans-people. Again, I think there is nothing that I’ve seen in the Hindu theology to exclude these ways of being. What is exclusionary is the cultural aspect, not the religious one. However, those cultural forces are not at play in my life and I get to take all the life-giving, liberating aspects of Hinduism and apply them as I wish. I’m not in any way saying that Western culture is better than Indian culture! We have loads of issues of our own and we are not much better in our attitudes toward women, LGBT folk, and Others in general.

But I am observing Managala Gouri Puja. I’m spending today looking pretty (more or less), fasting (eating vegetarian, not drinking wine, and avoiding social media), performing puja for my husband’s well-being and prosperity, and taking extra good care of him (more or less).


7 responses to “Mangala Gouri Puja, or how to practice as a feminist

  1. I am learning so much about the Hindu religion from reading your blog posts 🙂 Keep it up. And from reading texts on different religions, I have noticed a lack of the anti-feminist and sexist things as well – it does seem to be a serious cultural thing for many places. 🙂

  2. Pingback: What I’ve been reading | Reproductive Rites

  3. Have you come across the symbolism of the half male, half female form of Shiva the Ardhanarishvara? We should all remember that God is both male and female and transcends both – Shiva is Parvati.

    The holiness of women is recognised, but traditionally compartmentalised, the men would lead temple rituals whereas the women would be primarily responsible for the home shrine, which in many ways is the home. I am quite impressed by the way this is slowly changing, with less fuss than in many other religions.

    As for the Mangala Gouri Puja, I think it is nice to pray for the prosperity and well-being of your husband. I also think it is nice for husbands to pray for the prosperity and well-being of their wives. As Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami said:

    To the Hindu the ground is sacred. The rivers are sacred. The sky is sacred. The sun is sacred. His wife is a Goddess. Her husband is a God. Their children are devas. Their home is a shrine. Life is a pilgrimage …

    Sometimes this is a very hard ideal to live up to.

    • Yes, I am aware of the form of half-male/half-female Shiva. ‘Shiva is Shakti.’ Yes, I see it like that. Hinduism has fabulous theology around deity, as far as I am concerned.

      While the idea that women are holy is nice, it is rarely liberating. Hindu culture talks a good game about the holiness of women, but many of the customs keep women in a subservient place. In the 19th century certain strains of religious thought in the Western world began to talk about the domestic sphere of women and women being the nobler half of humanity, thus she should be kept safe in the home, to illuminate humanity through her domesticity. Just another way to justify men ruling the world! At the core of things, women are no more holy than men. We are human. And as your quote says, all is holy.

      I like the practice of fasting and worshiping on behalf of partners. I very much believe that the home is a temple, a sanctuary. I am lucky (or blessed!) that I am living in a time and place, and with a partner that allows me, as a woman, to pursue the Divine in the way that I think is right for me. I think this might also be a blessing of the convert – I don’t have a lot of cultural baggage around Hinduism. My understanding is incomplete and imperfect, but I’m coming at it fresh. Thank you so much for that link to the women pujaris – wonderful!

  4. I am happy to read an article which reflects my own opinion, that too by a foreigner. I am not actually a feminist but I want to see an equal status for ladies in the society. religiously also. Though I cannot quote from any authoritative source, I believe that this sort of patriarchy/men writing for men might be the result of revolt of down-trodden male in the mother-headed society. I would love to say authoritatively that vedas(shriti) is the authority for hinduism and hindu practice and the present styles of worshipping of different gods is not exactly from this shriti. Even though some vedic chanting is done in the course of worshipping, the same mantras will hold good for any of the god/goddess. This clearly shows that, as per vedic religion, there were no different gods or goddesses. The same God/Goddess is being given different names and forms, time to time by the people as a final resort/solution for their different fears/sufferings of life.

    As for fasting by ladies for well being of their partners and children, you have interprited the tradition very well. By birth the nature has gifted both male and female with some extra qulities, capacities and emotions. As you said, nursing/ caring and bringing up of offsprings was an inevitable part of womens life. This confined her to stay at home and malle was to provide her livelyhood. This was routine without any extraa interpretations for thousands of years. Women/Mother was heading her family eventhough men were source of livelyhood. At some point of time, this dependency of women has sprouted a kind of ego in male folk that made them to think of taking over the leadership from women folk. This lead way to the feeling of subordination in women. Since they were wholly dependent of men, their well being became of more important for all women. And also, a time arose where women started impressing their men by exhibiting their concern in several ways. This type of pleasing their spouse was not a necessity for men. This type of behaviour of women did also hightened the male ego which was still in a developing stage and men started dictating the lifestyle of women through different restrictions.

    No where ladies are considered less holier than men as per shritis. But some natural restrictions and social responsibilities did not facilitate women to become priests/sanyasins. In fact, when shakti (female form of almighty) is considered supreme power to worship, how come women who are representatives of shakti
    are less holier? OK I came across this article accidentally and am giving this comment analytically. But I firmly believe we can find authenticated base in Rigveda and Yajurveda for all these points.

    I am so happy that you are doing such great work by invoking interest in Hindus and others to probe the truth in their culture by your articles. Thank you on behalf of Indians.

    • Hello, and thank you for taking the time to comment so thoughtfully! I appreciate your perspective. I truly love the Hindu tradition and feel that it can be very liberating. But you mention something repeatedly that is, at the core, of all hierarchy and -archy’s perdiod: ego. Once we start to assume that my position in life, a group, a community, a tradition, etc, is the most holy/important/graced by God then we begin to see others as lesser. I think this is exacerbated in the West by views of Otherness – that ‘I’ am of central importance and am distinctly not ‘You’, therefore You are Other. The reality is we are interconnected and while, yes I am me and my own person, on metaphysical as well as other more scientific levels we are all part of one another.

      That’s a more spiritual response to the surface level realization that no tradition is without areas that must be reclaimed and defined by and for women. Just as men have written about their traditions, women must also.

      Lastly, you say you are not a feminist, but you “want to see an equal status for ladies in the society. religiously also.” Doesn’t sound that far off from feminism to me!

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