Chinmaya Mission Acharya
25 September 2003
Swamini Niranjanananda is a resident acharaya [teacher] of the Chinmaya Mission International Foundation. During Amritavarsham50‘s Women’s Initiative, “Embracing Universal Motherhood for Peace & Harmony,” the swamini spoke on “Reinstating Women’s Roles in Religion” and how the Vedas view the meaning and importance of the feminine. In this interview, she goes further into the status of women in modern society.
What inspired you to come and speak at Amritavarsham50?
“Amma asked me to.”
Worldwide, what can women do at home, in their daily lives, to improve the conditions for women everywhere?
“Your own personal sadhana [spiritual practice]. Whatever you do, do it with love. This will improve the capacity for the heart to expand, and this is what Amma wants us to do.”
Is there anything you would like to communicate to women in the West?
“Women everywhere have the same potential. Women can be as intellectual as men, but women have more capacity for kindness and self-sacrifice, which is the Mother Heart. All women need as much growth. The end of that growth is spirituality—feeling love for all.”
What is the significance of Amritavarsham50?
“Unimaginably big. The amount of work that has gone into it, the amount of dedication—it’s really mind-boggling. Some people may criticize these types of extravaganzas, but I feel it is required.
“Events like these are necessary to bring people together. It helps develop understanding and love. You come to know a lot of things you didn’t know before by meeting with each other and sharing. The devotees effort and dedication have made this an extraordinary event.”
Why do you feel such events are “required”?
“Because Hindu unity is always at stake. This will bring a lot of organizations, samsthas, together.”
What will the common man get out of this? I mean in a qualitative sense—the worker, the labourers, etc.?
“In a literal sense this must have provided at least temporary employment opportunities to casual labourers. There must have been a lot of expenditure, a lot of work. As for the other sense, many of them may not be here at this point in time. They will perhaps be at their work, not here. Anyway it may not immediately impact them even so. Only the upper sections of society, I mean, educated, intellectual ones, can be taught. The teaching then percolates down to the rest of the society. The others may not be able to understand or grasp to that extent.
“But the people of the higher strata must develop that love and concern for the poorer sections of society. If that is achieved, the sufferings of much of our society can be mitigated.
“I was thinking about the issue of gender discrimination. When a lady worker [domestic] comes for work, if she is late or has taken leave, we get angry. But after listening to their woes and seeing their plight, I don’t say anything [Swamini led a householder’s life before joining Chinmaya Mission]. They have so much work of their own to do. They carry so much burden! So, the way people will benefit from this is, Amma has started so many charitable outfits. Those who hear of it and can understand it, will become dedicated to the cause.”
So, we are saying it should be like that. We must target our message at people who can do something about it.
“Yes, that is the way, or else it will become just another speech! But those people who have heard it, they must pass on the message. Actually women in the lower strata of society are really suffering because the men in their households are so brutish. They are drunkards—violent and abusive. They will do nothing. The woman will do double work. We talk of ‘working women’ these days, but there have always been working women in that class—the weaver’s wife, the potter’s wife, the farmer’s wife. Always working—rear children, bring them up, find food for them by going for work. After the day’s heavy work, they’d come back and cook and look after the husband. The husband would never co-operate.”
Don’t you think it is like this in India because women are not economically independent? If they are abused, they can’t leave?
“That is not the case. If it were so, then women in the Western world would be happy. This happens not only in India, but the West also. There, too, women are abused, killed even. It is the family circumstance that is key, not economic independence.
“Economic independence is good, but that alone will not suffice because a family is one unit. It is a great institution. We learn to be submissive, we learn to be humble, we learn to sacrifice. Look at the nuclear family—they live only for themselves, only one child. Fifty years ago a family would have five or six children. The way the mother and father would sacrifice was phenomenal. That is not there nowadays. Perhaps in a very small way. That is what will help, not economic independence. It will only increase the divorce rates!”
That is true.
[Laughs] “One problem creates another!”
I’ve frequently heard it said that the husband comes home from work all stressed out and takes it out on his wife and children. What can a woman do in such a situation? Perhaps the man has an excuse, but that still doesn’t justify his actions!
“Maybe they’ll become swaminis [laughs]. No, I’m joking. A lot of acceptance, self-effacement is required to bear this. I do not think that such men are worthy of such love, but only women are capable of giving such love.
“When we say qualities of motherhood, we are not making a distinction between man and woman. A woman should also have these qualities. She should take it to such a height, it becomes divine. It already exists within us; we must expand it till it embraces all. Then all of us will become another Amma.
“If these qualities are not there in men, they become extremely harsh. The manly qualities like virility, kama [desire], krodha [anger]—all these will add to it. It should be tempered with these feminine qualities. Women also, should not become doormats. Just because they are kind and gentle, they should not allow everyone to step all over them. They should have the grit of a man. These two qualities must complement each other.
How will spirituality enhance or bring out these qualities?
“Spirituality is the end of the journey of motherhood. Motherhood brings out spirituality in you.”
How does motherhood bring out spirituality?
“See, in motherhood, you start expanding the heart in love. Continued, this becomes the universal motherhood. That is true spirituality.”
Can the woman of the house induce such qualities in men or is some external agent or influence is required for this?
“It is very difficult. We have suffered for so long and for hundreds of reasons. Husband is abusive, mother-in-law who is not tolerant. A lot of things will be there. Husband will not help even if the woman is ill. There is a lot of selfishness. It can be conquered by love, but it is not that easy. Even though you may be a great person willing to love, to forgive, but the concerned person may not be willing to accept it.”
In such cases, should a woman withdraw her love?
“No, it would completely destroy the family. She should simply accept it for the sake of the family. Both should develop these qualities, particularly men. Only then you will have a happy family. They should also try to change themselves. If one keeps trying to change the other, it will only end in conflict.”
Do you think the problem of women being abused is more prevalent in India?
“Even in Western countries women are ill-treated. Women long to be free there too. Actually men are more harsh there. I have lived abroad for several years and seen the situation. The family concept is not there. Divorce rates are very high. In India, a woman will bear everything for the sake of holding the family together. That type of self-sacrifice is usually absent in the West. A large number of children exist who have no mother or father—they are cared for by the state. Even if they get divorced, the mother will marry someone else and leave the child. One can see more criminal elements from among such children—because there was no mother to guide them.
“For the world to be without problems, a woman should have womanly qualities coupled with grit. A man should also have womanly qualities like love, kindness, self-effacement. Only then there will be a peaceful joyous world.”
Why has the status of women degraded since Vedic times?
“It was mainly due to foreign invasions. Several different races have invaded our country. Their culture was different from ours—they did not accord the same status to women as we did. The Vedic woman used to marry at around 23 or 25 years of age, like us. But that changed. The marriageable age came down. Child marriages began. Then widow re-marriage was prevented. They had no status. Their concept of women has effected Indian society.”
What is the remedy?
“There is education. We must lead a spiritual life. Mere education is not enough. Spirituality is the medicine of all ills—all can practice it. It is not necessary to become a swamini! There are many who are still householders but are spiritually advanced. High ideals are needed.”
In your capacity as acharya, how can you help women?
“I go through this process everyday. I give discourses on various spiritual issues. I meet a lot of women in my classes. I keep telling them on how to let go and yet guide their families. You see, culture is transmitted by the mother, not the father. The culture of a nation is determined by the mother. We have a culture that is strong in feminine qualities, but nowadays we are not transmitting that to our children. We are asking them to take on the roles of men. Nothing wrong if they study engineering, etc., like boys—our brain is as good as theirs. But there must be emphasis on what is more suitable for women, so they are not alienated from their essential nature.”