Maverick: The goddesses of small links
By Farzana Versey
Covert, November 1-15
India’s first woman saint. Jain women take diksha. Muslim woman leads prayers. Impressed? Does it mean that women are breaking through the male preserve? Are we hypocrites when we applaud those who reach the top in careers because of their commitment to their calling and smirk when it comes to the call of god?
No. As a woman I find this sainthood business designed to keep women in their places; it isn’t a simple ladder they have climbed. They are transformed into puppets of a god that is clearly male. What message do we get from Saint Alphonsa’s statement that she put her foot on burning embers when there was a marriage proposal because, “If my body were a little disfigured no one would want me! I offered all for my great intention’’?
The great intention was that at age seven she had declared, “Jesus is my only spouse, and none other.’’
This sentiment echoes in Meera’s bold assertion to her husband, “I am no more Queen than you are King. There is only one King and my life belongs to him.”
Does upholding the existence of only one man-god convey an assertion of choice? She married Rana Bhojraj because he understood her piety. She had developed an instant loving attachment to the idol and began spending most of her time in bathing, dressing and worshipping the image as though it were real. She danced about the image in ecstasy. She sang beautiful songs to it. She talked to the idol. She slept with it.
She was using one patriarchal structure against another. Although trained in warfare, as was the royal custom, and adept at archery, fencing, horseback riding and driving chariots, she chose the protection of the male. Would she have been able to go it alone without the name of Krishna attached to her?
Lord Krishna once intervened in her dream to advise her, “If the gopikas could do their duty to their husbands, tend their families and above all be totally devoted to me all the time, you can do the same thing. Do your duty. I shall not leave you any time.”
It is true there are male saints and men who abjure worldly desires, but the dynamics differ. Even where worldlier aspects are concerned that have to do with religion there is a toeing of the line that women wilfully adhere to. What is there to applaud about a mother doing the kanyadaan of her daughter when it means ‘giving away the girl’? How progressive is it? How progressive is it that a woman leads a bunch of men to a public namaaz when she is the mere medium? Would a Muslim woman be able to assert her rights in matters of divorce or property, rights that are in fact enshrined in the Quran?
Pope Benedict XVI said, “Sister Alphonsa’s heroic virtues of patience, fortitude and perseverance in the midst of deep suffering remind us that God always provides the strength we need to overcome every trial.’’ That is not why she was sainted. The Vatican canonises only those who have performed miracles, and a committee is set up to ascertain these. Patience and fortitude are experienced by ordinary people too. The Indian government plans to bring out a coin to commemorate the saint. It would do well to visit the refugee camps in Orissa; the miracle is that many are surviving there.
Ordinary people are not on ordinary people’s agenda. It surprises me that liberals get excited about religious gimmicks. Kerala was known as a matriarchal society; today it has given us a female saint.
This keeps men happy because they are seeking a higher cause like god. Every woman outside this fold reveals their basic instincts. To avoid guilt that comes as a package deal with all belief systems they want to feel ‘desexualised’ and for those few minutes be ‘connected’. I find this dangerous. The male, having experienced saintly unobtrusiveness, would expect the living woman in his life to be as sublime.
Television soaps work on this. The best-selling woman is called Tulsi, imprisoned in a metaphorical planter-pedestal. The lords of the house make occasional trips to the courtyard to court the goddesses of small links.