Women’s day is celebrated with much gusto on March 8th every year in different parts of the world. The trend has caught on in India too since the last decade or two.
Why and how did March 8th come to be celebrated as International Women’s Day?
It was on this date March 8th 1885, that Susan Anthony of USA, addressed the House of Representatives in USA for equal rights for women, to vote in the US elections. Until then, the women in USA did not have the right to vote in elections. This day, thus represents a fight for equality from a position of inequality.
While this is a red letter day for the march of women in USA, there have been many brave women in other parts of the world too who have fought the prevailing social conditions to bring about equality for women.
Susan B Anthony
Such a secondary position for women in society comes from the fundamental thought and premise that, “behind every successful man there is a woman”. This phrase by its implication means that the woman is always behind a man, supporting him, pushing him forward and allowing him to set the pace.
In contrast to this phrase, which denotes a secondary role for women, the Indian thought, expressed the relationship between man and woman through the word Ardhangini. Ardha means half or equal and angini comes from anga meaning part. Thus women were considered literally as one who has an equal part or role in an effort and life.
This equality was not limited by the word “equal” but went beyond that into the realms of bringing out the best of the innate capability of each gender.
In a couple, the woman is even today known as Sahadharmini, meaning one who is not just equal but complementary in carrying out their role of Dharma. There is a subtle essence conveyed in the usage of the words here.
The word used for equal is Sama, whereas in the relationship between husband and wife it has been referred to as Saha, implyingco, together, complement. This is because, the ancients, both the women and the men realised that by nature and by biological capacity, each gender has an innate strength and hence role to play in the sustenance of Nature and mankind, called Dharma.
In this role play, one gender is not superior or inferior to another, causing the other gender to fight or claim for equality. Each gender is complementary to the other, based on their natural capability, capacity and role.
The Indian thought went one step further and also depicted the divine couple Shiva and Parvati, in a human form of a man and woman complementing each other in the form of Ardhanari, ie. half woman. This would reemphasize and reiterate to common man on a daily basis the essence of the role of the man and woman as they hold the society together.
This knowledge of this land through the ages, kept reinforcing the focus on saha, to be complementary and not just sama, equal.
The Fertility Chain
The description of feminity tends to focus on the sexuality of women today. Womanhood, the qualities of women, the capabilities of women, the role of a women is a lot more that sexuality.
Women are regarded as the epitome of fertility.
This is not just for the purpose of child bearing, but has more practical applications. In a predominantly agrarian civilization, the four aspects that control the fertility chain were in the control of women. These four were the lands, the water resources, the seeds and the cattle.
The Fertility Chain
Not only in India, but in many parts of the world too, women’s complementary, key role in agriculture and farming, the key activities associated with the fertility of a land, kingdom, nation, was well recognized and accorded the place of honour.
During the colonial rule in India and many other places, the control of these four were plucked from the women and given to men. This created not just inequality but disturbed the complementary balance from the Indian society.
The concept of Saha was soon forgotten and equality became the need and the cry of the women, rightly so, in the 20th century.
March 8th, soon became a day of rallying around, for some women organisations, as Women’s Day, in the 20th Century, to espouse the cry and need for equality by women.
This concept of equality as espoused in Woman’s Day celebrations, is actually alien to the nature of Nature itself and to those who are more in tune with this Nature.
For them, celebrating womanhood is synonymous with understanding the fertility chain right from the elements of nature to the well being of mankind, as well as the nurturing role that could only be played by women. Such celebrations took various forms such as Varalakshmi Puja in South India.
Vara stands for boon and Lakshmi for all the wealth, not just material but also Lakshya, a single minded goal. It is a bonding of women with Nature and their reaffirmation to provide for their family, society and civilisation, which is celebrated through the land as Varalakshmi Puja. It is a celebration of all things positive in womanhood.
Such festivals of the soil, bring back focus on Nature and the complementary nature of everything in Nature, including that between men and women.
In this 21st century, as India moves forward in the comity of nations, we need to recognise the importance of International Women’s Day in reminding us of the balance needed between genders. At the same time, we also have to bring about the awareness world over, of the concept of Saha or complementing nature of genders, that is at the root of Indian tradition.
It is only this commitment to complement one another, that can usher in an era of togetherness and cooperation between the two genders, to make this world a truly happy place.
A place, where everything in Nature is in its right place, eventually doing the right thing for Nature, which they are a part of. An act of maintaining Dharma with one’s Sahadharmini.
We need a Women’s Day today to celebrate and compliment this complementing nature in Nature.
One often hears in the English language, the remark, “Behind every successful man is a woman”. This phrase conjures up an image of the woman being lesser than the male gender and playing only a supportive role, while the man is the achiever.
In stark contrast to the above statement and view, in India and the Indian languages, the wife is called “Saha Dharmini”, meaning one who is along with the man. This term implies that the wife and the husband are to go along in life together, performing their deeds together, towards leading a righteous life, pursuing the 4 goals of life namely, Dharma – which may be translated in a limited way, as righteousness, Artha – wealth, Kama – desires and pleasures and Moksha – liberation, salvation.
Many commonly understand “Saha” to mean equal. But there is a different word for equal, namely “Sama”, meaning same level.
So the term “Saha Dharmini” must have a deeper connotation.
In many languages brothers and sisters are called Sahodara and Sahodari respectively, meaning the ones who along with you, bear and share the joys and burdens of a joint family.
Saha seems to be more than just equal.
Saha denotes a form of parternship, “co-” as in cooperative, togetherness. And for a partnership, togetherness and a cooperative effort to be successful, it calls for a sense of complementing one another to complete the task on hand effectively. The word Saha therefore denotes complementary, helping.
If the two partners are just equals and have equal of everything, there definitely would be times when their strengths would add up and double the gains. But there would also be times when both would be found lacking and there would be great gaps and falls.
Equals – leave gaps
While in the case of complementing, what one lacks, the other can provide, thus leaving no room for a gap in the collective unit.
Complementary Units – fit perfectly, no gaps
If every such, complete family unit were to complement each other in a collective living community, then there would be no gaps in the society, civilization as a whole too.
Amongst equals, each tries to score over the other. Equals lead to competition, infights and separation.
In a complement, since each one is aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each other, they do not see any competition from the other. So complements lead to dependency, togetherness and partnership.
This philosophy formed the basis for the framing of the various family models and the structure of the Indian society, in the days of the past.
By referring to a wife as a Saha Dharmini, Indian thought and ethos, thus stressed on the fact that men and women are complementary in nature to one another and can only collectively perform their righteous duties at 3 levels, namely for their,
home and family
society and community
culture and civilization
We can see such a complementing nature at work in the whole of Nature.
Even the lion, the symbol of masculinity, relents to this driving force of Nature. It is the females in a pride of lions, who typically hunt and bring back food for the pride. However, it is the male, the lion who gets to eat first and the most, before the others get their share. This is in return for his role of keeping the pride together and safe. This is where, the term “lion’s share” originated from.
Amongst the birds, it is the male emperor penguin who takes over the baton from his female partner to hatch the egg and look after the young for months on end in the harsh, freezing Antarctic winter, while the female partner goes back to the sea, to replenish her store of energy and bring back food for the penguin chick.
In the insect kingdom, all the bees, males included, work to the tunes of the Queen Bee.
In each species, the male and female, evolve roles and responsibilities, suited to their innate, individual capability.
A representation of such a complementing concept is the depiction of Shiva, a popular divinity of the land as ArdhaNaari, meaning half woman, where the figure of half man and half woman sharing every part of the body shows the complementary nature of roles they are supposed to play in all activities of life.
This is further exemplified and elaborated in the concept of the three feminine divinities, the wives of the three primary divinities, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, in the Indian pantheon of Gods.
If we pause and observe intently,
the wife of Brahma the creator, is Saraswathi, the embodiment of knowledge, for, inorder to create, knowledge is a requisite and Saraswathi brings in this knowledge
the wife of Vishnu, the preserver, is Lakshmi, the embodiment of wealth, for, inorder to sustain and operate, wealth is a requisite and Lakshmi brings in this wealth
the wife of Shiva, the regenerator, recycler, is Shakthi, the embodiment of energy, for, inorder to recycle i.e. destroy and recreate, energy is a requisite and Shakthi brings in that energy.
The masculine aspect in these concepts, denote a function in the cycle of the Universe, while the feminine aspect denotes the substance or resource required for this functioning.
These feminine divinities were perhaps the earliest “Women of Substance”.
This symbolism denotes the higher understanding in the civilization, that the functioning and the resources needed to function, coming together with a purpose, is what ensures successful completion of any activity.
It is the understanding of this complementary nature of Nature, all the way from the divine forces at work throughout the Universe, to the various living forms in this Universe, including man and woman on earth, that formed the ethos of the land of India.
These ethos through the ages has given the due position and respect, in all spheres of life, to men and women.
It is this realization that was put in practice in various facets of life concerning men and women and their roles in society, in India, through the ages. To an extent, these ethos also found reflection in other fields also, namely Astronomy and social customs.
In many marriage customs of India, after the couple is wed, one of the wedding ritual is, the gazing of Arundhati-Vasishta. The husband and wife are taken outside by the priest and asked to gaze at Arundhati-Vasishta in the sky.
Ever wondered what this ritual is all about and who are Arundhati-Vasishta and that too, in the sky?
One of the spectacular constellations in the northern hemisphere, is the Ursa Major constellation, also called the Great Bear, the Big Dipper. This constellation can be identified by seven prominent stars.
The significance of this constellation is that when we join the two stars in the belly of the bear, they always point to the Pole Star in the North.
This constellation is called Sapta Rishi in Indian astronomy and each of the seven prominent stars has been named after some of the prominent Rishi of India.
One such star, at the tail, is called Mizar-Alcor in modern Astronomy. Since thousands of years, in Indian astronomy, this star has been known as Arundhati-Vasishta.
Vasishta was one of the most accomplished Rishi and together with Arundhati, his wife, they were regarded as the most knowledgeable, much respected, ideal couple in Indian legends.
Why a double name for this star?
After the invention of telescope, modern astronomers identified this star to be a double star. They also found that this system of double star is such that, it is not one star going around the other, which is the usual form of double star system. Instead, in Arundhati-Vasishta, the 2 stars go around each other, much as to how 2 people rotate and go around a common fixed spot in Phugadi, a game in India.
It is very interesting to note that these stars were given the name of an ideal couple. It is further interesting to note that gazing at this ideal couple in the sky has infiltrated as a marriage custom of the land, where after the couple is wed, the husband and wife are taken out by the priest and shown this Arundhati-Vasishta star system.
Today, neither the priest nor those around are able to explain this ritual. It is even ironic that this ritual is held during midday under the blazing sun, when no stars are seen and with no clue as to even where this star lies.
Our ancients were not only well advanced in Astronomy to have discovered this uncommon system of double stars but were also foresighted enough to include it as a marriage ritual to relate to and reinforce to common man, that in a marriage it is not the wife going around the husband or the other way around.
Their message to society was that, both husband and wife together, as partners, have to complement each other and go around, the central point – the family and society, fulfilling their duties to the best of their innate, individual nature and capability.
It is time for all of us in this world, to focus on Saha, the complementing factor too, rather than on Sama, the equalizing factor alone.
Understanding our ancients’ way of living and picking a leaf or two of wisdom from them, can help us in understanding ourselves better and handling our relationships and business in harmony with each other and with Nature.