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Feminism and Vedanta || Acharya Prashant, at AIIMS Nagpur (2022)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
11 min
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Questioner (Q): We are very grateful and honoured to have you here and have this discussion with you. I have been watching your videos, and your thoughts on women’s empowerment. So, being a man, conditioned to this patriarchal Indian society, what sensitized you towards women's issues and what made you advocate for women's rights? Can you please share your personal journey?

Acharya Prashant (AP): So, my thanks to the institution and the dignitaries for organizing this event on this highly significant day and inviting me here. I love visiting educational institutions. In fact, when I was witnessing the debate, some part of me was kind of feeling eager to join the debate. My earliest memories of AIIMS, date back to the mid-90s, when I would visit AIIMS Delhi, at their cultural festival and be a participant in their cultural program, debates and extemporary competitions. So, thank you once again and now I'll try to address your question. So, her question is, being a man, why do I take up women's issues or why am I interested in women's liberation at all?

See, we are all born selfish people. Nobody can act otherwise even if he or she tries to think really beyond his/her own self. It is just the definition of the self. And the self can keep getting purified and elevated as one progresses through life. But irrespective of the definition of the self, it's with self-interest that one works. So, it is in my own self-interest, that I advocate the welfare, the liberation of all mankind and mankind obviously includes women. We are talking of humankind, mankind is probably a bit of a misleading word.

So, when I look at my life, I fully well know that I can't be in peace and I can't do what I must do. And this world, which is essentially my world, because I live in it. This world cannot be a place worth living in if half its human residents are suffering or are unable to realize their potential. So, do not look at women's liberation as different from that of men. They are interlinked and if one has to be free, then everybody has to be free. So, that's what gets me started every day. I'm pretty sure this is not going to be very clear right in the beginning, but we have a lot of time, so things will be as we go along.

Q: Feminists are often considered as men haters and non-conformists, so being a Vedanta teacher, can you shed some light on feminism from Vedanta’s perspective?

AP: From the Vedantic perspective, what is feminism? First of all, what is patriarchy? When we talk of a thing, Vedanta asks, where does the thing come from — be it a system, an action, or anything?

The deed, the action, will not yield itself to your insight if you do not understand its origin, its genesis. So, where does this thing called patriarchy come from? Vedanta says it comes from prakriti , our biological nature. The way our bodies are configured, not by society but by biology itself.

So, you see that which we call as patriarchy, is a continuation of our prakritik bondage. Otherwise, it couldn't have survived but rather flourished for so long and almost all over the globe. There is a reason why men and women have been so far related through a particular equation. That equation seems to be coming from men, but it is actually coming from prakriti . You understand prakriti ? It is the biological nature which is the nature of our bodies, which is the nature of all that we see around us or all the material things that we see around us.

The nature of the material world is against the nature of consciousness. That's what I'm calling as prakriti . So, we'll take these two together: prakriti and consciousness, prakriti and chetana , and we'll take these two for the purposes of this discussion as exclusive to each other. Though they really are not, but just to simplify things, we will do that. So, the way our bodies are configured, the male and female body, there is a particular equation between the man and woman and that equation is favored not only by the biological man, but also by the biological woman. Otherwise, it couldn't have been possible for this system to run for so long.

What I'm essentially saying is that, given the way our animal bodies are, not only men but also women have had a stake in patriarchy. Think of it, if half of the world's population decides to disown something, decides to rebel against something, can the thing still stand and continue and flourish for so long? It just cannot.

Further, this is not a phenomena that's local to one part of the world. We cannot call it merely a cultural thing, we cannot call it an accident happening at some place due to some reason. We find the same thing in its various variants everywhere. In fact, we find the same thing in its various variants even in the animal kingdom. It's just that humans with their propensity and power to distort all that can be distorted, to corrupt all that can be corrupted, have corrupted the biological system even more. This has to be understood.

So, there has to be a way to come out of this system. Because we do not have a proper name for the way to come out of the system and that puts us in the bondages of a biological relationship between the man and the woman. Therefore, we call it feminism and therefore we take the goal of feminism as gender equality.

Vedanta would say that equality is a high ideal, but liberation is the purpose of life. So, not equality as such because equality takes you so far and no more. What men and women both need is not so much equality, but really liberation from their biological selves and as long as the man is the biological man, that evolved from the jungle and as long as the woman continues to be the biological woman, who has emerged from the jungle, their relationships would remain material and biological and mutually exploitative. That is that is patriarchy.

It's great that there is an attempt to uproot that system, but it has to be understood that patriarchy is not just an ideology. It is coming from our very biological bondages, therefore the solution cannot be ideological, the solution has to be spiritual.

So, ‘Vedantic feminism’ would say, “Disown your physical self, you are much beyond that girl, much beyond that. As long as you continue to identify with your body, as long as you relish calling yourself a girl or a woman, there can be no freedom for you and ditto for the man. As long as you say, ‘I am the woman, I am the woman, there is a great problem.’” Vedanta says that the body of the woman is her cage, just as the body of the man is the man's cage.

What do you mean by freedom as a woman? Freedom as a woman would mean freedom remaining within your cage. The body is the cage that the consciousness wants to exceed, that the consciousness wants to get rid of.

If you want to retain the cage and still talk of freedom, it's not going to happen. So, you have to disidentify from your biological self and the moment you disidentify from your biological self, you have also gone beyond your biological mandate and you very well know what is your biological mandate. In prakriti the man's job is to be the hunter, the gatherer, the provider. You look at the jungle and you will find this happening all the time. In prakriti , the woman's life is centred around the nest, the eggs, the kids. If you do not exceed your biological self, you will be ill-fitted to remain exactly as the female species in the jungle.

Unfortunately, because we deal so much in ideologies and too little in wisdom, therefore, the women's liberation movement is talking a lot in terms of rights and opportunities, without bothering to inquire whose rights and opportunities and for what? Rights to whom? Are you trying to give rights to the biological woman? What will she use those rights for? She will use those rights for the same purposes that the biological man has been using his rights for. The biological mandate is to eat, sleep, be happy and procreate a lot before you die. If you give rights without wisdom, that's what rights are going to be used for, though in a more polished way and sophisticated way. But at the core would remain just the biological urge.

Give me more rights, I'll do more of what I have been doing all throughout the course of history. This isn’t complicated, is it? It's actually quite simple if you look at it directly. If you look at it directly it's very, very simple to understand. Do not try to fit this within the existing narratives, otherwise, it will be confused.

Q: I was just wondering, India has been the seat of wisdom and knowledge throughout the ages, and now we should be so proud of such scriptures as Upanishads. So, where did we go wrong and why? How did we drop these things and why do we have to now reconsider them and take so much effort to bring them back to life?

AP: See, when you have a lot of spiritual literature, when you have generations after generations of scholars, of seers, rishis and saints, it gives you false confidence, and that confidence is very, very dangerous.

There are countries, lands, people, who are not so richly blessed with a spiritual heritage. Our problem is that our spiritual heritage is just too big and because it is just too big it has thrown us into a false confidence that we are indeed spiritual people, but actually, we are not. Every house has a place of worship, people keep religious books in their homes, though they never read them, but just keeping the book and just having the deity in your house gives you the assurance that you are in touch with the sacred or the divine. So, that is the problem.

Too much spirituality without any substance, and we miss the real thing. You asked where did we go wrong. This is, in general, where we went wrong. Otherwise, in particular, every kid that is born is a thing improper in itself. Not the birth is improper, but the kid is born as something that needs to be addressed. It needs to be addressed just as a patient needs to be addressed.

Society might indeed be highly religious or wise or whatever, but every new kid that is born starts from minus one hundred. Because it is born with all the old animal tendencies, so it's not like scientific knowledge. In science the knowledge that one generation has is used by the next generation. So, Newton gave you something and those who came after Newton worked on what Newton gave us.

Wisdom does not work like that. Every generation has to start from zero, rather minus hundred. You cannot rely on the work done by your forefathers, even if the forefathers have left a lot for you.

We thought that because our forefathers have done so much for us, therefore we are automatically blessed, that's where we went wrong. We'll have to work our own way to liberation, our forefathers can't help us beyond a point.

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