Women empowerment, Vivekananda and senior citizen

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This paper seeks to focus on the role of senior citizens in women empowerment by foregrounding some of the seminal ideas of Swami Vivekananda, the great monk of India, the epitome of all that was great and good in the India of the past. According to Swami Madhavnanda “With Shankara’s intellect he combined Buddha’s heart, Christ’s renunciation, and the Prophet of Arabia’s spirit of equality, and the result of this holy confluence will in time flood the whole world.”

As such, this discourse centers around three key concepts; women, empowerment and senior citizens and relates them all to the great thinker from the East.

During his early years, as a monk Swami Vivekananda like many other ascetics nurtured the idea of women as an obstacle for spiritual growth. However on realizing the highest Truth he saw no distinction between sexes and saw in women the presence of the Divine Mother. Armed with Vedantic knowledge he realized that whether man or woman, each individual is the manifestation of the Supreme soul and “Soul has no sex, it is neither male nor female. It is only in the body that sex exists, and the man who desires to reach the spirit cannot at the same time hold sex distinctions. (CW ,V.4, P.176). Swamiji cautioned “Not until you learn to ignore the question of sex and to meet on a common ground of common humanity will your woman really develop.” Such revolutionary gender neutral concept has become the bedrock of contemporary feminist movements.

Swami Vivekananda glorified Indian women of the past for their great achievements as leaders in various walks of life. He proudly states that “Women in statesmanship, managing territories, governing countries, even making war, have proved themselves equal to men, if not superior. In India I have no doubt of that. Whenever they have had the opportunity, they have proved that they have as much ability as men, with this advantage – that they seldom degenerate. They keep to the moral standard, which is innate in their nature. And thus as governors and rulers of their state, they prove-at least in India far superior to men. John Stuart Mill mentions this fact.” But for all his glorification of the great women of India and traditional Indian womanhood he was well aware of the precarious condition of women in India. In 1901 just one year before his Samadhi, Swami Vivekananda even as he was recovering from ill health, very forcefully put forward his ideas on the subject in a conversation.
“It is very difficult to understand why in India so much difference is made between men and women, whereas the Vedanta declares that one and the same conscious Self is present in all beings. … Writing down Smritis, etc., and binding them by hard rules, the men have turned the women into mere manufacturing machines! If you do not raise the women, … don’t think that you have any other way to rise.” Diagnosing the conditions of women in India he prescibed . empowerment as the panacea for all her suffering. He said, “If you do not allow one to become a lion, he will become a fox. Women are a power, only now it is more evil because man oppresses woman; she is the fox, but when she is no longer oppressed, she will be the lion.” (CW vol.7,p.22). If this is what modern social scientists think about women empowerment then what else is?

Empowerment is understood as the process by which the ones without power gain greater control over their lives. “This means control over material assets, intellectual resources and ideology. It involves power to, power with and power within.”In simpler terms empowerment can be defined as a process of creating “awareness and conscientization, of capacity building leading to greater participation, effective decision-making power and control leading to transformative action. For women the power relation that has to be involved includes their lives at multiple levels, family, community, market and the state. Importantly it involves at the psychological level women's ability to assert themselves and this is constructed by the 'gender roles' assigned to her specially in a culture which resists change like India.”

All the plans and programs of the successive government regarding women empowerment focus on the three variables that reflect women's participation in society – political power or decision-making, education and health. The 1995 UNDP report is devoted to women's empowerment and it declared that if human development is not engendered it is endangered. Equality, sustainability and empowerment are emphasized and the stress is, that women's emancipation does not depend on national income but is an engaged political process. Visionary saint Swami Vivekananda was also of the firm opinion that women should be put in positions of power to solve their own problems in their own way. She should have an active participation in all matters ranging from the household chores to that of nation-building. He firmly believed that the welfare of the world is dependent on the improvement of the condition of the women. He boldly announced “The best thermometer to the progress of a nation is its treatment of its women.” and advocated for an inclusive growth.” Such was his vision of women empowerment. A century later in 2001 India’s national policy for the empowerment of women (2001) included such ideas for example:

(i) Creating an environment through positive economic and social policies for full development of women to enable them to realize their full potential
(ii) The de-jure and de-facto enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedom by women on equal basis with men in all spheres – political, economic, social, cultural and civil
(iii) Equal access to participation and decision making of women in social, political and economic life of the nation
(iv) Equal access to women to health care, quality education at all levels, career and vocational guidance, employment, equal remuneration, occupational health and safety, social security and public office etc.
(v) Strengthening legal systems aimed at elimination of all forms of discrimination against women
(vi) Changing societal attitudes and community practices by active participation and involvement of both men and women.
(vii) Mainstreaming a gender perspective in the development process.
(viii) Elimination of discrimination and all forms of violence against women and the girl child; and
(ix) Building and strengthening partnerships with civil society, particularly women’s organizations.

As can be seen Vivekananda ‘s ideas were no different. He believed that empowerment of women can be achieved through education-spiritual.moral and physical. He was emphatic that women must be educated in the true sense of the term. Education is empowerment. To quote him: ‘Education is not the amount of information that is put into your brain and runs riot there undigested, all your life.’ He said, “By education I do not mean the present system of education but something in the line of positive teaching. Mere book-learning won’t do .we want that education by which character is formed, strength of mind is increase, the intellect is expanded and by which one can stand on one’s feet.”

While answering to a query on women education he further said “with such an education women will solve their own problems. They have all the time being trained in helplessness, servile dependence on others so they are good only to weep their eyes out at the slightest approach of mishap. Along with other things they should acquire the spirit of valour and heroism. In present day it has become necessary for them also to learn self defence. See how grand was queen of Jhansi!”
The voice of Swami Vivekananda stood apart in breaking both traditional as well as colonial shackles on women. He didn’t stop at improving mere material conditions for women . His vision went far beyond it. His vision of women empowerment was absolute empowerment – a Vedantic liberation of women. He announced, “The idea of perfect womanhood is perfect independence.”He saw in Sita example of such ideal of womanhood . Sarada Devi and sister Nibedita also represent ideal of womanhoodfor him. When a disciple suggested that scriptural writers suggest that knowledge and devotion are unattainable for women, Vivekananda forcefully retorted:

“In what scriptures do you find statements that women are not competent for knowledge and devotion? In the period of degradation, when the priests made other castes incompetent for the study of the Vedas, they deprived the women also of all their rights. Otherwise you will find that in the Vedic or Upanishadic age Maitreyi, Gârgi, and other ladies of revered memory have taken the places of Rishis through their skill in discussing about Brahman……... The principal reason why your race has so much degenerated is that you have no respect for these living images of Shakti. “(Complete Works, Vol.7, pp-214-5)

He realized that it if the women of our country get the right type of education, then they will be able to solve their own problems in their own way. The main objective of his scheme of female education is to make them strong, fearless, and conscious of their chastity and dignity. He observes that although men and women are equally competent in academic matters, yet women have a special aptitude and competence for studies relating to home and family. Hence he recommends the introduction of subjects like sewing, nursing, domestic science, culinary art, etc which were not part of education at his time.” Swamiji was advocating a very modern concept of engendering the education and taking special care of the innate potentialities lying latent in women. He is emphasizing on the change of the mind set both of men and women.

No country can develop unless half of its population i.e. women remain neglected.Every responsible individual has a role to play in moulding and shaping the future of a country and Senior citizens fit into the scheme of things as they can act as the change maker. The role senior citizen can play in empowering woman is varied and many. Senior citizen is a common euphemism for an elderly person . The term was apparently coined in 1938 during a political campaign and related to gov’t policies for extending certain benefits to them . But for the purpose of this discussion persons aged 60 and who enjoy some or other kinds of pensionary benefits and older with awareness are grouped under senior citizens. They are father or father figure of the respective families. They carry a vast experience about life in its various dimensions. Such aged persons are the pillars of the microcosmic family as well as the nation. The short story how an elderly man, who was kept alive by his son despite of the king’s order , saved the kingdom from a severe draught by his wisdom proves the point.

No doubt they cannot run about and act like a young man ( though there are exceptions) but should not also deplore their condition as “I grow old I grow old, I wear the bottoms of the trouser fold” or “I am a tattered cot upon a stick”, rather they should happily share their ideas and views about the various aspects of the society and the country: they are the think-tanks . They should never remain indifferent when the society wants them with vigour and zeal.Life does not endat 60rather freed of restrictionsof the demand and loyalty of job one is free to play his second innings.Mahatma Gndhiwas assassinated at the age of79 when he was actively engage in the welfare of his fellow countrymen.mother Teresa was 83when she passed awaybut till the last moment she wasengage in the service offellow human beings.Examples are umpteen when the debilitating effect of the agingwhich is a natural process is turned in to an active aging.tables can be turnedby participating in social activitiesin a more fruitful mannerand not wreath in depression,lonelinessand many such ailments of the aging process.

Youth hs the power but no direction so senior citizens can educate the young minds to bring about revolutionary changes and try to transform the society with a greater vision. They are the experienced drivers who can steer the society in the right direction. They can enthuse formulas of all round development of the society by their thoughts, words and deeds .We do not always need great leaders like Jayprakash Narayan or Anna Hazare to bring about a revolution.” In small measures we just beauty see”. Small men can bring about French revolution like revolutions. Each one such elders is capable of affecting a change in his/her own environment and a conglomeration of many such ones can affect a locality,and a locality a larger area and so on. Being the role model in a family, he/she can present before others examples of gender neutral attitude. Charity begins at home. Home is the microcosm of a society. They can dispel superstitions regarding women, her menstrual cycles ,childbirth and encourage scientific thinking among the family members. They can encourage the female members of the family to be educated. They can encourage the female members of the family become financially independent. As father figure of the family s/he should also set examples by giving a share of property to their daughters as the laws allows them.

Senior citizens are the back bone of the society. They are much experienced and understand the values of life. From all angles they should try to empower women. They should act as presser groups . They should raise their voice in various channels against any discrimination against woman. They can create awareness and mobilize public by contributing articles to the newspapers and taking active part in different public forums. By their suggestions and ideas they can help different organizations , NGOs working for women empowerment. . But they shouldn’t also remain drawing-room intellectuals creating intellectual illusions only, they should rather be examples themselves and leave their footprints on the sands of Time.

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