Religion has been apparent and ever developing since the beginning of man. Both woman and man have contributed to that development and believed in a higher power to explain their own existence. Now, with the different variations on religion and separation in belief, women and men have taken on different roles that are distinct to their particular faith. Often, among all religions, man’s role has been superior to that of women. All of the world’s major religions depreciate women to some degree; so what role do women play in religion? And what impact have they had? In examining three of the world’s major religions: Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, this paper will compare and contrast the role of women as well as discuss any influence women have had in the development of each faith.
How Women Are Viewed?
The view of women on the Hindu religion has changed over the course of history several times. The view of women was sometimes, but not always positive. In the earlier Upanishad Age they seemed to have been given more respect than in later times. According to the Hindu religion, a woman is the form of energy or an aspect of Shakti. In many Hindu scripture she is both upheld and respected. High opinion is especially given to women who are mothers and disrespect of her is considered unforgiveable. One Hindu scripture states, “All other sins are expiable but he who is cursed the mother never liberated.” Another Hindu scripture ranks the value of a woman over that of a man stating, “An outcast father may be forsaken, but not the mother, she is never an outcast to the son”.
Many other religions do not hold the respect of woman over that of men. The Buddhist religion for example, states very little about women. This is not because the Buddhism refuses to recognize women but rather that they strive to have equality among women and men. Thus the scripture speaks of the human race as a whole and makes little distinction between genders. In one scripture, the Visuddhi Magga, a monk asked, “Reverend Sir, have you seen a
woman pass this way?” And the elder said: Was it a woman or a man that passed this
way? I cannot tell. But this I know, a set of bones is travelling upon this road.” (Mohr, & Tsedroen, 2010)
In comparison to the Buddhist religion, Christianity also strives for an equal and positive view of women. In the Old Testament the creation of man is explained and represents both women and men as equally valuable. It states, “Then God said, Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them,” (Genesis 1:26-27.) In society, Christian women have rules and laws to abide by. Christian women are instructed by God to conduct themselves modestly, as a witness of God to unbelievers. “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of the gentle and quiet spirit which is of great worth in God sight.” (1 Peter 3:3-4). Christians do not try to earn merit in order that there good deeds may outweigh their bad.
Roles of Women
Women played many different roles in the history of the Hindu religion. During childhood she is under her parents care but when she marries she becomes the sole responsibility and property of her husband. As his wife, she takes on four different roles. Her roles include; servant to her husband in duty, minister in decision making, as a mother to his children and lover in his bed. Women in the Hindu religion are expected to act and speak with respect for their husband as well as other men. (Sharma, & Libraries, 2001)
In the days of the Buddha, other religious teachers had also spoken on the duties and obligations of a wife towards her husband. They stressed that it is the particular duty of a wife to bear an off-spring for the husband, and render him faithful service and to provide conjugal happiness. The teachings of the Buddha were not as biased towards the husbands. In the Singalovada Sutta, the Buddha had clearly stated both the duties of the husband towards the wife and vice versa. On the part of the husband, he should be faithful, courteous and not despising. It is the husband’s duty to hand over authority to his wife; and from time to time, provide her with adornments. Therefore, we witness the unbiased attitude shown by the Buddha towards both men and women. (Yifa, & Yifa, 2010)
In the Christian faith there is a contrasting perspective. Women, though viewed as equal to men in value in the eyes of God are given unequal roles. In Genesis 2, there is a more detailed account of the creation of Adam and Eve and discloses the differences in their purpose and responsibilities as given by God himself. The general idea is that God did not create the man and the woman at the same time, but rather He created Adam first and Eve later for the specific purpose of being Adam’s helper. Eve was equal to Adam, but she was given the role and duty of submitting to him. The woman’s one and only role in the Christian religion is to be submissive to her husband and be a good “helpmate” to him. (House, 1995) A woman has no role in the church that is ruled and dictated only by men. The Christian woman is instructed by scripture to remain silent in matters of the church. 1 Corinthians of the Bible states, “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.”
Women in Religious and Leadership Roles
The leadership and religious roles of women in all three religions have changed over the course of history. Women in early Hinduism were very well respected. They took part in the royal court, and they were not afraid to push an issue until they were fully satisfied with the answer. These teachers were wise and well valued by other philosophers, of both the male and female genders. These women also contributed to how the various sacred teachings of Hinduism were brought down through the generations. Over the years, the situation surrounding Hindu women is gradually changing. They are gaining respect in both politics and religion and share an equal status with men. In some cases they enjoy more opportunities than women in many western countries. (Sharma, & Libraries, 2001)
Advances are also being made for women in the Buddhist religion. The Buddha opened the gates for the full participation of women in the field of religion by making them eligible for admission into the Bhikkhuni Sangha – the Order of Nuns. This opened new paths of culture, social services and opportunities for public life to women It led implicitly to the credit of their importance to society, and in doing so enhanced the status of women .It was said that under circumstances women are considered wiser and discerning than men, and that they are also capable of attaining perfection or sainthood treading the Noble Eight fold Path. (Yifa, & Yifa, 2010) When King Kosala found that he had a daughter Instead of a son, the Buddha pointed out not only their weaknesses but also their potential. The Buddha clearly showed that women are capable of understanding his teachings and also to practice them to some degree of spiritual attainment. (Mohr, & Tsedroen, 2010) The modern era of Buddhism is much different than in the days of the Buddha. Women’s liberation, their quest for freedom and equality achieved tremendous strides mostly in the West. This came about as the result of modern trends and thinking, and modern education for women in all areas of higher learning.
Like women in Hinduism and Buddhism, women in Christianity have gained better status and new roles in religion. In fact, women in Christianity may have made the most progress over history. In the early development of Christianity, women were told to take on the submissive role and only he a helper to their husbands. The woman’s role in the church was nonexistent and has now risen to a point where she can obtain roles as a minister and/or dean in the church. The Christian woman also has a voice that is respected and valued in making decisions.
In conclusion women of all three religions were historically not given the value and respect that men were, but have all gained new status and roles in their religion. Women throughout history have played different roles in different religion, but most of the time women were submissive to men. Women would never dream of becoming a minister or involved in the leadership of the religion regardless which religion it was. Today, women play more roles in leadership than ever before.