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Gender and Spirituality

Ranjeeta Dutta

By Manisha Sethi
Routledge, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 240, price not stated.

VOLUME XXXVII NUMBER 2-3 February/March 2013

‘….how does one explain the numerical preponderance of nuns over monks? What is it that drives women—increasingly young and unmarried—to a life of itinerant mendicancy?’ (p. 8)? This question posed within the context of contemporary Jainism in the introductory chapter of Escaping the World by Manisha Sethi sets the tone for the ensuing discussion on gender and spirituality. Largely unaddressed in researches on Jainism till now, the question opens up new possibilities of analysing the access of women to renunciation and the gendered notions associated with it. Unlike the brahmanical normative tradition that debars women from renunciation and confines them to the household as ideal wives, the Jain tradition provides a religious space for female renunciation and institutionalizes it by approving the presence of female mendicant orders and women ascetics. However, Sethi cautions us not to feel too optimistic about a feminist discourse within Jainism, despite ‘a preponderance of female ascetics in the Jain mendicant orders, with the number of sadhvis surpassing that of the sadhus by over three times’ (p. 4). The author points out that the Jain worldviews on women in general and nuns in particular with their respective delineations of the female ideal in the Jain normative and popular texts, are replete with gendered approaches and misogyny. However, the analysis does not pause here. In an attempt to find reasons for a favourable quantitative representation of the nuns, it further introduces a complex dimension which lends vitality to the feminist analysis. The work states that despite the patriarchal ideas existing within the Jain religious tradition, the women find or are able to carve out within it a space for themselves, often negotiating with and subverting the patriarchical structure of power and authority. According to the author, access to renunciation already prescribed by the didactic texts is used by the women as an opportunity to break from or avoid the domestic ties that stifle their free will. On the basis of an ethnographical analysis of the Jain mendicant orders in Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan, the author provides interesting information about a large number of unmarried educated young women from well-to-do backgrounds embracing renunciation willfully and thus enabling themselves to emerge in the public space unencumbered by domestic obligations. While succinctly presenting the gist of the arguments discussed subsequently, the first chapter clearly states that the subject of study have been female Jain ‘professional ascetics’ and not household women ...

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