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Mainstream, VOL L, No 1, December 24, 2011 (Annual 2011)

Goddess Lakshmi and Cultural Traditions of Rice: Implications for Status of Women

Tuesday 27 December 2011, by Bidyut Mohanty

WOMEN’S WORLD

There is a worldwide concern at the falling proportion of the girl child in developing countries, especially in China and India, which are countries making news as rising economies. The recent census figures present an alarming anti-woman trend. In the case of China, the proportion of the male population stood at 110 per every hundred females in 2000 which increased to 118 in 2010 showing an increasing gender gap. India may show a slightly better situation but she too represents the same trend with 107 males in 2001 and 109 in 2011 for every hundred females. Both the countries are facing an increasing ‘female deficit’ over decades.

A deeper analysis of this phenomenon would indicate that this is related to the non-recognition of the economic value of women’s contribution to the production process and household work. In fact, a peep into the traditions of economy and culture may provide some clue to the under-standing and solution of the problem. The historical experiences of Asian societies, especially rice-growing regions, show that even in the patriarchal society that prevailed, recognising the value of women’s work participation in the agricultural process as well as in management of the household contributed to enhancing the status of women. I will illustrate this taking the case study of a social reform initiative in Eastern India which shaped popular consciousness through a literary creation in the sixteenth century. That conveyed a message using the practices from the rural economy and the household. The text became the instrument of a major cultural ritual of Lakshmi worship and has been observed on a mass scale till today.

Deconstruction of a sixteenth century popular Odia literary text such as Lakshmi Purana or the story of Goddess Lakshmi reveals how the pattern of economic activities located in the background of a predominantly agrarian setting was used by the religious and social reformers of the age to challenge the stratified social structure and patriarchy. In the process they were able to lay the foundation of a relatively more egalitarian and gender-just society.

This was the second wave of the Bhakti movement in the sixteenth century in Odisha which differed from the earlier phases conside-rably since this one provided a social and philosophical orientation to the movement. One sect of the movement of course believed in Lord Vishnu but the other sect believed in Lord Krishna. However, both the sects challenged the existing caste hierarchy and the subordinate role of women. In practice it recruited members from all castes. They believed in determining the status of any individual on the basis of his/her work and not by birth. Thereby the movement contributed towards the laying of an intellectual foundation for the discourse on social equality.

At that time the regionalisation of Indian culture was also beginning to take place with the rise of great regional kingdoms and the unfolding of religious transformations. The regional languages challenged the domination of Sanskrit by producing a rich variety of literature. The great epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata got translated into local languages adapting local culture.

Lakshmi Vratakatha or Lakshmi Purana can be categorised as belonging to that genre. Purana is commonly known as the popular Indian scripture particularly found in the tradition of Hinduism. It usually depicts the story of the goddess or god. Sometimes it was used to impart a radical message to the masses of common people.

Goddess Lakshmi got a lot of prominence in the tradition of the Bhakti movement, since she was considered as the consort of Lord Vishnu.

There was also a new momentum in the social reform initiative of the Bhakti movement which saw five reformers very active in spreading their message through popular Puranas. Balaram Das, one of the prominent reformers of that period, wrote the Lakshmi Purana. He also popularised the message of equality among women. Das used the precinct of the temple and recited the story of Purana among the women. In Odisha Lakshmi has been depicted as the consort of Lord Jagannath. She resides in the precinct of the temple of Puri along with her husband, Lord Jagannath, brother-in-law, Balaram, and their sister, Subhadra. But Lakshmi has a separate temple to herself within the boundaries of the Jagannath temple. The temple was built in the twelfth century and is still considered to be the most important temple. Lord Jagannath has always been considered as the main deity of the royal family since its inception. Even now he is considered as the principal deity of Odisha.

In the sixteenth century, different sects of the Bhakti movement worshipped Lord Jagannath since he was considered to be the incarnation of both Lord Vishnu and Lord Krishna. Thus the precinct of the temple became the important site which was used by the reformers to impart their radical social messages.

LAKSHMI is also known as Annapurna (provider of a bounty of rice). Let us examine if the way Lakshmi is conceptualised is connected with the cultural practices of rice cultivation. Women generally uphold cultural practices. Rice culture is no exception. Further, of all the foodgrains, rice perhaps has a unique place in shaping the lifestyle of the people who depend on it for their sustenance and livelihood. Only rice is associated with a goddess called Lakshmi. In the rice-cultivating region, each stage of rice production is done on an auspicious day and some rituals are performed. Being a predominantly rice-producing State, Odisha also followed different rituals associated with rice cultivation marking each stage of cultivation such as ploughing, transplantation, harvesting and storing the rice. If the sowing season is observed as the fertility ritual, the harvesting of rice is marked by another ritual expressing gratitude to the Goddess Lakshmi. Rice and Lakshmi are interchangeable concepts in local imagination. All these rituals have been performed from the sixteenth century till today in the rural areas.

Lakshmi being the provider of food is still worshipped and feared in an agrarian society like Odisha and women try to observe the rituals with devotion lest her displeasure would affect the harvest of rice and bring about starvation. This also ensured care and attention to the process of rice production. During the annual worship of Lakshmi, women recite the story of the Purana which was written by Balaram Das.

The story of the Purana reads like this. Once Lakshmi in disguise went out of the temple of Puri and wanted to see how her devotees were worshipping her on her designated day. She was disappointed because nobody was worshipping her except one untouchable woman. Lakshmi went to her house and being pleased granted her a number of boons. On her return, her husband, Jagannath, adequately incited by his brother Balaram, rebuked her and asked her to leave the temple since she had become an outcaste by visiting an untouchable household. Being offended by their lack of appreciation of her visit to a devotee irrespective of caste, she cursed them to be deprived of food until she offered food to them. She vowed to teach both the brothers a lesson by showing her own capabilities. Since she was in charge of all the foodgrains of the mortal world and also in charge of household affairs, she saw to it that both the brothers did not get any food. She resorted to this punishing act as she felt that otherwise men of the mortal world would not care for their women.

Being deprived of food, the brothers roamed around and finally landed on the doorstep of the same household where Lakshmi had been living. Lakshmi fed them well by declaring herself as an untouchable. Jagannath realised his fault and promised her autonomy of free movement among her devotees without any caste bar and that members of all castes would share the offerings to him together without being an outcaste. Incidentally, the offerings to Jagannath comprise cooked food even now.

As mentioned in the story, women were in charge of management of the foodgrains at the household level.

In reality also women’s work participation in agriculture is quite visible in rice cultivating areas. Starting from Boserup (1970) to Joan Menchor (1978) and Pranab Bardhan (1974) all pointed out that women contributed signifi-cantly to the cultivation of rice. In each stage of cultivation, except perhaps ploughing, women’s physical labour is quite visible. It is further observed that the girl child has a better chance to survive in the rice-cultivating areas compared to the wheat-cultivating areas. Evidence also suggests that the infant mortality ratio as well as sex ratio (males per hundred females) between the two sexes is lower or less adverse to women, in the rice-cultivating areas in comparison with the wheat-cultivating areas. Even now agriculture is feminised since this sector employs women labour. In the face of the looming food crisis in the present world, countries in general and populous countries like China and India in particular can’t afford to neglect this primary sector.

Thus it was noticed that the Bhakti movement of the sixteenth century started as a protest movement against the stratified social structure and patriarchy. The movement got the royal support and social reformers of the movement used the tolerant culture of Lord Jagannath, presence of Lakshmi—the goddess of wealth in a separate temple as well as women’s visible work participation in rice cultivation to be able to write stories like Lakshmi Purana. In this story not only does Lakshmi assert her autonomy, but she also values women’s work and at the same time challenges caste discrimination. The signifi-cant contributions to household work by women and recognition of its value are crucial to deter-mining women’s status everywhere. This is what the Lakshmi story from India illustrates.

IN the present context, some important lessons can be drawn from this tradition. It is true that both India and China have adopted various policy measures to protect the girl child. Even then, year after year, in both the countries, more and more girl children are killed before they are born. As a result the proportion of girl children continues to decline in spite of the visible prosperity in China as well as urban India. The Lakshmi story teaches one important lesson to the policy-makers: to improve the status of the girl children/women.

The remedy lies in two- pronged strategies. First, restoring the priority of the agricultural sector; and second, the recognition of the economic contribution of women in the production process and management of house-hold affairs. Further upgradation of the skill of women agricultural workers and cultivators as well as generation of formal and informal employment opportunities for women should also be taken up. Along with that mass scale campaigns regarding the value of women’s household work should be taken up by the social movements, enlightened civil society and conscious groups of women and men. Thus Lakshmi’s message will be transmitted to the insensitive patriarchal society.

SUGGESTED READINGS
 
Bardhan, Pranab (1974), ‘On Life and Death Question’, Economic and Political Weekly, Special Number, August.
Boserup, Ester (1970), Women’s Role in Economic Development, London: Allen and Lenwin Ltd.
Menchor, Joan (1978), Agriculture and Social Structure in Tamil Nadu: Past Origins, Present Transformation and Future Prospects. New Delhi: Allied Publishers Ltd.
Mohanty, Bidyut (2008), ‘Status of Women in an Agrarian Economy: Deconstruction of Oriya Lakshmi Vrata katha’, in Shimkhada, Deepak and Herman Phyllis (eds.), The Constant and Changing Face of Goddesses: The Goddess Tradition of Asia, Cambridge: Scholar Press.
Mohanty, Satya P. (2008), ‘Alternative Modernities and Medeival Indian Literature: The Oriya Lakshmi Purana as a Radical Pedagogy’, Diacrities, Fall 2008.
Klasen Stephan and Cludia Wink“Missing Women’: Revisiting the Debate” In Bina Agarwal, Jane Humphries and Ingrid Robeyns (2006) (eds.) Capabilities, Freedom and Equality: Amartya Sen’s Work from a Gender Perspective, New Delhi: OUP.

Bidyut Mohanty is the head, Women’s Studies Department, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. She can be contacted at: bidyutmohanty@-issin.org

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