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Denison Journal of Religion

Abstract

This essay argues that the role of women in Hindu culture during different time periods has not been defined by theological change so much as social and political change. The concept of Shakti, or woman's power, has always been present in Hindu theology, but the way in which that power has been understood differed depending on the socio-historical context. For instance, the relative stability of the Vedic period and the emphasis on domesticity and family during that period made for an atmosphere in which women were of the utmost importance. Therefore, their power was available in private life as well as public life, and their role in ritual as representation of fertility was highly prized. However, the Classical period was characterized by social unrest"there was a constant influx of invaders, as well as the encroaching influence of Jainism and Buddhism. Hinduism was under threat. The response to this by some "paranoid" male leaders was to limit the power of women strictly to the home, and to subject women to the influence and rule of their husbands and fathers. Cox comments that Shakti never disappeared from Hindu theology, but socio-political circumstances made for very different interpretations of that power. This example, Cox argues, makes it very clear that theology is not the only illuminator of religion, and that religious study must include consideration of social, historical, and political circumstances as well.

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