Kumari Jayawardena: “The White Woman’s Other Burden.” Blavatsky and Emancipation in South Asia

From the outset, Kumari Jayawardena’s “The White Woman’s Other Burden” (1995) demonstrates, theosophy emphasized the absence of any distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color in its theory and practice; and gender equality was therefore, one of its distinctive features. The 1995 work of Jayawardena details the roles and activities of foreign women in the context of colonial India. It mentions Blavatsky’s roles, and the perceptions of theosophy from women and liberals, and the role of the upper-classes, colonialists, women socialists, and liberals. Jayawardena notes that if there was one thing that tied them, education was the one common issue of these varied and multifaceted women, involved in emancipation in South Asia.

Henry Louis Mencken once criticized theosophy as a re-hash of so-called oriental philosophy in his review of C.E. Bechofer-Robert’s, The Mysterious Madame, in the American Mercury, Nov. 1931.

{Scoff} Mencken goes:

“This oriental philosophy is the product of Hindus who believe that cows have souls, that adepts can fly through the air without the use of wings or gasoline, and that a man who permits his daughter to go unmarried so much as twenty-four hours beyond the onset of puberty is doomed to Hell.” (Henry Louis Mencken, “Hooey of the Orient,” American Mercury, November, 1931)

Here we witness the example of a man who was known as a harsh critic of his time anyway, not aware of the role of theosophists, nor Blavatsky’s in South Asia. It is undeniable theosophists attracted support from independent, educated women, who saw in theosophy, the appeal for what it meant toward equal rights in the secular and spiritual spheres, Kumari Jayawardena notes (1995: 119). These were the early women movers for ‘liberation’; thereby, fighting for what they saw as a place among “thinking and advanced minds.” It is careful to note here therefore, of the reality of the issues then.

Kumari Jayawardena argues, that Blavatsky’s achievement was to make the theosophical movement not merely an occult society, but apart of the “progressive” thought of the late 19th century. Theosophy is not purely a product of the late 19th century, but the movement giving it expression has its social and political contexts. What was progressive thought in the late 19th century is not the same today; nor can everything reasoned today can be reasoned the same then. So, let us go into the motivations of Blavatsky’s denunciations.

In Michael Gome’s The Secret Doctrine: The Classic Work, Abridged and Annotated (2009), he wondered in his preface, why Blavatsky was so ignored by feminist theorists (see Manly P. Hall On Great Value And Context Of H.P. Blavatsky’s “The Secret Doctrine”).

H.P.B. relinquished her aristocratic class status, immigrated to the “new Republic,” i.e., the United States, in whom she saw a beacon of hope for the world. She called herself both republican and democrat, as they were one then; as opposed to the “old order,” and she used her money for her travels and philanthropic goals in the theosophical movement. Contrary to Henry Louis Mencken’s criticism about sacred cows and married pubescents, Jayawardena remarks, that Blavatsky, writing in 1879, had attended a Hindu wedding of a girl age ten to a boy age fourteen, “describing the endless drawn out rites and rigmorales” (From the Caves and Jungles of Hindustan, 1975 ed., 1879: 228). She also reported on a Brahmin wedding where a boy age seven was marrying a girl age five, and a Parsi wedding between a boy age five and an infant age two and half.

She wrote of this: “But what a strange and incredible unjust fate has befallen the women of India, in all that concerns the living conditions,” stating in Brahmin weddings, there was “no love or free choice.” She referred to female infanticide as a “terrible custom.” Further on, H.P.B. just blazingly condemns India’s marriage institutions and customs, but different from the same condemnations made by the missionaries who blamed it on Hinduism, she traced it to corruptions of Hinduism perpetrated by the Brahmins. She advocated that, child marriage, female infanticide and sati (an Indian widow practice) were not central to Hinduism, condemning the Brahmins for even prohibiting others from reading the Vedas, and doctoring certain ideas. Women enjoyed the same rights of men in ancient India, and had important roles in the chronicles of Aryavarta, H.P.B. argued. Foreign invasions and Muslims were said to have changed this situation, while the Brahmins took the opportunity to further shackle women. It can be further read below pp. 118-122.

“The White Woman’s Other Burden”: Western Women and South Asia during British Rule. Kumari Jayawardena. New York: Routledge, 1995, pp. 118-122.

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2 thoughts on “Kumari Jayawardena: “The White Woman’s Other Burden.” Blavatsky and Emancipation in South Asia

  1. It is true that Hinduism was corrupted over the millennia by the Brahmins. The caste system, the four fold division of society, was originally based on qualifications and not hereditary (enforced by birth).

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