Religion defines a set of beliefs, perceptions, and cultural systems that relate to the understanding of society’s existence. It is characterized by various symbols, sacred histories, and stories about the purpose of life, its origin, and the basis of the universe. Religious beliefs shape morality and ethics. They also prescribe a certain lifestyle through a set of codes of acceptable behaviors within the doctrines of a given religion (Strayer, 2011).
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Based on such beliefs and lifestyle standards, religions view gender issues differently. In an effort to unveil how religion influences people’s acceptable beliefs and lifestyle principles within society, this paper discusses gender issues in the context of eastern religions, which constitute different beliefs in the eastern world that comprises Japan, China, India, and Southeast Asia (Strayer, 2011). They include Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, Jainism, Confucianism, and Sikhism among others. Based on its limited scope, this paper only discusses Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
Different societies have struggled with the challenge of addressing various issues that relate to gender such as gender equality in terms of participation in political processes and/or sharing of roles between women with men in both their families and within the society. This problem has plagued even the most developed nations since time immemorial. For instance, women in the western nations have had different achievements and losses. Coontz (2000) discusses these issues from the context of economic status of the American women and their limited role in society at the time. In this society, freedom and individualism were men’s reserves. Coontz (2000) confirms that women were aware of the domineering of men, but had no capacity to change the normalized perception of gender roles. Can such differences between men and women relate to their religious beliefs? Basing the debate on the eastern religions, the next section responds to this interrogative.
Gender Issues in the Eastern Religions
Apart from being the largest continent, Asia is the most populated continent. Its millions of people subscribe to different religions. Indeed, most of the world’s religions such as Islam, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism among others have their origin in Asia. These religions approach gender issues from different perspectives depending on the underlining beliefs and lifestyles that define them.
Hinduism had already begun by 800 BCE to 400BCE in India. It emphasized the worshiping of idols in the form of goddesses and different gods. Strayer (2011) reveals that Hindus also “believe in reincarnation or the soul being reborn into a higher or lower caste based on their previous lives, Karma and Dharma” (p.53). The region is organized in the form a pyramid. Sudras, which is composed of servants, farm workers, and laborers, occupies the base of the pyramid.
Depending on socio-economic position, cultivators, craftspeople, and traders follow towards the apex of the pyramid. Kshatriyas follow these categories of people while Brahmin clerics are at the apex. These ministers assume the biggest portion of Hindu sacred powers. Irrespective of the gender of the people who subscribe to Hinduism, transparency, honesty, bounteousness, and empathy shape the moral and ethical norms that are advocated for by the religion.
For the influence of Hinduism to ensure success to women, they (women) must depend on men for guidance. This observation implies that men are superior to them. Thus, female gender is subservient. It acts under control of the male gender. In fact, Hinduism resulted in a large decline in the women rights during 1600 to 1800BCE (Strayer, 2011). Sati ritual revealed well the dominance of men over women in the Hindu religion. Sati refers to a memorial service that was conducted among the Indians. In the ritual, a widow set herself ablaze to death. In this burning process, she used the husband’s burial pyre. This practice was unacceptable in case of a woman’s sacrifice. Hinduism advocates that once women fulfill their duty of death after the death of the husband by burning themselves, they will be reborn in a higher caste level.
The act of a woman killing herself upon the death of her husband reflects gender disparities in Hinduism religion. From the religion’s faithful perspective, the life of a woman was not important in the absence of that of a man who is supposed to control her. With time, the ceremony took another sophisticated direction that deprived women of their liberty to possess any material goods (Leaman, 1999). In the Hindu beliefs, women also married at the tender age. This situation prevented them from completing their education. They could not acquire qualification for performing various ritual sacrifices. Without men’s directions, the religion spread the belief that women would turn into being immoral.
Strayer (2011) amplifies this argument by asserting, “The symbol of a woman in the Indian culture has been a curious intermeshing of stumpy legal status, ritual contempt, sophisticated sexual partnership, and deification” (p.67). This claim suggests that women were merely minors who required men’s control for them to live and/or comply with the teaching of the religion. Cognition of these inequalities of women under the Hindu traditions led to the emergence of new religions, which improved the position of the woman in the Indian society such as Buddhism.
Siddhartha Gautama founded Buddhism in 6th century. The aim of the religion was to attain enlightenment, which is often referred as the Nirvana. Freedom was acquired after the termination of agony and affliction when a person could experience tranquility (Leaman, 1999). Rebirth and Karma, which are important aspects of the Hindu ideologies, are incorporated in Buddhism, which also incorporates mediation. Unlike Hindu traditions, Buddhism was least concerned with explanations of how the earth came about or even the reality of God. People subscribed to its teachings since it emphasized the need to break inequalities that were dominant in the caste system. It insisted that the caste point of argument or prescription of gender roles was not important in ensuring that people are enlightened (Strayer, 2011). Now, it is evident that Hindu and Buddhists’ beliefs perceive gender issues in different ways.
Unlike Hindus, Buddhists were entitled to Narvana. Indeed, Narvana was not reserved for men who were considered members of the upper class in the Hindu society. Thus, women joined Buddhism in search for freedom and independence, which had long been taken from them through Hindu practices. In theory, Buddhism spread a belief that women and men were same (Leaman, 1999).
This case made women have access to rights that were previously inaccessible through the Hindu doctrines. For instance, they were permitted to become nuns. However, Buddhism still considers women inferior in some circumstances. For example, the historical Buddha denied decreeing women to function as nuns claiming that giving them the opportunity to become members of Sangha could reduce the continued existence of his doctrines by 50% from 1000 years. It took the invention of Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin, for them to acquire the right. Nevertheless, some Buddhist rules applied unequally to nuns.
In the original Buddhism, some special rules applied to nuns and monks. For instance, the rules stated that senior-most nuns would be junior to monks even if they (monks) served for one day (Leaman, 1999). Although this subordination has died in many parts of Asia, in some areas, nuns receive lower educational levels together with financial aid compared to monks. The Buddhists of today’s world view gender subordination of women in the religion as inherited from the Asian cultures, which relate to dharma. Amid the remaining women and men inequalities, which are propagated by Buddhists in some nations, the trend is geared towards ensuring total equality. However, such an endeavor to deal with such gender issues, which are propagated from one generation to the other over several centuries, cannot be accomplished within one day.
This group comprises Chinese’s sets of truth-seeking and pious customs. Although classification of movements and sects of Taoist attracts controversy among religious scholars, issues such as its propriety and ethics emphasize humility and love together with moderation as building blocks for Taoist religion (Leaman, 1999). Its doctrines dwell on relativism, emptiness, spontaneity, and aspects of humanism. Perhaps, Taoism is not a sect, but a religion. Under the religious faith, spirits of the ancestors are incredibly important. The Jade Emperor is considered the head deity among popular Taoists, although the enlightened ones reflect on Laozi and the top ‘Three Pure Ones’.
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The principles of Taoism are comprehensible on feminine positions in the social order. The religion promotes equality of women and men at all levels of the society. The larger portion of the Taoist spirituality addresses the balancing of individuals with respect to femininity and masculinity (Leaman, 1999). It propagates the belief that people possess overpowering aspects on the manly and womanly side. The religion’s doctrines call upon people to search their yin (womanly) traits to have more female traits. This situation implies that it looks at women’s mental and physical attributes with respect and great relevance. It teaches women to perceive themselves as incredibly crucial constituents of the Taoist society.
Confucianism entails a philosophical or ethical system. However, from the definition for religion that is offered in this paper, it can be considered a religion. Its teachings developed from the Chinese philosopher, Confucius (Xinzhong, 2000). Confucianism comprises sophisticated schemes that define and/or oversee protocols and responsibilities of people in different associations. However, most of its focus is on humaneness, familial roles and obligation, and loyalty (Xinzhong, 2000). Its religious aspects are manifested in recognition and embracement of the Chinese beliefs in deities and spirits.
In the Confucian beliefs, defining various gender roles within a society ensures societal stability. It teaches that virtuous women follow the lead given by their fathers, if they are not married. However, when married, they follow the directions offered by their husbands. Upon the death of their husbands, Confucians required women to follow principles of chastity. Xinzhong (2000) reveals how this cult condemned many women to loneliness and immense poverty. Those who chose to remarry acquired a social stigma. Much similar to the role of the female gender in the 17th century American society as discussed by Coontz (2000), Confucians saw women as best suited to home-based chores such as weaving while men were family breadwinners. It is also similar to the Hindu ideologies since it treated women as men’s property.
Coontz, S. (2000). Historical Perspectives on Family Studies. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 6(2), 283-297. Web.
Leaman, O. (1999). Key Concepts in Eastern Philosophy. London: Routledge. Web.
Strayer, R. (2011). Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins. Web.
Xinzhong, Y. (2000). An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Web.