Through the whole history of the mankind, it was followed by religion or belief of a certain kind. It did not matter how a religion was called, or who were the gods, religions always depicted value systems of the society or target group. It might have been imposed forcefully as Christianity in Kyiv Russ or developed on the basis of unexplained events, called miracles and resurrection of the Christ, eagerly accepted by poor classes of Judaist society. Irrespective of religion’ name and stage of development, it was in direct connection with the politico-historical environment of its existence. Subsequently, exploration and critical analysis of a certain religion should be conducted in the framework of the socio-political environment it developed and requirements of the time it followed. In other words, both religion and historical society of its existence should be studied in their interdependence. Thus, the main aim of the offered research is to explore how religion created and demolished class and gender roles in history and what was the opposite connection between special requirements of such division, and how they influenced religious concepts of the time. In this framework, the central thesis of the present research is to track the change of continuity over time of Varanasi Hinduism and Jerusalem Christianity in the socio-gender roles distribution. Since the times of two religions’ development do not coincide, the timeframe for exploration would be the 1st millennium CE. This particularly means that religions are analyzed in respect to certain changes in their conceptual postulates, rather on century-to-century basis, although the starting point would be the beginning of the 1st century CE.
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Since in the beginning of the 1st century CE Varanasi Hinduism and early Christianity were on different stages of development, their socio-gender stratification of the society and religious community (in case of Christianity) was different (MacCulloch 126). While Hinduism had justified and established social stratification of the Varanasi society according to the caste system, early Jerusalem Christianity was on its proto-level of development and, subsequently, did not have a strict socio-material division of the followers (Gesler 231). On the other hand, the class of priests and their authority was beginning to rise, but, at that time, it was not based on wealth or belonging to a certain social class but respect and ritual influence (Brakke 49). On the other hand, the position of women in Varanasi varied greatly from respect to mothers to neglect of prostitutes (Gesler 232). The early Christianity was characterized by “ Jesus’ perception of women”. According to Christ’s teaching women were equal to men and were treated as full members of the community and family (Brakke 51).
The above mentioned situations of two religions were conditioned by the same reason – socio-historical environment of existence and need to survive. In case of Hinduism, social stratification and diversity in relations to women were conditioned by the historical tradition of religious beliefs and socio-political situation in Varanasi at that time. Being a religious, cultural and trade centre, Varanasi was hosting various people from the Indian kingdoms: traders, pilgrims, priests, warriors and foreign travelers (Gesler 228). Under conditions of such various flow of people from different parts of India, constant change of Dynasties and further establishment of Kushan Empire (1st century AD), Varanasi Hinduism served as means of keeping the order on the territory and protection from other kingdoms’ claims (Brockington 59). Subsequently, social stratification was dictated by political need to remain the same and smooth under constant changes of the environment. On the other hand, religious tradition of such division was dictating desire of rulers to see society in strict subordination and control (Brockington 63).
Although early Christian environment was different from Varanasi and did not have millennia history of religious traditions, it required the same thing – adaptation in order to survive. Having the status of outlaws and criminal in the Roman Empire, Christians were often blamed for the political activities or any mutiny in the Empire. For instance, they were persecuted for the Great Fire of Rome (64 AD), instead of Emperor Nero, who committed this crime (MacCulloch 259). Under severe conditions of survival, social or gender stratification in the early Christian community would inevitably result in its complete destruction. Women were treated like equals because their active participation in the Christian movement was essential for the community functioning and attraction of new members (Brakke 62). Women from the nations, conquered by Roman soldiers, were eager to follow religious believe which treated them like equals, and vice versa spreading of Christianity was developing those ideas among people (MacCulloch 260).
In the next centuries, the tendency had remained the same – religion was adapting to the new socio-political environment and was changing its concepts. In the next few centuries, Varanasi Hinduism was relatively unchanged and was developing science and culture in its borders, although now under the rule of the new Gupta Empire (320-550 CE) (Brockington 71). This was mainly conditioned by the fact that Hinduism as religion was already formed and that it had various interpretations which suited any peculiarity of the new ruler. Christianity, on the other hand, was still developing and gaining power. On the First Council of Nicaea in 325, Christianity was strong enough to divide and gain power in this struggle for division (MacCulloch 297). At this stage, the central issue was no longer the survival of Christian community but distribution of power between bishops and their influence on emperor and congregations. Subsequently, equality of women in that society was not needed, and their status was diminished to a mere child birthing, being an embodiment of Eva and the original sin (Brakke 79). In the next centuries, strengthening of clergy’s power, its unification with feudal lords’ civil power and need to rule congregation rather than save it were resulting in stratification of feudal society into clergy, feudal lords, peasants and women (MacCulloch 306). The final stage of this process was inquisition and the witch hunt.
Another characteristic feature of both religions in the context of socio-gender stratification is that there was a huge difference between actual attitude to women of higher social status and poor peasants or shudras and chandalas in India. The most vivid example of such inconsistency of religious perception can be the pilgrimage practices conducted in two religions. Political conditionality of the Christian perception of women can be seen on the example of Emperor Constantine’s mother Helen. Irrespective of her female nature, and being the embodiment of the original sin, she was given an opportunity to conduct a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (326-328 CE), from where she was believed to bring the Cross of Christ. For those merits and miracles she was canonized as Saint Helen (MacCulloch 321). Subsequently, her status of mother of the ruler of Roman Empire was higher than her female nature, and in the eyes of clergy she was saint like a man rather than a mortal woman.
Inconsistency in Hinduism prescription of women status and their practical treatment in respect to their social and material status is the most vividly seen on example of death pilgrimage of widowed women to Varanasi. Through the whole history of the Varanasi existence, widows were coming to die in this sacred place, because they were driven out of their homes, since relatives considered them to be the cause of their husbands’ death (Gesler 236). The main tragedy of these women was not even in their banishment but that, before their actual death, they could have lived up to fifty years in poverty and absence of any resources. Most of them were doomed for the life of begging and prostitution (Gesler 237). According Menon “ Varanasi might be gateway to heaven, but for the poor, abandoned widow, it is undeniably a hell on earth” (qtd. in Gesler 237). Subsequently, diverse interpretation of women status in Hinduism resulted in transitional nature of women position in the local society. It depended on her marital and family wealth statuses (Brockington 126).
The mentioned above similarity of two religions proves that, although, on the initial stage, moral-value systems were developed by societies and then embodied in religious believes, on the further stages religions were forming socio-gender stratification of society. In this context, gender roles were of the secondary value, since wealth and social status could change it in the eyes of one or another god. Concerning the exemplar adaptability of two religions to changes of the surrounding environment, further advancement of each religion and its consolidation with political/secular powers gave them an ability to become above the influences of surrounding environment. When religion and secular power merge, the society is the one to adapt and accommodate to the new challenges of politico-clerical intrigues.
In the long-term perspective, characteristic feature of those two religions is that their constant impact on the socio-gender stratification of societies in history had resulted in the development of the modern socio-gender stereotypes in perception of those religions. Nowadays, those religions do not have the former influence, and their conceptual postulates again require adaptability to challenges of the surrounding environment and influences of other religions. Although Hinduism and Christianity are trying to adapt to the modern world perception of emancipated women and the equality of human rights, religious ceremonies and prescriptions still carry the information of the past. The most vivid example is that, in some branches of Christianity, women still have to cover their hair with scarves, while in Hinduism women still depend on the will of men in their families and widows might commit suicide (MacCulloch 789; Brockington 159). Those examples show that, irrespective of initially different origins, central concepts and accommodation styles, both religions did not abolish practices and traditions which were characteristic for their history. Subsequently, each religion carries its history and traditions through centuries irrespective of new challenges.
Overall, it can be concluded that, irrespective of the fact that Varanasi Hinduism and Christianity had initially different perceptions of social stratification and gender roles, both religions were transforming and developing their doctrines in order to survive. The strict social stratification and diverse views on women in Hindu society where first contrasted by Christian equality inside the initial community and then unified by further development of strict feudal division of classes and dehumanization of mortal women. In both religions and their practical implementations, social status and belonging to the higher caste were more essential than gender roles. This research shows that substantial religion interpretation should be conducted through the study of its existential environment.
Brakke, D. Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity.
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Brockington, J. L. The Sacred Thread: Hinduism in Its Continuity and Diversity. Edinburgh,
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Gesler, W. M. “ Hindu Varanasi”, The Geographic Review, 90. 2 (2000): 222-241. Print.
MacCulloch, D. A History of Christianity. London, LD: Penguin. 2010. Print.