If India is the birthplace and heart of the world's most powerful and influential mystical traditions, there are those who would say that it is equally unparalleled in its conservatism regarding gender issues. Indeed, with distinct and clearly defined religious roles for women and men, a long and only recently outlawed legacy of ritual widow-burning, and a deep renunciate tradition all but forbidding the participation of women, Mother India has, in the final decades of the twentieth century, come under considerable fire for what many say amounts to an almost universal neglect of the spiritual welfare of her daughters.
Last winter, while still in the early phases of research for this issue, we began to wonder how representatives of Hindu orthodoxy might account for some of the apparently misogynist sentiments expressed in many of the most revered scriptures of their tradition—a tradition in which, perhaps ironically, goddess worship occupies a central role. It was with an aim to find answers that we sent reporter-at-large Chris Parish deep into the jungled hills of southern India to ask some probing questions of one of contemporary Hinduism's most respected authorities, Swami Bharati Tirtha, the Shankaracharya of Sringeri. Holding a position in Hindu religious society often compared to that of the pope in Catholicism, Tirtha is one of four current representatives of a long lineage of Shankaracharyas dating back to Adi Shankara, the eighth-century founder of Advaita Vedanta and India's most revered philosopher/sage. If anyone was qualified to defend the tradition's stance on gender, we thought, surely he would be the one.
In the course of the conversation, as we might have expected, the Shankaracharya did indeed stand firm in defense of the ideological bastions of his native soil. But as the following excerpt reveals, the direction he took to do so was one that none of us could have anticipated.