Our first week in India is packed full with visiting sights and going to lectures at the University of Calcutta, which include a range of professors’ research areas that center around India’s social, cultural, and religious history. This week of classes is meant to foreground our study of Hinduism and our travel through India with context for the social issues and religious expressions we may encounter along the way. I find our classes and experiences really coming together at this point in the trip. What we learn in class almost always finds resonance with my own observations and experiences, which I feel especially excited about because already our experience of India feels in so many ways more pronounced (traffic, colors, food, smells…) than the relative similarities to home I felt settled into in Japan. The distinctions between my initial encounters in India and anything I am familiar with feel louder than the past countries we have been to. And while, for the most part, diving into Calcutta is refreshing, opening, I also feel attuned to cultural differences that are more difficult to grapple with, most notably, a different balance between genders than I am accustomed to.

We go into India with a catalog of the media’s attention to high rates of sexual violence against foreign women, also aware that the rate of sexual violence among Indian women is much, much higher. We’ve been told that when going out, it’s a good idea to have at least one male in the group with us. In the first few days, I feel slight hints of the disparity between genders, as the male PacRimmers seem to have more liberty in terms of what they can wear and do in public. For some time I am grappling with what to do: to what extent do I need to adhere to these norms out of respect for my host culture, and on the other hand, at what point do I hold fast to my own values and expectations as a human being?

My initial, one-sided perception of gender inequality in India is complicated by a lecture on the longstanding goddess tradition. Since Vedic times, reverence to a goddess figure has been a key element of spirituality in South Asia. Over time artistic depictions and imaginations of the goddess reified her as the powerful warrior goddess that Hindus now worship as Durga, origin goddess of the devi triad, in which she is accompanied by Kali and Jagaddhatri. Durga is especially worshipped in West Bengal, the region surrounding Calcutta, and is often venerated in the context of household duties. Our professor acknowledges that this is at first off-putting, the great warrior goddess confined to gender roles, but she goes on to argue that Durga represents a quiet form of resistance for women of West Bengal, who express dissent by worshipping Durga in the context of gender-ascribed duties.

Jagaddhatri viewing in Chandannagar

Another professor addresses inequality in her lecture on gender in India. She acknowledges some of the perceptions we have of gender issues—high rates of sexual violence, less mobility and independence due to fewer education opportunities for women—but also brings attention to the gendered empowerment that emerged with Gandhi’s approach to resistance and the independence movement. If the Western approach of domination attached a masculine identity to colonialism, then Gandhi’s nonviolent model of peaceful resistance elevated the feminine. Gandhi explained that in contrast to Western aggressive and violent domination, the Indian atman., or “self,” is located in long-cultivated concepts such as Brahman, that all beings are not separate, we come from the same source, which underpins the practice of ahimsa, non-violence, and is the basis of the Hindu worldview. Gandhi put forth a model for resistance that was true to India’s historical and spiritual past, and in so doing elevated the feminine, over the masculine, in the global-scale gender clashes of the colonial era.

People crowding for a view of Jagaddhatri

In just our first week in India, I find the incoming perceptions I held of a place complicated and stretched in different directions. Experiencing a place brings immeasurable nuance compared to the ideas we form to approximate unfamiliar environments, and the academic portion of this journey only amplifies the potential for awareness and insight.

Kali celebration in Calcutta