Much has been written recently about the plight of women in India. It is certainly true that on the scale of most economic and social indicators, women are lagging behind men. India is also facing the disturbing prospect of a serious gender gap. Indeed according to the 2001 Census, one of the most prosperous states of India – Punjab – has the highest shortfall of female children vs. a vs. male children. This provides some evidence that mere prosperity will not be enough to eliminate gender discrimination from India. Whereas men may have greater physical energy than women the latter clearly have more internal and emotional energy. It is not without reason then that women are identified with shakti in our civilization.
If women are kept suppressed this shakti will be denied to the family and the society weakening all of them. UNESCAP’s 2007 Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific estimates that if women’s participation in the labor market in 2006 had been as high as that in the US, India’s growth rate would have been higher by 1.08 per cent. This would have meant a gain of $ 19 billion to the country’s GDP. Even with a 10 per cent increase in the labor market participation rate for women growth would have gone up by 0.31 per cent and amounted to a gain of $5.4 billion to India’s GDP. In addition there are losses due to gender gap in education in addition to the social and personal costs.
What is to blame for this state of affairs and what is the way forward? Is there something inherently wrong with the way Santana dharma or Hindu culture treats womanhood? If we were to go by the commentaries on some texts such as the Manusmriti we would be led to believe that this is indeed the case. However, the ultimate and the only authority on the practices of Sanatana Dharma are the four Vedas. The message of the Vedas is sometimes very subtle and many learned people regard the Mahabharata as the fifth Veda, which explains in simpler terms the messages of the Vedas. Our vast religious literature has been polluted by the hypocritical behavior and selfish intents of some so-called pundits (the Matsyapurna says that these people are rakshas born in Kaliyuga in the family lineage of Brahmans) and centuries of subjugation by colonial forces. It is likely that the Manusmriti has been affected thus. This is evident from some other passages in the Manusmriti extolling the virtues of women.
Thus we have Women and the Vedas :
“Women are worthy of worship. They are the fate of the household, the lamp of enlightenment for all in the household. They bring solace to the family and are an integral part of dharmic life. Even heaven is under the control of women. The gods reside in those households where women are worshipped and in households where women are slighted all efforts at improvement go in vain.” ~ Manusmriti 3-56
It is hard to imagine that the same Manu who wrote this passage would write the passages denigrating women in other parts of the Manusmriti. Indeed, since it is supposed to guide the conduct of Hindu society the Manusmriti would be a natural candidate for distortion – by the pundits to serve their narrow selfish ends and by the colonial powers to denigrate Hindu culture and society. This practice continues to this day.
Be that as it may – if one is truly interested in ascertaining whether there exists a link between Sanatana Dharma and the treatment of women in India one must go the basic scriptures – the Vedas and the Mahabharata – to discover what Sanatana Dharma has to say about marriage, the role of women in society and the like. Extolling the virtue of the Vedas Lord Krishna says in the SrimadBhagwat Gita:
“And I am seated in the hearts of all; from Me are memory, knowledge, as well as their loss; I am verily that which has to be known by all the Vedas; I am indeed the author of the Vedanta as well as the knower of the Vedas
~ Chapter 15, shloka 15
It is indeed illuminating to note the passages about the role of women in the hallowed texts of the Vedas and the Mahabharata. And indeed there are no contradictory passages. I will quote some of these passages to illustrate this point.
This beautifully lyrical sloka from the Atharvaveda clearly states that the woman leads the man:
“The sun god follows the first illuminated and enlightened goddess Usha (dawn) in the same manner as men emulate and follow women.”
~ Athravaveda Samhita, Part 2, Kanda 27, sukta 107, sloka 5705.
Women were considered to be the embodiment of great virtue and wisdom.
Thus we have:
“O bride! May the knowledge of the Vedas be in front of you and behind you, in your centre and in your ends. May you conduct your life after attaining the knowledge of the Vedas. May you be benevolent, the harbinger of good fortune and health and live in great dignity and indeed be illumined in your husband’s home.”
~ Atharva Veda 14-1-64.
Women were allowed full freedom of worship.
“The wife should do agnihotra (yagna), sandhya (puja) and all other daily religious rituals. If, for some reason, her husband is not present, the woman alone has full rights to do yagna.”
~ Rigveda Samhita, part 1, sukta 79, sloka 872.
That women and men are equal in the eyes of dharma is made explicit in a beautiful sloka from the Rigveda:
“O women! These mantras are given to you equally (as to men). May your thoughts, too, be harmonious. May your assemblies be open to all without discrimination. Your mind and consciousness should be harmonious. I (the rishi) give you these mantras equally as to men and give you all and equal powers to absorb (the full powers) of these mantras.”
~ Rigveda 10-191-3.
Indeed the virtues of the loyal and virtuous (pativrata) wife are comparable to only those of agnideva (the fire god).
“… This agnideva is pure and worthy of worship just as pativrata women.”
~ Rigveda Samhita, Part -1, sukta 73, sloka 829.
Men are extolled to consider womanhood as being worthy of worship and it is made clear that it is normal for men to praise their wives.
“Just as Indradeva is praised like tree bearing fruit and warriors dexterous in the use of weapons and by newly trained rishis, we too pray to the much adorned and venerated Indradeva just as man praises his wife.”
~ Rigveda Samhita, Part-2, sukta 21, sloka 3287
The Vedic period was glorified by the tradition. Many rishis were women. Indeed several of them authored many of the slokas in the Vedas. For instance in the Rigveda there is a list of women rishis. Some of these names are: Ghoshsha, Godha, Vishwawra, Apala, Upanishad, Brahmjaya, Aditi, Indrani, Sarma, Romsha, Urvashi, Lopamudra, Yami, Shashwati, Sri, Laksha and many others. In the Vedic period women were free to enter into brahmacharya just as men and become sannyasins. There is mention in the Mahabharata of many such sannyasins. For example, Shrutavati, a daughter of Rishi Bhardwaj remained a brahmacharini all her life and entered into deep study of the Vedas.
Shrimati, a daughter of Mahatma Shandilya, led a similar life. This was not confined to sannyasins. Sulabha was an authority on the Vedas and entered into Vedic arguments with King Janaka (Janaka is like a title and there are known to be 19 such with the father of Goddess Sita being one of them). Even married women were known to be acknowledged authorities on the Vedas. There are many such examples and it is not possible to mention all of them. My only intention here is to indicate that men and women were granted equal rights in such matters. God provided the knowledge of the Vedas in the hearts of women just as He did in the case of men. How can God who is the embodiment of kindness, just and fair discriminate between man and woman among his own children?
During Hindu marriage ceremonies the following slokas are read out by the grooms but, these days, little understood.
“O bride! I accept your hand to enhance our joint good fortune. I pray to you to accept me as your husband and live with me until our old age. …”
~ Rigveda Samhita Part -4, sukta 85, sloka 9702
It is thus made quite clear that the bride is the most important decision maker in the house. If in many households brides are badly treated then this is the fault not of Vedic traditions (which in fact greatly empowered women), but the decay of these traditions caused by our own neglect and attacks by foreign cultures which traditionally treated women as being subservient to men.
Nowhere in the four Vedas is there the remotest hint of any sentiments or structures that run counter to these. This is testimony to the enlightenment of the Vedas and the Vedic period. Many scholars have already commented on the fact that re-marriage of women, widow remarriage, ownership and inheritance of property by women etc. were permitted in the Vedic period. In fact there are Vedic slokas clearly establishing these. The matter-of-fact manner in which these are presented is testimony to the fact that such matters were considered routine during the period.
It is well known that after the Mahabharata war ended Bhishma Pitamaha lay on his bed of arrows and preached the intricacies of Sanatana Dharma to Yuddhisthira for 58 days. Even though he was a brahmachari (celibate) he emphasized over and over again the importance of giving full respect and honor to women. Thus we have:
“O ruler of the earth (Yuddhisthira) the lineage in which daughters and the daughters-in-law are saddened by ill treatment that lineage is destroyed. When out of their grief these women curse these households such households lose their charm, prosperity and happiness.”
~ Mahabharata, Anushashanparva, Chapter 12, sloka 14.
Bhishma Pitamaha also said: “The teacher who teaches true knowledge is more important than ten instructors. The father is more important than ten such teachers of true knowledge and the mother is more important than ten such fathers. There is no greater guru than mother.”
~ Mahabharata, Shantiparva, Chapter 30, sloka 9.
Two other points deserve mention: the issue of sati and child marriage.
The first point to realise about Sati is that Goddess Sati, consort of Lord Mahdeva, after whom the practice is named, did not commit Sati in the form that it is known today. In modern times sati is supposed to be committed by a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband. Lord, Mahadeva, consort of Goddess Sati, is swayambhu, i.e., is self-born and without parents and is eternal and lives forever. He was very much alive when Goddess Sati created yogagni which consumed Her body. Only the likes of Goddess Sati have the spiritual powers to create yogagni. What has been practised as Sati in recent times is just plain murder. When Rani Padmawati killed herself she did it to prevent herself from falling in the hands of the enemies.
But then so many men have committed suicide to avoid falling in the hands of their enemies. Whys isn’t this called Sati? In our scriptures there are hardly any instances of women self immolating themselves upon the death of their husbands. The three queens of King Dasratha were widowed but none committed self immolation. All the wives of Lord Krishna were widowed, but none committed self immolation. The original Ramayana, the Valmiki Ramayana, does not say that the widow of Meghnada, committed self immolation. This is mentioned only in later versions which were written during the middle ages and when, probably, widowed girls killed themselves to avoid facing dishonour.
This was later exalted to the status of a good religious practice by so-called pundits who saw, in this practice, the opportunity to make bucks, quick as well as sustained as sati shrines became venerated among the population. Madri, widow of Pandu, did self immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre but she did this of her own volition and, probably out of a sense of guilt, since their coming together in love, according to the Mahabharata, was the cause of Pandu’s death. Hence, let us be clear: Sanatana Dharma does not advocate or sanctify sati.
In the case of child marriage, again, there is nothing in our scriptures that promotes it. Child marriage, probably, became common because girls entering puberty were often kidnapped in the lawless middle ages. None of our scriptures suggests that girls should be married off when they are kids. Indeed a certain maturity is expected of women who are married. As an example, we have this remarkable sloka:
“O bride! May you be like the empress of your mother-in-law, father-in-law, sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law (sisters and brothers of the groom). May your writ run in your house.” ~ Rigveda Samhita Part -4, sukta 85, sloka 9712
Great saints like Swami Vivekananda have predicted that the 21st century will be the century of women. Women (and men!) can draw strength from our great Vedic traditions to ensure that women get their rightful place in society.
Sanatana Dharma’s breadth and depth are amazing as well as eternal. If historical conditions and the greed of some have distorted some of its practices Sanatana Dharma is not to be blamed. This dharma is to be guarded as our most precious attainment.
Let me end with a plea to not denigrate Sanatana Dharma:
“This dharma is sanatana (timeless). All the gods and humans have been born in this dharma and have achieved progress in it. Please do not destroy this great Mother who has been the foundation stone of your genesis and existence.”
~ Rigveda, Part-2, sukta-18, sloka 3259
~ Raghbendra Jha