Creating harmonious social balance
The Hindu tradition is famous for its consideration and respect for women, manifested not only in the traditional worship of the female forms of Godhead, both benevolent and terrible (saumya and asaumya), but also in the veneration for all women, starting from one’s Mother, as well as for Mother Cow and Mother Earth.
In the Taittiriya Upanisad (1.11.2) teachers recommend the students of Vedic knowledge to first offer homage to mothers as embodiments of God.
A very well-known instruction recommends that all men should see all women as mothers, as manifestations of the one Mother Goddess, the life-giver for all. In the famous song of a devotee’s dedication to the Godhead, the Divine is first addressed as Mother and only in a second instance as Father: tvam eva mata ca pita tvam eva.
Still today, in Hinduism the most popular and prominent religious festivals are those dedicated to the Mother Goddess, such as Durga puja, Divali etc.
Sri Rama’s appearance and victory are both celebrated in close proximity to the Navaratri festivals, as it is said that he could defeat Ravana and return to Ayodhya to be crowned king there for the grace of Mother Durga, whom he devotedly worshiped. Before engaging in the battle of Kurukshetra, Arjuna worshiped Mother Durga according to the instructions of Krishna.
The famous Devi mahatmya from the Markandeya Purana describes how the Mother Goddess, on the request of all Devas and in order to protect them, killed the demons Madhu and Kaitabha, Sumbha and Nishumbha, Raktabija and Dhumralochana, and Mahisha with all his army.
In fact, the worship of the feminine form of God appears to be the prominent tradition in ancient times, with a later development of iconography towards the masculine form – albeit still generally accompanied by Shakti or even openly subordinate to Shakti as in the examples of Shiva/Kali and Krishna/Radha.
Kali is often depicted as standing over the body of Shiva, who lies down in a submissive and passive position. In Krishna’s lila, beautifully depicted by the great poet Jayadeva, Govinda embraces Radha’s feet and lovingly worships them – and the echo of such devotion is found in the poet’s personal relationship with his wife Padmavati.
But even when the feminine form of the Divine couple is depicted as submissive and devotional towards the Lord, the name of Shakti is always mentioned before the name of the Lord – Sita Rama, Radhe Shyam, Uma Mahesh, Lakshmi Narayana, Sri Vishnu, etc
Lakshmi is considered as inseparable from Vishnu, as stated in Vishnu Purana (1.8.17-20): Parasara said, “O Maitreya! Always a companion of Vishnu and the Mother of the Universe, Lakshmi Devi is eternal. She is speech where Vishnu is the object of description. Where Vishnu is the law, she is the policy. Where Vishnu is knowledge, she is intelligence. Where Vishnu is creator, she is creation. He is the mountain, she is the earth. He is contentment, she is all-satisfying. Vishnu is desire, she is object of desire. He is yajna, she is dakshina.”
The feminine forms of Sri Vidya and Gayatri are considered the personification of knowledge – Tantric and Vedic respectively. Atharva Veda (19.71.1) and several other texts state that Gayatri is “the Mother of all Vedas” (namaste surya sankaro surya gayatrike amle, brahmavidye mahavidye vedamata namostu te).
The identification of Gayatri with Mahavidya and with Surya is extremely interesting in discovering the ancient Vedic culture in its pristine and original form.
Another interesting point is that the second birth of the arya is said to be from “Mother Veda” through the initiation to the Gayatri mantra.
Also, it is interesting to note that the Vedic texts are traditionally addressed as females – for example, Srimati Rig Veda Samhita.
No scholar or student could even imagine beginning any study without first offering homage to Goddess Sarasvati, and the annual festival of Sarasvati puja is still a must in all schools in India. Sarasvati is often called Vag Devi, “the Goddess of Speech”, as well as the patron and teacher of all knowledge, both spiritual and material.
The recitation of Vedic texts traditionally starts with invocation to Devi – om shanno devirbhishtiye apo bhavantu (Atharva veda).The Paippalada version of Atharva veda starts with this mantra. It occurs as mantra 1.6.1 in the Shaunaka version of Atharva veda but even the recitation of this text is often commenced with the invocation to Devi.
Bhumi puja, the ritual homage to Mother Earth as the asana of the worshiper, is an integral part of the traditional ritual ceremonies. Rig Veda contains various hymns dedicated to Mother Earth, and Atharva veda (12.1.63) contains this beautiful hymn: “O Earth, my Mother! Establish me securely in spiritual and material happiness, and in full accord with Heaven. O Wise One! Uphold me in grace and splendor!”
Food grains are also considered sacred as the form of Devi Annapurna, and water is also considered sacred as the form of the Goddess (jala rupena samsthita), that must be present at all celebrations in the form of the sacred kalasha or water pot, traditionally “forming the body” of all the Deities invoked (male and female). The kalasha is also present over the temple domes and as an auspicious image inside temples and homes.
The traditional Deities such as Grama devi and Kula devi were feminine in form, like also almost all the rivers such as Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Kaveri, etc. Feminine are also the Deities of forests (often called Vana Durga) and many of the earliest urban settlements (Ambadavad/Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Bhagyanagar/Hyderabad, Srinagar, Madurai, etc) were named after female Deities.
Both male and female Deities are sung in apri suktas and in the family prayers of all 10 lineages of Rishis. The original Goddess, Aditi or Adi Shakti, the mother of all Devas, seems to have a very prominent place of respect, and among such early Vedic Deities we find two of the Adityas (children of Aditi) in female form (Dhatri and Savitri), as well as the names of Ila, Usha, Yami, Ratri, Prithivi, Kamadhenu, Aranyani, Urvasi, and so on.
All these female Deities are mentioned as worshipable in their own right, without any association to a counterpart male Deity, although others such as Sachi and Rati, are mentioned as having a male companion, as a husband (respectively Indra and Kama) or a brother (Yama).
Of course such relationships must be understood at a higher and more symbolic level than the ordinary couple or family relationships among ordinary human beings – this is why the Vedas must be learned from a Brahma jana, a person who has transcended the material bodily identifications, attachments and mentality.
Surya actually appears to be a feminine Deity in the Rig Veda (10.85.10):
Profound thought was the pillow of her couch,
Vision was the unguent for her eyes.
Her wealth was the earth and Heaven,
When Surya (the sun-like resplendent bride) went to meet her husband.
Her mind was the bridal chariot,
And sky was the canopy of that chariot.
Orbs of light were the two steers that pulled the chariot
When Surya proceeded to her husband’s home!
When a family entered their new home, they invoked the Divine to dwell therein in a benevolent feminine form: “Queen of the mansions, our shelter, o kind Devi, you are indeed built by the Devas. May you, robed in grass, be gracious to us and give us brave children and wealth.” (Atharvaveda 3.12.5).
Rig Veda (1.73.3) describes the Divine Reality as manifested in the “irreproachable wife of the worshiper” – that is formally worshiped as the Griha Lakshmi, the personification of the prosperity of the home (Taittirya Brahmana 184.108.40.206, Manusmriti 9.26), “auspicious” (Rig Veda 3.53.6), “most auspicious” (Rig Veda 10.85.37), “worthy of being worshiped” (Mahabharata 5.38.11), and to be treasured by her husband as dearer than his own life, worshiped like a mother and respected like an elder sister (Mahabharata 4.3.13). Even in anger a husband must never do anything that is disagreeable to his wife (Mahabharata 1.74), because the wife’s displeasure will make all rituals ineffective.
The Manu smriti states, “yatra naryastu pujyante, ramante tatra devata: where women are worshipped the gods are pleased, but where they are not honored, no sacred rite yields rewards. Where the female relations live in grief, the family soon entirely perishes; but that family where they are happy certainly prospers forever. The houses against which female relations, not being duly honored, pronounce a curse, perish completely. Hence men who seek their own welfare should always honor the women of their households on holidays and festivals with gifts of ornaments, clothes, and (dainty) food. In that family, where the husband is pleased with his wife and the wife with her husband, prosperity and goodness will assuredly be lasting”.
In the marriage hymn, Rig Veda (10.85.26) states that the wife “should address the assembly as a commander addresses the army.” Then Rig Veda continues (10.159.2) depicting the position of the married woman with the words of Sachi Paulomi: “I am the banner. I am the leader. I possess excellent eloquence; my husband co-operates with me and follows my will.”
Echoes from the ancient Vedic past of the Goddess worship still survive not only in the description of the glories of a noble mother and a loving wife, but also in the tradition of Kumari puja, still very much alive in Nepal (where the king obtains from her his legitimacy in ruling the people) and in many parts of India especially during Navaratri.
The presence of kanyas, or young women, is still considered very auspicious for all rituals, so much that processions of women carrying sacred water pots are a traditional component of festivals, yajnas and sacred ceremonies.
Mahanirvana tantra (8.47) teaches that a daughter should be raised and educated just like sons. In Vedic civilization there is no discrimination between sons and daughters: Rig Veda (8.31.8) offers the description of a family blessed by Indra with both sons and daughters.
The two most famous dynasties of Vedic civilization were the Surya vamsa and the Chandra vamsa. The Surya vamsa, where Lord Rama appeared, descends from Ikshvaku, the son of Manu, while the Chandra vamsa, where Lord Krishna appeared, descends from Ila the daughter of Manu. The tirtha called Ilayaspada is at the confluence of Sarasvati and Drishdvati rivers in north India, and is called the holiest place on earth (Rig Veda 3.23.4, etc).
But apart from being respected as visible manifestations of the Divine Feminine, women are described as perfectly equal counterparts of men. Atharva Veda Saunaka Samhita (10.8.27) states, tvam stri tvam pumanasi, “you are woman and man as well”, and stri pumsau brahmano jatau striyah brahma utha bhavana, “both women and men are born from the same Brahman – women are manifestations of the Supreme Being and so are men” (Atharvaveda Paippalada Samhita 8.9.11).
Women in Vedic culture were also valued for their own personal virtues and role, for their proficiency in the study and practice of Vedic knowledge and Dharmic ethics in various fields.
Manusmriti (2.145) teaches that mother is 1,000 times more venerable than father and several scriptures (Gautama Dharmasutra 2.57, Yajnavalkya Smriti 1.33, Mahabharata 1.196.16) state that the mother must be considered the greatest Guru for her children.
In many cases glorious sons are associated with the name of their mother (rather than father), such as Devakiputra Krishna (Chandogya Upanisad etc), Rishi Aitareya (son of Itara) Mahidasa of Aitareya Upanishad, Dakshiputra Panini (the grammarian), and Kaunteya Arjuna (as well as the other Pandavas) and of course the Devas called Adityas (children of Aditi).
Even in practical observation we can easily see that children born from respected and honored women are more successful in life both materially and spiritually and become valuable assets not only for their family but for society as well. Especially in the first months and years of life, starting from conception itself, the child has no sense of separate identity and feels (and is felt) as a mere extension of mother’s body and mind. The child shapes his/her own self-image from the self-image projected by the mother and receives confirmation from the environment based on the way his/her mother is treated.
Thus a child born from a powerless and poorly respected mother, who is narrow-minded, mean, unevolved and ignorant or illiterate, who is totally identified with her material body and whose emotions, thoughts and concerns are of lowly nature, will very likely have more problems of self-esteem – producing both inferiority and false superiority complexes – and will tend to remain on the same lower levels of mentality, attached to similar narrow minded emotions, interests, attachments and beliefs.
On the contrary, a child born from, or raised by a powerful mother, who is respected and respects herself, who is mentally, culturally and spiritually evolved, will undoubtedly have better opportunities in developing his/her true potential in life.
Among the ancient sacred stories of Vedic literature that are meant to instruct human society, we find the example of Madalasa, the daughter of Gandharva king Vishvasu, who was a true inspiration to her sons – who become what she made them.
When her first son Vikrant was born, Madalasa would sing to him spiritual instructions, teaching him that he was a pure soul temporarily encaged in a body made of five elements, and encouraging him to detach himself from such bodily identification, that is the real cause for suffering in this life. In due course Vikrant became a great rishi, and the same thing happened for her second son Subahu and her third son Shatrumardan.
When Madalasa’s husband, the king, requested her to direct at least one son to the duties of an heir to the throne, Madalasa changed her song for her fourth son Alarka, instructing and inspiring him to become a great king who would make the world prosper and defend the subjects from any aggression.
The Bhagavata Purana tells us the story of Dhruva, who was instructed by his mother Suniti to worship Vishnu in order to obtain his blessings. Young Dhruva thus left for the forest where he engaged in difficult meditation, and quickly obtained the blessings of Narada and the darshan of Vishnu.
Similarly Jija mata, the mother of Chatrapati Shivaji, inspired her son with stories of great Hindu heroes. Shivaji grew up with such an ardent spirit for the defense of Dharma that he was successful in liberating parts of India from Aurangzeb in 17th century.
In Mahabharata, Kunti narrates the sermon of queen Vidula to her sons to boost their morale, exhorting men to shun self-pity and sense of defeat – and rise to take charge of their own destiny. The speech has the desired result, because the Pandavas become encouraged to prepare for war.
The five sons of Kunti – Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva – became the symbol of Dharma and were able to defeat their tormentors and obtain the direct association of Krishna because of their spotless character and strong self-confidence, two virtues that can only be developed with the support of a qualified mother. On the other hand, we see that the most naturally qualified of Kunti’s sons, Karna, became confused and failed in every aspect of his life because he was raised by a much less qualified woman – Radha – who in spite of her motherly affection was just the wife of a sudra.
The good fortune of Ravana – his material prosperity, his immense scholarship and command over the shastric knowledge, as well as his devotion for Shiva Mahadeva – originated from the influence of his mother Kaikasi, who was a great devotee of Shiva. Every day Kaikasi performed Shiva puja on the beach of the ocean for the good fortune of her son, and Indra was so worried about the prosperity of his enemy that he tried to stop her by having a wave washing off the lingam. At that time Kaikasi asked her son to procure a jyotirlinga from Mahadeva himself and Ravana went to Kailash, had the direct darshan of the Lord and obtained the Vaidyanatha lingam from him. Of course Ravana did not make a very good use of such blessings, but without the benefit of his mother’s spiritual power he would not have been able to attain anything in the first place.
Mother is therefore considered the most respectable Guru, before father and even before the initiating Guru. When sraddha is performed, mother is remembered before father. Also, special extra ceremonies such as Chandana dhenu sraddha are performed for the deceased mother (and not for father).
While an unworthy father can be excluded from the sraddha offerings by his son (Vasistha Dharmasutra 13.47, Gautama Dharmasutra 20.1), mother must never be. In fact a son is considered responsible for atoning for his mother’s sins after her death (Hiranyakeshin Grihasutra 220.127.116.11, Shankhyayana Grihasutra 3.13.5).
A man who takes sannyasa is offered pranam by his own father but offers pranam to his mother. According to the Vedic tradition at the time of diksha (upanayana samskara) the student approaches mother for bhiksha, then when students returns home after completing the studies he bows to mother and offers her whatever he has acquired.
The devotion to mother as one’s first Guru remains when all other relationships have been abandoned.
We know of the example of Adi Shankara, who personally cremated her mother in his courtyard even after taking sannyasa – still today Namputiri brahmins cremate their relatives in the home courtyard as a mark of respect for Adi Shankara. Chaitanya is also known for his devotion to his mother Sachi. When he took the vows of sannyasa he went to pay his respects to her, and asked her orders about his future residence. Mother Sachi told him to reside in Jagannatha Puri, and so he did for the rest of his life.
According to the Harita Dharmasutra, belonging to the Maitrayaniya school of Yajur Veda, women can be categorized in two types: dvi vidha striyah, brahmavadinyah sadyovadhvas ca, tatra brahmavadini namupanayana magnindhanam svaghre bhikshacharyeti
The first category of women mentioned in this Dharma sutra consists of the brahmavadinis – those girls who choose to devote their life to the study, practice and teaching of Vedic knowledge and the realization of Brahman. Such transcendental and powerful women were not required or expected to marry and raise children, although there was no rule that forbade them to do so.
Among them, we can mention Visvavara, Ghosha, Sikata, Nivavari, Apala of the Atri family, Visvavara of the Atri family, Angirasi Sarasvati of the Angirasa family, Yami Vaivasvathi, Sraddha , Ghosha, Surya , Indrani , Urvasi , Sarama , Juhu and Poulomi Sachi, who are associated with Rig Veda mantras. Vac sukta (Rig Veda 10.125) dealing with revelation of Vedas is attributed to Rishika Vagambhrina. The Rig Veda suktas 10-134, 10-39,10-40, 10-91, 10-95,10-107,10-109,10-154,10-159,10-189 etc are women; book 14 of Atharva veda and sections in several other books are attributed to Rishikas.
Panini writes that women attended Vedic schools called charanas (4.1.63) and that they sometimes also resided in hostels or chhatri-sala (6.2.86) to pursue their studies. According to grammarian Katyayana (4.1.14, 6.1.92), who lived after Panini, one of such schools was very famous for teaching the grammatical system of Apisali, a distinguished grammarian who lived before Panini. Patanjali in his Mahabhasya (2.206) mentions a school where female students learned the Mimamsa philosophy, and makes a distinction between beginners and advanced female students as defined by the terms adhyetri and manavika (4.193, 2.249) respectively.
Although married women too could be great scholars, the Brahmavadinis chose to accept a greater family as their own, accepting all human beings as their children and dedicating their lives to teaching anyone who would approach them, without limitations of time and space – consigning their teachings to posterity through the compilation of spiritual and religious texts. However, some of them actually later married suitably qualified husbands and engaged in preaching and teaching either independently or jointly with the husband.
Lopamudra was known for his command over Sanskrit and Tamil. The meaning of the name Lopamudra is “one who is totally absorbed in the self” and is in the category of the Brahmavadhini Rishi-patnis, as she became the wife of Agastya Rishi. Two mantras of the Rig Veda (1.179.1-2) are attributed to her.
It is said that some Vedic scholars named their works after their wife or daughter, as in the case of the Vedanta text called Bhamati and the mathematics text called Lilavati. However, we should not hasten to conclude that it is impossible that such texts were actually written or composed by the women from which they obtained their names.
Other famous Rishi patnis, who were at least as famous and respected as their own husbands, were Romasa the wife of Svanya, Anasurya the wife of Atri, Maitreyi the wife of Yajnavalkya, Arundhati wfe of Vasistha, Vasukra patni, Ghosha, and so on.
It is said that Gargi attained perfect realization in the stage of brahmacharya, Chudala in the grihastha ashram, Maitreyi in the vanaprastha stage of life, and Sulabha yogini as a sannyasini. Sulabha bhikshuni was famous for her vast and deep knowledge of the Mahabharata.
In Kena Upanishad, one Uma Brahmavidya appears to dispel the ignorance of Indra with her teachings – Adi Shankara apparently considered this speech so important that he wrote two commentaries on this single text.
The second category of women, called sadhya vadhu, includes ordinary women who simply aspire to marry and settle as housewives and mothers. They may not be particularly learned or austere, but they are nonetheless much respected.
We have already seen what great influence even ordinary women can and should have in human society, and we cannot underestimate their importance and the crucial need to help them in getting a proper education and training so that in turn they will be able to educate and train their children to become at least good dharmic persons, if not great scholars.
However, we would be wrong in thinking that ordinary housewives have or had no part in the traditional religious rituals.
In the Mahabharata Savitri and Amba perform agnihotra, the fire sacrifice, in their own right. This tradition is confirmed in Gobhila Grihasutra (1.3.15) and Asvalayana Grihasutra (1.9), where the famous teacher Vadava Pratiteyi is mentioned (3.4.4).
The text commented by Kullukabhatta (15th century) has several verses missing in later versions, where it is stated that wives are responsible for performing the daily agnihotra in the house. Actually a man becomes eligible to perform Vedic rituals only after marrying (Madhaviya Shankara digvijaya 2.14) and samskaras can be successful only if both husband and wife sit together (Aitareya Brahmana 7.10, Rig Veda 8.31.5-9, Taittiriya Brahmana 18.104.22.168, commentary of Shabara Swami on Purvamimamsa sutra 6.9.17, Siddhanta kaumudi on Ashtadhyayi 4.1.33).
Still in Orissa the tradition gives the special title of “sri yukta” to married men, to distinguish them from ordinary bachelors. As we know, Sri is the name of Lakshmi Devi.
The wife should hold the hand of the husband whenever he pours ahuti, signifying the ritual is performed jointly. However, there is no similar prescription for women when they perform the homa and pour the ahuti – something that they can do independently.
In Ramayana we see Kausalya, Sita, and Tara as well independently performing the agnihotra; when Rama performed the Asvamedha yajna in the absence of his wife Sita, he was instructed to keep a golden image of his wife at the yajna site to avoid invalidating the procedure.
Women are also entitled to perform sandhya. All women in the Aryan Vedic society used to wear the sacred thread, either as brahmacharinis or as married women.
In Kadambari by Dandin (8th century) a lady named Mahasveta is described as adorned with a white sacred thread that shone like pure moonlight.
Some texts are specifically intended for recitation by women only, such as the Madhyandina Yajurveda mantras (5.17, 3.44-45 etc), the Apastambha dharmasutra (22.214.171.124-15) and the Srauta sutras manuals of Vedic rites.
The entire 14th book of Atharva Veda dealing with home rituals, marriage etc, is attributed to a woman sage. Portions of other 19 books are also attributed to women sages. These portions are specifically termed as strikarmani or rituals pertaining to women. The ritual texts of the Vedas list women sages to whom homage must be offered while studying the divine texts. See for instance Ashvalayana Grhyasutra (3.4.4) and Shankhayana Grhyasutra (4.10) which enumerate women teachers such as Sulabha Maitreyi and Vadava Praathitheyi.
Some Vedic texts actually cite women as authorities on minutiae of Vedic rituals, as for example Aitareya Brahmana 2.9 cites the opinion of Kumari Gandharva-grihita on the Agnihotra ritual.
Also several mantras from Yajur veda (sukla 5.17) are specifically meant to be recited by women. Even when men recited the slokas, the presence of women was generally surmised: the recitation of the Sama Veda is meant to be accompanied by the sound of musical instruments played by women.
While men are excluded from the participation of some specific household rituals, women participate to all of them as the Guardians of Dharma. This is symbolized by the ancient custom of the husband walking behind the wife around the sacred fire during the marriage ceremony – a tradition that is still alive in Orissa, together with a very lively tradition of devotion to the Mother Goddess and a strong interest in scholarship.
For this reason, it is said that in Kali yuga Purushottama kshetra will be the center from which a religious revolution will develop, re-establishing the ancient traditions.
Some object to the independent performance of agnihotra, sandhya puja etc by women, stating that women become periodically impure due to menstruation, so they are absolved of the religious duties and of all other forms of work as well.
Without any intention of raising a controversy on the issue, and without advocating the obligation for women to engage in activities they are not inclined to perform, I would like to draw your attention on some interesting facts that I have discovered in the course of my research.
In Sanskrit, a menstruating woman is called Pushpavati, “blossoming”, directly connecting the feminine symbolic description with the ancient mystical power of the tree.
I found that in ancient times, a ceremony was required during the spring, where the kick of a woman was necessary for the sacred Ashoka tree to blossom. Women danced around this tree and gently kicked it to bring it to bloom: the touch of the fertilizing power of woman was thus symbolically transferred to the tree. It is interesting to note that in Ayurveda the decoction made from the bark of this same Ashoka tree was used to soothe the menstrual cramps and excessive blood loss during menstruation as well as the pain and tension related to menopause.
In Orissa, the Karama festival is still observed in some areas, and various legends have been embroidered by the popular traditions, also creating a male counterpart of the tree Deity (the Karama together with the Karamasani). However, it is still young women who carry the branches of the tree in procession to be planted in the center of the village for worship. Such tradition is found in many other regions of India, although in time the worship of the Sacred Tree has taken many forms and names and has become associated with male Deities and various folkloristic stories.
The worship of the Mother Goddess in the form of a pillar as Stambhesvari is believed by some to be at the very origin of the development of the Daru Brahman we worship as Lord Jagannatha, something that is also echoed in the close relationship between Lord Jagannatha and Lord Narasimha, who appeared “from within a pillar”.
More interesting information about the Deity worship can be found in the tantric tradition, where women Gurus (Vasavis, Kulikas etc) are in fact considered more qualified than men Gurus due to the particular magnetic energy of their bodies.
It appears that originally, in ancient society, all the dedicated worshipers of the Deities were women – considered as direct manifestation of the Mother Goddess (like the “small mothers” manifested by Durga to fight against the asuras) or as wives and consorts of the male Deities. This ancient tradition is connected to the use of sindhur as tika, or blessing received from the Deity when visiting a temple, and to the vows of permanent or temporary celibacy (na-pumsaka) usually taken by worshipers – who traditionally are not allowed to wear moustache, either. All worshippers, male and female, are still said to be women in Krishna’s presence.
According to the Harita smriti of the two categories of girls, the second category (sadyo vadhu) of more ordinary tendencies received the sacred thread (upanayana) just before marriage. In fact Gobhila Grihasutra (2.1.9) says that the bride must wear the upavita during the wedding, signifying that she has properly undergone all the required samskaras or purificatory rituals and she is an arya, a “civilized and educated person”.
Brahmavadini girls underwent the upanayana samskara and started the agnihotra performance and Veda-adhyayana at an earlier age just like boys, with the only difference that owing to their more delicate body girls were not required to observe the same strict rules of austerity of the boys, and they were preferably residing in the house of father or other relatives, getting private tuition and obtaining their bhiksha from family members rather than from the public.
This is also confirmed by an ancient text (now lost) quoted by other commentators/ writers as Yama-dharmashastra. In that text, Yamaraja explains: pura kalpesu narinam maunji bandhanishyayeti, adhyapanam ca vedanam savitri vachanam tatha. But it is possible that such “pura kalpa” were actually rather recent times and only relatively late manipulation of the Smriti texts created the present disastrous gender bias, that has become the cause of the gradual poisoning and weakening of the structure of Hindu society, with the creation of varna sankara – the confusion of the varnas – clearly ascribed in Gita to the degradation of the women who are cut off from dharma and knowledge and treated disrespectfully by their own family and by society at large.
In fact, thanks to the persistence of a few great souls who kept the flame of respect for women alive, often taking personal care of educating their own daughters, the history of India still remembers great women scholars, teachers, and religious preachers, sadhvis and gurvis, as well as female upadhyayas and acharyas well into the middle ages.
Such girls were also free to travel and get the required coaching from other famous scholars and teachers. In Uttara ramacharita (2.3) of Bhavabhuti, attributed to the 8th century, it is said that Atreyi goes from the hermitage of Valmiki Rishi to south India to learn Vedas and Vedanta philosophy.
Patanjali commenting on Astadhyayi (3.3.21) of Panini, says that girls start their education after receiving the sacred thread, and lists the feminine forms of words such as acharyaa (a woman who is an acharya on her own right) as opposed to acharyani (the wife of an acharya), as well as upadhyayaa (a lady teacher in her own right) and upadhyayi (the wife of a teacher), gurvi and guru-patni, and so on.
And speaking of grammar, it is interesting to note that the definition of Santa applies to male and female equally, while Rishika is the feminine for Rishi, Sadhvi is feminine for Sadhu, and Panditaa is the feminine for Pandita.
It is said that the mother of the Pandavas, Kunti of Mahabharata, was a renowned scholar in Atharva Veda, although she did not take up the professional occupation of a teacher and she chose to take care of her children and their education as her first priority.
In many instances we see that princesses of royal families were highly educated and often composed valuable works of poetry both in Sanskrit and other Indian languages.
Of the 407 sages or Rishis associated with the revelation of the Rig Veda, 28 are women or Rishikas. Some scholars reduce such number to 21 with the pretext that the other seven Rishikas mentioned in the scriptures are just “rivers”, forgetting that women can bear the name of a river, too. The lost Saulabha Brahmana of Rig Veda was attributed to Sulabha Rishika, the founder of a Rig Veda school bearing her name.
The Ashvalaayana Griha sutras (3.4.4) prescribes the regular offering of respect and tarpana to various great personalities, such as Rishis and books, and the list of such worshipable entities includes ancient religious authorities of female gender, such as Sulabha Maitreyi and Vadava Prathitheyi.
In the famous Brhad aranyaka Upanishad (Madhyandina), Yajnavalkya was debating with other Rishis, then Rishika Gargi Vachnavi (daughter of Vashaknu) spoke up, saying that if Yajnavalkya could answer her questions, all the other Rishis present in the assembly would accept him as their teacher – as she is their leader.
Also in the Brhad aranyaka Upanishad we find Maitreyi the wife of Yajnavalkya who discusses with him on the nature of Brahman and atman. Both Gargi and Maitreyi have become famous symbols of feminine scholarship in the Vedic field, and several schools and colleges are today bearing their names.
Ubhaya Bharati, the wife of Karma kanda scholar Mandana Mishra, presided as judge in the debate between her husband and Adi Shankara; it is said she had a very good knowledge of the Vedas, the six Vedangas, etc. She also debated with Adi Shankara, enthralling the audience (Shankara digvijaya 9.63).
According to Hiuen Tsang’s travel diaries, the sister of Harshavardhana Rajashri was a famous scholar. The tradition continued also during medieval times, when several female scholars and saints left many writings considered as sacred scriptures.
Here are some examples:
Andal Goda (8th century, south India)
The author of the Thiruppavai and the Nachiyar Tirumozi, she is one of the twelve Aalvaars, great devotees of Vishnu and consort of Ranganatha of Srirangam; she is considered the incarnation of Mother Earth, Bhudevi. She lived in the Tamil city of Villiputtur and was raised by another Alvar, Periyalvar /Visnucitta, one of the city’s leaders, who gave her a thorough education in classical Tamil literature and Sanskrit.
Her songs are recited daily in Sri Vaishnava liturgy in temples and in homes, and her picture is often worshiped together with pictures of Vishnu and Lakshmi in temples.
It seems very difficult to fix a time frame for the life of this extraordinary woman, famous for her bhakti to Shiva. She caused the appearance of Ghushmesvara jyotir lingam at Devagiri (south India).
In the very same region Godaguchi, daughter of Shivadeva from Shivalayam village, merged into the Shiva lingam when her father did not believe that the Deity had actually drunk the milk she had offered.
Padmavati – Maharis and Devadasis
In ancient times, women sometimes dedicated themselves to the service of the Deity in a temple, under the tradition of the Devadasis – in Puri called Mahari seva. Before the gradual degradation of Kali yuga especially due to the pseudo-moralistic influence of alien invading cultures, the Devadasis or Maharis were extremely respected and influential in society. Two great examples that are still remembered today are Padmavati the wife of Jayadeva, and Padmavati the queen of Raja Purushottama Deva.
Akka Mahadevi (12th century): a famous saint from Karnataka, she took sannyasa after a brief marriage. In her travels she met Basavacharya and became a Virashaiva, living in full renunciation, even disregarding the usual social norms of dressing (after her Mata Mahadevi also chose the same path in the 20th century). Akka Mahadevi is known for having written 350 devotional songs or Vachanas, some of which were composed on the occasion of a gathering of Virashaiva leaders, to convince them that she was worthy of becoming a part of their community. The leader of the Virashaivas, Prabhu, at first objected to her gender, asking her who her husband was, and Akka replied that she was married to Shiva Mahadeva. After several more exchanges, Prabhu pays her his ultimate compliment: “Your body is female in appearance, but you mind is merged with God.”
Lallesvari (14th century): universally recognized as the greatest poet saint of Kahsmir. Belonging to a Kashmiri Pandit family, she was married at the age of 12 and for several years she suffered because of the meanness of her mother in law. At the age of 26 she renounced family life and started to walk around naked like a mad person, having abandoned all bodily identification and differences between men and women. She became a disciple of Siddha Srikantha and only kept company with sadhus, accepting many disciples and producing a wealth of devotional songs to Lord Shiva and many wise teachings and Vakyas that are still deeply valued by the people of Kashmir.
As a wandering preacher she also taught by example and practical demonstration. Once a gang of foolish young men were mocking her for her disregard for clothing, and a cloth vendor intervened to chastise them. Then she asked the vendor for two pieces of ordinary cloth of the same weight, and she wore them on either shoulder. On the way, when someone offered her respects, she made a knot in the cloth on her right shoulder, and when someone teased her she made a knot in the cloth on her left shoulder. In the evening she returned to the vendor’s shop, returned him the clothes and asked him to weigh them to see if any of them had gained or lost by the knots – conveying the simple truth that fame or infamy are just superficial occurrences of life that do not affect our real nature .
Rupa Bhavani (1625-1721) regarded her as supreme guru (Lal man Lal paramagvaram).
Mukta bai (13th century) from Maharastra. She was the sister of Jnanadeva (the author of the early bhakti shastra Jnanesvari – also known as Bhavartha Dipika or Jnanadevi) and gained a wide fame on her own right, being remembered together with Tukaram, Ekanath, and her three brothers Sopan, Nivritti and Jnanadeva.
Jana bai, who lived in Maharastra between 1298 and 1350. Her biography is found in Mahipati’s Bhaktavijaya. She became a house servant in a family of Varkari devotees of Vitthal (a form of Vishnu) and cared for the young son of the family, Namdeva, who became one of the greatest Varkari poets. She remained with him all her life.
Janabai composed over 340 devotional songs (abhang) that were included in Namadeva’s own works. Her poems speak of the lives of the Varkari bhaktas, and of her personal relationship with the Deity. She also wrote of abandoning social norms and offering oneself to the service of God, that she calls Vithabai (feminine of Vitthal).
Gangadevi (14th century) wrote the Sanskrit epic Madhuravijayam, glorifying the resistance of the Hindu kingdoms during the invasions of the Islamic marauders and colonialists.
Mira bai (16th century) from Rajasthan, is probably the most famous saint and poet devotee of Krishna. Over 1300 poems have been attributed to her, and many have been translated in English. When she was a little girl, watching a marriage procession in front of her house, she asked her mother who would be her husband and mother pointed at the Krishna vigraha that was worshiped in their home. Mira took the suggestion seriously and started to spend most of her time caring for the vigraha, bathing, dressing, worshiping and even sleeping with Krishna, and reporting that the vigraha was actually embracing her and talking to her affectionately. When she was married to Rana Kumbha of Chitore, the in-law’s family was not very happy with her apparently “excessive” devotion to Krishna and started to spread rumors that Mira had some ordinary lovers and mixed freely with men sadhus. Mira wrote to Tulsidas asking his advice, and the saint recommended that she renounced her husband’s family – just like Prahlada had refused to obey his father, Bharata had left his mother, Bali had disobeyed his guru, Vibhishana had abandoned his brother, and the Goips of Vraja had left their husbands for a higher level of relationship with God. Mira bai was ordered to drown herself in the river, but Krishna personally appeared to save her and instructed her to take shelter in Vrindavana.
It is said that once Jiva Gosvami, the famous disciple of Chaitanya, refused to meet her on the grounds that she was a woman. Mira sent back a message, saying, “There is only one Purusha in Vrindavana, that is Giridhari Gopala. I am surprised by this strange news, that you are also a man and not a maidservant of Krishna like all the residents of Vrindavana”. Shamed, Jiva Gosvami immediately went to meet Mira and paid her due respect.
Bahinabai (1628-1700 AD)
Also called Bahini, was a Varkari female-saint from Maharashtra, from a very high Brahmin caste, and she is considered a disciple of Tukaram, the revolutionary poet-saint who preached in vernacular language. In her autobiography Atmamanivedana, she describes her spiritual experiences and visions of the Varkari’s patron deity Vithal and Guru Tukaram. It is said that she translated a sacred scripture from Sanskrit to Marathi at Tukaram’s request. She also composed 473 abhangas, brief devotional hymns in Marathi language; the first 116 narrate her present life and give a brief description of 12 of her previous lifetimes. Her pure devotion to the Lord also converted her husband to pure devotion to Hari, free from ritualistic attachments and from the traps of worldly life.
Another Varkari saint and poetess was Kanhopatra, an artist dancer who lived independently as a Ganika.
Gangasati, a medieval Hindu Gujarati saint-poet of the Nijiya tradition, composed about fifty devotional bhajans, teaching about the importance of Guru, the foundations of spiritual practice, the everyday life of a devotee, the nature of bhakti, the mystic nature of words and spiritual training.
Similar stories of great female Gurus are about Jnanadei Maluni, who was a powerful tantric living as a humble garland maker in the Jagannatha temple, and Nitei Dhobani, who helped Anantavarman Choda Ganga to become the “manifestation of the glory of Vishnu Narasimha”.
Together with Gangi Gauduni, Sua Teluni, Luhukuti Luhurani, Sukuti Chamaruni, and Patrapindhi Saharuni, these two famous Gurus are included in the list of the Satvaheni (“seven sisters”), apparently the followers of the famous Tantric princess Lakshminkara, and although they came from low families they came to be very respected and even feared in Puri, and they are still worshiped today.
The Shaiva siddhanta of south India venerates the 63 great saints and scholars called Nayamars, several (32) of which were women: Karaikkal Ammaiyar,Thilakavathiyar, Mangaiyarkarachiyar, Paravaiyar, Changiliyar, Chembiyan Madhiviyar, and Auvaiyar, and many others.
Karaikkal Ammaiyar is the most widely remembered is the first of them. She produced two works in praise of Lord Shiva: Arputha Tiruvantadi and Tiru erattai mani malai. Thilakavathiyar, from Thiruvamur, was married at the age of 12 to an army general. Suddenly both her husband and her parents died, leaving her alone with her younger brother Marunikkiyar, who asked her to continue to live for his sake. Later Marunikkiyar became a Jain leader in Pataliputram, but he turned to his sister when he was struck by a mysterious stomach disease. Thilakavathiyar converted him back to Shaivism and he became her disciple.
Mangaiyarkarachiyar was born in a royal family. She married the Pandiya king Nedumaran, who had become a Jain, and converted him back to Shaivism.
Paravaiyar was a female pujari in the Kayilai Goddess temple. She married another great devotee of Shiva, named Chundhara murti Nayanar.
Changiliyar, too, was a female priestess in the temple of Kayilai. When her parents suggested she married, Chagiliyar refused and asked to remain as a priestess in the Thiruvorriyur temple, and they built an ashram for her there.
Chembiyan Madhiviyar was the daughter of king Mazavaraiyan and married king Kandaraditya Chola Deva, another great devotee of Shiva. She was the grandmother of Rajaraja Chola, and before him she built or renovated a great number of temples.
Auvaiyar is the author of a great number of poems in Tamil language, including works on war and politics, poems for children (Aathichoodi and Konraiventhan) and poems of wisdom (Mooturai and Nalvali). She was a court poet, counselor and minister to the Tamil king Atiyaman Netuman Anci, and sometimes she was also sent on diplomatic missions. The Abidhana Chintamani states that there were at least 3 female poets in the same name.
The Bhakti revolution of the middle ages saw a good number of great female saints and gurus in many traditions. The Gaudiya Vaishnava line is not an exception.
The mother of Chaitanya, Sachi Devi, was the daughter of famous scholar Nilambara Chakravarti, and wife of another great scholar, Jagannatha Mishra. It appears that she was very educated herself, as she engages in a philosophical discussion with little Nimai who is caught eating dirt.
Advaita’s wife Sita Thakurani was also a teacher and a spiritual authority who accepted disciples. According to Prema vilasa, Sita had a female disciple named Jangali, who lived in a solitary ashram in the jungle. When the Shah of Bengal saw her beauty, he wanted to kidnap her, but he was surprised to find that she turned into a man. Confused, he sent a woman who reported Jangali was a woman, but when he sent a man, he reported he had only found a man in the ashram. The king repented his offense and built a large residence for her called Jangali Tota.
Jahnava Thakurani, wife of Nityananda, the famous associate of Chaitanya; she continued his spiritual lineage becoming the most prominent initiating Guru of the Gaudiya Vaishnava line. In Murali-vilasa, Jahnava is described as giving instructions to Ramachandra Goswami in the details of the path of worship (manjari bhava sadhana) outlined by Rupa Goswami. In his Bhakti-ratnakara, Narahari says that Yadunandan Das and the other devotees gathered in Katwa as Jahnava made her way to Kheturi to meet her, and out of respect they took food only after she had finished her meal.
Her adopted sons Virabhadra and Ramachandra continued her spiritual diksha lineage. Other important disciples of Jahnava were Jnana Das, one of the greatest writers of Vaishnava padavali kirtan, and Nityananda Das, the author of the Prema-vilasa.
Virabhadra’s wife, Subhadra Devi, wrote a Sanskrit hymn called Ananga-kadambavali, which consisted of one hundred verses in glorification of Jahnava. This work has been lost, but a single verse of it has been preserved in the Murali-vilasa (and is cited in Haridas Das, Gaudiya Vaishnava Abhidhana 5).
After her example, many families of the Nityananda dynasty established the tradition that sons should always be initiated by their mothers – Pran Gopal wrote that when the power of the mercy of the guru was coupled with maternal love, an extremely powerful spiritual force was created.
It is said that Jahnava Isvari manifested four arms – something that was related also about Rami, the wife of Nityananda’s disciple Abhirama Thakura, and Hemalata Thakurani, daughter of Srinivasa Acharya (Gaudiya-Vaishnava Abhidhana, 1422). All of them also accepted disciples, and although not much information on their lives has survived, we can easily believe they were very powerful women and respected teachers.
Yadunandana writes that Hemalata challenged Rupa Kaviraja, the leader of the Sahajya movement that challenged Gaudiya orthodoxy.
The second wife of Srinivasa Acharya (mother of Hemalata) also accepted a number of disciples.
Ganga Devi: Nityananda’s daughter. At her birth, Abhirama Thakura predicted she would become a greatly powerful woman, wrote a 20-verse poem about her and pronounced her to be the incarnation of Ganga.
In Puri, probably the most famous female Guru was Gangamata Gosvamini, a bengali princess who took sannyasa from Haridasa Pandit and settled in Puri where she used to give discourses on Bhagavata Purana. She established an ashram on the bank of Svetaganga sarovara on land donated by the king Raja Mukunda Deva, who also took initiation from her.
Krishnapriya and Vishnupriva were two sisters, daughters of Ganganarayana Chakravarti, the chief disciple of Narottama Das Thakura. Narottama advised them to take initiation from their own father, and they settled at Radhakunda in Vrindavana, practicing a life of intense asceticism. They became so respected that Mukunda, the disciple of Krishnadas Kaviraja, entrusted them with Raghunatha Das’ Govardhana shila, that he had personally received from Chaitanya. According to the Narottama-vilasa of Narahari, Krishnapriya took a number of disciples, but ultimately had to disown one of them, Rupa Kaviraj, who, for whatever motive, took the side of those who felt that her sex restricted her role in certain public religious acts. The result of his offensive behavior was that he was forced to leave Vrindavana and return to his native place, where legend has it he ultimately died a leper.
Madhavi Devi, extensively described in Chaitanya Bhagavata, composed a Sanskrit play about Lord Jagannatha, the Purushottama Deva Natakam, mentioned in Gaudiya Vaishnava Abhidhana.
In more recent times, the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition of female diksha gurus included Pishima Gosvamini (Chandradashi Mukhopadhyaya), mentioned in Haridas Das’ Gaudiya Vaishnava Jivani. Her story is tied to the Gaura Nitai Deities that are presently in Banakhandi near Loi Bazar in Vrindavana. These Deities, once worshiped by Murari Gupta (his name is carved at the base of one of the vigrahas) had been rediscovered by Balaram Das Babaji, a sadhu from Orissa, who was instructed in a dream to take care of them in Siuri (Virbhum district of West Bengal). Chandrasashi (at that time 20 years old) visited Siuri together with his father, a wealthy landowner of Nadia, and became attracted to the Deities there – one night she saw them in a dream and she was asked to feed them khir (sweet rice). Balaram Das gave her initiation so that she could cook for the Deities.
When it was time for her to leave the town, she had another dream in which the Deities, like small children, begged her not to leave and even tore off a piece of her dress by tugging it. In the morning, she told her dream to Balaram Das, who found the missing piece of cloth in the hand of the Deity of Gauranga.
After some time the villagers started some rumors about the nature of her relationship with the sadhu, so they decided to move to Vrindavana, and traveled 1600 km along the Ganges and Yamuna to Vrindavana.
Ma Yasoda (disappeared in 1944) is more widely known for her interaction with her disciple, Krishna Prema, born Ronald Nixon in 1989. Manika Devi, wife of the Vice-chancellor Jnanendranath Chakravarty, a leader of the Theosophist movement, developed a maternal relationship with him, calling him Gopal – as many Bengali mothers call their sons. Both Jnanendranath Chakravarty and Manika Devi took initiation from Balakrishna Goswami of the Radharamana temple in Vrindavan (descendent from Gopala Bhatta Gosvami). Krishna Prema became his disciple and as he desired to take sannyasa from her, she also traveled to Vrindavana to take sannyasa, too, and was named Yasoda Ma.
Abandoning academic life, the two of them went to Mirtola, near Almora in the Himalayan foothills, where they founded an ashram which they called “Uttara Vrindavan.” They installed a Radha-Krishna murtis. She taught local children to read and write and opened a dispensary, while Krishna Prema wrote several books and attracted a number of Englishmen as well as Indians to become his disciples.
She met the famous Shakta Bama Khepa at Tarapith, who told her to spend some time at Belur and then to go to Vrindavan. It is said that Bama Khepa also recognized her as an incarnation of Yogamaya. When she finally came and settled in Vrindavan, she eventually built a large ashram dedicated to Radha Kunjakishori near the Ranganathji temple gardens. She had hundreds of Punjabi and Bengali disciples, including many who were prominent and wealthy citizens, and eventually built other temples and ashrams in Belur, Govardhan, Bhubaneswar, Chakratirtha at Puri, etc.
Srimati Devi, whose story is narrated by O.B.L. Kapoor, became the disciple of Krishnananda Swami, a Punjabi disciple in the Nityananda vamsa line. Widowed at the age of 11, Srimati Devi decided to devote herself to the worship of her Krishna Deity and approached the Swami for initiation in the mood of sakhya. The Swami was very rigid in regard to contacts with women and for a long time he refused to meet her, until Balarama appeared to him in a dream and ordered him to break his resolve as Srimati had been avoiding all foods and drinks for 9 days. In the divine sakhya rasa, she began to dress, behave and speak like a cowherd boy friend of Krishna, and people began to call her bhaiya (“brother”).
Girija Devi was the wife of a rich landowner in Jamira in the state of Bihar. When her sons died she became indifferent to life and the family guru decided to read the Bhagavata purana to her regularly. Having developed a strong devotion to Krishna, Girija asked permission to move to Vraja and rented a room in Radharamana Ghera, where she started to have visions of the Deity that complained with her about imperfections in the service that no outsider could come to know about.
Other great female Gurus of the Hindu traditions are:
- Brahmani Devi, the Guru of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa,
- Sarada Devi, wife of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and considered by him as a manifestation of the Divine Mother, continued to guide his followers after Ramakrishna’s passing
- Sri Ma Anandamoyi, 1896-1982 from Bangladesh, her husband became her devotee
- Mère (the Mother) was born Mirra Alfassa in France, and became the inspirer and spiritual companion of Aurobindo
- Karunamayi Ma, originally born in Kashmir (1913), was initiated into Shakti sadhana at an early age and later moved to the Gurgaon district, near Delhi, establishing the Karunamai Maa Shakti Peeth at Sanp ki Nangli
- Mata Amritanandamayi, affectionately called Ammachi, from Kerala
- Bhagavati Devi Sharma continued the leadership of Gayatri Parivar after founder guru Sri Ram Sharma Acharya passed away
- Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, who still continues the leadership of Swami Muktananda’s disciples
- Bhavamayi Gurumata, founder of the Divyadham ashram, one of the most respected contemporary ashrams in Puri.
Also in the other Dharmic traditions we find a similar trend. One of the 24 tirthankaras of Jainism was a woman. Both Jainism and Buddhism accepted women and men as monks on an equal status, with the definition of Bhikshuni for the female itinerant mendicant.
Buddhist female ascetics (Thera) are known to have written many poems and philosophical texts.
Guru Amar Das, the 3rd Sikh Guru, entrusted 2 or the 26 preaching regions to women Gurus. Princess Bhrikuti, daughter of Nepal Licchivi Amsuvarma Raja (7th century) converted her husband the Tibetan king Tsrong-tsong gompo to Buddhism.
The history of Hinduism also has many great female saints and devotees who did not engage in the formal process of teaching and accepting students, but became famous because of their high realizations and devotion – starting from the Gopis of Vrindavana, that according to the Narada bhaktisutra (1.21) are the greatest examples of bhakti.
In Puri there is a famous story about Sriya Chandaluni, originally told in the Lakshmi purana and then popularized very recently by the movie Jai Jagannatha. A less famous devotee was Karmabai, a saintly lady from Maharastra who came to pilgrimage to Puri under the reign of king Virakisora and established a small ashram together with her aged Guru Indra Swami
Dokka Sitamma, also called Annapurnamma, was a famous saint of south India. Born in 1841 in Mandapeta, she became famous because she was giving food to all those who were hungry. One day an old man called to her from the other side of the Godavari asking for food, and she immediately cooked and carried the food through the river in spite of the rain. After that in the village Munganda, the ghost of a man who had killed his brother over property asked to be given annadana by Annapurnamma and thus attain liberation.
Sister Nivedita (Margaret Noble), born 1867 in Ireland, became a disciple of Vivekananda and came in India, becoming involved in the Indian freedom movement and writing many religious books
Svami Dayananda Sarasvati (the founder of Arya samaj in 1875) quoted many shastric references to argue that women are entitled to Vedic studies, and under his instruction or influence several gurukulas were opened to women, such as the Kanya Kumari Sthan in Ahmedanagar, started in 1931 by Upasani Baba, teaching Vedas and seven Vedic yajnas, the other gurukula started by Lala Devraj after independence and the Udyan Mangala Karyalaya in Pune.
Maharashtra’s orthodox brahminical Shankar Seva Samiti was founded in 1976 and has trained thousands of women priests in its one-year course. Another Pune-based organisation, the Jnana Prabodhini, started in 1990 with a 3-month course.
In Kerala the Gurupadam Institute of Kodungallur in Thrissur district has created many women priests, too. In Varanasi the Panini Kanya Mahavidyalaya trains women priests, too, Sanskrit scholars and karmakandi women pandits. Dressed in yellow and wearing janeu (sacred thread), the girls perform havana and chant mantras in very good Sanskrit in an ashram surcharged with spiritual energy.
Actually women priests from these Gurukulas are in great demand because they are considered more sincere, pure, learned and pious than male priests. This is confirmed in the Brihat Samhita of Varahamihira (chapter 72), where it is said that women are superior to men and especially they are more faithful in following Dharma, although often they content themselves of the extremely important – albeit apparently less glamorous – task of shaping the young minds of their children and supporting their husbands and family members.
The field of Vedic knowledge and civilization is distinguished from other traditions because it includes the study and practice of various duties in the varna and ashrama system.
Therefore it is appropriate to mention that women not only participated directly in the sacred activities of the intellectual class (teachers and priests called brahmanas) but also to the equally sacred activities of the governing and military class (kings and warriors called kshatriyas).
The further we go back in Vedic history, the more we find influential and powerful women who distinguished themselves in their own right in a society that had no prejudices against females.
In Ramayana when Rama was asked to go in exile, it was proposed that Sita ruled in his absence (2.37.28) and nobody seems to find the proposal strange. Kaikeyi’s credit with Dasaratha, by which she asks Rama’s exile, is explained with the fact that she once saved his life on the battlefield while they were fighting side by side against the enemy.
Rig Veda (1.116.15) narrates the story of Vispala, the wife of king Khela. She lost a leg in battle and obtained a metal prosthesis from the Asvini kumaras.
Again the Rig Veda (10.102.2) speaks of Mudgalani who drove the chariot of her husband in battle. There are several women warriors mentioned in Mahabharata (2.14.51) and Chitrangada wife of Arjuna is described as a valiant warrior.
In his grammatical text, Patanjali calls the women that specialized in the wielding of the lance with the definition of saktiki (4:1:15, 2:209).
The forgotten history of India contemplates many valiant queens – not just passive wives of kings who sacrificed their lives in desperate times so that their widowed husbands could fight in battle without being distracted with concerns about the safety of their spouses, or passionate spouses like Draupadi who kept fanning the flame of the Pandavas’ valor even in the most trying times.
Orissa had several important queens in the Bhaumakara dynasty, that also saw the immense power of Lakshminkara Devi Paramopasaka, sister of king Indrabhuti Deva.
Tribhuvana Mahadevi, Tribhuvana Mahadevi II (Prithivi), Gauri Mahadevi, Dandi Mahadevi, Vakula Mahadevi and Dharma Mahadevi were great queens in their own right and not just wives of kings.
This tradition, however, is not exclusive of Orissa.
Rudramba was the only daughter of the 6th king of Kakatiya vamsa of Andhra pradesh; she succeeded her father in the13th century, and defeated all the feudal lords of the area who challenged her power.
Kota Rani, the last Hindu ruler of Kashmir and widow of Uddyana Deo, fought the Tartars in early 14th century and was finally deposed by Shahmir in 1341; Kalhana’s Rajatarangini mentions several other valiant queens in pre-Muslim Kashmir.
Tara bai, wife of Rajaram, Shivaji’s brother, continued the Maratha struggle and moved the capital to Kolhapur and rescued Shahu the son of Sambhaji from the Mughals
Kulaprabhavati became the ruler of the Hindu Khmer kingdom in 5th century Kampuchea/Cambodia; in the same dynasty there were other Hindu queens such as Kambuja raja Lakshmi and Jayadevi.
In the10th century Gunapriya Dharmapatni introduced tantric Hinduism in Java as per inscriptions in rock hermitage at Goa Gajah near Beduly, and her name there precedes the name of her husband.
Rani Durgavati of Gondwana, widow of Dalpat Rai, continued to rule from 1548 for 16 years; she was eventually defeated by Akbar in 1564, but she killed herself rather than falling in the Muslims’ hands.
Ahalya bai Holkar of Indore (1725-1795) was an example of ideal Hindu ruler; she inherited kingdom from father in law after the death of her husband and ruled very successfully for 30 years.
Rani Rashmoni Devi of Kolkata (1793-1861) the widow of a small local ruler, continued to protect and assist the people even defying the British in upholding the religious freedom of Hindus. She built the famous temple of Kali Dakshinesvara, repaired the ghats of Bhagirathi and built a road from Subarnarekha to Puri for the pilgrims.
Rani Lashmi bai of Jhansi is probably the most famous; she fought against the British in 1857 and died on the battlefield; her female companion Jalkari bai also distinguished herself in the war of 1857 and was credited with having killed a tiger as a teenager – when Lakshmi bai’s fort was about to fall, she dressed up as Rani Lakshmi bai and defended the fort for a long time.
Rani Chennamma of Kittur (1778-1829) was trained in horse riding, sword fighting and archery in young age; she adopted Shivalingappa as her son and put him on her throne after her first son died in 1824.
Rani Avanti bai, widow of Vikramaditya Singh ruler of Ramgarh; she won back her kingdom from the British after raising an army of 4,000 men and leading them in battle in 1857.
An important figure in the recent history of Orissa was Suryamani Pattamahadei, born in 1818 at Sonepur, daughter of Raja Daityari Singh. She learned combat, archery and hunting in her youth. Once, while the Raja family was traveling towards Puri, Suryamani killed a crocodile that was crawling towards their camp at night. She married Ramachandra Deva, who died in 1854, and her son Birakishore Deva became King and superintendent of the Temple.
Another important category of women, one that has been much maligned after the advent of oppressive patriarchal social systems, is described in the ancient Smriti shastra as ganikas, or “society women”, that were actually very respected in Vedic society (more respected than regularly married sadyo vadhus) and participated to the political life of their times, sitting in city assemblies, managing properties and administrative offices, engaging in business and trade of various types, becoming patrons of literature, arts and philosophy, and so on.
These were not Brahmavadinis or spiritual/religious teachers, but ordinary women who felt they had something to offer to society at large, and wanted to be appreciated and respected in their own right, for their personal abilities and social work, and not just live a reclusive private life as a wife and mother. Many of such ganikas married (i.e. had monogamous couple relationships), but retained their full freedom to live their own lives.
In later times, with the degradation of the Kali yuga, these powerful women were reduced to the pitiful status of courtisanes and prostitutes, and ostracized by society.
The result is that literacy and education of women came to be considered very suspiciously as a dangerous sign of degradation and ignorance and illiteracy came to be confused with chastity and ethical behavior, while timidity, lack of self respect and self esteem and a fearful, resigned and passive disposition came to be considered very good qualities. Women came to be treated like animals, mere breeders of male children and powerless sense gratification machines for men, engaged in petty power struggles with the other women of the family as we can see in the very popular TV serials still today.
Unfortunately, this level and quality of mentality became the matrix of the mentality of their weak and degraded progeny, the veritable varna sankara described in Gita.
One moon is more valuable that millions of glow worms or just plain worms.
The only way is to discover the real potential of a daughter consists in offering the proper opportunities for education to all girls in their very first years of life, and special encouragement and support to those girls who manifest a keen interest for higher studies and a strong personality.
Observation of higher intellectual and religious tendencies is possible only when a little girl is afforded proper education starting from the earliest years, and when the family and society environment show acceptance and appreciation for higher intellectual ambitions in girls or even just consideration, respect and affection for children of female gender.
Denying proper food, intellectual stimulation, education and other facilities to girl children has the disastrous effect of damaging the proper genetic development of the brain and nervous system, which in turn is passed on from mother to children – sons and daughters alike. The formation of the nervous system of a child starts from the genetic quality of the mother’s ovum and the earliest days of pregnancy, so the best investment is taking care of the health of women before they even conceive a child.
The best way to implement the original position of women in Hindu society is to follow the actual directives of the shastras, starting with the dowry regulations: as per Manu smriti (8.29) the dowry or stri dhana cannot be used or controlled by husband or in-laws (such a crime is punished by Manu’s laws) and is passed from mother to daughters only.
Financial independence of women in marriage is sanctioned in Smriti, and will be a major step in ensuring the renaissance of Hindu society, creating new generations of much better children.
Reposted from Jagannatha Vallabha Vedic Research