Posted here is a detailed analysis on the status accorded to women by Hindu dharma and how women were treated in the Hindu society in the past.
This is a 3 part series written by Sri Vishal Agarwal as a presentation of Facts about Indian woman, in the wake of the infamous California text book case.
It all started when the history book of Grade -6 in California was modified with some material on Hinduism talking of unfair treatment to women. This was opposed by all right thinking Hindus – who opted for legal course to make corrections. Unfortunately, this case taken up in 2005, has recently ended without setting right, the wrong information about Hinduism.
The westerners have an agenda against Hindusim.
Hinduism and Hindus had been there in the past even before habitations sprang up in their countries.
Every evidence in modern science is pointing towards a rich and ancient culture of the Hindus which is difficult for them to digest.
This threatens their sense of superiority.
The kind of venomous aspersions that the westerners have for Hinduism can be tasted in this link.
What is unfortunate is that our own countrymen in the garb of secularism are towing the line of vested interests of the West. They are waiting to spit venom on us if we speak for Hinduism. There is also a growing mindset that Intellectualism and Hindu thought can not go together.
But they are all wrong.
A dharma which is rooted in Universal facts about Life, Nature, Creation, evolution, co-existence and Emancipation can never die, nor fade away from human patronage.
As long as the solar system exists in the present mode,
this dharma also will live on.
Taking cue from my pet subject, Jyothsiha,
I can say that as long as Jupiter and Saturn continue to revolve as they do now,
Hindu dharma can not be wiped off.
These two planets are the indicators of human striving with respect to knowledge of the Brahman, of Dharma.
Hinduism will live on.
And there will always be somebody to show what Hinduism says.
Here we have one who has done good justice by bringing out the true picture of Hinduism with specific reference to women.
My sincere thanks to Sri Vishal Agarwal,
for granting permission to post his articles in this blog.
May Hindu wisdom prevail!
Glory to Hindu Woman in the image of Shakthi!
Women in Hindu Dharma and California Grade VI textbooks PART-I
Equality of sexes is a modern is a modern ideal that is yet to be realized in our own times. How many Presidents of the United States of America have been women? None.
Therefore, it goes without saying that all traditional and ancient societies, and all organized religions gave an unequal status to women and men. And yet, the proposed Ancient History textbooks for Grade VI for California students single out ancient India and Hinduism for its alleged unfair treatment, and for granting women 'inferior rights'. In discussions of all other religions, these (and Grade VII textbooks on the medieval period) either leave out this aspect, or carefully hedge negative statements with positive ones.
0.1 Politicization of the Issue:
To rectify this disparity, two Hindu groups namely the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF) and the Vedic Foundation (VF) worked with the California Department of Education (CDE) for several months, to bring the descriptions of role of Hindu women in ancient India at par with the corresponding descriptions of other religious societies. Predictably, the well known group of Hindu-hating (in my opinion) academics and politicians lead by Michael Witzel (Harvard University) and Ultra-leftist FOIL (Forum of Inquilabi 'Revolutionary' Leftists) politicized the entire constructive effort of HEF/VF by alleging a 'Hindutva' conspiracy. These people have even roped in right wing Christians and alleged in their political campaign.
It is well known that the depiction of India and Hinduism in American textbooks is marked by a negative slant, and numerous errors. These self-styled experts have never done anything to correct these distortions in textbooks. But now that HEF/VF started to do something in this direction, the Witzel-FOIL gang is indulging in destructive behavior at the last moment of the textbook review process. Interestingly, these same experts have maintained silence on the ahistoricity of the many times more edits proposed by Islamic, Jewish and Christian groups. Since Witzel, FOIL and other organizations such as FOSA consider themselves as experts on 'South Asia', do we take their silence to mean that they do not consider Islam and Christianity as 'South Asian' religions? Or is their selective targeting of Hindus is motivated by something else?
0.2 Pedagogical Issues:
In this politicization of an academic issue by the Michael Witzel-FOIL gang, the following important points are being lost sight of:
- The textbooks are meant for impressionable school children in the sixth grade. These students are not graduate students who need to or who could assimilate nuanced and diverse viewpoints on each matter.
- The treatment of Hinduism and ancient India in these textbooks is introductory. Therefore, it is essential that just as for other religions, these textbooks should focus on more essential, doctrinal aspects of Hinduism, rather than dwelling on clichés about women and Dalits. The narratives for these sixth grade students should be marked by a positive attitude and sympathy for the tradition being studied. Hinduism seems to have been singled out for a negative and unsympathetic treatment although it is probably the last time most students will ever learn about this religion.
- Hinduism is not a history centric faith like Abrahamic faiths. Therefore it is all the more important to include emic ("insider's") viewpoints in its discussion rather than focus on etic or outsider historian perspectives. However, this is not seen to be the case, and questionable historical theories such as the Aryan invasion theory and its variants have been used to explain the very genesis and the very nature of Hinduism even though such theories do not find any place in the entire length and breadth of Hindu tradition.
- The textbooks in question end their narrative around 550 AD for ancient India. This means that practices such as Sati and untouchability which were marginal before 550 AD should not be mentioned in what is clearly a brief description of Hinduism in these textbooks.
- The audience of these textbooks is predominantly non-Hindu, and it may be necessary to put across Hindu doctrines to these students in using terms that are used in Abrahamic faiths. For instance, the sixth grade student in California is very likely to confuse the word 'Brahmin' (Hindu priest) with 'Brahman' (Supreme Being), and therefore words such as 'Supreme Being' or even God may have to be used.
- The CA State guidelines on education mandate that no one tradition should be privileged over another, and different cultures should be taught in such a way that students belonging to these cultures should take a pride in their heritage. The current textbooks violate these guidelines only with regard to India and Hinduism, and Michael Witzel - FOIL group is trying to maintain this status-quo.
- The textbooks fail to mention in the context of women rights in Hinduism that it is the only faith where 'God' is also 'Goddess' (i.e., the Supreme Divine Power is worshipped as female, neutral gender or androgynous entity as well) and many other things that I will detail below.
Of all the organized religions of the world, women have perhaps the most prominent presence, both visible as well as invisible, in Hinduism. As the Divine Mother, the Supreme Being affirms to Hindus that It has either has no gender, or It has both. As Sages, women have borne the revealed word. As spiritual and religious teachers, Hindu women have sustained our Dharma in various ways down the ages. As noble queens and as warriors, Hindu women have protected our faith from disintegrating into extinction. As musicians, dancers and artists, they have been the embodiment of all that is beautiful. As mothers, they have been our first teachers. As wives, they have provided the locus around which family and social life revolves. As daughters, they have taught us compassion. And as our guides, they have made many men into great human beings. This essay is a celebration of the divinity, power, beauty, wisdom, erudition and leadership of Hindu women down the ages. It highlights the central role that women have always played in Hindu dharma, society, politics, humanities and other fields of scholarship, and in our families.
The essay forms a sequel to an earlier article by Karthik Kalavai Venkat, who discusses how the Hindu-hating academic and politicians are insisting on an exceptional treatment of Hinduism that focuses on the 'inferior rights' of women. Readers are requested to cross-check the scriptural citations in this compilation and notify the author in case of any errors (while noting that multiple editions of the same Indic text can often give the same passage in different address/location). The compilation is by no means exhaustive.
2.0 Women and the Divine Word:-
"Profound thought was the pillow of her couch,
Vision was the unguent for her eyes.
Her wealth was the earth and Heaven,
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
The close connection of women with the Vedas, the texts regarded as Divine Revelation (or 'Divine Exhalation') in Hindu Dharma may be judged from the fact that of the 407 Sages associated with the revelation of Rigveda, twenty-one are women. Many of these mantras are quite significant, for instance the hymn on the glorification of the Divine Speech. The very invocatory mantra of the Atharvaveda addresses divinity as a 'Devi' – the Goddess, who while present in waters, fulfills all our desires and hopes. In the Atharvaveda, the entire 14th book dealing with marriage, domestic issues etc., is attributed to a woman sage. Portions of other 19 books are also attributed to women sages.
Both male and female deities are extolled in the hymns of all revealed texts of Hindus and in the family prayers of all the 10 lineages of Vedic Sages. Numerous schools of Vedic tradition customarily offer homage to women sages during their daily prayers. The superlative epithets used uniformly to denote female deities like Ushas, Sarasvati etc., in the Vedas describe them as sweetly-smiling, the first or foremost of deities to whom worship is offered, the shining ones, splendid and beautiful, possessors of wisdom, teachers of mankind and as powers capable of fulfilling the desires of human beings.
While it is true that the word 'man' is used in a generic manner to denote 'human beings' in the Vedas, authoritative grammar and ritual texts emphasize that this is merely a figure of speech, and that man and woman together constitute two halves of the same Persona while performing Vedic sacerdotal ceremonies. Vedic ritual texts emphasize that there is no difference between man and woman in so far as the right to perform Vedic rites is concerned. The language in which the revealed Hindu texts are composed, namely Sanskrit, has a neuter gender in addition to the masculine and feminine. In fact, the Ultimate Reality, the Supreme God of Hindus, is often described as gender neutral. Interestingly, in a famous verse of Rigveda that says that all the various deities are but descriptions of One Truth, the names of deities are all masculine but the phrase 'One Truth' ('Ekam Sat') is in neuter gender as if to emphasize that God is not male. The Gayatri Mantra, the holiest prayer of Hindus in the Vedas, is often represented symbolically as a Devi in classical Hinduism. She is thus a female deity, who is also often termed as the 'Mother of all Vedas', and giver of boons.
It is common to read in scriptures of mankind God is like the husband of all human beings and of all churches. In the Vedas however, we even read that God is like a dear wife whom 'His' worshipper loves like a doting husband. The 'Divine Word' itself is likened to a beautiful maiden who manifests her beauty to the husband.
As goddesses (devis), they are worshipped as mothers of even the most powerful male deities (devatas). Devi Aditi is thus the mother of all prominent devatas such as Varuna, Mitra, Aryaman, Rudras, Indra, of kings and many other excellent sons. She is invoked as the mistress of the Cosmic Order, omnipotent, every youthful, protector, mother of the devout worshipper and a wise guide of all humans.
The Vedas hardly ever conceive of devatas without corresponding devis. Almost as a rule, the Sage, the worshipper and the ritualist invoke the devatas to manifest along with devis and partake of the sacred oblations poured into the sacred fire altar.
3.0 The Divine Mother: 'God as Goddess'
Around 2000 years ago, Classical Hinduism, or Hindu Dharma as we know today, started crystallizing. Worship of the Supreme Being through icons and sacred symbols was aligned among five Hindu traditions of worship – Saura, Ganapatya, Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shaakta. The last three of these traditions encompass practically all Hindus today.
Significantly, the Shaakta tradition specifically worships the Divine as the Mother of the Universe, to whom all the male deities also bow in reverence. Shrines of this tradition have perhaps a greater geographical spread than those of other traditions in the Indian subcontinent.
In this tradition, the Divine Mother is termed as 'Shakti' or 'The (Supreme) Power', as 'Uma' or the Sacred Wisdom, as 'Mahesvari' or 'The Supreme Goddess' and so on. The Shaakta tradition has hundreds of texts (often termed generically as 'Tantras') and traditions considered authoritative by Hindus even outside that specific tradition.
The Shaiva tradition is considered the 'male' counterpart of the Shaakta tradition and the two share numerous texts, liturgies and other sacred traditions. In numerous iconic representations, God is shown as 'ardhanariishvara' or 'God who is half woman', to emphasize that either God has no gender or he is both woman and man.
Even male deities such as Lord Vishnu sometimes incarnate as women to serve the cause of Dharma. The Devi herself is often said to combine the powers of all male deities including Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
In the Vaishnava tradition, which is the most prevalent Hindu tradition today, God is worshipped as 'Vishnu' together with 'Shri', who is also addressed variously as 'Lakshmi'. They incarnate together, and their incarnations, namely that of Rama and Sita respectively, and so on, are also worshipped as a couple. Perhaps a good idea of the simultaneous and equal reverence that Hindus have for the feminine and the masculine aspects of Divinity may be gauged from the following quotation –
Sage Parashar said:
O Maitreya! Always a companion of Vishnu and the Mother of this Universe,
Devi Lakshmi is eternal. Vishnu is omnipresent, so is She.
If She is speech, Vishnu is the object of description.
Vishnu is the Law, and She is the Policy.
Lord Vishnu is knowledge, she is intelligence.
He is Dharma, She is good karma.
If Vishnu is the Creator, She is the Creation (that abides eternally with Him).
He is the mountain, She is Earth.
He is the virtue of contentment, She is the all satisfying.
If Lord Vishnu is desire, She is the object of desire.
He is the sacred Vedic ritual, she is the priestly fee…
Lord Rama is worshipped with his wife Devi Sita. Lord Krishna is worshipped with Radha or with Devi Rukmini. In some sects of Vaishnava Hindus, Radha is actually accorded more importance with Lord Krishna. Independent Hindu spiritual texts with names such as 'Sitopanishad', 'Radhopanishad' and so on exist, which extol the greatness of the Devis in the divine pairs.
It is important to note that when God is worshipped as 'Divine Couple' by Hindus, the name of the feminine typically precedes that of masculine. For instance, we say that we are worshipping 'Sita-Ram', 'Radhe-Shyam', 'Uma-Mahesh' or 'Shri Vishnu' and so on.
In the Ganapatya tradition, the major focus of veneration is the Bhagavan Ganesh, well recognized from his elephant head. The followers of this tradition are not numerous, but all Hindus, irrespective of their sectarian affiliation, commence their prayers to God with an invocation to Ganesh. Interestingly, in the sacred stories of Hindu texts, Ganesha is considered more of his mother Parvati's son than his father Shiva's. In fact, some versions state that Parvati created Him out of her own power because she wanted a son whom only she could call her own. Ganesh is typically worshipped as a child, and is often depicted along with his brother Skanda together with their all-powerful mother.
This we see that even in the male oriented traditions of classical Hinduism, the feminine aspect of Divinity occupies a very central position of significance.
In numerous Hindu communities of Bangladesh, Nepal and India, the most prominent festival in the year is dedicated to the Divine Mother. During Diwali, the most important festival in northern India and amongst Hindu communities in the Caribbean, the main worship is offered to Devi Lakshmi. Diwali itself is often called 'Lakshmi Pujan'.
A period of 9 nights every year is devoted to the worship of numerous manifestations of the Mother. It is celebrated as Durga Puja festival in eastern India and as Navaratri in Gujarat as the major festivals of these regions.
Popular Hinduism also exhibits the concept of 'grama-devata' in which a local manifestation of the Divine is worshipped as the presiding deity of that place. Many Indian cities and towns, including several important pilgrim centers, have various forms of the Divine Mother as their 'grama-devi'. As examples, we may cite Amba who is worshipped in Kolhapur and Ahmadabad (formerly called Ambavad); Meenakshi who is worshipped in the pilgrim town of Madurai; a form of Sati, the wife of Shiva, worshipped in Jalandhar; and Dhakeshvari Devi of Dhaka (capital of Bangladesh).
It is not surprising that words denoting the Feminine Power of God, such as Shakti, Kali and so on have become a part of the New Age vocabulary because there is a deficiency of such terms in other organized religions. There is even a perfume launched by the name 'Kali' in the west.
4.0 Mother Earth, Mother Nature:
For Hindus, God is not necessarily a fatherly figure. 'He' is Mother and Father combined. In Hindu Cosmology and Ecology, Nature and Earth are uniformly referred to as Mother Nature (Prakriti) and kindly Mother Earth (Prithvi Mata). In Hindu philosophies, God and Nature are sometimes depicted as Husband and Wife who create the inanimate and animate Universe together just as mother and father give birth to children. In a long hymn extolling the earth, the Sage concludes with the beautiful words –
'O Earth, my Mother!
Establish me securely in spiritual and material happiness,
and in full accord with Heaven.
While today we normally assume that the 'husband is the breadwinner of the household', traditional Hindus say that it is Devi Annapuurnaa who is the presiding deity of Foodgrains. Likewise, forests that provide us with so many resources are said to be presided over by Devis who are known as Vanadevis (vana = forest).
There are numerous Hindu rituals involving the veneration of trees, plants and forests in their feminine form. An example of such ritual is the Karama Puja done by Bangladeshi Hindus.
It is Mother Ganga, Mother Yamuna, Mother Kaveri and so on who have manifested as rivers to feed mankind. Rivers, their confluences, their mouths and their origins form prominent Hindu pilgrim centers. The evening worship of Ganga Ma ('Mother Ganges') in the pilgrim center of Hardwar with hundreds of lamps which are set afloat on the river in the night is a breath-taking spectacle. The trend of considering rivers as manifestations of the feminine aspect of the Divine Being has been carried by Hindu immigrants to other parts of the world as well. Sanskrit mantras have already been composed for worshipping rivers such as Mississippi in the United States, underlying the fact that in Hindu belief, the Supreme Being is all-pervading. Such recent developments parallel a similar transplantation of Hindu sacred geography to South East Asia several centuries back.
One's country is always termed as 'Motherland', never as Fatherland in recognition of the fact that the land we live in nurtures us lovingly as our own mother. Indians often worship India as 'Bharatmata'.
A popular Sanskrit verse attributed to Lord Rama says that one's mother as well as motherland are more exalted than Heaven. The source of this verse however has not been traced and it is presumed that an anonymous poet coined it in the 19th century. Nevertheless, the verse has sunk deep into the contemporary Hindu psyche.
When a family entered their new home, they invoked God and asked him to dwell therein in a benevolent feminine form to make it come alive –
Queen of the mansion, our shelter,
Kind devi, you are indeed constructed by the devas.
May you, robed in grass, be gracious to us,
Household women play a leading role in this ceremony and the wife is the first one to enter the new home. This is not surprising because the wife is regarded as 'grhyalakshmi' or the embodiment of Devi Lakshmi, presiding over the house and its welfare and prosperity.
5.0 Feminine Spirituality, Feminine Rituals:
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the longest text of Hindu spirituality, describes the proceedings of a marvelous spiritual conference in which the great Sage Yajnavalkya was locked in a debate with several Sages on the other side. Suddenly, a woman sage named Gargi Vachnavi rises and says that if Sage Yajnavalkya can answer her questions, all the other Sages will accept his doctrines. It is noteworthy that all the Sages present there accept her as their spiritual leader and allow her to represent them on their behalf. In the same text, Maitreyi, the wife of Yajnavalkya, motivates him to deliver a memorable sermon on the nature of God and soul. Modern India has honored these illustrious women by founding colleges bearing their names. In a long spiritual lineage given in this text, all the teachers and students are listed as sons of their mothers.
In the Kena Upanishad, knowledge appears as Uma, a woman, to dispel the ignorance of Indra. This short text was considered so profound that it was singled out for not one but two commentaries by Adi Shankaracharya (8th century CE), one of the greatest Hindu philosophers of all times.
Scholars of Hinduism point out that in addition to the largely male-authored religious texts of our Dharma, popular Hinduism strongly adheres to non-codified rituals performed by women. Hundreds of thousands of villages in Hindu dominated parts of the world have well-frequented shrines in honor of Devi, the feminine aspect the Divine. Hindu women perform hundreds of small religious rites, keeping Dharma alive in their own way. Little wonder then that even orthodox Hindu texts hint that the study of the Vedas is completed only after we learn the 'religious knowledge of women'.
In household religious ceremonies even today, it is not uncommon to see women take the lead role in organizing the entire function. There is no domestic ritual in which women cannot participate, whereas there are several popular Hindu rituals where the presence of men is either debarred, or is not desirable. The sacred rituals are said to bear the desired fruit only if men and women perform it as a pair. The intimate connection of women with Vedic rituals is seen from the fact that several sacred mantras from the Vedas are specifically meant for recitation by women, as is clarified by Shrautasutras – manuals of Vedic rites. Since the wife is indeed the pivot of the house, she was entitled to perform the sandhyaa, or the morning and evening rituals with the sacred altar and Vedic texts. In the Ramayana, Queen Kausalya performs the daily fire sacrifice (agnihotra) with Vedic mantras as do Tara and Sita etc. In the Mahabharata also, ladies such as Savitri and Amba likewise perform Vedic rituals with the recitation of Vedic texts. Some Vedic texts actually cite women as authorities on minutiae of Vedic rituals. Therefore, though women were debarred from reciting Vedic texts or from performing Vedic rituals in later times, their right to do so in ancient times is quite well established from the extant ancient Hindu literature. In fact, a lost Vedic text named Saulabha Brahmana is attributed to Sulabha, a woman. This text could have belonged to an extinct school of Rigveda which she must have founded.
Although no sacred-thread ceremony has been performed for women in recent centuries, ancient texts affirm that women did undergo this ceremony in the past, or wore the sacred thread during various rituals. For instance, a text says that the bride should wear the sacred thread during her wedding. The Harita Dharmasutra, perhaps belonging to Maitrayaniya school of Yajurveda, has been cited in several texts (e.g., Hindu law manuals Nirnayasindhu) to the effect that women are of two types – Brahmavaadini (devoted to the Vedas and to the Supreme Being) and Sadhyavadhu (those who marry and settle down as housewives). Concerning the former, the Dharmasutra says that they undergo the thread ceremony, perform agnihotra, study the Vedas, and live by begging alms from their family members (just as male students, although boys have to leave home to live with their teachers). Later texts also cite the opinion of Yama to the effect that in ancient times, women also underwent the thread ceremony, studied the Vedas and recited the Gayatri and other Vedic mantras. However, these later texts somehow try to explain these old traditions away because they were perceived as anachronistic in later times.
Hindu texts are unanimous in declaring that God does not differentiate between men and women. From a Dharmic perspective, adherence to Dharma alone decides who is great and who is lowly. In the Hindu philosophy of Bhakti, or devotion to God, the cowherd women (gopi-s) who resided in the region of Braj in northern India are held as exemplars for all mankind. In traditional enumerations of pious people who were saved by the salvific power of God, both men and women are listed without prejudice. Both men and women are said to be God's manifestations in several verses. In these verses, we often see that the Sanskrit word for women is given a graceful precedence over the word for men. The Ramayana, a Hindu epic, narrates the story of Shabari, a tribal Hindu woman, who was ecstatic upon hearing that Lord Rama would pass her hut during his forest sojourn. She hastened to collect wild-berries to offer to him To ensure that they were all sweet, she chewed half of each berry, discarding the bad ones. When Shri Rama arrived, he was so touched by her pure devotion that he ate her half-chewed berries without hesitation. This story is often taken as an example to illustrate the power of loving devotion to God in the Hindu doctrine of Bhakti.
In the Hindu tradition, a pentad of five women 'panchakanyaas' is especially revered. The first two are from the Hindu epic Mahabharata, and the other three from the Hindu epic Ramayana. It is believed that a remembrance of these five women destroys great sins. It is not exactly clear why these five women were chosen, but their diverse background shows the catholicity of Hindu Dharma in venerating virtuous women disregarding their social and ethnic background. These five women are –
- Kunti, the wife of King Pandu, and mother of the five Pandava princes. She was an accomplished scholar of the Atharva Veda.
- Draupadi, wife of the five Pandavas brothers, whose honor was preserved by none other than Lord Krishna
- Tara, the wife of 'vaanara' (tribal) King Vali, and after his death, of his younger brother King Sugreeva who assisted Lord Rama
- Sage Gotama's wife Ahalya who was tricked into adultery by Indra, but had her honor redeemed by Lord Rama
- Mandodari, the virtuous wife of evil incarnate Ravana, the King of Lanka. She prevailed upon him to spare Devi Sita of his lust.
Likewise, there is also a concept of five 'Satis' or virtuous women namely –
- Sita, who was born of Mother Earth and the Nepalese King Siradhvaja Janaka. She married Lord Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, and is considered an incarnation of Devi Lakshmi.
- Savitri, who is described below
- Sati, described below
- Arundhati, the pious wife of Sage Vashishtha
- Damayanti, the wife of King Nala
These five (or rather the first four) are worshipped by Hindus as divine women of Dharma, noted for unwavering devotion to their husbands and for standing by them through all the ups and downs in their lives. There are no corresponding pentads of illustrious men.
(to be continued)