Saturday, March 7, 2009

Women in Hinduism – part -2

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6.0 Women as Hindu Spiritual Leaders: The Women of God


Hindus have been blessed with a continuous, unbroken chain of women Saints, Yoginis, Nuns, Priestesses, Ascetics and Seers who roam all over the world to this day to preach the eternal message of our Dharma.  


Meera, Akka Mahadevi, Lalleshvari, Andal and other saintly women of medieval India are considered some of the foremost Hindu Sages. Their writings are treated as scripture, and chanted with great regard to this day. 


Meerabai (16th century) was a Rajput Princess of Mewar who decided in her childhood that her husband was Lord Krishna. She was married to a Rajput prince, but forsaking all formal ties, she traveled between various religious centers associated with Lord Krishna. Her Hindi bhajans (devotional songs) in praise of Rama and Krishna are very popular even today. Meerabai’s soul merged with that of Lord Krishna in Dwaraka when she was 67 years old. Andal-Goda’s songs are recited daily in Shri Vaishnava Hindu liturgy in temples as well as in homes, in India as well as outside India. Her icon is frequently placed alongside that of Lord Vishnu and Devi Lakshmi in temples. 


Lalleshvari (14th century CE) is considered the greatest saint poet of Kashmir. Her devotional verses highlight the divinity within our own selves, and exhort us to love the Shiva who dwells in our heart. Lalleshvari walked out of a traumatic marriage and roamed the Kashmir valley singing her mystical songs, demonstrating Yogic feats while lost in the bliss of Bhagavan Shiva. Her spellbinding songs are recited even today.                    


Akka Mahadevi (12th century) lived and preached in Karnataka. Though married, she severed her worldly bonds and instead sought to merge in Shiva. She roamed the countryside of that region singing of Lord Shiva, and ultimately is said to have merged in him. Akka joined the Virashaiva community after her meeting with Saint Basavacharya and wrote 350 exquisite spiritual compositions. Akka and Lalleshvari defied the social norms by eschewing garments for they had surrendered their entire being to their deity and had no use for social norms. A late twentieth century woman ascetic named Mate Mahadevi drew her own inspiration from the ideal set by Akka Mahadevi.  


The Shaiva Siddhanta tradition has been blessed with several women saints such as Kaaraikkaal Ammaiyaar, Thilakavathiyaar, Mangaiyarkkarachiyaar, Paravaiyaar, Changiliyaar, Chembiyan Madheeviyaar, Auvaiyaar etc. Some of them led a saintly life dedicating their lives to spiritual pursuits. The others lead a family life while spreading of spiritual teachings of Shaivism in Tamil speaking areas. Likewise, the Sant tradition of Maharashtra has several feminine voices from Muktabai (13th century CE) the sister of Sant Jnaneshvara, to Bahina Bai. Janabai (1298-1350) also wrote of abandoning social norms and offering herself to the service of God. The hagiographies of many of these women Sants occur in Mahipati’s Bhaktavijaya. Most women saints of this tradition were in fact housewives. Similar examples may be given from many other Hindu spiritual traditions such as Gaudiya Vedanta of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. 


In more recent times, Shree Shree Ma Anandamoyi (1896-1982), born in what is now Bangladesh, was a Hindu woman mystic whose own husband became her devotee, and who was held in great reverence even by Mahatma Gandhi. She traveled far and wide, preaching compassion and spirituality, and was instrumental in the setting up of many hospitals and other charitable institutions. 


In our times, Mata Amritanandamayi and Mata Nirmala Devi as Hindu women Gurus are well known today in the international spiritual circuit as teachers of Divine Love and of Yoga respectively.                     


Ammachi, as Mata Amritanandamayi is lovingly called by followers, was born in a humble Hindu harijan family of Kerala. From her childhood she was lost in Divine Love for God. Today, she travels all over the world preaching love for God and compassion for human beings. She is well known for embracing all the visitors who come to see her with patience and compassion, and with an eternal beatific smile that leaves a profound spiritual effect on them.  


Mata Nirmala Devi, born to a Christian priest, converted to Hinduism and discovered a simpler form of Yoga that she teaches to her devotees spread all over the world. Many other Hindu women Gurus preach in the West in our times, including Ma Yoga Shakti, Shri Ma, Anandi Ma and so on. 

Foreign women who adopted Hindu spirituality also made a significant contribution to our Dharma and society. For instance, Sister Nivedita (Margaret Noble) born in 1867 in Northern Ireland, met Swami Vivekananda in London in 1895 and became his disciple. She came to India in 1898. In India she engaged herself in running a school for girls and young women. After Swamiji's death she involved herself actively in the Indian Freedom Movement. She wrote several books that present different aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism in a very lucid manner for the lay readership. She died in 1911. 


Women have played an important role in other sacred traditions that have organic links to Hindu Dharma. For instance, one out of the twenty-four Tirthankaras (founding spiritual teachers) of the Jains was a woman. The heroine of a Tamil Jain didactic epic is a Jain nun named Neelakeshi. Guru Amar Das, the 3rd Sikh Guru, entrusted two of the 26 regions marked out for his missionary activity to women spiritual leaders. Princess Bhrikuti, the daughter of Nepalese Licchivi King Amshu Varma (7th century CE) married the Tibetan King Tsrong-tsong Gompo and influenced her husband to convert to Buddhism. She is also credited with the construction of several prominent places of Tibetan Buddhism such as Potala and Jokhang, as well as Buddhist shrines in Bhutan. Thus, she played a pivotal role in leading Tibetans to Buddhism and is therefore worshipped as a manifestation of the Tibetan deity Tara. 


Often, when male saints have died, their widowed wives or women disciples have assumed the spiritual leadership of his followers. As an example we may cite ‘The Mother’, who was the spiritual companion or the first disciple of Shri Aurobindo, one of the most influential Hindu Sage of our times. She had visions about him even before she met him and became Self-realized/God-realized following the Integral Yoga he was developing/teaching). Originally from France, she followed him to India, where she spent the rest of her life providing spiritual leadership to Shri Aurobindo’s disciples. 


Another example is that of Sharada Devi (b. 1853), the wife of Shri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, a Hindu Saint who lived in the 19th century. After Ramakrishna Paramahamsa passed away in 1886, she continued to guide her husband’s followers till her own death in 1920.  Portraits of the two are worshipped together by followers of this Hindu saint even today. 


In our own times, Bhagwati Devi Sharma (d. 1994) provided spiritual leadership to the Gayatri Parivar, after its founder Guru Shri Ram Sharma Acharya passed away. 

It would be a fair statement to make that of all the organized global religions in the world today, women perhaps have the most visible and prominent presence in Hindu Dharma. Feminine spirituality is not something that needs to be grafted onto Hindu Dharma. It has always been a part of the core of our faith. 


7.0 Women Scholars and Poetesses:  

We have already cited above several instances of Vedic women seers, ritual teachers, spiritual teachers and so on. In this section, we shall mention some examples of women who were scholars from post-Vedic literature. In the Mahabharata, one reads of a profoundly spiritual nun Sulabha who studied under several teachers and has a philosophical debate with the philosopher King Janaka. Numerous texts of Sanskrit grammar indicate the existence of respected women teachers of grammar. Commenting on the authoritative grammar text Ashtadhyayi 3.3.21 of Panini (~400 BCE), Patanjali (~150 BCE) says that women commence their education after undergoing the sacred thread ceremony. He then derives the feminine forms of words denoting teachers, professors and so on. Likewise, commenting on Ashtadhyayi 4.1.14, Patanjali mentions that ladies studied the ancient grammar of Apisali and also the Mimamsa text of Kashkritsna.  


In the Uttararamacharita 2.3 of Bhavabhuti (~8th cent. CE), it is mentioned that Atreyi goes from the hermitage of Sage Valmiki to southern India India to learn Vedas and Vedanta philosophy etc. In Kaadambari, the exemplary text on poetics authored by Dandin (~8th centy. CE), a lady named Mahaashveta is described as adorned with a white sacred thread that shone like pure moonlight. 


Numerous ancient Hindu temples (such as the Lingaraja temple in Orissa or the Khajuraho temple in Madhya Pradesh) show women as teachers (with male as well as female students) and painters etc.  


Ubhaya Bharati, the wife of ritualism scholar Mandana Mishra, presided as a judge in a debate between her husband and the spiritual philosopher Adi Shankaracharya. After the latter won, she then challenged Adi Shankaracharya (8th century CE) to a debate. The hagiography Shankaradigvijaya of Madhava states that she knew the Vedas, the six Vedangas (perquisite sciences for studying Vedas), poetics and several other branches of learning. When she debated with Shankaracharya, the audience was dumbfounded with the erudition and skill with which she marshaled Vedic citations, logical arguments and profound thoughts

Recently, a commentary on Tiruvaayamoli of Shudra saint Nammalvar authored by a woman named Tirukkoneri Dasyai (15th century) has been discovered. The commentary is an exquisite work and shows familiarity with Vedic texts, particularly those of Taittiriya Yajurveda. It may be noted that the Tiruvaayamoli is accorded the status of Samaveda in the Shri Vaishnava community, and is called ‘Dravida Veda’ or the Tamil Veda. 


By and large however, it appears that (as with all religious traditions), women were not initiated into rigorous Vedic or religious study to the same extent as men. The noted social reformer Swami Dayanand Sarasvati cited Vedic testimony to argue that women are entitled to Vedic study. He founded the Arya Samaj in 1875, and its members soon established colleges for teaching Hindu scriptures to girls. Through the efforts of Lala Devraj several decades ago, women scholars were finally able to recite the Vedas and perform Vedic sacrifices publicly after several centuries.      


What was a rarity in recent centuries is now becoming an increasingly common spectacle. For instance, in 1931, Upasani Baba founded the Kanya Kumari Sthan in Sakori (Ahmednagar district, India) where women are taught Vedas and the performance of seven sacred Vedic sacrifices every year.  


Influenced by this endeavor, another institution named Udyan Mangal Karyaalaya was started in the city of Pune wherein women of all castes and vocations are learning to chant the Vedas and become priests. There are now thousands of Hindu women priests both within India and outside India (including the United States) and are in great demand because they are often considered more sincere, learned and pious then male priests.  


Coming to the modern academic study of religion, several Hindu women have distinguished themselves as scholars. The first non Judeo-Christian President of the American Academy of Religions (AAR) has been a Hindu woman Professor Vasudha Narayanan


Besides writing Vedic and other Hindu religious poetry as noted above, many women also excelled as authors of secular poetry. Several authors of poetry in the Sangam literature in Tamil are women. The Sanskrit epic ‘Madhuraavijaya’ is attributed to Gangadevi (14th cent. CE). The epic celebrates the Hindu re-conquest of an area in southern India from invading Muslims who had indulged in large-scale massacres, cow-slaughter, desecration of temples and molestation of women. Many of the poems attributed to the famous medieval Bengali poet Chandidas were actually written by his wife.         


8.0 Swayamsiddhā: The many achievements and talents of Hindu Women: 


Hindu society has produced numerous women who were able Rulers, Warriors, Poetesses, scholars, mathematicians, freedom fighters, musicians, artists and so on.  


8.1 Musicians and Dancers: Hindu music and dance has always had a very strong connection with women. Devi Sarasvati is the patron deity of all art, music, literature, drama and dance and her blessings are invoked whenever artists commence their work or performance. Most of the classical dance forms of Hindus such as Balinese (in Indonesia), Kuchipudi, Odissi, Bharatnatyam, Kathak and Garba are dominated by women performers today. Even in dance forms where women do not participate, their status is quite exalted. For instance, Kathakali dance of Kerala is traditionally performed by men who wear masks of different colors to denote different categories of persons. Interestingly, the masks for women as well as for all divine characters are painted white in order to indicate their holy, pure and exalted status.  


Many traditional folk dance forms such as Pandavani of Chhattisgarh are being promoted by women such as Teejanbai. 


Lata Mangeshkar, a devoted Hindu lady, is considered one of the foremost lady singers in Indian film industry. She is credited with singing hundreds of devotional Hindu songs in several Indian and non-Indian languages. She spends a considerable portion of her income on charitable causes such as repairs of temples and is presently engaged in the construction of a hospital in the memory of her father in the city of Pune.  


M S Subhalakshmi, who passed away recently, was likewise the greatest singer of the classical Hindu Carnatic Music style. For her soul stirring renderings of devotional songs from Hindu tradition, she has been honored by numerous prominent religious leaders. She played the role of Saint Meerabai in a celebrated Hindi movie on the life of the saint. A ‘low-caste’ Hindu, she has instituted scholarships for poor Brahmin boys engaged in the oral preservation of Vedic texts in southern India


Likewise, women such as Kishori Amonkar, Gangubai Hangal and so on are some of the greatest performers of other traditional vocal music styles such as classical Hindustani.  


Numerous traditional art-forms in Gujarat, Orissa and other parts of India are still sustained by the efforts of women of these regions.  


8.2 Dharmic Queens: Queen Kulaprabhavati of the Hindu Khmer Kingdom (in Kampuchea) was a pious Vaishnava queen who in the fifth century (c.475) made many donations to a Vaishnava ashrama. And there were several other Hindu queens--Kambujarajalakshmi, Jayadevi in that dynasty who excelled in charitable and social welfare works.  


In Indonesia, Gunapriya Dharmapatni (late 10th cent. CE), the great-granddaughter of the Hindu King of eastern Java, married the Balinese Hindu prince Udayana and was instrumental in introducing Javanese traditions such as Tantric Hinduism into Bali. She was so influential that her name appears before that of Udayana in Balinese inscriptions. Goa Gajah, the Elephant Cave, near Bedulu, not far from Ubud, was built around this time, as a rock hermitage for Shaivite priests. 


Dozens of inscriptions from various parts of the Indian subcontinent also attest to pious Hindu queens and lady officials making endowments to temples, colleges, monasteries etc. These examples are too numerous to list here and only a few illustrations should suffice. An inscription in Afasarh states that the mother Shrimati Devi of King Adityasen established a religious school, whereas his wife Kona Devi had a pond dug up for the welfare of masses. From the Bheraghat inscription, it is apparent that Queen Alhanadevi, wife of a Kalachuri ruler, got a Shiva temple constructed. She also got a school and a garden constructed in the vicinity. The mosque at Bayana in Rajasthan occupies the site of a demolished Vishnu temple, which had been constructed by the daughter Chitralekha of King Saurasena. Likewise, the wife of King Tejpal repaired the sacred icons that were demolished or desecrated by invading Turk Muslims and also induced a Chauhan feudatory of her husband to make a donation for religious causes. 

Queen Ahalyabai Holkar (1725-1795) of the princely state of Indore in central India is often held as an example of an ideal Hindu sovereign. She inherited her kingdom from her father in law since her husband and her son were already dead. Ahalyabai ruled her kingdom with great ability, benevolence and compassion for 30 years. Numerous trusts and institutions founded in her memory by both her descendants as well as by others attest to her exalted status in the Indian society.  


She got numerous temples and other pilgrim sites constructed or repaired all over India even though they were outside her kingdom. Her reign saw increase in overall prosperity of the people, and she also helped widows get their rightful inheritance from their husband’s wealth.


Rani Rashmoni Devi (1793-1861) was the widow of a rich landowner (Zamindar) and managed his estate very efficiently after his death. Once when the Rani was on her way to a pilgrimage to Varanasi, Goddess Kali appeared to her in a dream and asked the Rani to return to Kolkata and construct a temple in that town. Thus was built the famous Dakshineshvar temple (later associated with Saint Ramakrishna Paramahamsa).  


She also repaired the sacred steps (‘ghats’) on the banks of the Bhagarathi river (distributary of Ganga flowing past Kolkata) and made handsome endowments to the Hindu College (now called The Presidency College) and the Imperial Library (now called The National Library) in Kolkata. She also had a road constructed from the Subarnarekha river (that flows past the town of Jamshedpur) to the Hindu pilgrim center of Puri for the welfare of pilgrims. 


Tarabai: After Rajaram, Shivaji's brother, died - his wife took over and continued the Maratha struggle. Under her leadership the capital was shifted to what is now known as Kolhapur. The struggle continued till Sambhaji's son, Shahu was brought back from the Mughals. 


8.3 Warriors, Warrior Queens and Freedom Fighters: Women warriors are mentioned in the Vedic texts. Vispala, the wife of chief Khela was an aggressive warrior who lost her leg in a battle. The Ashvins, celestial physicians, gave her a metal prosthesis as a replacement for her lost leg. Mudgalani drove the chariot of her husband in a battle. In the Mahabharata, Chitraangada, the wife of Arjuna, was an accomplished warrior in her own right. Carvings and statues in several ancient Hindu temples depict women warriors. As examples, one may cite the Khajuraho temples in Chattisgarh, or the remnants of the Vishvanath Temple embedded in Aurangzeb’s mosque in Varanasi. When Lord Rama was asked to proceed on fourteen years of banishment from his kingdom, it was proposed that his wife, Devi Sita, could rule as the queen in his absence.  


Queen Rudramba: She was the only daughter of the 6th King of the Kakatiya Dynasty of Andhra Pradesh (13th century CE)  and succeeded her father to his throne. Her father got her educated fully in the affairs of the state craft. She made a mark of bravery while accompanying her father in the latter's victory tours. Thinking her to be a weak woman, the feudal lords and the area commanders revolted and neighboring rulers also found an occasion to grab her territory. But, Rudramamba defeated them all. She married the Chalukya king Virabhadra and they jointly ruled over the Kakatiya kingdom very effectively for many decades. 


The last Hindu ruler of Kashmir was a woman Kota Rani, who was the widow of Hindu king Uddyana Deo. She played a crucial role in warding off the Tartar invasion of Kashmir in the early 14th century CE but was finally deposed by Shahmir in 1341 CE. Shahmir started the long lasting Islamic rule in the region that, with traumatic consequences on the Hindu population of the region.  Kalhana’s Rajatarangini mentions several other valiant Queens in pre-Muslim Kashmir


When the ruler Dalpat Rai of Gondwana died in 1548, Rani Durgavati became the regent Queen on behalf of her infant son Bir Narayan and ruled her kingdom ably for 16 years. The Moghul Emperor Akbar invaded her kingdom in 1564. She fought bravely and when defeat was imminent, she chose to commit suicide by plunging a dagger into herself. She may have lost her life in the battlefield but Akbar could not subjugate her loyal subjects completely. 


The legendary Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi fought bravely against British invaders in 1857 and died on the battlefield. She is considered the Joan of Arc of India and is glorified in several Hindi ballads and poems. The words ‘Khoob ladi mardaani, woh to Jhansi wali Rani thi’ from a poem in her honor written by the poetess Subhadra Kumari Chauhan are known to every school-going student in the Hindi speaking areas of northern India. An associate of hers named Jalkari Bai also distinguished herself in the war of 1857. She was credited with having killed a tiger herself in her teenage years, and resembled Rani Lakshmibai very closely. When Lakshmibai’s fort was about to fall to the British troops, Jalkari Bai dressed up as Rani Lakshmibai (allowing the latter to escape) and defended the fort for a long time before surrendering. Impressed by her bravery, the British set her free.                      


Rani Chennamma of Kittur (1778-1829) received training in horse riding , sword fighting and archery in her young age. She was married to Raja Mullasarja of Kittur, a princely state in Belgaum in Karnataka. Her husband died in 1816. Her only son died in 1824. Chennamma adopted Shivalingappa as her son and made him heir to the throne. The British did not accept this and ordered the expulsion of Shivalingappa. The Rani defied the order. A great battle ensued. The Rani fought the British with great courage and skill. She could not, however, hold out for long. She was taken captive and lodged in Bailhongal Fort where she died in early 1829. 


Rani Avantibai: When Vikramaditya Singh, the ruler of Ramgarh State died leaving behind his wife Avantibai and no heir to the throne, the British put the state under court administration. Avantibai vowed to win back her land from the British. She raised an army of four thousand men and led it herself against the British in 1857. A fierce battle ensured and Avantibai fought most valiantly but could not hold out for long against the superior strength of the British army. When her defeat become imminent she killed herself with her own sword and became a martyr in March 1858.                                                      


Several Hindu women were also at the forefront of the Indian freedom struggle in early 20th century. Of them, the most notable was Sarojini Naidu, often called the ‘Nightingale of India’ because of her excellent poetry. 


In the Sikh tradition too, women warriors and military generals played a crucial role in their battles against Afghan and Pathan Muslim oppressors.  


Women also played the role of spies. Around 300 BC, Emperor Chandragupta Maurya used a woman spy to assassinate his rival King Parvataka. 


Several Hindu women avenged the dishonor to our Dharma and our country by employing clever strategy, if not arms. In the year 712, the Arab invader Muhammad bin Qasim invaded the outlying Indian province of Sindh (now in Pakistan), killed its last Hindu ruler Raja Dahir, and sent Dahir’s daughters to Baghdad as a gift to the Caliph. The daughters told the Caliph that Qasim had already ravished them before sending them as a gift to him. Infuriated by this apparent insult, the Caliph had Qasim put to death, only to learn that the Princesses of Sindh had lied to him to avenge their father’s death. The two Princesses were tortured to death. 


In the early 14th century, Ulugh Khan, a Muslim military general invaded the Vaishnava holy temple town of Shrirangam. He massacred several monks, desecrated the temple and looted its treasury. The Muslim army occupied the temple precincts and put and an end to Hindu worship. A temple courtesan, who fascinated the invading general, prevailed upon him not to destroy the temple altogether, and restrict his vandalism to the destruction of a few cornices. The Brahmins in the surrounding areas tried to perform the sacred rituals whenever they could, but were harassed by the occupying Muslim forces constantly. Unable to bear the harassment of the devotees by the Muslims, she enticed the Muslim chief, took him up a temple tower in the east, and in the pretext of showing him a famous icon from there, she pushed him down and killed him. Scared that she will be tortured by the Muslims as a result of her deed, she hurled herself also down and died. According to tradition, to honor her memory, the funeral pyres of temple courtesans were lit by fire brought from the temple kitchen. 


To finance the defense of their motherland from the invasions of the Turk Muslim ruler Mahmud Ghaznavi, Hindu women in what is now Pakistan willingly donated all their jewellery. 


It is relevant here to recall some rules of Hindu warfare that are enjoined in texts such as Manusmriti and Mahabharata. Women in general were considered inviolable, and were generally exempt from capital punishment. They could not be captured for use as concubines, and could not be assaulted sexually by soldiers.  


Looking at the past achievements of Hindu women, it is not surprising that the largest Hindu country namely India has had a Hindu woman as its Prime Minister for 17 long years, and that women have presided over state governments in the largest states of India. It may be noted that the Council and the Assembly are called the ‘two daughters of God’ in Hindu texts.

(to be continued)

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