The Question Of Vedic Adhikaar For Women

by Sumedha Verma Ojha - Nov 16, 2022 05:40 PM +05:30 IST
The Question Of Vedic Adhikaar For WomenVedic adhikar for women
Snapshot
  • If the millennia old echoes from the Shrutis tell us of women learned in the Vedas, why should we stick to later, biased interpretations which seek to deprive women? 

    The way forward is encouragement of Vedic studies and reclaiming the adhikaar of each Vedic Indian to study and propagate the Vedas.

The question has been raised as to whether women are or should be allowed to chant the Vedas.

This seems to be a controversial topic with differing opinions which allow or disallow Vedic education for women based on different sources. There are four interrelated questions:

  1. Vedic Education for women

  2. Since education was consequent to the Upanayana ceremony, was Upanayana done for women?

  3. Education was carried out in the Brahmacharya Ashram, was that ashram possible for women?.

  4. Was education possible in the married state for women?

In my understanding there is no injunction against Vedic education or chanting for women in any of the Vedic Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas or Upanishads. 

I will show where Vedic chanting is shown to have existed and education as well as brahmacharya prescribed for women. Also, if some part of the later tradition frowns on women Vedic scholars, others encourage and celebrate it.

In considering this topic it must be emphasised that of Shruti, Smriti and the Puranas, the authority is in descending order.

The Vedas are the fountainhead of Indic tradition and are, traditionally, given the greatest importance and significance. The other two are less authoritative. I base my argument mainly on Shruti.

Rig Veda:

There are many rishikas in the Rig Veda who are composers of hymns in different metres and upon different topics. 

Tradition offers the examples of Visvavara, Ghosha, Sikata, Nivavari, Apala Angirasi and Sarasvati Yami Vaivasvati, Sraddha, Ghosha, Suryaa, Urvasi, and Shachi Paulomi.  

Had Vedic chanting and learning been proscribed, how would they have learnt enough not only to know but to compose and then have their compositions immortalised in the Vedic corpus for thousands of years?

These women included Brahmavadinis and Sadyodhvas, that is, women who took the option of brahmacharya for life and others who were married and were grih-patnis. Here are a few selected examples.

Vac Ambhrini: Brahmavadini.

Take the Devi Suktam, RV Mandala 10 Sukta 125. I quote from the Sayan Bhashya here; the devta ( subject) and the rishi (composer) are both Vac Ambhrini, the daughter of Sage Ambhrin

 अम्भृणस्य महर्षेर्दुहिता वाङ्नाम्नी ब्रह्मविदुषी स्वात्मानमस्तोत् । 

Shachi Paulomi or Indrani: Sadyodhva

Rig Veda 10.86 has some verses by her, 10. 145 and 10.159 are fully composed by her. She is not a Brahmavadini but a Sadyodhva , the wife of Indra, the mother of numerous children.

Ghosha: Brahmavadini

Composer of Rig Veda 10.39 and 40. Sayan Bhashya on Ghosha yet again uses the term Brahmavadini.

कक्षीवतो दुहिता घोषा नाम ब्रह्मवादिन्यृषिः

Lopamudra: Sadyodhva

She is the composer of Rig Veda 1.179 .

Atharva Veda

If we find these learned rishikas, then how did they learn? Through the normal channels of Upanayana and teaching. The Atharva Veda explicitly mentions girls as brahmachari kanyas while discussing brahmacharya ashram. (11.5.18)

Book 14 of the Atharva Veda has been jointly composed by a rishika, Savitri

Sama Veda

The Shatpatha Brahmana also gives the ritual of Sama chanting to women which was later given to a class of Udgatris. ( XIV,3,1,35). It also describes how women pound the sacrificial rice, prepare the animal for sacrifice and lay bricks for the yagya kund ( VI; 5,3,1).

Yajurveda

The Yajurveda describes women moving to yagyashalas for yagya in Adhyaya 6 ( 6.24, 6.34).

Yagyas

To take part in yagyas, women had to be educated in Vedic vhanting.

The grihasti fires were obviously a joint responsibility of a married couple. It was necessary to be learned in the mantras for this. Also refer to the Sama Veda and Yajurveda section above.

Some sacrifices were exclusively for women: Sita, Rudrabali and Rudrayagya.

In the Ramayana, Kaushalya and Tara have been shown as performing svasti yagyas alone for their son and husband, respectively. Sita is mentioned as doing her morning and evening prayers in the Valmiki Ramayan.

Grihya Sutras

Some of these give access to ashram system, Upanayana and  Brahmacharya.

Baudhayana and Yagyavalkya allow women access to the ashrama system, and therefore to Upanayana, Brahmacharya and education.

The Gobhila Grihyasutra, the Harita Dharma Sutra of the Maitrayaniya commentary of Yajurveda  (which also repeats the Brahmavadini and Sadyodhva classification) and Devanbhatta’s commentary on the Smriti Chandrika also give the right to study Vedas to women.

Adhyaya 3 of the Ashvalyana Grihya Sutra has a shloka for tributes to be given to past teachers during Brahma yagya; both Gargi and Sulabha figure in it. 

Shankhayana Grhyasutra (4.10)  also mentions women rishikas in the same context. That Sulabha may have been the establisher of the lost Saulabha shakha of the Rig Veda cannot be ignored, either.

There were also women teachers who Panini mentions as upadhyayas (as opposed to wives of male teachers who were called upadhyayanis).

It is AS Altekar’s view that the Upanayana ceremony for girls died out as Vedic learning periods expanded to cover decades and women could not spend so much time as brahmacharinis. 

That would impact on grihashthi and the bearing of children. Thus, we have only echoes of how brahmacharya was practiced by girls. 

There is evidence to show that valkal and matted hair was not necessary and that they did not have to wander for bhiksha, the learning was to be done with the father or brother in the home. 

There could have been a lost work called the Yama Dharmasutra (mentioned by commentators) which seems to have set down these rules. However, there is also evidence to show that they could be sent to the gurukula.

Many works in Sanskrit mention girls in gurukuls ( Uttararamacharita) and rishikas who advice the King (Malati Madhava). Vigrahas of goddesses also have the yagyopavit across their chests.

Examples of  Rishikas: Brahmavadinis and Sadyodhvas

A crucial example is that of Sulabha from the 320th chapter of the Shantiparva of the Mahabharata.

Not only did she, as a rishika, decide to test the spiritual attainments of Raja Janaka, but she also tells him in clear terms that she is a Kshatriya woman who chose brahmacharya, was initiated by her guru into moksha dharma and wanders the earth as a muni.

She tells him that she follows brahmacharya with strict discipline and lives only in dharma.

These examples including, of course, Gargi Vachaknavi and Maitreyi from the Brihatraranyaka Upanishad are too many to ignore or dismiss. Maitreyi is a Sadyodhva.

Mimansa

Some scholars hold that Mimansa sets down injunctions against women. This, however, is not an interpretation I can agree with on reading Jaimini’s sutras in the original. 

The Sixth Adhyaya of Jaimini's Mimamsa Sutra concerns itself with types of people and their capacity to sacrifice. In particular, it addresses the question of who is competent to sacrifice (6.1) and who is entitled to perform sacrifice (6.1, 6.6, 6.7).

Jaimini specifically brings up the question of women's entitlement for yagya which we can take as a pointer to their education in the Vedas. There are four criteria for being allowed to do this:

  1. A married householder of one of the upper three classes who maintains the sacred fires

  2. In possession of wealth and good health

  3. Versed in the Vedas, especially those pertaining to the rites and mantras

  4. Desirous of the fruits of the sacrifice and eligible to possess them

These are clearly not gender-based, they are not even based on that oft-cited excuse of menstrual impurity; it is in fact not even mentioned.

In conclusion, the injunctions that seem to be so commonly “known” or “established” do not come from the well spring of Indic civilisation, that is, from the Shrutis, but seem to be later accretions.

Even the Grihya Sutras which are later than the Shrutis do not give any blanket injunction. 

If the millennia old echoes from the Shrutis tell us of women learned in the Vedas, why should we stick to later, biased interpretations which seek to deprive women? 

Why should we then stick to such injunctions? The way forward is encouragement of Vedic studies and reclaiming the adhikaar of each Vedic Indian to study and propagate the Vedas.

Also Read: 'Can Women Recite The Vedas?' Dharmic Reformists Versus Colonised 'Traditionalists'

After two decades in the Indian Revenue Service Sumedha Verma Ojha now follows her passion, Ancient India; writing and speaking across the world on ancient Indian history, society, women, religion and the epics. Her Mauryan series is ‘Urnabhih’; a Valmiki Ramayan in English and a book on the ‘modern’ women of ancient India will be out soon.

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