Empowerment and Gender Equality of Women are significant
but neglected subjects of public discourse in most societies.
More than ever, harassment of and violence against women are rampant in all parts of the world. This is of great concern to our community and other communities in our society, as a whole.
To achieve gender equality and empowerment of women in our community, spiritual values based on authentic Vedic teachings have to be strengthened by overcoming established stereotypes.
What do the Vedas say about Gender Equality and Empowering Women and what we can learn from them?
In this article, I shall provide some insights into this subject mainly based on my learnings and experiences over the years, some research and my discussions with knowledgeable friends regarding the status of women in the Vedas.
There are different schools of thought on the subject. I have described the different points of view for the reader to consider.
Vedas and Women
Women are accorded the greatest respect in Vedas.
There are many verses from Vedas obtained from texts of most learned scholars in this field to establish this truth.
(Refer Vedas and Women-Sandeham – Samadhanam)
35 Rishikas (female Rishis) have contributed to the Vedas. During Vedic times, there were no restrictions on women to study Vedas.
There were also other women rishis who revealed the Vedic knowledge to others.
For example, the 126th hymn of the first book of the Rig-Veda was written by a Vedic woman whose name was Romasha; the 179th hymn of the same book was by Lopamudra, another inspired Vedic woman who was also wife of sage Agastya.
Other women such as Visvavara, Shashvati, Gargi, Maitreyi, Apala, Ghosha, and Aditi revealed the higher knowledge and Vedic wisdom of Brahman (supreme god).
In early Vedic civilization women were always encouraged to pursue spiritual advancement without hindrance:
“O bride! May the knowledge of the Vedas be in front of you and behind you, in your centre and in your ends. May you conduct your life after attaining the knowledge of the Vedas. May you be benevolent, the harbinger of good fortune and health, and live in great dignity and indeed be illumined in your husband’s home.” (Atharva Veda, 14.1.64).
According to Manu, “Where women are respected, there the gods delight; and where they are not, there all works and efforts come to naught.”
(Refer Women in Hinduism-Wikipedia)
Some Hindu texts present diverse and conflicting views on the position of women, ranging from feminine leadership as the highest goddess, to limiting gender roles. The Devi Sukta hymn of Rigveda, praises the feminine energy as the essence of the universe, the one who creates all matter and consciousness, the eternal and infinite, the metaphysical and empirical reality or Brahman, the soul or supreme self of everything. The woman is celebrated as the most powerful force in some Hindu Upanishads, Sastras and Puranas, particularly the Devi Upanishad, Devi Mahatmiya and Devi-Bhagawata Purana.
Ancient and medieval Hindu texts present a diverse picture of duties and rights of women in Hinduism. Some scholars are of the opinion that Vedic-era Hindu texts and records left by travellers to ancient and medieval India suggest that ancient and early medieval Hindu society did not practice Dowry or Sati. It is likely that these practices became widespread sometime in the 2nd millennium CE from socio-political developments in the Indian subcontinent. Throughout history, Hindu society has seen many brave female rulers, such as Rudramadevi, religious figures and saints, such as Andal, philosophers, such as Maitreyi and female practitioners/ conductors of Vedic Hindu rituals.
Some Vedic scholars are of the opinion that Hinduism, from ancient times, has the strongest presence of the divine feminine among major world religions. The goddess is viewed as central in Shakti and Saiva Hindu traditions. Matriarchal theology has been prevalent especially in villages relating to the worship of Shakti and there are numerous Hindu communities that are matriarchal such as in Kerala.
Status of women in Vedic Culture
Vedic traditions bestowed important status to women in family and society.
In all four Vedas, women are regarded in a way that allows them to live with honour, respect and protection in society. They were provided opportunities to fulfil their real potential in life.
(Refer Status of women in Vedic Culture-bookfact.com)
In Vedic culture it is taught that every man should view and respect every woman, as his mother, and every girl with the same concern and care as his own daughter. Wife is equal partner.
But the point is that women and men must work cooperatively like the twin wings of a bird; that is the only way to raise the family and the society
Equality by birth and gender equality are the two cardinal Vedic norms. And soul or Atman is common to men and women. As Swami Vivekananda said “Soul has no sex, it is neither male nor female. It is only in the body that sex exists, and the man who desires to reach the spirit cannot at the same time hold sex distinctions.”
The marriage vows as sanctified by Sapta Padhi (Seven Steps)
enjoins that if the wife and husband walk the seven steps together, they become lifelong friends.
“Women must be honoured and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands, and brothers-in-law, who desire their own welfare. Where women are honoured, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite yields rewards. Where the female relations live in grief, the family soon wholly perishes; but that family where they are not unhappy ever prospers. The houses on which female relations, not being duly honoured, pronounce a curse, perish completely, as if destroyed by magic. Hence men who seek (their own) welfare, should always honour women on holidays and festivals with (gifts of) ornaments, clothes and (dainty) food.” (Manu Smriti III.55-59)
In Mahabharata, Pitamaha (Grandfather) Bhishma explains to Yudhishthira before his death: “O ruler of the earth, the lineage in which daughters and the daughters-in-law are saddened by ill treatment, that lineage is destroyed. When out of their grief these women curse these households, such households lose their charm, prosperity and happiness.” (Mahabharata, Anushashanparva, 12.14)
“When a woman is invited into the family through marriage, she enters ‘as a river enters the sea’ and to rule there along with her husband, as a queen, over the other members of the family.” (Atharva-Veda 14.1.43-44).
It is interesting to note that Sanskrit terms used by the husband for the wife were Pathni (the one who leads the husband through life), Dharmapathni (the one who guides the husband in dharma) and Sahadharmacharini (one who moves with the husband on the path of dharma, righteousness and duty).
This is how ancient Vedic culture viewed the partnership of husband and wife.
In Rig Veda (10.85), the marriage hymn, states that the daughter-in-law should be treated as a queen, sāmrajni, by all the family members especially the mother-in-law, husband, father-in-law.
Why are Women Denigrated in India’s recent past?
Systemic gender inequalities give rise to imbalances around power, economic status and access to resources.
Almost all organised religions have imposed, over centuries, in varying degrees, gender bias and marginalising women, on the premise that the female gender is inferior and weak.
Some of the cruel discriminatory practices against women were the practice of Sati, Dowry, prohibition of Widow Remarriage and denial of education. From the birth itself, the girl child is discriminated against because of the preference for boys over girls.
Also, some Vedic hymns and Smritis were misinterpreted to suppress women and make them work like slaves or sexual objects during those days.
It is argued by many present day scholars that unfortunately, all the good Vedic teachings and practices in favour of women have declined primarily due to the outside influences that have crept in because of foreign invaders, either militarily or culturally over past 1000 years.
These foreign invaders (Mlecchas) who dominated India mostly looked at women as objects of sexual enjoyment and exploitation, and as the spoils of war to be taken like a prize.
Oppression of women increased in India during Moghul rule and that was when the concept of ‘Ghoonghat or Ghunghat‘ (Saree’s part worn as veil or headscarf worn by women, more in North India) and child marriages have started.
These were to prevent women from the “evil eye” of the foreign rulers.
There is a view that even the Sati (funeral practice in which the widow immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre) were started to prevent kidnappings of young widows by foreign rulers.
Women are identified with Shakti in Vedic civilization. If women are kept suppressed, this shakti will be denied to the family and the society, thus weakening all of them. As a result of all the years of torture that women bore, India weakened spiritually and backward socially.
In Mahabharata, Bheeshma also said: “The teacher who teaches true knowledge is more important than ten instructors. The father is more important than ten such teachers of true knowledge and the mother is more important than ten such fathers. There is no greater guru than mother.” (Mahabharata, Shantiparva, 30.9)
The patriarchal society in India has denied equal opportunities over centuries in spite of the fact that the Vedas prohibit dowry and do not prohibit widow remarriage.
Dowry is strictly forbidden by Hindu Law. So, it is one of the great evils of present Hindu society which must be discouraged in the strongest possible way.
While there are references of gifts at the time of marriage to the daughter by the father, one of the confusions is about STRIDHAN – a woman’s legal property in ancient times which was misinterpreted as Dowry in later and present times.
According to (Manu 8:28-29),
“The government should protect the estate and inherited property of women who are barren or have no sons, who have no families, who are faithful wives, widows or ill. But if, while these women are alive their own relatives should take these away, a just government should punish them with the punishment for theft”.
So, there is absolutely no justification in the Dharma Shastra for giving or taking dowry.
(Refer Rami Sivan-Hindu Priest)
Widow remarriage in Hindu society is still viewed with disfavour while the Vedas did not prevent it.
उदीर्ष्व नार्यभि जीवलोकं गतासुमीतमुप शेष एहिं !
हस्तग्राभस्यं दिधिषोस्तवेदं पत्युर्जं नत्वमभि सं बभूव !! RV10.8.8, AV18.3.2
Udeershva naaryabhi jeevalokam gataasumeetamupa shesh ehin, hastagraabhasyam didhishostavedam patyunja natvamabhi sn babhuv. RV10.8.8, AV18.3.2
Meaning: O lady, get up and leave this (husband) who is in deep slumber of death. From among the living persons find one for your new husband to look after you and have children through you. Look after you and your existing children in the same manner as your previous husband.
To enhance the Empowerment and Gender Equality of Women, the greatest need is to follow the practices which treat women as equals with men, with respect and courtesy enabling them to fulfil their full potential.
The strategy and three priorities that should guide any work in this regard are
- enhancing women’s voice in decision-making, leadership and self-reliance
- promoting women’s economic empowerment
- ending violence against women and girls.
To achieve this, Family Values need to be reinforced as emphasised in the Vedic texts.
I believe a successful family enables fundamental relationships to be formed and grounded within the family where our love grows, habits are formed and are expressed in our character. We all know that family is at the centre of everyone’s life and woman is the fulcrum on which the family hinges.
The family is the key social unit upon which all other social institutions depend. It is the heritage that focuses on raising our children in a loving, disciplined and spiritual environment in our homes.
It enables us to become ‘mature’ persons and engaged citizens in our community.
Marriage is the best and healthiest way to create and perpetuate families. Marriage marks the rite of passage into adulthood, stabilises wellbeing and engenders mindfulness.
The Hindu marriage vows for the couple emphasise taking care of each other, the children and family and support the community.
The need to understand and learn more about our beliefs, traditions, cultures and history is something that is paramount to develop values for life and build a harmonious family and society. There is no better source than the Vedas to learn about our way of life and values called Sanatana Dharma.
However, we must not forget that whatever we do is contemporary, but we also are products of the long ancestral history.
Women are a storehouse of power. It is time to use that power to bring about social transformation.
“Each time a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for all women.” ( Maya Angelou).
- Women in Vedas -The Speaking Tree.
- Vedas and Women-Sandeham – Samadhanam
- Women in Hinduism-Wikipedia
- Status of Women in Vedic Culture-bookfact.com/Vedas
- Rami Sivan-Hindu Priest
- Role of Vedas in degradation of status of women in India -The Speaking Tree.