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Hindu women and religion

In ancient India, women occupied a very important position, In fact, a superior position, to men. "Sakthi" a feminine term means "power" and "strength". All male power comes from the feminine. Literary evidence suggests that kings and towns were destroyed because the rulers troubled a single woman.

For example, Valmiki Ramayana teaches us that Ravana and his entire kingdom were wiped out because he abducted Sita. Veda Vyasa's Mahabharata teaches us that all the Kauravas were killed because they humiliated Draupadi in public. Elango Adigal's Sillapathigaram teaches us Madurai, the capital of the Pandyas was burnt because Pandyan Nedunchezhiyan mistakenly did harm to Kannaki.

In Vedic times women and men were equal in many aspects. Women participated in the public sacrifices alongside men. One script mentions a female rishi Visvara. Some Vedic hymns, are attributed to women such as Apala, the daughter of Atri, Ghosa, the daughter of Kaksivant or Indrani, the wife of Indra.

Apparently in early Vedic times women also received the sacred thread and could study the Vedas. The Haritasmrti mentions a class of women called brahmavadinis who remained unmarried and spent their lives in study and ritual. Panini's distinction between acarya (a preceptor) and acaryani (a lady teacher or a preceptor's wife), and upadhyaya (a preceptor) and upadhyayani (a lady teacher or a preceptor's wife) indicates that women at that time could not only be students but also the teachers of sacred Vedas.

There were several noteworthy women scholars of the past such as Kathi, Kalapi, and Bahvici. The Upanishads refer to several women philosophers, who disputed with their male colleagues such as Vacaknavi, who challenged Yajnavalkya. The Rig Veda also refers to women engaged in warfare. One queen Bispala is mentioned, and even as late a witness as Megasthanese (fifth century B.C. E.) mentions heavily armed women guards protecting Chandragupta's palace.

Hindu religion has been occasionally criticized as encouraging inequality between men and women, towards the detriment of Hindu women. This presumption is inaccurate.

In the Vedic period, we come across female scholars like Ghosha, Lopamudra, Romasha and Indrani. In the Upanishad period, names of women philosophers like Sulabha, Maitreyi, Gargi are encountered.

In religious matters, Hindus have elevated women to the level of divinity. One of the things most misconstrued about India and Hinduism is that it's a male dominated society and religion and the truth is that it is not so.

It is a religion that has attributed the words for the strength and power to feminine. "Sakthi" means "power" and "strength". All male power comes from the feminine. The Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) are all-powerless without their female counterparts.

Devi is the Great Goddess.
This echoes Devi-Mahatmiyam prayer:

By you this universe is borne, by you this world is created;
By you it is protected,
By you it is consumed at the end,
O Devi! You are the Supreme Knowledge, as well as intellect and contemplation...

Women were held in higher respect in India than in other ancient countries, and the Epics and old literature of India assign a higher position to them than the epics and literature of other religions.

Hindu women enjoyed rights of property from the Vedic Age, took a share in social and religious rites, and were sometimes distinguished by their learning. There was no seclusion of women in India in ancient times.

Professor H. H. Wilson says: "And it may be confidently asserted that in no nation of antiquity were women held in so much esteem as amongst the Hindus."

In Ancient India, however, Hindu women not only possessed equality of opportunities with men, but enjoyed certain rights and privileges not claimed by the male sex. The chivalrous treatment of women by Hindus is well known to all who know anything of Hindu society.

Knowledge, intelligence, rhythm and harmony are all essential ingredients for any creative activity. These aspects are personified in Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning, Music and Fine Arts. Without the grace of Saraswati, or Saraswati Kataksham, as it is called, Brahma cannot do a worthwhile job as the Creator. Any maintenance activity needs plenty of resources, mainly fiscal resources. So Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, is an essential companion to Vishnu. Siva, as Destroyer, derives power and energy from Parvathi, or Durga as she is called Sakthi. It is only the Hindu tradition, which provides, even at the conceptual level, the picture of the male and female principles working together, hand in hand, as equal partners in the universe. This concept is carried further to its logical climax in the form of Ardhanareeswara, formed by the fusion of Siva and Sakthi in one body, each occupying one half of the body, denoting that one is incomplete without the other.

Just the sloka that is commonly recited during daily prayers is enough to show the status of the Goddesses. A sloka on Devi contains the following line: Yaa Brahma Achyuta Sankara Prabhrudibihi Devaissadaa Poojithaa, which means, 'O Devi! Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and other Gods' always adore you.

In Hinduism, all power, Sakthi, is female. Sakthi is the fundamental strength of the feminine that infuses all life. Sakthi is the divine feminine power found in everything. She is the Goddess. So that, actually, in India, Kali is the great divinity.

Hindus hold rivers in great reverence. The rivers are female divinities, food and life bestowing mothers. As such, they are prominent among the popular divinities represented in the works of art of the classical period. The most holy of rivers, the best known and most honored, is the Ganga or Ganges. She is personified as Goddess Ganga. The river rises from an ice bed, 13,800 feet above the sea level in the Garhwal Himalayas. The river Saraswati is regarded as the mother god.

One of the most important of all Vedic hymns, the Devisukta, is addressed to Vak (speech, revelation), the goddess who is described as the instrument that makes ritual efficacious: "I am the queen, the gatherer-up of treasures..." It is not unimportant, that Earth (prithivi) is considered female, and the goddess who bears the mountains and who brings forth food that feed all.

Education for girls was regarded as quite important. While Bramhavadani girls were taught Vedic wisdom, girls of the Ksatriya girls were taught the use of the bow and arrow. Patanjali mentions the spear bearers (saktikis). Megasthanese speaks of Chandragupta's bodyguard of Amazonian women. Kautilya mentions women archers (striganaih dhanvibhih).

Similarly, Kautilya in his Artha sastra, which is also taken to be a document of Mauryan history, refers to women soldiers armed with bows and arrows. Buddhism kept up the traditions of Brahmanical religion in according to womanhood an honored place in social life. Women were made eligible for admission to what was known as the Bhikshuni-Sangha, the Order of Nuns, which opened to them avenues of culture and social service and ample opportunities for public life.

In Gurukulas, the ancient Universities of India, boys and girls were educated together. Atreyi studied under Valmiki along with Lava and Kusa, the sons of Rama. Fine arts like music, dancing and painting was especially encouraged in the case of girls.

Girls had Upanayana performed for them and carried out the Sandhya rites. A young daughter who has observed brahmacarya should be married to a bridegroom who is learned like her. (Yajur Veda VIII.1). Seclusion of women was unknown in the Vedic times.

The Atharva Veda refers to daughters remaining with their parents until the end of their lives. A part of the ancestral property is given to them as dowry, which becomes their own property, and is called stridhana in later writings. "Home is not what is made of wood and stone; but where a wife is, there is the home." (Sanskrit: Na grham kasthapasanair dayita yatra tad grham - Nitimanjari, 68)

It is significant to note that only Hindus worship God in the form of Divine Mother. In Hinduism the deities for knowledge, learning and material wealth are female and not male. The past social inconsistencies and injustices that did not arise from Hindu scriptures, but from humans who failed to correctly incorporate the teachings of the scriptures, such as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, into their social philosophy.

This concept of the spiritual equality of souls naturally influenced the status of women on an individual and social level.

Secularists make the predictable allegation that Hinduism as represented by Manu is anti-woman. Actually on reading this text one would realize that neither dowry (dahe) nor self-immolation of widows (sati) figure in it.

"Where women are honored there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honored no sacred rite yields rewards," declares Manu Smriti (III.56) a text on social conduct.

"Women must be honored and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands and brothers-in-law, who desire their own welfare." (Manu Smriti III, 55)

"Where the female relations live in grief, the family soon wholly perishes; but that family where they are not unhappy ever prospers." (Manu Smriti III, 57).

"The houses, on which female relations, not being duly honored, pronounce a curse, perish completely as if destroyed by magic." (Manu Smriti III, 58)

"Hence men, who seek their own welfare, should always honor women on holidays and festivals with gifts of ornaments, clothes, and dainty food." (Manu Smriti III, 59)

In an old Shakti hymn it is said - Striyah devah, Striyah pranah "Women are Devas, women are life itself."

"If a husband dies, a wife may marry another husband.

"If a husband deserts his wife, she may marry another." (Manu, chapter IX, verse 77).

"A woman's body," says Manu the lawgiver, "must not be struck hard, even with a flower, because it is sacred." It is for this reason that the Hindus do not allow capital punishment for women.

In the Vedas, she is invited into the family 'as a river enters the sea' and 'to rule there along with her husband, as a queen, over the other members of the family. (Source: Atharva Veda xiv. i. 43-44).

The idea of equality was most forcibly expressed in the Rig Veda (Book 5, hymn 61. verse 8). The commentator explains this passage thus: "The wife and husband, being the equal halves of one substance, are equal in every respect; therefore both should join and take equal parts in all work, religious and secular." No other Scripture of the world have ever given to the woman such equality with the man as the Vedas of the Hindus.

A Hindu woman whose name was Romasha revealed the 126th hymn of the first book of the Rig Veda; the 179 hymn of the same book was by Lopamudra, another inspired Hindu woman. There are a dozen names of woman revealers of the Vedic wisdom, such as Visvavara, Shashvati, Gargi, Maitreyi, Apala, Ghosha, and Aditi, who instructed Indra, one of the Devas, in the higher knowledge of Brahman, the Universal Spirit. Every one of them lived the ideal life of spirituality, being untouched by the things of the world. They are called in Sanskrit Brahmavadinis, the speakers and revealers of Brahman.

When Sankaracharya, the great commentator of the Vedanta, was discussing philosophy with another philosopher, a Hindu lady, well versed in all the Scriptures, was requested to act as a judge.

It is the special injunction of the Vedas that no married man shall perform any religious rite, ceremony, or sacrifice without being joined in by his wife; the wife is considered a partaker and partner in the spiritual life of her husband; she is called, in Sanskrit, Sahadharmini, "spiritual helpmate."

In the whole religious history of the world a second Sita will not be found. Her life was unique. She is worshipped as an Incarnation of God. India is the only country where prevails a belief that God incarnates in the form of a woman as well as in that of a man.

In the Mahabharata we read the account of Sulabha, the great woman Yogini, who came to the court of King Janaka and showed wonderful powers and wisdom, which she had acquired through the practice of Yoga. This shows that women were allowed to practice Yoga.

As in religion, Hindu woman of ancient times enjoyed equal rights and privileges with men, so in secular matters she had equal share and equal power with them. From the Vedic age women in India have had the same right as men and they could go to the courts of justice, plead their own cases, and ask for the protection of the law.

Those who have read the famous Hindu drama called Shakuntala know that Shakuntala pleaded her own case and claimed her rights in the court of King Dushyanata. Similar instance are mentioned in the 10th book of the Rig Veda. As early as 2000 B.C. Hindu women were allowed to go to the battlefields to fight against enemies. Her husband in search of robbers sent Sarama, one of the most powerful women of her day. She discovered their hiding place and then destroyed them.

Regarding this as the highest dharma of all four castes, husbands, though weak, must strive to protect their wives. His own offspring, character, family, self, and dharma does one protect when he protects his wife scrupulously. The husband should engage his wife in dharma, the collection and expenditure of his wealth, in cooking food for the family, and in looking after the necessities of the household . . ..

A father protects his daughter in childhood, a husband protects his wife in youth, and the sons protect their mother in old age. The father who does not give away his daughter in marriage at the proper time is censurable; censurable is the husband who does not approach his wife in due season; and after the husband is dead, the son, verily is censurable, who does not protect his mother. Even against the slightest provocations should women be particularly guarded; for unguarded they would bring grief to both the families.

Motherhood is considered the greatest glory of Hindu women. The Taittiriya Upanishad teaches, "Matridevo bhava" - "Let your mother be the god to you."

Hindu tradition recognizes mother and motherhood as even superior to heaven. The epic Mahabharata says, "While a father is superior to ten learned priests well-versed in the Vedas, a mother is superior to ten such fathers, or the entire world."

Hinduism offers some intriguing and unique examples of strong women in the form of Goddesses. Two thousand years ago Saint Tiruvalluvar observed: "What does a man lack if his wife is worthy? And what does he possess if she is lacking worth?" There is more respect in the Hinduism for women and for their role in society.

In many philosophical texts God is referred to a Tat, meaning it and that God is beyond gender. And, one would find a comparable Goddess for each God. Further, we know for a fact that ancient India was permissive; women could have multiple husbands, widows could remarry, divorce was permitted for incompatibility or when estranged.

The names of Gargi and Maitreyi are too well known as great scholars of Vedic scriptures. We have statements like, "This hymn must be recited by the wife," in the Sroutasutras, which clearly endorse the eligibility of women to the study of the Vedas. The Ramayana describes the performance of Sandhya and Havana by Kausalya and Seetha. The wife was a regular participant in the sacrificial offerings of the husband. (Rig Veda I-122-2; 131-3; III-53-4-6; X-86-10 etc). Gobhila Gruhya Sutras state that the wife should be educated to be able to take part in sacrifices. (Gobhila Gr. S. I-3)."

Woman in the role of wife occupies a position of pre-eminence in ancient Hindu tradition. The Hindus from the Vedic times believed in dual worship Siva with Sakthi, Vishnu with Lakshmi, Rama with Sita, and so on.

In this dual worship, the names of Radha and Sita get precedence over the names of their companions Krishna and Rama. This happens to be true of Goddess Saraswati and her husband Lord Brahma.

Lord Siva appears united in a single body with Sakthi, his spouse; he at the right side and she at the left, in a manifestation known as Ardhanariswara, the half-man, half-woman incarnation of God. Each of the three principal Gods Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Protector and Siva the Destroyer in the Hindu pantheon, is accompanied by a Sakthi, which is both his female double and his power of manifestation.

The Rig Veda too places woman on a high pedestal of sublimity: Yatr nariyastu poojayante ramante tatr devah, where woman is worshipped, Gods preside there.

Women must be honored and adorned by their father, brothers, husbands, and brother-in-law who desire great good fortune. Where women, verily are honored, there the gods rejoice; where, however, they are not honored, there all sacred rites prove fruitless. Where the female relations live in grief, that family soon perishes completely; where, however, they do not suffer from any grievance that family always prospers.

Women, who once enjoyed an honored position and are found in the Upanishads conversing freely with men contributing an active role in the society. Young girls led free lives and had a decisive voice in the selection of their husbands. On festive occasions and at tournaments (samana) girls appeared in all their gaiety. In certain Hindu castes the line of inheritance is from mother to (eldest) daughter, and marriage is a "visiting" relationship. Naturally, women were more independent and free in every respect.

Ladies did not lead a secluded life like that of their descendants in later times. Several hymns of the Rig Veda were composed by female Rishis (sages). Young ladies of the time had a voice in their marriage. "The woman who is of gentle birth and of graceful form," so runs a verse in the Rig Veda, "selects among many of her loved one as her husband."

Numerous case of Svayamvara, that is, of ladies selecting their own husbands, is mentioned in the Mahabharata and other works. There is sufficient evidence to show, that widow marriage was allowed, and that the Sati was unknown in the Vedic period.

"Rise up woman," so runs a text of the Rig Veda (X, 18.8) "thou art lying by one whose life is gone, come to the world of the living, away from thy husband, and become the wife of him who holds thy hand and is willing to marry thee."

Every hymn of the Rig-Veda is attributed to a rishi. Though the majority of these hymns were the work of male Rishis, the Rig-Veda contains hymns that were revealed by women seers also. The latter were called rishikas and brahmavadinis...

The brahmavadinis were products of educational discipline of brahmacarya, for which women were also eligible. The Rig-Veda (V, 7, 9) refers to young maidens completing their education as brahmacharinis and then gaining husbands… Rv. iii (55, 16) mentions unmarried learned and young daughters who should be married to learned bridegrooms.

It is, therefore, no wonder that the wife enjoyed with her husband full religious rights and regularly participated in religious ceremonies with him. In fact, the performance of such ceremonies would be invalid without the wife joining her husband as his full partner. Some grammatical passages show that women had other careers open to them apart from a mere literary career.

Some incidents of sati and rash of "dowry murders" have made headlines not only in India, but all around the world, and have focused attention to women's issues in India. In the wake of the discussion it emerged that Indian women's problems are not only problems of Hindu women or problems caused by traditional Hinduism. Media paints India as a dangerous place. But if statistics can be trusted, a study by Hindus against the Abuse of Women presented at the Second International Conference on Bride Burning and Dowry Deaths in India puts USA in the lead of familial femicide. The study says excessive need for control and greed may be the underlying causes, not cultural or religious factors.

The commotion about the sati was just one expression of the colonial mind-set of the ruling class. At one time, most such efforts were closely associated with attempts to justify the British rule in India. The Westernized who controlled the media, either directly or indirectly made news exhibiting themselves as the protectors of Sati and dowry, a cultural projection of a new form of internal colonialism.

Self-burning of widows was not sanctioned by the Vedic religion, but was due to other causes. Some say that, when the Mohammedans conquered India, they treated the widows of the soldiers so brutally that the women preferred death, and voluntarily sought it. It is often said that the "British government" has suppressed Sati; but the truth is, that the initiatives in this direction was taken by the noble Hindu, Rajah Ram Mohan Roy, who was, however, obliged to secure the aid of the British Government in enforcing the ideas, because India was a subject nation.

The educated classed among the Hindus had strongly protested against this inhuman custom, but as it could not be done without the official help, appeal was made to the then Viceroy, Lord Bentincik, a law against Sati was then passed.

In Hindusim four Vedas, Bhavad gita and the two puranas Ramayan and Mahabharath are considered to be the supreme. All others are just commentaries, explanatory notes or stories written by individuals. As commentaries written on the Constitution of India cannot override the articles of the Constitution of India, similarly, commentaries or explanations on Vedas by individuals cannot supersede richas of Vedas or the Ramayana or Gita.

In the Ramayana, everyone knows that after the death of King Dasharatha, his wives were never asked to step into the pyre of Dasharatha. Rather, they lived in family with full honor and Rama always bowed his head before his widowed mothers with full respect. In the Mahabharata, Kunti, mother of the Pandavas did not commit sati. Thus, there is no command in the Ramayana, Mahabharata or in Gita to commit sati.

Conclusion

In ancient India, Hindu women enjoyed great respect and freedom in the society. But repeated attacks on Hindus in India by Muslims and the British through centuries changed the situation. During such aggressions the honor and chastity of women often became the casualties. There have been numerous cases when Hindu women killed themselves rather than yield to indignities inflicted by the aggressors.

The killing of men and enslaving of women and children was a standard practice in Islamic conquests. Thus when Mohammed bin Qasim conquered the lower Indus basin in AD 721, he entered Multan and, according to the Chach-Nama, "6,000 warriors were put to death, and all their relations and dependents were taken as slaves." This is why Rajput women took to immolating themselves en masse to save their honor in the face of the imminent entry of victorious Muslim armies, e.g. 8,000 women immolated themselves during Akbar's capture of Chittorgarh in 1568.

This tradition is exemplified in a verse from "Bhihadaranyakopanishad," which reads "Artha ya icched duhita me pandita jayeta," (a well-to-do Political instability and successive foreign invasions further made it difficult for women to take up formal learning, which made it impossible for her to undertake Vedic studies and conduct Vedic rites.

As a result, Hindu society became more protective about its women. The freedom of women was restricted. To protect themselves, Hindu women started to avoid public appearance and started to stay home. Their participation in public life and their social contribution was greatly restricted.

Now that we are no more under aggression or invasion, we should allow the women community to regain their power, fame and name. It is we, who made Indira Gandhi, a woman as the prime Minister. It is we who placed the Mother before the Father in priority for reverence? Matr devo bhava was the first Upanishad exhortation to the young. Hinduism is the only religion whose symbolism places the Feminine on a par with the Masculine in the profound concept of Siva-Sakthi culminating in the image of Ardharnari-Isvara. We have honored our country as our Motherland "Bharat Mata" and our nationalism has grown up from the seed Mantra "Vande Mataram".

 

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