By Gaurav Sharma
Degraded treatment accorded to women in the medieval age has been the tipping point in brandishing Hinduism as a dogmatic and highly patriarchal religion.
Our history books are replete with references of women being forced to partake in Sati or self-immolation, cases of wicked oppression by the male gender, countless crude examples of coercion into child marriage, among myriad other social evils that persisted during the middle age.
When a student of history, as it is taught in the modern school education, is subjected outright to a one-sided view of the Hindu society, it becomes quite natural for him to start visualizing Sanatana-Dharma or the eternal religion as being synonymous with a degraded version of theism, practiced by men of warped intelligence.
The propaganda levied against Hinduism –that of being inherently oppressive towards the fairer sex– is meant to turn people against the true essence of Hinduism.
Such a manipulated notion paints a very dogged image of Hinduism, as it exists in its unadulterated form.
A thorough understanding of the ancient Vedic texts would, however, reveal a contrarian view of women as propounded in the scholarly works of modern historians.
When Divinity finds itself naked and incomplete without the female aspect of the Divine, it speaks volumes of the importance that is stressed upon womanhood in Hinduism.
Krishna is approached through his eternal consort Radha, Ram through Sita, Shiva with Durga, and so is the case with every spiritual form or symbolism. The balance in the divine spiritual powers can only be obtained through the combination of male with female divinities. Hence, emphasis is placed on worshiping and glorifying the feminine aspect as the ‘Divine Mother’.
The school of Vedanta, established by Ramakrishna Paramhamsa and popularized by Swami Vivekananda, greatly emphasizes the worship of Kali as ‘the Mother’.
Manifest consciousness or Shakti is the female energy as per the Shaivism which takes diverse forms and is named accordingly. When associated with the growth in all forms of life, it is called Prana. Kundalini, the power that lies dormant in the form of a coiled up snake in everything and can be unleashed through yogic and tantric practises, is also feminine.
In the form of ignorance, or the aspect in which she produces individuality and bewilders everyone, she is called Avidya Rupini. Conversely, she, as Vidya Rupini is also the one who unveils knowledge and opens the door to liberation or Moksha.
As the dissolver of the world she is Kali and as the loving consort of Shiva, she is Parvati.
Access to Education
The conception that women were denied access to education in the Vedic age is utterly farcical. Several hymns of the Vedic canon have been composed by women such as Maitrayi, Ghose and Vak.
The composition of such highly sophisticated stanzas could not have been formulated unless the women were well-established in knowledge. The birth of a scholar was held in high regard in the Vedic society. The Mahanirvana Tantra confirms this by to saying, “A girl should be brought up and educated with great care”.
Upanayana or the sacred thread ceremony denoting pursuance of Vedic studies for life was open to women. It was never the sole preserve of the males. Prominent brhamavadinis like Gargi, Khona, Romasa, Vac and Ambrhni are testimony to the openness of the Vedic education system in this regard.
Another social evil attributed to ‘superstitious’ Hinduism, is the propagation of child marriage.
However, the Rig Veda, the oldest of the living Vedas, quashes such an argument.
“An unmarried learned daughter should be married to a bridegroom who like her is learned. Never think of giving in marriage a daughter of very young age.” (Rig-Veda 55:16)
The above statement makes it clear that women, like men, were equally educated and learned and were married after reaching nubility.
The Vedic religion is also sometimes dubbed as ‘backward’ and ‘illiberal’ on the argument that women were bound within the realm of their paternal house, forced to live in a kind of social slavery.
On the contrary, young men and women were given unrestricted freedom to intermingle with each other. Samsanas, traditional equivalent of carnivals, used to be organized from time to time, allowing people from both genders to interact and participate in merry-making. And, many women chose their life partner from such social gatherings.
On the other hand, there are also considerable allusions to women marrying at an older age. For instance, the female seer Ghosa married the sage Kaksivan at a late age.
Such ennobling examples of freedom of choice in marriage, apart from invalidating Western notions of Hindus being caught in the web of ‘arranged marriage’, clearly highlight the maturity level which characterized the ancient Vedic religion.
The Curious Case of Social Evils
The precept of dowry is also completely misunderstood by the predisposed minds under the tutelage of distorted history books.
Dowry was not a sum of money on which the transactional deal of women was based. In stark contrast, it was a parting gift that the woman carried with her to the new house, having sole preserve of its rightful use.
Cases of Sati or self-immolation (as it is popularly depicted), were few and far between and have now been blown out of context and proportion. It was only in the medieval period, during the reign of the Islamic tyrants that women started plunging themselves into the fire by the dozen, a desperate act to evade Islamic atrocities.
A widowed woman, in the Vedic times, was given much affection and warmth. She had the right, or rather, the freedom to remarry. This can be corroborated by the following verse from the Rig-Veda (X, 18.8):
“Rise up woman 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”.
The verse is a call to the widowed women to rise from the pier of their deceased husbands and take the hand of her new husband. However, the underlying meaning of the text has been interpreted wrongly by scholars to suit their whimsical and often vacillating notions.
The meaning of Sati–virtuous woman--itself does no justice to its falsely portrayed picture. Still, scholars have depicted Sati as a mere Hindu phenomenon, despite evidence that the rate of female suicides was highest during the Mughal rule.
Moreover, some contentious and dubious theories have surfaced which hold that Sati, as a caste-status symbol, spread due to the “Sanskritization” of India while others contend that the practice of Sati was a “non-religious and patriarchal” ideology and represented “purity, sacrifice and valor”.
We have the volition to choose which theory suits our logical and reasoning. However, a fact which cannot be denied is that the distortion in understanding the meaning and origin of Sati–by labeling them “Hindu problems”–during the colonial-era further amplified the social evil.
A more balanced analysis of the Hindu scriptures would reveal a scenario where women were honored and respected, not equally, but rather in a highly lofty fashion.
The reverence and significance of womanhood is summed up best by Manu in his law book Manu Smriti:
“Women must be honored and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands, and brothers‑in‑law, who desire their own welfare. Where women are honored, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honored, 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, in which female relations, not being duly honored, pronounce a curse, perish completely, as if destroyed by magic.”
But here again, Manu is castigated by modern scholars and academicians as being “anti-women”, despite the fact that there are sections which provide for widow-remarriage and the dissolution of marriage. Others provide for property rights, though restricted to six kinds only. The role of caste does assume significance, but women were never subjugated or oppressed as a weaker sex.
Besides, concerns have been raised regarding the post-modern scholarship on the reliability and authenticity of the Manu-Smriti manuscripts available today.
Mahatma Gandhi, the epitome of Dharmic (righteous living) held Manu’s work as part of the Shastras but did not pledge allegiance to each and every verse of the Smriti’s, mainly due to the contradictions that had crept into the printed volumes.
“I hold Manusmriti as part of Shastras. But that does not mean that I swear by every verse that is printed in the book described as Manusmriti. There are so many contradictions in the printed volume that, if you accept one part, you are bound to reject those parts that are wholly inconsistent with it. (…) Nobody is in possession of the original text”, Gandhi is known to have said in An Adi-Dravida’s Difficulties 1.
The complex commentary that Manu weaves around women issues along with the codification of women rights based on it from Hindu texts (mixed with Islamic texts for Muslims) during the British era has rendered it to subjective interpretations, mostly dubious in nature.
(Corroborated by Indian historians such as Flavia Agnes)
It is time we switched off the denial mode and turned back to the pages of the Vedas, which can indeed usher in a new era of feminism, one which is much more rooted in spiritual wisdom.