Subject: The Vedic women: An Objective Analysis
WOMEN IN THE VEDIC AGE: THE INFLUENCE OF THE RIGVEDA AND THE PROBLEMS WITH A VEDIC HISTORY
INDEPENDANT RESEACH STUDIES
By: S.P., Massachussettes, USA
In today,s world, the Hindu religion has acquired a reputation as a sexist and cruel religion, promoting the live burning of women-sati. But before slandering this religion that the south people of Asia have been living by for centuries, an excavation of its past and origins cast a new light on the position women held in prehistoric times . The Rigveda, the earliest text the religion is based on, draws a grand picture of the glorious life daughters, wives and sisters enjoyed, yet still does not answer the question as to what extent this literature was practiced.
The Hindu religion developed out of the four Vedas; Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. Of these, the Rigveda is not only the most ancient literary monument amongst the world's living religions but also the most important Veda upon which the religion is based. Since 1500 B.C., the text has been handed down, though for centuries orally, with the most painstaking care, so that since that time, nearly 3000 years ago, it has suffered no changes whatever. This is why it is regarded as such a significant model upon which to draw the ancient history of East Asian civilization. The hymns that have survived from that period also contribute to the construction of the past. Unfortunately these are the only materials available to us and therefore predictions about the lifestyle and society of that time is a some what vague estimation.
The Vedas consist of a number of hymns, mainly addressed to gods and some to the few goddesses the Aryans worshipped. Amongst them is Aditi, identified with the earth. She is supposed to free those who worship her from sin and suffering. She is the mother of the world, or of common nature. Described with the tenderness of a mother and the brilliance of the light during the dawn, she hold the power to forgive and protect.
The pastoral Aryans, who practiced the ancient Hindu religion, were also agriculturists and hunters. In the words of Romesh C. Dutt,
"Agriculture was the principal industry of the Indo-Aryans forty centuries ago, as it is of their descendants in the present day. It is believed that the name Arya which the race gave themselves comes from the root Ar , which means to till, as if the civilized Aryans wished to distinguish themselves by this name from barbarians who lived by hunting or pasture." The soil and mud upon which they worked their bare hands into, raised their families on and regarded as a mother to them was personified as Prithivi. Hymns written to her are illustrious in praise and asking her for her graciousness upon them so that their crops may grow and flourish under her blessings. "She quickens the soil, for she scatters rain, and the showers of heaven are shed from the lighting of her cloud. She is great, firm and shining....."
Sarasvati, the goddess who will protect you and conquer your enemies is described as follows, "She is the best of Mothers, of rivers and of goddesses" (R.V. 2.41.16). She is personified as the rivers, the waters that give and creates life, water in which the Aryans washed their sins and fertilized the earth.
Besides these maternal figures, such as mother earth, mother of the world and best of Mothers, are also representations of beauty, sensuality and promiscuity amongst the goddesses. Usas, the goddess of dawn, had many lovers- Agni, Surya, Pusan and the Asvins. Her beauty inspired the poets and her strength warded of the evil spirits in the night.
Besides the goddesses mentioned above, there were many others. Sita, the heroine of the Ramayana, is mentioned in the Vedas as the field furrow who produced the crops.
Hinduism is one of the few religions that worship the goddess in more forms than that of the feminine mother. In sacred scriptures is sometimes found a goddess called a father or a son (A.V.7.6.1) ; likewise, a masculine divinity may have the appellation "mother". Undoubtedly the authors of the Vedas had great respect for the female role in society. The society also did not hesitate worshiping a goddess in the same respect as a god. For the simple farmer and shepherds, he had much more to gain by pleasing the female Prithivi, Sarasvati and Aditi who represented nature than Indra the warrior and leader of many battles. Even though there were some goddesses who gained their identity as the the wife of a god, many had their own distinct personalties, independent of any of the other male gods. The people obviously respected the independence of women and therefore worshipped them in the image of the tender and physically weaker sex- women.
It is suspected that about 20 of the authors of the Rigveda were women. Some of these may have been mythical personages; but internal evidence shows that Lopamudra, Visvavara, Sakata Nivavari and Ghosha, the authors of the Rigveda 1.197, V.28, VIII.91, IX.81. 11-20 and Z.39 and 40 respectively, were women in flesh an blood, who once lived in Hindu society. Undoubtedly these women were great scholars for them to have been praised by society yet none of their work survived the wheel of time for us to make our own judgements on. Besides these women's work, a few poems written by women poets are available, leading to the conclusion that education was not denied to women.
Women students were divided into two classes, Brahmavadinis and Sadyodvahas. The former were lifelong students of theology and philosophers; the latter used to prosecute their studies till their marriage at the age of 15 or 16. During the eight or nine years that were thus available to them for study, they used to learn by heart the Vedic hymns prescribed for the daily and periodical prayers which, like men, they used to offer regularly both morning and evening. Brahmavadinis used to aim at a very high excellence in scholarship. Besides the Vedas, many of them used to specialize in Purvamimansaa which discussed the diverse problems connected with Vedic sacrifices.
To be able to study such sensitive doctrines that opposed the Vedic tradition, discussion must have constituted a major portion of their education. Therefore public speaking amongst men must also have been a common procedure for these women. There were lady scholars termed as Kasakritsnas who studied the Kasakritsni. Undoubtedly there existed a fairly large number of female scholars in society to have been able to generate the need to create a special word to describe them. When the term Kasakritsnas is used in the Vedas, it is used with dignity, imposing no form of impudence or disrespect to these women who were bold enough to challenge some of the preachings in the Rigveda and found pleasure in intellectual pursuits.
Another instance when the presence of women in a certain field generated the introduction of a new word was women teachers who came to be known as Upadhyayanis or Upadhyayas. Some practiced the career out of interest and some due to necessity. Though not all of them were highly educated, they still were able to obtain this very high and worshipped position in society as the giver of knowledge. If both male and female students and their parents had enough regard for these women to accept the knowledge that they provided, women were definitely embodiments of intelligence in Aryan society.
But the question that arises is - exactly how many women became scholars compared to men? The education standards were the same: during the period of studentship (brahmacharya), the student was required to leave his/her family and home to live with the teacher (acharya) and acquire as much knowledge as possible. But this accommodation was not very convenient for women and therefore most of them would acquire education from their fathers, brothers at home and stop when they came to marriageable age. The number of women acharyas was not very great and when one was available, the parents may have sent their daughters to study with them. Very few actually went forward and pursued further education.
In terms of marriage, was an educated women attractive? The Atharvaveda observes that a maiden can succeed in her marriage only if she has been properly trained during the period of studentship. Yet verse 17 of Rigveda 8.33 say, "Her intellect hath little weight" . What education for a girl is considered appropriate? What kind of an education did they receive, was it to learn the domestic household duties only? Did the lady scholars suffer scorn and rejection from the men when it came to marriage? These questions that come up, remain unanswered just by looking at the literature of that time only. The extent of women's liberty is vague.
When it came to marriage, the young women had the freedom to choose their husbands. The approval of the father or of the eldest brother in the absence of the father, was usually practiced though it was not a requirement for the marriage. Arranged marriages were practiced if the bride and bridegroom both were willing. The young people would socialize and met at sacrificial gatherings, festivals and weddings. Sometimes the mothers would even encourage them and offer advice. Courtship was not uncommon and relationships before marriage was not condemned. This is seen in much of the poetry written by men wooing women. But the extent of the relationship is yet another unanswered question. Did it even involve the freedom of premarital sex or were they only brief encounters to acquaint each other before actually taking marriage vows?
Dampati, the vedic word for the couple etymologically means the joint owners of the house. Both husband and wife were considered equal partners in the household. However, reality usually is different than theoretical solutions provided. In actual practice, however, joint government or dyarchy, with absolutely equal rights and privileges to either half, is an impossibility in all spheres of life. Domestic government is no exception to this rule. Discord, disorder and deadlocks will arise in domestic management on some occasions if the husband and the wife are each allowed an absolutely equal power, and happen to possess conflicting and opposing views. To resolve these deadlocks, ultimate supreme authority has to be given to one of the two parties.
In the Indian patriarchal society we can assume that it was the husband who gained this privilege. When a new bride enters her new home, she is received with pride and high status. In the new home the young wife is subject to her husband, but at the same time mistress of the farm-laborers and slaves and of parents and brothers-in-law.
Over thy husband's father and thy husband's mother bear full sway. Over the sister of thy loar, over his brothers rule supreme.
She enters the family to rule and not as an object of subjection and slavery. The marriage vows that the bride and bridegroom take are both the same, thus the woman is not committed to utter obedience to her husband. The marriage is a two way alliance, the woman is not the only one required to remain faithful to her wedding vows nor is she a servant to her in-laws commands. She is the matron, the one that holds the family together and takes care of the finances as well as raising the family. The husband's duty is to provide for the family and in these respects is considered less significant compared to the mother's duties. Thus the women maintained more importance in the family in certain respects.
Another aspect of the importance of a wife was with regards to sacrificial customs. Amongst the humble classes every householder was the priest of his family, lighted the sacrificial fire, gave offerings and libations and recited the sacrificial hymns. Women prepared the Soma-libations and joined their husbands in the sacrifices, some even composed hymns. The Yajamana, the one who performs the sacrifices, offers his prayers with his wife together. The duty of chanting musically the Sama songs seems to have been usually performed by the wife. Sacrifice was very important amongst the people in the Vedic Era because it was considered the door to salvations. Thus it was also important to have a wife to help with the ceremonies. But even though the wives took part in the rituals side by side with their husbands, it can be observed that their role is not one of importance and the sacrifices could be carried out by the man alone without the help of a women.
Child marriage was not practiced because a girl was not fit for marriage until she could accept her husband in her private bedroom immediately after marriage. This would be around the age of 16. Because of the minimum marriageability age, elderly men marrying young girls was also not observed. Though dowry was discredited, it was sometimes secretly entertained, especially when the women had a physical disability. But even though marriage was sought for both men and women, it was not forced upon at any cost and thus purchase of a bridegroom was not highly regarded. The Vedic literature often refers to the spinster; amajuh one who grows old in one's parent's house, is the significant expression used to denote an old maid. It is found that sometimes, the suitor would have to please the woman's father by gifts to gain his approval.
Yet the problem encountered is that the women never actually enjoyed utter independence. First they were under the mercy of their father or elder brother and then their husband: the female figure was always dominated by a masculine figure. Marriage was the preferred goal and bachelorhood was usually only observed when the maiden was unable to secure a husband.
(To the widow of the deceased)
"Rise, come to the world of the living, O woman! He is lifeless by whose side thou liest. Become the wife of him who holds thee by the hand and who wishes to be thy husband.
Rigveda, X.18, 7 to 11
This line from the Rigveda indicating that the widow is lying besides her dead husband suggests that there had been an earlier time when the cruel tradition of sati had been practiced. But now, in the Vedic era, the unfortunate women is asked to leave the deceased and find a new husband. A woman's life did not end with her husband. In fact remarriage after the death of the husband was frequently practiced. This power to find themselves a second life partner prevented them from being left at the mercy of her relatives. This and the fact that no dowry was needed led people to believe that a daughter in the family was not a burden.
The general society practiced monogamy, mainly due to financial reasons; the husband's duty was to provide and the average everyday Aryan man could not support two spouses. Even the Vedic gods were monogamous. But in the upper class rich and ruling section of society, often a man would have more than one wife. The kings and nobles often found it a useful instrument in strengthening their political power by contracting numerous but judicious matrimonial alliances. Polygamy was a means to express wealth which puts the women in the position of objects of display. So it might be said that women were more valued as individuals in the lower and poorer class.
Daughters were less unpopular during this era because they could be initiated in Vedic studies and were entitled to offer sacrifices to gods; sons were not absolutely necessary for this purpose (Later the importance of ancestor-worship increased and sons alone were regarded as eligible for offering oblations to the manes; daughters could not perform this very important religious duty). However, a son was always preferred over a daughter. The Veda describes methods of avoiding the birth of a daughter and always blesses the wife with the birth of many sons and grandsons. The arrival of the daughter was not celebrated as the arrival of a son, but was accepted.
Women could not gain power through wealth either. After the death of the husband the wife took care of the property, but it still belonged to the sons. If she did not have any sons then it would go to the relative burdened with taking care of her. Thus the wife did not receive property from her parents or her own house. The unmarried daughter was entitled to a small share of her father's inheritance to enable her to make a living but this was only granted to old maids. If the father died while she was still at an early age, it was taken for granted that she would marry and so she was left at the mercy of her eldest brother with nothing to support herself should she chose not to marry.
Even if there were no sons in the family, the inheritance went to the sons or grandsons of the daughter. Brotherless maidens were not very desirable to marry because of the fear that the father-in-laws might want to name the son-in-laws their heir and thus cause these men to lose their right to their own father's properties. To avoid such situations adoptions were sometimes practiced but not desired.
The history drawn from the Veda is very ambiguous. It is literature and often it tends to be glorified. How much we can rely on it as evidence to predict our history is very difficult. A lot of studies regarding the Vedic Era were done during the early 20th century in India during the colonial rule. One of the methods the colonialists used to degrade the nationalists was demonstrating the peculiarities of Hindu civilization, and the barbaric practices pertaining to women. In turn the nationalists searched for a glamorous Hindu past to identify with and found it in the Vedic age. But the motive behind their search could have over garnished the era and provided a misleading notion about the "lost glory". The history of the Aryan civilization has also been affected by the fact that many German historians looking for a glamorous past interpreted the Vedas, since they are of Aryan origins too. But I think it is possible to say that the women in the ancient Hindu society enjoyed much more privileges than most of the other religions of today at that time. Even though we don't know exactly how the society functioned, we have an idea as to how people respected the feminine figure in the form of goddesses.
Another problem with commenting on the position of women is that the Vedic age only talks about the upper class society, mainly consisting of the Aryan settlers. The situation of the aborigines of the Indus river who were conquered by the Euro-Aryan people is not mentioned. Most of what we assume about the women in the Vedic age is about only the wives and daughters of the Aryans.
One of the ironies of the situation is the fact that women were not permitted to attend the Sabha (assembly), yet "Assembly" is personified as the daughter of Prajapati ( title for some of the gods like Purusha, Indra, Savitri and Soma). This gives the impression that not all that was preached in the Vedas was actually practiced in reality.
The feminine figure of the Vedic age is one under recent controversy. Our search for a glorious past to which we could look up to lead to the unravelling of the past, but also blinded us with high expectations. The liberation of women in our ancient histories is something we would like to associate with, but the solution is unfortunately not a very clear one. Can we truly say that Hindu society has deteriorated into a more conservative and sexist religion? Such questions are ones that we are still searching the answer for that as we look deeper into the past, we uncover more of the truth. Regretfully, this Vedic period was so long ago that there is very little evidence left to be explored and our search for our complete past will forever remain somewhat of a mystery.
-S.P. Massachussettes, USA
June 9th, 1994
************************************************************************* Date: Wed, 08 Jun 1994 08:30:25 EDT To: firstname.lastname@example.org From: email@example.com (Rajendra P. Shrestha) Subject: News item: Is Koirala guilty of corruption?
Source: The Independent, May 25th
Headline: Is Koirala Guilty?
"We stand by what we have written: our investigation has established the fact that PM Koirala was involved when the RNAC's General Sales Agency for Europe was awarded to Dinesh Dhamija," said RPP lawmaker Prakash Lohani, who was the convenor of the parliamentary sub-committee formed to investigate the airlines "efficiency and modus operandi." Lohani fully endorses the statement of the then RNAC board member Ramesh Dhungel, to the effect that the PM called a board meeting at Baluwatar April 6, 1993 and, in the presence of Dhamija, ordered the deal be finalised immediately. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) headed by CPN-UML MP Radha Krishna Mainali is now investigating the PM's alleged intervention in the award of Euro-GSA to Dhamija.
Talking to The Independent May 24, Mainali confirmed that the Lohani report mentioned the PM's involvement in this controversial deal. "As the head of the probe committee, I don't want to speculate on the nature of the PAC decision" he said.
Dhamija's authenticity as a business agent is suspect. He had originally stated there were five shareholders in his company, the First Airlines Representation Europe Limited, but is now saying he is the sole proprietor of it, which is actually a one-pound-paid-up capital venture.
Letters written by Dhamija himself have also injected a complex element into the probe. In a letter written March 2, 1993, he said the company had a hundred-thousand sterling principal; in his next letter, Nov. 25, he wrote the capital amounted to 10,000 pounds.
Tourism Minister Ramhari Joshy refused to comment on
"sub-judice" case. It may be recalled Joshy had once complained that former RNAC Managing Director, B. Daibagya, had told him that only orders from the PM would be followed.
The commission of 34% to Dhamija is the highest-ever offered to any sales agent. Dhamija is also believed to be in partnership with PM Koirala's German son-in-law. The most recent revelation is that pro-Koirala MPs in PAC are trying to make Minister Joshy a sacrificial goat to save the PM's neck.
**************************************************************** Date: Wed, 08 Jun 1994 13:06:44 EDT To: firstname.lastname@example.org From: email@example.com (RaJesh B. Shrestha) Subject: Khimti To Go (Ahead!) - an extract from Himal
What follows is an extract from the recent Mar/Apr 1994 issue of the Himal magazine (here without permission) I thought would be an interesting epilogue to our rather befuddled discussion on Arun III. The article appears on the Briefs section of the magazine (pp. 21).
Khimti To Go
Almost without anyone noticing it, the Nepali Government and a private sector concern in early March signed a landmark agreement that heralds the way ahead for Himalayan power sector development.
Indeed, if it had not been for the controversy raging over the Arun III hydropower project, anyone would have sat up and taken notice as the project document was signed for the construction of a 60 megawatt power station on the Khimti Khola, a tributary of the Tama Kosi river in east Nepal. At US$ 120 million, the Khimti Project is easily the largest investment in Nepal's private sector today. Its significance also lies in the fact this is the largest joint venture project between international companies and a Nepali firm.
The Nepali firms are the Butwal Power Company and its affiliate Himal Power Limited, and they are collaboration with the Norwegian national power company, Statkraft, which is being allowed for the first time by Oslo to invest outside Norway.
At one moment, according to sources, the deal almost fell through when Statkraft officials, exasperated by the slow pace of negotiations, considered investing in Laos and Vietnam instead. And Nepali engineers and firms came very close to losing access to Norwegian technology in hydropower, considered one of the best in the world and suitable for adoption in the Himalayan region.
Suddenly, in the last weeks of February, the Nepali side brushed up its act. The Ministry of Water Resources pulled out all the stops and bureaucrats worked late into the night to agree on the terms of the agreement. The National Planning Commission and the higher echelons of the Ministry pushed hard to overcome resistance to the deal from some in the Water and Energy Commission Secretariat, the Electricity Development Center, and the Nepal Electricity Authority.
With its go-ahead from the Government, the Himal Power Limited will now be able to conclude financing agreements with the Asian Development Bank and the International Finance Corporation. This is also the first hydropower scheme to be financed in the private sector by these multilateral banks.
So, after a long hiatus, there is agreement on a major power project in Nepal, whether anyone has heard of it or not.
********************************************************************** Date: Fri, 10 Jun 1994 06:01:25 EDT To: firstname.lastname@example.org From: Subject: Nepal ko kabzaa kiya!!
A pleasant recorded voice of an Indian operator blabbers something like the following:
SARE CIRCUIT ISH SAMAYE BUSY HAIN. KRIPAYA KUCCH DER KE BAAD PHIR KOSHISH KIJIYE
Yes, and it was not a call to India. Just last night, when I tried calling Nepal, I was dumbfounded to hear this. Thinking that I must have dialed a wrong number, I tried again several times. The result however, was the same.
What is happening here? I have in the past heard messages in French while dialing France; in Spanish in Spain; in German in Germany. But, I cannot even imagine hearing a Russian operator while dialing England. Likewise, I had never imagined (before yesterday) of hearing an Indian operator speak while dialing Nepal. Has the country lost its identity and pride, or is it simply that the administrators of the country simply don't care? It is, I believe a tremendous blow in the face of Nepali nationalism, and Nepali pride--the very roots of Nepali democracy, and the very roots of us as Nepalis.
While all Nepalis these days are politicians, busy discussing politics at dinner tables throughout the nation, others are slowly looking at the opportuni ty to gobble up the country. While the people in Nepal are busy fighting with each other, and pulling each others legs, the governance and the administration of the country is slowly being seized by outside forces.
It doesn't matter what the situation was, the recorded Indian message isn't justifiable at any costs. Even if the telephone operation was contracted to an Indian phone company, it doesn't take a lot to record the same message in Nepali. It could have as well been recorded in English (English being the inter national language), but Hindi, which is not an official language of Nepal, and definitely not an international language, is totally unacceptable.
If we are to continue like this, we are uprooting the foundations of democracy as well as destroying our own fabric of nationality. The next time I call Nepal, the message could very well be: NEPAL KA COUNTRY CODE 977 KO 90 ME BADAL DIYA GAYA HE. KRIPAYA YEH CHANGE KO NOTE KIJIYE AUR PHIRSE KOSHISH KIJIYE, DHANYABAD.
--Pradeep Bista, CCNY
********************************************************************** From: "D. Karki" Date: Fri, 10 Jun 94 13:24:34 +1200 To: email@example.com
To the Editor:
I have enjoyed reading the different articles from TDN here in New Zealand. So far, this has been forwarded to me by my brother at John Hopkins.
I remained in the US for close to nine years in the Greater Boston, MA area. I have received the New Zealand Official Development Assistance
(NZODA) Postgraduate Scholarship to work on a PhD here at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand. Perhaps, in the future you can direct the email directly to me at the following address:
By the way I am the only Nepali student here at Massey, which has a student population of 32,000. Perhaps, email is the only window through which I have access to the rest of the world. As there are very few Nepali in New Zealand. The few that are here remain in Auckland and Christchurch.
Thank you very much for this service.
Debendra Karki Department of Management Systems Massey University Private Bag 11-222 Palmerston North New Zealand Phone # +(64) 6 357-6218 Fax # +(64) 6 350-5661
********************************************************************** Date: Fri, 10 Jun 1994 23:58:02 -0700 From: firstname.lastname@example.org To: Nepal@mp.cs.niu.edu Subject: Looking for Subarna Man Malakar- Somewhere in Florida.
I am desperately looking for Subarna Man Malakar studying somewhere in Florida. He did his Bachelors Degree in Mechanical Engineering in REC, Durgapur. I am Binaya Kumar Manandhar, AIT, Bangkok, E-mail TCA938255@RCCVAX.AIT.AC.TH Please convey this message.
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