restricted access CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO: Strīdharma: The Position of Women in Hinduism
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311 CH APTER T W ENT Y-T WO Strīdharma The Position of Women in Hinduism We will have to produce women, pure, firm and self-controlled as Sītā, Damayantī and Draupadī. If we do produce them, such modern sisters will receive the same homage from Hindu society as is being paid to their prototype of yore. Their words will have the same authority as the śāstras. —M. K. Gandhi, from R. K. Prabhu and U. R. Rao, The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi Recent incidents of satī and a 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, evoking all kinds of responses: from spokesmen for Hindu orthodoxy, from representatives of political parties, from vocal Indian women’s movements, and from social scientists and observers of contemporary 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. It also became clear that within the long history of Hinduism itself, the story has many plots and subplots, and the narrative takes us down many different avenues. WOM EN AS THE EQUALS OF M EN IN EAR LY V EDIC R ELIGION Minoti Bhattacharyya, herself a Hindu woman, argues that in Vedic times women and men were equal as far as education and religion were concerned.1 Womenparticipatedinthepublicsacrificesalongsidewithmen.Onetext2 mentions a female Ṛṣi Viśvarā. Some Vedic hymns3 are attributed to women such as Apalā, the daughter of Atri, Ghoṣā, the daughter of Kakṣīvant, or Indrāṇī, the 312 PART III: THE STRUCT UR A L SUPPORTS OF HINDUISM wife of Indra. Apparently in early Vedic times women also received the sacred thread and could study the Veda. The Hārīta smṛti mentions a class of women called brahmavādinīs who remained unmarried and spent their lives in study and ritual. Pāṇini’s distinction between ācāryā (a lady teacher) and ācāryānī (a teacher’s wife) and upādhyāyā (a woman preceptor) and upādhyāyāni (a preceptor ’s wife) indicates that women at that time could not only be students, but also teachers of sacred lore. He mentions the names of several noteworthy women scholars of the past such as Kathī, Kālapī, and Bahvricī. The Upaniṣads refer to women philosophers who disputed with their male colleagues, such as Vācaknavī who challenged Yājñavalkya.4 The Ṛgveda also refers to women engaged in warfare. One queen, Biṣpalā,5 is mentioned, and even as late a witness as Megasthenes (fifth century bce) mentions heavily armed women guards protecting Candragupta’s palace. The Vedic pantheon includes a substantial number of female goddesses . There are beautiful hymns to Uṣas, the dawn, imagined as an alluring young woman: Dawn on us with prosperity, O Uṣas, daughter of the sky, Dawn with great glory, goddess, lady of the light, dawn you with riches, bounteous one. . . . O Uṣas, graciously answer our songs of praise with bounty and with brilliant light . . . grant us a dwelling wide and free from foes . . .6 One of the most important of all Vedic hymns, the so-called Devī-sūkta, is addressed to Vāk (speech, revelation), a goddess described as the companion of all the other gods, as the instrument that makes ritual efficacious: “I am the queen, the gatherer-up of treasures . . . through me alone all eat the food that feeds them. . . . I make the man I love exceedingly mighty, make him a sage, a ṛṣi and a brahmin . . . ”7 It is not unimportant that Earth (pṛthivī) is considered female, the goddess who bears the mountains and brings forth vegetation.8 Some Vedic goddess worship may be an echo of goddess worship indigenous to India before the spread of Vedic religion; the Vedic hymns to the Goddess certainly made it easier in later centuries to legitimize Goddess worship as orthodox in the context of bhakti and śākta traditions, where Vedic and non-Vedic elements were blended. A GROW ING NET OF R ESTR ICTIONS FOR WOM EN With the expansion of Vedic religion in northern India and the growing specialization of Brahmanic ritual—possibly also under the impact of threats from the outside—a definition of the place of women in Vedic society took place, which amounted to increasing restrictions of their independence and a clear preponderance of...