Women in Vedic Culture

via http://www.stephen-knapp.com/women_in_vedic_culture.htm published on January 31, 2009




By Stephen Knapp




There are many civilizations in the world
where respect for women and their role in society are prominent, and others
where regard for them and their status should be improved. Yet the level of
civility along with moral and spiritual standards in a society can often be
perceived by the respect and regard it gives for its women. Not that it
glorifies them for their sexuality and then gives them all the freedom men
want so they can be exploited and taken advantage of, but that they are
regarded in a way that allows them to live in honor for their importance in
society with respect and protection, and given the opportunity to reach
their real potential in life.



Among the many societies that can be found in
the world, we have seen that some of the most venerating regard for women
has been found in Vedic culture. The Vedic tradition has held a high regard
for the qualities of women, and has retained the greatest respect within its
tradition as seen in the honor it gives for the Goddess, who is portrayed as
the feminine embodiment of important qualities and powers. These forms
include those of Lakshmi (the goddess of fortune and queen of Lord Vishnu),
Sarasvati (the goddess of learning), Subhadra (Krishna

=
s
sister and auspiciousness personified), Durga (the goddess of strength and
power), Kali (the power of time), and other Vedic goddesses that exemplify
inner strength and divine attributes. Even divine power in the form of
shakti
is considered feminine.



Throughout the many years of Vedic culture,
women have always been given the highest level of respect and freedom, but
also protection and safety. There is a Vedic saying,

A
Where
women are worshiped, there the gods dwell.

@

Or where the women are happy, there will be prosperity. In fact the direct
quotes from the Manu-samhita explains as follows:



 



A
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 on which female relations, not being duly honored, pronounce a
curse, perish completely, as if destroyed by magic. 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

.55-59)



 



            Furthermore, in the
Vedas, 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) This kind of equality is rarely found in any other
religious scripture. Plus, a woman who is devoted to God is more highly
regarded than a man who has no such devotion, as found in the Rig-Veda:
“Yea, many a woman is more firm and better than the man who turns away from
Gods, and offers not.” (Rig-Veda, 5.61.6)



Additional quotes can be found in other
portions of the Vedic literature. This is the proper Vedic standard. If this
standard is not being followed, then it represents a diversion of the
genuine Vedic tradition. Due to this tradition, India

=
s
history includes many women who have risen to great heights in spirituality,
government, writing, education, science, or even as warriors on the
battlefield.   







            In the matter of dharma,
in the days of Vedic culture, women stood as a decisive force in spirituality
and the foundation of moral development. There were
also women rishis who revealed the Vedic knowledge to others. For
example, the 126th hymn of the first book of the Rig-Veda was revealed by
a Hindu woman whose name was Romasha; 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. 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. 


Throughout the history of


India


and the traditions of Vedic society, women were also examples for
maintaining the basic principles in Sanatana-dharma. This honor toward
women should be maintained by the preservation of genuine Vedic culture, which
has always been a part of



India.


Unfortunately, these standards have declined primarily due to the outside
influences that have crept in because of foreign invaders, either militarily or
culturally. These foreign invaders 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. The oppression of women increased in India because of Moghul
rule. As such foreigners gained influence and converts, decay of the spiritual
standards also crept into Indian and Vedic culture. The educational criteria of
Vedic culture also changed and the teaching of the divinity of motherhood was
almost lost. The teaching changed from emphasis on the development of individual
self-reliance to dependence on and service to others. Thus, competition replaced
the pursuit for truth, and selfishness and possessiveness replaced the spirit of
renunciation and detachment. And gradually women were viewed as less divine and
more as objects of gratification or property to be possessed and controlled.


This is the result of a rakshasic or demoniac cultural influence, which
still continues to grow as materialism expands in society. Money and sensual
gratification have become major goals in life, though they alone cannot give us
peace or contentment. Instead they cause us to develop more desires in the hopes
of finding fulfillment while leaving us feeling hollow and ever-more restless
without knowing why.


In
Vedic culture it is taught that every man should view and respect every woman,
except his own wife, as his mother, and every girl with the same concern and
care as his own daughter. It is only because of the lack of such training and
the social distancing from the high morals as this that this teaching is being
forgotten, and the respect that society should have for women has been reduced.


In
this way, the change in the attitude toward women in India was due to a loss of
culture and of the true Vedic standards. Thus, it should be easy to see the need
for organizations that will keep and teach the proper views, which were once a
basic part of the genuine Vedic traditions.


When the position of women declines, then that society loses its equilibrium and
harmony. In the spiritual domain, men and women have an equal position. Men and
women are equal as sons and daughters of the same Supreme Father. However, you
cannot bring the spiritual domain to this Earth or enter the spiritual strata if
your consciousness is focused on the differences of the sexes, and thus treat
women poorly. One is not superior to the other, but each has particular ways or
talents to contribute to society and to the service of God. So men should not
try to control women by force, but neither should women forcefully try to seize
the role of men or try to adopt the masculine nature of men. Otherwise,
imbalance results in society, just as a car will not move properly when the
tires on one side are too low or out of balance. Of course there are exceptions
in which some men are naturally good at feminine roles and some women are
talented in masculine occupations. But the point is that women and men must work
cooperatively like the twin wings of a bird, together which will raise the whole
society. If there is a lack of respect and cooperation, how can society be
progressive? After all, how can there be a spirit of cooperation and
appreciation between men and women when instead there is a mood of competition?
It is this mood in materialistic society that is increasing in both family and
corporate life which contributes to social imbalance and not to a smooth and
peaceful society.


Motherhood and Family



            The nature of motherhood of women was always stressed in Vedic
India. After all, we often find them to be the foundation of family life and of
raising the children properly. They usually provide the love and understanding
and nurturing for the development of our children in a way that is unlikely from
most men.

            Our own life is a gift from our mother’s life. We were nourished
by her, we spent nine months in her womb, and her love sustained us. Even now we
are loved by our mother. This includes Mother Nature and Mother Earth, which is
called Bhumi in the Vedic tradition. The Earth planet is also like a mother
because everything we need to live, all our resources, come from her. As we
would protect our own mother, we must also protect Mother Earth.

            Women in motherhood, after giving birth to a child that they have
carried for nine months, is the first guru and guide of the child and, thus, of
humanity. Through this means, before any child learns hatred or aggression, they
first know the love of a mother who can instill the ways of forgiveness and
kindness in the child. In this way, we can recognize that there is often a
strong women, either as a mother or as a wife, behind most successful men.

            In exhibiting the qualities of motherhood, women must be warm and
tender, strong and protective, yet also lay the foundation of discipline and the
discrimination of right from wrong. Furthermore, in the home it is usually the
woman who lends to providing beauty in decorating the house and facility for an
inspirational atmosphere. Also, she must usually provide the nutritious and
tasty dishes that give pleasure and strength for the fitness and health of the
body.

            By their innate sense of motherhood and compassion, women also
make natural healers, care givers, and nurturers. Those women who have this
intrinsic disposition for caring will also be natural upholders of moral
standards and spiritual principles. By their own emotional tendencies and
expressions, they are also natural devotees of God.

            In ancient India the Sanskrit words 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.

            When a husband and wife are willing to be flexible to each
other’s needs and move forward in love and mutual understanding, the
relationship can go beyond equality to one of spiritual union. This means that
each one appreciates the talents of the other, and views the other as
complimenting what each one already has. This also makes up for the weaknesses
or deficiencies of the other. In this way, each can provide support,
encouragement and inspiration to the other. This ideal can only be achieved when
they properly understand the principles of spirituality. It is also said that
where the husband and wife get along well, Lakshmi Devi (the goddess of fortune)
Herself dwells in that house.

            It is also considered that a wife who serves a spiritually strong
and qualified husband automatically shares in whatever spiritual merit he
achieves because she assists him by her service.


The Feminine Divinities



            In the Vedic tradition it is common to see the pairing of the
Vedic male Gods with a female counterpart, thus combining both sets of powers
and qualities that each would have. We can easily see this in Radha-Krishna,
Sita-Rama, Lakshmi-Vishnu, Durga-Shiva, Sarasvati-Brahma, Indrani-Indra, etc.
Thus, we have the combination of male and female Divinities that make the
complete balance in the divine spiritual powers.

            Through the medium of pure affection, the feminine Divinities
have been able to break down the most powerful citadels known to creation,
especially those of evil. The divine mystery of life is that the most powerful
forces of the universe are subjugated by love, and that love is most completely
channeled through the feminine energy and personality.

            For example, “Durga” means the one who is difficult to know. Yet,
being considered the mother of the universe, or the personification of the
material energy, we as her children can approach her through love. And she will
respond with love.

            Also, out of love the goddess took the form of
Mahishasuramardini, or the one who destroyed the dark demon known as
Mahishasura. She was generated out of the anger and potency of Vishnu, Shiva,
Brahma, and others, and was the combination of their powers. They could not
defeat the demon, but the goddess could. Symbolically, Durga can destroy the
demonic darkness of the mode of ignorance and the quality of laziness within
each of us.

            Another example is when Durga expressed her love and care to the
Gods and humanity by manifesting herself from her side as Kaushika Durga, also
called Ambika. By her beauty she attracted the demons Shumba and Nishumba to
her. Thus, they would not disturb the rest of creation. Then from her forehead
she manifested herself as the dark goddess Kali who killed all the disturbing
demons in that episode. In this way, through love the Divine feminine potency
takes on forms to alleviate powerful disturbances in the universe and within us.

            Out of love also the Divine feminine potency manifests as Srimati
Radharani, the consort of Lord Sri Krishna. One of her many names is Janagati,
which means the goddess of all goddesses. She is the origin of the divine
feminine love and beauty, and the epitome of devotion to the Supreme Being.
Thus, from the ideal spiritual world, we can see Her divine reflection mirrored
here in this relative world in all that is feminine, beautiful and pure. By
being conscious and aware of such qualities, we can perceive the spiritual
dimension pervading and flowing throughout this temporary material universe.
Thus, we recognize the very qualities of the Divine Persons from whom they
originate in the spiritual world. We humans are but limited reflected forms of
the Divine Couples who reside in original existence. This is why the Vedic
tradition placed much value in honoring and worshiping the Divine feminine
nature along with the masculine–one without the other is incomplete. This is one
of the unique traits that distinguishes Vedic culture from others.


The Future



            Examples in Vedic history have shown that all women should be
respected and honored for the potential and talent they can provide to keep the
family together, as well as bare and raise children, but also for the many women
who have taken up the cause to preserve, protect and carry on the spiritual
standards found in Vedic culture.

            This shows that we should not diminish the potential that women
have to be strong advocates of the Vedic principles. We should not discriminate
and think that women have less to offer. It is not one’s sex that will determine
one’s strength and character to help champion the Vedic cause.

            In this world we need people to help in all areas and all levels
of life to protect the Vedic knowledge and traditions, and women have a very
important part to play. As we said, they are usually the first inspiration and
first teachers of our children. So many of the great men who had become powerful
proponents of Sanatana-dharma also had strong and inspiring mothers or
wives.

            So, you never know who among the women in society, or among our
daughters we are raising that may become the next Savitri, Draupadi or Anasuya.
Also, you never know who among the boys that the women may raise that may become
a great Vedic saint or scholar or stalwart protector of our culture. We must
look on everyone as if they have that potential, because somewhere and sometime
it will happen. Another great person may appear, be it man or woman, who will
emerge from among us. We need to arrange for that possibility to happen by
giving all women and children the necessary facility and training.

            Every girl should have the opportunity to learn spirituality
along with modern education to help her reach her full potential. Of course,
this can also be said of boys. No one is born hating another, but this is
learned in materialistic societies from wrong association. Only later in life
does a person learn the ways of liking their own kind and disliking anyone who
seems different. Genuine spiritual knowledge is the alternative to bring a
change in such a society and stop the hating and quarrel that go on because of
perceiving bodily and external differences between us.

            It is the primitive customs as well as the sexist inventions in
modern but materialistic society that force social trends to limit, subjugate or
even exploit women in today’s world. Such a society does not allow the strength
or ingenuity of women to arise or be recognized, at least not without a struggle
both inside the mind of women and outside in the field of activity and
occupation. Women need to muster the strength to overcome such limitations. It
is not that the world does not need nurturing and healing right now, which is a
common and normal trait in women. After all, how many times do we hear of women
being accused of rape, or child abuse and molestation, or kidnapping and murder?
These are mostly the crimes of men, imbalanced men but men nonetheless. There is
also a connection between the way men destroy the environment (Mother Nature)
and their exploitative attitude toward women. This must be corrected.

            A faulty beginning or childhood, as well as exposure to thoughts
and ideas and indoctrinations of one’s limitations rather than of one’s superior
potential is one of the reasons why women lose their ability, means or
motivation for higher accomplishments in life. This often causes their spirit of
achievement and contribution to be squelched. This only adds to the struggle of
women which is often passed along from one generation to the next. Thus, all of
society loses the capabilities that women could otherwise attain and provide. In
this way, women often have a built in fear of stepping forward to help meet the
needs that the world is crying for.

            Harmony needs to be restored between the masculine and feminine
natures, which are especially exhibited in the relations between men and women.
This can be done most effectively through genuine spiritual development, when
both masculine and feminine natures become balanced and complimentary rather
than competitive. This can harmonize not only the external relations between
people, but also the feminine and masculine tendencies within each individual,
both men and women. By genuine spiritual progress we can rise above our bodily
material identities and work with and compliment the talents and abilities of
others, regardless of whether they are men or women. We must know that within
each body is a spirit soul that is no different than our own. By that I mean
that we must recognize that on the platform of spiritual reality there is no
difference between one soul and the next, no matter whether the external body is
male or female. But while we are in this world and in different types of bodies,
we can work cooperatively for our survival and for harmony among us, and use our
naturally varied talents together. Women can do what they do best and men can do
what they do best. This certainly makes it easier for all to live peacefully
than in a mood of competition and aggression, or envy and prejudice. In such a
mood of cooperation we can see that we all have something to offer or
contribute, and we all have something for which we can be appreciated. We only
need the right opportunity to bring that out of each and every one of us. The
proper leaders of society or of organizations who promote such situations are
those who can arrange for such a harmonious environment to exist.

            One difference that we often see between men and women is that
there is often nothing harder to penetrate than the typical male ego, which
often causes men to hesitate to show any weakness and to make a show of a tough
exterior, while women often respond easily to love with love. However, love and
compassion are not meant to be exhibited only by women or mothers. It is a state
of being, a level of consciousness. It is an exhibition of one’s spiritual
development to have care and concern, compassion and love for each and every
being. It should be a common interest that everyone should be able to live a
life of opportunity, development and progress for their own material and
spiritual well being. And this concern is natural for both men and women who
have reached this level of spiritual awareness, recognizing in many ways the
similarities between us all, regardless of our sex. This is what is needed to
help bring more peace and cooperation in the world, and another reason for
protecting and emphasizing the traditional standards of spiritual understanding
as found in the teachings of Santana-dharma.


Examples of Great Women in Vedic Culture



            Some of the women that have helped make great strides in
establishing the foundation of Sanatana-dharma and Vedic culture can be
listed and described. They serve as fine examples of historical importance that
have been the basis for inspiration to both men and women for centuries. From
the early Vedic times these include such women as Sati, Sita, Anasuya,
Arundhatee, Draupadi, Queen Kunti, Shakuntala, Maitreyi, Gargi, Madalasa,
Savitri, Ahalya, and others. It is said simply reciting their names removes
sins. There are additional women from the last few hundred years whose lives we
can recollect as well. Such great women have contributed to the glories and
splendor of Vedic culture. So let us briefly review the lives of some of these
great women.



            Madalasa was the daughter
of Vishvasu, the Gandharva king. She was also a great inspiration to her sons.
Ritdhvaj, the son of the powerful king Shatrujit, was her husband. When
Shatrujit died, Ritdhvaj took the position of king and engaged in the royal
duties. In due course, Madalasa gave birth to a son, Vikrant. When Vikrant would
cry, Madalasa would sing words of wisdom to keep him quiet. She would sing that
he was a pure soul, that he has no real name and his body is merely a vehicle
made of the five elements. He is not really of the body, so why does he cry?

            Thus, Madalasa would enlighten her son with spiritual knowledge
in the songs she would sing to him. Because of this knowledge, little Vikrant
grew up to be an ascetic, free from worldly attachments or kingly activities,
and he eventually went to the forest to engage in austerities. The same thing
happened to her second son, Subahu, and her third son, Shatrumardan. Her husband
told her that she should not teach the same knowledge to their fourth son,
Alark, so that at least one of them would be interested in worldly activities
and take up the role of looking after the kingdom. So to Alark she sang a song
of being a great king who would rule the world, and make it prosperous and free
from villains for many years. By so doing he would enjoy the bounty of life and
eventually join the Immortals. In this way, she trained her son Alark from the
beginning of his life in the direction he would take. This is how a mother can
influence her child in whatever potential may be possible, whether materially or
spiritually, by imparting noble thoughts to open the avenues of activities for
her children.



            Sati. From the Puranas
we learn how Sati would not tolerate the dishonor of her husband Lord Shiva.
Sati was the daughter of Prajapati Daksha, who was one of the sons of Brahma.
Once Daksha arranged to hold a major religious ritual (yajna) in his
capital, near present day Haridwar. Many kings, emperors and demigods were
invited. However, Daksha did not respect Shiva, so Shiva was not invited.
Nonetheless, Sati wanted to go to see her father and many sisters. Shiva tried
to dissuade her from going, saying it was not good to go uninvited. But Sati
went anyway to participate in the yajna. Unfortunately, she found that
her father was greatly insulting her husband, Shiva. Not bearing the dishonor of
her husband, she self-immolated in fire and left this world altogether,

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