Women in Hinduism Part 1

temple procession in Indonesia
temple procession in Indonesia

by Ravi

Did God make one gender superior?

both women and men are manifestations of the Supreme Being
– Atharva Veda Samhita 8:9:11

The Bhagavad Gita mentions that every living being has a soul (atman). A true seeker sees all souls with equal vision and without judgement.  Gita 5:18 sums this up: “The enlightened and wise regard with equal mind a priest endowed with learning and humility, an outcast, a cow, an elephant, and even a dog.” For one to assume they’re better than someone else based on their physical encasing (the body) is contradictory to viewing all beings as atma, which clearly has no gender. The eternal soul carries on to the afterlife  – not the physical body. This idea is again reinforced where it’s stated that any devotee regardless of gender or status in society can reach God’s abode so long as they have sincere devotion and obey Vedic laws (Gita 8:13, 8:22, 9:3, 10:10).

Today women all over the world are mistreated, abused, denied education, and forced into submission. Unfortunately  there are misinformed people (both pro- and anti-women) who believe that organized religion supports misogyny. The reality is that religions such as Hinduism preach respect for women. In order to combat men who use religion to justify their superiority complex and backward attitudes, scriptural law needs to be looked at more closely.

Education and property rights

Pakistani Hindu lighting diyas for Diwali
Pakistani Hindu lighting diyas for Diwali

Hinduism encourages study and the pursuit of knowledge  – the Gita refers to this as jnana yoga. In the Vedic Age women were encouraged to be well versed in scriptures and fully educated. Atharva Veda 11:5:18 proclaims that daughters should be scholars. Mahanirvana Tantra 8:47 commands parents to raise their daughters with affection and to ensure they receive an education.

Both scriptural and archaeological evidence exist that girls and women were educated in Vedic schools with the same learning privileges given to boys and men. Likewise women were granted property rights with Rig Veda 3:31:1 affirming that privileges are equal between son and daughter when inheriting land from their parents.

Marriage rights

Marriage is considered more than a symbolic union between two people – it’s an enjoining of two souls.  A common critique of gender relations in Hindu texts are verses where wives are told to treat their husbands like God. But this is only half of what’s written. If one reads the sastras in their entirety they’ll discover that the husband is also commanded to treat his wife as Goddess! Vishnu Purana states “Where Vishnu is knowledge, Lakshmi is intelligence.” In Hindu doctrine the most High cannot exist without both female and male aspects in equal balance. And in the human realm, for a man to destroy, diminish, or subjugate woman is considered blasphemous. Among Vaishnava sects chanting or singing the names of the Vishnu’s forms must be done with the woman’s name first: Sita-Ram, Radha-Krishna, etc.

There is also an incorrect belief that a Hindu man has full power to pick and choose his wife while a Hindu woman has no say. Simply reading Hindu texts disproves this. In the Ramayana, princes from all over South Asia had to travel to a small kingdom to compete for the hand of princess Sita. In the Mahabharata a similar competition among men took place to win the heart of Draupadi. Rather than the man having full authority in deciding his marriage, he had to prove his worthiness to his potential spouse. The Mahabharata also contains multiple stories of women choosing their husband, even sometimes upsetting their fathers and other male relatives.

celebrating Teej in Nepal

Marriages where women are forced to marry against their will are referred to as asuric (asuras are demons  in hell).  Hinduism has no law on dowry and women who are married off in exchange for wealth are also categorized as asuric marriages. Marriages formed through kidnapping or use of force is classified as rakshasha (rakshashas are those who oppose Vedic culture). Scriptures state in plain language that a dharmic marriage is one based on mutual respect sanctioned by the heavens (gandharva). A union based on subjugation, greed, or force is endorsed by beings with demonic qualities.

A controversial episode takes place in the Ramayana where King Rama banishes his pregnant wife Sita after his subjects accuse Sita of cheating on Rama. Both misogynists and women’s rights proponents  regularly cite this story to endorsing sexism. But during Sita’s exile Rama refused to remarry saying “I have abandoned the woman you do not want as your queen, but I will forever remain faithful to the woman who is my wife.” Tragically, the story closes with Sita ending her life and Rama being filled with intense grief.  The lesson taught here is  not that husbands are allowed to mistreat their wives but rather they should give them the utmost respect regardless of opinions of others.  Had Rama supported spousal abuse or the idea of women being inferior he wouldn’t have felt any guilt, loneliness, or anguish upon Sita’s death. In fact, Rama is described as crying uncontrollably after her passing and grieving into old age.

Another controversial subject is that of widowhood and the act of sati (forcing a wife to walk into the cremation fire of her deceased husband). Like other religions Hinduism considers suicide a sin.  Sati is not described or supported in any text and is a relatively new and unethical practice. Just the opposite, Rig Veda 10:18:8-9 tells women to rise up if their husband is deceased and to charge on with their lives.

praying for communal harmony in India

Those who attempt to link sati to Hinduism usually reference two stories. One account is of a woman named Sati who killed herself because her father didn’t support her marriage to Shiva. Sati was not a widow as Shiva was alive  when she took her life. Thinking that this is about a woman being forced to burn because of a dead spouse is inaccurate. The second story mentioned earlier was where Sita asks the Earth to swallow her up because Rama rejected her. Rama was not deceased and Sita had two children – how this is connected to a widow dying for her departed husband doesn’t make quite make sense. In addition the Ramayana tells of Rama’s father who died – yet Rama’s mother decided to carry on living. Later in the Ramayana, a king by name of Vali is killed and his grieving wife Tara declares that she prefers death over widowhood. Rama and Hanuman intervene and convince Tara not to commit suicide. Likewise in the Mahabharata, Krishna intervenes to prevent Uttara, the grieving wife of deceased soldier Abhimanyu, not take her own life. And Kunti, the widowed mother of the Pandavas, stayed alive after her husband’s death and played an active matriarchal role in advising her sons. Rig Veda 10:40:8  asks for widows and worshipers to be protected daily which contradicts the belief that Hinduism calls for widows to be shunned and mistreated.

Another narrative from the Mahabharata is the story of Savitri, a woman who chose her own husband only to have him die shortly after because of a curse placed on him. Because of Savitri’s wisdom and deep philosophical knowledge she was able to debate and convince Yama, the lord of Death to bring her husband back to life. The legend of Savitri is complete reversal of the traditional knight in shining armor rescuing the damsel in distress. Rather it’s  about a woman well versed in dharma saving her husband’s soul from the clutches of death and outsmarting the power of a curse.

Violence against women

The highest ideal and duty preached in Hinduism is ahimsa or non-violence towards all beings. This doesn’t mean blind pacifism in the face of danger. It simply means that violence should only be used as a last resort (ie. in self defense against another violent attacker). This concept is repeated in the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, the Upanisads, and numerous other texts. Anyone claiming that the Hindu tradition supports violence towards women is challenging the divine laws on ahimsa.

Coming soon!
Part 2: Hindu women as priests, yoginis, saints, and warriors

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Tsukina says:

    So, then, are there not also places in the vedas and shastras that support the idea that woman is a lesser creature? Certainly one pops to my mind from the Gita on the degradation of religion involving women becoming loose and caste admixture occuring, and Sri Krishna doesn’t tell Arjuna he’s barking up the wrong tree…. It would be handy to see some of the places in scripture that are used or abused and a better interpretation, as well as admission of the places that are difficult. As it is, I find this article so one-sided I feel I will find myself up against someone who has his/her ideas all set and be unprepared. That said, I love the beginning you’ve set here!

  2. KB says:

    Tsukina, the majority of scriptures discriminate against one person or another, in one way, shape or form. But every religion holds an element of truth – certainly not in any of the discriminatory things they say, but when scriptures speak about unity amongst mankind etc. These are the messages that should hold a stronger weighting. If we spend so long focussing on the negatives of every religion then when do they see the positives? If you want to encourage good behaviour in someone, you show them positives, not accentuate the negatives.

    That been said, the comment about women in the Gita has been taken out of context. Read it – it states that women who are without husband may become victim of other, less righteous men, who may prey upon them and rape them, the result of which would be children who were procreated out of un-righteous means. It then goes on to explain that these women are looked down upon by society and so all sorts of negatives follow. It’s not an explicit degradation of women.

    There is no mention anywhere in the Gita about the mixing of castes – all castes are equal it’s been misinterpreted over the centuries by the greedy ‘knowledgeable’ ones who used it to their advantage. The initial Caste System (Varna system) was never meant to be discriminatory.

    Thanks for sharing comments and your insight – by the way, brillant article, enjoying the website, thank you so much!

  3. Tsukina says:

    KB, thanks!

    1. dharmadeen says:

      Hi Tsukina, I wanted to address your comments (sorry for the lateness).

      You are right in that this post was one sided. But please realize that most of the information supporting misogyny and communal violence is also one sided! This piece is merely trying to balance that out. The argument about one-sidedness could just easily be applied to those who try to make out religion to purely woman-hating – those people are also ignoring the verses and commandments that command men to respect women.

      As for the verses that degrade women, there are mistranslations, misinterpretations, and the genuine controversial verses are much less than the ones preaching respect. I don’t believe the written texts are exact replicas of what was originally told. Over time writers have interjected their own bias or their own chauvinism.

      For example, ahimsa/non-violence is clearly the highest ideal and we never see any of the men in the Mahabharata or Ramayana raise their hand against a woman. Yet in 1 Vedic text I’ve read I read a single sentence about a husband using a slap to keep his wife in place. Because of this one sentence should I discount the hundreds of verses commanding me to respect women? Do I follow the rules set by Krishna and other divine men and women or do I read that one single sentence written by a rishi and say here’s the proof that Hinduism is sexist? That one, single sentence by a priest should not discount an entire elaborate system of Hindu dharma, and unfortunately both misogynists and their opponents tend to only focus on those types of verses.

      Thanks for your comments, they’re appreciated!

  4. Dr. O. P. Sudrania says:

    It is a great post with a noble cause. I must admit that I have certainly enriched myself. Knowledge has no age and no boundaries. If I may, I would like to share my few broken ideas about “Sati Pratha (tradition)”. Before the period of Islamic crusaders, there is no mention of “Sati” system in Indian society.

    Now let us briefly count on points one by one. Why Saati at all? The reason lies again in the highest ideals that were created for both males and females. While we are on the issue of Sita and Rama. We must not leave the character of Lakshman too. This story in brief gives a millions of messages. But only to a person thirsty of the nectar.

    Sita was kidnapped by Ravana and kept in his mighty captivity. Ram went from door to door like a madman. Should we say that he was mad? He could have married another woman easily as per our current way of thinking and so called modern life style. But he chose to live a celibate life and did not rest till he found her out. I do not know, “What standard of marks will you all give to Ram for his highest ideal, sacrifice and loving respect for “a woman”. He treated her like “The Woman”.

    I shall be doing injustice to another ideal of “Ravana” too. We have demonised him but he also deserves credit for his character. He never touched Sita against her will. Although nothing prevented him to do so. Such were the ideals practiced even by the demonic tyrants in the olden days. Can we find a match?

    Then again Lakshman had no reason to accompany Ram, leaving his young wife alone at home. Both lived a life of celibate. Lakshman was so respectful to Sita that once when Ram asked to go in search of Sita, he merely confessed his inability to recognise her face because he never looked up at her face with divine respect. He always kept his head bowed down looking at her feet. Again when Lakshman was going with Ram and Sita, Lakshman’s wife never grieved or restrained her husband. She quietly acquiesced and again lived alone in the palace living a celibate life.

    This was the highest ideal that a Hindu marriage bestowed on both and I stress both partners that they lived for each other and will die for each other; but not let touch anybody else their physical body for carnal pleasures.

    Now having glimpsed a little in the ideals set for both husband and wife, the cause and need for Sati and what started it? Unfortunately Indian history is the most sparely written and recently it has been variously written by scholars with their own vested motives. The reason for sparse writings is that the ancient Indians did not prefer self praise and aggrandisement. It has deep spiritual meaning and tradition, difficult to understand for a wayfarer in a trice.

    I challenge anyone to name an autobiography of a Sage or Seer or a great elite Indian except for one stark exception of Sri Paramhansa Yoganand – “An Autobiography of a Yogi”. With its exception, it is a celebrated book and forms a textbook in about forty Western Universities in Philosophy. It is a unique book, worth a read for those interested in Spirituality. The life of a Sage or a monk is always prgmatic. They are the pillars of Vedic education cum culture which the modern society today knows as “Hinduism”.

    Now with such a high ideal of a married life, when the Muslim crusaders came to India, they (Hindus) were caught in a surprise because of the just opposite set of beliefs that are evident to anyone who has tried to study the lives of a Hindu and a Muslim. Of course they (Muslims) hate Kafirs and more so the Hindus for various reasons.

    We will not distract but suffice to say that the Muslim crusaders after they plundered the host, they used the rapes and kidnappings of young women and girls and kill the male folks. It was this period that saw the origin of Sati system, first starting with the warior class of “Rajputs” in Rajsthan and other places sporadically.

    Once started, the system gets celebrated and percolates in others as well. Reason lies in the old highest ideals of the life. In stead of being maltreated by a rapist and a plunderer, it was considered sacrosant to die with that soul whom they pledged their lives till “death”.

    Unfortunately it became a system solemnised over the years becoming a convention.
    When the British arrived first with their aim of conducting business and slowly evolving into a colonial monarchy, they exploited these weaknesses of both Hindus and Muslims to incite hatred and show off the societies to demoralise them as much as they can.Divide and rule is an old tradition employed by all rulers.

    History is testimony to all these facts. They touted people like Raja Ram Mohan Roy as orientalist English loyalists, Max Muller was heavily funded to write his multitudes of volumes on Indian scriptures only to distort the meaning and mislead the captive colonials via the Asiatic Society and it was ingrained deeply in the minds of our Macaulayites.

    If a lie is spoken authoritatively and loudly through the class rooms in a young age, it leaves an indelible lasting effect.

    British proped up Raja Ram Mohan Roy against “Sati Pratha” only to humiliate the Hindus. Idea was not to abolish it but dramatise it to demean the Hindus by crying foul about their “So Called Burning a Bride” without actual respect to its highest tradition. This was the reason to create the Brhmo Somaj of Raja Ram Mohan Roy as a separate sect of group to prop up against the mainstream Hindu Society as a ploy to divide and rule.

    Unfortunately the Indian orientalist loyalists of British Raj did the greatest damage. British shrewd as they were/are, fried the fish in its own oil. Second was the teenage marriages and widowdom. Teenage marriage is a different cause and will not divert from the issue in sight.

    I shall take up the widowhood chapter. Again it relates to the same old highest ideals of womanhood. But they were expected to live a life of a celibate. Unfortunately, as the society became more male dominated one, the woman did suffer ignominy in isolation as opposed to males. I certainly would agree that in the light of modernity, both these issues needed to be sincerely looked into. But was there an element of sincerity? I may be tricked into it to believe but doubts are serious.

    India has liberated itself from the yoke physically but not mentally as I percieve it. One may find oneself in a quandary with the present state of the “State” in present day India. Whom shall I blame is a difficult chapter with
    the bitter lessons of the history thrust upon us by our own stalwarts, who pretended more English than the real English themselves. They are variously known by humourous eponyms. But we still live where we were left by August 1947.
    This is my view, nothing personal.

    I am neither a historian nor a Sanskrit scholar. Hence I must be excused for my simple narrative style of certain historical facts as I have known through my studies and sojourns.

    God bless

  5. Aysha says:

    This essay really cleared up a lot of misconceptions for me. Thanks!

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