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
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 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.
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.
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.
Part 2: Hindu women as priests, yoginis, saints, and warriors