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Women and Veda


The very birth of a brAhmaNa is seen by manu as for the sake of fulfillment of the sacred law:

utpattireva viprasya mUrtirdharmasya shAshvatI |
sa hi dharmArthamutpanno brahmabhUyAya kalpate ||

And the brAhmaNa is expected to grasp this all-important dharma from the following sources:

AchAraH paramo dharmaH shrutyuktaH smArta eva cha |
tasmAdasmin sadA yuktaH nityaM syAdAtmavAn dvijaH ||

a. The revealed scriptures or shruti
b. The sacred traditions based on revelation or smR^iti

Every practice, especially that related to religious living, should be in confirmation with these scriptures.

In the current days, women can be seen variously discussing shruti and studying them. The class of women which studies shruti for understanding history or for other such mundane pursuits is of no real interest to us. The case of the other category which professes faith in these scriptures deserves some attention.

There are clear injunctions in various smR^itis and purANas that prohibit women from learning the veda. The most famous of these that is quoted by most AchAryas comes from bhagavAn bAdarAyaNa:

strIshUdradvijabandhUnAM tray Ina shrutigocharA |
karmashreyasi mUDhAnAM shreya evaM bhavediha |
iti bhAratamAkhyAnaM kR^ipayA muninA kR^itam ||

So what is the basis for women to study shruti, and thus quote them or discuss them?

The first argument from this class is to quote some Vedic women seers such as lopAmudrA, vAk, shraddhA, yamI etc. Again, as we are talking of brahmavAdinis here, it should be noted that brahmacharya and vedAdhyana have been prescribed as strict prerequisites for attaining brahmavidyA:

kriyAvantaH shrotriyA brahmaniSThAH
svayaM juhvata ekarShiM shraddhayantaH |
teShAmevaitAM brahmavidyAM vadeta
shirovrataM vidhivat yaistu chIrNam || [muNDakopaniShad]

Without upanayana and brahmacharyAshrama, vedAdhyana cannot be possible. The need for brahmacharyAshrama has been stated variously:

sa ha dvAdashavarSha upetya chaturviMshativarShaH sarvAn vedAnadhItya mahAmanA anUchAnamAnI stabdha eyAya ta/ha pitovacha | [ChAndogyopaniShad]

One next needs to carefully examine if the phenomenon of brahmavAdinis and women vedic seers automatically implies the possibility of brahmacharyAshrama for women.

Harita smR^iti discusses two categories of women:

1. brahmavAdinI: She is the true brahmachAriNI who can undergo upanayana and agni homa, study the scriptures and live on bhikShA.
2. sadyo vadhu: Undergo upanayana but enter matrimony early on without the study of scriptures.

While venerable commentators point out various technicalities in accepting this pramANa, there is no room for doubt regarding the need for upanayana samskAra if a woman needs to study shruti, if at all such an adhikAra is accepted.

One can find a clear reference to a brahmachAriNI in the gR^ihya sUtra when AshvalAyana talks about the samAvartana samskAra:

ashmanastejo.asi shrotraM me pAhIti maNikuNDale AbadhnIta anulepena pANI pralipya mukhamagre brAhmaNo.anulimpet | bAhU rAjanyaH | agre.anulimpet | udaraM vaishyaH | pUrvavat | upasthaM strI | tadvat ||

Kalidasa’s description of bhagavatI parvatI performing agnihotra can be somewhat accepted as reflecting the society in those days:

kR^itAbhiShekAM hutajAtavedasaM tvaguttarAsa~NgavatIM adhItinIm || [kumArasambhava]

sItA is described as performed sandhyA in rAmAyaNa:

sandhyAkAlamanAH shyAmA dhruvameShyati jAnakI |
nadIM chemAM shubhajalAM sandhyArthaM varavarNinI ||

It is a lengthy topic if one comes to discuss the reasons why upanayana ceremony was dropped for women gradually and marriage was declared as a substitute for this samkAra. Manu categorically describes vivAha as upanayana for women, patisevA as gurukulavAsa and gR^ihakR^itya as agnihotra. We also find a mention of the daughter of garga in bhArata who does not attain mokSha in spite of her austerities and is reprimanded by nArada for forsaking strIdharma and staying unmarried. She then weds a sage for the sake of fulfillment even after the attainment of old age. This however is definitely not a new concept but simply represents one school that has always existed.

To conclude, even those who profess the woman’s right to study veda cannot disagree with the need for upanayana and the period of adhyayana. Even if one ignores temporarily the practical issues of rajo darshana and its multifarious impact on various facets of brahmacharya and adhayayana, one simple question still remains:

Do the nArImaNis zestfully reciting, quoting and discussing the veda have any adhikAra to do so without the required samskAra? We would certainly be interested in educating ourselves in this regard!