Women in the Vedas and the Puranas:
Empowered or Not?
Reader in Sanskrit
SRR & CVR Govt. College
There has been a divided opinion regarding the position of women in the Vedic and Puranic ages. According to many scholars the Vedas accord a position of importance to women. There was considerable freedom enjoyed by them in matters of marriage, education etc. William Durant sums up the position of the Vedic woman thus: "Women enjoyed far greater freedom in the Vedic period than in later India. She had more to say in the choice of her mate than the forms of marriage might suggest. She appeared freely at feasts and dances, and joined with men in religious sacrifice. She could study, and like Gargi, engage in philosophical disputation. If she was left a widow there were no restrictions upon her remarriage."1 Romesh C Dutt echoes the same opinion when he says:2
"Women were held in higher respect in India than in other ancient countries, and the Epics and old literature of India assign a higher position to them than the epics and literature of ancient Greece. Hindu women enjoyed some rights of property from the Vedic Age, took a share in social and religious rites, and were sometimes distinguished by their learning. The absolute seclusion of women in India was unknown in ancient times." Even the Puranas also do not look down on women. Whereas the Devi Purana eulogises the Shakti aspect of women, the Brahmavaivarta Purana makes Radha the Conscious Magnetic Force of Krishna. But there are other scholars such as Wheeler3, Prof. Indra4 etc., who opine that the Vedic woman was a slave, and the evils such as wife burning, child marriages, purdah system etc. had their seeds in the Vedic literature only. But when the texts are studied not partly, but in whole, one must accept that at least the early Vedic women enjoyed a position of dignity, honour and importance. However, we must note that giving importance to women is not tantamount to empowering them. Figure head importance or passive importance is not what is required. Empowerment in its real sense refers to the decision making power. This paper aims to study in brief the Vedic and Purana sources from this perspective. अथ य इ्च्छेद्दुहिता मे पण्डिता जायेत...5 “And if a man wishes that a learned daughter should be born to him, and that she should live to her full age, then, after having prepared boiled rice with sesamum and butter, they should both eat, being fit to have offspring.” This is a mantra from the Brihadaranyakopanishat advising the procedure to beget a learned daughter. Well, in a society if a need was felt to compose a mantra for begetting a daughter, what should we think of such a society? As one which looked down on women or on the other hand as one which recognised the importance of women, and hence did not discriminate against them? The Grihya sutras ordain education for women as otherwise they can not perform fire sacrifices6. Panini distinguishes between a teacher’s wife and a lady teacher while giving the sutras for acharya and acharyani, and upadyaya and upadhyayani. This reveals that there were women who took teaching as a profession. Similarly the words kathi etc. denote that women had no restriction in studying the Veda. Women wore the sacred thread and performed rituals. Gargi, the famous composer of Vedic hymns was considered a brahmavadini as she requested for the highest spiritual knowledge from her husband in stead of material wealth7. All these point to the freedom and independent decision making power enjoyed by the Vedic women. When we turn to the Puranas for such evidence we find in the story of Savitri, the freedom given to her by her father in choosing her husband. And when Narada says that Satyavan will die within a year, Savitri doesn’t change her mind. And her father accepts her decision. And we know that it was Sita’s decision to follow Rama to the forests. And Rama could not do any thing to change her mind,...
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