The word ‘Satyashrama‘ is a conjunction of two words: ‘Satya‘ and ‘Ashrama‘ (refuge). Hence, Satyashrama means refuge in Truth. It could also be ‘Satya‘ and ‘Shrama‘ (Toil) which makes ‘Satyashrama‘ the work done (or more broadly existence) in Truth. This is a name I originally gave to an idea and a poem I wrote. This poem talks about a lot of ideas: about how there is a certain unity in the Universe, most of Creation is nothingness and Sat Chit Ananda (Truth Consciousness Joy) is the nature of divinity that ties into the idea of Satyashrama. This expansive term (registered to my name) and idea is a way to put forward my explorations in, and expositions on, life, philosophy, science and spirituality, often from a Vedic point of view.
Women in Sanatan Dharma
The recent case of the rape and murder of an eight year old girl called Asifa in Jammu and Kashmir (India) was horrifying and extremely unsettling. What made it worse was that this had been carried out in a Hindu temple! People may like to start seeing things along religious lines in India and I read recently that there has been an increase in Hindu-Muslim tensions across the state and country due to this. However, Hinduism (or Sanatan Dharma, as it is called) is extremely vocal about its positions on respect for women.
One of the texts that is often vilified by certain sections of people for being too archaic and ‘narrow-minded’ – the Manusmriti has a beautiful sloka (verse) that elucidates the Vedic position on women in society. For those who have not heard of Manusmriti, it is a text that emerged after the Vedic times and just before or around the Puranic times in Indian history, and is a book of conduct of individuals in society. The verses in Sanskrit are
यत्र नार्यस् तु पूज्यन्ते रमन्ते तत्र देवताः।
यत्र एतास् तु न पूज्यन्ते सर्वास् तत्र अफलाः क्रियाः ॥
which translates roughly as
“Wherever women are given their due respect, even the deities like to reside, and where they are not respected, all action remains unfruitful.”
Whatever be the other debates about Manusmriti, this is a verse that I came across which perfectly shows how disparate are the thoughts in Hindu texts as they were put forward ages back and the things carried out by some Hindus today and in the medieval ages. This is especially so given more subtle ways in which gender inequality came about in medieval and contemporary Hindu societies, be it the practise of self-immolation by a woman after her husband’s death (in a practise called Sati), dowry or even the expected roles of women in society. I looked into some of the other aspects where the ancient redactions of texts pertaining to Sanatan Dharma are extremely liberal to say the least.
In a similar way that would foretell the future if women are no longer honored, we have a section in the famous Indian epic – the Mahabharata where the patriarch of the Kuru clan – Bhishma explains to the next-in-line-to-the-throne: “O ruler of the earth (Yuddhisthira) the lineage in which daughters and the daughters-in-law are saddened by ill treatment, that lineage is destroyed. When out of their grief these women curse these households, such households lose their charm, prosperity and happiness.” (Mahabharata, Anushashanparva, 12.14)
The Idea of Adishakti and other Goddesses
In Hindu philosophy, all of nature has its root cause in a feminine energy called Adishakti, in the universe. The feminine forms of the Absolute and the popular Hindu goddesses are believed to have taken shape in the Vedic era. These female forms came to represent different feminine qualities and energies of the one unity in godhead called Brahman. Goddess Kali portrays the destructive energy, Goddess Durga the protective, Goddess Lakshmi the nourishing, Goddess Saraswati the creative, and so on. I like to see them as different aspects of every woman that was glorified and even deified by Hindus in the times of yore.
It is notable that Sanatan Dharma recognizes both the masculine and feminine attributes of the Vedic Divine, and that without honoring the feminine aspects, one cannot claim to know God in his entirety. So we also have many famous male-female divine-duos like Radha-Krishna, Sita-Rama, Uma-Mahesh, and Lakshmi-Narayan, where the female form is usually addressed first!
Education of Women
Vedic literature praises the birth of a daughter with a call for nurturing her with as much care as a son would be, in these words: “A girl also should be brought up and educated with great effort and care” (Mahanirvana Tantra). Women, who so desired, could undergo the sacred thread ceremony or ‘Upanayana‘ (a sacrament to pursue Vedic studies), which is only meant for males these days! My question would be: where did we change so drastically in the intervening years between now and the Vedic age? I would presume it was because of external pressures and invasions besides a corruption of the Vedic society over the millennia after the Vedic texts were formulated. The mention of female scholars and sages of the Vedic age like Vac, Ambhrni, Romasa, Gargi, Khona in the Vedic lore corroborates the view that there were distinguished female Vedic scholars.
We are told that there were women rishis (sages) who revealed the Vedic knowledge to others. For example, the 126th hymn of the first book of the Rig-Veda was revealed by a Vedic woman whose name was Romasha; the 179 hymn of the same book was by Lopamudra, another inspired Vedic woman. There are a dozen names of women 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 Brahmavadinis, the speakers and revealers of Brahman. Some sources also mention that the ladies from the Kshatriya (warrior) caste received martial arts courses and arms training as well.
Some of the other sources of Vedic ideas on education for women include:
“Parents should gift their daughter intellectuality and power of knowledge when she leaves for husband’s home. They should give her a dowry of knowledge…When girls ignore external objects and develops foresight and vibrant attitude through power of knowledge, she becomes provider of wealths of skies and earth.” – Atharvaveda 14.1.6
“Oh woman! You are the keeper of knowledge of all types of actions (karma). O woman, you provide us wealth and prosperity.” – Atharvaveda 7.47.1
“Oh woman! You know everything. Please provide us strength of prosperity and wealth. O woman! You enhance our wealth and prosperity.” – Atharvaveda 7.47.2
“O men and women! A scholarly woman who has practiced or teaches one, two or four Vedas or four Vedas and four upavedas, along with grammar, etymology etc and spreads knowledge to whole world and removes ignorance of people is source of happiness for entire world. A woman who studies and teaches all parts of Vedas brings progress to all human beings” – Rig Veda 1.164.41
Wifehood, Marriage and Widowhood
This has been one area where Hindu women have had to go through a lot of problems in recent centuries. However, if one were to look at the original texts of Sanatan Dharma, we get a fairly different picture. In Vedic times, after marriage, a girl became a ‘grihini‘ (wife) and was considered ‘ardhangini‘ or one half of her the ‘being’ formed from the marriage or marriage. Both of them constituted the ‘griha‘ or home, and she was considered its ‘samrajni‘ (the one who administers an area, much like a queen or empress, to be exact) and had an equal share in the performance of religious rites that the family may need to be involved in.
A man could perform the Vedic religious sacrifices only if he had his wife by his side. According to Shrauta and Grihya Sutras, women chanted mantras along with their husbands while performing rituals. And, the housewife was expected to offer oblations in the household (grihya) fire unaided by the husband, normally in the evening and sometimes in the morning also. In the Srattararohana ritual of the Agrahayaga ceremony, the wife used to recite a number of Vedic hymns; and, the harvest sacrifices could be performed by women alone.
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 revolutionary was the view that ancient Vedic culture had with regards to the partnership of husband and wife.
Child marriage is not only unheard of but actually almost banned in the Rig Veda, where it says
“An unmarried learned daughter should be married to a bridegroom who like her is learned. Never think of giving in marriage a daughter of very young age” – Rig Veda 3.55.16
The very fact that it mentions that the groom should be as learned is refreshing to see and also shows that the women of the Vedic times were supposed to be given a certain level of education at the very least before marriage. Moreover, given certain ideas about what kind she of marriages are allowed and the way in which arranged marriages have become ever so accepted as the ‘right’ way of marrying, let me pop the bubble with the idea called ‘Gandharva Marriage‘.
According to Apastamba Grhyasutra, an ancient Hindu literature, Gandharva marriage is the method of marriage where the woman chooses her own husband. They meet each other of their own accord, consent to live together, and their relationship is consummated in copulation born of passion. This form of marriage did not require consent of parents or anyone else. According to Vedic texts, this is one of earliest and most common forms of marriage in Rig Vedic times. Usually, in most such anecdotes, the (prospective) bride and the groom used to come across each other in their ordinary village life, or in various other places such as regional festivals and fairs, and would begin to to enjoy each other’s company, and decide to be together. This free choice and mutual attraction were generally approved by their kinsmen. A passage in the Atharvaveda suggests that parents usually left the daughter free in selection of her lover and directly encouraged her in being forward in love-affairs. The mother of the girl thought of the time when the daughter’s developed youth (Pativedanam, post-puberty), that she would win a husband for herself, it was a smooth and happy sort of affair with nothing unnatural about this.
Simply put, the original Vedic texts were fine with love marriages!
Divorce and remarriage of women were allowed and heard-of in Vedic times. If a woman lost her husband, she was not forced to undergo the merciless practice that cropped up in later years in the form of self-immolation or sati. If she chose to, she could also live a life of a ‘sanyasin‘ or hermit, in seclusion, after her husband passed away.
Rig Veda and Atharvaveda expressly sanction widow remarriage:
“Go up, O woman, to the world of living; you stand by this one who is deceased; come! to him who grasps your hand, your second spouse (didhisu) ,you have now entered into the relation of wife to husband” – Rig Veda 10.18.8
“Let us launch a new life of valor and strength begetting male children overcoming all enemies who may assail us” – Rig Veda 10.18.9 (address by a new husband while taking a widow as his wife)
“O ye inviolable one ! (the widow) tread the path of wise in front of thee and choose this man (another suitor) as thy husband. Joyfully receive him and may the two of you mount the world of happiness” – Atharvaveda 18.3.4 (blessing on a widow to start a good life with her new husband)
During the post-Vedic period, woman lost the high status she once enjoyed in society. She lost some of her independence. She became a subject of protection.
Some of the other Vedic verses on marriage, wifehood and widowhood are:
“May this bride become the queen of the house of her husband and enlighten all.” – Atharvaveda 2.36.3
“Ensure that these women never weep out of sorrow. Keep them free from all diseases and give them ornaments and jewels to wear.” – Atharvaveda 12.2.31
“Hey bride! You shall bring bliss to all and direct our homes towards our purpose of living” – Atharvaveda 14.1.61 (directed potentially at a newly married woman)
“Hey wife! I am knowledgeable and you are also knowledgeable. If I am Samved then you are Rigved.” – Atharvaveda 14.2.71
“I am the emblem, I am the head, I am supreme and now I dictate; my husband must conform to my will; rivals now I have none.” – Rig Veda 10.159
The Rig Veda talks about the property of a father going equally to both his sons and daughters in the following verse:
“The right is equal in the fathers property for both son and daughter” – Rig Veda 3.31.1
It goes on to say, in Rig Veda 3.31.2, that if parents have both a son and a daughter, the son performs pindadaan (a ritual after the death of the father) and daughter be enriched with gifts. Married women inherited and shared properties. A Widow too was entitled to a share in the properties of the dead husband.
Government and Politics
Many people claim that the Hindu society is extremely patriarchal and one of the ways that is evident is in the manner in which most rulers and administrators over the centuries have all been male. Yes, but that is in the medieval and post-Vedic-age times. What if I were to tell you that the Vedas had extremely different views on this matter? Surprised? Well, here you are
“There are equal rights for men and women to get appointed as ruler.” – Yajurveda 20.9
Yajurveda does not stop there. It goes on to talk of an ‘army of women’ and having them participate in wars! Tell me how many modern nations even have acted on such an idea? So extraordinary for such an ancient society!
“There should me a women army. Let the women be encouraged to participate in war.” – Yajurveda 16.44
These various points should show you how the ancient Vedic system and society was a lot more liberal and beautiful than what it possibly became later on due to a number of factors. If being Hindu or a follower of Sanatan Dharma means following the revealed words of Brahman, the Vedic godhead, then we have to evolve in a way that safekeeps the progressive ideas in the Vedas along with changing with the times as and when required. After all, false interpretations and too much rigidity on certain points historically led to a weakening of the Vedic society and structure. We need to remember that many of the points mentioned here shows an extremely forward-thinking and progressive society for a civilisation that thrived around 4000 years back!
I hope my readers can learn a bit more about this progressive tradition and heritage from this exposition that I have presented on the topic, and see what being ‘Hindu’ truly means, given the references from the original Hindu texts – the Vedas.