Did Women Study the Veda in Ancient Times?

Gopis / Vrindavan Research InstituteQuestion: We sometimes address the question of why women were categorically included amongst those who can’t study the Veda. This question accepts a basic supposition that women indeed were not permitted to study the Veda. However, I have strong doubts that this supposition is correct. Indeed, what to speak of studying the Veda, there are many women who write the Veda (in the sense of being the speaker of certain hymns and mantras in the Samhitās and Upaniṣads). For example, the book, Women Seers of the Ṛg Veda (by Mau Das Gupta) describes Romaśā, Lopāmudrā, Aditi, Viśvavārā, Śaśvati, Apālā, Sikatā and Nīvāvarī, Yamī, and at least a dozen other women acting in this capacity.

There are also references in Atharva Veda that women received formal education equivalent to men. See also Samskara, Chapter VII, History of Dharmasastras, Vol II, Part I, (by PV Kane) – especially pages 293-295; and The Evolution of Ideals of Womenhood in Indian Society (by Tripathi) – especially page 94.

Perhaps we can use the explanation you briefly mentioned in a class: “By the time Vyāsa wrote Mahābhārata, women had been unable or disallowed to study and understand the Veda.”

Perhaps we can use another explanation you mentioned in class: “We are not talking about birth into a class, but the practical qualities of a body.” I personally agree with this (and the previous), but it may be hard for some to accept that being born into a female body does not automatically make one “strī.”

Answer:

  1. We do not need to be apologetic about the situation of women in Vedic culture, because Vedic culture no longer exists. Whatever happened, happened – good or bad. But if one does really want to know why it was the way it was, one must see it from its own subjective context, not from a modern subjective context, otherwise one will just see one’s own opinions, and not really see Vedic culture as it was. At present women can read anything, so there is no practical need to complain what may have happened in the past. Laws change with time in every society.
  1. I recently conducted had a six-month study course in Vrindavan. Some students found the conditions difficult, although I did not impose any strict discipline on anyone. People are accustomed to a comfortable life and have very little tolerance, yet they think that they can study the Vedas. Study of Vedas is not just “study.” It involves study of the six Vedāṅgas, such as Śikṣā, Vyākaraṇa, etc. which requires tremendous discipline and time. You can search on Youtube about training in Śikṣā to get an idea what a tough disciple one has to undergo. And this is just one of the Vedāṅgas. How many women or men are interested in that, even today? I doubt there are any. If women were not being allowed to study the Veda, why complain about that? Study of Vedāṅga was a tough job. People at present have no idea how much tapas one needs to do to study the Vedāṅga. Some women like Gargī etc were able to do it, but the majority were not. The rule was there out of compassion, not discrimination, to not put women through this ordeal. It did not apply only to women. According to SB verse 1.4.25 even dvija-bandhus were ruled out.
  1. The purpose of life is not to study the Vedas but to know the message they give, and that message is available to all through the Purāṇas, especially Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. So there is no need to trouble oneself to study the Vedas. In fact the meaning of Veda cannot be understood without study of the Purāṇas. Better therefore to study the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, which is not strenuous, and no one is banned or discouraged from it.

Question: Thank you. I appreciate that you say the past is the past but the present is more important. Still, I want to develop śāstriya śraddha [śāstra-based faith], so understanding the culture that was based on that śāstra is important, because if that culture was bad, how can I have śraddha in the śāstra that produced it?

Answer: As I said, to evaluate if it was good or bad is not simple, because to do that you will have to see it from its own point of view, in the context of its own purposes. The materialistic followers of Cārvāka say it was bad. Many modern scholars and lay people also say it was bad. But do any of them really understand the Vedic culture in its own context? I don’t think so.

Question: What I would like to know is, what was it, really? People say women were banned from studying the Veda, but since there are about 20 women acting as ṛṣikā in the Veda, and since the Veda describes girls doing brahmacārya and going to Gurukula, I have to ask if it is really true that women were in fact always banned from studying the Śruti.

Answer: Earlier, women also studied the Vedas just like men. There was co-education. There is a verse from Hārīta and Yama smṛtis that says that women once went to gurukula, studied Vedas and chanted Gāyatrī-mantra:

purā-kalpe tu nārīṇāṁ mauñji-bandhanamīṣyate / adhyāpanaṁ ca vedānām sāvitrī-vacanaṁ tathā.

At some point, something happened and things changed. The story of Indra giving 1/4th of the Brahma-hatya to women hints at some historical facts that changed the co-education system. Laws change with time. Women not being allowed to study is not an eternal principle, or siddhānta. It is a law which was made under certain conditions. Before that law was instituted, women studied just like men.

Marriage is another example of things changing. Earlier, there was no marriage. Men and women lived together freely. Later, marriage was instituted. Now, it is again changing. Similarly, first there was co-education. Then it changed. Now it is changing back. Women can study the Vedas if they like, they are not banned. Law changes. It is not the destination itself, but only a facility to reach the destination. Therefore it can change as circumstances demand.

Indian history is very old – not just a few thousand years. Many of the ancient lifestyles and laws are not known to us because Indians did not make much effort to record common historical facts. Their interest was how to achieve enlightenment. Moreover, it is not a very practical thing to keep a record of history which runs into millions of years. So, we do not know much about how life was before Vyāsa wrote the Purāṇas and Itihāsa, but we get some glimpses here and there from the stories found in them.

Indian woman lying down

 

Comments ( 13 )
  1. Recently I was reading The Yoga of the Bhagavad Gita by Sri Krishna Prem who said in a footnote that Vyasadeva could foresee women and shudras growing spiritually in kaliyuga on the path of devotion because of their natural quality of caring for and serving others. I’m assuming you know who Sri Krishna Prem was. He was the first westerner to have become a vaishnava. He left his body in kartik month in 1965.

  2. Stoka Krsna Das

    Thanks Babaji for such nice replies.
    I still find it a little difficult to understand that the Vedic Culture which has given us exquisite gems in the form of various Sastras could have a different attitude/approach towards the fairer sex. Some people use these very Sastras to justify their discriminating approach by quoting Bhagavad Gita 9.32, putting Striyas as papa yonah or quoting Ramayana ” Dhol Ganvar Shudra Pashu Naari, sakal tadna ke adhikari”.
    However your answer brings forth equal rights in regard to receiving education and whatever restrictions seemingly were there, were from an angle of compassion rather than discrimination.
    Would it be possible for you to explain Gita 9.32 and Ramayana Chaupai in a similar perspective of compassion rather than discrimination.

    • Babaji Post author

      In this verse (Gītā 9.32), the word pāpa-yonayaḥ, or those of sinful birth, can be either taken as a noun by itself or as a modifier of women, vaiśyas and śūdras. If we take it as a modifier, then naturally it seems to downgrade women, but the verse itself does not necessarily mean that. If it is taken as an independent class of people, such as outcaste (like dog-eaters, which are often mentioned in śāstra), then there is no downgrading of women.

      It should also be considered that this verse is spoken in the context of the varṇāśrama system, which was prevalent when the Gīta was spoken. In this system, a brāhmaṇa was considered pious because of his dedication to the study of the Vedas and due to leading a life of austerity and contentment. Only a brāhmaṇa was considered eligible to enter the fourth stage of life, called sannyāsa, and become qualified for liberation, mokṣa. Women, merchants, farmers, and the labor class were barred from taking to the life of sannyāsa. They would attain a more evolved status in their next life and be born as brāhmaṇas ultimately. Hence, these births were considered as inferior only from the relativistic and hence limited point of view that adjudged such births as an impediment to liberation in this very life. Sinful birth refers to birth in a family that lives by committing violence, such as fishing or butchering.

      So even if you think that vaiśyas, women, etc are of lower birth, once a person becomes a devotee, then the stigma based on birth is nullified. In fact, one becomes even more honourable than a non-devotee brāhmaṇa. So the intention of Krishna is not to explain who has higher or lower birth, but that irrespective of that, one who takes to devotion can attain the highest goal.

      As for the Rāmāyaṇa Chaupai, I need to see the context in which it is spoken, but in general, I can say that the word tāḍana (beating) does not mean that you have to beat a woman, but it has a sense of regulation, which was applicable previously in India. In the varṇāśrama a system indeed women were regulated by men, either by the husband or the son. So certainly this verse is not applicable in the modern times and the meaning of tāḍana as beating was not applicable to a śūdra or nārī even in the past. A nārī could be a sister, a mother, a grandmother, or a wife, and you would certainly not expect to beat your mother or grandmother, and also not your sister. There are many statements in general which say that one should respect women. Manu Smṛti says that wherever women are happy, the gods are present there to give blessings. So we have to apply the meaning according to context and not just take a verse out of context and start misinterpreting.

  3. Hari

    Jaya Sri Radhe!

    Thank you babaji maharaja for the article.

    Can you kindly resolve my doubt regarding your statement mentioned in the article:

    “Earlier, there was no marriage. Men and women lived together freely. Later, marriage was instituted. Now, it is again changing. ”

    The above statement of yours refers to western culture context or Vedic context?

    If it was vedic context, Can you kindly provide the vedic times where marriage was absent, because vedas strictly forbid the sexual relationship (even subtle sexual feelings) b/w a man and a woman outside marriage?

    Examples will be very helpful

    • Vikram Ramsoondur

      The species has existed for a few hundred thousand years. Marriage as an institution dates back only a couple of thousand years. It is clear, therefore, that in the context of the presence of humankind on earth so far, marriage is very much a latecomer. Our ancestors, for tens of thousands of years, if not hundreds of thousands of years, did not marry. It would thus appear that the perspective is neither Western nor Vedic, but historical, as defined from a planetary standpoint.

    • Babaji Post author

      “Earlier, there was no marriage. Men and women lived together freely. Later, marriage was instituted. Now, it is again changing.”

      This statement refers to earlier Vedic Culture. There is a story In Mahabharata, Adi Parva, Sambhava Parva CXXII about the son of the sage, Uddalaka, Svetaketu, who established the institution of marriage:

      “One day, in the presence of Swetaketu’s father a Brahmana came and catching Swetaketu’s mother by the hand, told her, ‘Let us go.’ Beholding his mother seized by the hand and taken away apparently by force, the son was greatly moved by wrath. Seeing his son indignant, Uddalaka addressed him and said, ‘Be not angry. O son! This is the practice sanctioned by antiquity. The women of all orders in this world are free, O son; men in this matter, as regards their respective orders, act as kine.’ The Rishi’s son, Swetaketu, however, disapproved of the usage and established in the world the present practice as regards men and women. It hath been heard by us, O thou of great virtue, that the existing practice dates from that period among human beings but not among beings of other classes. Accordingly, since the establishment of the present usage, it is sinful for women not to adhere to their husbands. Women transgressing the limits assigned by the Rishi became guilty of slaying the embryo. And, men, too, viol ting a chaste and loving wife who hath from her maidenhood observed the vow of purity, became guilty of the same sin. The woman also who, being commanded by her husband to raise offspring, refuses to do his bidding, becometh equally sinful.”

  4. Vāyu.

    1. Since there are different points of view among vaidika authorities (generally males), is it possible to be objective about the place of women in ancient communities—according its own subjective contexts—and about its necessary aggiornamento? Which of the vaiṣṇava sampradāyas or gauḍīya parivāras could be more objective about this issue?

    2. How long will the women carry that quarter of brahma-hatyām-aghaṁ as a kind of stigma? While living within a vaiṣṇava community and studying the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, should that rajas be considered a shameful mark or rather a mysterious blessing?

  5. Hari

    Thank you very much babaji maharaja

  6. Stoka Krsna Das

    Thanks Babaji Maharaj for nice explanations of Gita 9.32.
    Also you have very rightly brought out Tadana as a sense of regulation rather than beating, because I tried looking for the context of that Chaupai. So this is being said by Samandur(Sea) personified to Sri Rama when He is going to dry it up after meditating there for a few days and not getting the way through to Lanka. Regulation in a sense is also receiving instructions, so the Samandur is presenting himself as being insignificant and seeking instructions and puts forth this Chaupai because a drum when nicely regulated by the strings gives a better output and likewise a ganvar, a helper or a lady. If left to themselves, I wonder if they can make their best contribution. And I think similar should be the case for a disciple.
    DANDVAT PRANAMS unto YOU.

  7. scooty ram

    Women study of purana could also be a controversial topic. How do we understand 1.19.29 verse in Srimad Bhagavatam.

    • Malatimanjari Post author

      Dear Scooty, this verse says: “tato nivṛttā hy abudhāḥ striyo ‘rbhakā.” This does not mean that all women are ignorant, only those who were following Śukadeva around. Moreover, the verse is only describing this specific story and is not commenting on women’s intelligence in general.

    • scooty ram

      Thank you for the response.

      My question was not about women’s intelligence but about women being “present” during the time when Shukadeva spoke bhagavatam(historically speaking). Obviously we would not expect women to “SIT” in a place surrounded by kings/rajarishis/rishis. Even today we see women standing up moment a male comes home. So I really wonder if women were present in that scene.It appears they left the place.

      Another point is the eligibility of anybody to pick and read bhagavatam or any purana.There are differences in eligibility based on roles – speaker, listener, reciter of purana.In my understanding SB 4.23.32 points to this. Also Caitanya mata manujsa to SB 12.12.65 elaborates on this point as follows : vipro.adhItyety-Adi | shUdro.adhItya pAtakAt shudhyeta | idaM bhAgavataM nAma purANaM brahma-sammitam [bhA.pu. 1.3.40] iti bhAgavatasya brahma-sammitatvAt kathaM tac-chUdro.adhyeta ? satyam | bhaktish cec chUdra-yoShitAm ity uktatvAd bhakta-shUdrasyaAdhyaynAdhikAro boddhavyaH | shUdro.adhItyeti pR^ithag-dhyeteti-pada-prayogAt shrutveti nArthAntaraM kAryam | etenaivAsmin shrI-bhAgavate shUdra-kartR^ikAdhyayana-sambhAvanA

      Dasan

    • Babaji Post author

      “So I really wonder if women were present in that scene.It appears they left the place.”
      They left the place on their own will. They were not chased out or forbidden to listen.

      Where have you seen women standing up? I have not seen it anywhere, even in South India. I lived in Tirupati for four years and traveled to many places in Andhra, Tamilnadu and Karnataka.

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