Are Women Duplicitous and Selfish According to Bhāgavatam? (Part 1)

According to Jīva Gosvāmī (in Tattva Sandarbha, Anuccheda 26.2), there are three ways to instruct: like a king, like a friend, or like a beloved. The Vedas instruct like a king, giving direct instructions. The Purāṇas teach like a friend by giving stories which have a moral. And books of Sāhitya (Indian literature) teach indirectly.

By Satyanarayana Dasa

According to Jīva Gosvāmī (in Tattva Sandarbha, Anuccheda 26.2), there are three ways to instruct: like a king, like a friend, or like a beloved. The Vedas instruct like a king, giving direct instructions. The Purāṇas teach like a friend by giving stories which have a moral. And books of Sāhitya (Indian literature) teach indirectly. This is described as “like a lover” because traditionally, a girlfriend or wife, who used to have reverence for her beloved, did not consider it appropriate to give direct instructions. Instead she would speak with indirect innuendo or in an implied manner. Śrīmad Bhāgavatam uses all three techniques.

Criticism of Diti by Kaśyapa

Here is an example pertinent to the topic of Bhāgavatam’s view of women in general. Kaśyapa, a great sage, a grandson of Brahmā, and a venerable progenitor (prajāpati) says:

   śarat-padmotsavaṁ vaktraṁ vacaś ca śravaṇāmṛtam
hṛdayaṁ kṣura-dhārābhaṁ strīṇāṁ ko veda ceṣṭitam
   na hi kaścit priyaḥ strīṇām añjasā svāśiṣātmanām
patiṁ putraṁ bhrātaraṁ vā ghnanty arthe ghātayanti ca

“A woman’s face is as beautiful as a fully blossoming lotus flower in the autumn season and her words are sweet and soothing like ambrosia, but her heart is sharp like the edge of a knife. Who can understand the intentions of women? No one is really dear to them because their real interest is only to fulfill their own desires. For their own sake they might even kill or assassinate their own husbands, sons or brothers.” (SB 6.18.41-42)

Dancing Girl / Evita WorksAnyone, especially a woman, who reads these verses cannot but be baffled how a great sage can speak in such a denigrating manner about women as a class, and furthermore how Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, which is very dear to Vaiṣṇavas and is accepted as spotless literature, can have such a biased view towards half of humanity. Is all the glorification given to scriptures like Śrīmad Bhāgavatam hogwash? Are these scriptures written by male chauvinists who delight in deriding women? Do such scriptures intentionally oppress women and rob them of the equal status they duly deserve? Are these charges true, or is there some other mystery behind these statements that is not evident from a cursory reading?

Indeed, various similar statements can be found in many Purāṇas, and have become the subject of discussion for modern scholars, Indologists, “outcaste” Dalit thinkers, progressive feminists, etc. Hundreds of books focus on verses like these, criticizing not only the scriptures, but Vedic culture as a whole. I do not deny that women are and have been suppressed and mistreated in Hindu society, but the scriptures are not at fault. The true cause of such mistreatment is ignorance of the true meaning of scriptures. Please consider that mistreatment of women (and other groups) exists in every religion, and among secular societies as well. Therefore, human nature, not scripture, is at the root of the problem — for human nature impels those in power to exploit the weak.

In most cases, verses like this are not an absolute statement and thus cannot be giving as a general principle. They apply to a specific situation and must be studied in the context in which they have been spoken. Otherwise great injustice is done to scripture. One has to consider the speaker of the verse, the circumstances under which it is spoken, and the person it is spoken to. If we do not consider these factors, it is very likely that we will misunderstand the real import of statements in śāstra. Many times people intentionally cite controversial verses out of context. The simple audience, not knowing this, is thus mislead into misgivings about scripture.

The truth is that scriptures have nothing to gain by denigrating women nor did the speakers display biased, malignant behavior in their personal lives. Sage Kaśyapa, for example, had thirteen wives. That alone can demonstrate that he not was a misogynist, for why would a person who hates women keep thirteen of them around him  constantly?

Diti’s Desire for Revenge

Diti and Kashyapa Muni / ISKCON Desire Tree

Diti and Kashyapa Muni

Let us consider the context of Kaśyapa’s statement quoted at the outset. Diti was one of Kaśyapa’s beloved wives. She gave birth to twins, Hiraṇyakaśipu and Hiraṇyākṣa. They were conceived at an inauspicious time against the will of Kaśyapa and predicted to be materialistic by nature. These two brothers terrorized the whole world and disturbed its management by overpowering various devas who look after the managerial affairs. Therefore both of them were killed by Śrī Viṣṇu who is in charge of the maintenance of the universe. First Hiraṇyākṣa was killed because he had made the whole earth uninhabitable. Thereafter, Hiraṇyakaśipu, who dethroned Indra, the chief of the managers, was also killed by Viṣṇu in the form of Nṛsiṁhadeva. When Diti lost both of her sons, she was very angry at heart and wanted to take revenge. She reasoned that it was Indra, the chief manager of the devas, who had plotted against her sons and got them killed by instigating Śrī Viṣṇu. Therefore, to take revenge, she decided to get Indra killed. For this she devised a plan which was to please her husband, sage Kaśyapa, and then receive a boon from him to have a son who would be able to murder Indra.

With this intention, she began serving her husband and doing every action to please him. With much care, attention and devotion, she took care of Kaśyapa. She would speak to him in a very pleasing voice and always smile at him with alluring charm. Eventually Kaśyapa wanted to reciprocate her apparent kindness. So one day, in a happy mood, he asked Diti to take a boon from him. Diti, of course, was just waiting for this opportunity. Therefore she immediately asked her heart’s desire: to get a son who could kill Indra. When Kaśyapa heard these unbelievable words from the beautiful lips of his devoted wife, it was like a dagger in his heart. He almost collapsed in complete confusion and did not know how to respond, because Indra was also his son, the child of his wife Aditi. In fact, Indra is one of his dearest and most famous sons. How could Kaśyapa now grant a boon that would be the murder instrument for his beloved son?

This is the context in which he spoke the verses cited above. Before, criticizing his wife, however, he criticized himself being attached to the pleasure he enjoyed in her charms and thus falling prey to her trap. He admits that he should have been smart enough to perceive her hidden motives, but he failed only because of his weakness towards pleasure.

Kaśyapa’s Failure and Frustation

Then, feeling frustrated, trapped and bound his own words, he vented his anger indirectly at his wife, by criticizing women as a class. Indeed, it is quite common that when we become angry at a particular person who is dear to us, we indirectly express our anger towards their religion, ethnic background, etc. These statements are not literal, “king-like proclamations,” they are indirect expressions towards a beloved. It is insane to accept an indirect expression as a direct proclamation. Any sane person knows that generalized statements do not convey literal truths. No community or class can accurately be generalized, because each contains a wide variety of people. Kaśyapa, for example, would never say these same statements to his other wife Aditi, who gave birth to Indra and Śrī Vāmanadeva, an avatāra of Viṣṇu.

When one studies the character of Diti as individual, one understands that by nature she was self-centered and uncooperative. The very word diti means “one who creates faction or division”. Kaśyapa must have known this, but somehow he succumbed to Diti’s female charm. That was his weakness, which is not uncommon in men. That is why he first condemned himself.

Ego finds pleasure in finding faults in others instead of inspecting itself. It is difficult for one’s own self-esteem to accept defeat. This is why after Kaśyapa had realized his own mistake, his ego took over and he turned his criticism outward towards Diti. He expressed this indirectly as a condemnation of women in general. This same flaw is at the root of many men who try to justify their own weaknesses and vindicate their own failures by using śāstra to support their ego. Thus, the next time you hear a man using śāstra to criticize women, you can be confident that he is just trying to hide his own weaknesses.

We have demonstrated that verses should not be read out of context — although it unfortunately happens quite often, even by those supposed to be spiritual teachers of śāstra. The context here was not a literal discussion of the nature of women in general, so Kaśyapa’s words should not be misinterpreted as such.

(to be continued)

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Comments ( 5 )
  1. saci dasi

    great article…please continue!

  2. Kaśyapa’s words to Diti prior to the conception of Hiraṇyākṣa and Hiraṇyakaśipu are also important in revealing the context of Kaśyapa’s overall attitude about women. This is my translation of those words, Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 3.14.17~22:

    “My darling, I will give you all that you ask for and fulfill every desire that distresses you. Who would not fulfill the desires of his wife, the source of the three material perfections? She also grants the fourth perfection, liberation, for with her help one can serve and support all types of spiritualists. Thus the wife enables her husband to cross the fearsome ocean of illusion as easily as crossing the sea in a boat.

    “My dear respectable woman, a wife sees to the long-term fulfillment of all our needs, so we describe her as ‘half of our own self.’ We entrust her with our burdens and she enables us to go about life without all those troubles.

    “All other approaches to spiritual life find it very difficult to get beyond sensual attachments, but by taking shelter of our wife we easily surpass sensual distractions, just as taking shelter of a fortress keeps one safe from invaders.

    “O Queen of the Home, we men are unable to repay a wife like you, even if we try for all our life, or beyond. All we can do is admire your excellent qualities. Although I cannot repay you, let me certainly satisfy your desire for children. Please be patient for about 20 minutes so that it will not attract too much attention.”

  3. Alexander Shenkar

    Thank you for the wonderful article.

    Your explanation makes perfect sense. Thank you!

    I checked the Srila Prabhupada’s purport to the verse, and here is how it begins:

    “A woman’s nature has been particularly well studied by Kaśyapa Muni. Women are self-interested by nature, and therefore they should be protected by all means so that their natural inclination to be too self-interested will not be manifested. ”

    It seems like Prabhupada accepted the emotional generalization and presented as a principle of woman’s nature.

    Was he wrong? Did Prabhupada misrepresent?

    • snd

      Shastra is kalpataru, a wishful-filling tree. You can see in it what you would like to see. You can also see what it wants you to see.
      I consider Srila Prabhupada as one of my teachers. My spiritual journey began in his society. Thus I would not dare to say that he is wrong or misrepresents.
      Rather my guess about his explanation cited by you is that he writes this on the basis of his own experience in his life. Probably you are aware of his family life and the problem he faced with his own wife. I think he is doing exactly what Kashyapa did – generalizing his personal experience. Thus he begins his comment lauding Kashyapa. Otherwise Prabhupada had many lady disciples who dedicated their lives in his service and I do not think he would say that they are “self-interested”.

  4. the article and the comments are interesting

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