Question: 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.”
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.
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