The following is the second part of the article Rig Veda – Position of women (1/2)posted on Oct, 09 2007. The first part dealt comprehensively with the position of women in the Rig Vedic period and also discussed a comment posted on an earlier post. It was considered , that instead of imposing a later day’s priorities and prejudices on a society of a bygone era, it would be apt to take a holistic and an independent look and examine from the angles of (a) fair and equitable treatment of women and (b) empowerment of women in the Vedic society.
Part one concluded that the social life portrayed in Rig Veda reveals a tolerant and moderately unbiased society characterized by sanctity of the institution of marriage, domestic purity, a patriarchal system, an equitable position in the society for men and women and high honor for women. The women did receive a fair and an equitable treatment and they were empowered to deal with issues that mattered in the life around them.
The second part discusses the views of the rig Veda on certain specific issues such as the status of the girl child, her education, her marriage and married life, her right to property, Widowhood and remarriage.
Many hymns in Rig Veda express desire to beget heroic sons. There are no similar prayers wishing for a girl child. This perhaps reflected the anxiety of a society that needed a larger number of male warriors to ensure its survival. Sons were preferred to daughters, yet, once a daughter was born, she was raised with tender care, affection and love.
In the Rig-Veda, there is no instance where the birth of a girl was considered inauspicious .The celebrations and others samskaras were conducted with enthusiasm. In a particular case, twin daughters were compared to heaven and earth. The daughters were not unpopular. They were allowed Vedic studies and were entitled to offer sacrifice to gods. The son was not absolutely necessary for this purpose.
There is reference to the birth of an only daughter, who was assigned the legal position of a son; and she could perform funeral rites of her father and could also inherit the property. It indicates that the position of a girl in Rig Vedic times was not as low as it was to become in medieval times. (S. R. Shastri, Women in the Vedic Age– 1960).
Terry Brown in her book ‘Essential Teachings of Hinduism’ explains: “In ancient India a woman was looked after not because she is inferior or incapable, but on the contrary, because she is treasured. She is the pride and power of the society. Just as the crown jewels should not be left unguarded, neither should a woman be left unprotected. If there are costly jewels, we do not throw them here and there like brass vessels. Costly material is protected”.
Education was an important feature in the upbringing of a girl child. Education was considered essential for girls and was therefore customary for girls to receive education. The girls with education were regarded highly. Vedic literature praises a scholarly daughter and says: “A girl also should be brought up and educated with great effort and care” (Mahanirvana Tantra). The importance of a girl’s education is stressed in the Atharva Veda which states,” The success of woman in her married life depends upon her proper training during the BrahmaCharya (student period)”
The girls were entitled to Upanayana (to receive sacred thread) and to the privilege of studying Vedas; just as the boys. Women performed religious rites after completing their education under a Guru. They were entitled to offer sacrifices to gods. The son was not absolutely necessary for this purpose.
According to Shrauta and Grihya Sutras, women chanted mantras along with their husbands while performing rituals.
There were eminent women in the field of learning and scholarship. These highly intelligent and greatly learned women, who chose the path of Vedic studies and, lived the ideal life of spirituality were called Brahmavadinis; and the women who opted out of education for married life were called ‘Sadyovadhus’. Co-education seems to have existed in this period and both the sexes got equal attention from the teacher. As many as about thirty Brahmavadins of great intellect and spiritual attainment are immortalized in the Rig Veda and are credited with hymns. They participated in philosophical debates with men and were highly respected. To name a few of those significant women rishis (rishikā) who figure in the Rig Veda Samhitā: Goshā Kakshivati, Lopamudra, Romasha,Sarama Devasuni , Yami Vaivasvathi , Rathir Bharadwaja , Apala, Paulomi and others. Needlessto say they were held in high esteem for their work to be included in the important religious text of the era.
Incidentally, let me mention that, later, the Shatapatha Braahmana lists some 52 generations of teachers, of which some 42 are remembered through their mothers. The teachers were males. This list acts like a bridge between the end of the Rig-Veda time and the Shatapatha Braahmana time. It is remarkable that a patriarchal society should remember its teachers through their mothers. The preference over the names of their fathers indicates the important position of women as mothers in Vedic society. Their mothers were considered that valuable, as their sons were recognized through their names.
There is very little evidence of child (or infant) marriage in the Rig Veda. A girl was married at 16 or more years of age, when her physical development was complete. Marriage was solemnized soon after marriage. The Vedic rituals presuppose that the married pair was grown up enough to be lovers, man and wife, and parents of children (marriage hymn 140 and 141). These go to show that a girl was married after she attained puberty. Surya, the daughter of Surya (the Sun), was married to Soma (the Moon), only when she became youthful and yearned for a husband.
The Rig-Veda (v, 7, 9) refers to young maidens completing their education as brahmacharins and then gaining husbands. The Vedas say that an educated girl should be married to an equally educated man “An unmarried young 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’” (RV 3.55.16).
Young women of the time could exercise their choice in the matter of their marriage. “The woman who is of gentle birth and of graceful form,” so runs a verse in the Rig Veda, “selects among many of her loved one as her husband. The term for the bridegroom was vara, the chosen one. ”The happy and beautiful bride chooses (vanute) by herself (svayam) her own husband” RV (27.12). The swayamvaras of the princesses are of course well documented.
Many marriages, as in the later day Hindu society today, involved the intercession of the families on either side, but a maiden was consulted and her wishes taken into account when the matrimonial alliance was discussed. The marriage hymns 139 in the Rig-Veda and the Atharvaveda indicate that the parties to marriage were generally grown up persons competent to woo and be wooed, qualified to give consent and make choice.
Young girls had the freedom to go out to attend fairs, festivals and assemblies’; the seclusion of women was not practiced. There is a reference to certain occasional festivals or gatherings called Samanas organized to help young boys and girls to get together. Rig Veda described Samana as where: Wives and maidens attire themselves in gay robes and set forth to the joyous feast; youths and maidens hasten to the meadow when forest and field are clothed in fresh verdure to take part in dance. Cymbals sound and seizing each other lads and damsels whirl a about until the ground vibrates and clouds of dust envelop the gaily moving throng. A girl often chose one of the suitors whom she met in these Samanas as her husband.
Rig Veda talks of the seven steps and vows based on mutual respect, taken during marriage
A friend thou shall be, having paced these seven steps with me. Nay, having paced the seven steps, we have become friends. May I retain thy friendship, and never part from thy friendship. Let us unite together: let us propose together. Loving each other and ever radiant in each other’s company, meaning well towards each other, sharing together all enjoyments and pleasures, let us join our thoughts.
(Source: Taittiriya Ekagnikanda, I iii, 14. ; Sastri, 1918.)
It was appears that the bride was given by her parents gold, cattle, horses, valuables , articles etc. which she carried to her new home .She had a right to deal with it as she pleased. No doubt the dowry a girl brought with her did render her more attractive. “Howmuch a maiden is pleasing to the suitor who would marry for her splendid riches? If the girl be both good and fair of feature, she finds, herself, a friend among the people. “(Rig-Veda X .27.12)
There were also the woes of a father,” When a man’s daughter hath been ever eyeless, who, knowing, will be wroth with her for blindness? Which of the two will lose on him his anger-the man who leads her home or he who woos her?” (RV 10.27.11)
Marriage was an established institution in the Vedic Age. It was regarded as a social and religious duty; and not a contract. The husband-wife stood on equal footing and prayed for long lasting love and friendship. At the wedding, the bride addressed the assembly in which the sages too were present. [Rig Veda (10.85.26-27)]
Marriage was not compulsory for a woman; an unmarried who stayed back in the house of her parents was called Amajur, a girl who grew old at her father’s house. An unmarried person was however not eligible to participate in Vedic sacrifices.
A woman, if she chose, could marry even after the child bearing age. For instance Gosha a well known female sage married at a late stage in her life (her husband being another well known scholar of that time Kakasivan) as she earlier suffered from some skin ailment.
Monogamy normally prevailed but polygamy was also in vogue .Some scholars say that polyandry and divorce were also common. There are no direct references to that. I am not therefore sure of that.
Widows were allowed to remarry if they so desired; and faced no condemnation and ostracization socially.
A girl when she marries moves into another household where she becomes part of it. Her gotra changes from that of her father into that of her husband. She participates in performances of yagnas for devas and pitrs of her husband’s family. The bride takes charge of her new family that includes her husband, his parents, brothers and sisters; and others who lived there for some reason.
The Rig Veda hymn (10, 85.27) ,the wedding prayer , indicates the rights of a woman as wife. It is addressed to the bride sitting next to bridegroom. It touches upon few other issues as well.
“Happy be you (as wife) in future and prosper with your children here (in the house): be vigilant to rule your household in this home (i.e. exercise your authority as the main figure in your home). Closely unite (be an active participant) in marriage with this man, your husband. So shall you, full of years (for a very long life), address your company (i.e. others in the house listen to you, and obey and care about what you have to say).” (Rig Veda: 10, 85.27)
The famous marriage hymn (10.85) calls upon members of the husband’s family to treat the daughter in law (invited into the family ‘as a river enters the sea’) as the queen samrajni.
She is welcomed in many ways:
” Come, O desired of the gods, beautiful one with tender heart, with the charming look, good towards your husband, kind towards animals, destined to bring forth heroes. May you bring happiness for both our quadrupeds and bipeds.” (Rig Veda 10.85.44)
Over thy husband’s father and thy husband’s mother bear full sway. Over the sister of thy lord , over his brothers rule supreme”(Rig Veda 10.85.46)
“Happy be thou and prosper with thy children here; be vigilant to rule thy household, in this home ‘. (Rig-Veda 10.85.27)
The idea of equality is expressed in the Rig Veda: “The home has, verily, its foundation in the wife”,” The wife and husband, being the equal halves of one substance, are equal in every respect; therefore both should join and take equal parts in all work, religious and secular.” (RV 5, 61. 8)
She was 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).
To sum up, one can say that the bride in the Vedic ideal of a household was far from unimportant and weak. She did have an important position in the family and yielded considerable influence.
The third chapter of Rig-Veda , considered its oldest part (3.31.1) commands that a son-less father accepts son of his daughter as his own son i.e. all properties of a son-less father shall be inherited by son of his daughter.
Rik (3.31.2) commands that if parents have both son and daughter, son performs pindadaan (after death of father) and daughter be enriched with gifts.
Rik (2.17.7) also attests share of a daughter in property of her father .
Married women inherited and shared properties. A Widow too was entitled to a share in the properties of the dead husband.
Widowhood and Remarriage:
Rig-Veda does not mention anywhere about the practice of the burning or burial of widows with their dead husbands. Rig Veda commands thewidow to return to her house, to live with her children and grand children; and confers on her the right to properties of her deceased husband. Rig Veda clearly approves marriage of the widow. Such women faced no condemnation or isolation in the household or society. They had the right to property inherited from the dead husbands. There are riks blessing the woman and her new husband, with progeny and happiness. Rig-Veda praises Ashwin gods for protecting widows.(X.40.8)
Ambassador O P Gupta, IFS has made an excellent presentation of the status of widows in Rig Vedic times
According to him:
None of the riks in Rig Veda calls for the burning or burial of widow with body of her dead husband.
A set of14 Riks in 18th Mandala of the 10th book deal with treatment of widows.
Rik (X.18.8) is recited by the dead man’s brothers and others, requesting the widow to release her husband’s body for cremation. The Rik also commands the widow to return to the world of living beings, return to her home and to her children and grand children, “Rise, woman, (and go) to the world of living beings; come, this man near whom you sleep is lifeless; you have enjoyed this state of being the wife of your husband, the suitor who took you by the hand.”
This rik also, confers upon her full right on house and properties of her deceased husband. [It was only in the year 1995 the Supreme Court of India interpreted Section 14(1) of the Hindu Succession Act to allow Hindu widow full ownership rights over properties she inherits from her deceased husband]
Rig-Veda not only sanctions survival of a widow and her right to property; but also approves her marriage with the brother of her dead husband; and to live with full dignity and honor in the family. Rig Veda therefore expressly sanctions widow-marriage. Some scholars say the widow could marry any person, not necessarily the brother of the deceased husband or a relative.
Rik (x.18.8) blesses a woman at her second marriage, with progeny and prosperity in this life time::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.
In rik (X.18.9) the new husband while taking the widow as his wife says to her: let us launch a new life of valor and strength begetting male children overcoming all enemies who may assail us.
AV(XVIII.3.4) blesses the widow to have a happy life with present husband ::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.
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.
The period after 300 B.C witnessed a succession of invasions and influx of foreigners such as the Greeks, the Scythians, the Parthian, the Kushans and others. The political misfortunes, the war atrocities followed by long spells of anarchy and lawlessness had a disastrous effect on the society. Fear and insecurity haunted the common people and householders. Sons were valued higher than the daughters because of the need for more fighting males, in order to survive the waves of onslaughts. It was also imperative to protect women from abductors. It therefore became necessary to curtail women’s freedom and movements’ .Early marriage was perhaps employed as a part of those defensive measures. The education of the girl child was no longer a priority. Sastras too compromised by accepting marriage as a substitute for Upanayanam and education. The neglect of education, imposing seclusion and insecurity that gripped their lives, had disastrous consequences upon the esteem and status of women .The society in turn sank into depravity.
The social conditions deteriorated rapidly during the medieval period.
For nearly 2000 years from 300 B.C. to A.D. 1800, truly the dark ages of India, the development of woman steadily stuttered though she was affectionately nurtured by the parents, loved by the husband and cared by her children.
Now, it is the time of reawakening. Women of India are beginning to get opportunities to establish their identity and be recognized for their potential, talent and capabilities. That is a good rebegining. The process must improve both in terms of its spread and quality. The ancient principles of equal opportunities for learning and development, equitable position in place of work and right to seek out her destiny, with honor; that guided the Vedic society must soon find a place in all segments of the society. It may sound like asking for the moon. But, that is the only option India has if it has to survive as a nation.