Rig Veda – Position of women (1/2)
I had not planned a segment exclusively on the position of women in Rig Veda. I assumed I covered it briefly and adequately under Rig Veda – its society (1/7). However, after reading a comment posted by Amused666, which said, among other things, that “the condition of women was no less different in rig Vedic times to the times to the modern time. Female are weak and preferred to accept male dominance and males accepted and treated them as such” I thought I should say a little more on the subject and clarify the position.
As azygos in his comment addressed to Amused666 pointed out,” extrapolating the present to the past, so very often leads to spurious exegesis. The historian is not a moral eunuch but he cannot absolutely rationalize the past, based on understanding of the present. Whenever, we come across verses like 9.32, they are to be interpreted in the positive sense and context.”
I thank azygos for his response and agree with him. I am incapable of putting it across as picturesquely and as strongly as azygos did; yet let me try to explain. The events in an ancient text have to be interpreted in the context of its times and in the light of its ethos. What Amused666 did, instead, was to impose his views on the prejudice of gender bias on a generation that had an unbiased world view and a unique self perception.
[For more on Hermeneutics you may visit riverine’s blog
There is a field of study called Hermeneutics that deals with cultivating the ability to understand a text by placing it in context of its times and the society in which it was located; and to appreciate the cultural and social forces that might have influenced its outlook. The spirit of Hermeneutics is essential to understand and appreciate an ancient text. Sadly, a lot of times comments are ejected either without reading a text or quoting it out of context or just driven by a whim, whatever. I presume the comment of Amused666 is somewhere in this region.
The verse “Yea, many a woman is more firm and better than the man who turns away from Gods, and offers not.” (Rig-Veda, 5.61.6) that Amused 666 referred to, actually means: a woman who is devoted to God is more highly regarded than a man who has no such devotion. And, it does not mean what Amused 666 chose to deduce. The basic idea seems to be that a pious woman is highly regarded than a male who does not respect gods and who is miserly. Stephen Knapp calls this verse, a kind of equality that is rarely found in any other religious scripture. It is also an indication that in matter of dharma, in the days of Vedic culture, women stood as a decisive force in spirituality and the foundation of moral development. In the Rig Veda, the idea of the family as the hub of religious worship is found. In this context, women were at the heart of the family structure, as wives and mothers who brought worship into the center of the household activities. Even in the current era, women in the house are in charge of the family rituals and prayers.
It might perhaps be more appropriate to take an objective and a holistic view rather than impose present day’s priorities and prejudices on a society of a bygone era. Accordingly, it is better we examine the women’s position in Vedic period, independently, from angles of (a) fair and equitable treatment of women and (b) empowerment of women.
To come back to the subject, I propose to state the position in an abstract and then briefly cite views of Rig Veda on certain issues concerning women of its society.
There are numerous hymns in the Rig-Veda indicating, women were assigned a high place in the Vedic society. In many aspects the present-day Indian woman had to wait a long time to regain some of the rights the Vedic women enjoyed. Further, they enjoyed a kind of liberty that actually had societal sanctions, on certain issues, which are not available to today’s Indian women.
The Vedic times were free from many of the social evils that harmed the Indian society in the later eras. Child marriage and a harsh dowry did not then exist. Widows were free to marry. They inherited rights to the dead husbands’ properties. Seclusion of women or Sati was not practiced; nor was untouchability. No man or woman was locked into a trade by birth. Members of the same family took to different crafts and trades. The Rig Veda (IX, 112) says: "A bard I am, my father a leech / And my mother is a grinder of corn / Diverse in means, but all wishing wealth/ Equally we strive for cattle.''
Women were generally not discriminated against merely on grounds of gender. Men and women had equal status in matters of education, marriage, Re-marriage, in managing the household, right to property, intellectual pursuit, participation in public debate and some women even participated in battles along with their men folk. There is a mention of a certain warrior Queen Vishpla who lost her leg in battle and was fitted with a metallic prosthesis; she returned to battle and continued to fight.
Women shared an equal standing with their men. There were women teachers, scholars, Brahmavadins and highly respected rishis. There were women warriors with bows. There were also the prostitutes who made a living and followed certain regulations.
They inherited and possessed property; they took share in scarifies and religious ceremonies; they attended the assemblies and state occasions; they also distinguished themselves as intellectual companions of their husbands, as friends and partners in their religious duties
No male was considered complete without his spouse, she was his ardangini. No auspicious ritual could be conducted or a submission made to family deities without accompanied by the wife. Why! The dead body of the husband could not be taken out for cremation without the permission of wife .
Let me also say, Rig Vedic society was not a perfect society. I wonder if there ever was a perfect society. Even Plato’s idealized Utopia was not perfect. Rig Vedic society too suffered from poverty, destitution; slavery and exploitation of the weak. There are references in Rig Veda to women rendered poor and destitute by their husbands’ addiction to gambling and liquor. There are poems sung by luckless gamblers in their drunken stupor lamenting the fate of their helpless wives and aged parents. The drunken gambler, poor and ever thirsty sinks deeper into debt as a stone into a ditch. The destitute wife of the gambler is distressed and so too is the mother of a son, not knowing where her wayward son had gone. There are scenes of roguish creditor pestering the wife of an insolvent gambler. The debtor in meanwhile with trepidation sneaks around a house under cover of darkness dreading his creditor. Does it not sound very modern?!
Other men make free with the wife of a man
Whose money and goods the eager dice have stolen.
His father and mother and brothers all say,
"He is nothing to us. Bind him, put him in jail!"
Abandoned, the wife of the gambler grieves.
Grieved too, is his mother as he wanders to nowhere.
Afraid and in debt, ever greedy for money,
He steals in the night to the home of another.
The sorrows and suffering that women endure in their day to day living do not subjugate and suppress women into weakness or male domination. They have an inherent strength. The inequalities the women of that age were subjected to were not directed against them for mere reason they were women. What you read just now was about depravity, social evil and injustice you find in any society, modern or otherwise. These do exist in all societies; just as the strong, affluent, educated, enlightened, independent and liberated women do .It would be wrong to generalize that all Vedic female were weak and preferred to accept male domination. It would be equally wrong to deduce that men treated them with equal disdain. The Vedic society was as good as any other society.
Nonetheless, 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.
"Women enjoyed far greater freedom in the Vedic period than in later India. She had more to say in the choice of her mate than the forms of marriage might suggest. She appeared freely at feasts and dances, and joined with men in religious sacrifice. She could study, and like Gargi, engage in philosophical disputation. If she was left a widow there was no restrictions upon her remarriage." Will Durant - Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage
“Among the many societies that can be found in the world, we have seen that some of the most venerating regard for women has been found in Vedic culture. The Vedic tradition has held a high regard for the qualities of women, and has retained the greatest respect within its tradition “-Stephen Knapp- Women in Vedic Culture.
"Women were held in higher respect in India than in other ancient countries, and the Epics and old literature of India assign a higher position to them than the epics and literature of ancient Greece. Hindu women enjoyed some rights of property from the Vedic Age, took a share in social and religious rites, and were sometimes distinguished by their learning. The absolute seclusion of women in India was unknown in ancient times." R. C. Dutt - The Civilization of India
Thereafter the remaining two articles in the series will continue….Then a sum up.