I’m a Hindu woman, and yes, I can study the Vedas
“In Hinduism, women are not allowed to read their religious scriptures.” I’m taken aback by surprise as my eyes fixate on this line in our World History textbook. I look at a neat table below, where Hinduism is put into the category where women cannot read their scriptures while Abrahamic religions are distinguished as progressive for allowing their women to read their scripture. At the end of the school day, as I hop into my mom’s car I explode in anger. “How can they teach such lies about Hindu women to us?” I shout. I knew that Hinduism honored so many knowledgeable women who read the Vedas like Gargi and Apalla to name a few, but the textbook writers conveniently overlooked my heritage and continued painting a distorted image of Hinduism that stemmed from colonial legacy. I hope that current textbooks have improved this image, nevertheless, Vedic traditions are still popularly thought to be for men. You probably know about Vishwamitra and Vashistha. Let’s talk about some awesome Hindu women scholars instead today.
Gargi is probably one of the best-known female Brahmavadinis, female ascetics, of Hindu Dharma. Hailing from the lineage of Rishi Garga, as a young girl, Gargi was educated and eventually attained deep knowledge of Brahman, the Supreme Truth, exemplifying that education and spiritual realization were open to women at her time. By virtue of her profound knowledge, she was frequently invited to debate in royal courts. Her debate with the Rishi Yajnavalkya is recorded in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, one of the 13 principal Upanishads. Once, King Janaka (father of Sita Devi), ruler of Videha, held a great debate of scholars where Gargi and other sages including the great Yajnavalkya were in participation. Yajnavalkya was challenged by eight other illumined sages, and each one was defeated by the superior knowledge of Yajnavalkya. Gargi, the courageous and lone woman scholar, took up her turn to debate as an equal participant and posed deep philosophical questions about the nature of the universe and the atma in an intense debate. Eventually, she too was defeated in the debate and she honored Yajnavalkya for his profound knowledge of Bhraman the Absolute. However, her deep knowledge made King Janaka declare her one of his court’s navaratnas (nine jewels), a group of nine extraordinary people in the Emperor’s court. You would be hard-pressed to find any society at the time which allowed a woman to be educated and debate on philosophy as an equal with men, much less be honored in a king’s court for her intelligence rather than physical beauty.
Another Vedic female luminary was Vakdevi, a rishika who wrote the Devi Suktam which is still popularly chanted. Vakdevi was the daughter of rishi Ambhruna and highly advanced in her sadhana, attaining the stage of brahmavidushi (one who has realized Brahman). Her Devi Suktam consists of eight stanzas that praise Devi, the Divine Mother. But this stotra is unique among stotras about Devi because Vakdevi wrote it as one who was completely identified with Devi. She eulogizes herself, signifying that she and Devi are the same. Her example once again reveals that the highest spiritual realization in Hindu Dharma was open to women and reveals that Vedic women were also mantra drasthas (seers) like men at the time. She shows the power that women can achieve if we identify ourselves with our inner nature and bring out the goddess within.
From these examples, it is apparent that women were honored and given access to the knowledge of their traditions. However, so-called subaltern studies skew even the Gargi and Yanjavalkya debate to paint the story as a faux-gender conflict where Gargi was a radical, challenging the sage rather than recognizing India’s history of female scholarship where women achieved their highest identity rather than striving to compete and become like a man. If any mention is made of Hindu women in Western academia, esoteric lines from the Manu Smriti that highlight the subjugation of women are brought to the table. Unfortunately, these academics fail to acknowledge the Vedic women seers like Gargi or Ghosha who contributed to parts of the Vedas. Or the ancient system in Vedic times that allowed women to pursue different Dharmas, either choosing to be a Brahmavadini, living a life of study, sadhana, and teaching or a Sadyvadhu, living a married life. Furthermore, Hindus have worshiped the Divine in the form of Shakti, the Divine Mother who is the Cosmic Energy that allows for the creation, preservation, and destruction of the universe. However, I am not claiming that Hindu society was perfectly egalitarian, no society ever was or is egalitarian. But it did afford women more freedom to pursue their spirituality, intellectual pursuits, and participate in the creation of the key scriptures of what would become Hindu Dharma than Abrahamic religions have. Even though these religions have their share of scriptural verses that marginalize women, they are never mentioned in a school textbook while Hinduism is blamed for suppressing women. It is time that this narrative is broadened to acknowledge how women were truly viewed in Hindu Dharma.
I have only mentioned two Vedic women rishikas here, but there are so many more. These were women who could learn the highest spiritual wisdom and expound these truths in poetry and stotras. These were women who debated in royal courts without feeling competition with men and were perfectly comfortable in their skin. These were women who lived independently or with their family but kept the realization of the Divine their main goal in life. I believe that if these women could hear modern academia’s “subaltern” discourse on Hinduism, they would have stood up and said “I’m a Hindu woman and yes, I can study the Vedas.”