The Aryan gods were predominantly male. But there were considerable number of goddesses too. Some chants in the vedas were composed by female composers also. They could take part with men in the performance of religious sacrifices. In the ashwamedha yagya, the role of the chief queen and other queens is noteworthy.
Upanayana sanskara, is an important vedic ceremony. It was the ceremonial initiation of a child into vedic studies. Its importance can be traced from the fact that it was said that a person is born twice, first at the time of birth and secondly after the upanayana sanskara. In the early vedic period, there are several examples of girls having upanayana sanskara at par with boys. This displays that vedic education was considered important for women also. There are several renown women scholars of that period. They can be divided into two categories-
- Brahmavahadinis- lifelong students of vedas.
- Satyodvahas- those who studied vedas until their marriage.
Brahmavahadinis were held in high regards and women of great scholarly talents. Many of them composed hymns which could be found in vedas. Ghosa was a celebrated risika, along with lopamudra, apala and visvavara. Visvavara did not only composed hymns, but even performed the functions of a ‘ritvij’ or priest at a religious sacrifice, a privilege that was denied to women in subsequent periods and could not be restored even now.
Ghosa lived in her parent’s home even after puberty and gained the knowledge of vedas. Ghosha suffered from an incurable disfiguring disease, probably leprosy, and reason for remaining a spinster at her father’s house. Her implorations with the Ashwins and the devotion of her forefathers towards them made them cure her disease and allow her to experience wedded bliss. The hymns written by her are eulogizing the ashwini kumaras only, who are portrayed as great physicians in hindu philosophy.
Since women were educated in vedas, they had a significant role to play in the sphere of religion in the early vedic period. The religious sacrifices were performed jointly by the husband and wife. The term patni is indicative of a her equal share in the social and religious life of the husband. The wife did have an important and active role to play which was singing vedic hymns during the process. Hence, they were considered as a helping hand in religious pursuits. In Ashvamedha yagya, a religious ceremony which expanded for the span of three days, but preparations for it were made a year or two before. In this event, four officiants, the four wives of the king with their attendants took part. It was a horse sacrifice, which was supposed to confer victory and sovereignty. The king’s wives walked around the carcass; the chief queen lay down beside it simulating copulation. This whole set of events show that women had an important and active role to play in sacrifices. However, in later periods they lost this important role and were replaced by a special class of priests. They were made a passive spectator.
Gargi is the biggest example of this. She attended a religious congregation organized by King Janaka of Videha, where her questions puzzled even the great sage Yajnavalkya. Gargi was also one of the nine gems in the court of King Janaka of Mithila. She remained a celibate all her life.
Even yajanavalkya’s own wife, Maitreyi by name, was also a brahmavadani. Yajnavalkya was married to two women, Katyayani and Maitreyi. While Maitreyi was a brahmvadani, Katyayani was an ordinary woman. It is said that it was Maitreyi contributed to the enhancement and blossoming of her husband’s philosophical and religious knowledge.
Lopamudra, another famous women philosopher of the vedic period, was the wife of rishi Agastya. She also composed a two stanza hymn to gain her husband’s attention and love. After which her husband decided to balance his religious and married life.
In the later vedic period, there are less references of women undergoing upanayana sanskara and attaining the knowledge of vedas. But this doesn’t mean that in the later vedic period, women were completely barred from attaining the knowledge of the vedas.
There are also examples of priests being gifted with women, as cows, buffaloes, gold or any other commodity.
First, is that degradation of the role of women in society started when Aryans started leading a settled life. Land rights came into being, and the system of slavery and subordination of local population started. Since labour became more freely available, the role of the women in the economic sphere lost its prominence.
Secondly, with the introduction of the system of rulership being confined to a single family also led to the loss of democratic institutions where women could participate and in a way their political and social position was compromised.
Thirdly, the rise of the brahmanic class also hampered their position. Upanayana ceremony became exclusive for men, but there were cases where women were educated in vedas. Their role in religious ceremonies as counterpart of their spouses were taken over by a special class of priests.
Fourthly, the subordination of other clans has also contributed. The subordination brought a large number of slaves into the scenario who provided labour very easily. This decreased the contribution of labour by Aryan women in agricultural and pastoral activities. This not only impacted the position of women in their respective families, but society as a whole.
A close perusal of the Vedic texts would suggest that the position of women was of honourable subordination, not a humiliating one. In fact, the genesis of the subordinate position of women and a sharp gender polarity can be traced back to the Vedic period. In this connection, a few points deserve to be looked into.
The decreasing role of women in economic activities in turn hugely affected their social and political role in the society. Vedic society from the start was a patriarchial society, but women’s position was much better in the initial years than the later years.
The view that women were totally equal to men cannot be accepted wholly, by the image which is presented in front of us. But they could never be equal or totally subordinated by men is also not reflective of the position of women.
After the vedic period, the position of women kept detreating in the society, even after the vedic period. This could be attributed to the fixed land and property rights, which did not completely debar women from property rights. But economic position determining the social position is the most important aspect. The introduction of the class system and introduction of the theory of kingship also had their own roles in further degradation of women. It is observed that a society devoid of democratic institutions, or if the degradation of democratic institutions is taking place in a society, it would hugely impact the position of an already disadvantaged group in a more negative way.
- Hauswirth, Frieda. Purdah: The Status of Indian Women. New York, Vanguard Press. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.peggy/purdah0001&i=30.
- Darshini, Priya. “Gender Speculation and Its Legitimacy during the Vedic Period.” GNLU Journal of Law Development and Politics, vol. 2, no. 2, February 2012, p. 86-99. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.journals/gnlujldp2&i=275.
- Baig, Tara Ali, Editor. Women of India. Dehli, Publications Division Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.peggy/woendia0001&i=16.
- Dubey, R. D. “Position of Women in Different Ages: An Analysis.” Indian Journal of Law and Justice, vol. 8, no. 1, March 2017, p. 80-97. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.journals/ijlj8&i=94.
- Jha, Dwijendra Narayan. Ancient India: An Introductory Outline. Delhi, Manohar Publishers and Distributors, 1977.
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