Chakra Discussions

Women in Vedic Culture

by Stephen Knapp
(Sri Nandanandana dasa)

Posted August 6, 2005

There are many civilizations in the world where respect for women and their role in society are prominent, and others where regard for them and their status should be improved. Yet the level of civility along with moral and spiritual standards in a society can often be perceived by the respect and regard it gives for its women. Not that it glorifies them for their sexuality and then gives them all the freedom men want so they can be exploited and taken advantage of, but that they are regarded in a way that allows them to live in honor for their importance in society with respect and protection, and given the opportunity to reach their real potential in life.

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 as seen in the honor it gives for the Goddess, who is portrayed as the feminine embodiment of important qualities and powers. These forms include those of Lakshmi (the goddess of fortune and queen of Lord Vishnu), Sarasvati (the goddess of learning), Subhadra (Krishna's sister and auspiciousness personified), Durga (the goddess of strength and power), Kali (the power of time), and other Vedic goddesses that exemplify inner strength and divine attributes. Even divine power in the form of shakti is considered feminine.

Throughout the many years of Vedic culture, women have always been given the highest level of respect and freedom, but also protection and safety. There is a Vedic saying, "Where women are worshiped, there the gods dwell." Or where the women are happy, there will be prosperity. In fact the direct quotes from the Manu-samhita explains as follows:

"Women must be honored and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands, and brothers‑in‑law, who desire their own welfare. Where women are honored, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honored, no sacred rite yields rewards. Where the female relations live in grief, the family soon wholly perishes; but that family where they are not unhappy ever prospers. The houses on which female relations, not being duly honored, pronounce a curse, perish completely, as if destroyed by magic. Hence men who seek (their own) welfare, should always honor women on holidays and festivals with (gifts of) ornaments, clothes and (dainty) food." (Manu Smriti III.55-59)

Additional quotes can be found in other portions of the Vedic literature. This is the proper Vedic standard. If this standard is not being followed, then it represents a diversion of the genuine Vedic tradition. Due to this tradition, India's history includes many women who have risen to great heights in spirituality, government, writing, education, science, or even as warriors on the battlefield.

In the matter of dharma, in the days of Vedic culture, women stood as a decisive force in spirituality and the foundation of moral development. Throughout the history of India and the traditions of Vedic society, women were also examples for maintaining the basic principles in Sanatana-dharma. This honor toward women should be maintained by the preservation of genuine Vedic culture, which has always been a part of India.

Unfortunately, these standards have declined primarily due to the outside influences that have crept in because of foreign invaders, either militarily or culturally. These foreign invaders who dominated India mostly looked at women as objects of sexual enjoyment and exploitation, and as the spoils of war to be taken like a prize. The oppression of women increased in India because of Moghul rule. As such foreigners gained influence and converts, decay of the spiritual standards also crept into Indian and Vedic culture. The educational criteria of Vedic culture also changed and the teaching of the divinity of motherhood was almost lost. The teaching changed from emphasis on the development of individual self-reliance to dependence on and service to others. Thus, competition replaced the pursuit for truth, and selfishness and possessiveness replaced the spirit of renunciation and detachment. And gradually women were viewed as less divine and more as objects of gratification or property to be possessed and controlled.

This is the result of a rakshasic or demoniac cultural influence, which still continues to grow as materialism expands in society. Money and sensual gratification have become major goals in life, though they alone cannot give us peace or contentment. Instead they cause us to develop more desires in the hopes of finding fulfillment while leaving us feeling hollow and ever-more restless without knowing why.

In Vedic culture it is taught that every man should view and respect every woman, except his own wife, as his mother, and every girl with the same concern and care as his own daughter. It is only because of the lack of such training and the social distancing from the high morals as this that this teaching is being forgotten, and the respect that society should have for women has been reduced.

In this way, the change in the attitude toward women in India was due to a loss of culture and of the true Vedic standards. Thus, it should be easy to see the need for organizations that will keep and teach the proper views, which were once a basic part of the genuine Vedic traditions.

When the position of women declines, then that society loses its equilibrium and harmony. In the spiritual domain, men and women have an equal position. Men and women are equal as sons and daughters of the same Supreme Father. However, you cannot bring the spiritual domain to this Earth or enter the spiritual strata if your consciousness is focused on the differences of the sexes, and thus treat women poorly. One is not superior to the other, but each has particular ways or talents to contribute to society and to the service of God. So men should not try to control women by force, but neither should women try to seize the role of men or try adopt the masculine nature of men. Otherwise, imbalance results in society, just as a car will not move properly when the tires on one side are too low or out of balance. Women and men must work cooperatively like the twin wings of a bird, together which will raise the whole society. If there is a lack of respect and cooperation, how can society be progressive? After all, how can their be a spirit of cooperation and appreciation between men and women when instead there is a mood of competition? It is this mood in materialistic society that is increasing in both family and corporate life which contributes to social imbalance and not to a smooth and peaceful society.

Motherhood and Family

The nature of motherhood of women was always stressed in Vedic India. After all, we often find them to be the foundation of family life and of raising the children properly. They usually provide the love and understanding and nurturing for the development of our children in a way that is unlikely from most men.

Our own life is a gift from our mother's life. We were nourished by her, we spent nine months in her womb, and her love sustained us. Even now we are loved by our mother. This includes Mother Nature and Mother Earth, which is called Bhumi in the Vedic tradition. The Earth planet is also like a mother because everything we need to live, all our resources, come from her. As we would protect our own mother, we must also protect Mother Earth.

Women in motherhood, after giving birth to a child that they have carried for nine months, is the first guru and guide of the child and, thus, of humanity. Through this means, before any child learns hatred or aggression, they first know the love of a mother who can instill the ways of forgiveness and kindness in the child. In this way, we can recognize that there is often a strong women, either as a mother or as a wife, behind most successful men.

In exhibiting the qualities of motherhood, women must be warm and tender, strong and protective, yet also lay the foundation of discipline and the discrimination of right from wrong. Furthermore, in the home it is usually the woman who lends to providing beauty in decorating the house and facility for an inspirational atmosphere. Also, she must usually provide the nutritious and tasty dishes that give pleasure and strength for the fitness and health of the body.

By their innate sense of motherhood and compassion, women also make natural healers, care givers, and nurturers. Those women who have this intrinsic disposition for caring will also be natural upholders of moral standards and spiritual principles. By their own emotional tendencies and expressions, they are also natural devotees of God.

In ancient India the Sanskrit words used by the husband for the wife were 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--righteousness and duty). This is how ancient Vedic culture viewed the partnership of husband and wife.

When a husband and wife are willing to be flexible to each other's needs and move forward in love and mutual understanding, the relationship can go beyond equality to one of spiritual union. This means that each one appreciates the talents of the other, and views the other as complimenting what each one already has. This also makes up for the weaknesses or deficiencies of the other. In this way, each can provide support, encouragement and inspiration to the other. This ideal can only be achieved when they properly understand the principles of spirituality. It is also said that where the husband and wife get along well, Lakshmi Devi (the goddess of fortune) Herself dwells in that house.

It is also considered that a wife who serves a spiritually strong and qualified husband automatically shares in whatever spiritual merit he achieves because she assists him by her service.

The Feminine Divinities

In the Vedic tradition it is common to see the pairing of the Vedic male Gods with a female counterpart, thus combining both sets of powers and qualities that each would have. We can easily see this in Radha-Krishna, Sita-Rama, Lakshmi-Vishnu, Durga-Shiva, Sarasvati-Brahma, Indrani-Indra, etc. Thus, we have the combination of male and female Divinities that make the complete balance in the divine spiritual powers.

Through the medium of pure affection, the feminine Divinities have been able to break down the most powerful citadels known to creation, especially those of evil. The divine mystery of life is that the most powerful forces of the universe are subjugated by love, and that love is most completely channeled through the feminine energy and personality.

For example, "Durga" means the one who is difficult to know. Yet, being considered the mother of the universe, or the personification of the material energy, we as her children can approach her through love. And she will respond with love.

Also, out of love the goddess took the form of Mahishasuramardini, or the one who destroyed the dark demon known as Mahishasura. She was generated out of the anger and potency of Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, and others, and was the combination of their powers. They could not defeat the demon, but the goddess could. Symbolically, Durga can destroy the demonic darkness of the mode of ignorance and the quality of laziness within each of us.

Another example is when Durga expressed her love and care to the Gods and humanity by manifesting herself from her side as Kaushika Durga, also called Ambika. By her beauty she attracted the demons Shumba and Nishumba to her. Thus, they would not disturb the rest of creation. Then from her forehead she manifested herself as the dark goddess Kali who killed all the disturbing demons in that episode. In this way, through love the Divine feminine potency takes on forms to alleviate powerful disturbances in the universe and within us.

Out of love also the Divine feminine potency manifests as Srimati Radharani, the consort of Lord Sri Krishna. One of her many names is Janagati, which means the goddess of all goddesses. She is the origin of the divine feminine love and beauty, and the epitome of devotion to the Supreme Being. Thus, from the ideal spiritual world, we can see Her divine reflection mirrored here in this relative world in all that is feminine, beautiful and pure. By being conscious and aware of such qualities, we can perceive the spiritual dimension pervading and flowing throughout this temporary material universe. Thus, we recognize the very qualities of the Divine Persons from whom they originate in the spiritual world. We humans are but limited reflected forms of the Divine Couples who reside in original existence. This is why the Vedic tradition placed much value in honoring and worshiping the Divine feminine nature along with the masculineBone without the other is incomplete. This is one of the unique traits that distinguishes Vedic culture from others.

The Future

Examples in Vedic history have shown that all women should be respected and honored for the potential and talent they can provide to keep the family together, as well as bare and raise children, but also for the many women who have taken up the cause to preserve, protect and carry on the spiritual standards found in Vedic culture.

This shows that we should not diminish the potential that women have to be strong advocates of the Vedic principles. We should not discriminate and think that women have less to offer. It is not one's sex that will determine one's strength and character to help champion the Vedic cause.

In this world we need people to help in all areas and all levels of life to protect the Vedic knowledge and traditions, and women have a very important part to play. As we said, they are usually the first inspiration and first teachers of our children. So many of the great men who had become powerful proponents of Sanatana-dharma also had strong and inspiring mothers or wives.

So, you never know who among the women in society, or among our daughters we are raising that may become the next Savitri, Draupadi or Anasuya. Also, you never know who among the boys that the women may raise that may become a great Vedic saint or scholar or stalwart protector of our culture. We must look on everyone as if they have that potential, because somewhere and sometime it will happen. Another great person may appear, be it man or woman, who will emerge from among us. We need to arrange for that possibility to happen by giving all women and children the necessary facility and training.

Every girl should have the opportunity to learn spirituality along with modern education to help her reach her full potential. Of course, this can also be said of boys. No one is born hating another, but this is learned in materialistic societies from wrong association. Only later in life does a person learn the ways of liking their own kind and disliking anyone who seems different. Genuine spiritual knowledge is the alternative to bring a change in such a society and stop the hating and quarrel that go on because of perceiving bodily and external differences between us.

It is the primitive customs as well as the sexist inventions in modern but materialistic society that force social trends to limit, subjugate or even exploit women in today's world. Such a society does not allow the strength or ingenuity of women to arise or be recognized, at least not without a struggle both inside the mind of women and outside in the field of activity and occupation. Women need to muster the strength to overcome such limitations. It is not that the world does not need nurturing and healing right now, which is a common and normal trait in women. After all, how many times do we hear of women being accused of rape, or child abuse and molestation, or kidnapping and murder? These are mostly the crimes of men, imbalanced men but men nonetheless. There is also a connection between the way men destroy the environment (Mother Nature) and their exploitative attitude toward women. This must be corrected.

A faulty beginning or childhood, as well as exposure to thoughts and ideas and indoctrinations of one's limitations rather than of one's superior potential is one of the reasons why women lose their ability, means or motivation for higher accomplishments in life. This often causes their spirit of achievement and contribution to be squelched. This only adds to the struggle of women which is often passed along from one generation to the next. Thus, all of society loses the capabilities that women could otherwise attain and provide. In this way, women often have a built in fear of stepping forward to help meet the needs that the world is crying for.

Harmony needs to be restored between the masculine and feminine natures, which are especially exhibited in the relations between men and women. This can be done most effectively through genuine spiritual development, when both masculine and feminine natures become balanced and complimentary rather than competitive. This can harmonize not only the external relations between people, but also the feminine and masculine tendencies within each individual, both men and women. By genuine spiritual progress we can rise above our bodily material identities and work with and compliment the talents and abilities of others, regardless of whether they are men or women. We must know that within each body is a spirit soul that is no different than our own. By that I mean that we must recognize that on the platform of spiritual reality there is no difference between one soul and the next, no matter whether the external body is male or female. But while we are in this world and in different types of bodies, we can work cooperatively for our survival and for harmony among us, and use our naturally varied talents together. Women can do what they do best and men can do what they do best. This certainly makes it easier for all to live peacefully than in a mood of competition and aggression, or envy and prejudice. In such a mood of cooperation we can see that we all have something to offer or contribute, and we all have something for which we can be appreciated. We only need the right opportunity to bring that out of each and every one of us. The proper leaders of society or of organizations who promote such situations are those who can arrange for such a harmonious environment to exist.

One difference that we often see between men and women is that there is often nothing harder to penetrate than the typical male ego, which often causes men to hesitate to show any weakness and to make a show of a tough exterior, while women often respond easily to love with love. However, love and compassion are not meant to be exhibited only by women or mothers. It is a state of being, a level of consciousness. It is an exhibition of one's spiritual development to have care and concern, compassion and love for each and every being. It should be a common interest that everyone should be able to live a life of opportunity, development and progress for their own material and spiritual well being. And this concern is natural for both men and women who have reached this level of spiritual awareness, recognizing in many ways the similarities between us all, regardless of our sex. This is what is needed to help bring more peace and cooperation in the world, and another reason for protecting and emphasizing the traditional standards of spiritual understanding as found in the teachings of Santana-dharma.

Examples of Great Women in Vedic Culture

Some of the women that have helped make great strides in establishing the foundation of Sanatana-dharma and Vedic culture can be listed and described. They serve as fine examples of historical importance that have been the basis for inspiration to both men and women for centuries. From the early Vedic times these include such women as Sati, Sita, Anasuya, Arundhatee, Draupadi, Queen Kunti, Shakuntala, Maitreyi, Gargi, Madalasa, Savitri, Ahalya, and others. It is said simply reciting their names removes sins. There are additional women from the last few hundred years whose lives we can recollect as well. Such great women have contributed to the glories and splendor of Vedic culture. So let us briefly review the lives of some of these great women.

GREAT WOMEN IN MORE RECENT TIMES

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There are many other women I could have included in this article, especially those who have been recognized as saints and guardians of Vedic culture. Even now there are a host of other women that I have met, whether they are in the Rashtra Seviki Samiti, Iskcon, Vivekanandra Kendra, Arun Jyoti, Swadyaya, Kalyan Ashrama, or other organizations, all working in various ways in their humble service to God, as well as for the protection and advancement of Vedic culture.

So these are just a few stories of the examples of strong and influential women in Vedic culture, from the early Vedic times up to modern date, and how women can further their development in spirituality and reach a higher potential and contribution to society.