A Brahmavadini (Samskrit : ब्रह्मवादिनी) is a highly intelligent and greatly learned woman, who chose the path of Vedic studies. Brahmavadini literally means ‘the woman who speaks about Brahman (ब्रह्मन् । Parabrahma). The ancient philosophical concept of shakti, the feminine principle of energy, extols the immense mental and physical capabilities of women.
While many civilizations have seen unsatisfactory history as regards the position of women, we find that Vedas mention the scholarship of educated women like Vaak Ambhrni, Romasa, Gargi, Ghosha, Maitreyi and Lopamudra.
Women, as we go back into antiquity, are found to have performed very well in many spheres of life. Ample evidence points to the view that women were regarded as eligible for studying Vedas and Vedanta along with taking part in performing yajnas up until the recent millenia.
Co-education existed in the Vedic period and both the male and female students got equal attention from the teacher. Moreover, ladies from the Kshatriya caste received training in martial arts courses and wielding arms.
During the Vedic age, women were assigned a high place in society. They shared an equal standing with their men folk and enjoyed a great liberty that actually had societal sanctions. Women were examples for maintaining the basic principles of Santhana Dharma. After completing their education under a Guru they could perform religious rites.
While brahmavadinis chose the path of Vedic studies, women who opted out of education for married life were called 'sadyovadhus'.
Women and Yajnas
As in present day, after marriage, the girl became a 'grihini' (wife) and was considered 'ardhangini' or one half of her husband's being. Both of them constituted the 'griha' or home, and she was considered its 'samrajni' (queen or mistress) and had an equal share in the performance of religious activities. A householder was eligible to perform yajnas only if he had a wife by his side. Taittriya Brahmana (22.214.171.124) and Shatapata Brahmana (126.96.36.199) lay down that one who does not have a patni or wife cannot perform yajnas.
अयज्ञो वा एषः । योऽपत्नीकः । (Tait. Brah 188.8.131.52)
She partakes in the offering of milk in Agnihotra and other Pakayajnas unaided by her husband, normally in the evening and sometimes in the morning also. Under special situations she gets the right to perform the activities when her husband goes to distant places or if he is unwell.
That women even during the later yugas were well versed in veda mantras is clearly documented. Kaushalya was by herself performing a yajna on the morning of her son, Sri Rama's proposed installation as heir apparent.
सा क्षौमवसना हृष्टा नित्यं व्रतपरायणा। अग्निं जुहोति स्म तदा मन्त्रवत्कृतमङ्गला।।2.20.15।। (Valm. Rama. 2.20.15)
Always engaged in the observance of vratas, Kaushalya clad in silk clothes was offering oblations in Agni in accordance with veda mantras (mantravid) for auspiciousness.
Same was the case of Tara, the wife of Vali, at the time he left for the fateful duel with Sugriva. Shri Rama's wife Sita also performed the sandhya activities during the days of her captivity in Lanka is evident by the following sloka
सन्ध्याकालमनाः श्यामा ध्रुवमेष्यति जानकी। नदीं चेमां शुभजलां सन्ध्यार्थे वरवर्णिनी।।5.14.49।। (Valm. Rama.5.14.49)
Upanayana of Girls
No one can recite veda mantras or perform yajnas without having undergone the initiation called as Upanayana. It is thus natural that in the early ages Upanayana of girls was as common as that of boys. Women in Vedic age who pursued vedic studies, could undergo the sacred thread ceremony or 'Upanayana' (a sacrament to pursue Vedic studies), which is only meant for males in the present day.
Atharvaveda expressly refers to maidens undergoing the Brahmacharya vrata.
ब्रह्मचर्येण कन्या युवानं विन्दते पतिम् । (Atha. Veda. 11.7.18)
Manu also includes Upanayana among the samskaras obligatory for girls (2.66). Yama admits the prevalence of Upanayana for girls in earlier ages.
Rarely we see some Rig veda followers still practice the Upanayana samskara and wearing of yajnopaveeta for female children even in the present day.
सद्योवधुः ॥ Sadyovadhu
‘Sadyovadhus’ were those who became vadhus or brides straight-away, (sadyas = at once) on the attainment of puberty, without undergoing the training in the Vedic studies. In their case, the upanayana ceremony was performed just before marriage, at the age of 16 or 17. The education of sadyovadhus comprised the study of important veda mantras and stotras necessary for the usual prayers and yajnas after marriage.Music and dance were also taught to them them; partiality of women to these arts is often referred to in the vedic literature.
ब्रह्मवादिनी ॥ Brahmavadini
Brahmavādinīs underwent the sacrament of upanayana, kept the Vedic fires, studied the Vedas under their own father and lived by begging the food, also under the parental roof. They had samāvartana (valedictory rite at the end of the period of Vedic studies) also. They could then marry and settle down in life. The name ‘brahmavādinī’ seems to have been given due to the fact that the girl could recite (vad = to speak or recite) the Vedas (Brahma = Veda).
These learned women were interested in discussing about ब्रह्मन् or Parabrahman, the Absolute, and perform adhyatmik practices to realize the same.
At least twenty different women are credited as the mantra drashtas of Rigveda. For example आङ्गिरसी शश्वती ऋषिका । Angirasi Shasvati rishika was associated with Rk number 34 of Mandala 8 Sukta 1. A few of the noted include, Vishvavara, Maitreyi, Nivavari, Ghosha, Romasa, Apala.
र्मैत्रेयी ॥ Maitreyi
The Brhadaranyaka Upaniṣad (4.5.1) calls Maitreyi, wife of Yajnavalkya maharshi, as a brahmavadini. Yajnavalkya had two wives Maitreyi and Katyayani.
अथ ह याज्ञवल्क्यस्य द्वे भार्ये बभूवतुर्मैत्रेयी च कात्यायनी च । तयोर्ह मैत्रेयी ब्रह्मवादिनी बभूव । (Brhd. Upan. 4.5.1)
When he intended to adopt the fourth ashrama, he wanted to make a settlement of worldly things between Maitreyi and Katyayani. Maitreyi, disregarding the short-lived transient material wealth, asked him to endow them with the long lasting Knowledge that gives them Ultimate Happiness or Sasvata Ananda. She then learns and engages in Vedanta discussions with her husband Yājñavalkya (See Yajnavalkya Maitreyi Samvada).
विश्ववारा ॥ Vishvavara
समि॑द्धो अ॒ग्निर्दि॒वि शो॒चिर॑श्रेत् प्र॒त्यङ्ङु॒षस॑मुर्वि॒या वि भा॑ति । एति॒ प्राची॑ वि॒श्ववा॑रा॒ नमो॑भिर्दे॒वाँ ईळा॑ना ह॒विषा॑ घृ॒ताची॑ ॥१॥ (Rig. Veda. 5.28.1)
Starting with the above mantra, these mantras outline the importance of careful attention required during Atithi satkara by women. A lady should collect the required materials and havis for the husband engaged in performing Agnihotra (where Agni is invited as a guest), and protect the Agni.
घोषा ॥ Ghosha
She is revered as a rishika, who was the daughter of Rishi Kakshivan (काक्षीवान् । a descendent of Angiras) and granddaughter of Dirgatamas maharshi. As she suffered from a skin ailment (leprosy) from childhood she was unable to get married. She dutifully served her father and continuously prayed to the Ashvini Kumaras, the divine physicians, who were endowed with the power of rejuvenation. Pleased with her deep and sincere prayers the Ashvini Kumaras taught her Madhu Vidya, which granted her youth and great knowledge and cured her of her ailment due to which she subsequently got a worthy husband.
Ghosha (काक्षीवती घोषा।) prays that Ashvini Kumaras shower immense blessings on her (just as rains brighten up the fields) such that her youth is enhanced and that she is favored by an appropriate husband. She also prays for the wellbeing of her future husband that he is always protected by them.
She composed two Rig Veda suktas 39 and 40 of Mandala ten each containing 14 mantras on Ashvini devatas, the first one eulogising them and the second one expressing that her wishes about married life are fulfilled. Her son Suhastya also composed a sukta in the Rig Veda (Sukta 41 of Rigveda Mandala 10).
गार्गी ॥ Gargi
In Vedic literature, the name of Gargi is very famous. She was the daughter of Vachaknu rshi (वचक्नुऋषिः) hence called as Vachaknavi (वाचक्नवी). Since she belonged to the lineage of Garga maharshi, she was called Gargi (गार्गी), but her original name is not described in any text. She acquired knowledge of the Vedas and scriptures and became renowned for her proficiency in these fields of philosophy, surpassing men in her knowledge.
According to Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Raja Janaka of Videha held a Rajasuya Yajna and invited all the learned rshis, rajas and brahmins of various places such as Kuru and Panchala to participate in a shastra debate. Janaka intended to select a scholar from the assembled group of elite scholars, the most accomplished of them all who had maximum knowledge about Brahman and declared a thousand cows, each decorated with golden horns as reward for the same. No scholar in the assembled group had the knowledge nor courage as no Brahmavid would announce that he is an all-knower of Brahman, but Yajnavalkya asked that the herd of cows be driven to his home. When asked by Janaka whether he is the Brahmavetta, Yajnavalkya declines and starts to discuss the qualities of Brahman among the scholarly group.
Gargi, as one of the disputants in the debate, questioned Yajnavalkya on his claim of superiority among the scholars. She asks
यदिदं सर्वमप्स्वोतं च प्रोतं च कस्मिन्नु खल्वाप ओताश्च प्रोताश्चेति । वायौ गार्गीति । (Brhd. Upan. 3.6.1)
"Bhagavan! if all the earthly material is woven like warp and woof (ओताश्च प्रोताश्च) in waters, what then is that, in which the waters are woven?" Yajnavalkya replies"in Vayu (air) O!Gargi" Continuing like this she further questions as what was the foundation of Vayu, Akasha, Antariksha, Gandharvaloka, Adityaloka, Chandraloka, Nakshatraloka, Devaloka, Indraloka followed by Prajapatiloka. When the question of Brahmaloka arises Yajnavalkya restrains her way of questioning and she stops there. The idea is do not question about the support of the worlds above Brahmaloka. After Uddalaka poses some questions and is quietened by Yajnavalkya Gargi resumes her questioning. She asks him two other straight questions. 
सा होवाच यदूर्ध्वं याज्ञवल्क्य दिवो यदवाक्पृथिव्या यदन्तरा द्यावापृथिवी इमे यद्भूतं च भवच्च भविष्यच्चेत्याचक्षते कस्मिंस्तदोतं च प्रोतं चेति ॥ ३,८.३ ॥ (Brhd. Upan. 3.8.3)
She said "By what, O! Yajnavalkya, is that pervaded above the heavens, below the earth and in between the two (heaven and earth) about which they say it was, is and will be (exist)." For this Yajnavalkya answers "Akasha in the form of unmanifested ether".
Gargi further questions (2nd question) "In what is that Akasha is unmanifested ether woven like warp and woof?" Yajnavalkya replies "स होवाच एतद्वै तदक्षरं गार्गि!"(Brhd. Upan. 3.8.8). Akshara is that which pervades everything or utilizes everything. This signifies the immutable Brahman about which the people who have realised Brahman describe as the support of the unmanifested ether also. And in this way Yajnavalkya proves the Aksharatattva of the Parabrahman by way of negation of worldly things. In the end she accepts his proficiency and offers salutations to him. Reading the deep philosophy embedded in her questions one can understand her knowledge, by which she did not develop pride but was forthcoming in praising her opponent.
Gargi was honoured as one of scholarly people in the court of King Janaka of Mithila.
अपाला ॥ Apala
Apala was the daughter of Atri maharshi. She was afflicted with leprosy because of which she was forsaken by her husband. She prays to Indra to become free from the disease and invites him for Somapana (drinking Soma), offers him Soma. Indra pleased by her devotion restores her health and beauty. She is a brahmavadini who is the mantra drashta for Rks in Mandala 8 Sukta 91.
वाक् ॥ Vak (वागाम्भृणी)
Also called as Vagambhrni (वागाम्भृणी) she was the daughter of Vak Ambhrn rshi and was a great Brahmavadini who achieved oneness with Devi Bhagavati. She is the mantra drashta for the devi rk mantras of Mandala 10 Sukta 125 with 8 mantras, which clearly reflect the advaita siddhanta. This sukta is said to bestow great benefits when recited at the end of the recitation of Devi Mahatmyam. A few lines of the sukta are as follows.
I am the sacchidanandamayi atma moving about (pervading) in the forms of Devi, Rudra, Vasu, Aditya, Vishvedeva. I am none other than the Mitravaruna, Indra and Agni, and the two Asvini Kumaras themselves. I take the forms of Soma, Tvashtra, Prajapati, Pusha, Bhaga. I receive the havis for the devatas and give the appropriate returns to the yajamana.
We see that Vagambhrini became a Brahmavadini inspired with the knowledge of the Self through whom the Vak Devi proclaimed her own glory. The Devi Sukta is also known as Ambhrni Sukta and is dedicated to Vak(speech).
रोमशा ॥ Romasa
Romasa was one of the woman seers who was the mantra drashta of the Rig Veda rks. She was a Brahmavadini who underwent the upanayana or thread ceremony, Vedic study and Savitri Vachana (higher studies). She was the daughter of Brhaspati and dharmapatni of Bhavayavya. It is said that she used to discuss about that information which enhanced the intellect, hence was called Romasa. Vedas and their shakas themselves are the hairs on her body, and she used to spread that knowledge hence called Romasa (indicates that she was wellversed in the Vedas).
Romasa means one who has lots of hairs. Her husband once teased Romasa, and her reply as given in the Rigveda (1.126) is that her body may be hairy but all her organs are fully grown.(Page 651 of Puranic Encyclopedia).
सुलभा ॥ Sulabha
Sulabha is a brahmajnani who once visits Raja Janaka called Dharmadhvaja's palace at Mithila with an intention of dispelling his nature of conducting debates with the purpose of establishing his point of view (Svamata) and quashing others viewpoints (Paramata). Although Janaka's sabha is adorned with many Brahmavadis this habit of having debates for showing his perspectives did not end. Although he himself was a great Dharma Jnani, always engaged in scholarly thoughts, well versed in darshanas such as samkhya and yoga, he was still not able to recognise the Atmatattva.
Janaka respectfully greets her and offers hospitality. However, she remains silent when he asks her personal information, and the purpose of her visit. Janaka then explains about himself, his qualities, knowledge and the reason for not leaving the position of a Maharaja inspite of being a Videha, free of attachments on the path of moksha. Sulabha then explains to him about good and bad qualities of speech and the 18 doshas arising out of the speech. She then explains how a sentence should be conveyed, with clarity, meaning, free from ambiguity, and containing eight qualities. The speech incited by the mind afflicted with Kama (desire), Krodha (anger), Bhaya (fear), Lobha (greed), Dainya (misery), Garva (pride), Labha (gains), Daya (sympathy), Mana (arrogance) is full of doshas (faults). This has a strong relationship with the science of language. Janaka and Sulabha Samvada is a beautiful anecdote given in the Mahabharata (Shanti Parva Adhyaya 320). By her yogic powers she entered the mind of Janaka. She and Janaka were thus in the same body when they carried on the discussion (Page 762 of Puranic Encyclopedia).
Then Sulabha proceeds to explain about the Atmatattva. Any physical body is formed by the combination of animate and inanimate substances filled with mithyajnana. She explains that just as any two sand grains stay associated without knowing about each other, so also even though two persons cannot recognize each other. Once the unity of Atmatattava is understood the diversity is dissolved and thus Sva (self) and Para (others) do not exist.
She reveals that she is a Kshatriya, her father was a Rajarshi named Pradhana and because she could not find a suitable person she did not marry.
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