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. During the Vedic times, 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. Indian women were exemplary in maintaining the basic principles of Santhana Dharma.
Bharatiya naari (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 the privilege of studying Vedas and Vedanta along with taking part in performing yajnas up until the recent millenia. Bharatiya parampara offered the freedom to women to lead their lives according to their choice. They could either choose long term study of Vedas or get married to become grhasthas. The family itself had become an institution for imparting education, where the sons and probably the daughters were taught in the language and literature of the times. Women were educated both in the spiritual as well as the temporal subjects such as music, craft and fine arts.
Evidence of intellectual excellence of Bharatiya nari (women) is proved by the lofty philosophical ideas and discussions given by female mantra-drashtas of Rigvedic suktas. Gosha, Romasa, Vishvavara, and Gargi are the names of some of the highly educated rshikas mentioned in the Vedas. After completing their education under a Guru they could perform religious rites, participate in philosophical debates, and engage in tapas etc.
The society which aimed more at the spiritual attainment of life and gave its women important functions both at home and in the yajnas also endeavored to equip them to sharpen their mental skills. A maiden seeking a husband for herself with the aid of her elders would find the task easier if her intellectual attainments were added to her physical charm.
Additionally, ladies were also competent to arrange their own marriages, Svayamvara (choosing a husband) was allowed. In Rigvedic times no girl was married before she had reached the womanhood. She must be fully developed physically in her father’s house (Pitrpadam Vyaktaa) before her marriage could be thought of. Suryaa, the daughter of Surya, was given away in marriage only after she became youthful and yearned for a husband.
अन्यामिच्छ पितृषदं व्यक्तां स ते भागो जनुषा तस्य विद्धि ॥२१॥ (Rig. Veda. 10.85.21) anyāmiccha pitr̥ṣadaṁ vyaktāṁ sa te bhāgo januṣā tasya viddhi ॥21॥
In the following sections we shall discuss the importance of the two courses of life offered to women. It is to be noted that the freedom to choose what to do with their lives was an important right of women in Vedic era.
Paths of Education And Marriage
Harita (xxi, 23) says ; "Women are of two classes : (i) Brahmavadini, (2) Sadyovadhu. The former is eligible for Upanayana, Agnyadhana, Veda-Study, and practice of bhiksha within the household. The Sadyovadhu had to perform Upanayana before she is married.”
अत एव हारीतेनोक्तम्: द्विविधाः स्त्रियः । ब्रह्मवादिन्यः सद्योवध्वश्च । तत्र ब्रह्मवादिनीनां उपनयनं अग्नीन्धनं वेदाध्ययनं स्वगृहे च भैक्षचर्येति । सद्योवधूनां तूपस्थिते विवाहे कथञ्चिदुपनयनं कृत्वा विवाहः कार्यः । (Quoted in Samskara Prakasa: P.402.) ata eva hārītenoktam: dvividhāḥ striyaḥ । brahmavādinyaḥ sadyovadhvaśca । tatra brahmavādinīnāṁ upanayanaṁ agnīndhanaṁ vedādhyayanaṁ svagr̥he ca bhaikṣacaryeti । sadyovadhūnāṁ tūpasthite vivāhe kathañcidupanayanaṁ kr̥tvā vivāhaḥ kāryaḥ ।
While brahmavadinis chose the path of Vedic studies, women who opted out of higher education for married life were called 'sadyovadhus'. The education of the Sadyovadhus comprised the study of important veda mantras necessary for the regular prayers and yajnas conducted by a grhastha. Moreover, ladies from the Kshatriya caste received training in martial arts courses and wielding arms. Co-education existed in the Vedic period and both the male and female students got equal attention from the teacher.
Some Brahmavadinis used to marry after completing their education while some would not marry at all. There are many references in the Vedas to unmarried girls who grew old in the house of their fathers (Rigveda. 1.117.7 and 2.17.7).
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.
Necessity of Education for Marriage
As a qualification for marriage the education of the young girl was considered as important as that of the man. It made the task of the parents and elders to find a husband for her easier. Rigveda states that an unmarried young learned daughter should be married to a bridegroom who like her is learned. Never think of giving in marriage a daughter of very young age. The Yajurveda records a similar view. It says,
उ॒प॒या॒मगृ॑हीतोऽस्यादि॒त्येभ्य॑स्त्वा । विष्ण॑ उरुगायै॒ष ते॒ सोम॒स्तं र॑क्षस्व॒ मा त्वा॑ दभन् ।। १ ।। (Yaju. Veda. Madh. 8.1)
Meaning: A young daughter who has observed brahmacharya (finished studies) should be married to a bridegroom who like her is learned.
The wife was a regular participator in the yajnas of the husband as mentioned in the Rigveda mantras (1.122.2; 1.131.3; 3.53.4-6; 5.43.15; 8.31.5; 10.86.10; etc.). It is evident that some knowledge of Vedic rituals was essential to participate in the yajnas. The Srauta or Grhya Sutras mention Vedic Mantras being uttered by the wife at ceremonies along with her husband [e.g. Asvalayana Srautasutras i, ii; Gobhila Grhyasutras, i, 3 ; ii, 3 ; Apastamba xii, 3, 12 ; Paraskara Sutras., ix, 2, i]. Gobhila [Grhyasutras i, 3] states that the wife should be educated to be able to take part in yajnas (nahi khalu anadhitya saknoti patni hotumiti).
Hemadri states that “Kumaris, unmarried girls, should be taught Vidya and Dharmaniti. An educated Kumari brings good to the families of both her father and husband. So she should be married to a learned husband [manishi), as she is a vidushi.”
Women and Yajnas
Just 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 (Shrauta and Grhya) only if he had a wife by his side. Taittriya Brahmana (188.8.131.52) and Shatapata Brahmana (184.108.40.206) lay down that one who does not have a patni or wife cannot perform yajnas.
अयज्ञो वा एषः । योऽपत्नीकः । ayajño vā eṣaḥ । yo'patnīkaḥ । (Tait. Brah 220.127.116.11) यद्वै पत्नी यज्ञस्य करोति मिथुनं तदथो पत्निया एव । yadvai patnī yajñasya karoti mithunaṁ tadatho patniyā eva ।(Tait. Samh. 18.104.22.168)
Taittriya Samhita clearly states that the yajna performed by the wife is for both the partners as given in above mantra. 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।। (Valm. Rama. 2.20.15) sā kṣaumavasanā hr̥ṣṭā nityaṁ vrataparāyaṇā। agniṁ juhoti sma tadā mantravatkr̥tamaṅgalā।।
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।। (Valm. Rama.5.14.49) sandhyākālamanāḥ śyāmā dhruvameṣyati jānakī। nadīṁ cemāṁ śubhajalāṁ sandhyārthe varavarṇinī।।
नारीणां मौञ्जीबन्धनम् ॥Upanayana Samskara for Women
The scheme of education framed by the ancient Bharatiyas to initiate the young children for preparing them for full citizenship of the community marked a great advance over the primitive idea of initiation seen in a few other cultures. Without the Upanayana none could call himself a twice-born. The transformation of personality was marked with this Samskara. 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 the boys. Women in Vedic age who pursued vedic studies, could undergo the sacred thread ceremony or 'Upanayana' (a samskara required to pursue Vedic studies), in contrast to the present times when it is only meant for males.
Atharvaveda equally emphatic in its support of female education states that there are no hindrances for girls to perform the rite of initiation. It expressly refers to maidens undergoing the Brahmacharya vrata for winning a young husband.
ब्रह्मचर्येण कन्या युवानं विन्दते पतिम् । brahmacaryēṇa kanyā yuvānaṁ vindatē patim । (Atha. Veda. 11.7.18)
Importance of Brahmacharya ashrama is stressed for the mental development of the girl child. Manu also includes Upanayana among the samskaras obligatory for girls (2.66). Yama admits the prevalence of Upanayana for girls in earlier ages. The famous and much discussed reference from Yama Smrti as quoted in Sanskara Prakasa says
पुराकल्पे तु नारीणां मौञ्जीबन्धनमिष्यते। अध्यापनं च वेदानां सावित्रीवाचनं तथा॥
purā kalpe kumārīṇāṃ mauñjībandhanamiṣyate। adhyāpanaṃ ca vedānāṃ sāvitrīvacanaṃ tathā॥
पिता पितृव्यो भ्राता वा नैनामध्यापयेत्परः । स्वगृहेचैव कन्याया भेक्षचर्या विधीयते ।।
pitā pitr̥vyō bhrātā vā naināmadhyāpayētparaḥ । svagr̥hēcaiva kanyāyā bhēkṣacaryā vidhīyatē ।।
वर्जयेदजिनं चीरं जटाधारणमेवच । varjayēdajinaṁ cīraṁ jaṭādhāraṇamēvaca । (Quoted in Samskara Prakasa: P.402-403)
In earlier times, girls were eligible for (1) Maunjibandhana (i.e. Upanayana), (2) study of Veda, and (3) Savitri-vachana (use of Savitri Mantra). The girls followed the regulations of Brhmacharyaashrama, but were excluded from wearing the deer skin or bark garments and were not to have the matted hair.
Brahmavādinīs underwent the sacrament of upanayana, kept the Vedic fires, studied the Vedas under their own father, or brothers and lived by taking bhiksha of food under the parental roof. They had samāvartana (valedictory rite at the end of the period of Vedic studies). They could then marry and settle down in life or continue their studies without marrying. 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. Girls who devoted themselves to education after Upanayana thus had to follow the regulations laid down for a male Upaneeta with some exceptions and modifications. They were never looked adversely by the society and some parents performed penance to obtain such progeny. The Brhdaranyaka Upanishad as given below, prescribes an offering of cooked sesame and rice in yajna for obtaining a daughter who becomes a Brahmavadini and stay with them for entire life.
अथ य इच्छेद् दुहिता मे पण्डिता जायेत सर्वमायुरियादिति तिलौदनं पाचयित्वा सर्पिष्मन्तमश्नीयाताम् । ईश्वरौ जनयितवै ॥ बृह. ६,४.१७ ॥ (Brhd. Upan. 6.4.17) atha ya icched duhitā me paṇḍitā jāyeta sarvamāyuriyāditi tilaudanaṁ pācayitvā sarpiṣmantamaśnīyātām । īśvarau janayitavai ॥
Coeducation prevailed in the past, but the sources throw little light on this subject. In the Christian era, we have Bhavabhuti the author of Malatimadhava, who mentions that Kamandaki was educated alsong with Bhurivasu and Devarata at a famous education center. In Uttara Ramacharita he mentions Atreyi receiving her education along with Kusa and Lava in Valmiki ashrama. The stories of Kahoda and Sujata, Ruruand Pramadvaara narrated in the Puranas, also point to prevalence of co-education of children. This evidence points out that at least some centuries earlier, in some time boys and girls were educated together while receiving higher education.
Rarely we see some Rigveda followers still practicing the Upanayana samskara and use of yajnopaveeta for female children even in the present times.
ब्रह्मवादिनी ॥ Brahmavadini
The attainments of lady scholars, who remained unmarried for a longer time, were naturally wider and more varied. In the Vedic age, they used to acquire thorough mastery in the Vedic literature and even compose poems, some of which have been honoured by their inclusion in the Vedas. As yajnas became complex, a new branch of study, called Mimamsa, came to be developed in their connection. We find lady scholars taking keen interest in it. Kashakritsnin had composed a work on Mimansa called Kashakritsni (काशकृत्स्नि) after him; lady students who used to specialise in it, were known as Kashakritsna (काशकृत्स्ना). If lady specialists in a technical science like Mimamsa were so numerous as to necessitate the coining of a new special term to denote them, it can be concluded that the number of women who used to receive general literacy and cultural education must have been fairly large. In the age of the Upanishads, we have lady scholars with interest in the study of philosophy. Maitreyi, the wife of Yajnavalkya and Gargi Vachaknavi are noted examples. The keen reasoning and subtle cross-examination of Yajnavalkya by Gargi shows that she was a dialectician and philosopher of a high order. Some lady scholars of the age like Sulabha, Vadava, Pratitheyi, Maitreyi, and Gargi seem to have made real contribution to the advancement of knowledge, for they enjoy the rare privilege of being included among the galaxy of distinguished scholars, to whom a daily tribute of gratitude was to be given by a grateful posterity at the time of the daily prayer (Brahmayajna).
गर्गी वाचक्नवी वडवा प्रातिथेयी सुलभा मैत्रेयी....शौनकमाश्वलायनं ये चान्य आचार्यास्ते सर्वे तृप्यन्त्विति ४ (Asva. Grhy. Sutr. 3.4.4 and Shan. Grhy. Sutr. 6.10.3) gargī vācaknavī vaḍavā prātitheyī sulabhā maitreyī....śaunakamāśvalāyanaṁ ye cānya ācāryāste sarve tr̥pyantviti 4
Women-seers were called Rishikas and Brahmavadinis. The Rigveda knows of the following rshikas, viz.
- Romasa [1.126.7]
- Lopamudra [1.179.1-6]
- Apala [8.91.1-7]
- Kadru [2.6.8]
- Vishvavara [5.28.3]
and several others mentioned in the tenth Mandala, such as:
while the Samaveda adds the following, viz.
- Nodha [Purvarchchika, xiii, i]
- Sikatanivavari [Uttararchchika, i, 4]
- Gaupayana [ib., xxii, 4]
Brhaddevata mentions the following list of rishikas in Rigvedic times mentioned as Brahmavadinis.
घोषा गोधा विश्ववारा, अपालोपनिषन्निषत् । ब्रह्मजाया जुहूर्नाम अगस्त्यस्य स्वसादिति: ॥
इन्द्राणी चेन्द्रमाता च सरमा रोमशोर्वशी । लोपामुद्रा च नद्यश्च यमी नारी च शश्वती ॥
श्रीर्लाक्षा सार्पराज्ञी वाक्श्रद्धा मेधा च दक्षिणा । रात्री सूर्या च सावित्री ब्रह्मवादिन्य ईरिता: ॥ (बृहद्देवता २/८४, ८५, ८६)
ghoṣā godhā viśvavārā, apālopaniṣanniṣat । brahmajāyā juhūrnāma agastyasya svasāditi: ॥
indrāṇī cendramātā ca saramā romaśorvaśī । lopāmudrā ca nadyaśca yamī nārī ca śaśvatī ॥
śrīrlākṣā sārparājñī vākśraddhā medhā ca dakṣiṇā । rātrī sūryā ca sāvitrī brahmavādinya īritā: ॥ (br̥haddevatā 2/84, 85, 86)
Meaning: Ghosha, Godha, Vishvavara, Apaala, Upanishad, Nishad, Brahmajaya (Juhu), Agasthya's sister, Aditi, Indrani, Indra's mother, Sarama, Romasha, Urvashi, Lopamudra, Nadis (Rivers), Yami, Shasvati, Shri, Laksha, Sarparajni, Vak, Shraddha, Medha, Dakshina, Ratri, and Suryaa are all Brahmavadinis.
The Brahmavadinis were the products of the educational discipline of brahmacharya for which women also were eligible. Rigveda (5.7.9) refers to young maidens completing their education as brahmacharinis and then gaining husbands in whom they are merged like rivers in oceans. Rigveda 3.55.16 mentions unmarried learned and young daughters who should be married to learned bridegrooms. Yajurveda [8.1] similarly states that a daughter, who has completed her brahmacharya, should be married to one who is learned like her. The Atharvaveda [9.6] also refers to maidens qualifying by their brahmacharya, the disciplined life of studentship, for married life in the second ashrama (brahmacharyena kanya yuvanam vindate patim).
At least twenty different women are credited as the mantra drashtas of Rigveda as given in the above list. For example आङ्गिरसी शश्वती ऋषिका । Angirasi Shasvati rishika was associated with Rk number 34 of Mandala 8 Sukta 1.
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) atha ha yājñavalkyasya dve bhārye babhūvaturmaitreyī ca kātyāyanī ca । tayorha maitreyī brahmavādinī babhūva ।
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
समिद्धो अग्निर्दिवि शोचिरश्रेत् प्रत्यङ्ङु॒षसमुर्विया वि भाति । एति प्राची विश्ववारा नमोभिर्देवाँ ईळाना हविषा घृताची ॥१॥ (Rig. Veda. 5.28.1) samiddho agnirdivi śociraśret pratyaṅṅu̱ṣasamurviyā vi bhāti । eti prācī viśvavārā namobhirdevām̐ īlānā haviṣā ghr̥tācī ॥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) yadidaṁ sarvamapsvotaṁ ca protaṁ ca kasminnu khalvāpa otāśca protāśceti । vāyau gārgīti ।
"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) sā hovāca yadūrdhvaṁ yājñavalkya divo yadavākpr̥thivyā yadantarā dyāvāpr̥thivī ime yadbhūtaṁ ca bhavacca bhaviṣyaccetyācakṣate kasmiṁstadotaṁ ca protaṁ ceti ॥ 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.
She emphatically expresses the idea of the unity of the Universe. She is conceived as the real force, Shakti, the guiding feminine principle in the scheme of creation. No work of the divine can be accomplished without the support of this energy. 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 ॥ Romasha
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.
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.
Upadhyayani (उपाध्यायानी) Vs Upadhyaayaa (उपाध्याया)
When a large number of women were receiving higher education and were making their own contributions to the march of knowledge, it is but natural to suppose that some of them must have followed the profession of teaching. And the presence of the terms Upadhyaayaa (उपेत्याधीयते अस्याः सा उपाध्याया one (lady) who sits nearby and teaches is Upadhyaayaa as per Patanjali) and Upadhyayani in Sanskrit language supports this conjecture. The latter of these words (Upadhyayani) is a courtesy title given to the wife of a teacher, who may or may not be educated. The former, however, denotes a lady, who was herself a teacher. That a special term should have been coined to denote lady teachers in order to distinguish them from wives of teachers would show that their number in society could not have been small. We must note in this connection that there was no Purdah custom in Hindu society down to the 12th century, and so there was no difficulty for women in taking to the teaching profession. Lady teachers may probably have confined themselves to the teaching of girl students, though some may have taught boys also. Panini refers to boarding houses for lady-students, chhatrishalas (छात्रिशालाः छात्र्यादयः शालायाम्) (6.2.86), and these probably were under the superintendence of Upadhyayas or lady teachers, who had made teaching their profession.
Reasons for decline in Upanayana and Vedic Studies
In the time Upanayana and vedic study was common for girls it is needless to add that women used to offer morning and evening prayers as regularly as men. Gradually the both Upanayana and Vedic study for girls declined owing to many reasons.
- At the time of composition of Brahmanas the volume of vedic studies became extensive, subsidiary sciences (Vedangas) were developed with many commentaries. Subject became extensive and a long period of time was required to complete the studies.
- The spoken dialect of the age had begun to differ considerably from the language of the Vedic hymns, and the theory had found universal acceptance that to commit a single most minor mistake in the recitation of a Vedic Mantra would produce most disastrous consequences to the reciter.
मंत्रो हीनः स्वरतो वर्णतो वा मिथ्याप्रयुक्तो न तमर्थमाह । स वाग्वज्रो यजमान हिनस्ति यथेन्द्रशत्रुः स्वरतोऽपराधात् ॥ (Panini Shiksha 52)
- As a consequence, society began to insist that those who wanted to undertake Vedic studies must be prepared to devote a fairly long period, of about 12 to 16 years to the task. Women used to be married at about the age of 16 or 17, and could thus give only 7 or 8 years to their Vedic studies. So short a period was quite insufficient for an efficient grounding in the Vedic lore in the age of the Brahamanas. Society was not prepared to tolerate dilettante Vedic studies, and as a consequence, lady Vedic scholars began to become rarer and rarer.
- Vaidika yajnas also became very complicate at this time ; they could be properly performed only by those who had studied their minute intricacies very carefully. As a consequence, the participation of women in yajnas gradually became a mere matter of formality. Gradually male substitutes were assigned duties in the yajnas.
- The wife was originally entitled to offer oblations in the Grihya fire in the absence of the husband ; now a son, or a brother-in-law began to act in her place (Sank. Grhy. Sutr. 2. 17, 13). She continued to perform the evening offerings down to the beginning of the Christian era, but the recitation of the Vedic Mantras was prohibited to her on the occasion.
- Since women did not have to recite Vedic mantras for any yajnas, gradually the associated Upanayana samskara for their education was gone as a formality just before their marriage. Later in the Smriti age, it was advocated that girls' Upanayana may be performed but without Vaidika mantras (Manu 2.66). Some texts prohibited the ceremony altogether.
- A theory came about that service of the husband corresponded to the service of the preceptor, therefore Upanayana was unnecessary for girls. When upanayana was discontinued in the case of girls, it began to be advocated that other rituals also should be permitted to them, only if they were performed without the recitation of the Vedic Mantras. This position has been taken up by almost all the Smriti writers.
The prohibition of upanayana amounted to spiritual disenfranchisement of women and produced a disastrous effect upon their general position in society. It reduced them to the status of Shudras. The practice of women performing sacrifices by themselves, however, died down by the beginning of the Christian era.
The advent of Buddhism and Jainism which were ascetic religions was mainly to counter the brahminical rituals of the Vedas. While these religions accepted women not much attention was given to them. The concept of Vedas was that the husband and the wife are equal and necessary partners in divine worship. The principle implies that men and women have equal rights and responsibilities in matters temporal as well. Since the spiritual disenfranchisement of women, men have become accustomed to regard them as their inferiors in all the spheres of life. Upanayana has become a meaningless formality even in the case of boys; women naturally feel that they have nothing to gain by becoming re-eligible for it. It is true that the religious disenfranchisement that resulted from the ineligibility for upanayana produced a disastrous consequence upon the general status of women in society.
In the later ages as focus on education of girl child declined, with the invasions of foreigners, protection became paramount. Child marriages which were once not thought of now became significant. This further led to the fall of a woman's status in the society. We see how education and marriage was interlinked in maintaining the status of the women in the society.
Many dharmik practitioners have been primarily criticized as encouraging gender inequality between men and women, which proved to be detrimental to the Indian women. A list of such misconceptions are summarized below.
- Women in ancient times were uneducated and exploited.
- Women had no role in performing yajnas
- Samskaras are not meant for women
- Girls were not allowed to decide their course in life
- Girls were always to remain secluded inside their homes
- Women are meant for domestic work (i.e., they had no social, political and administrative roles)
The previous sections describe the educational progress of Bharatiya nari even while women in other parts of the world have been going through dark ages of suppression. It may be noted that the references here dispel many misconceptions regarding education of women in Vedic times which are based on prejudice and are thus unfounded. Such false information about the Vedic practices caused much harm misguiding the newer generations about the concepts of Sanatana Dharma. Salient aspects about Education of Women in Ancient India include
- Education of girl child in higher studies was encouraged by parents.
- Upanayana samskara of girl child was performed for initiation into vedic education on par with a male child.
- Girl child was educated in a protected environment with special provisions in the rules of Brahmacharyaashrama
- Girls had a choice of subject in their education
- Coeducation existed with ease
- Women could choose between education and marriage
- Costs of education were supported by parents
Our Sanskrit literature and history also support the view that the absolute seclusion and restraint of women were not the practicing dharmik customs. The practice was unknown in India till the advent of the Muhammandans, when partly in self defense, partly in imitation of their masters, the upper classes of the society began to seclude their women. Bharatiya Parampara also supported education of women. Advaitavedanta Acharya Sri. Adi Sankaracharya is said to have engaged in a debate with Bharati, the learned wife of Mandana Mishra.
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