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Women in Hindu Religious Thought

 To understand the position of women in Hinduism, one must understand the true essence of Hindu scriptures and be able to discriminate between what is religious philosophy versus what was merely social philosophy in the ancient times.  The social philosophy varies with time, but the religious ideals do not.  This point is critical since Hinduism has a large number of scriptures and lack of right understanding as to their content and hierarchy can result in distortion of the Hindu religious tradition.    

 Hindu scriptures re generally classified into two categories: Sruti (primary scriptures) and Smriti (secondary scriptures).   Sruti in Sanskrit means “that which is heard.”  Thus the Sruti scriptures are the eternal truths that the Vedic seers, called rishis, are said to have heard in their deep meditations.  These scriptures are not considered the works of the human mind, but an expression of what has been realized through intuitive perception. This category includes Vedas, Upanishads, Brahmasutra and the Bhagavad Gita.  Some sampradayas (religious traditions) consider their Agamas also as Sruti scriptures.  The Sruti scriptures are the primary scriptures of Hinduism and, as such, hold the highest authority.

 Smriti in Sanskrit means “that which is remembered.”  Smriti scriptures are considered to be of human origin and include a large number of religious writings, such as Ramayana, Mahabharatta, Puranas, Manu Smriti, and Dharma Shastras.  Smriti scriptures are the secondary scriptures of Hinduism and are subordinate to the Sruti scriptures.

 What is the purpose of the Smriti scriptures?  The primary scriptures of Hinduism (Sruti) are difficult to understand by the general masses.  Furthermore, they only address the goal of human life (Self-Realization) and how to attain this goal with the spiritual code of conduct known as Yama and Niyama.  Sruti scriptures are not concerned with the social philosophy that varies from time to time.  The Smriti scriptures were written later to explain and elaborate the Sruti scriptures, making them understandable and more meaningful to the general population. Smriti scriptures use real life stories, narratives, fables, myths and folklore to expound the highest truths contained in the Sruti scriptures.  Smriti scriptures were also written to delineate the social philosophy for the Hindu society in the ancient times.  Later, when the sectarian fever rose in India, many sects wrote more Smriti scriptures to promote their religious views. Some of these sects wrote their own scriptures in which they even compared deities and declared their own deities to be superior to others.  There are stories (such as Satyanarayana Katha) which even depict deities as being sometimes angry, revengeful, dictatorial, and power-thirsty. 

 What is the view of Hinduism’s highest scriptures (Sruti) on the position of women?  Religious scholars agree that Upanishads are the highest among even the Sruti scriptures.  The philosophy of all the Upanishads is summarized in four verses, which are called Mahavakyas (great utterances).  These are:  aham Brahmasmi (I am the spirit, i.e. atman), tat tvam asi (That thou art), prajnanam Brahma  (Brahman is pure consciousness) and ayam atma Brahma (this self is Brahman).  In different ways and by different words, all these four Mahavakyas simply confirm the fact that an individual regardless of religion, race, culture, gender, color, cast, creed or geographic location is atman clothed in a physical body.  The physical body we get is the result of our past karma.  What we are now is the result of our past practice and again practice makes us what we shall be.  The differences between individuals exist only at physical level.  There are no spiritual differences between man and woman.  The husband and wife are the two sides of the same coin.  They are the two manifestations of the same atman. For this very reason, Swami Vivekananda says, “The husband and wife are the two wings of a bird.”  This is the highest teaching of Hinduism and comes from its highest scriptures.

 Hindu religious philosophy views marriage like a triangle where God is at the apex and the husband and wife are at the other two corners that farm the base of the triangle.  As long as the couple is at the base, there is great separation between them.  However, when they begin moving towards God together, the distance between them decreases.  The distance between then decreases to zero when they reach God and unite in Him forever in joy. If any one of its wings is inferior, weak or damaged, the bird will fail to fly.

 The most important rite of the Vedic wedding ceremony is Sapatpadi.  Here the bride and bridegroom take seven steps together around the nuptial fire (Agni) and make the following seven wedding vows to each other:

 “With God as guide, let us take, the first step to nourish each other, the second step to grow together in strength, the third step to preserve our wealth, the fourth step to share our joys and sorrows, the fifth step to care for our children, the sixth step to be together forever, and the seventh step to remain lifelong friends, perfect halves to make a perfect whole.”

 The words “perfect halves to make perfect hole” is the final word of Hinduism on the relationship between husband and wife.  Thus Hinduism provides same religious rights and privileges to women as it does to men.  Neither is woman superior to man, nor is man superior to woman.  Both are “perfect halves to make perfect hole.” 

 The following are quotes from other scriptures that further confirm the equality between men and women in all religious and spiritual aspects:

 “Unite, O Lord, this couple like a pair of lovebirds.  May they be surrounded by children living both long and happy ”  Atharva Veda Samhita 14.2.64

“Let there be faithfulness to each other until death.  This may be considered as the summary of the highest law for husband and wife.”     Manu Smriti 9.101

 

“May our prayers and worship be alike, and may our devotional offerings be one and the same.”   Rig Veda Samhita 10.191.3

 

What the above scriptures tell us is this:  The marriage in Hindu religion is a life-long partnership between two lovebirds, called husband and wife.  The highest religion for these lovebirds is to be faithful to each other.  Neither is the husband god, nor is the wife goddess.  Both are the soul in bondage and their prayers and worship should be alike for their spiritual freedom, moksha.  

 Here is what Mahatma Gandhi tells us about women in general and husband-wife relationship in particular:  

 “To call women the weaker sex is libel; it is man’s injustice to women.”  Mahatma Gandhi

 

“The wife is not the husband’s bond-slave but his companion and his help-mate and an equal partner in all his joys and sorrows---as free as the husband to choose her own path.”   Mahatma Gandhi

  Baba Hari Dass, a well-known modern living saint reminds us that:

 “Wife and Husband are like two equal halves of a soybean.  One half-alone will not grow.  If two parts are separated and planted in the earth, still they will not grow.  The bean will grow only when both parts are covered by one skin, which makes them one.” 

 If we study the ancient history, we find that women held top religious and social positions in the Vedic period.  There are references to women sages and saints in Vedas and Upanishads who were greatly revered for their religious and spiritual wisdom. During and following the epic period, the caste system (an ancient social philosophy) became rigid, which caused conflict within the society.  The women often became the victims of this internal social conflict as well as the violence caused by the foreign invaders. The protection of women thus became a pressing issue for the society and the men had to shoulder this responsibility.  The critical need to protect the women during the ancient period is clearly reflected in the following verse of the Manusmriti:

 “Father protects (her) in childhood, husband protects (her) in youth, and sons protect (her) in old age.  A woman cannot be left unprotected.”  (MS 9.3)

 Thus, the husband became the sole protector (like god) of his wife.  This led to a social structure in which a wife was expected to cling to her husband for protection--in other words, worship him. This is why Ramayana says that the highest dharma of the woman is to worship her husband. The times have changed and the ancient social philosophy is irrelevant now.     

 Harmlessness is considered the highest morality in Hinduism (Mahabharatta Shantiparva 262.5.6). A Hindu is taught to advance the spirit of harmlessness by maintaining harmony in his own life, in the family and society, with the ultimate goal spiritual perfection through selfless work, meditation and yoga. Scriptures are a means to this end, but not the end in themselves. If the social philosophy delineated by the Sacred Law of the ancient times is not suitable now, it should be ignored, including those writings which expound the superiority of man over woman or vice versa, husband over wife or vice versa, or one deity over another. Hindus are permitted to exercise this choice by one of the Hinduism’s most dominant Smriti scripture, Manu Smriti, which declares: 

 “Let him avoid the acquisition of wealth and the gratification of his desires, if they are opposed the Sacred Law, and even lawful acts which may cause pain in future or are offensive...”   Manu Smriti 3.176

 The greatness of Hinduism is that it teaches us to cling to wisdom and not to dogma. This is why the above verse says that we must avoid even the lawful acts (i.e., even scriptures) if they cause pain or are offensive. We know that Bhagvan Krishna narrated entire Bhagavad Gita to provide Hinduism’s highest spiritual knowledge to Arjuna.  But in the end, Krishna advises Arjuna to use his (Aarjuna’s) own wisdom and conscience to make his decision.

 “I have given you the words of vision and wisdom more secret than hidden mysteries.  Ponder over them in the silence of thy soul, and then in freedom do thy will.”  BG 18.63

  “In freedom do thy will” is what Hindu religious thought is all about.  We must always discriminate between what is right and what is wrong, and not follow the rules blindly.  The beauty of Hinduism is that it encourages the freedom of thought that no other religion in the world even comes close to.  .

 In conclusion, woman has the same religious and spiritual freedom in Hinduism as man.  Like a man, she is the soul in bondage and the goal of her life is the same as that of man, spiritual perfection or moksha through selfless work, meditation and yoga.  Hindus have elevated women to the level of divinity.  They worship God in the form of Divine Mother.  However, the status of women in Hindu society has also been affected by factors other than the ideals set forth in the Vedas and Upanishads, such as cultural mores and the exploitation of the biological and psychological differences between men and women.  Therefore, on an individual and social level, complete and total equality of women is a goal that Hindu society (and other societies) is still striving for.  As Swami Vivekananda says, we must realize that man and woman are two wings of the same bird; that in order to truly soar to great heights, a man and woman must work in unison in order to achieve greater harmony in life.

 “Where women are honored, there the Gods are pleased.  But where they are not honored, no sacred rite yields rewards.”  Manu Smriti 3.56

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