Abstract: The Rig Vedic period was the golden period for the women of India, it not only granted economic, political, social and intellectual freedom to its womenfolk but gave them full liberty to excel in the spiritual arena also. It is not surprising hence that we get to know of as many as 27 women seers from the Rig Veda and allied literature. These Rishikas both composed and visualized many of the vedic hymns. They offered prayers and performed yagna (sacrifices) for securing a life free from sin and for universal affection. A close reading of the various hymns composed by them reveals that these women seers/renunciates/ Brahmavadinis were a group of articulate and spiritually enlightened women who were very well aware of their individuality. All of them display women power in their own right, and can be considered models of complete complementarity. The vedic vision enshrined in the hymns composed by these seers can be very helpful in finding models that envelop all contemporary discussions on the place of women in society.
Keywords: Rig Veda, women seers, Vedic society, Rig Vedic literature, women icons, women’s freedom, women’s position, vedic hymns, womanhood in Rig Vedic period, women’s societal role awareness, women as conscious individuals, spiritually enlightened women
One of the most significant characteristics of the Rig Vedic period was that it gave a tremendous amount of honour and freedom to its womenfolk. This is the reason why this period saw the emergence of the first ever women seers in the history of India. Ancient works on Rig Vedic literature like the Brihaddevta of Shaunaka record the tradition of authorship by these seers and ascribe various hymns to them. While one has to be very careful in assessing the Vedic character of ,an institution or tradition because the sayings of the Vedic seers might have undergone simplification, expansion, modification or even change at the hands of commentators or poets from time to time, this essay will argue that Indian intellectual tradition did have such female scholars centuries ago. These women were not only the first authors but also the very first women who expressed and spoke for themselves, and also the first lot of women who frankly and honest IS, expressed womanly passion and yet remained revered in the sacred text of the Rig Veda. It further argues that these women seers with their indomitable intellect and scholarship can be considered as icons for the women of today and may also provide a guiding force to the whole project of feminism.
Against this backdrop, this paper seeks to explore and acknowledge the vivacity, spirituality and scholarship of these women seers and also attempts to highlight the distinctiveness of their spiritual experience through a close reading of the hymns composed by them. The first part of the paper deals with the social, religious and philosophical context which aided the rise of the first intellectual women in India, and the second part explores and analyses the hymns by these women seers.
Socio-religious and Philosophical Context of the Rig Veda
The Rig Vedic texts were composed as hymns and verses. It is through these hymns that the economic, social and familial position of women in the period can be outlined. A close reading of the hymns reveals that home and family were the basis of Rig Vedic society. The Rig Vedic expression — the wife is the home’ (Jaye Dastam) reveals the centrality of wife in the domestic life. She performed the sacrifices jointly with the husband and both were joint owners of the household (dampati). There was a steep elevation in the position of a woman when she became a mother. The wife did have her rights to streedhana (gifts given to bride in marriage), which went to her daughter after her. An overall picture reflects a husband and wife enjoying the marital bliss together in both good and bad times with the sons and daughters by their side. (Rig Veda VIII 31.8)
Duhitr, as the daughter was called, played an important role in the house. She milked the cows, engaged herself in domestic work and also received education. As post-puberty marriages were the order of the day we come across many references to educated women like Ghosa, Apala, Romasa, Lopamudra, etc. Since these women got ample time for education; they trained themselves in fine arts, dancing, music, drama, poetry, etc. We also get a few references to militarily trained women like Mudgalini, Vispala and Sahiyasi. (Sharma 1987:10)Apart from education, the girl child also had rights to parental property if she had no brother. A passage in the Rig Veda mentions that the daughter’s son could succeed to the property of his maternal grandfather and thus a ‘sonless man gained a grandson through his daughter’. (Rig Veda III 31.1) However, it was the son who was always preferred to a daughter. Once a daughter was born, we do have references to her being brought up affectionately by her parents. Altekar relates this preference for sons to the warring nature of the community than to discrimination against the girl child. (Altekar 1959:200)
Education became a necessity for marriage which was a well established and flourishing institution of the period. The Atharva Veda records that a young daughter should be, married to a young man after he had observed the brahmacharya. (A.V., XII, 3,17,18; XI. 5,18) Education was imparted to the girl under the supervision of her father. After her education, a girl was married at the age of 16 or 17.
A girl enjoyed a lot of freedom during the period, she could move about the way she liked. Rig Veda refers to women participating in social festivities. (Rig Veda 1.124.8) They flocked in popular assemblies and spoke undeterred in them. These were the Sabha (Rig Veda. 1.167.3), Vidatha (Rig Veda X.85.26) and Samara. (Rig Veda 1.124.8; 1V.58.8) They had a lot of freedom in choosing their life partners too. The very type of marriage called Svayamvara, the self choice of husband portrays their strength in decision making on this count. We do get references to old age marriages. (Rig Veda 1.51.13; 1.117.7; X.39.3) and spinsterhood. (Rig Veda 11.17 .7) too. Intermarriage or Anuloma (marriage between a high caste groom and a tower caste bride) and Pratiloma (marriage between a low caste groom and a high caste bride) marriages were in practice and so was polygamy, though monogamy was the order of the day. The position of the widow was also satisfactory. Even after the death of her husband, a widow was given due place in the society. She was allowed to remarry and could also indulge in levirate or Niyoga whereby she could procreate a son through her brother-in-law. A passage in the Rig Veda directs a widow to get up from the side of her husband’s dead body and resume her worldly duty. (Rig Veda X.18.8; X.40.2) Rig-Veda mentions that a woman could consider herself a widow when her husband disappeared and could marry another man in the manner of a widow. (Rig Veda V1.49.8) It is significant to note here that such rights are not given to widows even today; thousands of them from different age groups flock in various ashrams in a deplorable condition. The question of widow marriage also brings the question of widow burning to the fore. Rig Veda, does not have a single reference to this practice. P.V. Kane in his most eloquent commentary on Dharmashastra declares (Kane 1941: 625):
There is no Vedic passage which can be cited as incontrovertibly referring to widow burning as then current, nor is there any Mantra which could be said to have been repeated in very ancient grhyasutras containing any direction prescribing the procedure of widow burning.
To impart education to their children and to help them settle in life were the twin duties of the Vedic parents and in this there was no discrimination between a boy and a girl. As a rule Upanayana or ceremonial initiation into the Vedic studies was conducted both for boys and girls. (Altelkar 1959: 200) It was held that Brahmacharya discipline and training was as much necessary for girls as it was for boys. (Agarwal 1993:57) Women students were divided into two classes. (Ibid 57)
1) Brahmavadinis or life long students of theology or philosophy
2) Sadyovahas or those who continued their studies till marriage
The Brahmavadinis were scholarly women. Many of them composed hymns of the Vedic literature. They also took to teaching profession and were known as Acaryas. Though marriage was considered necessary it was not obligatory. Rig Veda speaks of spinsters getting old in their parental home. Brotherless girls often remained unmarried till old age. These spinsters are referred to in the Vedic text as Amajuh (Rig Veda 11. 17.7) and Jarayanti. (Rig Veda I. 117.7)
The purpose of marriage, according to Rig Veda, was to enable a man, by becoming a householder, to perform sacrifices to the gods and to procreate sons. The verse in Rig Veda (X.85.36) shows that the husband took the woman as a wife for garhapatya. Another verse speaks of the co-operation of the husband and wife in the worship of gods. Rig Veda (111. 53.4) contains the assertion ‘the wife herself is the home’ or Jaye Dastam which clearly reveals the centrality of a woman in domestic life. On the whole, husband and wife were partners in every sphere of life. A wife was Kalyani (Rig Veda III. 53.6) or bestower of welfare and most auspicious or Sivatina. (Rig Veda X. 85.37) If she was widowed, her position in the society did not deteriorate. She could either spend her remaining life in widowhood or could raise children through the practice of Niyoga or else she could remarry. The Atharva Veda designates the remarried widow as a punarbhu or rejuvenated. (Atharva Veda IX, 5:28)
Even though the community was patriarchal in nature, the names of various goddesses like Aditi, Usha, etc. appear in the texts. Female divinities were given a very important place. They were considered the generators of various divinities like Mitra, Varuna, Agni, etc. who created and destroyed the worlds. Reference is also made to a number of goddesses who are personified abstractions like shraddha, dakshina, etc. In totality, women played an overarching role both in the religious and secular spheres.
In a nutshell, the position of women during the Rig Vedic period was close to an ideal state where a woman was given maximum honour in both the public and the private spheres. This is best evident in their achievement in the field of education. It is not surprising then that we have as many as 27 women seers who composed the hymns the of the Rig Veda. The contribution made by these seers to the propagation of traditional values is immense but we do not get to know much about these first founders of our culture because so far the hymns were studied to broadly outline the status of women in the period. No study was done on women seers and their hymns in particular. In the next section we will analyse a few hymns to know more about the women seers.
Female Seers of the Rig Veda
The position of women in home and society can best be measured by the freedom they enjoyed in the intellectual sphere. The Rig Veda is replete with evidences of women making their mark in the intellectual sphere. In the Rig Veda the fact that girls received education is evident from the composition of hymns by the female seers. These seers, like the male ones, had visualized the mantra (they were mantradrashta). Ancient Indian writings on Rig Vedic literature like Brihaddevta (Brihaddevta- 24.5.86), refer to as many as twenty-seven female seers and all of them are referred to as Brahmavadini. Though Brahmavadini were women who never married and led an ascetic life throughout, we do have references to some who were married.
On a close reading of the various hymns, the women seers can be broadly classified into six categories (Tiwari 2004 : 283):
i) Related to gods or who were themselves goddesses — Indrani, Aditi, Surya, Savitri, Yami, Vaivasvati, Saci Paulomi.
ii) Related to male seers and the kings – Agastyasvasa, Apala, Sasvati, Angirasi, Ghosa, Kaksivati, Juhu, Brahmajaya, Romasa, Loparnudra, Visvavara, Atreyi.
iii) Apsaras – Urvasi, Kasyapi.
iv) Creatures other than human beings – Devasuni srama, Godha, Sarparajni.
v) Inanimate objects – Nadyah, Ratri, Daksina.
vi) Abstract beings – Vak, Shraddha.
This means that most of the seers mentioned in Brihaddevta were divine or semi-divine beings. Some were personifications of abstract ideas. So the number of women seers who were real human beings was merely nine or ten. Based on this small number, many scholars shun the iconisation of these Brahmavadinis as myth and argue that the position of women in Rig Vedic society was not as good as it is made out to be. They further argue that the hymns are merely prayers for fertility, welfare of the couple and have nothing to do with larger metaphysical issues. (Ramaswamy 2003) There is no doubt that the number of women seers was lesser than male seers. However, this fact may have another side too. It is noteworthy that in a society that gave women freedom to excel in all areas, only a few of these women seers could make a mark. It is interesting to note here that the nature and expression of spirituality of these women seers differed from later times and one should not make the mistake of comparing these seers with the seers of later periods. While in the later times, women saints emerged in an atmosphere of discrimination, the women seers of Rig Veda were renunciates by choice and renunciates within the household. There was absolutely no hindrance in their path to spiritual advancement. In aiming towards the attainment of the brahman the women seers were not trying to break away from the traditional mode nor were they thinking in terms of redefining womanhood; they were simply moving forward in their quest for real knowledge and this knowledge was the knowledge of the brahman. As has already been discussed, Rig Vedic society was a society that centered around home and family; women were happy being the queen of the house as is very well expressed in Jaye Dastam. It is quite possible that in such a scenario very few women may have opted for a life of an ascetic and perhaps this may have been the reason behind the number of women seers being lesser than men. Women were housewives or seers not by compulsion but by choice. In most of the hymns these seers are offering oblations to various gods for fertility, prosperity and health. The idea that resonates in the hymns is not merely the welfare of an individual but the family and society at large.
A noteworthy point here is that in most of the hymns female seers figure either in the first or the tenth mandal of the Rig Veda. An indepth study of these hymns reflects the creativity, courage and compassion of the women seers. Though a majority of the hymns centre around prayers and oblations offered to various gods, the remaining hymns are expressions of their views on sexuality, love, marriage and devotion to the ‘supreme being’. For instance, hymns in the first mandal are honest and frank expressions of womanly passion and here we find the Rishikas expressing their utmost desire to be loved by their husbands. To illustrate, in one of the hymns Romasa invites her husband to love her as she deems herself mature enough to understand and relish his love. (Rig Veda 1. 126.7) She is not ashamed of expressing her sexual desires to her husband and is very proud of possessing a female body. Such an assertion is a slap on the face of modem day feminist thinkers who view a woman’s sexuality in terms of powerlessness.’ It must be noted here that in spite of the fact that these women openly talked about sexual desires, they were revered in the sacred text as strong and powerful women who held the reins of their life in their own hands.
Further in the same mandal, Lopamudra, the Rishika, asks the husbands to be on the side of their wives who have been serving them day and night. The old age has come upon them, the limbs have become weak, so they need their husbands beside them. (Rig Veda 1. 179.1) Such emphatic statements are only specific to women seers of this period. This verse clearly indicates the concern for old age, loneliness and bliss of togetherness enjoyed by husband and wife when they need each other.
The following verses in the same mandal lay stress on the importance of progeny. Even a saint like Agastya received blessings from the gods for having made love to his wife, Lopamudra. (Rig Veda 1. 179.4 , 5 , 6) This only means that expressing sexual desires was not deemed sinful even for an ascetic like Agastya.
In recent times, frustration and alienation envelop the minds of young women because they do not get to know and explore their sexuality as it is considered a taboo even to talk about it. As a result we have more and more young minds getting trapped into sex-related crimes and falling prey to sexual diseases. It is the need of this hour that women talk about their body, understand it and respect it the way the Brahmavadinis did. This is evident in the many hymns of the Rig Veda which are prayers to the gods for granting a beautiful and young body. For example, Apala, the daughter of Atri in the Rig Veda, offers prayers to India in order to cure a skin disease. (Rig Veda V111.91.7) In the tenth mandal and sukta 39 and 40, Ghosha offers prayers to the Asvins and the gods make her ageless and provide her with a suitable match as a blessing. It is worth mentioning here that in none of the verses any of the seers claim any higher knowledge of the brahman, as it is understood in the later Vedic period, or even later than that. In the Vedic sense probably attainment of the brahman meant deep devotion in offering prayers to various gods, like Indra, Agni, etc.
Apart from the seers who are human beings, there are also those which are non-human creatures, inanimate objects and abstract things. For instance, in the Rig Veda we find a dialogue between Sarama and Pani. In this sukta, six mantras are devoted to Sarama and Devasuni. (Rig Veda X. 108) Further, there are at least four mantras in the Rig Veda which are by rivers because these rivers narrate their feelings to Visvamitra, Ratri. This Ratri is personification of night. (Rig Veda X. 127) Apart from this we also come across the personification of psychic instincts like Shraddha. (Rig Veda X. 151) The very fact that inanimate objects and psychic instincts were given place along with woman seer is a testimony to the fact that the Rig Vedic society did not only honour woman but also upheld feminine virtues like peace, love, compassion, etc. This in itself points towards the respect women enjoyed in the society by virtue of their feminine attributes.
In the tenth mandal, sukta 151 and shlokas 1-5 shraddha kamayani is offering oblations to Agni. The hymn says: Agni is kindled by Shraddha, by Shraddha is oblation offered, with our Praise we glorify Shraddha (who is seated) on Bhaga’s head.
Similar assertions in the praise of shraddha are made in the four verses that follow. The idea perhaps was to instil a sense that any oblation or prayer offered with faith or shraddha brings happiness and prosperity. The emphasis throughout the hymns is on purity of the heart and soul.
In the Rig Vedic context it has to be well understood that the spiritual path that the women seer trod was not a means to break out of stereotypes, the chains of tradition, orthodoxy and convention that sought to control her sexuality, nor `was it an escape route to transcend the normally accepted limits that the society set for a woman. Rather it was the best way to acquire health, prosperity and happiness for oneself, the family and the society at large and that was through true devotion to god.
These women seers were also the most liberated individuals both socially and intellectually. They refused to be captives of their own body and transcended its limits through their indomitable intellect. To these women, their physiological peculiarity was not a source of powerlessness but a repository of strength. This seemed to be the perception prevalent in the society. Most of the prayers were offered for good health, disease-free body etc.
Not only this, in ‘one of the hymns we have the greatest expression of one’s identity. Nowhere in history has a woman defined her identity in terms of the universe. In this particular hymn, the seer identifies herself with the world around her. She exclaims (Rig Veda X. 125. 1-3):
I proceed with Rudras, with the Vasus, with the Adityas, and with the Visvedevas; I support both Mitra and Varuna, Agni and Indra, and the two Asvins.
I support the foe-destroying Soma, Tvasta, Pusan and Bhaga. I bestow wealth upon the institutor of the rite offering the oblation, deserving of careful protection, pouring forth the libation. I am the sovereign queen, the collectors of treasures, cognizant (of the Supreme Being ), the chief of objects of worship; as such the gods have put me in many places, abiding in manifold discussions, entering into numerous (forms).
In the above hymn, Vach (daughter of sage Ambhrina) identifies herself with the brahman, the Universe. The entire hymn is an exaltation of self identity. It is not surprising then, that in later times, this hymn became the point of origin of the mother cult in India. As such it is known as Devi Sukta or hymn to mother goddess.
In all the hymns discussed above, we come across the myriad facets of womanhood in the Rig Vedic period. All of them aspired to achieve the highest goal, i.e., complete harmony with all creation. Although they were the first women seers, they remained outside the pages of history. Their contribution is immense but practically nothing in detail has come down to us except their names.
Having discussed the women seers in the Vedic period, one may notice that unlike the subsequent periods in history when women were craving to have a space of their own within the religious, intellectual and social spheres, here we had women who were not only individuals conscious of their roles and identity as a woman but also women who were proud of their biology and aware of their respective roles in society. These women like their later counterparts, transcended the limits imposed on them by their body by virtue of love and compassion and not conflict. Throughout the compositions, one can feel the dominance of feminine virtues of love and compassion in the Vedic society. These women seers/ renunciates/ Brahmavadinis (whichever way one chooses to address them) were a group of articulate and spiritually enlightened women. There is not a single hymn by them which is not reflective of the woman power of that age. They can be considered models of complete complementarity rather than competitiveness, conflict and confrontation. Their belief in love and compassion is reflected in their prayers and devotion to god. The vision of these women seers can be of great help in finding models that envelop all contemporary discussions on the place of women in society.
1. American feminists who were active and vocal from the 1960s and 1970s argued that sexuality was fundamentally oppressive to these women. For details see, Catherine Mackinnon, Feminism Reconsidered, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1987; Adrieme Rich, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Identity, Only Women Press, London, 1981)
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