Question on Advaita (Women in Advaita Vedanta)

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at BRAINCELLS.COM
Tue Aug 15 11:21:56 CDT 2000

Sorry for the long delay in responding, but you have raised important
points and I wanted to show you the respect of a well-researched answer.

On Thu, 27 Jul 2000, Vishal Agarwal wrote:

> VA: Well, the natural outgrowth of a culture need not be correct and good if
> some cancerous cells had got grafted into it sometime in the past.

Perhaps but who gets to decide?  The "pre-cancerous" culture no longer
exists (if it ever did.)  Like it or not we are both children of the

> VA: The story of St. Thomas is a myth and is unattested historically or
> archaeologically.

The Keralan Christians seem to believe it but ok.  There is however
historical archaological evidence of trade with Arabia and the West dating
to the Roman Empire.  And the settlement of Jews and Syrian Christians is
quite old even if not as old as the time of Jesus.

> VA: What is your suggestion in this regard? And did the Romans, the
> Christians, the Jews, the Arabs etc. allow women to be their priests? The
> Buddhists and Jains allowed nuns to exist in their orders though.

What I am trying to say is that he had ample opportunity to observe women
at varying levels of public religious involvement.  Enough to not
automatically assume that his cultural mores were the only possible
ones.  The fact that he assumed that Vedic mores were the only permissible
ones anyway is because he regarded them in a positive and superior way.

> VA: Well, that does not answer our question. There does not seem to be any
> justification for denying the opportunity of Vedic study to women, to my
> mind.

Well I think there is (see below.)

> VA: There should be a comma after women also because there is no explicit
> injunctions in Shruti that women cannot study or understand the Vedas.

That is not the sole criteria for judging the matter.

> And  the word 'Brahmabandhu' is not restricted to those only who do not
> comprehend the Vedas. Below, you have cited the Sadvidya section of
> Chhandogya. In that, does not the father tell Shvetaketu (who had mastered
> the Vedas) that their family consider those persons as 'Brahmabandhu iva'
> who do not know the Sat? Therefore, studying the Vedas does not necessarliy
> free one of the stigma of being a Brahmabandhu.

The key word in your quote is iva.  The concept of a simile hardly needs
further explanation I think.

> VA: Yes, but again, the Smriti and the Shishtachara are authoritative only
> because of their agreement with the Shruti, so they still derive their
> authority from the Shruti! The principle of Svatahpramana and Paratahpramana
> comes into play here.

Granted.  But it makes no practical difference in the matter at hand.

> JV:The mantras by and large do not include any injunctions or prohibitions
> so are irrelevent to the investigation of dharma.
> VA: No. Manu 2.6 has said that 'Akhila Veda is source of Dharma." i.e., the
> whole Veda (including the Mantra and Brahmana) is the source of Dharma. And
> where they do give injunctions, we need not ignore them. See below.

I should revise my statement.  The mantras are relevant but only insofar
as they relate to an injunction or prohibition.

> VA:That is not my view if you consider my earlier message. Rather, it was
> the view of those who penned the shloka I quoted and said that the "women,
> Shudras and the Brahmabandhus to whom the Shruti is agochara". All the same,
> I repeat that there is no justification in denying the opportunity to women
> unless we assume that they are incapable of studying the Vedas. What is your
> considered opinion in this regard?

Why would anyone male or female study the Vedas in the first place?  (I
mean as a religious act.  Historians etc. no doubt have their own reasons.)
Veda is for the fullfillment of purushartha.  In the case of the
Karmakanda the purushartha is Dharma.  In the case of the Jnanakanda it is
Moksha.  As Vedic study itself belongs to the karmakanda let us look at
Dharma.  The Arthasamgrah says vedapratipadyaH prayojanavadartho dharma .
Dharma is that which is based on the Vedas (and by extension Smrti and
Shistachara), has a purpose, and yields an (auspicious) result.  Are the
rites practiced by women today based on the shastras?  Yes.  Do they have
purpose?  Yes.  Do they produce an auspicious result?  Yes.  So they are
already are practicing Dharma as well as anyone.  If that is so then they
have no reason to take up some other work because it would have no
purpose and thus produce no benefit.

> VA: No. The question is not of according some traditions a 'trivial'
> classification, but rather one of allowing women to read the Vedas if they
> wish. That they might not want to read them even when allowed to do so is
> another matter.

For the purpose of Dharma ones wishes are completely irrelevant.  (except
for the kamya rites of which Vedic study is not one.)  From the
sociological point of view as well it is a very bad idea.  After in
America we may hear "We should worship Jesus if we want.  It would make
our lives a lot easier and after all there is nothing in the Vedas which
says we *can't* worship Jesus."  How long do you think Hindusim would last
with those sentiments.  If the Vedas survive to this day, it is because of
the dedication and fervor of those who believed its' study was an
obligation.  Wherever we see religions adopt an "anything goes" attitude
we see them sink rapidly into aimless hedonism.  The so-called "Hindu
Renaissance" is only what two centuries old now?  Yet how many of its
sects are moribund or have disapeared altogether?

> VA; That is not true. It is Narada who says this to Sanatkumara.

Sorry my mistake.

> In any
> case, that does not indicate a conflict between the Taittiriya and the
> Changogya shrutis. The former merely states that the study of Vedas is
> necessary to know Brahman, while the latter states that it is not sufficient
> (which does not rule out the fact that we must study the Vedas for becomming
> fit acquire Brahmavidya).

The Advaitin is in a tough spot here because he wants to affirm the
validity of the Veda in general but *not* for the purpose of Moksha.  He
gets around it by saying that the knowledge of the Vedas is not the cause
of Brahmavidya but the remover of obstacles that prevent the rise of that
knowledge.  That satisfies bothe the views expressed in the quoted

> VA: According to Mimamsakas (see Shabara Bhashya), the injunctions are not
> necessarily of the nature 'do this, do not do that'. Shabara gives examples
> (eg. how the Vedic statements should motivate us to dig wells and so on).

Mimamsa sutra 1.1.2 is chodanAlakShaNo'rtho dharmah.  the distinguishing
feature of Dharma is command.  I do not have the Shabarabhasya but I
suspect it is describing implied injunctions not suggesting Dharma can be
based on non-injunctive sentances.

>  > And a male body is not necessary to have the ability to study the Vedas.
> JV:Both the Mimamsa and Brahmasutras have a lot to say on this subject.
> I'll try and post something on it.
> VA: To my knowledge, the Brahmasutras are silent on this issue.

They mention a slightly different topic, the competency to know Brahman
but the issues are similar and Jaimini Maharshi is even one of the
authorities cited (though ultimately rejected.)

>  And the
> Mimamsa sutras do deal with this topic but there is a controversy over the
> meaning of some sutras (like the one dealing with 'Atreyi' or with
> 'Aashi...'). Even the Katyayana Pribhasha (with which you are familiar I
> suppose), allows women the right to Yajnas.

As I mentioned previously it is not a blanket right but covers certain
specific action only.

> BTW, did you read the Paraskara
> Grhyasutra or the Katyayana Grhyasutra? The latter is a rare text (available
> only in one edition) and Paraskara GS is an abridgement of it.

The Paraskara Grhyasutra.  I've not yet been able to track down the

> VA: But the Rigveda does say: "May we do what the Devas do"

Then perhaps it is ok to reach into your step-mothers womb and slay your
unborn half-brother? (As Indra did to Diti.)  Not everything the Gods do
is to be copied.  They too are ruled by Dharma.

> (My RV is boxed
> right now but others might be able to find these words). Are you trying to
> say that human women are incapable of reading the Vedas?

I'm saying they have no adhikara to do so.  I'm also that fact does not do
them any injustice.

> VA: Then why should we debar the son of a Shudra from this second birth when
> according to Shri Krishna, it is one's Svabhava which decides our varna?

Because no provision has been made for them to have this second
birth.  Why?  I don't know but there you have it.  And despite this the
Shudras have also been able achieve purusharthas.  So I don't see a

> VA: Even so, by the Mimansa principle "Asatihyanumanam", the right or women
> to Vedas is still maintained!

The same is true of any random shloka.

> VA: There is no reason to consider them as ahistorical when the
> Itihasa-Purana themselves present them as historical persons. Sulabha
> Maitreyi is mentioned in an Akhyana in the Mahabharata. The historicity of
> promulgators of Vedic Shakhas is accepted even by Jaimini ("Akhya
> pravachanat") and so Sulabha becomes a historical Rishika. And historical
> accounts of Apala etc. are given in Shaunakiya Brihaddevata etc. When
> Yaskiya Nirukta states that 'Rishayah mantradrashtarah' or that
> 'Sakshtkritadharma babhuva', the historicity of the Rishis is automatically
> implied. Whether they were actually composers of these hymns or not is a
> totally different question.
> VA: THE 21 Rishikas of RV are well known and we have no reason to doubt
> their historicity. If 21/407 Rishis of Rigveda are an anomaly, so be it. But
> it is sufficient nevertheless to establish the adhikara of women as such to
> Vedavidya.

5% is not an anomaly but it is hardly a ringing endorsement of equality

By historical, I meant do you have examples of female Vaidikas from the
19th century?  The 17th century?  The 13th?  The 7th?  How about the 2nd
century BC or the 5th?  Where is the tradition?  There seems to be a
notion among some Indians (I'm not saying you share it) that there was a
long ago Vedic golden age, then a black hole, then all of a sudden in 1800
history starts again.  I don't buy it.  I'm interested in the living

> VA: Not so. Jaimini states that a Brahmana shruti opposed to a mantra is
> invalid because the Brahmana is for the mantra and not vice versa.

Yes but this is because it is more intimately connected to the sacrificial
act not because it is chronologically older.

> VA: That depends on whether you indeed want to relegate the entire mantra
> portion to Karmakanda. I do not accept such a view although I accept that
> the mantras are subjected to a 'viniyoga' in the karmakanda. But to do a
> viniyoga on a mantra in a rite does not mean that the mantra has nothing to
> do with the Jnanakanda as such. For instance, the Purusha Sukta is used in
> Purushamedha Yajna(Shatapatha Kanda XIII) but all the same it is sometimes
> considered an Upanishad.


> VA: That is because they are brought up to hold a particular mindset.

Well of course! Isn't it a particular mindset we are discussing here?  The
whole issue of learning Vedas only comes up if you belong to particular

>  Now,
> the question is whether it is of relevance to Dharma NOW that they observe
> all these restrictions in the age of tampons and other things. I do not
> think so. In olden days, cooking food by a women in her menses would have
> been unhygienic and aesthetically unacceptable. Not anymore.

There may be bizarre methods of cooking where this is a concern but this
sounds more like an after the fact rationalization to me.

> And there are many Dharmic wives who do not observe this restriction
> anymore.

If they do not follow Dharma then they are by definition not
Dharmic!  It depends on the definitio of "Dharmic wife."  The only way to
break out of this vicious circle is to look at the historical
practice.  We see that all over India "Dharmic wives" have followed this
custom.  So if all of a sudden they are not there must be some other
factor than the desire to be Dharmic at work.

I would say it is prudish Western notions that are responsible for women
feeling embarrassed about such a natural thing.

> On the Rathakara and Shudras, I hold my judgement till I comb the list
> archives to see if this topic has not been dealt with yet (because I do not
> want to repeat old discussions). But in summary, there are some Kalpasutra
> texts as well which suggest that several Acharyas allowed the right to Vedic
> Rites to Shudras. Eg. Manava Srautasutra 11.1.2 states that if the giver of
> the sacrificial fees (daksina) is a Sudra, then the priest should go to his
> house, touch water and then go over the sacrifical formula mentally.

In the Katyayana Shrautasutra of the Shuklayajuraveda that view is
mentioned but as a purvapaksha.  Are you sure it is not the same in the
Manava too?  Even so may I point out you have not shown equality.  In fact
the Shudra yajamana is explicitly singled out for special treatment.

>  In the
> Apastambha Srautasutra 5.11-18, sudras are listed as one of them from  whose
> homes, a sacrificer desirous of prosperity must procure fire. According to
> some teachers (Apastambha Srautasutra 1.19-23), some teachers allowed Sudras
> to perform Vedic sacrifices, while others (Apastambha 24.1) deprived him of
> this right. Bharadvaja Srautasutra 5.2.9 also records that according to some
> teachers, the Sudras also have the right to establish the sacrifical fires.

Hmmm this further evidence that there was a difference of opinion a long
time ago and the restrictive party eventually prevailed.

> VA: Even then, the Vedas are included because Vedic words are considered
> Satya and Nitya!

Yes but it is too vague.  Other injunctions are needed to narrow things

> JV:Again note there is no injunction or prohibition in this text so it is
> irrelevant for determining Dharma.
> VA: No. The injunction is easily derived from this mantra because of the
> words "Yatha imam..."

> VA: Why would the Smriti quote something without any purpose? There is no
> rule that the Yama Smriti was applicable only in the Satyuga and not in
> Kaliyuga. Moreover, the eternal shruti "Bhima jaya brahmasyopanita" trumps
> all contrary Brahmana shrutis and smritis.

It does have purpose.  To say that this is something that is not to be
done.  The purpose of Mimamsa (both purva and uttara) is to harmonize
divergent opinions.  Occasionally some had to be rejected outright other
times they were given as options.  That passage does not provide an

> VA: In fact, except for the Kathaka Brahmana, there is NO Vedic injunction
> for the Upanayana and if I remember correctly (I will check but it will take
> 3 weeks), the text does not give separate instructions for the 3 varnas.

See Shatapatha BrahmaNa 11.5.4.  It explicitly gives instructions for the

> Again, do you accept that one's varna is determined by one's birth?

Yes. Because that has been the accepted interpretation for all of our
recorded history.

>  What
> about Satyakama Jabala whose father was not known (Shankaracharya's
> euphemistic gloss on this section is not acceptable to me).

But ask yourself why he felt the need to make what you call a "euphemistic
gloss"?  Because by that time the idea of caste being based on anything
other than birth was unthinkable.

> VA: That does not mean that it is necessarily in conformity with the Shruti

It conforms with Dharma which is more expansive than just Shruti.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at>

bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam

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