Question on Advaita (Women in Advaita Vedanta)

Vishal Agarwal vishalagarwal at HOTMAIL.COM
Mon Jul 24 20:05:27 CDT 2000

Dear Dennis,

I apologize in advance for this hurried unstructured response. The best way
to get scholarly answers to your question is to join the Advaita Mailing
list. I will foward your questions to the list members but you could also
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Advaita Vedanta is primarily a philosophical tradition and therefore does
not have an extensive discourse on men-women relationships. Some writings of
Shri Shankaracharya however betray his negative views towards women (see
below). For instance, he held that women are debarred from the study of
Vedas, although he granted them the possibility of Moksha via the
Itihasa-Purana literature. Note however that the texts on which his
commentaries make these observations themselves do not have anything to say
in this regard. Rather they say the opposite.

The authoritative Upanishads, the Geeta and the Sutras do not contain any
remarks against women although the commentaries on them by Shamkaracharya
etc. do. An
exception to this might be the following statement in the Brahadaranyaka
Upanishad- "If she
does not grant him his desire (for coitus), he should buy her (with
presents). If she still does
not grant him his desire, he should beat her with a stick or with his hand
and overcome her
with power and glory." Br. Up. 6.4.7.

This passage is a part of the Khila Kanda (supplementary portion) of the
Upanishad and does
not form the text proper, being a later addition. This opinion is held
unanimously by Hindu
scholars (refer to Shankaracharya’s commentary). Such passages are ‘Angirasa
Vidhi’ and
are considered obnoxious by Hindus.

On views of Shri Shankaracharya, we have the following examples--
1. On Bhagvad Gita 9.32, Sri Samkaracharya comments that women and Sudras
are not
entitled to the study of Vedas. There is not even a trace of this thought in
the orignal verse
of the Gita.
2. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 6.4.17 reads: "Now if one wishes to beget a
daughter who is
a scholar (Pandita), and that she should live her full life, then they
should eat rice cooked with
Sesame along with some Ghee. Thereby, they will beget her." On this, Sri
Samkaracharya adds-
" The scholarship of the daughter is restricted to proficiency in household
affairs only, because
she is debarred from the study of Vedas." Again, we see that this is the
Acharya's personal view,
colored by the prevalent notions of his times.

However, we must also note that the Acharya has also written beautiful hymns
to female deities.

The 4 Vedas (Mantra Samhitas-Rig, Yajur, Sama, Atharva) indeed do not have
any degrading
references of a general nature towards women. Infact, the Rigveda counts 21
ladies amongst its Sages. However, the old commentaries on them, called
the Brahmana texts, contain some uncharitable remarks against women (which,
being opposed to
the Vedas are not authoritative for Hindus). A few examples-

1. "Women, shudras, black crows and dogs are indeed false (evil)."
Shatapatha Brahmana
This statement occurs in the context of the Pravargya ritual which requires
the performer to remain
celibate, meditate for perfection and shun all falsehood. Therefore, the
statement is made (in the
typical literary style of the Brahmana texts) to dissuade the performer of
the ritual to cohabit with
his wife or interact with ignorant men (Shudras) by comparing them to dogs
and black crows).
2. "Three are indeed evil-....., women and ...." Maitrayani Samhita 3.6.3
This statement again occurs
in the Brahmana portion of the text, not the Mantra portion.
3. "Women cherish meaningless conversations and go after singers and
dancers." Shatapatha Brahmana
4. "Therefore, women desire singers." Taittiriya Samhita (again,
this is in the Brahmana
portion, not in the Mantra portion)
5. "The husband alone is a wife’s honour." Shatapatha Brahmana
6. "A wife should seek to reside in her household alone." Shatapatha
Brahmana The last
two statements are to be understood in the light of the reply that Sukanya
gave to the handsome
twins Ashwin Kumaras, who teased her for having an old and blind husband and
asked her to
marry one of them- "My father betrothed me to my Husband and I will not
leave him as long
as he lives." Shatapatha Brahmana
7. "The Brahmana texts say- Do not eat food cooked by a woman in her
Vasishtha Dharma sutra 5.8

The Brahmana texts however, also contain statements praising women. For

1. " He who does not have a wife is not entitled to sacrifice to the Devas."
Taittiriya Brahmana
2. "A wife is indeed one half of one’s Atman." Taittiriya Brahmana
3. "Women verily are an embodiment of splendour." ibid
4. "A woman never kills" Shatapatha Brahmana In the Shanti Parvan
of the Mahabharata,
Bhishma Pitamaha clarifies that women are not naturally inclined to commit
sins, but their neglect
by bad husband forces them to commit evil acts in order to survive.
Therefore, women never sin
on their own and are always pure.

Coming to the Puranas, I referred to the Vayu, Brahma, Vishnu and portions
of the
Srimadabhagvat Puranas but could find only the following famous verse:

"Since the three Vedas cannot be learnt by women, Shudras and the twice born
(by mere birth,
not learning), the Sage Veda Vyasa composed the story of Mahabharata out of
for them." Bhagvata Mahapurana 1.4.25

Contrarily, I found several tales in the Puranas in praise of women. For
instance, the Vishnu
Purana records a tale in which the Sages assemble on the banks of a river,
waiting for Veda
Vyasa to come out of water after completing his meditation. The reverend
sage comes out
and utters: "In the Kali Age, women will be superior to men" and goes into
water again. After
a while, he emerges again and utters: "In the Kali Age, the Shudras will be
superior to the
twice born." and goes into water again. He finally completes his meditation
and emerges from
the river, whereupon the Sages ask him the meaning of his enigmatic
statements. Veda Vyasaji
replies that "In the Kali Yuga, men in general and the children of the first
three castes in particular
will abandon their Dharma out of pride and neglect whereas the Shudras and
women will adhere
to their Dharmas. Since it is the practice of Dharma alone which exalts one,
the Shudras and
women will be superior to the twice born and to men respectively."

In the same Purana, an childless Brahmin prays to Lord Vishnu for progeny.
The Lord, pleased
with his devotion appears and asks him if he desires a girl or a boy. The
pious Brahmin replies-
"What difference does it make my Lord. Indeed, a son will be your embodiment
while a daughter
will be Devi Laxmi (Lord Vishnu's wife) herself." Pleased, Bhagvan Vishnu
blesses him with a
daughter. The Brahmin is overjoyed. The Purana records further that the
Brahmin showers all his
love and affection on his daughter and educates her in all the scriptures as
a result she becomes
a noted scholar of her days."

I also looked up a text called 'Yatidharmasamucchaya" by Yadava Prakasha.
This is the oldest
extant text on the duties of a mendicant. The text does not explicitly bar
women from becomming
monks but the whole atmosphere of the text assumes that it is addressed to a
Brahmin male

At the commencement of a particular portion of the Aitreya Upanishad,
pregnant women are
asked to leave. Orthodox Vedic scholars hold that the sound vibrations of
this part of the
Upanishad (it is still recited with the authentic Vedic accents by the
Nambudiri Brahmins of Kerala)
are harmful for the foetus although I surmise that the point of discussion
is detrimental to the
cheerfulness of of the listener (and pregnant women have been asked to be
cheerful and happy
always so that the foetus also grows healthy). In the Vedic ritual texts
like the Ashvalayana Grhya
sutras, wives are asked to recite Vedic verses along with their husbands,
which is not possible
if they were debarred from the study of the Vedas. Some hold that women
cannot be Yogins
because Yoga leads to a stage of ‘Urdhvareta’ (he whose semen does not fall
out but rather
ascends in the body). This is refuted by others who state that although
women do not have
‘Ratas’, they have ‘Rajovirya’. In any case, Mimamsa Sutras (Chapter 6, Pada
1) declare
that "women are entitled to the performance of Vedic Rituals even
independently of men,
and to the best of their ability, because they also have a desire to attain
salvation and because
they are also owners of wealth, just like men". This is then the settled

Coming to Samnyasa texts, the ancient manuals on Samnyasa viz. the
Vaikahansa sutras and
the Parasharya Sutras, are lost. The Smriti texts like Manusmriti,
Baudhayana Dharmasutra
etc. apparently based on these do not explicitly forbid women from taking
Samnyasa, although
they keep only the man in mind while describing Ascetics. In fact, some
ancient Smriti texts
openly prescribe Samnyasa for women. For instance, the Harita Dharma Sutra
only in manuscripts and referred to by P. V. Kane in his ‘History of
states that women are of two types- "Sadhyavadhu and Brhamavadhu" -- they
who marry early
and they who marry Brahman (i.e. become Samnyasinis). The Atharva Veda also
seems to
divide women into 3 types-"Bhima jaya brahmasyopanita" i.e. The ferocious
(women warriors
--these are described in the 4 Vedas in several mantras), the mothers (i.e.
ordinary married
women), and women pruified by the Vedas and Brahman (which might be taken to
mean female ascetics). I do not remember the exact location of the mantra
but can locate it
for you if you are in urgent need. I have not read the medieval manuals of
Samnyasa (like the Yatidharmasamucchaya or the Yatidharmaprakasha) but I
surmise that they do have some
injunctions against women assuming Samnyasa. There is a collection of
non-canonical Upanishad
texts called the ‘Samnyasa Upanishads". The Samskrit text has been published
from Adyar,
Madras, and an excellent English translation called "Samnyasa Upanishads" by
Patrick Oleville.
As far as I remember, none of these texts contain any injunctions against
women attaining
Samnyasa. (While Mr. Oleville believes that non of these Upanishads is older
than the 10th
century, I strongly disagree, for sound reasons. But that is besides the
point here).

1st section of the 6th chapter of the
Mimamsa Shastra (the Code of Vedic Ritualism) discusses at length the right
of women to participate
in and conduct Vedic Rituals. If you wish, I can post a translation cum
commentary in due course
of time here.

Some other relevant quotations from Hindu texts:
"Just like the son, the daughter also extends one's family lineage"
Bruhaspati Smriti

"As a son is born of one's own self, so is a duaghter. Indeed, there is no
difference between the two.
Therefore, if a man were to die without a son, the daughter verily will
inherit all his wealth, for who
else can inherit it while she is present?" Swayambhuva Manu quoted by
Maharshi Yaska in Nirukta

Regarding Manusmrti, I must mention that it is a composite, disorganized
text, replete with
interpolations and dislocations of verses and in fact, some verses in the
original text have
evidently been dropped. I cite the following example (Manusmrti 2.66-67):

"All the purificatory ceremonies (Samskaras) of women should be performed in
due order
and in due time without the application of Vedic Mantras. For women, the
marriage ceremony
is the only Vedic ritual permissible, serving her husband is staying and
studying under a Guru,
and performance of household chores alone is her Agnihotra (a Vedic
ritual)." i.e. a woman
is not eligible for Yajnopavita, performance of Agnithotra and other Vedic
rights or to Vedic
Samskaras (except the marraige ceremony, where her husband is also present).
Now, Kulluka
Bhatta, a medieval commentator of Manusmriti records that some manuscripts
available in his
time had an additional verse following these two verses:

Agnihotrasya shushrusha sayamudvasameva cha |
Karya patnya pratidinamiti karma cha vaidikam ||

"Attending to the Agnihotra daily and assisting her husband in his duties at
dawn and in the
evening everyday in the performance of ceremonies are the Vaidika Karma of
women." Now,
I am sure this was the original verse and the former two (which contradict
this one) are
interpolations, because the Ramayana clearly record that Kaushalya Rani,
Devi Sita etc. used
to attend to the performance of Agnihotra everyday, and the Atharvaveda too
prescribes that
the primary responsibility of performance of daily household rituals lies
with the wife (I do not
remember the exact location right now but could look it up for you). There
is no reason why
somebody should have interpolated this 3rd verse, but it is highly probable
that the first two
verses were added to Manusmrti at a very early date, since they occur in all
the manuscripts.
Strictly speaking, the first verse even violates the context. The
Atharvaveda clearly refers to
the practice of Brahmacharya by women ("Brahmacharryena kanyaa yuvanam
patim" Kanda X). Some Vedic scholars have even written a tract called
"Kanyopnayan vidhi"
wherein they have demonstrated that the Vedic texts prescribe the thread
ceremony for
women also.



----Original Message Follows----
From: "Dennis Koenig" <DennisKoenig at>
Reply-To: <DennisKoenig at>
To: <vishalagarwal at>
Subject: Question on Advaita
Date: Mon, 24 Jul 2000 17:39:00 -0400


        In a search for an answer to the question I wish to ask, I have just
visited your web page at , and have
bookmarked it for future reading.  Thank you for this useful resource!

        If you or an Advaita teacher you know is available to answer a question
about Advaita Vedanta, please consider a reply to this:

        I am an early student with the School of Philosophy (Foundation for
Philosophic Studies, see  The senior students
and tutors claim that the school's teaching draws heavily --- primarily ---
from the Advaita tradition.  In some commentaries about the school found on
the Internet, I learned that in advanced classes they separate men and women
and teach a rather patriarchic view of the roles of men and women, that
women are to be subservient to men, that they must dress conservatively,
that they must obey certain rules regarding sexuality, etc.  I have inquired
about this at my local branch of the school and they say that there is no
emphasis on this gender-bias in our local branch of the school (Rochester,
NY, USA), but my tutor specifically explained the basis for the teaching and
argued that the patriarchy taught is based on "the natural order" with
respect to the genders.  I suspect that his explanation of "the natural
order" may not be rooted in Advaita.

        I am looking for references to Advaita texts that support the
patriarchic/anti-feminist notions in this school's doctrine on gender.  I
don't see how or why this has anything to do with realization of Self or the
Absolute, or non-duality, or anything based in Advaita Vedanta.  I don't
know why the school holds to this teaching about the male-female
relationship.  I suspect that it is a cultural preference not necessarily
taught in the Advaita tradition.  Is that so, from your perspective?

        Can you help with this question?

Thank you,
Dennis Koenig
denniskoenig at

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