Question on Advaita (Women in Advaita Vedanta)

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at BRAINCELLS.COM
Tue Jul 25 01:07:24 CDT 2000

first I shall address Vishals' comments:

On Tue, 25 Jul 2000, Vishal Agarwal wrote:

> Advaita Vedanta is primarily a philosophical tradition and therefore does
> not have an extensive discourse on men-women relationships.

Nevertheless it does not operate in a cultural vacuum.  Advaita Vedanta is
part of the broader religious/cultural/philosophical group pf ideas known
as Smarta (loosely translated as "traditional") sampradaya.  The leaders
and thinkers of Advaita Vedanta draw themselves from and speak to Smartas.

Smartas do have definite views on the relationships of men and women.

> 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,

_All_ acharyas agree on this.  Remember Shankaracharya is not out to offer
his own opinions but only to explain the already existent Vedic Dharma.

> although he granted them the possibility of Moksha via the
> Itihasa-Purana literature.

So there you go.  In this case the only way to maintain the charge of a
negative view towards women is if you think the Itihasa-Puranas are
inferior to the Vedas in which case I would have to ask why?

> 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.

Well lets take a look...

> The authoritative Upanishads, the Geeta and the Sutras do not contain any
> disparaging
> remarks against women although the commentaries on them by Shamkaracharya
> etc.

You have not proven that Shankaracharyas' commentaries make any
disparaging remarks either.

> 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.

I'm with you so far.

> 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.

Taken literally the original is far worse.

pApayonayah striyovaiSAstathASudrAs

But it is not to be taken literally. That's where context comes
in.  Shankaracharya is quite justified in filling in the blanks by
explaining that despite their inability to engage in Vedic study, women
Vaishyas and Shudras, are entitled to seek and capable of achieving
moksha.  If anything, this explanation says that ability or otherwise to
study the Vedas, can _not_ be a factor in the pursuit of Moksha.

> 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.

His time and at least 1500 years before that.  In fact is there any
historical evidence of there having been female Vedic scholars?

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

We can add several incident traditionally told about his life.

1.  He fulfilled the promise he made to his mother to perform her shraddha
even though he was a sannyasis.

2.  When an elderly woman wanted to give him alms but was too poor to do
so, he composed the Kanakadhara stotra which resulted in her being
showered with gold.

3.  During his debate with Mandana Mishra, he accepted Mishras' learned
wife Bharati as the judge.

> 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-

????  The idea that the Vedas are the Samhitas alone is a modern invention
of the Arya Samaja.  No traditional sampradaya would agree with what
you've written above.  If anything the Brahmanas are _more_ authoritative
in these matters as they contain the injunctions and prohibitions (vidhi
and nishedha)

As for the names of some rshis being female, the Rshis are only the seers
of the mantras.  As far as karma is concerned they are just names attached
to the mantras.


> 7. "The Brahmana texts say- Do not eat food cooked by a woman in her
> menses."
> Vasishtha Dharma sutra 5.8

Note this is still the practice today.

> The Brahmana texts however, also contain statements praising women. For
> instance:
> 1. " He who does not have a wife is not entitled to sacrifice to the Devas."
> Taittiriya Brahmana

This is also still the practice today.

> 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.

Similiar words occur in the Paraskara grhyasutra which is the one I am
familiar with and the ritual guidebooks mention specific mantras.  But
this does not equal blanket permission to say any mantra.  Similarly in
the Shrautasutras at a couple of points the King of the Nishadhas and the
Rathakara (chariotmaker) are supposed to say certin things.  This does not
imply they can say any old thing.

Furthermore, those same Grhyasutras say a married man has to wear two
Janois (yajnopavits).  the reason is one is worn on the wifes behalf
because she is not entitled to wear it on her own.  The Janoi is the
symbol of the right to Vedic study.

> 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
> conclusion.

First let us look at the previous adhikarana   The purvapaksha is that
anything that desires reward is entitled to sacrifice.  The siddhanta is
that desire is not enough, onw must also be capable of performing the
requirements.  So animals etc cannot sacrifice, neither can children, the
mentally or physically disabled etc.

The next adhikarana is the one you quoted.  What about women?  The
previous adhikarana does not apply because not only do women also desire
heaven, they have the mental and physical competance to do what is
necessary to achieve the goal.   The Rshi Etishayana objects that only the
male gender is used.  Maharshi Badarayana explains that it is used
generically to mean both male and female.  Another objection is that women
have no independent wealth just their husbands.  But Maharshi Jaimini
shows they are capable of owning wealth on their own and are thus capable
of financing a yajna (which entitles them to its reward.)

Now look at the next adhikarana.  It notes that after they are married,
there is no seperate wealth of husband and wife.  They own together
therefore their rituals should also be performed together.  _This_ is the
settled conclusion.  This is the practice up to the present day.  In any
yajna, the yajamana and his wife must sit together.  They make the
offering together, and he alone says the mantras.  This is why one word
for wife in Sanskrit is sahadharmacharini -- one who performs dharma
together with her husband.

> There is a collection of
> non-canonical Upanishad
> texts called the ‘Samnyasa Upanishads".

They are accepted as canonical by Advaitins.


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

Note this is quoted in texts on shradhha and it means that if her father
dies, the obligation to perform shraddha passes to the daughter.  The
actual ceremony is performed by her husband or son.

> 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,

All this proves is that a sahadharmacharini should sit with her husband
when he does his nityakarmas.  It doesn't mean they should do them herself.

Lastly I should mention that shishtachara is as weight an authority on
Dharma as Shruti and Smrti.  The shishtachara is that women do not learn
the Vedas or perform Vedic karma on their own and this has to carry great
weight for a Smarta.

Now to answer Dennis.

>         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,

In what way?

> that they must dress conservatively,
> that they must obey certain rules regarding sexuality, etc.

I would hope they are telling men to do those things too.

> 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.

Only if you adopt a very narrow construction of Advaita.  As I mentioned
earlier, Advaitins are part of a larger culture of people with definite
ideas about human behavior.  Whether they expressed this in the same
context as their Advaitic philosophizing is a different issue.

>         I am looking for references to Advaita texts that support the
> patriarchic/anti-feminist notions in this school's doctrine on gender.

"patriarchal", "egalitarian", "feminist", "anti-feminist", "gender" these
are all terms out of post-modern Western culture.  Why would a culture
thousands of years older conceptualize in that way?  It seems to me that
to answer your question, your research must be more sociological than
philosophical and in that case Advaita texts are the wrong place to look.

> 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.

Yet the fact remains that it was that culture that came up with the lofty
notions of Advaita Vedanta.  There have been (and are) more egalitarian
religions in India but they didn't come up with 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.

I don't know why you object to it.  Your preference for "non-patriarchy"
is also cultural.

I don't know if your school adheres to Smarta norms at all but So far I
haven't heard anything about women actually being harmed in any way so I
have to wonder exactly what the problem is?

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at>

bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam

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