Question on Advaita (Women in Advaita Vedanta)

Vishal Agarwal vishalagarwal at HOTMAIL.COM
Tue Jul 25 10:30:21 CDT 2000

Dear Jaldhar,

Thanks for the reply, which I will forward to Dennis if he has not joined
the list yet. A few remarks below however:

JV: Nevertheless it does not operate in a cultural vacuum.  Advaita Vedanta
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

VA: Agreed. My response to Dennis was unstructured but I think I did mention
somewhere that the Acharya's views were a concession to the prevelant views
of his times.

 > 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,

JV:All_ acharyas agree on this.  Remember Shankaracharya is not out to offer
his own opinions but only to explain the already existent Vedic Dharma.
VA: True. In fact some like Bhaskara have even more retrogade (IMHO) views.
JV: 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?
VA: All the same, why deny the opportunity of Vedic learning to women. The
reason for denying the study of the Vedas to women stems from a prejudice
that they have a lower intellect then men. Does not a verse go :"Women,
Shudras and Brahmabandhus who cannot comprehend the Vedas should study the
Itihasa-Purana" (to paraphrase). In essence, the Itihasa-Purana convey the
same ideas as the Vedas, but they are Smriti (even though ranked as the 5th
Veda sometimes) and so less authoritative than the Shruti. Denial of Vedic
learning to women goes against the mantas themselves:

Bhima jaya brahmasyopanita: AV and RV
Yathemam vacham kalyanim...: MYV 26.2
 > The authoritative Upanishads, the Geeta and the Sutras do not contain any
 > disparaging
 > remarks against women although the commentaries on them by Shamkaracharya
 > etc.

JV: You have not proven that Shankaracharyas' commentaries make any
disparaging remarks either.
VA: Well, IMHO, denial of Vedic learning to women is sufficiently
disparaging (by modern standards) and this fault (from my perspective)
applies to all the Acharyas.
  > 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
 > the orignal verse
 > of the Gita.

JV: 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.
VA: The Vedic texts themselves state that the Vedas must be read to attain
salvation. For instance:
"He who does not know the Vedas, cannot know the Supreme"
Krishna Yajurvediya Taittiriya Brahman

And a male body is not necessary to have the ability to study the Vedas.
After all, Devi Sarasvati is not a man.
In the verse of Gita cited above, the word 'Papayonayah' need not be
connected with "striyovaiSAstathASudrAs". Some commentators like
Abhinavagupta delink papayonayah from the following words. Logically also,
all of us, whether Brahmins or Shudras, men and women, come only from our
mother's Yoni. If you say that the reference is to the Yoni of Vaishya and
Shudra women, I will disagree again because Brahmins/Rishis have also taken
birth in the Yonis of Shudra women. And a Brahmani can also arise from a
Shudra lady. In any case, the words of the Gita do not state or implythat
women cannot study the Vedas.

 > 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
 > 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.

JV:His time and at least 1500 years before that.  In fact is there any
historical evidence of there having been female Vedic scholars?
VA: The name of Gargi was missed out by me. But we can also consider the
following names
1. Rishika Sulabha: She is the promulgator of the now lost Saulabha Shakha
of Rigveda
2. Apala Atreyi
3. Shashvati Angirasi

etc. etc.

You might remark that these women were probably 1500 years or more prior to
the age of Shankaracharya. But then the same time frame must be applied to
the BU passage also on which the Acharya was commenting, and so his
interpretation becomes anachronistic IMHO.

JV: ????  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)
VA: I agree that in modern times it is the Arya Samaj which has propagated
such a view which runs counter to very ancient traditions. Note however that
even according to Purva Mimamsa, the Brahmanas are for the sake of Mantras
("tadarthatvat") and therefore a contradictory Brahmana is rejected in favor
of the Mantra. Anyway, in some Arya Samaj works, I have come across some
very good arguments that the Brahmanas themselves do not consider themselves
a part of the Vedas but the later tradition certainly considers the
Mantra-Brahmana literature as one whole.
JV: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.
VA; That is why I said that these 21 Rishikas are Sages of the RV. I did not
say 'composers.' The view of Karma Mimamsa need not be final and texts like
Brihaddevata take great pains to explain the significance of Rishis of the
mantras. At times, the names are indeed helpful in understanding the

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

JV:Note this is still the practice today.
VA: Not everywhere in this age of tampons and sanitary napkins.
>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.

JV:...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.
VA: Agreed. More so because the Grhya mantras are often recited
'ekashruti'.However, the Kalpasutras are not Shruti and they stand or fall
in so far as they agree with or contradict the Vedas. That the finality of
the Kapasutras is not acceptable is the teaching of Jaimini also in the
Kalpasutra adhikarana (starting with "Prayogashastram iti chet..."). And the
mantra states-
"Yathemam vacham kalyanimam janebhyah. Brahmarajanyabhyam shudraya charyaya
cha svaya charayanaya cha." Madhyandina Samhita 26.2
This one mantra will over rule 100's of prohibitions like "Shudras cannot
hear the Vedas" and so on.
JV: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.
VA; Well, the Nibandhakaras quote the Yama Smriti to the effect that in
olden times ('purakaley") women took the Yajnopavita, studied the Vedas,
performed Yajnas and so on. Some people cite the following mantra of
Atharvaveda Kanda X to this effect (although I am not quite sure about it):

"Brahmacharyena Kanya3 Yuvanam vindatey patim.."
And the rule is that if there are conflicting Smritis, there is an option.
So even here we do have an option.

I will address your interpretation of Mimansa Sutra Adhyaya VI, pada I later
(since my texts have been boxed for moving to another place-- I will see
however if I have anything stored electronically).

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

JV:They are accepted as canonical by Advaitins.[...]
VA: Agreed.
 > Some other relevant quotations from Hindu texts:
 > "Just like the son, the daughter also extends one's family lineage"
 > Bruhaspati Smriti

JV: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.
VA: Agreed.
 > I am sure this was the original verse and the former two (which
 > this one) are
 > interpolations, because the Ramayana clearly record that Kaushalya Rani,
 > Devi Sita etc. used
 > to attend to the performance of Agnihotra everyday,
JV: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.
VA: No. If I remember the contexts or Ramayana etc. correctly, Kaushalya
etc. are described as performing the Agnihotra indpendently. Also the AV
also enjoins that women should perform the Agnihotra in the morning on
behalf of their families (this will be difficult for me to find now because
my books are boxed. But is somewhere after Kanda 12. Obviously Kandas 14, 15
and 20 should be ruled out. If you have the Samhita, please check 13, 16,
17, 18, 19)
JV: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.
VA:No. Manu does state that shruti is more powerful than Smriti and Smriti
is more powerful than Shishtachara. Jaimini also states "Shishtakopey iti
chet na, shastra parimanatvat." (Shabara et all interpret this sutra
differntly and take 'Shishta' to mean 'Vedas'. but I disagree with them.
Anyways, Manu is sufficient to support my contention). No where does any
Shruti state that women cannot study the Vedas, except the rather late
Narashimha Purva Tapani Upanishad.

JV: "patriarchal", "egalitarian", "feminist", "anti-feminist", "gender"
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.
VA: I agree with the above remarks made to Dennis. Culture however is not
static and while you may wish to adhere to Smarta norms in toto, I do not
wish to do so-- a different of opinion.

With regard to your other statements, I either agree with them or have no
distinctive opinion of my own.



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