Question on Advaita (Women in Advaita Vedanta) (fwd)

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at BRAINCELLS.COM
Wed Jul 26 00:19:17 CDT 2000

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 25 Jul 2000 13:47:37 -0400
From: Dennis Koenig <DennisKoenig at>
To: Advaita Vedanta mailing list <ADVAITA-L at LISTS.ADVAITA-VEDANTA.ORG>
Cc: Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at>
Subject: RE: Question on Advaita (Women in Advaita Vedanta)

Dear Jaldhar,

        Thank you for contributing to the answers to my question, and for
expounding upon the previous answers in a way that helps clarify them,
provide alternate perspectives, and broaden my understanding.

        As I consider my original question more carefully, it might be better
phrased, "Does Advaita teach that women are not as competent as men to study
and progress in spiritual and philosophical reason and wisdom?"  As for her
RIGHT, since I have no reason to doubt female competence to be as
enlightened by Reason as a male, I can't see any sense in restricting her
right to pursue it (nor would that be tolerated among the females in my
social circle).  It is to my benefit that she do so, and that we share in
the journey.  Abusive patriarchy would suppress her, discourage her,
restrict her, as it appears Western patriarchy has done for millennia, such
as through educational and economic disadvantages.  This has changed lately
in the U.S., where women now have more access to education and wealth (which
go hand-in-hand ... even our philosophy classes have a tuition).  I suppose
there can be such a thing as a patriarchy that is not abusive, that affords
a woman full access to the same wisdom, bliss and freedom a man can enjoy,
but along a different path (for reasons I don't understand).  Patriarchy
itself may not be the cause of female oppression, but the abusive practice
of it.  From what I've been learning here in our e-mail, in the Advaita
tradition women have the right to study ... but under certain conditions.  I
am unable to conclude at this time whether those conditions are at all
"oppressive" by modern American standards, since I don't feel that I fully
understand the rules or conditions ... and I'm inclined to take a
wait-and-see approach to how my understanding of this evolves up as I learn

        I noted carefully your astute distinction between philosophic understanding
and sociological/cultural conditioning.  Thank you for pointing to it.
Since this "gender question" arose, I have surveyed dozens of sources
regarding the history of humanity's experience with (and mythological
reflections on) both matriarchy and patriarchy.  Both are sociological
phenomena.  None of my research has pointed me to justification of either as
more advantageous than the other to humanity.

        I am trying to take care not to be swept away in the confusing phenomena of
society.  My interest in Advaita is not just sociological.  Given a choice
between patriarchy or matriarchy, in any form, for any reason, I would like
to try to avoid identification with either.  If there is a need for an
"-archy," may I find within myself a "maitri-archy," or better still, the
"higher-archy" of Reason.

        Nevertheless, I do live in a certain culture (and household) where emerging
changes in "gender ethics" are significant concerns.  These ethical
considerations beg the attention of my sense of responsibility to know the
philosophic basis whereof I may speak or act in regard to such concerns.
And, this dialog you are sharing here will also benefit my wife's
understanding of Advaita Vedanta.

<< 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. >>

        I regard my wife as a dharma sister, among other things.

<< 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. >>

        I'll have to look up "shistachara" with my sahadharmacharini.

<< I would hope they are telling men to do those things too. [dress
conservatively and follow rules concerning sexuality] >>

        Yes, I think they are.

<< "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. >>

        Point well taken.

<<  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 respectfully submit:  Neither did Newton come up with quantum physics,
but quantum physics are still more advanced than newtonian physics, and
tells us more about the reality of nature than had been realized in its
scientific forbears.  If I were a quantum physicist, I would not desire to
revert to the state of the collective consciousness of the human race extant
at the time of Einstein's greatest work simply because that's the culture
that came up with quantum theory.  It seems apparent to me that the
consciousness of the human race is continually expanding (albeit with
plateaus and even reverses along the way), thus I believe it is possible for
improvement on the Vedanta, just as the generations preceding its
canonization improved on the teachings they received, and Shankara took it
farther still.  Do you see anything unreasonable or illogical in this view?

        Thank you again for your generous time and consideration, and for all the
information you have shared.  Tonight I think it's well past due time to get
myself a Sanskrit-to-English dictionary!  My spell-checker is blowing a

Dennis Koenig

bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam

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