Question on Advaita (Women in Advaita Vedanta)

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at BRAINCELLS.COM
Thu Jul 27 00:38:10 CDT 2000

On Tue, 25 Jul 2000, Vishal Agarwal wrote:

> somewhere that the Acharya's views were a concession to the prevelant views
> of his times.

Your use of the word concession is interesting and exposes the real fault
line in interpretation of Advaita Vedanta.  Not orthodoxy versus
reform, tradition verses modernism, fundamentalist versus criticalist but
between those who view it as a self-contained set of ideas which just
happened to originate in a particular culture and those who see it as the
natural outgrowth of the concerns of that culture.  As you can guess, I
favor the second view.

We must remember that Kerala during the time of Shankaracharya and for
long before was one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world.  There
had been flourishing trade with the West (Roman coins have been discovered
there) and Arabia and Muslim traders were regular visitors before they
became conquerors.  The Christians had been established since one
generation after the death of Jesus.  Jews even prior to that.  And of
course many varieties of Hindus Buddhists and Jains existed.
Shankaracharya had ample opportunities to be "multicultural".  But he
wasn't.  We should ask why.

> VA: True. In fact some like Bhaskara have even more retrogade (IMHO) views.

He was the one who thought women and Shudras shouldn't even study the Gita
etc.  But you'll not his school didn't survive.

> VA: All the same, why deny the opportunity of Vedic learning to women.

Because they have been doing fine without it?

> 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).

There should be a comma after Shudras. The Brahmabandhus are by
definition those who are entitled to learn the Vedas but do not understand
whether through ignorance or laziness.

> 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.

This is a misstatement of the situation.  In the event of a discrepancy
between shruti and smrti, shruti takes precedence (and smrti trumps
shistachara in the same way.)  However where there is no conflict, all
three are _equally_ authoritative.  The Mimamsakas give the example of
Holi.  Even though it is not a Vedic utsava, it has existed since time
immemorial and thus is equally obligatory as any Vedic utsava.  In the
matter of stridharma if we accept that it is not mentioned much in the
Vedas it follows that the Smrti where it is mentioned is supremely
authoritative in that regard.

> Denial of Vedic
> learning to women goes against the mantas themselves:
> Bhima jaya brahmasyopanita: AV and RV
> Yathemam vacham kalyanim...: MYV 26.2

The mantras by and large do not include any injunctions or prohibitions so
are irrelevent to the investigation of dharma.

> 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.

According to the calendar on my computer, today is 26th July 2000 so I
think our standards are as modern as anyones.  When I'm doing my sandhya
etc. in the morning, my wife is reciting a stotra called Datta Bavani, 52
shlokas to Dattatreya Bhagawana in Hindi.  Am I supposed to consider her
inferior because she is not using Sanskrit (which she knows well enough)
or reciting something Vedic?  Or my mother who is a trustee of a local
mandir and my first teach in spiritual matters just because she follows
Sai Baba and not Shankaracharya?  In fact there areso many ladies I know
whose behavior I want to emulate.  It would be a loss for dharma if they
were to copy me instead?  Why would they even want to?  It seems to me the
disparagement is mainly coming from those who feel that womens rites and
traditions are trivial or not good enough.  I don't share that view.

> "He who does not know the Vedas, cannot know the Supreme"
> Krishna Yajurvediya Taittiriya Brahman

As a counter-example Shvetaketu complains to his father that he has
mastered the four Vedas, six Vedangas, Itihasa and Puranas and still does
not understand the supreme.

We need injunctions not stories to understand dharma.

> And a male body is not necessary to have the ability to study the Vedas.

Both the Mimamsa and Brahmasutras have a lot to say on this subject.  I'll
try and post something on it.

> After all, Devi Sarasvati is not a man.

Neither is she a human woman.

> 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.

However for men of the trivarnas, the Upanayana gives them a second birth
(which is why they are called dvija)

Nevertheless I accept your case for delinking.  I just want to point out
you are doing exactly what you accuse Shankaracharya of doing, reading
into the text something beyond the literal meaning.

> In any case, the words of the Gita do not state or implythat
> women cannot study the Vedas.

By the same tack they do not say they can either.

> 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.

Only if you accept them (and the Upanishad) as historical.  And there is
no particular reason to do so IMO.  What I meant by my question is do we
have any historical examples of women as Vedic scholars?  I don't think
you'll find more than a few anomalies but I'd like to know.

> 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.

Exactly.  I don't think it goes against the traditional views to assume
the  Vedic revelation took place accross several generations.  But once
the Vedic canon was complete our sages did not distinguish between earlier
and later.

> 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
> mantras.

Possibly.  But they do not help in knowing how to act.

>  __________________
>  > 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.

There is very little that is done "everywhere"  The point is this is
something Dharmic women do today and without feeling opressed by it.

> ______________________
> >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.

> VA: Agreed. More so because the Grhya mantras are often recited
> 'ekashruti'.However, the Kalpasutras are not Shruti

See my earlier comment about the relationship between Shruti and Smrti.

>  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

Note that Maharshi Jaimini also discusses and endorses the rathakara
naishadhasthapati nyaya in his sutras shortly after the section you quoted
from the sixth adhyaya.

> 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.

Sayanacharya did not comment on the Vajasaneyi Samhita. Uvatacharya and
Mahidharacharyas commentaries on this rka agree on the meaning.  That
speech is auspicious and will give all four castes their desires.  The
second half (which you didn't quote) goes on to say that by such speech
and with liberal gifts the Gods are pleased and will see that desires are
fulfilled.  While it is plausible that auspicious speech refers to the
Vedas it is is by no means the only interpretation.  Indeed
Mahidharacharya suggests kalyanim vacham is satya.  Speaking the truth is
pleasing to the Gods.

Again note there is no injunction or prohibition in this text so it is
irrelevant for determining Dharma.

> 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.

In this case the use of the past tense in the Smrti indicates it is no
longer a viable option.  The smrti is only noting it not prescribing it as
a norm.

> ________________
> 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)

Unfortunately I do not.  But I do have the Valmiki Ramayana so I'll look
into that one.

> ___________________________
> 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.

In the event of a conflict.  Otherwise they are equal.

>  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.

The basis is negative.  Because the Vedic texts give the vidhi for
Upanayana for a Brahmana (boy), and then the modifications for a
Kshatriya and Vaishya, it follows that any group not enumerated therein
is not entitled to perform it.  As Upanayana is a prerequisite for Vedic
study, it follows that those who are ineligible for it are ineligible for
the study too.

> 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.

And you have a right to your opinion.  But Dennis was asking for the
views of Advaita Vedanta and it should be clear that the Advaita acharyas
are closer to my opinion than yours.

Shankaracharya did not just grudgingly accept Smarta norms as a necessary
evil.  He encouraged his followers to adhere to themin toto and his
sucessors still do.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at>

bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam

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