Question on Advaita (Women in Advaita Vedanta)

Vishal Agarwal vishalagarwal at HOTMAIL.COM
Thu Jul 27 11:26:14 CDT 2000

Dear Jaldhar,

Please see below:

----Original Message Follows----
From: "Jaldhar H. Vyas" <jaldhar at>

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

JV:Your use of the word concession is interesting and exposes the real fault
line in interpretation of Advaita Vedanta.  ....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.
VA: Well, the natural outgrowth of a culture need not be correct and good if
some cancerous cells had got grafted into it sometime in the past.

JV:We must remember that Kerala during the time of Shankaracharya and for
long before was one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world....  The
Christians had been established since one generation after the death of
VA: The story of St. Thomas is a myth and is unattested historically or

JV:Shankaracharya had ample opportunities to be "multicultural".  But he
wasn't.  We should ask why.
VA: What is your suggestion in this regard? And did the Romans, the
Christians, the Jews, the Arabs etc. allow women to be their priests? The
Buddhists and Jains allowed nuns to exist in their orders though.

>VA: All the same, why deny the opportunity of Vedic learning to women.
JV:Because they have been doing fine without it?
VA: Well, that does not answer our question. There does not seem to be any
justification for denying the opportunity of Vedic study to women, to my

 > 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
 > Itihasa-Purana" (to paraphrase).

JV: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.
VA: There should be a comma after women also because there is no explicit
injunctions in Shruti that women cannot study or understand the Vedas. And
the word 'Brahmabandhu' is not restricted to those only who do not
comprehend the Vedas. Below, you have cited the Sadvidya section of
Chhandogya. In that, does not the father tell Shvetaketu (who had mastered
the Vedas) that their family consider those persons as 'Brahmabandhu iva'
who do not know the Sat? Therefore, studying the Vedas does not necessarliy
free one of the stigma of being a Brahmabandhu.

 > In essence, the Itihasa-Purana convey the
 > same ideas as the Vedas, but they are Smriti (even though ranked as the
 > Veda sometimes) and so less authoritative than the Shruti.

JV: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.
VA: Yes, but again, the Smriti and the Shishtachara are authoritative only
because of their agreement with the Shruti, so they still derive their
authority from the Shruti! The principle of Svatahpramana and Paratahpramana
comes into play here.

JV: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.
VA: Stridhana is indeed mentioned in the Vedas (see Kanda XIV of
Atharvaveda). Kumarila gives some other examples . For instance he states
that the Upanayana ceremony is mentioned in the Kathaka Shakha (correct! The
Kathaka Upanayana AnuBrahmana exists with accents even today). On Holi, note
what Jaimini actually has to say with regard to even the smriti as the final

"Vidrodhay tvanapekshyam, asatihyanumanam" Or if the Smriti conflicts a
Shruti, it is invalid and if there is no Shruti corresponding to a Smriti
injunction, then we should take it as an Anumana (I will leave a discussion
of the word 'Anumana' here). The same logic might be applied to
Shishtachara-- when Shishtachara does not conflict Shruti but has no Shruti
support as well, it ought to be considered in the 'Anumana' category.
In our discussion, we can actually show that the Shruti (and even some
Smriti) actually supports the rights of women and Shudras to the Vedas. More

JV:The mantras by and large do not include any injunctions or prohibitions
so are irrelevent to the investigation of dharma.
VA: No. Manu 2.6 has said that 'Akhila Veda is source of Dharma." i.e., the
whole Veda (including the Mantra and Brahmana) is the source of Dharma. And
where they do give injunctions, we need not ignore them. See below.

JV: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?
VA:That is not my view if you consider my earlier message. Rather, it was
the view of those who penned the shloka I quoted and said that the "women,
Shudras and the Brahmabandhus to whom the Shruti is agochara". All the same,
I repeat that there is no justification in denying the opportunity to women
unless we assume that they are incapable of studying the Vedas. What is your
considered opinion in this regard?

JV: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.
VA: No. The question is not of according some traditions a 'trivial'
classification, but rather one of allowing women to read the Vedas if they
wish. That they might not want to read them even when allowed to do so is
another matter. In fact, there are women recitors of Vedas in Pune.

 > "He who does not know the Vedas, cannot know the Supreme"
 > Krishna Yajurvediya Taittiriya Brahman
JV: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.
VA; That is not true. It is Narada who says this to Sanatkumara. In any
case, that does not indicate a conflict between the Taittiriya and the
Changogya shrutis. The former merely states that the study of Vedas is
necessary to know Brahman, while the latter states that it is not sufficient
(which does not rule out the fact that we must study the Vedas for becomming
fit acquire Brahmavidya).

JV:We need injunctions not stories to understand dharma.
VA: According to Mimamsakas (see Shabara Bhashya), the injunctions are not
necessarily of the nature 'do this, do not do that'. Shabara gives examples
(eg. how the Vedic statements should motivate us to dig wells and so on).

 > And a male body is not necessary to have the ability to study the Vedas.
JV:Both the Mimamsa and Brahmasutras have a lot to say on this subject.
I'll try and post something on it.
VA: To my knowledge, the Brahmasutras are silent on this issue. And the
Mimamsa sutras do deal with this topic but there is a controversy over the
meaning of some sutras (like the one dealing with 'Atreyi' or with
'Aashi...'). Even the Katyayana Pribhasha (with which you are familiar I
suppose), allows women the right to Yajnas. BTW, did you read the Paraskara
Grhyasutra or the Katyayana Grhyasutra? The latter is a rare text (available
only in one edition) and Paraskara GS is an abridgement of it.

 > After all, Devi Sarasvati is not a man.
JV:Neither is she a human woman.
VA: But the Rigveda does say: "May we do what the Devas do" (My RV is boxed
right now but others might be able to find these words). Are you trying to
say that human women are incapable of reading the Vedas?

 > 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
 > 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
 > Shudra women, I will disagree again because Brahmins/Rishis have also
 > birth in the Yonis of Shudra women. And a Brahmani can also arise from a
 > Shudra lady.
JV:However for men of the trivarnas, the Upanayana gives them a second birth
(which is why they are called dvija)
VA: Then why should we debar the son of a Shudra from this second birth when
according to Shri Krishna, it is one's Svabhava which decides our varna?

JV: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.
VA: How so?

 > In any case, the words of the Gita do not state or implythat
 > women cannot study the Vedas.
JV:By the same tack they do not say they can either.
VA: Even so, by the Mimansa principle "Asatihyanumanam", the right or women
to Vedas is still maintained!

 > 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
 > of Rigveda
 > 2. Apala Atreyi
 > 3. Shashvati Angirasi
 > etc. etc.
 > You might remark that these women were probably 1500 years or more prior
 > the age of Shankaracharya. But then the same time frame must be applied
 > the BU passage also on which the Acharya was commenting, and so his
 > interpretation becomes anachronistic IMHO.
JV:Only if you accept them (and the Upanishad) as historical.  And there is
no particular reason to do so IMO.
VA: There is no reason to consider them as ahistorical when the
Itihasa-Purana themselves present them as historical persons. Sulabha
Maitreyi is mentioned in an Akhyana in the Mahabharata. The historicity of
promulgators of Vedic Shakhas is accepted even by Jaimini ("Akhya
pravachanat") and so Sulabha becomes a historical Rishika. And historical
accounts of Apala etc. are given in Shaunakiya Brihaddevata etc. When
Yaskiya Nirukta states that 'Rishayah mantradrashtarah' or that
'Sakshtkritadharma babhuva', the historicity of the Rishis is automatically
implied. Whether they were actually composers of these hymns or not is a
totally different question.

JV: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: THE 21 Rishikas of RV are well known and we have no reason to doubt
their historicity. If 21/407 Rishis of Rigveda are an anomaly, so be it. But
it is sufficient nevertheless to establish the adhikara of women as such to

 > VA: I agree that in modern times it is the Arya Samaj which has
 > such a view which runs counter to very ancient traditions. Note however
 > even according to Purva Mimamsa, the Brahmanas are for the sake of
 > ("tadarthatvat") and therefore a contradictory Brahmana is rejected in
 > of the Mantra. Anyway, in some Arya Samaj works, I have come across some
 > very good arguments that the Brahmanas themselves do not consider
 > a part of the Vedas but the later tradition certainly considers the
 > Mantra-Brahmana literature as one whole.

JV: 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
VA: Not so. Jaimini states that a Brahmana shruti opposed to a mantra is
invalid because the Brahmana is for the mantra and not vice versa.

 > JV:As for the names of some rshis being female, the Rshis are only the
 > of the mantras.  As far as karma is concerned they are just names
 > to the mantras.
 > VA; That is why I said that these 21 Rishikas are Sages of the RV. I did
 > say 'composers.' The view of Karma Mimamsa need not be final and texts
 > Brihaddevata take great pains to explain the significance of Rishis of
 > mantras. At times, the names are indeed helpful in understanding the
 > mantras.
JV:Possibly.  But they do not help in knowing how to act.
VA: That depends on whether you indeed want to relegate the entire mantra
portion to Karmakanda. I do not accept such a view although I accept that
the mantras are subjected to a 'viniyoga' in the karmakanda. But to do a
viniyoga on a mantra in a rite does not mean that the mantra has nothing to
do with the Jnanakanda as such. For instance, the Purusha Sukta is used in
Purushamedha Yajna(Shatapatha Kanda XIII) but all the same it is sometimes
considered an Upanishad.

 >  __________________
 >  > 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.
JV:There is very little that is done "everywhere"  The point is this is
something Dharmic women do today and without feeling opressed by it.
VA: That is because they are brought up to hold a particular mindset. Now,
the question is whether it is of relevance to Dharma NOW that they observe
all these restrictions in the age of tampons and other things. I do not
think so. In olden days, cooking food by a women in her menses would have
been unhygienic and aesthetically unacceptable. Not anymore.
And there are many Dharmic wives who do not observe this restriction

 >  and they stand or fall
 > in so far as they agree with or contradict the Vedas. That the finality
 > the Kapasutras is not acceptable is the teaching of Jaimini
JV: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.
VA: And that is because the Rathakara and Naishadhasthapati figure in the
Brahmana texts. Not because the discussion is present in the Kalpasutras.
Note that in his other similar work (Chhandoganupada Sutra), Jaimini again
ingores the Kalpasutras. Infact, the colophons of the work state that it is
an 'anubrahmaniko vidhi'. The Nishadas are considered beyond the pale of the
4 varnas and being Austro-Asiatic tribes, they interacted with the
varnashrama society via their chiefs. The Brahmanas texts allowed these
chiefs to participate in certain vedic rites as well. In fact, consider
"mamahotram panchajanaah…" in Rigveda where the word 'Pancajanaah' in
interpreted by 'Purvacaryas' in Yaksa's Nirukta as the four castes and
On the Rathakara and Shudras, I hold my judgement till I comb the list
archives to see if this topic has not been dealt with yet (because I do not
want to repeat old discussions). But in summary, there are some Kalpasutra
texts as well which suggest that several Acharyas allowed the right to Vedic
Rites to Shudras. Eg. Manava Srautasutra 11.1.2 states that if the giver of
the sacrificial fees (daksina) is a Sudra, then the priest should go to his
house, touch water and then go over the sacrifical formula mentally. In the
Apastambha Srautasutra 5.11-18, sudras are listed as one of them from  whose
homes, a sacrificer desirous of prosperity must procure fire. According to
some teachers (Apastambha Srautasutra 1.19-23), some teachers allowed Sudras
to perform Vedic sacrifices, while others (Apastambha 24.1) deprived him of
this right. Bharadvaja Srautasutra 5.2.9 also records that according to some
teachers, the Sudras also have the right to establish the sacrifical fires.

 >And the
 > mantra states-
 > "Yathemam vacham kalyanimam janebhyah. Brahmarajanyabhyam shudraya
 > 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: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
VA: Even then, the Vedas are included because Vedic words are considered
Satya and Nitya!

JV:Again note there is no injunction or prohibition in this text so it is
irrelevant for determining Dharma.
VA: No. The injunction is easily derived from this mantra because of the
words "Yatha imam..."

 > 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
 > "Brahmacharyena Kanya3 Yuvanam vindatey patim.."
 > And the rule is that if there are conflicting Smritis, there is an
 > So even here we do have an option.
JV: 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
VA: Why would the Smriti quote something without any purpose? There is no
rule that the Yama Smriti was applicable only in the Satyuga and not in
Kaliyuga. Moreover, the eternal shruti "Bhima jaya brahmasyopanita" trumps
all contrary Brahmana shrutis and smritis.

 >  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: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: In fact, except for the Kathaka Brahmana, there is NO Vedic injunction
for the Upanayana and if I remember correctly (I will check but it will take
3 weeks), the text does not give separate instructions for the 3 varnas.
Again, do you accept that one's varna is determined by one's birth? What
about Satyakama Jabala whose father was not known (Shankaracharya's
euphemistic gloss on this section is not acceptable to me).

 > 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.
JV: 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.
VA: I agree. My reponse was unstructured for that matter.

JV: 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.
VA: That does not mean that it is necessarily in conformity with the Shruti


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