Hinduism: Women of Valour

Unlike the negative stereotypes of women in a man’s world, this feature offers a thorough analysis of the unique role Hindu women have played throughout history and how they are revered within the context of a major religion where women are the Goddesses. 

“Fathers, brothers, husbands and brothers-in-law who desire their own good must honour and adorn their women. Devatas are pleased only where women are venerated. And where women are not venerated, all  worship is futile. A family whose women live in sorrow soon perishes. The family whose women are happy always prospers   Manusmriti 3.56-58

 

 

Women, Faith and Hinduism

Unlike other major faiths, women have always had a special role in Hinduism. There has always been controversy about the inequalities that exist in all cultures on the role of women, and people seem to forget how women are revered in Hinduism which is a complete mismatch from the general stereotype of women in faith.

In classical Hindu dharma, women are worshipped in the context of God in a feminine form (Shaakta). Shiva-Parvati, Ram-Sita and Radha Krishna are perhaps the most famous couples who are revered by worshippers daily.  According to Hindu texts such as in the Rigveda, 21 sages out of 407 mentioned are female. The women have played a significant role in composing hymns, reciting them and play musical instruments.  In other words, women can study and impart knowledge alongside their male colleagues.

One of the great love stories which have captured the heart of many (even outside the realms of Hindus) is that of Goddes Sita. Though she appears in the Ramayana as the consort of Lord Rama, the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu, she is known very well in her own right, for her own virtuous qualities. She was strong, confident, dignified, learned, yet loving and caring. She had made many sacrifices which are an inspiration both women and men.

It is not surprising, yet not emphasised enough that Hinduism is the only major faith that worships God as a woman. All other major faiths see God as a ‘Fatherly’ figure only. In Hindu Dharma, characteristics such as wisdom, knowledge, prosperity, power etc… is represented symbolically by feminine Hindu deities.

Hinduism’s only words for strength and power are feminine – ‘Shakti’. No doubt, words denoting the feminine power of God, such as Shakti and Kali have become a part of the modern day vocabulary. There is even a perfume launched by the name ‘Kali’ in the West.

Going beyond the Goddesses, and because of it, the Hindu faith has been blessed with a continuous, unbroken chain of women Saints, Yoginis,  Saadhvi (Nuns), Priestesses (panditaa), Ascetics (Bhikshuni) and Seers (Rishika) who travel all over the world to this day to preach the eternal message of Hindu Dharma. Hindu texts are unanimous in declaring God does not differentiate between men and women.

The Social Reformer Dayanand Saraswati from the early nineteenth century championed the rights of women to study the Vedas and perform rituals like male priests. His followers including Lala Devraj started Vedic schools for women. For instance, Upasani Baba in Ahmadnagar and Udyan Mangala Karyalaya in Pune actually train women pandits in the name of equality. In recent years, more women than men have become Hindu priests in Pune. There are more than a thousand Hindu women priests all over the world. They are in great demand because they offer a unique perspective in all aspects of worship.

Women thus play an equal role in Hindu rituals. Women take a leading role in religious ceremonies and festivities such as Gangaur Puja of Rajasthan. It is impossible to imagine Hindu festivals without women. Indeed, several prominent festivals are devoted to the Devi, e.g. Lakshmipujan (Diwali), Basant Panchami (Saraswati), and Navaratri (Durga and Kali). In the worship of Devi, young girls are regarded as manifestations of Durga and are worshipped even by their parents (kanjaka-puja). And pilgrimages to shrines such as Vaishno Devi, Ambaji, is completed by performance of kanjaka-puja.

Despite some of the cultural prejudices and stereotypes, it is important to realise what the scriptures say about women and Hinduism.

  • "There is no difference between a son and a daughter" Manusmriti 9.130; Nirukta 3.4.
  • "Educate daughters as well as sons" [Mahanirvana Tantra 8.47].
  • Daughters deserve compassion from the parents (Rigvedic Aitareya Brahmana 7.13) and are a father's supreme objection of affection (Manusmriti 4.184).
  • Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 6.4.7 prescribes a special ritual for parents who want the birth of a scholarly daughter. If a marrying couple desire birth of daughters, the groom should hold his bride's fingers but not the thumb (Ashvalayana Grhyasutra 1.7.4; Apastamba Grhyasutra 4.12).
  • After a wedding ceremony, if the couple wants a daughter, the husband shows the Pole Star to his wife [Devapala’s commentary on Kathaka Grhyasutra 25.45].

These examples show that in ancient Hindu societies, parents also desired daughters.

  • "The birth of a daughter is very meritorious" Matsya Purana 154.414-417.
  • "Father should greet both son and daughter when he returns from a trip” Apastamba Grhyasutra 6.15.12-13.
  • King Ugrasena loved his daughter Devaki more than his son Kamsa (Brahmavaivarta Purana).

The Many Talents of Hindu Women

• DEVI: Hindu Dharma is the only major faith that worships God as Goddess.

• Rishika: Women are intimately associated with the Revelation and study of Hindu Scriptures.

• Both women and men are in the image of the Divine.

• Panditaa: Women play an important role in Hindu Yajna (Vedic rituals), Puja (worship) and have their own ways of sacred rites. They can be priests.

• Vidushi: Women have excelled as scholars of Hindu Dharma, as philosophers, poets etc…

• Yogini, Saadhvi, Bhikshuni: As spiritual Gurus and Samnyasinis, they have provided guidance to millions.