Great Women in Vedic tradition
By Stephen Knapp
Some of the women that have helped make great strides in establishing the foundation of Sanatana-dharma and Vedic culture can be listed and described. They serve as fine examples of historical importance and have inspirated both men and women for centuries. From the early Vedic times these include such women as Sati, Sita, Anasuya, Arundhati, Draupadi, Queen Kunti, Shakuntala, Maitreyi, Gargi, Madalasa, Savitri, Ahilya, and others. It
is said simply reciting their names removes sins. There are additional women from the last few hundred years whose lives we can recollect as well. Such great women have contributed to the glories and splendor of Vedic culture. So let us briefly review the lives of some of these great women.
Madalasa was the daughter of Vishvasu, the Gandharva King. She was also a great inspiration to her sons. Ritdhvaj, the son of the powerful King Shatrujit, was her husband. When Shatrujit died, Ritdhvaj became king and engaged in the royal duties. In due course, Madalasa gave birth to a son, Vikrant. When Vikrant would cry, Madalasa would sing words of wisdom to keep him quiet. She would sing that he was a pure soul, that he has no real name and his body is merely a vehicle made of the five elements. He is not really of the body, so why does he cry?
Thus, Madalasa would enlighten her son with spiritual knowledge in the songs she would sing to him. Because of this knowledge, little Vikrant grew up to be an ascetic, free from worldly attachments or kingly activities, and he eventually went to the forest to engage in austerities. The same thing happened to her second son,
Subahu, and her third son, Shatrumardan. Her husband told her that she should not teach the same knowledge to their fourth son, Alark, so that at least one of them would be interested in worldly activities and take up the role of looking after the kingdom. So to Alark she sang a song of being a great king who would rule the world, and make it prosperous and free from villains for many years. By so doing he would enjoy the bounty of life and eventually join the immortals. In this way, she trained her son Alark from the beginning of his life in the direction he would take. This is how a mother can influence her child in whatever potential may be possible, whether materially or spiritually, by imparting noble thoughts to open the avenues of activities for her children.
From the Puranas we learn how Sati would not tolerate the dishonour of her husband Lord Shiva. Sati was the daughter of Prajapati Daksha, who was one of the sons of Brahma. Once Daksha arranged to hold a major religious ritual (yajna) in his capital, near present day Haridwar. Many kings, emperors and demigods were invited. However, Daksha did not respect Shiva, so Shiva was not invited. Nonetheless, Sati wanted to go to see her father and many sisters. Shiva tried to dissuade her from going, saying it was not good to go uninvited. But Sati went anyway to participate in the yajna. Unfortunately, she found her father insulting her husband, Shiva. Not able to tolerate the dishonour of her husband, she self-immolated in the fire and left this world altogether, leaving her body in ashes.
When Lord Shiva heard about this, he was terribly angry and taking a hair from his head, he threw it to the ground and it turned into the demon, Veerabhadra, who was the anger of Lord Shiva and who disrupted the yajna. In disappointment, Lord Shiva then bore the body of Sati to different places in the world. Sati'svarious limbs dropped as Shiva carried her body, and wherever a limb dropped became a Siddha-peetha, which still remain major places of Shakti worship. According to the Devi Bhagavata there are 108 such Siddhapeethas, while other texts say there are 51. Among these, 42 are in India, 2 in Nepal, 1 in Tibet, 1 in Sri Lanka, 1 in Pakistan, and 4 in Bangladesh.
Sati then reincarnated as the daughter of the Himalaya Parvata, and thus she became known as Parvati. She underwent great austerities and won Lord Shiva as her husband once again.
Anasuya was a woman who could bring back the life of a dead sage due to the power of her own austerity and devotion to her husband. She showed that devotion to a qualified husband gives the wife fame, power and is the fulfillment of her dharma. Anasuya was the wife of the sage Atri. Her mother was daughter of the sage Svayambhuva and her father was Kardama Muni. Her fame had spread throughout both the Earth and the planets of the Devas.
According to the Markandeya Purana, there was once a sage named Mandasya who cursed a brahmana named Kaushika to die the next morning at sunrise. When Kaushiki, Kaushika'swife, heard the news, she vowed that by the power of her chastity the sun would never rise. When the sun did not rise for many days, everyone started to become alarmed. Brahma then told the other demigods to go to Anasuya and she could assist them by making the sunrise by the force of her moral power. Anasuya then entreated Kaushiki to allow the sunrise to resume. Kaushiki then allowed the sunrise to take place, but her husband immediately expired because of the curse. Yet, Anasuya brought the husband back to life by the power of her own austerity and devotion to her husband. Pleased by this, the demigods gave Anasuya the blessing to have her wish for three sons who would be reincarnations of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Thus, Brahma appeared as Soma, Vishnu as Dattatreya, and Shiva as Durvasa. Of course she was also greatly honored by her husband who said to Sri Rama when Rama once visited Atri'sashrama during his exile, that Anasuya was a great lady, following the path of austerity and deserves the salutations of all beings. Anasuya was a bright example among women.
Sita is fully described in the Ramayana. She was the daughter of King Janaka, ruler of Mithila. The King was engaged in ritually ploughing the land to help produce food to counter a famine when a pitcher appeared that had been buried from which Sita appeared. The tip of a plough is called a sita, thus Sita was the name given to her. At the time, the demon Ravana had collected tax from the local sages who had placed their blood in this pitcher. Thus, when the plough later uncovered and churned the pitcher, the life-force from the sages produced Sita, and Sita thus became the cause of Ravana'sdestruction.
As related in the Ramayana, Lord Rama won Sita'shand in marriage. But due to political intrigue, Rama'sfather, Dasharatha, had to keep a promise he had made to his second wife Kaikeyi, who wanted her own son to ascend the throne and not Lord Rama. So she had Rama and Sita sent into exile to the forests. During that time, Ravana abducted Sita and kept her in the Ashoka-Vatika, the garden of Ashoka trees. He tried to force her to marry him but she would not. During that time Rama and Lakshmana searched the forests in search of her. In time they found out she had been taken by Ravana, and having learned where he was, Lord Rama finally put an end to him and rescued Sita.
Since some citizens doubted Sita'spurity, she had to undergo the Agni Pariksha, to prove her purity as a devoted wife. Even then it was over-heard that a washerman had doubts of Sita'scharacter, having spent so much time in Ravana'shouse. So to help ward off any criticism, Rama exiled Sita to the forest ashrama of Valmiki. While there she gave birth to, Lava and Kush, the twin sons of Lord Rama. Valimiki once brought Sita and her sons to Ayodhya, the capital of Lord Rama, where the sons sang the Ramayana in front of Lord Rama. Valmiki also proclaimed that Sita was as good as purity and chastity incarnate.
Though Sita'slife was full of struggle and hardship, she was innocent and pure. She gave up all comforts to serve her beloved husband and uphold sanctity, faithfulness, virtue and moral standards. Thus she holds one of the highest places among women in Vedic culture and of woman'scharacter.
Draupadi was the daughter of Drupada who was the king of Panchala. She was born from the ritual fire and for this reason was also called Yajnaseni. Her dark complexion also gave her the name of Krishnaa. Queen Kunti was the mother of the five Pandava brothers, Arjuna, Bhisma, Yudhisthira, Sahadeva and Nakula. When the Pandavas brought Draupadi back to their home, Kunti, without seeing Draupadi, told them that whatever they have they must all share equally. So Draupadi became the wife of all the five Pandavas. It is said that Draupadi in a previous life had been the wife of Indra, the King of heaven, and she took five separate forms in serving her Pandava husbands. Thus, she was most devoted to her five husbands and was also a great devotee of the Supreme Lord, and regarded Lord Krishna as her ultimate protector.
One episode that shows this was when in the court of the Kauravas, wicked Dushashana tried to disrobe her in front of everyone. Draupadi fervently prayed to Krishna for protection. Krishna heard her prayers and though He was in Dwaraka, He protected her by providing an endless supply of cloth to her sari so that it never ended, and she was always covered and not dishonored in such a way.
Another time was when Durvasa Muni, who was known for his quick anger, suddenly decided to drop in on the Pandava camp, along with his many thousands of disciples. He would also want something to eat for himself and his followers. But the Pandavas had just eaten and there was nothing more to prepare. Lord Krishna asked for whatever remnant grains were left in the pot. Being the Supreme Lord, if He was satisfied, then everyone would be satisfied. So He took what few grains were there and when Durvasa Muni arrived, they were all so full that they no longer wanted anything to eat, and thus left peacefully.
In Draupadi'sservice to her husbands, she had said that she rises before everyone, tolerates hunger and thirst, and goes to bed after the others. She also gave birth to five sons, all of whom were killed by the wicked Ashwatthama. But since he was the son of the family guru, and she had such respect for their gurus, she forgave him.
When the Pandavas had reached the end of their lives and were setting out to ascend to heaven by climbing up into the mountains, she was the last in line. But she was the first to fall and thus rise to heaven after her death. Her dedication and devotion make her one of the great personalities of Vedic culture.
Anasuya brought the husband back to life by the power of her own austerity and devotion to her husband. Pleased by this, the demigods gave Anasuya the blessing to have her wish for three sons who would be reincarnations of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Thus, Brahma appeared as Soma, Vishnu as Dattatreya, and Shiva as Durvasa.