Do Hindu women know the traditions of their ancient mothers? I am not sure. I know that they took part in composing the hymns of the Rig Veda. Therefore, they were among the greatest rishis of Hinduism. I know that they were among the greatest intellectuals, for one of them was invited by Janaka to a conference of intellectuals. And they were the greatest among the bakhtas.
I searched in vain for their equals in the ancient history of mankind. I found none.
Let me be more specific. The Vedic period was known for the equality of men and women. The Aryans were after happiness and long life, not for liberation from birth and death. This came later. Estrangement from husband, fear of living unmarried, desire to be quite of a rival wife, these were their main concerns and fears.
We have Ghosha, daughter, Kakshivan, mother, both Vedic scholars and authors of hymns. And there were others like Lopamudra, Apala Visvavara.
Then, we know of Maitreyi, wife of Yajnavalkhya, one of the greatest philosophers of Hinduism. She was a Vedic scholar in her own right. At the conference of intellectuals, called by Janaka (not the father of Sita), Yajnavalkhya defeated all the participants and won a thousand cows with gold bells as a prize from the king. One tough opponent he faced was woman?Gargi. (See my article on Yajnavalkhya, Organiser, August 1, 2004). Before Yajnavalkhya left home on sanyas, Maitreyi wanted to know from him the nature of immortality. This is what he said: ?After death, there is no consciousness. There is only self. And Self merges with Brahman and becomes immortal. It can no more have a consciousness of its separate existence.? On this, Paul Deussan, the German philosopher, writes: ?We have no better reply to give even today.?
Good Reader, imagine a Hindu woman of our times speaking about immortality with her husband! Such a thing is unthinkable. Such is the measure of the fall of the Hindu woman.
Then came Buddha. He was concerned with human sorrow. He sought release from birth and death. He prescribed the life of a monk for those who sought Nirvana. And he allowed the ordination of women. These Buddhist nuns have left their mark in the Theragathas they wrote. Smt Rhys Davids, the Indologist has translated these under the title Psalms of the Sisters. These are musings of women, who had renounced the world. They are happy they are free to express themselves freely, free from domestic bondage and free to develop their personality. They had complete mental poise. Release from the impermanence of things?such were the motives of these nuns.
With the Bakhti movement, there came a chance for women to show what they are best at ?affection, love, faith, adoration, and service. Bakhti is almost always connected with a personal view of God. We have Bakhti of two kinds?the quite meditative form of Bakhti, as also the passionate, associated with Krishna. Thus we have Mukhta Bai and Jana Bai both from Maharashtra, who exhibited quiet devotion to Vithal (Krishna). In contrast, we have Meera (from North), who went into raptures. Then, again, we have Lal Ded of Kashmir, a Saivite yogini. There is no passion in her. She speaks of union with God.
In the South, Avvai rose to the greatest heights as a poetess. She was almost divine to her admirers. She advises women to be good home-makers:
A home wants nothing when it has a good wife
If such a woman is not found in the house?
The house is like a den where a tiger dwells.
The Bakhti movement took deep roots in the South, Andal, one of the greatest Bakhti-vidis, sings:
O Govind?If the love thou has for me should change,
Or if we were to quarrel,
What would people say who have seen us together?
In contrast, we have the passionate songs of Meera:
Kanha have I bought; the price he asked I paid?
My love, my life, my self, my soul, my all?
I surrender myself body and soul
And wealth to the mountain holder,
Meera clasps his lotus feet.
And to those who cry for sons, here is Honamma of the South, a great poetess:
Alas! Why do short-sighted fools
pour forth ridicule,
Crying, ?Woman!?, ?Woman!??
Is not the person who reared
them a woman?
What boots it if the child be a son
And what loss if she be a daughter?
A dalit poetess? Unbelievable?
Sure, we had in Choka's wife. She sings:
The flesh is defiled?so they all
But the spirit is pure?
Without defilement is no flesh
Anywhere in all the world.
The defilement of flesh is in the
flesh itself, of surety,
So says the wife of Choka, the
This was the great tradition of the Hindu women. They were equal to men in mind and greater then men in heart. And then came the advent of Islam. It drove the Hindu women into the house, into darkness, into purdah. She remained there for nearly a thousand years. Does she know what these years have done to her? She does not. She thinks that she is free. She is not. She is still in bondage?in both body and mind. She must know what happened to her in those thousand years.