The passing of the “Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam” or the Women’s Reservation Bill on the first day of the new Parliament has already triggered a lot of debate and gossips in both the political world as well as civil society. While a lot of political parties are trying to take credit for it, there are those naysayers who are trying to completely discredit it, calling it mere lip service to the cause. One such argument was about the Hindi name for the bill. Why is it a Vandan or salutation, some decried.
Honouring Women Scholars and Thinkers
Let’s look at why the name of the bill is not a “granting of rights” but an acknowledgement of the role women play and have played in Bharat and the world but calling it a salutation to Nari Shakti. Nari Shakti has been a part of the Bhartiya political and cultural discourse and Vimarsh since time immemorial.
Brahmavadinis were women who participated in discourses on “Brahman”–which in many ways is the highest level of discourse. It refers to discussions on the circling of the universe in search of the ultimate truth. Just imagine the scale of their thinking, vision, and conversation!Brahman is a concept present in Vedic Samhitas, the oldest layer of the Vedas dated to the late 2nd millennium BCE.
The Rcs are limited (parimita),
The Samans are limited,
And the Yajuses are limited,
But of the word Brahman, there is no end.
— Taittiriya Samhita VII.3.1.4
Brahmavadinis or female scholars of ancient times such as Lopamudra, Ghosha, Sulabha, Maitreyi and Gargi not only studied topics related to Brahman and higher universal truths, but also took part in debates and discussions along with men are. In fact, these scholars then contributed to the scriptures too. Some sources attribute Ghosa as the author of RV 5.39 and RV 5.40, Godha as the author of a Sāman Source, Visvavara as the author of the hymn RV 5.28 and Apala of the hymn RV 8.91.
Then there are the Rishikas, or female Rishis who contributed a lot to the Vedas –the ultimate texts that were written for individual and collective evolution of the human race. The Vedas cover everything related to human existence intensively –from soul evolution to the truths of the universe, to politics, to finance to art and culture.
One of the popular stories about the Rishikas is in the Mahabharata–about a Rishika called Anamika. The reference appears in a story narrated by Bhishma to Yudhisthira in Shanti Parva. The story is about a Rishi who becomes consumed with ego as he meditates and in a fit of rage burns a crow when his meditation is interrupted by its bird dropping. When he visits a home for alms and food, the lady of the house takes her time as she is first tending to her family –her primary Dharma. When he gets angry at her for the delay, she says I’m not a bird that you can burn. He is astonished at her knowledge of the incident. When asked, she says, I’m no enlightened being with magical powers, “I’m just someone who looks after my family at all times as that’s my Dharma. That’s when the Rishi sees her as an accomplished soul—one without ego or anger and with a lightness of being.”
This story illustrates how so many women of Bharatvarsha could’ve been Rishikas – enlightened beings –even by being nameless or Anamikas as they didn’t feel the need to be credited. That’s why Rishikas are also considered to be higher than Rishis in many respects as they often follow a domestic life, looking after families and societies, and yet contributing to the discourse around them.
The Epic Wisdom: The Panchkanyas
In both Mahabharat and Ramayana, two of the greatest epics ever written anywhere in the world, we see women shaping the narrative and playing decisive roles. As decisive as men! The epics, taken together, celebrate the exploits of the Panchkanyas—Ahalya, Tara, Draupadi, Kunti and Mandodari. The Panchkanyas are often worshipped for their qualities. These qualities are not traditional virtues but more dynamic characteristics like curiosity, questioning, strategising, erring, and determining one’s path to self-realisation. In a country where such ideals of feminism thrived, that too more than 5000 years ago, we don’t need a Western concept of “one size fits all” feminism.
Also, as part of these Upajiva Kavyas, these women don’t just play assisting roles, they take the plot forward. They have their motivations, ambitions and flaws. They are on a journey of their own, where they do their Dharma but also follow their unique path to self-realisation, making one think how even spirituality has been an endlessly diverse journey in Sanatan Dharma. These characters ask questions, challenge the higher powers, and sit amongst the court of men as equals. If Arjun and Krishna’s discourse made the Gita Saar then Draupadi and Krishna’s conversations make for equally relevant and riveting pieces of writing.
Brahmavadinis were women who participated in discourses on Brahman, which in many ways is the highest level of discourse
As far as politics goes, all of them played important roles. According to many accounts, Ahalya went against her husband’s wishes and supported the tribal community of her region, showing great empathy for animals, humans from all walks of life, and all players of the ecosystem around her. Tara is a master strategist and astute politician, who, when her husband is beaten by Bhagwan Ram, takes on the role of statesman and nurtures her community and family. Instead of crying over her loss, she understands the nuances of Dharma and decides to walk the path.
Mandodari was often considered to be the sanest voice in Lanka and kept the spiritual in the animalistic alive. She later manages the matters of the estate after Ravana’s death. Kunti raised her five sons as a single mother in a hostile palace, where fear and threat were always lurking. But she understood the value of bringing them up in a joint family, with the infrastructure and value system that came with it. She chose to see the good and focus on bringing up her sons with those values.
Draupadi was we all know was a fierce queen who played equal to all her husbands and helped them strategise. She was also someone who questioned the court of men, when they couldn’t protect her, raising questions for generations of women like her.
An Ode to Women’s Political Prowess
Besides, being active in their courts and kingdoms, these women also played a great role in raising warriors and heroes. That’s why the importance of women in ancient Bhartiya Sanskriti starts from the “Garbha Sanskar” –in the womb. The values and teachings of a mother are considered incomparable in shaping individuals, society and nations. That’s why a lot of the warriors and even gods were known by their mother’s name and not their father’s, like Kaunteya (for Arjun), Anjaneya (for Bhagwan Hanuman), Devki Nandan for Krishna.
Of course there is also this basic emotion of equating Nari with Adishakti, mother earth or mother nature–that one boundless force from whom comes everything manifested in the creation. Even her forms are endless, with all kinds of qualities celebrated –from Somya (delicate) to Rudra (fierce). The celebration of Nari Shakti in Bharatiya Parampara or Indian tradition is timeless, hence almost natural to our intrinsic culture and value system. A reservation bill in that way becomes only an extension of that value system, where women’s participation has always been encouraged and expected. Let’s hope it takes the tradition forward and adds to the names of countless women who made Bharat, Bharat.