Talk on Vedic Feminism
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Vivekananda International Foundation organized a talk on 19 October 2020 on Vedic Feminism by distinguished speaker, Prof. Shashi Prabha Kumar, Dean, Sri Sankaracharya Sanskrit Mahavidyalaya, Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan. This lecture is part of the VIF lecture series ‘Philosophy for Beginners’. The webinar began with the opening remarks by Dr. Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF.

Introduction to Vedic Feminism

Prof. Kumar commenced the lecture by reciting a Vedic invocation to the feminine power, Saraswati. She recited, “O, the ablest of mothers, the best of rivers and the noblest of deities, Goddess Saraswati, make us noble because we have become a bit ignoble.” This is the famous hymn to the River Saraswati. Prof. Kumar said that Vedic feminism transcends the concerns of contemporary feminism seen in other parts of the world. She mentioned that Vedic feminism is in sharp contrast with the current manifestation of aggressive movement that originated in the west on behalf of women’s rights to equality. She explained that the Vedic view of feminism is characterized by an inherent spiritual outlook which projects perfect parity between women and men in every aspect of life and existence. The Vedic form of feminism is neither exclusive nor radical in its approach, said Prof. Kumar. Furthermore, she elucidated that Vedic feminism reflects a positive and participatory, constructive and complimentary, and healthy and holistic viewpoint for the needs and aspirations of a gender-just egalitarian society.

According to the Vedic viewpoint, there’s no difference between women and men on a spiritual level, said Prof. Kumar. Additionally, there is no better or worse half, but women and men are two equal parts born out of the Supreme Being, explained Prof. Kumar. Furthermore, Prof. Kumar said that the view which represents equality between both sexes is an inherent feature of Vedic philosophy. Prof. Kumar added that this metaphysical presupposition is very well reflected in the later conceptions of prakriti (matter) and purusa (consciousness) in the Samkhya philosophy. Prof. Kumar elucidated that the idea of Ardhanarishvarain the field of mythology does not envisage any distinction between men and women. It rather represents a relation of total inseparability, because none can do without the other.

To expand upon this further, Prof. Kumar illustrated that when we come from the spiritual realm to the empirical realm, the concept of complementarities of both sexes becomes the core of Vedic Philosophy, deeply rooted in the Vedic view of duality or bipolarity. Prof. Kumar said that “Agni-Somatmakam-Jaga” means that the world is made of twin principles, namely Agni and Soma. They are seemingly opposite but they represent different matter and energy matrix for creation. Though they are seemingly opposite, their inherent complementarities make them essential for creation, said Prof. Kumar.

The Vedic Ritual of Marriage

Moving forward, Prof. Kumar elucidated upon the Vedic ritual of marriage. She said that the equality between men and women is very well explained at the empirical level through the Vedic ritual of marriage, Saptapadi (seven steps). She added that the Vedic marriage ceremony not only signifies equal status of man and woman but also solicits friendship between them. Prof. Kumar said this practice is still prevalent in the Hindu marriages.

The speaker stated that other statements in the Brahmana texts show that the husband invites the wife to heaven also. She mentioned that in the Brahmana texts, the husband uses three terms to address the wife: Jaya (divine lady who gives birth to his progeny), Jani (mother) and Patni (legally wedded wife of man). She emphasized that the word Patni is very significant as it is preceded by Dharma. The word Dharma Patni makes her the legally wedded wife of a man, said Prof. Kumar. She mentioned that in the Atharva Veda, husband says, “I am the master of the house but you are my partner in all the religious duties. She added that no religious action can be performed by the husband without the wife sitting beside him. To elucidate this further, Prof. Kumar cited the example from the holy Ramayana where Lord Ram could not perform the yajna without Sita. In order to perform the rite of yajna, he kept a golden murti (idol) of Sita by his side, said Prof. Kumar. She also mentioned that women can perform specific rites alone or in the absence of their husbands which makes them privileged in the Vedic view.

A single word used to denote husband and wife as one in Vedic philosophy is dampati (couple), said Prof. Kumar. Prof. Kumar mentioned that the term dampati is plural in number and signifies that both husband and wife are joint owners of the house. She added that in the Atharva Veda, the biological fact of human reproduction has been lifted to a spiritual plane.

Prof. Kumar mentioned that Vedic feminism is quite unique in the sense that women are portrayed in the most distinguished and dignified ways in the Vedas. She emphasized that this portrayal of women makes them unparalleled in world literature from this respect. She added that women are seers in the Vedas, who have realized the mantras. These women are referred to as Rishikas. There are more than 28 Rishikas in the Vedic hymns. Prof. Kumar mentioned that some of the Rishikas mentioned are Suryaa, Apala, Atreyi, Vishvavara, Shachi, and Indrani. In addition to that, there are several female deities in the Vedas such as Saraswati, Usha, Aditi,Kuhu, etc.

Moving further, Prof. Kumar mentioned that various forms of feminine roles of respect are enunciated in the epithets. She added that these epithets have been used as adjectives to denote a woman as follows: Subhaga, Sumangali, Susheva, Shiva, etc. In addition to that, other respectful and dignified enunciations have been made to describe women in the Vedic literature. Prof. Kumar mentioned that words like Shuddha (pure),Puta (pious) and Yajya (religiously accomplished) have been used to address a woman. Moving further, she explained that at one stage, the creative force of woman has been regarded as highly as the position of creator. She added that Stri or woman has been given the position of Brahma or the creator in the Vedic view. She explained that just as Brahma is ever expanding and growing, woman is also ever growing as she gives birth to the progeny. She added that Vedic philosophy does not neglect the physical charm and grace of the woman. Prof. Kumar mentioned that the woman is extolled in the form of divine or dawn, often called Usha. The word used to denote Usha is worth considering, which is Purani Yuvti, meaning “the old one but ever new and fresh”.

Woman’s Participation and Place in Society

Prof. Kumar mentioned that in the Vedic period woman was not only confined to the home and hearth, but she was supposed to go and participate in intellectual discussions, in committees and Sabha. She added that we know from the Vedic literature that the woman is entitled to go to the Sabha and participate in the discussions. She has also been called an intellectually accomplished partner in the discussions.

Moving further, Prof. Kumar elucidated that the moral strength of a woman is praised in Vedic literature. She stated that ShachiIndrani, the wife of Indra, the Vedic deity, proclaims in Vedas, “This devil thinks I am weak. The devil thinks I am not brave. I am the wife of Indra and the lord of air is my friend.” Prof. Kumar emphasized that Vedas never mention woman as Abala. Instead, women have been addressed as Aditi which etymologically means independent or the one not dependent on anyone, said Prof. Kumar. She added that when we invoke the deity Aditi, we invoke the form of woman which is independent. Prof. Kumar mentioned that at one place, it has been said that the woman is spiritually better accomplished than man. In Vedic literature a complete complementary pattern is projected and propagated. Additionally, in the Vedic ceremonies, women had the right to choose their husbands, said Prof. Kumar.

The Difference between Vedic and Western Feminisms

Prof. Kumar reiterated that in the West, the women are standing on the pedestal of competition and confrontation. She warned that if we promote this competitive and aggressive form of feminism, it will lead to the end of world. She suggested that if we have to build an amicable world, which is full of peace and harmony, we should begin from the family. She elucidated that Vedic feminism stems from the system of family. She stated that the happy pictures of family portrayed in the Vedas signify that women were given prime status in the family. She emphasized that the woman’s role as a wife is the most significant one in the Vedic view.

To expand further, Prof. Kumar explained that words like Bharya (wife/provided) or Bharta (husband/provider) have not been mentioned in the Vedas. Instead, the woman is referred to using words that mean one who is respected. She added that according to the Vedic view the woman has to be respected since birth. Prof. Kumar said that woman must be respected because she is the source of creation and gives birth to society. This viewpoint of Vedic feminism is similar to the concept of contemporary eco-feminism wherein woman is seen as nature itself.

Prof. Kumar mentioned that by feminism we usually understand is a set of aspirations of women to be given equal opportunities and equal rights. Moving forward, she asked, “When we talk about rights, are we talking about women as spiritual beings or woman as just bodies?” Prof. Kumar said that the current form of Western feminism only talks of women as bodies at the physical level, while Vedic feminism talks about women at the spiritual level as well as the social, empirical and familial levels. She added that the Vedic view of feminism venerates women not only from the spiritual point of view but also from the familial aspect. On the contrary, the Western model of feminism objectifies women in the consumerist model of living, as we are in today. She added that Western feminism objectifies women to such as extent that it becomes impossible to talk about the dignified persona of women portrayed in the Vedic literature. Prof Kumar highlighted that the Vedic view is inclusive and holistic while the modern view is exclusive and fragmented. She emphasized that the Vedic view inherently motivated complementarities and coordination between both genders. She said that the current notion of feminism is aggressive and it puts women on an antagonistic platform with men. The Vedic view of feminism is family oriented while the current view of feminism is individualistic. She also added that the Vedic view is duty-oriented while the modern view of feminism is rights-oriented.

Prof. Kumar explained that the Vedas define the roles and duties of different persons and groups in the society. However, there is no mention of rights, she said. She explained that if the duties are performed in the right way the rights of others will be protected. Prof. Kumar mentioned that the current form of feminism empowers only women. She explained that if you empower only one section of the society the other sections gets disempowered. She said that the Vedas do not talk about such a model. Instead, they talk about equality for all beings, said Prof. Kumar.

Prof. Kumar said that according to the Vedic notion, women are born equal; however, the current or Western view of feminism suggests that women are not born equal. She said that we should understand that the current or the aggressive form of feminism is born out of the belief that women are not born equal. We should not draw inspiration from the alien models, rather we should go back to our sources, said Prof. Kumar. She said that constitutionally, we know that women have been given complete equality of status, but there are several contradictions visible in our society. She stated that these days we worship female divinity but at the practical level, there are instances which are very shameful not only for women but also for men. She suggested that the mindset of every social being has to change.

Different Perspectives on Feminism

As Prof. Kumar proceeded with the lecture, she mentioned about the former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She mentioned that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a feminist and an activist. Prof. Kumar quotes her words, “When I talk about feminism, I don’t talk about the empowerment of women.” It is not only women’s liberation but it is the liberation of both men and women. Prof Kumar also mentioned about Mirra Alfassa, the Mother of Pondicherry, who said, “No law can liberate women unless they liberate themselves”. Prof. Kumar said that according to the Mother, there are three traits that enslave women: attraction towards male, desire for home life and security, and attachment to their motherhood. She also mentioned that men also have three slaveries: the spirit of possession, attachment to power and domination, desire of sexual relationship with women and attachment to the small comforts of married life. She said that if men and women can get rid of these traits, they can truly become equal of each other. The sum of Mother’s statements is that men and women are not born identical, they are born as equal parts of the Supreme Being but there are biological and psychological differences, said Prof. Kumar. She added that the differences are the designs of nature and they should be respected. She urged that we have to respect the basic biological differences.

Moving forward, Prof. Kumar mentioned a few more perspectives on feminism. She quoted G.D. Anderson, “Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong; it’s about changing the way the world perceived strength.” Prof Kumar also said that the creative force of woman or the Matri Shakti has been an integral part of Indian society for centuries. She elucidated that mother worship is an inherent feature of Indian culture. She mentioned that Vedic Feminism emphasizes upon family as the foundation.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a turbulent time said Professor Kumar. She emphasized that the burden or onus of all suffering lies upon the shoulders of women both physically and emotionally. She added that during the time of Covid-19, the cases of domestic violence have witnessed a horrifying surge. Furthermore, she quoted the words of UN Secretary General, “the cases of domestic violence have increased from 32% to 70% which is an evident pointer to the fact of prevailing inequalities between both the sexes. Prof. Kumar quoted a recent report from the Times of India which suggested that female professors at Princeton University were not paid equal to their male counterparts. She also suggested that only in the 20th century the women in the West got voting rights. She reiterated that in the Indian society, Vedic period was the best time for women.

Role of Women in the Vedic Period

At the end of the lecture, Prof. Kumar said that according to the Vedas, women worked in several segments of the society. She mentioned that in the Vedic period women worked both as laborers and scholars. She mentioned that women were Acharayas or teachers. In addition to that, they also acted as the first teacher of child and ensured transmission of sanskars. She added that women also served as physicians and took care of family members in illness. Mentioning the sayings of Shachi Indrani, Prof. Kumar said that women were also good orators. Furthermore, women were also seers and celibates, often referred to as Brahmacharini in the Vedic literature. She emphasized that there were various female deities in the Vedas that were invoked, venerated and worshipped. Prof. Kumar also mentioned that women not only took care of their families but also looked after the animal kingdom. She added that women played the vital role in nurturing the families, animals, environment and society. She stressed that women had rights and opportunities and were treated as the empress or owner of the house.

Closing Remarks and Q & A Session

Prof. Kumar concluded the lecture by emphasizing upon the Grihastha Ashram or the family system mentioned in the Vedic literature. She mentioned the significance of the duties of both the sexes in the family system to ensure a gender-just egalitarian society. The lecture was followed by a few questions from the audience on the theme of abortion and surrogacy. Prof. Kumar answered the questions by giving examples of women who led lives as celibates or seers within the family system. She mentioned that according to the Vedic view, women are entitled to make decisions like whether or not to have children. She explained that the decision is justly made by both husband and wife. Dr. Gupta thanked Prof. Kumar for the insightful lecture on Vedic Feminism. He suggested that there is a need to develop a deep understanding of the subject. He added that we must understand the different forms of feminism to engage in healthy debates on the same.

Event Date 
October 19, 2020

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