‘To educate your women first and leave them to themselves, they will tell you what reforms are necessary’- Swami Vivekananda
Extensive and equal access to education has always been one of the major drivers of social progress and economic growth all over the world. We all know that the National Education Policy 2020 aims to elevate literacy in India to the highest level, right from preschool to college. This should be a major step towards resolving the gender disparity in India’s performance on literacy that is still grossly higher than the world average (Source: World Bank).
Surprisingly, the low female literacy rate that India is accused of hosting for the last 70 years, since independence, is a marked contrast from the status of Indian women in education that was prevalent during ancient times.
Women Scholars in Ancient India
Brahmavadini was the title attributed to women scholars, who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of knowledge and the study of the Vedas. Some were unmarried, living as ascetics and independent of their fathers, brothers or male counterparts. They were paragons of intellectual proficiency, natural philosophy and spiritual enlightenment. They were Rishikis–female sages–in their own right and were revered as teachers, doctors and theorists.
In the early Vedic period of Indian history, circa 1500-500 BC, women’s education was given equal priority, despite the dominant preference of begetting sons in every household. A large number of young girls received both literary and cultural education.
The Sacred Thread ceremony, called Upanayana, Janeau or Poita, was conferred on both girls and boys of all castes at the age of seven. Post this ceremony, children were admitted to Vedic educational institutions also known as Gurukuls. Many of these gurukuls practised co-education. However, with the advent of women teachers, called Upadhyayanis, there were also an increasing number of educational institutions dedicated to girls pursuing higher education.
The Rig Veda contains hymns written by 27 women scholars. Of these, the prominent Brahmavadinis are Lopamudra, Ghosha, Gargi and Maitreyi.
Lopamudra was the wife of Rishi Agastya. She was a well known female philosopher. She visualized the “Panchadasi” mantra of the Sakta tradition of Hinduism. Together with her husband, she became a teacher of the Lalita Sahasranama, hymns listing the thousand names of the Divine Mother, Devi Shakti. She wrote a hymn of 6 verses in the Rig Veda, titled Rati Love. The hymn emphasizes the importance of sexual fulfilment in marriage as a means to attaining both immortality and spiritual enlightenment.
Ghosha, also called Mantradika, was a learned female philosopher and seer. She suffered from leprosy and was confined to her father’s home, where she attained most of her Vedic knowledge. To cure herself from her ailment, she prayed to the Ashwini Kumars, the divine twin physicians. They taught her the secret science of rejuvenation called Madhu Vidya, by which she cured herself. She wrote 2 hymns of 14 verses each, in the Rig Veda, praising the Ashwini Kumars and expressing her desire for married life.
Maitreyi was the wife of Yajnavalkya. She is renowned as one of the most intellectual and virtuous women philosophers of the Vedic period. She wrote ten hymns in the Rig Veda. Her most famous discourse with her husband explores the Hindu concept of the Oneness of the Soul Atman and the Ultimate Reality Brahman, including the nature of love. The dialogue itself is a theological wonder, because Maitreyi challenges Yajnavalkya’s theories as a seeker of ultimate knowledge and he acknowledges her questions by sharing his own spiritual convictions.
Gargi Vachaknavi is honoured as a great natural philosopher in Vedic literature. She wrote many hymns in the Rig Veda on the origin of existence. Due to the depth of her Vedic expertise, she was frequently invited to debates with male philosophers of her time.
On one such occasion, at the court of King Janak of Videha, she was the only woman present in the assembly and one of the eight scholars who challenged the great sage Yajnavalkya in a debate, as an equal participant. The quality and strength of her arguments almost overwhelmed Yajnavalkya–a feat that no other scholar was able to achieve. Gargi was honoured as one of the Navaratnas (nine gems) in the court of King Janak.
Other notable women scholars include Vishwavara, Apala, Sikta, Urvashi, Saswati, Sulabha and Lilabati. These women enjoyed high status and independence in Indian society. They participated in Vedic austerities, sacrifices and ceremonies. They recited the Vedic mantras by heart and were honoured for their contribution to Vedic education. Reading about these amazing women, filled me with a sense of pride of my country.
The Decline of the Brahmavadinis
The decline of the Brahmavadinis came with the universal acceptance of the code of Manu.
In contrast to the Brahmavadinis, there was another class of women called Sadyovadhus. These women became brides immediately upon the attainment of puberty, without any vedic education. Their Upanayana was performed as a formality just before marriage. They were considered as the ‘ideal wife’ having received education in mainly household duties. They were taught to read and write but they could not chant the Vedic mantras or be part of Vedic ceremonies. It is interesting to note that women became Sadyovadhus by choice and not through any kind of coercion.
In the later Vedic period, between 500BC to 200AD, Upanayana for girls was slowly discontinued and Sadyovadhus were given more importance. This turn of events resulted in the decline of the Brahmavadinis. Women lost their independence. Their marriageable age was lowered from 16 to 9 years. They were denied the right to Vedic education and confined to their home.
In 200 AD, the code of Manu, called Manusmriti, was composed. It sealed the fate of Indian women. According to Manu, a woman must always be under the protective sphere of the men in her life – her father, husband and son. All the duties, that were listed in the code, were against the independence and education of women.
Arthashastra, written by the great Indian teacher Kautilya, around the same time as the Manusmriti, declares that the role of women is to beget sons for the attainment of moksha spiritual liberation of the ancestors. It states that getting married at an early age is vital for all women. Lowering the marriageable age, however, further deteriorated the status of women in society and education.
Leading historians are increasingly starting to believe that the decline of the Brahmavadinis led to the rise of severe practices like Sati, Purdah and Jauhar. Foreign invasions during the later part of the Vedic period are possible influences that further degraded the role of women in society.
1600 years after the acceptance of the code of Manu, women emancipation found impetus through the work of reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Dayanand Saraswati and Jyotiba Phule amongst others. While the importance of Vedic education was lost as a result of the policies of the British rulers of India, the Western education system prioritised women’s literacy. Women’s schools and colleges came into existence all over the country.
The Future of Women in India
Swami Vivekananda, the great Indian philosopher, was one of the first and foremost thinkers who emphasised the importance of women’s education. He considered all women as the manifestation of the Divine Shakti Goddess.
He strongly believed that the welfare of the world depends on the empowerment of women. He spoke of the great Brahmavadinis and their contribution to Vedic treatises. He advocated that women must be educated so that they can mould the next generation and hence, the destiny of this country.
Yet, more than a 100 years after his death, Swami Vivekananda’s ideals for the status of women in education remain a long way off. Although women scholars and women researchers in various fields are on the rise in India since the turn of the century, their number is still on the lower side compared to other countries.
Before we look at a woman as a mother or sister or wife or daughter, let us make a vow to see her as an individual with the potential of becoming a Brahmavadini.
About the Author
C.Phillip is an entrepreneur and author based in Mumbai. Her debut novel, The Last Nautch Girl is an action-packed historical romance. For the most part of her life, she worked abroad and traveled extensively. Through that journey, she met a lot of wonderful people in different countries. When she is not working at her entrepreneurial venture or spending time with her cat at home, she likes to write action-packed historical fiction with strong women protagonists.