“The spirit of Indian culture”, said Radhakrishnan, “does not deny to Indian women the opportunity for spiritual development and intellectual eminence.” There has yet been much misinformed criticism of the position of women in Indian society. The issue has been beautifully addressed in a delightful book Great Women of India. The book, amongst other topics, examines the early Vedic and the Brahman-Upanishadic Age that is till about 500BC.
In early Vedic period writes R.C.Majumdar girls like boys underwent upanayana ceremony at an early age, perhaps about eight, and began Vedic studies.The Ashwalayana Grihya-sutra says that on namakarana or christening both boy and girl should be given two names – an ordinary name to be revealed to all and a secret name to be revealed to the teacher at the time of upanayana. The Atharva Veda says that a maiden wins a young husband through brahmcharya or Vedic studentship! And the White Yajur Veda there is what Roma Chaudhuri says, “a beautiful and catholic message which permits all equally to receive Vedic knowledge.”
Women performed the Harvest Sacrifice – Sitayajna as also the Rudra sacrifice (to ensure fecundity among cattle) where many vedic verses were recited and Harihar in the commentary Agrahayanikarma said men and women all are equally entitled to utter mantras. Even while taking part in daily and periodical sacrifices along with her husband said Anant Sadashiv Altekar “the duty to chant the Saman hymns fell on the wife who made the first brick for the sacrificial altar and participated in the consecration of the fire and offering of the oblations.” When Bali went to fight Sugriva Tara (wife of Bali) performed sacrifices to secure his victory.
Teaching by women was also common. Gargi was one of the eight scholars who challenged Yajnavalkya and the only one amongst them who had the courage to question him twice. Arundhati, the wife of the sage Vasishtha was an acharya. Acharya and Upadhyaya were terms specially coined for women teachers. During the daily rishitarpan – offering of water-libation to sages, water is offered to three women sages too – Gargi, Vadava and Sulabh.
Women were of two types sadyovadhus or those who were to become brides soon or brahmavadinis or those who discourse about Brahman and were entitled to initiation, sacrifice to Fire and study of Vedas. They like the boys wore the external signs of studentship and performed the daily prescribed duties. The Rig Veda has hymns composed by as many as twenty seven brahmavadinis.
Interestingly there also were women warriors. Vadhrimati and Vishpal are mentioned by the female seer Ghosha in the Rig Veda. And Mudgalani drove her husband’s chariot in battle chasing the enemies out.
Women had a role in the political sphere too apparent in sage Vasishtha trying to dissuade Sita from accompanying Lord Ram to the forest with the proposal that she should reign over the kingdom in the Lord’s absence. And in Mahabharat Gandhari showed she was very well versed in philosophy implicit in what Chaudhuri described as the “immortal saying”-Yato Dharmastato Jayah (victory pertains only to the side of the right) refusing to wish success even to her own son Duryodhana in battle.
The equality provided to women with men in all spheres of life from the Rig-Vedic age itself makes it ludicrous and indeed illogical to suggest as came to suggested subsequently that Hinduism warranted treating them as being inferior to or in any way and in any field less than men.