OF TEMPLES AND WOMEN

The utter implausibility of exclusion of women from temples can be illustrated through two examples – Gargi’s debate with Yajnavalkya & the story of Satyakama Jabala – each of which has immense signification in Hindu tradition which, paradoxically, is being used to justify the exclusion.The dialogue between Yajnavalkya and Gargi shows that the status of a Brahmin has nothing to do with gender and the story of Satykama Jabala shows that being a Brahmin has nothing also to do with family lineage. If being a priest or teacher has nothing to do with gender or status how can gender or status alone be made the reason for exclusion by any priest or teacher from the pursuit of devotion or knowledge?

Answering Gargi’s second question Yajnavalkya said, “If someone in this world makes offerings, performs sacrifices and practices austerities for many thousands of years without knowing the imperishable, Gargi, his work comes to an end. He who departs from this world without knowing the imperishable is miserable, Gargi. But if someone passes from this world , Gargi, knowing the imperishable he is a brahmin.” Thus the status of brahmin befits only those who have knowledge of the imperishable and gender is irrelevant – if a Gargi knows the imperishable she can also be a brahmin. And those who merely perform the traditional sacrifices and practices cannot only for that reason be brahmins nor consequently deny a Gargi the right which is her’s of a legitimate pursuit.

Similarly Satyakama’s story shows that any honest seeker of truth can be a Brahmin. Satyakama did not know his family lineage. His mother had told him she became pregnant when she was a servant and moved around alot. But she said, “My name is Jabala and yours is Satykama. You should merely say you are Satykama Jabala.” When Satyakama approached his teacher he said precisely that. And his teacher replied, “Bring firewood, my boy. I will initiate you. You have not abandoned the truth.” No honest seeker of truth can thus be kept out of any temple.

Apart from tradition the significance in Hindu philosophy of Kama (the experience generated through interaction with senses) which is celebrated as one of the four goals of life along with Dharma, Artha and Moksha is equally relevant to the issue of exclusion of women. According to Hinduism the mere danger that may come in the wake of the pursuit of sensory enjoyments  cannot be the cause for giving them up altogether. Tempered with Dharma, Kama has to be kept in harmony with mind and soul and if this balance which is a necessary condition of legitimate human pursuit is not innate to the priests they stand disqualified for being unfaithful to the philosophy they claim to preach. God is nothing but unity in the apparent diversity, the unifying principle and ultimate cause and bringing in notions of gender in this spiritual quest entails attachment to the very things liberation from which is being pursued in one’s endeavour of self-realisation. Purity or impurity is only be in the mind.

And most importantly the symbolic significance of a liberated consciousness (which has nothing to do either with gender. position or status) apparent in the spire (shikhar) above the garbha-griha of a temple which itself manifests the incarnation of God as a universal essence ignores the physical aspect of a devotee looking instead to the metaphysical spirituality of the exercise of devotion. A seeker of enlightenment in Hinduism cannot ever be identified by gender or status.

Neither religion nor tradition justifies exclusion of women from temples.

WOMEN IN ANCIENT INDIA

“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.