... an untouched side of Vedic feminism
It was on 8th March 1977 that Western countries of the Globe saw the celebration of this unique and popular event for the first time- International Women’s Day to revel the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of Women throughout History and across nations. It is also known as UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.
Since then Women’s day has been an integral and universal part of reforming and recognizing the status of feminism. In present day, on 8th March 2017, we are celebrating 40th Women’s day of the 21st century and as we look back one more time on the journey of feminism till date, the realization would set in that we have walked very long way already.
In the millennia which we are set in, Women have gradually carved a significant role for themselves in every segment & hierarchy breaking the fetters of patriarchy enroute.
Now, if we are to speak about Indian Women specifically, it has been a perpetual mission and we have been fortunate to live in a nation where our Culture and History is rich with certain inspirational tales of extraordinary calibre, strength and intellect demonstrated in diverse characters by female achievers which serves well to the ambitions of every contemporary Indian woman.
From Draupadi to Seeta and from Jhansi ki Rani to Indira Gandhi, all were such zealous achievers that every time their names are mentioned, it would definitely spur passion & motivation in veins of each and every lady today as well.
However in Epics & Vedas we have one such aspect of feminity which is not widely explored, its the exemplary scholarly achievements of certain set of ladies in Vedic era. They were some fine Indian women who matched and challenged the famous male philosophers of their milieu who are credited with setting the introspective and spiritual tide in our culture. Women of the Vedic period (around 1500-1200 BCE) were epitomes of intellectual and spiritual attainments.
The Vedas have volumes to say about these women who both complemented and supplemented their male counterparts, to name among the few are Maitreyi and Gargi whose intellect and sharpness of thoughts are highlighted in Puranas and Epics like Ramayana in which Gargi especially can be seen as making her own position and probably was an inspiration to Seeta, who can be conveniently regarded as the true protagonist of Ramayana.
Maitreyi is mentioned in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad as one of the two wives of sage Yagnavalkya who is estimated to live around 8th century BCE. The character of Maitreyi is also found to be mentioned in Mahabharata. She is cited as an example of educational opportunities available to women in Vedic India and their philosophical achievements. She is considered symbol of Indian intellectual woman. There is even an educational institution named in her honour in New Delhi.
There is a conversation recorded in Upanishads between Maitreyi and her husband Yagnavalkya on how she regards wealth as insignificant to attain self realisation and liberation. She appears as disciplined and one with a socially responsible mind. The passages related to this conversation wherein Maitreyi is articulating rhetorical questions to her husband also depicts the right of women to express their thoughts an independence of making a choice for their own endeavours. We have been used to hearing masculine messages, but with Maitreyi , a woman voicing her unique message no less solemn or sublime than any, we have come across so far, we are suddenly struck by a different kind of refinement, sublimate and beauty in world of thoughts and universe of discourse.
Rabindranath Tagore says in his inimitable way: “This simple cry by Maitreyi got transformed into a kind of prayer”. Rabindranath seemed to be totally one with Maitreyi’s dialogues as prayer.
Another in league is Gargi Vachaknavi born about 700 BC was known as Brahmavadini, a person with knowledge of Brahma Vidya. Her name is prominent as she was the only lady pariticipant in philosophic debate arranged by King Janaka- Seeta’s father in Ramayana andperplexed Yagnavalkya with her questions. She was said to have written hymns of Rigveda and remained a celibate all her life. She was honoured as one of the Navratnas (nine gems) in the court of King Janaka.
These ladies were eminent & learned, depicting the status of ancient India’s liberated women indicating that probably the classical times were relaxed and the comparative self determination enjoyed by the women. They were not considered an unwanted baby and were given place of honour and liberty to search and choose their own paths.
Knowledge gave them status and power to hold their opinions in every matter and they emerged as learned philosophers who have contributed in the religious quest of humanity.