A woman is an embodiment of Shakti – the energy that drives the creation. It is a misconception, amongst many others, that women were oppressed or were not given an equal status in our scriptures. Our Vedas have no mention of any prejudice against women. In fact, in earlier times there were no surnames; children were known by their mother’s names – the womb that they came from.
It is only with the merger of Shiv and Shakti that the creation is manifested. If man is a vehicle, woman is the fuel; both are redundant without each other. Our vedic seers knew of this and that is why our Vedas explicitly talk about how parents should provide the best education to women, and that a women with her gyan should then marry a deserving man. She should then help her husband through her gyan to achieve all worldly possessions.
Women of the vedic period (circa 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 partners. When it comes to talking about significant female figures of the vedic period, four names – Ghosha, Lopamudra, Sulabha, Maitreyi and Gargi – come to mind.
Vedic wisdom is encapsulated in myriad hymns and 27 women-seers emerge from them. But most of them are mere abstractions except for a few, such as Ghosha, who has a definite human form. Granddaughter of Dirghatamas and daughter of Kakshivat, both composers of hymns in praise of Ashwins, Ghosha has two entire hymns of the tenth book, each containing 14 verses, assigned to her name. The first eulogizes the Ashwins, the heavenly twins who are also physicians; the second is a personal wish expressing her intimate feelings and desires for married life. Ghosha suffered from an incurable disfiguring disease, probably leprosy, and remained a spinster at her father’s house. Her implorations with the Ashwins, and the devotion of her forefathers towards them made them cure her disease and allow her to experience wedded bliss.
The Rigveda (‘Royal Knowledge’) has long conversations between the sage Agasthya and his wife Lopamudra that testifies to the great intelligence and goodness of the latter.
Together with her husband she is credited with spreading the fame of the Lalita Sahasranama (the thousand names of the Divine Mother). She is also called Kaushitaki and Varaprada. A hymn in the Rigveda is attributed to her.
In Mahabharata (Vana Parva: Tirtha-yatra Parva), there is a mention that Agastya Rishi did penance at Gangadwara (Haridwar), with the help of his wife, Lopamudra (the princess of Vidharba). According to legend, Lopamudra was created by sage Agastya with the most graceful parts of animals such as eyes of the deer etc.
The name Lopamudra signifies the loss (lopa) that the animals suffered by giving their distinctive beauties (mudras). After creating her, Agastya secretly introduced Lopamudra into the palace of the King of Vidarbha. Agastya had made Lopamudra with the intention of marrying her. The king brought up Lopamudra as his daughter. When she grew up, Agastya demanded her hand in marriage. Lopamudra agreed to marry him and left the King’s palace for his hermitage. However, after some time, she grew tired of Agastya’s austerity. She wrote a two-stanza hymn, asking for his attention and love. The hymn made Agastya realize his duties towards his wife. The couple had a son named Dridhasyu, who became a poet. It is said that the present day river Kaveri is Lopamudra’s reincarnation.
The Rigveda contains about one thousand hymns, of which about 10 are accredited to Maitreyi, the woman seer and philosopher. She contributed towards the enhancement of her sage-husband Yajnavalkya’s personality and the flowering of his spiritual thoughts. Yajnavalkya had two wives Maitreyi and Katyayani. While Maitreyi was well versed in the Hindu scriptures and was a ‘brahmavadini’, Katyayani was an ordinary woman. One day the sage decided to make a settlement of his worldly possessions between his two wives and renounce the world by taking up ascetic vows. He asked his wives their wishes. The learned Maitreyi asked her husband if all the wealth in the world would make her immortal. The sage replied that wealth could only make one rich, nothing else. She then asked for the wealth of immortality. Yajnavalkya was happy to hear this, and imparted Maitreyi the doctrine of the soul and his knowledge of attaining immortality.
Gargi, the vedic prophetess and daughter of sage Vachaknu, composed several hymns that questioned the origin of all existence. When King Janak of Videha organized a ‘brahmayajna’, a philosophic congress centered around the fire sacrament, Gargi was one of the eminent participants. She challenged the sage Yajnavalkya with a volley of perturbing questions on the soul or ‘atman’ that confounded the learned man who had till then silenced many an eminent scholar. Her question – “The layer that is above the sky and below the earth, which is described as being situated between the earth and the sky and which is indicated as the symbol of the past, present and future, where is that situated?” – bamboozled even the great vedic men of letters.
Gargi is mentioned in the Sixth and the Eighth Brahmana of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, where the brahmayajna, a philosophic congress organized by King Janaka of Videha is described. In vedic literature, she is honoured as one of the great natural philosophers. Gargi composed several hymns that questioned the origin of all existence. Yogayajnavalkya Samhita, a classical text on Yoga is a dialogue between sage Yajnavalkya and Gargi. Gargi was one of the Navaratnas in the court of King Janaka of Mithila. She has composed several hymns and is an author of Gargi Samhita.
Mahatma Gandhi once wrote that the way we treat our women is an indicator of our barbarism. Whereas men may have greater physical energy than women, the latter clearly have more internal and emotional energy. If women are kept suppressed, this shakti will be denied to the family and the society, thus weakening all of them. And with the increasing number of rapes, dowry deaths, honour killings that we see around us – it is no surprise that we are heading towards a very gloomy picture. But be very cautious – because the shakti can be Lakshmi – the nurturer, Durga – the protector, Saraswati – the creator; can also be Kali – the destructor/ transformer.