The question of the eligibility to access, study and practise Vedas, while old, resurfaced on the social media platform Facebook today, with a commentator on Hindu scriptures, Nithin Sridhar (access restricted to his friends), citing the absence of specific instruction in any sacred book of Hinduism that authorises the upanayana ceremony for women, even though some sects and gurus have been practising it in the modern age. My research revealed no clear answer. It must be made clear at this juncture that I have tried my best to keep aside my opinion and go strictly by what various scriptures say.
I begin with a comment I had posted under Sridhar’s post on the qualification for upanayana, which I am turning into this article for the convenience of access in posterity. It begins by addressing the contention by the commentator that being a Brahmavadini perforce did not qualify a woman for access to Vedas.
I commented, “A Brahmavadini does not merely have access to the Vedas. She is credited with creating a few of the hymns in the Vedas, which is what the word ब्रह्मवादिनी means — a woman who speaks the words of the Brahma (ब्रह्म, not ब्रह्मा). Vak Ambhrini, Lopamudra, Vishwawara, Sikta, Ghosha (2 hymns), and Maitreyi (10 hymns), etc are authors of hymns in the RigVeda…
“The question of upanayana is, however, different. Why do we have yajnopavita? It’s a mark of turning a dvija (twice-born or born again), an evolution towards performing the duties of a Brahmin. Kshatriya and Vaishya upanayanas are permissible too — for attaining the rights to their respective karmakandas. There is no Shudra upanayana not because of birth-based discrimination or racism. It’s because the word “Shudra” meant having no qualification at all; nobody needs a certificate for an absence of qualifications.
“When Jainism started, some sects adopted upanayana from the Vedic practices.
“So, why are women excluded? They can’t be said to be unqualified, unlike what Shudra means (‘the class that is neither intellectual nor warrior-ruler nor enterprising’ rather than ‘the class engaged in menial jobs’). “Upanayana” is made of ‘upa‘ (near) and root √ni (leading to). So, what will a woman be led to?
“Upanayana also used to be the initiation to gurukula whereas in the classes of Vashishta during Treta Yuga and Sandipani during Dvapara Yuga, the Ramayana and Mahabharata mention no woman classmate of Rama and Krishna respectively. As gurukulas used to be holistic schools, teaching even politics and warfare, initiation of a woman into it would be an exception rather than a rule in those epochs.
“Being a Brahmavadini, about whom I dealt with above, is having inherent, built-in merit. A Brahmavadini was not a certification from a gurukula. These were blessed women who already possessed the prarabdha and guna to be able to relay the word of God.
“Then, women warriors, such as Kaikeyi (Dasharatha’s wife and Bharata’s mother) was born with the talent of a soldier; she did not pick the skills from a gurukula.
“But to understand more about the right to upanayana as is understood broadly today, (one must) study the books and try to chronicle them. The dates of compositions, as well as the flow of the script, will show whether a ruling was originally there or was inserted later on. In Satapatha Brahmana, for example, the text about upanayana appears in the middle of a dialogue about Agnihotra. When the upanayana verses end, Saukeya abruptly returns to the Agnihotra and Uddalaka. This makes the upanayana discussion appear as an insertion into the older text.
“Then, interpolation, insertion and corruption in dharma sutras and dharma shastra texts on the upanayana-related rite of passage are possible.
“So, if somebody today is blocking the rite of passage of a person, the instance must be viewed in the light of whether the objection comes from an original script or a latter-day insertion or corruption.”
The subsequent passages are an addition to my Facebook comment. Several scriptural instances of men getting upanayana with an absence of an instance where a woman does and scriptural prohibition on women accessing Vedas are two different things. Does the latter exist? That is, does any scripture expressly prohibit women from accessing the Vedas?
I deal also with the issue with Shudras in the following section.
A practical reason for denying upanayana, which would lead to studies of Vedas, to girls
Before a scripture is mentioned, let us not ignore the fact that in the Satya, Treta and Dvapara Yugas, a girl would be deemed to be marriageable at an age more or less when a boy would just get admission to a gurukula. Turning the girl into a brahmachari (celibate) — which follows immediately after the upanayana ceremony — at that age would work at cross purposes. She would get married to an older boy who has graduated from a gurukula and has no need to continue with brahmacharya if the path he chooses is of grihastha, where the expectation would be consummation of the marriage. This was one factor that made upanayana unthinkable for girls.
Theological permissions to women for Vedas, as well as prohibitions
This part is complex. All factors below considered together, there is no clear “yes” or “no” answer. But there are more affirmative answers (permissions) than negative ones (prohibitions).
Rishis found the act of chanting the Gayatri Mantra counterproductive for women. But Gayatri Mantra is unexceptionable post-upanayana. This is why women were excluded from the ceremony.
The clause about Shudras above notwithstanding, SrimadBhagawadGita states in 9:32,
and SrimadBhagawata (life of Krishna by Shukadeva) 2.4.18 says,
These are cited by some Vaishnava sects as qualifications for Shudras too, provided they get the sharanagati (divine shelter) of Bhagawan.
Women must earn the right to dwell in Vedas
The debate of Yajnavalkya with Gargi in Brihadaranyaka, Mandana Mishra’s wife being the adjudicator in his shastrartha (theological debate) with Adi Shankaracharya in modern history and the Bengali folklore of Khana who challenged her father-in-law in Vedic astrology are a few among many instances that suggest women had access to Vedas too. But how was this access granted? Through upanayana? There is no mention of that.
Therefore, it may be inferred that these few exceptionally talented women acquired the knowledge out of sheer extraordinary merit rather than a ceremonious ritual called upanayana. It would be like the foetus of Abhimanyu in his mother’s womb learning to penetrate the chakravyuha in the Mahabharata, overhearing Arjuna’s explanation to Subhadra.
When Vachaknavi in King Janaka’s court asks Yajnavalkya whether the wife of the latter must be permitted to enter the shastrartha, she is allowed to answer two of the questions as per Brihadaranyaka Upanishad [III:3].
There were also profound women who earned the eligibility of being Veda exponents by performing special yajnas or from some punya (good deeds) accumulated in previous lives. Lopamudra, the Brahmavadini who also prophesied the Hadi Panchadasi mantra of the Srikula Shakta tradition, was bestowed the gift by an established ritualistic process. According to the Tirthayatra Parva within the Vana Parva in the Mahabharata, she earned it by performing severe tapasya (penance) with her husband Agastya. According to a legend, she was created by her would-be husband Agastya for the holy purpose of Vedacharcha and, hence, she had to have access to the Vedas.
In the case of Ghosha, when she did tapasya to get rid of leprosy, which was disfiguring her, the Ashwini Kumaras taught her Madhu Vidhya, a Vedic teaching.
Let this not be dismissed as a latter-day addition. RigVeda mentions hymns authored by 27 rishikas aka Brahmavadinis. Lopamudra is mentioned in Yajurveda [17:11:36:20], Brihaddevtakara [4:57-59] and Agama granthas as well. She is, in fact, hailed as “Mantradrika” (well-versed in mantras) in RigVeda. Then, hymns 39 and 40 from Chapter X of the RigVeda, each containing 14 verses, mention Ghosha.
How did Maitreyi get it? She was a bit of an exception. Going by the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, as the second wife of Yajnavalkya, she was given the freedom to get into theological studies while her rishi-husband enjoyed a conjugal life with his first wife Katyayani. There is a second version of her story where she remains celibate all her life as an Advaita philosopher. The practical issue with average girls choosing to be celibate, as mentioned in the part on upanayana above, therefore, does not apply to her.
According to Unavimsati Samhita 1:2, Yajnavalkya says thereafter: “After offering Ekoddistha and Sapindikarana with mantras, they must be offered to women as well, which is clearly showing women’s participation in Vedic rites.
Other than the 10 hymns in the RigVeda credited to her, Maitreyi finds mention in the Asvalayana Gṛhyasūtra.
Sulabha was a different kind of exception. The woman who could share jnana even with Janaka could not find a husband equal to her in knowledge. The rishis then initiated her into Brahmavidya as per the Mahabharata [XII:320].
Surely the forbidding verses are challenged by other scriptures that say upanayana was indeed conducted for women too. Hārita Sutra says a Brahmavadini has the right to the initiation, Vedic studies, Agni establishment and bhiksha:
Gobhila Grihya Sutra:
AtharvaVeda Sayana Bhashya:
Pranavavada of Maharshi Garga says, “ब्रह्मचरिणां च ब्रहचारिणीभिः सह विवाह् प्रशस्यो भवति [RigVeda V, 7, 9]. This is young maidens graduating as brahmacharinis but then marrying.
RigVeda V, III, says in 55, 16 that unmarried but educated young girls should be married to learned bridegrooms.
Shukla Yajurveda Samhita III :60 says that in the sakamedha of the third of chaturmasa sacrifice, a girl is eligible to use the mantra “त्र्यम्बकं यजामहे सुगन्धिं पतिवेदनम्। उर्वारुकमिव बन्धनादितो मुक्षीय माऽमुतः,” which is a variation of the famous MahaMrityunjaya mantra for Shiva.
Further, Shatapatha Brahmana [II:6:2:13] says that the priest and one who offers sacrifices do parikrama of the altar three times anticlockwise while girls do it clockwise. This is when she must pronounce the aforementioned Tryambaka mantra.
Yajnikadeva in the paddhati says वचनात् कुमार्या अपि मन्त्रपाठः, implying that women should utter mantras as prescribed.
Moreover, Katyayana Samhita is quoted in Madana Parijata to say if any samskara before the upanayana is omitted, it should be performed with an oblation as prayashchitta. Madana says this in the Stri Samskara chapter, making it obvious that women are eligible for upanayana.
Equality in domains other than Vedic studies
RigVeda mentions in 1.112.10, 116.15, 117.11, 118.8 and 10.39.8 that after Vishpala lost a leg in the Khela battle, Ashwini Kumaras provided her with an iron leg to keep racing.
Furthermore, there are rituals that are deemed incomplete without the participation of the yajna-offering man’s wife. Shukla Yajurveda Samhita says in V:17, for example, that the Agnistoma sacrifice, a mahayajna, is to be performed by the wife while entering from the south door of her house where she is supposed to rub the rods of the Soma cart with the remaining ghee left after the Savitri Homa. here, her mantra is “दे॒व॒श्रुतौ॑ दे॒वेष्वाघो॑षतं॒ प्राची॒ प्रेत॑मध्व॒रं क॒ल्पय॑न्तीऽऊ॒र्ध्वं य॒ज्ञं न॑यतं॒ मा जि॑ह्वरतम्। स्वं गो॒ष्ठमाव॑दतं देवी दुर्ये॒ऽआयु॒र्मा निर्वा॒दिष्टं प्र॒जां मा निर्वा॑दिष्ट॒मत्र॑ रमेथां॒ वर्ष्म॑न् पृथि॒व्याः॥” Agni, Soma and two carts comprise the platform for several types of yajnas.
In the ancient era in documented history (rather than Itihasa), a woman grammarian would be referred to as an apishala while a woman lexicographer was called a kashakritsna.
Then, of course, there are mediaeval-era and modern-day additions like Govindananda saying that the daughter rather than her father will have the right to perform the last rites for her mother in cases where she has no brother. This appears in the Shraddha Kriya Kaumudi, which is a modern-era publication.
Shraddha Kalpataru, another addition, says, “याध्यशेन सम्बन्धेन पित्रुव्यत्वादिना पुरुषाणामेकादशाहादि श्रद्धं, तट्टशेन च सम्बन्धेन स्त्रीणामेतत् कर्तव्यमिति”, meaning that women are entitled to utter the mantras in reverence.
Other mediaeval-era Hindu literature worthy of mention are as follows:
- “the middle prasada (consecrated sweet) is to be eaten by the wife” [Shraddha Manjari and Devana Bhatta in the Shraddha Kanda of the fourth volume of Smritichandrikaa]
- childless woman’s need to offer morning and evening ahutis as in “पुनः स्वाहेति पूर्वां गर्भकामा” [Paraskara Grihya Sutra 1:9:3]
- asking the man and wife, children of both sexes and/or disciples to offer oblations to Agni [Ashvalayana Grihya Sutra 1:7:1]
- especially urging the wife to offer this oblation to Agni [Gobhila Grihya Sutra 1:3:15]
- wife’s duty to do prayashchitta if Agni extinguishes at home [यदि तूपशाम्येत् पल्ुपवसेदित्येके in Ashvalaayana Gruhya Sutra 1:7:3] and
- “न खल्वनधोत्य शन्कोति पतिहोतुम्। न च तुष्णीमित्याह वचनम् [Gobhila 1:5:15].
Women’s right to perform last rites
This is an aspect that excites the woke media a lot. What do scriptures say about it? Shukla Yajurveda Samhita III:44-45 says the wife should utter “प्र॒घा॒सिनो॑ हवामहे म॒रुत॑श्च रि॒शाद॑सः। क॒र॒म्भेण॑ स॒जोष॑सः॥ followed by यद् ग्रामे॒ यदर॑ण्ये॒ यत् स॒भायां॒ यदि॑न्द्रि॒ये। यदेन॑श्चकृ॒मा व॒यमि॒दं तदव॑यजामहे॒ स्वाहा॑॥” for the karambhapatra (utensil for malt or porridge) oblation during antyeshti after placing the havis, which would invoke the Maruts.
“दुहिता पुत्रवत् कुर्यात् माता-पित्रोस्तु संस्कृता। अशौचमुदकं पिण्डमेकोद्दिष्टम् सदा तयोः” by Shankha figures in Manu Samhita composed in the modern era (not to be confused with Manusmriti). It says that post-ritual, the daughter may observe the ashaucha and perform the last rites and do pinda dana, observe the Ekoddishta for her father, as the son is expected to do. But this is a relatively late addition to Hindu scriptures.
But then, one may go back in history once again to Garuda Purana where God’s vahana (vehicle) asks Vishnu who all are eligible among the survivors to perform the last rites. While God gives a long list beginning with the son and then nephews and uncles, when Garuda asks whether women are forbidden, Bhagawan says no, they aren’t. He says that in the absence of all relations mentioned so far, the daughter or niece can perform a man’s last rites [Chapter 8, verses 3, 4, Preta Kanda]. This order of preference has led to the belief that the sight of the death of her father, and more so of his body’s cremation, would be too agonising for a woman to bear with; hence the near-forbidding.