Saturday, November 23, 2013

Hindu Texts on Women I: The Rig Veda

Two years ago, as part of my long series on "How Jesus Liberates Women," I analyzed the influence of world religions sociologically, according to a 1988 UN study of the status of women around the world.  Earlier this fall, we looked at an alternative interpretation of the same data, by a female scholar from Pakistan.  While both studies were flawed in various ways, in both cases the results showed that countries with strong historical Christian influence tend to treat women relatively well, while countries with a Muslim or Hindu background tend to treat women poorly.  (With Buddhists in the middle, and states with many Secular Humanists looking pretty good, too.)   

But such broad social surveys are most effective in establishing correlation, not causation.  I argued that to demonstrate causation, to show that different religions really do effect the status of women in different ways, it would help to find two other things: (1) a plausible source of causation in the religious texts themselves, and (2) historical evidence that in fact, those texts made a difference. 

In several later posts (click on the "Christianity and women" label below), I offered plentiful evidence for both of these points. 

Now we are examining the impact of other religious texts and traditions on the status of women.  In a three-part series on November 8, November 14, and November 18, I cited every important, and most minor, references to women in the Quran.  I was frankly appalled by the prophet's scheming and cruelty.  In the comments sections, especially of the third post, some objections were raised, not to what I found in the Quran, but along the lines of, "Don't take the splinter out of your neighbor's eye, until you first take the log out of your own." 

To which my response is: (a) I'm a student of world religions: my goal here is to understand.  (b) Jesus also said, "By their fruits you will know them," which seems to imply that religious leaders ought to be evaluated empirically. (c) In fact, I already analyzed the gospels and Acts of the Apostles in the same way.  That's the whole point of the exercise.  I'll also get to Paul, too.  Mohammed was not being treated unfairly.  (d) Anyway, I welcome fair analysis of Deuteronomy, or any other OT book, if you treat it the same way: read systematically, rather than cherry-picking, and evaluate how the text as a whole teaches us to treat women.  (f) I probably won't do that myself, because Christ is the center of the Christian faith, through whom we interpret the Old Testament.  One only has so much time. 

The other great religion that the UN survey leads one to believe may have harmed women is Hinduism.  (As you may recall, Buddhist countries tended to lie scattered in the middle.) 

It could be argued that Hindu ideology is actually worse for women than Muslim countries, in some ways.  Pakistan, which has a Hindu heritage and still a few Hindus, was fifth worst, and the largest country near the bottom of the rankings.  (Along with Bangladesh, another mostly post-Hindu Muslim country.)  Nepal was 13th worst, below most Muslim countries.  India was tied with Haiti for 23rd worst, which may reflect progress in recent years.  Until recently, the life-expectancy for women in India was actually lower than that for men. Female infanticide is still quite common.  And practices like the enclosure of wives, and the burning of widows, reflect the far lower status of women that was prevalent in India well into the 19th and 20th Century, when as we saw, Christian missions began to mix things up. 

Indeed, for most of the centuries during which Islam and "Hinduism" both existed,  the latter treated women more harshly than the former, as we shall see.

But Indian women were not always in such dire straights.  This and the following post will examine some of the texts that reflect where they began, and then what happened to make things worse.    

This is a first draft of on-going study; I may edit or add to it as I learn more.  I don't claim to be an expert on this subject, or to fully answered the questions that these texts raise. 

Let's begin with India's oldest sacred text, the Rig Veda.

The Rig Veda

The earliest collection of religious texts in India is the Rig Veda.  This is a large collective of hymns written in Sanskrit between about 1700-1100 BC.  The work is, as translator Wendy O'Flaherty says, "a very worldly sacred book." (Rig Veda, 229)   There is little trace of asceticism or abstract angst in this book, though there are some playfully philosophical creation stories.  But the sexuality is frank and explicit, sometimes even pornographic (whether involving humans, gods, beasts, or some mix of the three).  Love of money taken for granted, and Soma, named for the drug, and Dice are anthropomorphized "players" in the divine pantheon.  These texts are about religious ritual, often describing either the rituals themselves, or the myths behind those rituals.  They are not sociological studies, but offer a fairly revealing reflection of the status of women in ancient India, and a harbinger of things to come. 
Aside from a bit of on-line skimming, I am mainly relying here on Wendy O'Flaherty's collection in the Penguin Classics.  She calls that book "a selection of what I have found to be beautiful, interesting, and profound," and comprehensible, in the Rig Veda.  (Those I have read outside this collection tend to confirm O'Flaherty's claim to find many texts she left out "boring.")  Because her collection includes only about (I think) a tenth of the total, though an important tenth, my impressions must remain tentative, and may be corrected with further reading.  However, this collection does support what scholars tend to say about the period.  It was a patriarchal society in general, but not yet so harsh as it would later grow.

I'll describe some gender-related themes of the Rig Veda, quoting a number of passages.  Then I'll look at how a few scholars believe the Rig Veda, and the social and religious evolution it reflects, influenced the de-evolution of the status of women later in Indian history. 

Females in ritual and worship
A.  Vedic myths are filled with goddesses and sexual creation stories. 
"Let us now speak with wonder of the births of the gods . . . The earth was born from her who crouched with legs spread . . ."
"Eight sons are there of Aditi, who were born of her body.  With seven she went forth among the gods, but she threw Martanda, the sun, aside." (10.72)

While Aditi is the "only Vedic goddess of true stature," other female divinities include Dawn, Night, Waters, Forest, and Destruction, along with semi-divine lasses like Yami, Urvasi, Surya, and  the wives of Indra and a randy monkey. 

"When will the Dawns, goddesses and wives of immortality, spread over us their light with the color of the sun?" (4.5, 114)

The feminine character of some aspects of the divine is celebrated in some of these hymns.  Speech "reveals itself to someone as a loving wife, beautifully dressed, reveals her body to her husband." (10.71)

"I am the queen, the confluence of riches, the skillful one who is first among those worthy of sacrifice.  The gods divided me up into various parts, for I dwell in many places and enter into many forms."
"I gave birth to the father on the head of this world.  My womb is in the waters . . . I am one who blows like the wind, embracing all creatures . . . " (10.125)

The sky is often personified as a father, the earth as a mother:

"The sky is my father; here is the navel that gave me birth.  This great earth is my mother, my close kin." (1.164)

Waters are also considered goddesses. (7.49, 232)

"Your inexhaustible breast, Sarasvati, that flows with the food of life, that you use to nourish all that one could wish for, freely giving treasure and wealth and beautiful gifts -- bring that here for us to suck."  (1. 164)

Gods and goddesses make love, as in Greece.  And as in many creation myths, both divine and natural objects come into being through their union. 

"The young mother secretly keeps the boy tightly swathed and does not give him to the father . . . The chief queen, not the stepmother, gave him birth . . . I saw him moving far away from his field, and his fine herd no longer shining brightly.  They could not grasp him, for he had been born; the young women became grey with age."  (5.2, 102)
This is about the birth of Agni, the god of fire and one of the most important deities in the collection. It may be related to a story about an evil queen and fires that go out, but in any case "grey with age" seems to refer to the ashes of a fire. 
"Child of the Waters" is also about Agni.  In the first parts of the following passage, the women are the "mothers of Agni, the waters of three world," and then in the final two sentences below, apparently, the ten fingers:
"The young women, the waters, flow around the young god, making him shine and gazing solemnly upon him . . . Three young women, goddesses, wish to give food to the god so that he will not weaken  He has stretched forth in the waters; he sucks the new milk of those who have given birth for the first time . . . golden-hued young women flow around him . . . the young women kindle him . . . Being a bull, he engendered that embryo in the females; being a child, he sucks them, and they lick him.  The child of the waters, whose color never fades, seems to enter the body of another here." (2.35, 105)

B.  The courtship of  Surya, daughter of the sun, and Soma, in this case conceived of as the moon, described in "The Marriage of Surya" (10.85), is "the divine prototype for human marriages." (267)

"Heaven and Earth were the hope chest when Surya went to her husband."

"Thus I implore Visvavasu with words of praise as I bow to him. 'Look for another girl who is ripe and still lives in her father's house."

"May happiness be fated for you here through your progeny.  Watch over this house as mistress of the house.  Mingle your body with that of your husband, and even when you are grey with age you will have the right to speak with to the gathered people."

O'Flaherty does not take this latter suggestion at face value, thinking it refers either to her husband, or to the women's right to direct household staff. (273)

"Let the two of them on good paths avoid the dangerous path.  Let all demonic powers run away."

"Pusan, rouse her to be most eager to please, the woman in whom men sow their seed, so that she will spread her thighs in desire for us and we, in our desire . . . " (well, you get the idea)

"Agni has given the wife back again, together with long life and beauty.  Let her have a long life-span, and let her husband life for a hundred autumns.  Soma first possessed her, and the Gandharva possessed her second.  Agni was your third husband, and the fourth was the son of a man."

"Enjoy your whole life-span playing with sons and grandsons and rejoicing in your own home."

"Be an empress over your husband's father, an empress over your husband's mother; be an empress over your husband's sister and an empress over your husband's brothers.  Let all the gods and the waters together anoint our two hearts together."

Overall, this seems a relatively cheerful picture of family life, and no doubt these words of blessing would have been welcome.  There is even a hint that the bride may have some authority in the household. 

Notice, however, that while sons are part of the blessing, daughters are not.  And that the bride seems to relate now only to her husband's family, not to the parents who brought her into the world.  In this, may lay seeds of later corruptions.  If a girl is going to belong to her husband's family anyway, why not unload her early?  And why bother educating her?  And if this stranger who comes into the home is no longer of value, why should she not end her life with the husband she has come to serve?  More on this later.

C. Women could still be part of the Vedic ritual, though not always comfortably, for instance at their husband's funeral:
"These women who are not widows, who have good husbands -- let them take their places, using butter to anoint their eyes. Without tears, without sickness, well dressed let them first climb into the marriage bed.  Rise up, woman, into the world of the living.  Come here; you are lying beside a man whose life's breath has gone.  You were the wife of this man who took your hand and desired to have you . . .
"Creep away to this broad, vast earth, the mother that is kind and gentle.  She is a young girl, soft as wool, to anyone who makes offerings; let her guard you from the lap of Destruction.  Open up, earth; do not crush him.  Be easy for him to enter and to burrow in.  Earth, wrap him up as a mother wraps a son in the edge of her skirt." (10.18)
O'Flaherty suggests that the wife might need to "mime copulation" in this ritual, before being called back -- these are not hymns one would sing in a Methodist church.  Indian culture has often seemed to feel this fatal attraction for the grotesque and obscene. 

Perceptions of Women

D. Sex and fertility are common themes of the Rig Veda.  O'Flaherty notes, "The dialogues with women all represent situations in which one member of the pair attempts to persuade the other to engage in some sort of sexual activity . . . " (245) 

The beauty, or ugliness, of women is a frequent concern of the Vedic authors.  "The woman wishes to be subhaga: beautiful, hence loved by her husband, hence fortunate." (246)

"You are lovely in your splendor like the daughter of a rich man." (10.94, 125)

"Smiling, the streams of butter rush to Agni (god of fire) like beautiful women to a festival." (4.58, 157)

Women are often portrayed as sexually aggressive, as well as the object of male desire.  Yami attempts to seduce her brother Yama, children of the Sun, but he puts her off ("They call a man who unites with his sister a sinner").  (10.10, 448) But Lopamudra talks her husband into forsaking his vow of chastity ("Virile men should go to their wives"), in a story much simpler than the later tale of the seduction of Buddha's disciple.  A widow is said to "take her husband's brother to bed." (10.40, 265) 
"Willful as women without brothers, wicked as wives who deceive their husbands . . . " (4.5, 114)

Pururuvas made love to his water-nymph wife three times a day.  It is unclear whether she appreciated all the attention, but the couple split up.  Later, when they are quarreling and considering whether or not to make up, she confesses, sounding suspiciously like a male voice: 

"There are no friendships with women; they have the hearts of jackals." (10.95, 254)

E. Motherhood is also a common theme, with the birth of sons considered an obvious blessings.  (Less said about daughters, see below.) 

The Status of Women

Vedic hymns do not editorialize or offer surveys on this subject directly.  But of course they reflect the assumptions their authors held about society, including gender relations, including in the following ways: 

F. Vedic hymns recognize the practice, and difficulties, of polygamy:
"My ribs encircle me with pain like rival wives . . . " (10.33)
"The draught animal is pressed tight between the two shafts, like a man in bed with two women." (10.101)

G. Sons are assumed to be a great blessing; daughters are seldom mentioned:
"Through Agni may one win wealth, and growth from day to day, glorious and most abounding in heroic sons."  (1.1; 99)
"The father sacrifices for his son . . . " (1.26; 100)

" . . . through the grace of Indra she will have fine sons and be fortunate in her husband's love." (10.85, 269)

"Generous Indra, give this woman fine sons and  the good fortune of her husband's love.  Place ten sons in her and make her husband the eleventh." (10.85, 271)

This remains to this day, a particularly important point, for reasons I will discuss below. 

H. "The Gambler's Lament" describes how a man addicted to gambling not only neglects his wife, but loses her, perhaps in a roll of the dice.  (Die appear already in the Harappan Civilization, a millennia or two before, and have been deified and are seen as spiritual, as is most of life.  I have seen one set of die, probably made of clay, from before the Vedic period, on display in the Ashmolean Musem in Oxford.) 
"She did not quarrel with me or get angry; she was kind to my friends and to me.  Because of a losing throw of the dice  have driven away a devoted wife . . . Other men fondle the wife of a man whose possessions have been coveted by the plundering dice . . . The deserted wife of the gambler grieves, and the mother grieves for her so who wanders anywhere, nowhere . . . It torments the gambler to see his wife the woman of other men . . .

"This is what the noble Savitr shows me: 'Play no longer with the dice, but till your field; enjoy what you possess, and value it highly.  There are your cattle, and there is your wife, O gambler." (10.34, 240-214) 

Vedic Portents

Indian attitudes towards women did not turn on a dime or with a roll of the dice.  They were not radically transformed in a relative moment because of some revolutionary new doctrine, as were Arab and Greco-Roman attitudes, in starkly different ways, with the teachings of Mohammed and Jesus.  The status of women devolved in India over millennia.  In the Vedic period, we seem to see women out and about.  They are sexy, they are sometimes assertive, they seem very much taken into account.  There is little hint that should their husbands die, they should throw themselves on his funeral pyre, yet.  Wendy O'Flaherty admits:

"The Rig Veda is a book by men about male concerns in a world dominated by men; one of these concerns is women, who appear throughout the hymns as objects, though seldom as subjects." (245)

But while the Rig Veda reflects a highly patriarchal society, women still seem to have a life, and even a voice, in it.  But scholars recognize that it sows some of the seeds of the harsher regime that was to follow. 

In Crown of Hinduism, John Farquhar notes that Vedic India was dominated by ritual, and that family ritual worship of ancestors tended to elevate the role of men.  The blessed dead were collectively described as "fathers" (pitris.)   "Man was exalted and woman was regarded as very inferior." (81)  As the ritual further developed, specialists appeared, a caste called Brahmans, who took over the role of father in religious ritual.  In this system, marriage became a religious duty, a duty to the family.    
In Women in India and Japan, Ramesh Madan claims that between 500-1000 BC, 27 Vedic hymns were composed by women. (30-31)  O'Flaherty finds only two hymns in which "the central verses are set in the mouth of a woman" (Rig Veda, 264), and doubts at least one of them. 

Already by the latter date, however, Madan argues that the status of women was descending.  They were no longer allowed inheritance, but were themselves “regarded as a sort of property given away on marriage with gifts.”  Only “pious” widows could even inherit jewelry. 

This was reflected in new religious sects that arose about that time, Buddhism and Jainism:
“The founders and leaders of both Buddhism and Jainism, shared the indifference to, or contempt for, women.  The Buddha was reluctant to admit women to his Sandham (order) and the Digambaron Jains hold that women can never get salvation except by first being reborn as men.” (WIJ, 32)

Madan blames the lowering status of women on the fact that women were married at an earlier and earlier age, at twelve or thirteen.  Young girls could not receive much education by that age, so they were cut out of family religious rituals.

Early marriage also explains why parents were already so happy to give birth to sons rather than daughters, even in the Vedic period.  Daughters quickly become part of that other family, and you may hardly see them again.  (Especially if they die giving birth, as young girls often did.) 

So girls were caught between two families, neither perhaps having full interest in their well-being.  Sons would take care of one in old age.  Daughters would leave.  So what was the point of teaching them, or feeding them much, perhaps, or even (for the calloused, or emotionally drained) of loving them?

So social structure may explain some of the psychology, but it does not explain why things became so hard for women in India over the coming centuries.  For that we must also look to a "perfect storm" of pernicious religious influences, both "Hindu" (in as much as this rather anachronistic term applies) and Islamic. 

Practicing like dedicating girls to deities like Yellamma as temple singers, and often as prostitutes, grew up, likely based on the sexual religiosity reflected so often in the Rig Veda and other texts.  Later, so did the practice of sati, the burning of widows.  Texts like the Law of Manu, which I intend to review in a subsequent post, reinforced but also reflected the gradually lowering status of women.  This trend was opposed by reformers like Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, who "had great respect for women," and opposed sati, purdah, and female infancidie.  Kabir thought women were evil, but he had female disciples and did oppose sati.  On the other hand, Tulsidas (who died in 1623) thought women should view their husbands as gods, and said that an idiot, a lower-caste sudra, and a woman all deserved punishment. (WIJ, 48)
Nor did Islamic invaders much help:
“The purdah system was introduced in India by the Muslims.  This proved an added factor in depriving women of any participation in public affairs . . . any women found without a veil was ruled as shameless and outside of decency.” (45)
Even by 1901, after missionaries had begun to agitate for reform, and more than a decade after the Christian reformer Pandita Ramabai published Status of Society of United States and a travelogue to spur reform on behalf of women, just seven tenths of one percent of girls were literate, compared to one in ten boys.  The Census of India in 1931 found that 1.2% of girls were already married (at least in name) by the age of two!  Almost 20% of girls 5-10 were married. 
Having analyzed the Rig Veda, before we look at a text that reflects the worst new notions about women, the Law of Manu, let us next consider some of the Upanishads, which mark a point in time somewhere between the two. 



Albert J said...

Hi, I read your post on Rig Veda. May I request you to publish a post on Manusmriti (dharmashastra), or the Law of Manu.

David B Marshall said...

JJJ: I'm working on it now. Should be done in a few days.

shruti said...

such a poor interpretation of text & highly biased write up ... Divorce religion from Reality

David B Marshall said...

Mainly what I do is quote the text directly. If you don't like this translation, take it up with Penguin.