Like the much-misunderstood ‘chaturvaryna’, the role of women – the recognition they had and enjoyed in the society, is to my mind, greatly misconceived.
There are references and statements in the Upanishads, the Smritis, the Epics and other texts which clearly indicate that girls and women of the past had a substantial role to play in the lives of men, their conduct within the house-hold and also in the society. Singing, dancing, looks and expressions of beauty, several other accomplishments of life which need wholehearted dedication and resignation were a specialty of our young and old women. In the very scheme of life, it is natural, even inevitable, that some spheres of knowledge and art are given more to women than men. Equally so some are given to men more than to women. There is none unique role which rests with women alone – that of maternity and motherhood. Naturally, along with this several other considerations and pursuits come up. To play the role of a mother is not a few months’ task. It does not also end with a few years of life either of the mother or of the child. The very fact that even a much grown up man, as does the woman, even in his sixties feels the need in his heart, mind and emotions for the touch and warmth of the mother is ample proof that the mother’s role is endless.
The context in which we think of women and girls of the human society is therefore that of the mother, the mother in the making and the mother in full growth and maturity. This fundamental fact and truth was always recognized by our society at all times. That is why women were mostly left free to think, act and grow in the manner and ways of the mother, the creator of mankind, the sustainer of both men and women through the ages. The woman’s place and role were so sacred and sacrosanct that the men of every time and place were even determined to lay down their lives at the altar of womanhood. The judgement was always ‘are the women honoured sufficiently? Do they have their personal freedom of movements, of pursuits of their choice, pleasure and wits? Are they hindered by any one inside the house or outside it in leading the life of art, knowledge or skill according to their own independent standards?’ If the society could ensure freedom and conveniences in this regard, man can claim that he has not failed in his basic duties and obligations to the mother, the woman from whom he derives his birth and to whom he owes everything in his existence.
It has been a well-established dictum with our society and thinkers, dating from the remotest past that the human society becomes meaningful and esteemed when women can walk and move about alone freely anywhere during the day and the early hours of the night. But now with the growth of industrialization, shifts in the factory working and the like, the night should include not merely the early hours but also its entirety.
What does this standard mean in actual fact? Who is to ensure this kind of freedom? The implication is very strong, clear. Men should honour womanhood so supremely that they consider it their paramount duty to allow women to move freely amongst them without fear. It is for men to ensure this.
This ideal can be understood if you think of man’s devotion to God, whom he installs and idolizes variously. He does so because he gives in his mind and actions the most adorable place for God. In all his thoughts, motivations and pursuits he seeks to give the maximum recognition to his God. He constructs the costly temple, offers the best of things of God, decks Him with the costliest articles and so on. Does he do so for fun, or for the simple reason that his mind cherishes the best esteem for the Object of his worship?
Well, should this not be the case with the women of the homes as well? Of all the things that man possesses in this world the most precious is the woman, be she his sister, mother, wife or any other relationship. The man who goes outside, works in the office, finds it to be really nobody’s. The Company, in whose name the office stands, is a corporate body, impersonal in nature. He works there for a living, but at home he works as a person, as an individual, a son of his mother and father, the husband or brother of a woman. The inspiration he gets for work or even for life is the one which emerges from the women of his home. And the more noble and graceful the women around him are, the greater and more powerful the inspiration will be. This was so at all times, and even now the truth cannot be different. In the office he is a servant, but at home he is the master. He leaves the office only to be in his home. The office makes him ‘its’ only when he is taken in its employ. The same office rejects him also after a period. But the home does no things of this sort at all. By the very fact of his birth, a man is of the home and he continues to be the same home till death.
So everything else comes after the home, for its sake, only to be accepted and renounced for its own sake. This home remains a ‘living’ home only when there is the graceful woman, the lamp to burn and shine constantly. The sense of identification and contentment a man gets in his life is from his home alone, from nowhere else in the world.
Our tradition says that the birth of a girl in the family is considered auspicious. It is natural. Man takes a lot of care and love in decking the female body and making it look as pleasant and beautiful as possible. He decorates the woman just as the idol or picture of God, who is supreme before him. Can this be so except when he considers the female offspring almost the God, he thinks of as the first and last object of pursuit for his earthy life?
Also before proceeding for any important calling, the father and the brother used to touch the feet of the maiden at home as a mark of divinity and prayer for blessing.
Women had their own distinct pursuits of life, in which the management and organization of the household ranked supreme. Even now if you calculate the number of hours our women spend in the household duties, it will almost be the double of what our men do in their offices or workspots. How can the women think of doing so much except when there are worthy, honourable and sustained in their ability and enthusiasm. Of all the creations a man can think of making in this world, the birth of a child for him through his wife is the most vital and of far-reaching consequences. Can he ever think of entrusting this job to any one other than the woman of the house? The woman who rears up the embryo when it is born into the world, as she does when it is in her womb, is she not doing the most adorable task in the whole world? The task will be better done if the woman is able to spend as much time as she can to it, especially in the fist few years of the child’s growth. When the child has grown into a boy or girl and the phase of school-going education is begun, then the mother can reduce the time she gives to the child, if it is convenient.
Those women who found time, or keenness of perception and acuteness of wisdom, to pursue any special branch of knowledge in addition to their normal womanly role in the house were definitely free to take up that pursuit and excel in it as much as they wanted. And this has happened even in the case of archery and fighting, which was always a sphere earmarked for men and youth. It was the woman’s beauty that men appreciated, as did the women themselves. Though both males and females learnt classical music, the song of the woman was the sweeter to hear, enjoy and feel proud about. Those women who sang best had a much greater assembly of listeners. She was received and acknowledged with all pomp and fervour. May be men did not go to the dais to garland them. They got some graceful women of the assembly, the sisters or wives, to garland, themselves looking on with taintless admiration.
Dancing and singing were costly pursuits. The education in the schools and colleges is something quite general, but the education by an artist teacher is always very particular and exclusive by its very nature. To teach music and dance the father of the house used to maintain selected and famous teachers for months and years at home, incurring far more expenditure than what he will for a formal academic education. All this he did for the love he had for those who learnt the art, and the ambition he fostered in their excellence and approbation.
We speak of education. But what extent of education was there in the ancient days? Only in the last few decades, the present system of education through the schools and colleges and universities has come about. Until then the branches of knowledge were mainly etymology, phonetics, astronomy and a few others. The main stress was on religious education on the basis of the Vedic and other texts. We find that even in this, the women of the earliest times enjoyed equal rights. A significant verse that comes to my mind reveals that even girls were invested with sacred thread, and hence were entitled to Vedic scholarliness, is:
Puraa kalpe kumaareenaam maunchee-bandhanam-ishyate
Adhyaapanam cha vedaanaam savitree-vachanam tatha
Though their spiritual enquiry and wisdom they sometimes even excelled the men of their times. To quote an instance from the Upanishads themselves:
Yajnavalkya was a great Knower of Truth. In all the noted assemblies of the Wise, his spiritual wisdom shone with unique splendour. Once King Janaka convened a Brahma-vadin assembly (assembly of those who are experts in the Knowledge of the Supreme Truth). Whoever was the best knower of Truth, he declared, would be entitled to a large number of cows and other gifts he had set apart for the purpose. ‘May this assembly debate and confirm who is the mightiest Knower of Truth here today’.
For a few moments none spoke or rose from the seat. Then calmly ordered Yajnavalkya to his disciples ‘take the cows and other gifts and proceed to my home’. The assembly was taken by surprise. Without doubt, without question, without waiting for any approval here comes an elderly Brahmin, clear with his order, to snatch away the great prize the king had set before them all. But none had the wits or courage to speak anything to him. The enquiry was about the most subtle thing, the Brahman, the Supreme Reality, which always tends to elude man’s understanding. But here was one who had no doubts at all about his own knowledge of IT.
But something happened to the surprise of all present there. An unmarried woman, Gargi by name, stood up and looking to where the great Brahmin sat spoke out: “Oh! Great Sage, before you proceed to take away the offer of the King, please answer two of my questions, which are like two powerful shafts aimed by the strongest archer at the object dazzling in his front. Be attentive and face these shafts of mine”.
Gargi then put her first question, following which the second one too. The whole assembly shuddered at the thought of a woman doing this. They were sunk in a pool of feelings and emotions. Some were surprised, some delighted, some disappointed, some were jealous and some were fulfilled. However, it was the girl, Gargi, who did single-handedly shake the great Yajnavalkya.
A more striking even is that of Draupadi when she was dragged into the open Kuru assembly, at a time when she was supposed not to be seen or touched by any one (she was in her menstrual period). It happened when Yudhishtira played dice staking everything he had, one after another and ultimately lost his brothers, himself and then his wife also. Following this all the five husbands of Draupadi stood in total slavery. Duryodhana claimed lordship over Draupadi as well, and that is how she was pulled by the enemy to the assembly. The instance was fierce, unnerving, agonizing to the core. There was no means of escape, with all her husbands tied down to servitude, unable to speak even one word.
Dussasana, Karna and others began to assail Draupadi, tease her and her lords with unpardonable words of revenge, retaliation and cruelty. But Draupadi soon came out with her wits and inspiration, disarming and bewildering all those present in that great assembly, including the great Bhishma, the Grandfather. Her one question shattered the very grounds of propriety and reason, justice and truth. She contended that she was not in servitude, as her husband had staked her after he had pledged himself and got lost to the enemies. One who has lost his freedom has no right over another. ‘If I was not left free after my husband became a slave to the enemies, why did the opponents ask him to pledge me at all? So by their asking for staking me, they had conceded my independence, even after my lord got lost to them in the dice play. It is this fundamental fact that I claim my right upon. So these senseless people have no right over me at all. I want the great and wise members of this assembly to consider my moral question and pronounce a verdict’.
Draupadi’s contention shook every one, ever Dussasana, to the roots. Dussasana also got physically tired and stopped mauling her. With forceful challenge, indecision and the call for propriety, it enfeebled the bodies as well as the minds and intellects of all the heroes in the assembly. Ultimately Draupadi’s father-in-law had to interfere by honouring and acclaiming Draupadi as the best of his daughter-in-law and letting her free with an appeal for her pardon and mercy on his indiscriminate sons.
A number of other occasions are there throughout the life of the Pandava brothers when Draupadi proved her unique position, role and determination in inspiring and compelling her husbands to timely actions and victory in their avowed cause.
Le me now come to what transpired in the famous spiritual argument between the young Sankara of old and Mandana Misra, the undisputed leader of the ritualists and the exponent of the ritual philosophy of the Vedas. Sankara’s stand was that the Upanishads’ calling for mental purity and spiritual wisdom, especially the wisdom of the Soul, are the last word in the Vedas, and for the sake of the Upanishadic insight everything else enjoined by the Vedas should be set aside, sacrificed and outlived. Mandana Misra and his followers condemned this view. They repudiated the entire Upanishads and their insight. For them the entire Vedas laid down a set of rules, codes, a number of means and ends, like yagas and yagnas to win the heavens and other abodes. The search for Truth, the discussion of the Soul, the need for enquiry and Self-knowledge, all these had little or no significance at all. It was this view of theirs that made the entire elite of the Hindu society ritual-oriented but devoid of all mental and moral virtues.
Sankara’s effort at the correction of the situation meant establishing the right point of view about the Vedic life and aims, bringing to the limelight the supreme call of the Upanishads. This literally meant a constant battle between himself and the others. The climax was reached when he was led to the famous ritual exponent Mandana Misra.
Mandana Misra and Sankara entered into a significant session of arguments. The need for an umpire between them was strongly felt. Sankara designated Mandana Misra’ wife to the role. Mandana Misra was surprised that the young fiery Sanyasin should give so much recognition to his wife, whom he, the husband, had not himself thought of in such esteem and glory. The fated argument continued for days, each of the two claiming his strength from the same Vedic literature, seeking to propound what the Vedas revealed through their revelations and exhortations. The more they argued, the more unyielding each appeared in the other’s front. Sarada, the wife of Mandana Misra, was listening to the entire conversation with a characteristic elegance, impartiality and keenness. The story tells us that she resorted to a timely device in carrying out her task of sitting as the judge. Now and then, she had also to go to the kitchen to attend to the household routines. For both her husband and Sankara had to be fed with food and drink twice and thrice every day, without which neither would have the strength to argue, to win or lose. Sarada Devi therefore put a garland each on her husband’s and Sankara’s necks, enjoining that the garland of that one will be found to wither when defeated by the other.
Days passed, defying success and defeat. The sessions on debate of wisdom continued more vigorously. Sarada Devi every time invited the two for meals with contrasting words. To her husband she will say ‘O lord, please come for your meal’. To the ascetic youngster, her words were ‘O venerable sage, kindly grace us by accepting our bhiksha. (the meal offered to the sanyasin goes by the name bhiksha)
But on the end of the 18th day or so, Sarada said to both alike ‘O respected sages, come for your bhiksha’. At this Mandana Misra was surprised, so too was Sankara. For then alone they looked at themselves and each other, to find Mandana Misra’ garland withered and dried. The judgment was clear. For Sankara had said that should Mandana Misra’s view be found true, he would surrender his ascetic life and embrace the householder’s life to pursue and further the ritualistic callings of the Vedas. Mandana Misra in turn was to embrace monasticism, leaving the household-life, should he be defeated in his view and Sankara’s Upanishadic insight triumph over it. It was no small resolve by any standards. It was this resolve of both that made Sarada Devi say ‘come both for bhiksha alike’.
The meal over, she also ate that day, with a cheerful but portending look. Both Mandana Misra, her husband and Sankara, the guest ascetic, were curious about the timely display of cheer and equanimity on the face of the mistress of the house, who was all along impartial, gracefully attentive to the needs of both her husband and the stranger who was out to defeat and humble her husband.
It is at this point that, dear readers, my heart and mind giggle with sweet and noble feelings of adoration and love for the women of our land. How exemplarily well-behaved they are, even when their own personal interests are at stake. Often I think and also say out that the noble, graceful woman of ours resembles more the impartial and kindly Creator than the mortal creations of the earth. They have always gloriously succeeded in recognizing the hidden worth of a man and even a woman, when that worth is yet struggling to express itself to be recognized by the society and its thinkers and idealists years later. “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” is literally true.
After eating her own meal, cleaning and arranging the vessels and kitchen as every day before, she came out when her husband was chewing bitterly the cuds of his own fundamental mistakes in appraising the order and worth of the Vedic life and teaching. Looking to the young and lustrous Sankara, she spoke with a smile:
“Dear sage, I have this submission to make before your Holiness. The unmarried, celibate monk stands all alone, by himself, in all matters of religion and religious merits. But the married household is not so. To the householder, he embodies only one half of his total personality. The other half is contained in his partner. Without the partner’s half allied with him in all fronts, he cannot carry out his life, more so on the religious side. I agree that my husband has lost in his debate with you. But his defeat is only partial, for I am also present beside him, as one full half of his individuality. Himself lost, I come forward with my claim in the argument. Be graceful to answer my questions, whatever they are. Only when I get your answers to my satisfaction, I shall acknowledge your supremacy and our full submission before it.”
The Sarada raised some fundamental questions and they were related to the science and features of conjugal life.
Sankara was obliged to listen to her with rapt attention, and instantly he also stood unable to answer them. Accepting his inadequacy, he set about then itself to gain the necessary knowledge and skill to give answers to Sarada’s questions. That part of the story can be kept aside for our purpose here.
The import is clear. I feel that more than rescuing her husband’s and defeating Sankara, the honoured ascetic guest of her home, Sarada Devi had the implied intention of fulfilling Sankara’s personality by tempting, or compelling hi, to enrich his life with some important social and interpersonal facets of the great human life. By that Sankara was to stand to shine all the better.
Later, when Sankara returned, Sarada was waiting gladly for the event. After a trifling encounter, both Mandana Misra and Sarada Devi together accepted the discipleship of Sankara the Great, resigning their house-holdership and betaking to the ascetic spiritual life hallowed by the great traditions of the country.
There are other instance also which reveal to us the greatness and elegance of the woman of our society. I am very clear that if there is any great man, in any walk of life blessed with character and moral excellence, behind him is the constant work of a graceful woman, be she his mother, sister or wife or any other related to him. Equally so, we must also say that if there is any great woman, beside her unseen is the close friendship and care of a graceful man, be he the father, husband, brother or son or one closely linked with.