Women and Hindu scriptures

Introduction

Hindu scriptures have lately in popular press been subject of bashing for their treatment of women. I discuss here some of the arguments used by those who attack Hindu scripture and why those arguments are wrong.

Argument based on ignorance

Recently I came across an example of bashing in this letter published in the on line Statesman:

www.thestatesman.net/page.news.php?clid=3&theme=&usrsess=1&id=196850

The fine line

Sir, ~ Zaad Mahmood in his article 'Treading a fine line' (18 March) has mentioned the distinction between the fundamental tenets of the scriptures and social customs. He writes: 'To confuse religious precepts with social customs is fallacious?. Taslima Nasreen has been politically ostracised in secular India for her criticism of certain directives of the Muslim clergy vis-a-vis women. For example, the veil and the sanction accorded to polygamy up to four wives. Are these dictates of religion or social custom? Should Muslims depend on the clergy for guidance on such social issues?'

The Gita denies women the right to read the scriptures (Vedas). But one must respect the views of Sukumari Bhattacharyya on the subject.

~ Yours, etc., Anupam Gupta,
Santiniketan, 18 March.

The writer of this letter confidently asserts that the Gita denies women the right to read the scriptures (Vedas). What exactly does Gita say on the  matter? I give below the relevant shloka:

O son of Pritha! Taking refuge in Me, women, Vaishyas, Sudras, and likewise even socially handicapped men, attain to the highest spiritual goal. (Gita  9.32)

(NOTE: I have translated papa yoni as socially handicapped since it strains credulity to think that all women are automatically considered to be of  "sinful womb" by Gita)

Whatever else Gita may be saying, it is definitely NOT anti-women! I suspect that the author of this letter is simply ignorant.

Argument based on Modern Standards

Apart from ignorance, many Hindu readers apply modern standards when they read scripture. I have given below some apparently "good" shlokas from  Manu Smriti:

Women must be honoured and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands, and brothers-in-law, who desire their own welfare. (III.55)

Where women are honoured, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite yields rewards. (III.56)

Where the female relations live in grief, the family soon wholly perishes; but that family where they are not unhappy ever prospers. (III.57)

The houses on which female relations, not being duly honoured, pronounce a curse, perish completely, as if destroyed by magic. (III.58)

Hence men who seek (their own) welfare, should always honour women on holidays and festivals with (gifts of) ornaments, clothes and (dainty) food. (III.59)

These shlokas have been attacked as being paternalistic. It seems Hindu  scriptures can not win whatever they do in today's world!

Argument based on infallibility of Vedas

It is argued by some scholars that Hindu scriptures are composed of both an eternal and a temporal part. Any shloka on women is the temporal aspect and hence may not be valid in today's society. Some otherwise knowledgable Hindus reject this argument on the ground that since a scripture like Mahabharata claims the status of the fifth Vedas, it is automatically claiming  infallibility and thus the previous argument about eternal and temporal part fails. Mahabharata in fact claims that it is even more important than the four Vedas:

As the full-moon by its mild light expandeth the buds of the water-lily, so this Purana, by exposing the light of the Sruti hath expanded the human intellect. (Adi Parva I)

In former days, having placed the four Vedas on one side and the Bharata  on the other, these were weighed in the balance by the celestials assembled for the purpose. And as the later weighed heavier than the four Vedas with  their mysteries, from that period it hath been called in the world Mahabharata. (Adi Parva I)

Then again Mahabharata claims equality with the Vedas in another shloka:

This Bharata consists of a hundred thousand sacred slokas composed by the son of Satyavati, of immeasurable mental power. He that reads it to others, and they that hear it read, attain the world of Brahman and become equal to the very gods. This Bharata is equal unto the Vedas, is holy and excellent; is the worthiest of all to be listened to, and is a Purana worshipped by the Rishis. It contains much useful instruction on Artha and Kama. This sacred  history maketh the heart desire for salvation. Learned persons by reciting
this Veda of Krishna-Dwaipayana to those that are liberal, truthful, and believing, earn much wealth. Sins such as killing the embryo in the womb, are destroyed assuredly by this. (Adi Parva LXII)

Thus if even one shloka of Mahabharata is wrong then it can not be called infallible and thus can not be fifth Veda. Moreover since Mahabharata is claiming itself to be the fifth Veda, it has to be eternally true. So on this ground also the previous argument fails.

Or does it?

Vedas are eternally true

It is necessary to first understand what is meant by Vedas and then what is meant by "the Vedas are eternal". I have given below some quotes from Swami Vivekananda on Vedas:

There was a time when the Vedas themselves were considered eternal in the  sense in which the divine truths contained therein were changeless and  permanent and were only revealed to man. At a subsequent time, it appears that the utterances of the Vedic hymns with the knowledge of its meaning was  important; and it was held that the hymns themselves must have had a divine origin. At a still later period, the meaning of the hymns showed that many of  them could not be of divine origin, because they inculcated upon mankind  performance of various unholy acts, such as torturing animals; and we can find
many ridiculous stores in the Vedas. The correct meaning of the statement "The Vedas are beginningless and eternal" is that the law or truth revealed by them to man is permanent and changeless. Logic, geometry, chemistry, etc., reveal also a law or truth which is permanent and changeless and in that sense they  are also beginningless and eternal. But no truth or law is absent from the Vedas, and I ask any one of you to point out to me any truth which is not treated of in them. (Complete Works, Vol.5: With the Swami Vivekananda at  Madura, pp.205-206)

The Hindus have received their religion through revelation, the Vedas. They  hold that the Vedas are without beginning and without end. It may sound  ludicrous to this audience [in the West] how a book can be without beginning or end. But by the Vedas no books are meant. They mean the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times.

Just as the law of gravitation existed before its discovery and would exists if all humanity forgot it, so is it with the laws that govern the spiritual world. The moral, ethical, and spiritual relations between soul and soul and  between individual spirits and the Father of all spirits were there before their discovery, and would remain even if we forget them. (Complete Works, Vol.1: Paper on Hinduism, pp.6-7.)

[Vedic] principles have existed throughout time; and they will exist. They are non-create – uncreated by any laws which science teaches us today. They remain covered and become discovered, but are existing through all eternity in nature. If Newton had not been born the law of gravitation would have remained all the same and would have worked all the same. It was Newton's genius which formulated it, discovered it, brought it into consciousness, made it a conscious thing to the human race. So are these religious laws, the grand
truths of spirituality. They are working all the time. If all the Vedas and Bibles and Korans did not exist at all, if seers and prophets had never been born, yet these laws would exist. They are only held in abeyance, and slowly but surely will work to raise the human race, to raise human nature. But they are the prophets who see them, discover them; and such prophets are discoverers in the field of spirituality. As Newton and Galileo were prophets
of physical science, so are they prophets of spirituality. They can claim no exclusive right to any one of these laws; they are the common property of all nature.

The Vedas, as the Hindus say, are eternal. We now understand what they mean by their being eternal, i.e. that the laws have neither beginning nor end. Earth after earth, system after system, will evolve, run for a certain time, and then dissolve back into chaos; but the universe remains the same. Millions and millions of systems are being born, while millions are being destroyed. The universe remains the same. The beginning and end of time can be told as regards a certain planet; but, as regards the universe, time has no meaning at all. So are the laws of nature, the physical laws, the mental laws, the  spiritual laws, without beginning or end; and it is within a few years, comparatively speaking – a few thousand years at best – that man has tried to reveal them. The infinite mass remains before us. Therefore the one great lesson that we learn from the Vedas, at the start, is that religion has just begun. The infinite ocean of spiritual truth lies before us to be worked on,
to be discovered, to be brought into our lives. The world has seen thousands of prophets, and the world has yet to see millions. (Complete Works, Vol.6: The Methods and Purpose of Religion, pp.8-9. )

The Vedas are anadi, eternal. The meaning of the statement is not, as is erroneously supposed by some, that the words of the Vedas are anadi, but that  the spiritual laws inculcated by the Vedas are such. These laws, which are  immutable and eternal, have been discovered at various times by great men or rishis, though some of them have been forgotten now, while others are preserved. (Complete Works, Vol.6: Notes Taken Down in Madras, 1892-93, p.103)

It is clear from Vivekananda's discussion that everything in the Vedas is not eternally true. It is ONLY the spiritual laws that are eternal. In fact it is these eternal laws that should really be called Vedas.

Infallibility of the Vedas

I have given below a discussion on infallibility by Sri Sankara, the famous Advaita philosopher:

…… The appeal to the infallibility of the Vedic injunction is  misconceived. The infallibility in question refers only to the unseen force or apurva, and is admissable only in regard to matters not confined to the sphere of direct perceptions etc. ….. Even a hundred statements of sruti to the effect that fire is cold and non-luminous won't prove valid. If it does make such a statement, its import will have to be interpreted differently. Otherwise, validity won't attach to it. Nothing in conflict with the means of  valid cognition or with its own statement may be imputed to sruti. (Bhagavad Gita Bhashya 18.66 of Sri Sankaracharya translated by Dr. A.G. Krishna Warrier).

It is clear that Shankara, like Vivekananda, does not claim that every statement in the Vedas are correct. He stresses that Vedas are infallible "only in regard to matters not confined to the sphere of direct perceptions".

That automatically implies that Vedas can not override reason. Vedic infallibility is only regards spiritual matters that can not be subjected to reason.

Manu Smriti on infallibility

Do Hindu scriptures ask us to slavishly accept whatever is written in them? Manu Smriti initially seems to ask Hindus to accept in toto as is clear from this shloka:

But by Sruti (reveleation) is meant the Veda, and by Smriti (tradition) the Institutes of the sacred law; those two must not be called into question in any matter, since from those two the sacred law shone forth. (II.10)

Later, however, it moderates its stand and acknowledges that some of it's contents might be found offensive in a later age as is clear from this shloka:

Let him avoid (the acquisition of) wealth and (the gratification of his) desires, if they are opposed to the sacred law, and even LAWFUL ACTS WHICH MAY CAUSE PAIN IN THE FUTURE OR ARE OFFENSIVE TO MEN. (IV.176)

Mahabharata on sanctioned usage

It is of extreme interest that Manu Smriti admits that not all its ideas about societal relations will survive the ravages of time. This idea is also present in Mahabharata as is clear from this passage:

 … women formerly were not immured within houses and dependent on husbands and other relatives. They used to go about freely enjoying themselves as best as they liked. O thou of excellent qualities, they did not then adhere to their husbands faithfully, and yet, O handsome one, they were not regarded sinful, for that was the sanctioned usage of the times. (Adi Parva CXXII)

Mahabharata acknowledges that societal rules about women have changed with  time. Thus we don't have to accept scriptural advice on women slavishly.

Conclusion

It is a matter of concern that many Hindus are ignorant about their scriptures. It is a bigger concern that even knowledgable Hindus do not fully understand what is meant by eternality and infallibility of the Vedas. They also do not seem to understand that parts of Hindu scriptures are clearly obsolete and it is not necessary to follow those parts.

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