ARYAA: An Anthology of Vedic Women

ARYAA: An Anthology of Vedic Women
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Aryaa is a brilliant celebration of women in Ancient India. A retelling of the famous female characters of Indian texts, it enthralls, illuminates, and makes us think. Alas, modern feminist narratives have reached such levels of shrill discord and disruption that it seems half the population is essentially against the other half. The modern reading and the colonial consciousness pervading the roles of women and the characteristics of womanhood offer a warped interpretation of our stories too, causing immense damage to the cultural fabric of India.

In contrast to the “rights-based” characterization of women, Indian culture placed women in harmony with not only men but with family, the environment, society, and country. The importance that sages and thinkers gave to women was not about egoistic self-assertion but a realization of potential. It is the ultimate ideals of a culture that determine the nature of every individual and institution, whether in politics, ecology, the arts, literature, or even the sciences. For India, as scholars have insisted, the ideal has been moksha, and it is an intricate component of the purusharthas (dharma, artha, kama, and moksha). Dharma is the basic framework for acquiring both the pleasures of the external world (artha and kama) as well as the final aim of all life—moksha.

Every route or vocation has potential, and a being of any gender, varna, or vocation has an equal opportunity to reach the final state. It has been the greatest misrepresentation when colonial and subsequent narratives begin their “oppressive and hierarchical” structuring of Indian culture with the “denial” of reading the Vedas. The highest ideal of the nation was moksha, for which reading or learning the Vedas was never a pre-requisite. The learning of Vedas was a matter of duty in perpetuating the culture, which later degenerated into a matter of rights and hierarchy.

In the framework of the Purusharthas, our ancient sages conceived the nature of women in India. As a daughter, wife, mother, and as a talent pursuing the arts, sciences, and philosophies, the focus on women is that of respect and celebration. The Dharmic ideal is firstly based on duties (a desireless activity) rather than rights, and secondly on group harmony rather than the intense individualism of the Western world. In the literature, women have been sacred, and the divinity of the feminine, most intense in the tantric practices, remains integral to Indian culture.

However, the superimposition of Western feminism on Indian cultures leads to distortions. It is not that everything is great about Indian women; they are subject to discrimination and exploitation, many of which are severe. However, as is typical of modern narratives, the worst of a system comes to represent the whole. In modern narratives focusing on rights, there is now intense negativity attached to the ideas of motherhood, lactation, and the important role women play in perpetuating the species.

The Importance of Stories in Indian Culture

Stories, a uniquely Indian way of preserving the past, form the foundation of our socializing process and learning of moral values through a process called mimesis, as Balagangadhara explains in his writings. In Western culture, stories may entertain and form a genre of literature, but they do not instruct. The incredible stock of stories present in our culture, where there is a story available for every conceivable situation, works both as theoretical models representing small parts of the world and as practical exemplars that one can emulate. The exemplars, or stories, are generative of new actions in different contexts. This is in severe contrast to Western culture, where there are certain context-free moral principles to imbibe and apply for the rest of one’s life.

Secular historians teach us that our stories are merely disguised historiographies, poetic exaggerations, or lies by our ancestors. Yet, there is a specific Indian cultural attitude when we say, “Rama and Krishna may not have existed, but the Ramayana or Mahabharata are always true.” Indians, while growing up, learn that we should treat our stories and epics (Itihasas) as different from the claims of our history, geography, and science lessons. As Balagangadhara says, converting Itihasa into history would destroy our past as the remembered past of a thriving and rich culture.

Martin Farek (India in the Eyes of the Europeans) shows how Christian theology, later secularized, defined the way of European historiography as a linear chronological narrative (beginning of the universe, Christ’s advent, his second coming, and then the end of the world) and played havoc with the understanding of the Indian past. In the secularised form, the framework of universal global history persisted with the linear concept of time directed from primitive paganism filled with “allegories, falsities, fabrications, myths, or fables” towards a “modernity” involving all of humanity. Unfortunately, historians trapped in religious thinking and Eurocentrism retain this view when they look at our stories.

Either “history proper (or true)” or a “myth (thus false)” does not allow other possibilities for a different way of dealing with the past. Indian traditions deal with the past by mingling stories with the preservation of the names and actions of their ancestors, rulers, and important figures. Thus, in Indian culture, there is no ‘primitive’ past but an ‘ancient’ past with stories relevant across time.

Nobody could have put this better than Ananda Coomaraswamy (The Hindu Tradition: The Myth):

“Like the Revelation (sruti) itself, we must begin with the Myth (itihâsa), the penultimate truth, of which all experience is the temporal reflection…The mythical narrative is of timeless and placeless validity, true nowhere and everywhere… The ‘Myth’ is not a ‘poetic invention’ in the sense these words now bear: on the other hand, and just because of its universality, it can be told, and with equal authority, from many different points of view”.

He continues:

“It is one of the prime errors of historical and rational analysis to suppose that the ‘truth’ and ‘original form’ of a legend can be separated from its miraculous elements. It is in the marvels themselves that the truth inheres: ‘There is no other origin of philosophy than wonder’ Plato, (Theatetus 1556). And in the same way Aristotle who adds ‘therefore even a lover of fables is in a way a lover of wisdom, for fables are compounded of wonder’ (Metaphysics 982b). Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words”.

Status Of Indian Women

Ananda Coomaraswamy’s brilliant essay, “The Status of Indian Women,” is recommended reading before we embark on this wonderful book. Many modern scholars characterize our scriptures as patriarchal or oppressive. However, the same scripture says: “A master exceedeth ten tutors in claim to honour; the father a hundred masters; but the mother a thousand fathers in right to reverence and in the function of teacher.” Coomaraswamy says that Indian women have remained the guardians of a spiritual culture that is of greater worth than the efficiency and information of the educated.

A profound intuition of the Asiatic consciousness is that the qualities of men and women are incommensurable. Thus, the Hindu view does not approach men and women with an identity of temperament and function. The greatest possible sexual differentiation forms the greatest abundance of life. As a pure male (Purusha), the Great God is inert, and his “power” (Prakriti) is always feminine. Women possess the power of perpetually creating in men the qualities she desires, and this is, for her, an infinitely greater power than the possession of those special qualities could ever confer upon her directly.

Indian culture never denied individual women sainthood or learning in the fields of the arts or sciences. However, a majority of women have always and naturally preferred marriage and motherhood. “The highest merit consists in the fulfillment of one’s own duty, in other words, in dedication to one’s calling.” Motherhood is the highest ideal. Woman represents the continuity of racial life; a diversion or division of energy leads to a corresponding loss of racial vitality. “What we have to do then is not to assert the liberty of women to deny the duty or right of motherhood but to accord this function a higher protection and honour than it now receives.”

Asiatic theory of marriage, not readily intelligible to Europeans, has more concern for duties than for rights. It does not declare freedom as a release from responsibilities. For Hindu sociologists, marriage is a social and ethical relationship, and the begetting of children is the payment of a debt. Since the social order comes before the happiness of the individual, it is logical that Hindu marriage should be indissoluble.

Replying to feminists’ claims that women are “slaves,” he says that we do not identify freedom with self-assertion. Coomaraswamy says that in a highly organized society where it was wrong for a man to fulfill the duties of another man, how much more wrong would be the confusion of function between woman and man? “If the modern woman could accept this thought, perhaps she would seek a new way of escape, not an escape from love, but a way out of industrialism” filled with competition and exploitation. Equality sadly becomes a matter of “voting rights” in a form of government (democracy), which is finally a tyranny of the majority. He concludes that though the Western world can render a few externals of life to Eastern women, it has yet to relearn about life itself from the East.

Superimposition of Western Feminism Leading to Cultural Violence

On this traditional understanding of the status of Indian women, clearly explained in the stories and articulated by thinkers like Aurobindo and Coomaraswamy, came the assault of feminists and Eurocentric scholars. The initial waves of feminism achieved a lot in the Western world for women’s emancipation. The second wave of feminism found resonance with some contemporary Indian issues like land rights, political representation, divorce laws, custody, guardianship, sexual harassment at work, alcoholism, dowry, and rape.

Without denying some serious gender issues like the low respect for women in lower socioeconomic classes and the struggle of urban women to balance work and home, the solutions offered through the Western framework have led to cultural violence. The frameworks to define and deal with gender issues (educational, political, social, or economic rights and respect) clash with indigenous familial, societal, cultural, marital, and economic factors conditioning women’s issues.

Contemporary feminists, taking Western theories into account, simply ignore the divine component of women in the Indian scheme of things. Indian texts were always about dharma, harmony, and women placed on an equal footing in maintaining family, society, and culture. The ideas of Ardhanarishwara, women in bhakti traditions or as reformers, and hundreds of inspiring women in history and literature rarely figure in discussions of Indian feminism. Jasbir Jain (Indigenous Roots of Feminism) says, “Draupadi deconstructed the notions of chastity and sati; Sita, of power and motherhood; Kali, of violence; Puru’s young wife, of sexuality; the bhakta women, of marriage and prayer.”

Today, the overcorrection route of feminism places one-half of the population in opposition to the other half. As a consequence, concepts like “patriarchy” or “toxic masculinity” have created a general distrust of men and the institution of marriage. Indian themes now almost construct both father and mother as evils and the mangala sutra and sindoor as regressive, even as individual instances of conflict or abuse become generalized to represent the whole culture. Collectively, these unsettle the Hindu family and the marriage system, label Hindu texts as misogynistic, and finally lead to anti-Hinduism.

The utilitarian approach to gender equality lost its understanding of the exclusive value that birthing, motherhood, and lactation bring to women. A biological function has now become a confusing and contested matter of rights. India perhaps has better solutions for the world, which seek harmony, deify women, and ask women to be just women, true to their physical, mental, and intellectual natures. The stories in Aarya exemplify this.

The Authors, Curator, and the Stories

GV Shivakumar, an IT professional and a passionate promoter and defender of Indian heritage, has done yeoman service in bringing this wonderful anthology. The curator has done a great job of selecting the subjects and the authors. The anthology demonstrates our cultural ideals when it deals with women as daughters, wives, mothers, and builders of family, society, and the country. In brief, the stories are all equally brilliant.

It is no wonder that the greatest story ever told—the Mahabharata—forms the main source of the bulk of the characters in the book. The three wives of Arjuna (Subhadra, Ulupi, and Chitrangada) form the subject matter of three stories, and each plays an important role in the life of the greatest warrior of the epic. Mahabharata (along with the Ramayana) integrates the country more than anything else. Chitrangada and Ulupi come from the Northeast Indian kingdoms, while Subhadra is from the West.

Most Indians are aware of the stories of Damayanti (the wife of Nala) and Shakuntala, and it is to the credit of the authors who offer a fresh retelling of the stories. The story of Satyavati, the foster mother of Bheeshma, who brings in the author of the epic itself, Sage Vyasa, to impregnate her widowed daughters-in-law to continue the family lineage, makes for some fascinating reading. In terms of sheer scale, the Mahabharata is the brightest gem of Indian culture and needs understanding at mundane, ethical, and metaphysical levels.

One of the most brilliant books ever written and one that can form the basis for clearly understanding the stories of Aryaa is V.S. Sukthankar’s classic, On the Meaning of the Mahabharata. As Sukthankar says, many of the stories of the epic appear unintelligible, uncouth, and grotesque to the superficial mind that seeks inconsistencies. But they achieve deep significance when analyzed on a higher plane. The key is samatva, which means harmony or balance. Balance of personality, which does not want to run away from individual dharma but achieves a state of perfect happiness while living in the ambit of varna and ashrama. Thus, the harmony of reason, will, and emotion is the way to a good life and reaching a destination that promises no return. The final statement of Sukthankar offers a brilliant summary of the book: “The chaos which modern critics think they see in the Great Epic of India is but a reflex of the state of their own mind and not in the work at all, which on the other hand is a mighty pulsating work, clothing in noble language and with pleasing imagery a profound and universal philosophy, a glowing and rhythmic synthesis of life”.

The three stories of self-realized women—Gargi, Maitreyi, and Shandilyaduhita—are wonderful. Gargi is a great knower of the “self” outside the ambit of marriage; Maitreyi gains supreme knowledge as the wife of Yajnavalkya; and Shandilyaduhita has to go through the rituals of marriage at a late age to complete the ashrama dharma before rising to the greatest heights.

Each reader will have a favorite in the anthology, but two are my personal favorites: the brilliantly scripted story on Madhavi, daughter of King Yayati, who marries four kings at different times and produces a great son from each of them; and the one on Shandilyaduhita in poetic verse. However, each story has a distinct quality!

Aryaa is a book for every Indian home to read and reread.

Further Reading & References
  1. Cultures Differ Differently: Selected Essays of S.N. Balagangadhara (2023). Edited by Jakob De Roover & Sarika Rao
  2. What does it mean to be ‘Indian’? (2021). S.N. Balagangadhara & Sarika Rao
  3. India in the Eyes of Europeans: Conceptualization of Religion in Theology and Oriental Studies (2022). Martin Farek
  4. The Status of Indian Women (in The Dance of Shiva) (1985). Ananda Coomaraswamy
  5. The Hindu Tradition: The Myth in The Essential Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (2004). Edited by Rama P. Coomaraswamy
  6. On the Meaning of the Mahabharata (2016, 3rd) V.S. Sukthankar
  7. The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (2021). Douglas Murray
  8. Indigenous Roots of Feminism: Culture, Subjectivity and Agency(2011). Jasbir Jain
  9. Feminism in India: The Tale and its Telling (2019). Maitrayee Chaudhuri
  10. discussion on Indian Feminism by Sumedha Ojha, Sahana Singh, Neha Shrivastava and others
  11., Woman, and Machine. Margatham, India Facts.
  12., Woman, and Machine. Margatham, India Facts.
  13. The Sabarimala Confusion: Menstruation Across Cultures: A Historical Perspective(2019).  Nithin Sridhar

Dr Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Paediatric and Neonatal Surgeon practising in Warangal, Telangana. He has a keen interest in Indian culture and does his little bit to correct the many wrong narratives which hurt India at many levels. Opening his eyes rather late to the wonder called India, it is now a continuous journey for him to sip bits from the oceanic nectar of Indic Knowledge Systems.