Social Message of the Upanishads

by Sanchita Kundu | 2020 | 29,269 words

This study deals with the ethical principles of human society as gleaned from the Upanishads: a category of ancient Sanskrit philosophical texts dealing with spiritual insights and meditation. Their teachings deal with gaining control over one’s senses in order to find and attain the ultimate goal of life. The universal vision of these Upanishads p...

Chapter 4.3 - Status of Women in the Upanishads

In the Vedic period, women were on equal footing with men in the matter of receiving the knowledge of the sacred literature. In the study of that period of time we come across the illustrious names of many lady-Ṛṣis who preached the messages of the Vedas from place to place. They not only expounded hymns but also performed sacrifices like priests, offered oblations to the Gods.

We may mention, the princess Ghoṣā who was a celebrated sage of many Ṛgvedic Text.

''yuvaṃ narā stubate kṛsniyāyo viṣñāgvaṃ dadathurviśvakāya. ghoṣāyai chitpitṛṣade duroṇe patiṃ jūryartyā asvināvadattam.''[1]

Viśvavārā not only expounded verses in praise of Agni, but even performed the function of the Ṛtvik or priest at a sacrifice.

''samiddho agnirdivi śociraśret protyannuṣasamurviyā vibhāti/
eti prācī viśvavārā nāmobhirdevā īlānā haviṣā ghṛtācī.//''

In the Vedic study we come across the names of many Brahmavādinī ladies like Lopāmudrā, Gārgī and Maitreyī who took part in the great discourses and expressed striking knowledge of Supreme Self.

Women were capable and intellectually strong and sharp enough to stand in the debate and discussion at the same level with their male counterparts.

Gārgī and Yajñavalkya debate in the assembly of religious conversation called by the celebrated Ṛṣi king Janaka is extremely famous and enjoyable among the readers of Upaniṣads. From the discourse in the debate between Gārgī and Yājñavalkya, it seemed that Gārgī was equal in social position to Yājñavalkya.[3]

In the Vedic age daughter received educaton equally like son. Bṛhadaraṇyakaponiṣad presents a father who wished his daughter to be a scholar—

''duhitā me paṇditā jāyeta.''[4]

Many Ṛgvedic mantras were revealed to women. A virgin daughter inherited paternal property.[5] In the Ṛgvedic period woman had the right to choose her husband.[6] A girl was honoured in her husband's house—''samrājñī śvaśure bhava.''[7] Altekar said a girl in the Vedic age was married when she was fully grown up.

In the Vedic age woman could participate in the performance of Sacrifice with her husband.[8] Only a person whose wife was living could perform sacrifice.[9] Aśvalayana Śrautasūtra[10] and Kātyayanasūtra[11] refer to Vedic mantras whose sages were women. From about 300 B.C to 300 A.D status of women in the society declined.

In the Buddhist period women were permitted to join Sangha. Large scale of conversion took place. To resist this trend restriction on women was imposed. They were deprived of the right to participate in the sacrifice.

Thus we see females of Ṛgvedic age were educated. Since one could not be considered eligible for acquiring education before Upanayana saṃskāra, it is clear that Upanayana saṃskāra was allowed for women also. Manu permitted only Vivāha Saṃskāra for women.

''vaivāhiko vidhiḥ strīṇāṃ saṃskāro vaidikaḥ smṛtaḥ patisevā gurau vāso gṛhārtho'ganipariṣkriyā.''[12]

It is said that Manu accepted creation of two human bodies from one body. One was male and another was female. In


''dvidhā kṛtvātmano dehamardhena puruso'vabat. ardhena nārī tasyāṃ sa virājamasṛjat prabhuḥ.''[13]

Women during the period of Vedic India was never treated as inferior to male personalities, but was always regarded only as a two different forms inherently built in one singular entity. So in the Vedic age men and women both played equal part in social and cultural life.

In the Rāmāyaṇa a very interesting and remarkable matter had been found. When Rāma was entering in Ayodhyā, after his long exile in forest, he was received first by priests and brāhmins and then by unmarried girls and ministers and merchants

''ṛtvigvirbrāhmaṇaiḥ pūrvaṃ kanyāvirmaṇtrivistathā/
yodhaiścaivābhSyaṣincaṃste samprahṛṣaṭaiḥ sanaigamaiḥ//''

Education system was in wide scale among the well to do family of that period and girls could maintain celibacy till the attainment of age 16. Upanayaṇa or ceremonial initiation into Vedic studies was common to girls and boys.

It is in Atharvaveda that maiden were eligible to get married if she had proper educational training during her time of Brahmacharya

''brahmacharyeṇa kanyānaṃ yuvā vindate patiṃ.''[15]

During Vedic period girls were subjected along with the boys under the strict discipline of Brahmacharya Aśrama.

The Aśvalāyana Gṛhyasūtra also clearly maintains that the Brahmacharya was equally prescribed for men and women—''brahmavādin[16] , alaṃkṛtaṃ kumāraṃ''[17]

In the Vedic and post Vedic literature there are many such evidences when young maidens were given equal opportunity of receiving education and studying the different branches of knowledge. It is also described in these literature that there were families of teachers known as Gurukulas where female students used to reside with their Achāryas and received education along with their brother pupils.

As for instance Ᾱtreyī in the age of the Rāmāyaṇa is mentioned as a student of Vedānta along with Lava and Kuśa.

''asminnagastyapramukhāḥ pradeśe bhūyāṃsa udgīthavido vasanti/
tebhyo'dhigantuṃ nigamāntavidyāṃ vālmīkipārśvādiha paryaṭāmi//''

As regards the wearing of threads the women were also allowed to wear thread as an insignia at the beginning of the studies like their male counterparts—

''purā kalpe tu nārīṇāṃ maunjhīvandhanamiṣyate/
adhyāpanaṃ ca vedānāṃ sāvitrīvacanaṃ tathā//''

In the Gobhila Gṛhyasūtra it is mentioned that the maiden would be decently dressed and would be brought, wearing the second threads, to the altar and would pronounce the mantra

''paścādagneḥ saṃveṣtitaṃ kaṭamevaṃ jātīyaṃ vā'nyat padā pravartayantīṃ vācayetpra me pati yā naḥ panthāḥ kalpatāmiti''.[20]

In the Pāraskara also there was a reference to ladies who underwent the initiation ceremony and studied the Vedas.

The Vedic ladies were much respected in the society and this respect attained to such a height that they were personified with veneration as goddess Saraswati,the symbol of ultimate knowledge and also were named after other goddesses like 'Kāli'[21], 'Lakṣmi' representing the wealth and Śakti respectively.

In had been found in the Ṛgveda that both husband and wife together were performing and reciting sacrificial ceremony—

''yā dampatī samanasā sunūta ā ca dhāvataḥ/devāso nityayāśirā''[22]

Brāhmaṇa girls were taught vedic lore and kshatriya girls were taught the use of the bow and arrow

''parivṛkteva patividyamānaṭ pīpyānā kṛcakreṇeva siñcan/
eṣaiṣyā cidrathyā jayema sumangalaṃ sinavadastu sātam//''

Wife of Mudgala made a demonstration of her power in the war and thus she protected wealth of her husband. Like clouds she showered arrows in the war. In the Ṛgveda[24] we find conversation between sage Agastya and his wife Lopāmudrā.

There were some specific mantras which were recited by wife only and according to Aśvalāyana Śrauta Sūtra[25] wives were expected to know a few mantras at least.

One word frequently occurred in the Sūtra Literature is 'Upādhyāyā' which means according to Amarakoṣa, a lady who is self-educated and is engaged in teaching profession.

There were many educated ladies who had chosen teaching as a profession. Sanskrit language coined a special word to distinguish between the lady teacher and the wife of a teacher.

The latter (wife of teacher) who were not supposed to be teachers were known as Upādhyāyānīs, but ladies who themselves were teachers were known as Upādhyāyās. There were many lady scholars in Purāṇas as well. In Bhāgavata, there were references of two daughters of Dākshāyaṇa and Svadhā named Vayunā and Dhariṇi who were specialised in theology and philosophy

''tebhyo dadhāra kanye dva vayunāṃ dhāriṇīṃ svadhā/ ubhe te brahmavādinyau jñānavijñapārage//''[26]

Svadhā got two daughters named Vayunā and Dharinī. Both were well versed in the Vedas and in various other branches of knowledge.

When we go through Bṛhadāranyakopaniṣad we find that ladies of literature took part in the royal assemblies.

Maitreyi asked in Brihadaranyakaponiṣad to Yājñavalkya in most striking simplicity, ''My lord, if this whole world, full of wealth belonged to me, tell me should I be immortal by it?''[27] This is most burning example of how females were imbibed in deep knowledge about the philosophy of life at that period of time. Maitreyī stood as a representative individual of women at the time of Vedic period. She prayed to her husband to tell her the way to the path of immortality.

Gārgī-Yājñavalkya debate in the assembly of religious discussions called by the celebrated Ṛṣi king Janaka is extremely famous among the readers of Upaniṣads. In the debate Gārgī radiates in her erudition while asking questions to Yājñavalkya, the one of the greatest Vedāntist who had realised Brahma. From the debate between Gārgī and Yājñavalkya, it seemed that Gārgī was equal in social position to Yājñavalkya and perhaps studied with him in the same āśrama.[28] In the Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad at the end of question-answer episode between Kahola and Yājñavalkya, on the question of indirect realisation of Brahma, brahmavādinī Gārgī participated in the debate to challenge Yājñavalkya with the question ''with whom all is related?'' It is a very logical question, to which the entire universe is inseparably mixed up? It was the flickering ego in the corner of the mind of brahmavādinī who was eager to know the truth from the sage Yājñavalkya, and also having an inexpressive desire to challenge the very depth of his knowledge about the Absolute-Brahma.

Gārgī, a spinster daughter of Vācaknu, had in mind a very pertinent question about the relation between Brahman and universe. This incident was taking place in the kingdom of Videharāja Janaka’s royal court. At the end of the aforesaid debate between Kohal and Yājñavalkya, brahmnavādīnī Gārgī stood up in the royal court of Janaka and asked a very important question. The question was in which the entire Universe is inseparably mixed up. Her question was divided in small sentences, but the small sentences were the parts of complete question as raised by her. It was also the indirect question of Gārgī ''Who am I''? After that followed another vital inherent question-what is my relation with the manifested objective materials around me and who was the creator of all these realities in front of me which is still 'unknown' to me? In fact all these questions were hidden inside the line ''Who am I''?

Yājñavalkya one of the greatest and finest versatile saints having proper knowledge of Brahma, was present in that royal court at the invitation of king Janaka on the occasion of a yājña. The environment and the occasion was engulfed in dazzling radiance of finest knowledge. In that royal court of the king women too had the rightful place and honour at the equal level and standard with their male counterparts. Such effulgent cultured society India had at that period. Gārgī was born and brought up in that environment and under that circumstance of reality she had the courage and confidence to question that great saint from the crowded gathering of people of wisdom and literature in which the water is inseparably mixed up.

She asked Yājñavalkya in the first place, in small sentence of her complete question, ''Oh Yājñavalkya! every thing is mixed up with water, but in which water is mixed up?''

''atha hainaṃ gārgī vācakñavī papraccha yājñavalkyeti hovāca yadidam sarvamapsvotaṃ ca protaṃ ca kasminnu khalvāpa otāśca protāśceti.''[29]

Yājñavalkya replied, ''In the wind''. She then asked him, ''In which the air is totally submerged or surrounded by from all sides? ''

Yājñavalkya answered, ''Oh Gārgī! The air is surrounded from all sides by the Space, the Antarīkṣa, (above the sky).''

In fact above the surface of the earth each and every thing is under the domain of space and in reality nothing can exist beyond space.

Gārgī’s next question was—''and what encircled and submerged the Antarīkṣa?''

Yājñavalkya replied, ''In the Gāndharva Loka''. A place in between heaven and earth.

Gārgī further asked, ''Then what embraces and submerges it and is soaking it from all sides of its existence?''

Yājñavalkya replied, ''The Ᾱditya Loka'' i.e the abode of Sun God or a central power source of solar energy.

Gārgī asked, ''So what wraps, and surrounds it and soaks it from all sides?''

Yājñavalkya replied, ''In Candra loka''.

Gārgī asked, ''Then in which it is inseparably mixed up?''

''kasminnu khalu candralokā otāśca protāśceti''[30]

Yājñavalkya replied that the Candraloka was completely sucked in ''Nakṣatra loka'' referring to a far away secluded place in the space.

''nakṣatralokeṣu gārgīti''[31]

Gārgī asked, ''Where this Nakṣtra loka is inseparably soaked and mixed up?''

In fact through this episode of Gārgī and Yājñavalkya two things had been exposed. One, Gārgī was determened to prove in the royal court of King Janaka that she would not let Yājñavalkya leave the court undefeated, and the second the most important point was that the society of Vedic period was so advanced that only the wisdom and talent was counted and not the biological formation of a person. Such prevailing system of intellectual liberty had paved way for spiritual advancement in the society.

Yājñavalkya replied, ''In Deva loka.''

Gārgī enquired, ''Where this Deva loka is inseparably soaked with and mixed up?''

Yājñavalkya replied, ''The Indra loka.''

Gārgī's next question was, In which this Indra loka is totally absorbed and submerged?

Yājñavalkya said, ''In Prajapati Loka''. i.e the place where Prajapati Brahma, the creator and protector dwells.

Gārgī asked again, ''What surrounds Prajāpati loka and submerges as well as inseparably mixed up''—

''kasminnu khalu prajāpatilokā otāśca protāśceti''[32]

Yājñavalkya replied to Gārgī that Prajāpati loka inseparably submerge and aligned with Brahma loka

''brahmalokeṣu gārgīti''[33]

Gārgī asked—''and what surrounds and wraps in inseparable manner the Brahmaloka?''

In this last extreme question Yājñavalkya failed to control his patience and temper. He burst into irritation and ordered her to abstain from asking such question and thus he said to Gārgī, ''Oh Gārgī! Don’t ask beyond that, lest your head would fall off,'' and stopped her with a terse remark not to ask Ati Praṣna on the Supreme being.

After this reprimand from Yājñavalkya she consciously stopped herself from asking any further question.

But it is a matter of great curiosity to know that why Yājñavakya being a person of that great stature indulged himself to avoid the question and rather settled by declaring a very stern warning to her?

It is the inference that, perhaps either ego forced him to end the debate abruptly in the very mid course of debate or it is a cleaver and predetermined method to confuse the opponent in the game of debate especially when the other side was his female batch mate of the same āśrama.

But it was the destiny that on the other day he had to answer the same question asked by Gārgī but in some different complicated manner.

Next time the brahmavadīnī Gārgī addressed the august gathering—''Oh venerable Brāhmaṇas!''Thus, she accorded with high esteem and veneration to the group of associated saints of knowledge and wisdom, ''I shall ask him (Yājñavalkya) two more questions. If he can answer them then none amongst you will be able to defeat him.''—

''atha ha vācaknavyuvāca brāhmaṇā bhagavanto hantāhamimaṃ dvau praśnau prakṣyāmi tau cenme vakṣyati na vai jātu yuṣmākamimaṃ kaścid brahmodyaṃ jeteti pṛccha gārgīti''[34]

Thence (as a consequence) the congregation of august people announced, ''Gārgī, go ahead with your question''.

Gārgī then addressed to Yājñavalkya, ''Oh Yājñavalkya just like a courageous warrior son of the land of two kingdoms of Kāśī and Videha appears with a bow with two arrows to kill the enemy, I am too ready with two formidable questions for you. Answer me then''.

Yajñavalkya replied, ''Oh Gārgī! go ahead and shoot''—

Gārgī asked, ''That which is above heaven (Dyuloka) and below the earth and which is in the middle of them and which is the past, present and future as they say, tell me which is submerged, surrounded from all sides and in separably mixed up with?''—

''sā hovāca yadūrdhvaṃ yājñavalkya divo yadavāk pṛthivyā yadantarā dyāvāpṛthivī ime yadbhūtaṃ ca bhavacca bhaviṣyaccetyācakṣate kasminstadotaṃ ca protaṃ ceti''[35]

This long question of Gārgī borne a tinge of arrogance in her conscious mind due to her last time humiliating defeat, so she was determined to wash it out from her mind and from the mind of the august assembly present in the royal court. But this time brahmavādī Yājñavalkya was more cautious and balanced.

He very solemnly replied, ''Oh Gārgī! That which is revealed and manifested above in heaven (Dyuloka) and beneath the earth and in between them, and which has enveloped and submerged every thing past, present and future is mixed up with sky element''.

In reality, Gārgī was present at the royal court not because for the sake of debate but to know ever existing, ever pervading Brahman. Gārgī aspired for an universal recognition of her wisdom from the King's royal court, a very common aspiration of all human mortals, and even Yājñavalkya too was not an exception. He sought elation by getting appreciation from the royal court of king Janaka as hero of heroes among the brahmajñānī sages.

Gārgī said, ''I salute thee for your erudition as you have answered this question. Now be prepared to answer my next question''.

Yājñavalkya replied, Ask then—

''sā hovāca namaste'stu yājñavalkya yo ma etaṃ vyavoco'parasmai dhārayasveti pṛccha gārgīti''[36]

Gārgī without any hesitation asked the same question to Yājñavalkya, ''That which is above heaven (Dyuloka) and below the earth and which is in middle of them and which is the past, present and future as they say, tell me which is submerged and surrounded from all sides and inseparably forms part of it.''

Here Gārgī like an expert dice player played a trick with Yājñavalkya to put him in utter confusion and enigma about his knowledge of Brahman. In the first place she compared her two questions with two killer arrows. She already made up her mind that her two questions would be of same and identical type like the two arrows made of same and identical material.

Reasons of asking two identical questions were perhaps two: First one was to see whether Yājñavalkya was loosing his patience and confidence or not; and the second one was whether he could check himself from fumbling in nervousness. But Yājñavalkya one of the very few brightest saints of Vedic period showed nothing of that sorts, and instead replied with perfect ease and in a most charismatic manner, 'Oh Gārgī! The one that which is above Dyuloka below earth, and exists in between Dyuloka and earth who is known as past, future and the present, that supernatural, divine, and Supreme transcendental one is inseparably attached, wrapped, fused with everything to form an integral part of the sky element.

Gārgī asked again, ''Then what is the sky covered in, what submerges this sky element; and in what does the sky cling to along with its length and breadth?''

Yājñavalkya replied in authority and confidence in Vedic knowledge, ''Oh Gārgī!'' The basic constituent which wraps the sky and in which the sky is clinging to is known as Akṣara to those who are the expert and authority in the knowledge of Brahma. and to them it is neither gross nor microscopic; it is neither short nor long; it is neither red like fire nor like fluid state of water; it is neither affectionate nor shadow nor darkness, it is neither the wind nor the air, nor the sky nor the space; He is alone, juice-less, eye-less, ear-less; it is speech-less, mind-less, energy-less, lifeless, mouth-less; It is beyond any measurement because it is infinite and eternal.

It has neither a within nor without; It can neither eat nor can be eaten by anything or by anybody—

''sa hovācaitadvai tadakṣaraṃ gārgi brāhmaṇā abhivadanti asthūlamanaṇvahrasvamadīrghamalohitamasnehamacchāyamatamo'vāyvu anākāśamasaṇgamarasamagandhamacakṣuṣkamaśrotramavāgam ano'tejaskamaprāṇamasukhamamātramanantaramabāhyaṃ na tadaśnāti kiñcana na tadaśnāti kaścana''[37]

The description of Akṣara is indeed strange and at the same time very much mysterious and mystical. It is beyond the reach of comprehension.

''Oh Gārgī! The sun, the moon listen the commanding beckon of this Akṣara, The Brahma who has kept this under his administrative encircle. This is Akṣara who is imperishable, eternal, infinity and the omnipotent transcendental Supreme authority has kept Dyuloka, the Earth, the Nimeśa, the Muhūrta, the Days, the Nights, the half month cycle of the moon, the full Moon, the various seasons, the Year etc. under his daunting administration encirclement. Under his command rivers emanate from mountains and wander their paths either eastwards or westwards. ''

''Oh Gārgī! It is He under whose command noble hearted magnanimous donors are being praised and God blesses the Yajamānas for the offerings made to the spirits of dead ancestors'.

'Oh Gārgī! Those who without knowing The Imperishable, The Immanent perform Yajña and Tāpas suffer for thousand years and all their efforts go in vain and those who depart from the world without realising the Akṣara, They are indeed mean minded, stingy hearted and they become an object of mercy and they die an ungenerous graceless death.''

''On the contrary, those who left this life after full realisation of that Akṣara Brahma are indeed known as Brāhmaṇa.''—

''yo vā etadakṣaraṃ gārgyaviditvā'smimlloke juhoti yajate tapastapyate bahūni varṣasahasrāṇyantavadevāsya tadbhavati yo vā etadakṣaraṃ gārgyaviditvāsmāllokāt praiti sa kṛpaṇo'tha ya etadakṣaraṃ gārgi viditvāsmāllokāt praiti sa brāhmaṇaḥ''[38]

''Oh Gārgī! This Akṣara is not an object that can be seen or observed, but It itself sees everything and everyone. He can not be heard by the mechanism of hearing but He hears all, He cannot be comprehended by the mind but He comprehends everything, He is beyond the reach of emotional heart but He hears all, He thinks all, He is not known to anyone but He knows all''.

''Oh Gārgī! This ākāśa or space is completely submerged, embraced, soaked in and inseparably mixed up with this Akṣara.'' Hearing this answer Vācaknāvi addressed to the august congregation, “It is better to surrender to him and go out of the place of debate because no one present here can defeat him in any debate about Brahma.’‘And thus she settled down and remained silent.

At this stage by delivering such statement, the daughter of saint Vācakñu Vācaknāvi, Gārgī had shown broadness of her heart and mind. It required great courage and intellect to swallow one’s own pride in front of a large gathering in the royal court and to express such adorable comment in favour of a famous sage Yājñavalkya, especially who was an arch rival in the said debate.

In the Vedic civilization of remote past womanhood was never looked down upon as inferior species but on the contrary was treated in the right light of manhood.

As bird flies in the sky depending on its two wings similarly strength of the society is ensured by the equal participation of men and women. This view is to be regarded as the notion of Vedic sages.

Footnotes and references:


Ṛgveda 1.117.7


Ṛgveda 5.28.1


Bṛhadāraṇyakaopaniṣad 3.6.1


Bṛhadāraṇyakaopaniṣad 5.4.17


Ṛgveda 2.17.7


Ṛgveda 10.27.12


Ṛgveda 10.85.45


Ṛgveda 1.72.5, 1.131.3, 5.3.2


Ta. Bṛ. 3.5.1, Śat. Br.


Aś. Śr. 1.11.1


Kātyāyanasūtra 5.10.7


Manusaṃhitā 2.67


Manusaṃhitā 1.32


Rama 6.128.62


Arthavaveda 11.5.18


Aś. Gṛ. 1.5.6


Aś. Gṛ. 1.19.8


Uttarrā. 2.3


Smṛt., Saṃskārakāṇda, Stṛīsaṃskāra


Gobhila Gṛhya Sūtra 2.1.19


Ṛgveda 8.31.5


Ṛgveda 10.102.11


Ṛgveda 1.179


Aś. Śr. 1.2


Bṛhadāraṇyakaopaniṣad 4.5.3


Bṛhadāraṇyakaopaniṣad 3.6.1


Bṛhadāraṇyakaopaniṣad 3.6.1


Bṛhadāraṇyakaopaniṣad 3.6.1


Bṛhadāraṇyakaopaniṣad 3.6.1


Bṛhadāraṇyakaopaniṣad 3.6.1


Bṛhadāraṇyakaopaniṣad 3.6.1


Bṛhadāraṇyakaopaniṣad 3.8.1


Bṛhadāraṇyakaopaniṣad 3.8.3


Bṛhadāraṇyakaopaniṣad 3.8.5


Bṛhadāraṇyakaopaniṣad 3.8.8


Bṛhadāraṇyakaopaniṣad 3.8.10

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