Author: Shivasankar Rao
Jan 31st 2018
Woman and Rituals in the culture of Sanatana Dharma
In household religious ceremonies even today, it is not uncommon to see women take the lead role in organizing the entire function. There is no domestic ritual in which women cannot participate, whereas there are several popular Hindu rituals where the presence of men is either debarred, or is not desirable. The sacred rituals are said to bear the
desired fruit only if men and women perform it as a pair.
The intimate connection of women with Vedic rituals is seen from the fact that several sacred mantras from the Vedas are specifically meant for recitation by women, as is clarified by Shrautasutras– manuals of Vedic rites. Since the wife is indeed the pivot of the house, she was entitled to perform the sandhyaa, or the morning and evening rituals with the sacred altar and Vedic texts.
In the Ramayana, Queen Kausalya performs the daily fire sacrifice (agnihotra) with Vedic mantras as do Tara and Sita, etc. In the Mahabharata also, ladies such as Savitri and Amba likewise perform Vedic rituals with the recitation of Vedic texts. Some Vedic texts actually cite women as authorities on minutiae of Vedic rituals.
Although performing Vedic rituals in later times was not allowed, their right to do so in ancient times is quite well established from the extant ancient Hindu literature. In fact, a lost Vedic text named Saulabha Brahmana is attributed to Sulabha, a woman.
Although no sacred-thread ceremony has been performed for women in the middle ages, ancient texts affirm that women did undergo this ceremony in the past, or wore the sacred thread during various rituals. For instance, a text says that the bride should wear the sacred thread during her wedding. The Harita Dharmasutra, perhaps belonging to Maitrayaniya school of Yajurveda, has been cited in several texts such
as Hindu law manuals such as Nirnayasindhu to the effect that women are of two types – Brahmavaadini (devoted to the Vedas and to the Supreme Being) and Sadhyovadhu
(those who marry and settle down as housewives). Concerning the former, the Dharmasutra says that they undergo the thread ceremony, perform agnihotra, study the Vedas, and live by begging alms from their family members (just as male students, although boys have to leave home to live with their teachers). Later texts also cite the opinion of Yama to the effect that in ancient times, women also
underwent the thread ceremony, studied the Vedas and recited the Gayatri and other Vedic mantras. However, these later texts somehow try to explain these old traditions away because they were perceived as anachronistic in later times. Hindu texts are unanimous in declaring that God does not differentiate between men and women.
From a Dharmic perspective, adherence to Dharma alone decides who is great and who is lowly. In the Hindu philosophy of Bhakti, or devotion to God, the cowherd women (gopi-s) who resided in the region of Braj in northern India are held as exemplars for all mankind.
In traditional enumerations of pious people who were saved by the salvific power of God, both men and women are listed without prejudice. Both men and women are said to be God’s manifestations in several verses. In these verses, we often see that the Sanskrit word for women is given graceful precedence over the word for men.