Why bother with Sanskrit?
Did Indian women have equal education opportunity (according to Vedas)?
Since the early Vedic time, things seem to have got progressively worse for girls.
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Recently, a popular Twitter handle commented on the nature of education - "once upon a time in India" it was suggested that girls and boys received universal education in olden times.
When asked for the source, the handle cited a recent publication on education in 18th century India. The visuals in the tweets, however, referenced temples dating anywhere between the 10th century CE to the modern-day, making it difficult to assess which period was being referred to.
The backdrop to many such narratives is the impression that women were highly educated in the golden "Vedic" period. Was this true?
Rather than depend on secondary sources alone, I decided to look at key primary texts to ascertain what kind of education women received at different junctures in ancient India.
Undoubtedly, in the earliest layers of Vedic texts (circa 4,000 years ago) there are several references to women sages. There were women composers, venerable teachers, scholars capable of philosophical disputation. For this they would have had to be well educated.
Scholars like Mookerji and Altekar point out that to participate in Vedic sacrifice or chant Vedic mantras, they would have had to receive upanayana (initiation) and Vedic instruction. Stephanie Jamison confirms that wives were not just silent partners, but played an independent role in many sacrifices.
However, since the earliest texts were not concerned with sanskāras, we can only infer whether education during this (Samhitā-Upanishad) period was universal. In all honesty, we can neither confirm nor deny whether girls were universally encouraged or discouraged from studying. We can say with certainty they were not prohibited.
The next juncture is the sūtras period circa 2,600 years ago. These (dharma, grhya) being normative by nature, there is plenty of evidence to examine. The ceremonies (relating to education) were described in minute detail with reference to dvija (twice-born) males only.
From initiation to the ritual bath and "his" return home (samāvartana), all instructions are in the masculine (eg Saṅkhāyana gṛhya sūtra Adhyāya II and Adhyāya III, Khanda 1).
Venerable Brāhmins on Twitter tell me – "he means he and she" in many other matters. Alas, regarding study in the sūtras and śāstras "he" meant male only, of this they are quite clear. Evidently by the time of the sūtras, Vedic education was restricted to males of the three upper varnas officially.
Teachers too were invariably male. I have not come across a single example of a woman teacher for Vedic instruction. Yet, I take comfort in the fact that nowhere in the sūtras is the education of girls explicitly prohibited.
By the time we reach the dharmaśāstra of Manu (circa 2,000 years ago) things are not looking too good for women from the normative point of view. Although he does not explicitly prohibit girls from being educated, he creates circumstances such that it is practically impossible for girls to study.The backdrop to many such narratives is the impression that women were highly educated in the golden "Vedic" period. (Photo credit: India Today)
Brāhmin boys begin their studies in their 8th year,ksatriya boys in their 11th and vaisya boys in the 12th year after conception (Manu 2.36). In the case of girls, the marriage ceremony equals the rite of Vedic consecration (Manu 2.67). Girls (barring a few exceptions) must be married as soon as they reach puberty. A father who does not marry off his daughter at the right time is reprehensible (Manu 9.4).
In fact, Manu (9.94) says the girl to be married can be pre-pubescent (eight years old). What chance then of an educational opportunity equal to men? Having said that, I have yet to read a verse in Manu which actually prohibits women from Vedic education.
In fact, Manu 2.66 could well be interpreted to mean that all the consecration ceremonies prescribed for boys are to be done for girls, including upanayana. After all, Rāma’s mother Kausalya is seen performing a Vedic sacrifice on the morning of his proposed abhiśeka (R 2.20.15).
And the legend of Kālidāsa tells of his wife who was a highly educated Sanskrit speaking princess. There are ample examples not just from Kāvya, but also the epics and purānas of such women (circa 400 CE-1,100 CE) (Please see Chatterjee, M. for details).
A lot of the confusion and ambiguity hinges on what "education" means. Vedic education, except for the earliest times? No. Not even today. Were girls in ancient India educated - as in literate, accomplished?
Following Altekar and Chatterjee, the answer is most certainly "yes". Women from privileged families, princesses, courtesans and daughters of rich merchants were literate, accomplished. They were conversant with music, art, dancing and literature.
Concrete examples of literacy can be seen from Kālidāsa’s plays and poetic compositions. In Abhijñanaśākuntalam, Priyamvadā and Śakuntalā are able to read the king’s name engraved on his ring.
Śakuntalā in Abhijñanaśākuntalam and Urvaśī in Vikramorvaśīyam write love letters. However, where women had a voice (nātakas), a clear hierarchy was maintained. Only people of the noble class (eg the hero) spoke Sanskrit.
Following the rules of Bharata’s Nātyaśāstra, women (queens, harlots, heroines and their friends) spoke Śaurasenī. Even the Vedic Ahalyā is made to speak Prakrt in the 11th century Kathāsaritsāgara. Whether girls (or boys) from less well-off families studied, we have no evidence.
Naturally a more accurate picture requires deep and sustained study of primary sources. Some trends, though, are clear to observe. Even in the earliest times, judging by the ratio of male to female sages, it was not common for women to be educated "universally".
Those who talk of rsikās would do well to note that the word is not to be found in the ancient texts, and was used for the first time in Ārya-vidyā-sudhākara (circa 19th century). Since the early Vedic time, things seem to have got progressively worse for girls.
As recently as the 19th century, Manu’s stipulation that girls be married at or before puberty seems to have been very much in vogue. The British tried to raise the age of consent for girls from 10 to 12 years (1891).
Reformers like GK Gokhale were in favour. Bal GangadharTilak objected vociferously. In fact, Tilak and Gokhale had a major falling out over this initiative. Politics aside, the implication was clear - girls at that time could be legally married at 10. Coming back to the topic, what chance of equal opportunity of education if you’re married at 10 or 12?
All it takes to buck this trend is the drive and determination of one single learned Brāhmin. Swami Dayanand Saraswati is a prime example. In his Ārya Samāj, theory and practice of equal opportunity education for girls and boys became a reality in DAV schools and colleges all over Punjab. Did that include Vedic study? That is another article.
I do not believe in judging the past by modern standards. Nor comparing the Hindu past/present to another culture, religion or country. All I wish to convey is the importance of learning Sanskrit and developing the ability to assess primary sources.
Oversimplifying complex socio-cultural issues is to do them a disservice. So is trusting secondary sources - including this article! An online Hindu website quoting Roopa Kumud Mookerji quoting Vājasaneyīsamhita (26.2) said women were allowed to study in ancient times.
Since I did not have her book to hand, I went to the primary source and found it said nothing of the sort. We are all free to believe what we wish to. But if we are going to base our beliefs on ancient texts, doesn’t it behoove us to learn Sanskrit and read those texts ourselves?
Altekar, AS Education in Ancient India, 1934
Bhate, S, the language of Sanskrit Drama
Chatterjee, M, Education in Ancient India, D.K. Print World, New Delhi, 1999
Lanman, CR, A Sanskrit Reader, Kathasartisagara extract, pg 49, 2010 reprint, Motilal Banarasidass
Oldenberg, H trans. Grihya sutras
Olivelle, P, Manu's law code: Critical Edition and Translation, OUP
Scharfe, H., Education in Ancient India, Brill 2002