Even for the most committed, the Dharma for women, as outlined in the scriptures, presents an ambiguous picture at best. However, this need not be the case. A thorough review of the scriptures reveals very simple and useful answers to all our queries on how a woman should live according to Dharma.
Query: I am a housewife. What is my Dharma?
Reply: The Dharma of a woman is very different from that of the man. This is due to the differences in physiology and the psychology between them. The difference in the physiology is obvious. But, that which in psychology – well known since immemorial times in our society – is gradually getting known to modern science through the researches on the left and right parts of the brain. Generally, the woman is more emotional than man, though there may be some exceptions. She can sacrifice anything for being loved. During pregnancy, she checks the temptation for anything if she is told that it affects the foetus. The amount of hardship she undergoes to bring up the child, that too with pleasure, is astounding. It is because of this inherent nature of sacrifice that nursing profession has been women’s’ monopoly. That is why, at least in the Indian society, people remember their mothers whenever they are in great pain. Even an old person on deathbed calls for the mother who might have died several decades earlier.
There are families that have thrived even after the death of the young father; but it happens rarely if the young mother is dead. This shows the extraordinary role played by the mother in our society. Keeping up this traditionally high position of yours in the family is your Dharma. Tread the path of Kunti (mother of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata) while bringing up your children. Educate them; Inspire them to achieve their maximum befitting our Vedic tradition. Do not keep frivolous goals before them. Love and respect your husband. Do not be too free with his friends. Never hold conversations with them in private. Feed the guests properly. Make their stay pleasant while they are in your house. When the husband returns home in the evening after doing hard work, enliven him by every convenience. Feed him well. Give him suggestions in his various activities but do not compel him to accept. Remember, you are the face of the household; therefore, no one in the family should see you with a slovenly face or clad dirtily. While walking in the roads walk gently, do not stare at anyone and do not show off your body parts. You will rise to very high spiritual levels – says the Veda.
Query: What about specific religious activities? Doesn’t a woman need to perform them for spiritual progress?
Reply: You should do Japa, Stotra and Puja of your chosen deity (Ishta Devata). But remember that the story of Satyavan and Savitri in the Mahabharata teaches us that we need the elder’s consent for keeping a fast (Upavasa).Whenever a fast is kept, it should not be so severe as to affect our normal duties. You should never keep a fast if you are sick or pregnant. You can carry on with your Japa and Stotra even while you are attending to your daily chores. Indeed, taking care of all the members of the family is the prime spiritual activity for you. That is your Tapas. Remember that you are at the root of the future of the family.
Question: Can a woman learn the Veda and chant it?
Answer: Vedic Karma is of three types: Kamya, which is done for the fulfilment of certain desires. This is done at any convenient time; Naimitiika, which should be done for specific reasons – during an eclipse, Shraddha (offerings to ancestors at a particular time of a year) etc , as specified in the scriptures. Obviously, these are mandatory at the specific times. Finally, activities like chanting the Veda fall under the category of Nitya Karma (essential acts which must be performed daily). Obviously, a woman cannot do it because she has her monthly periods and also pre-natal and post-natal compulsions. Indeed, she will be very busy looking after the children till they attain an age of 5 or 6 years. So, the scriptures prescribes to her only postponable rituals and not the mandatory Karma.
Doubt: Then what was the role of women like Gargi, Maitreyi, Gayatri etc, whose names appear in the Veda?
Resolution: These women and many more – about 20 – mentioned in the Veda, are all concerned with Jnana and not Karma; and women are certainly entitled for Jnana. Your previous query was regarding the chanting of Vedas, which is a part of Karma. Gayatri is the presiding Devata of the chandas (meter) known by that name and not a human being. In fact, in the whole of our literature there are many Jnanis, but we do not find any woman who performed Karma. That is why great sages like Veda Vyasa, Yajnavalkya, etc, have all specifically advised women not to bother about Vedic karma. Of course, men have to Kamya Karma only along with their wives; that is why widowers are prohibited from doing it.
Query: In our tradition why are there restrictions on women during their monthly periods?
Reply: You should know that these restrictions are prevalent even today in all civilized societies in the world. Jews, Arabs and many others follow them. The reason is quite obvious; to keep away from diseases. Medical science tells us that diseases like hepatitis etc are communicated not only through physical union, but even through injection needles. Therefore, they are using disposable needles nowadays. How much more risky should it be if a woman during her periods comes in direct contact with a person afflicted with the disease! There has been a steady increase in the number of hepatitis cases in India, the majority of whom are women. What could be the reason for this rapid spread? Remember that a woman’s monthly periods are most fertile for all communicable diseases to effect her. In the United States it has been noticed that in offices often many women get their periods simultaneously. This means that even normally it is contagious.
Although the situation is very grave, there is a widespread propaganda that it is a trifle. Unfortunately, common people are easy victims of propaganda. About sixty years ago baby food manufactures derided breast-feeding and gave colourful publicity to their products. Women stopped breast-feeding their babies believing the propaganda. The consequences were awful and now they have reverted to ‘breast milk is the best milk’. It does not behove an intelligent person to discover something which even a monkey knows. So, the choice is ours – will we believe the publicity generated by a selfish media, or listen to our ancient selfless Rishis?
Question: Can women have education like men?
Reply: Certainly. But generally their inclination is more towards arts. All through in our tradition women have been pursuing education. It is only during the British occupation that this tradition has been hindered. The extreme poverty created artificially by them ruined the grand educational system in India. It was indeed very superior to that in Britain even till the 18th century. Fortunately, the situation has substantially improved now.
Concluding Story: This is an anecdote from the life of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the great Indian leader. Once, all the women folk in his house were busy doing the Gauri Puja (worship of mother goddess Parvati), and Tilak Ji was sitting outside in the verandah. His daughter in law came to him dragging her four year old son. Handing him over she said to Tilak: ‘Father, he is disturbing everybody very much and not allowing to perform the Puja. Please hold him till the Puja is over’ and left. Tilak kept the struggling chap fixed firmly between his thighs and the following conversation took place between the two:
Tilak: Gauri Puja is only for women and you are a boy. Why do you want to go there?
Child: Why do women perform this Puja?
Tilak: They pray to receive a good husband in each of their births.
Child: Then I too will pray for a good wife in each birth.
Tilak: Son, a man need not pray for a good wife in our culture. In this society, the chances of your receiving a good wife are already very high. But getting a good husband, that definitely requires divine intervention.
Indeed, Dharma is protected at the grass roots by women only. Glory be to the Indian woman!
This article is based almost entirely on the teachings of Param Pujya Swami Paramanand Bharati Ji. However, any errors are entirely the author's own.
References & Further Reading:
- Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Foundations of Dharma: Bangalore, 2008.