This volume brings forth an in-depth study of Rgveda from the sociocultural perspective, analyzing the various aspects of hymns ascribed to the women seers of the “root Veda”. Though modern scholars from the East and the West have made many an attempt in interpreting the hymns of the Rgvedic poetesses, those lacked a thorough study from the sociocultural perspective.
While providing detailed accounts of the women seers of Rgveda, this volume discusses the traditional expositions vis-à-vis the modern interpretations of those accounts. It minutely explains the sociocultural aspects of the select texts, thus exposing the world-view of those women seers. Their personal traits and compositions on the basis of the mythological data available in the Vedic and subsequent literatures enrich the volume further.
Apart from the liturgical peculiarities and literary analysis of the hymns of the women seers, and the languages and stylistics of the texts from a linguistic point of view, the book deals with a study of the sentence patterns which, normally lacks in Sanskrit research works.
Mau Das Gupta was awarded the prestigious Eashan Scholarship and the University gold medal along with many other prizes for her outstanding results in graduate and post-graduate examinations of the University of Calcutta. She did her PhD at Jadavpur University. She is an Associate Professor of Sanskrit in the University of Calcutta and was head, Department of Sanskrit till January 2016.
A Vedic scholar, Das Gupta has interests in various fields of literature. A poetess herself, she is also known for writing serious articles on various issues concerning Sanskrit and Bengali literature. She is a Sahitya Akademi Awardee (2015) for her translation of Hazari Prasad Dwivedi’s Anamdas Ka Potha (2012) into Bengali. In 2015, Ramkrishna Mission Institute of Culture published her Gitar dvitiya adhyay (mul saha kabitay).
Though scholars have devoted their time and energy to the study of a literary appreciation of Rgvea and have authored many books and articles, the colourful mind of the women seers of the age, vibrant with all its will and woe, sorrows and happiness, hopes, despair and aspirations, reverberating in the hymns ascribed to them, has largely remained unexplored in the male-dominated society. In my limited capacity I have made a humble attempt to fill a very small part of this vital gap, by concentrating on the sociocultural conditions reflected in the writings of the Rgvedic rsikas, a study of which must be deemed a desideratum.
My work on this book was started in 1993 when I joined the Jadavpur University for a PhD degree as a University Grants Commissions (UGC) awardee of the Junior Research Fellowship of the Government of West Bengal. I worked there till I joined my service in Eebruary 1997. After a gap of about five years, when my time was mostly consumed by my service in West Bengal Education Services at the Lady Brabourne College, Calcutta and When I was passing through one of the critical period in my personal life, the second phase of my research in this direction began in mid-2002 when I came in touch with Abhijit Ghosh, MA, PhD, a teacher of Sanskrit in Jadavpur University . Eventually I was registered in the same year as a PhD research scholar there in the Faculty of Arts, to work with him. In 2005 the UGC sanctioned for this research a grant meant for the Minor Research Projects (MRP), for which I am very grateful. This also acted as an obligatory force for me to finish the marathon started in 1993. The findings of the project were submitted to the UGC as the final report of the MRP in 2007.
In course of my research, besides consulting original Sanskrit texts, I tried to go through a vast amount of secondary literature as well, in English, Bengali, Hindi, German, French and Marathi, sometimes with the assistance of my supervisor. I now humbly present before the scholarly world this book which embodies the fruits of my labour for the past several years, done in conditions not always favourable for academic studies.
My learned guide Dr Abhijit Ghosh supervised the work patiently and astutely over a long period of time, always generously giving me valuable information and invaluable suggestions. I have met a few persons who are characterized by such impressive meticulousness, industriousness and trustworthiness in their dealings with their students. Anyone who knows about the research conditions in India, where one would be happy to have even a fraction of the resources and assistance which are regarded as a matter of course in Western Europe and America, cannot but be amazed at the thoroughness with which my supervisor lovingly guided the young generation working with him, sparing no pains to procure for them even the most obscure sources from various corners of the world by means of often incredible labour and resourcefulness: he has been simply in an altogether different league. It is a great loss for the Sanskrit scholarly world that a sudden and untimely death took him away from us in 2013.
My father Dipankar Das Gupta, who was a linguist of the Anthropological Survey of India, has been the inspiration behind all my academic efforts. So far as this dissertation in concened, he suggested the lay-out of the study of the higher constituents in sentences of the select texts in my dissertation. I have been fortunate that he could see me earning my PhD in 2008 just a year before he passed away.
Mr Debasis Majumdar, an electrical engineer and my relative, lent me a helping hand in preparing the charts and graphs in Chapter 7 of the thesis. Dr Shilpa Sumant of the Tilak Maharashtra University of Pune took the trouble of copying materials from her university library and sending them to me. Grateful thanks are due to all of them for their kind assistance, as also to the staff of the Kolkata libraries I used, including those of all the Gol Park Ramkrishna Mission Institute of Culture, the Asiatic Society, the Lady Brabourne College, and the Central and the Sanskrit Department’s libraries of the Jadavpur University.
I am grateful to my present employers at University of Calcutta in supporting me in every way to publish my thesis. Prof. Suranjan Das, the former Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, took no time to sanction a financial grant from the UGC XIIth plan for the publication of this book. My heartfelt gratitudes are due to D.K. Printworld for their wonderful endeavor to publish the book with a perfectionist’s attitude. I feel personally indebted to Mr Susheel Kumar Mittal to have encouraged me to update the work with latest research information and to have borne with patience the long time I took for going through the proofs. My affectionate thanks are due to Nandit Desai, for designing the cover of this book, which projects the strength and trust of an archetypal Indian woman.
In both the lists, as given by Brhaddevata (2.82-84) and Arsanukramani (10.100-02), one comes across names of no less than 27 women seers from Rgveda, who are authors of hymns: Ghosa, Godha, Visvara, Apala, Upanisad and Nisad, Brahmajaya Juhu, Agastya’s sister, Aditi, Indrani, Indra-matrs, Sarama, Romasa, Urvasi, Lopamudra, the rivers, Yami, a wife named Sasvati, Sri, Laksa, Sarparajni, Vac, Sraddha, Medha, Daksina, Ratri and Surya Savitri. Of these female seers some are doubtlessly mythical characters, some are non-human objects while again some are celestial beings . For instance, Surya Savitri, Sarama and Yami are, according to schoolars, of mythological provenance, whereas Nadi, Daksina, Medha, Ratri, Sraddha and Vac are considered either to be non-human objects or personified abstract ideas. Similarly, Urvasi, Aditi, Indramatr and Indrani of Rgveda X.86 are celestial beings. Apart from them, one finds only a few poetesses who can be considered to be women in flesh and blood; they are Romasa, Lopamudra, Visvavara, Apala, the sister of Agastya, the wife named Sasvati, Ghosa, Godha and to some extent Yami of X.10 and Indrani of X.145, 159. In addition to the lists given in Brhaddevata 2.82-84 and Arsanukramani 10.100-02, some more female seers are found in Rgveda; one is the wife of Vasukra and the seer of X.28.1. Sikata and Nivavari, too, are two women seers to whom RV IX.86.11-20 have been ascribed. An account of the female seers and the hymns or verses composed by them in the order of the latter’s occurrence in the Samhita text, is the subject of the present study.
Romasa and Lopamudra are only to be met in the first book of Rgveda. According to tradition, Romasa is the seer of I.126.7. The Brhaddevata alludes her to be the wife of king Svanaya Bhavayavya (III.155), who has been praised more than once in Rgveda for his bounteous nature. The entire hymns I.126 itself is a praise for gifts, addressing King Svanaya, the last two stanzas of which are a dialogue of the royal couple, but these two stanzas seem to have no apparent connection with what precedes. They rather actually comprise a bedroom conversation between a man and a woman, than a dialogue of the royal couple as mentioned in Brhaddevata. The internal evidence of these two stanzas does not agree with what Brhaddevata says. Griffith (1896-97;652) suggests that here the seventh stanza of the hymns should have preceded the sixth, because the seventh stanza reveals the speaker’s unfamiliarity with each other, which is why the women has to highlight her youth to the man in order to lure him, and what the man says undoubtedly presupposes their first meeting. He eventually comes to the conclusion that “these two look like a fragment of a liberal shepherd’s love song”.
Jamison and Brereton (2014: I.291) hold that this hymn is a single composition of Kaksivant who, prasing the gifts of Svanaya who gave him ten maidens along with other gifts, gives a briefs literary description of the sexual encounter he had with one of the girls he received from the king. The final verse of this hymns contains “the ostensible crudely seductive speech of the woman herself”.
Disputes prevail over the actual name of the poetess of I.126.7, since nowhere in the verse has the term “Romasa”been used as a proper noun. The speaker (a woman) in the verse says, “I am hairy all over the body” (sarvaham asmi romasa). Traditional commentators take the adjective romasa to be the name of the seer. But some modern Indian interpreters are reluctant to accept this hymn in its face value, and think that the word does not at all refer to a woman but has been used to mean “(a land) covered with grass” (Sarasvati and Vidyalankar 1977:3.5651).
The next female seer of the first book of Rgveda is Lopamudra. Rgveda I.179 is a dialogue hymn, the first four stanzas of which are ascribed to the ascetic couple Lopamudra and Agastya. The first two stanzas are attributed to Lopamudra where she seeks her husband’s communion in order to make their marriage a success. This hymn carries the fragment of an ancient story which is fortunately not completely lost but can be restored from citations in later literature. After she has practiced penance for a long time, Lopamudra approaches her husband with the plea that since her youth is on the wane, if not almost worn off, it is high time that the husband should now approach the wife. To persuade her ascetic husband should now approach the wife. To persuade her ascetic husband toward the mundane conjugal life, Lopamudra cites examples from the past and appreciates those ascetics who could make a proper balance between their asceticism and married life. She is answered by her husband, but a disciple of the sage overhears their secret conversation and consequently observes an expiatory ritual for his sin, as can be gathered from the final couple of stanzas.
The authorship of Rgveda I.179.1-2 is not much questioned. Indian tradition and modern scholarship of the East and the West almost unanimously agree on this point. Both sayana and his predecessor Venkartamadhava follow the footsteps of Brhaddevata and Sarvanukramani, and hold Lopamudra to be the seer of the first two stanza of Rgveda I.179. But Durga on Nirukta 5.1.3 ascribes in addition the fourth stanza beginning with nadasya ma rudhatam to Lopamudra. Incidentally, Griffith thinks the fifth stanza of this hymns is rather superfluous in character, but this does not affect the text in question.
Bergaige (1878-83:2.394) observes that the present hymns has a mystic meaning. Agastya is identifiable with the celestial Soma while Lopamudra represents fervent prayer, who after long efforts succeeds in drawing Soma down from his secret dwelling place.
In the third book of Rgveda the thirty-third hymn is ascribed to the rivers, who according to Brhaddevata and Arsanukramani come under the list of the female seers. A detailed discussion of this hymn is not necessary as it has been stated earlier that being non-human objects the rivers named Vipas and Sutudri are hardly relevant to any socio-cultural study. Still, in this hymn which is a conversation between the Sage Visvamitra and the aforesaid rivers, is found a very typical feminine mannerism in the speech of the rivers, e.g.
ni the namsai pipyaneva yosa maryayeva kanya sasvacai te
Griffith suggests that this hymn is of some historical value as it contains a relic of the traditions of the Aryans regarding their eastward progress in the land of Five Rivers.
Aditi is the sole female seer to be met in the fourth book of Rgveda. Rgveda IV.I8 is a dialogue hymn, the speakers being Indra, Aditi and Vamadeva. Here again Aditi cannot be regarded as a mundane woman but a celestial being - the mother of the gods. Aditi holds a very exalted position in the Vedic religion, and is considered to be the primary source of all divine beings. Nirukta 4.22 says: aditir adina deva-mata, where adina has been paraphrased by Sayana as akhandaniya, i.e. "unimpaired". While introducing this hymn,
Sayana narrates a legend from Sadgurusisya’s Sarvanukramani- Bhasya which may be summarized as follows:
Having attained knowledge already during his gestation period, the great Sage Vamadeva decided not to be born in the usual way, but to come into the world through his mother's side. Coming to know of his intention, his mother prayed for the help of Goddess Aditi, the mother of Indra, whereat Aditi with her son came to her and had a talk with Vamadeva to dissuade him from his fatal intention.
Sarvanukramani, however, does not make specific attribution of the stanzas of this hymn to individual speakers. Sarvanukramani- Bhasya has tried to do this though apparently without much success.
Griffith considers this hymn to be made up of somewhat incoherent fragments. Following Sarvanukramani-Bhasya, Sayana and Venkatamadhava have ascribed only seven hemistichs of this hymn to Aditi, wherein she admits that after she had given birth to Indra, she left her child at a secret place as if to hush up a sin, even as Indra by his own valour rose up from there to become a hero unparalleled in heaven and earth. Aditi goes on to glorify her son's exploits, and narrates further how in spite of every hindrance he succeeded in slaying his enemies and achieved the highest position in both the worlds. The desertion of the child Indra by Aditi has been mentioned no less than thrice in this hymn - viz. in the fifth, eighth and tenth stanzas. A glimpse of the social position of women at the age of Rgveda is contained in the utterance of Aditi: avadyam iva manyamana guhakar indram mata (RVIV.18.5). It suggests that the birth of a child in some cases was considered to be avadya (of reproach) even by its mother.
The next woman seer of Rgveda is Visvavara of the family of Atri, who authored V.28. She is indeed a woman of this earth and has no definite legendary background, and hence her hymn occupies a very important place among the works of such female seers. Brhaddevatatells not much about this hymn and its seers, and only mentions that the Atris, having dispelled the eclipse of the sun decreed by Svarbhanu, praised Agni with twenty-seven hymns, viz. Rgveda V.1-28 (V.12). Macdonell (1904: 2.169 fn.) rightly points out that this number "twenty-seven" includes the twenty-eighth hymn of the fifth book of Rgveda as well, because the Apri hymn, no. V.5, has to be left out of account, and thus the series of twenty-seven hymns covers the hymn of Visvavara as well.
Jamison and Brereton (op. cit. 11.689) do not consider Visvavara a female poet since her name is extracted from visvavara "bringing all desirable things" in vs.l. which describes the sacrificial ladle. The hymn, they contend, is a compilation of samidheni verses from the Atri tradition brought together to accompany the kindling of fire.
Venkatamadhava in his commentary on Rgveda has related another myth to the above poetess. "The sun having disappeared", says he, 'Atri gave birth to the Dawn (Usas), whence Atreyi Usa (the Dawn born of Atri) was called Visvavara." The nomenclature Visvavara in the first stanza of this hymn is explained by Sayana as "she who repels all the enemies of the nature of sin" (visvavara sarvam api papa-rupam satrum [sic] varayitri). Griffith, too, hesitates to accept Visvavara as the author of the hymn, and comments: "[T]his hymn is ascribed to a supposed Visvavara, a lady of the family of Atri" (emphasis added). In passing, it may be mentioned that Dayananda (Sarasvati and Vidyalankar 1977: 1.219-20) interprets Visvavara of V.28.l as "the lady who chooses or selects the whole universe" (ya visvam vrnoti sa), and too boldly asserts that "she refers to cosmic light, or one who brings the entire creation into appearance".
The hymn of Visvavara consists of six stanzas, in which the poetess exalts the glory of Fire and prays to him for marital happiness and security in life. In comparison with the other hymns of female seers, the present hymn has some liturgical value as well.
The exact meaning of the controversial expression jaspatyam at V.28.3 has been hotly debated by scholars. Of the indigenous scholars, Sayana takes it to denote "the duties of husband and wife", while his predecessor Venkatamadhava considers the term to mean "the married couple". Griffith, almost after Venkatamadhava, prefers to translate it by "the household lordship", while Geldner 1951: 2.24, rather following Sayana, renders it by "Haushaltung", Whatever its exact meaning might be, the word evidently connotes "a married couple" and in this stanza the authoress yarns from her household deity Agni after a well-balanced marital partnership. A more significant, nay wonderful, aspect as regards a woman's rights in that age can be detected in the hymn that refers to the poetess herself offering oblation to the fire with a sacrificial ladle. This hymn perhaps offers evidence that in ancient Rgvedic society a woman, just as a man, could herself pay homage to God uttering the (same) mantras.
Brahma Sutras (81)
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