When the Aryans had just migrated to India and settled in the Sapt Sindh region, or Land of the Seven Rivers, it was primarily a patriarchal society that they established. This was the Rig Vedic Age with its emphasis on male dominated family structure and the early development of the caste system. However, even in an age when women were seldom seen in public places, let alone take part actively in public and political affairs, there were a few exceptions. Gargi, Maitreyi, Ghosa and Lopamudra were three brave women high learning in the Rig Vedic Age. Their lives are truly an inspiration in all discussions of women empowerment. The Vedas mentioned them as epitomes of knowledge and celebrated them as they were no less than any of their male counterparts.
The Rig Veda which translates as ‘Royal Knowledge’, includes long conversations between the sage Agasthya and his wife Lopamudra that stands as a testament to the great intelligence and verbal ability of the woman. As the legend goes, Lopamudra was ‘created’ by sage Agasthya and was donated as a daughter to the King of Vidarbha. She received the best possible education funded and provided by the royal couple and was brought up amidst luxury. Agasthya, the sage, even under the vows of celibacy and wilful poverty, wanted to own her as she reached marriable age. Lopa agreed to marry him, and left her palace for Agasthya’s hermitage. However, after being faithful to her husband for a long period, Lopa grew tired of his austere practices and his complete disregard for her physical and mental needs. She wrote a hymn of two stanzas making an emotional plea for his attention and love. Soon afterwards, the sage realized his duties towards his wife and performed in both his domestic and ascetic life with equal dedication, thus finding importance in both spiritual and physical existence. Their son was named Dridhasyu, who later became a great poet.
Vedic literature and philosophy is expressed through many hymns and songs and around 25 women were very popular singers. Among them, Ghosa was a very known figure. Granddaughter of Dirghatamas and daughter of Kakshivat Ghosha has two entire hymns of the tenth book, each containing 14 verses. Both her parents and grandparents were composers of hymns in praise of Ashwins, Ghosa’s hymns in the first book eulogize over the Ashwins, the heavenly twins who are also physicians. Her second book is a personal one expressing her intimate feelings and desires for a married life.Unfortunately, Ghosha suffered from an incurable disfiguring disease, probably leprosy, and remained unmarried at her father’s house. This fact brings to notice, the fact that women had no scope to live independently in that age. They passed from their father’s house to the husband’s house and the slightest “disability” made her ineligible for marriage. Later on, her implorations with the Ashwins, and the devotion of her forefathers towards them made them arrange for advanced medication to cure her disease and this allowed her to experience conjugal bliss.
Gargi, the Vedic prophetess and daughter of sage Vachaknu, composed several hymns that questioned the origin of all existence. He was thus another revered philosopher of the age. King Janak of Videha organized a ‘brahmayajna’- a philosophic congress which dealt with the fire sacrament. Gargi was one of the eminent participants at the sabha. She hurled a number of challenging and pertinent questions to the sage Yajnavalkya regarding the theories of the soul or ‘atman’. The questions were so well articulated and dealt with such profound intellectual logic that they baffled the learned man who had till then silenced many an eminent scholar.
Another important woman of the Rig Vedic Age was Maitri. The Rig Veda contains about one thousand hymns, of which about 10 are accredited to her. She was the woman seer and philosopher.Like Lopamudra, too, she contributed towards the intellectual and spiritual growth of her sage-husband Yajnavalkya and the his education towards ascetic enlightenment. Yajnavalkya had two wives Maitreyi and Katyayani, because polygamy was a known and much followed system. While Maitreyi was well versed in the Hindu scriptures and was a ‘brahmavadini’, Katyayani was just an ordinary woman. There is a tale that one day the sage decided to divide worldly possessions between his two wives and renounce the world by taking up ascetic vows.In other words he wanted to enter Vanprastha stage, the penultimate stage in the life of a good Brahmin, according to the Rig Veda, before Sannyas. He asked his wives to express their wishes. The learned Maitreyi asked her husband if all the wealth in the world would make her immortal. The sage replied that wealth could only make one rich in a mortal life, nothing else. She then asked for the mantra of immortality. Yajnavalkya was happy to hear this, and imparted to Maitreyi the doctrine of the soul and his knowledge of attaining immortality.
The stories of these women bring to mind the patriarchal order that was at work. Yes, they were exceptionally brilliant and talented, but all that was somehow used to complement or help their male counterparts. Nevertheless they must be remembered with great respect for their uniqueness, an for being such educated and famous women who stood out in their times.