Swamini Niranjanananda, Resident Acharya, Chinmaya Mission International Foundation
“We have to go back to the state of the Vedic Age, where women were considered as a person and not a chattel of men.” —Sw. Niranjanananda
“Reinstating Women’s Roles in Religion”
“om brahmanandam paramasukhadam
ekam-nityam vimalam achalam sarvadhi saksi bhutam
sadgurum tam namaami
sadgurum tam namaami”
“yaa devi sarva bhuuteshu daya rupena samsthitaa
namastasyai namastasyai namastasyai namo namaha”
“At the outset, I want to express my happiness and gratitude in being part of this mega event of the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of Her Holiness Mata Amritanandamayi Devi. That I am called upon to talk on the Indian ideal of womanhood, the role of women in religion through the ages, adds to my happiness, as it is a theme very dear to my heart.
“Ancient Indians considered the human being as a combination of both the masculine and feminine principles. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, it is said that in the beginning there was only the Cosmic Being, who was something like a neutral point where the ultimate principles of the male and the female lay united, as it were. This unified being divided himself into two—as the male and female, or the ying and yang, as the Chinese tradition would say it. They are complimentary to each other and, hence, must reach the ultimate goal of life, not by competing with each other, not by imitating each other, but by complimenting the qualities of each other.
“In a society where male dominance is predominate, the womanly qualities of love, kindness, tenderness, unselfishness and forgiveness are overlooked. Man’s qualities are basically that of the head, while that of the woman spring from the heart. An ideal society is one where men also have lot of feminine qualities, and where women are partners both in the secular and sacred lives of their men. Manu, the great lawmaker, declared:
“yatra naaryas tu pujyante ramante tatra devataah”
“‘Where women are worshiped, there God lives,’ says Manu.
“In Saundarya Lahari, Adi Shankara also gives expression to same view that without the shakti power, the gods are unable to perform any of their functions. That is why probably all the Hindu gods have wives—not one, sometimes two. That is only a symbolism, not that they have to be married and all that. The idea is that without the power of maya-shakti, even Paramatman [Supreme Self] cannot function in this world. Just as without an equipment, even electricity can not give us all the comforts that we are enjoying today, similarly, shakti is very important for the manifestation of the Lord. Hence, woman’s power is really immeasurable.
“Though, nowadays, she is misused and ill-treated, still Amma has taught us now that woman is the heart behind this universe. The first book of humanity is considered to be the Rig-Veda. We get a glimpse of the power and influence of the woman and her spiritual greatness in the scintillating hymns of this great human document. The most important thing is, 27 of the hymns of the Rig-Veda were written by women. And, today, women are not supposed to read the Vedas, but women had written the Vedas in those ancient times.
“The spirit,” says an authority of repute, “of the religion in India, intuitive, brooding, waiting has much of the feminine in it.” The Rig-Veda presents the picture of a woman as an equal of man in both secular and spiritual spheres. No difference was made between a boy and a girl, as was done in later periods. Both of them were sent to Gurukulam [education through Guru; literally “Guru’s family”] for education and both were invested with the sacred thread before the starting of the studies.
“Child marriage was unknown during the Vedic period as every child had to finish his or her studies. Marriage was a sacrament and not something that can be broken at will. Two mature and educated individuals entering the state of marriage is beautifully explained in the hymns. The bride enters the house of her husband to be its queen, Griha Lakshmi and the Sahadharmacharini, to be the partner in the performance of Vedic rituals of her husband. She was also well versed in the Vedic lore and hence could conduct the sacrifices of fire. In the absence of her husband, she could even conduct all the rituals. Motherhood was glorified and a hymn blesses the new bride in the touching words: ‘May you give birth to 10 children and grow to the position of looking upon your husband as the 11th.’ In other words, by the time you have reached such a stage that your husband becomes so dependent on you that he looks upon you as his mother, which happens very often in our houses.
“The Rig Vedic expression ‘jaiyedastham,’ ‘the wife is the home,’ shows the domestic life and sentiment centred around the women. The Vedic woman enjoyed great freedom, even the freedom of choosing her own husband. In the pursuit of knowledge and virtue, in music and arts, in the performance of rituals, in the composition of hymns—nay, even in the harder fields of war and statecraft, we find the Vedic woman as a companion and helpmate of man. Friends, it is this state of women that we have to bring back because in the middle, women’s position all over the world have deteriorated to such an extent that she has become either a plaything of men or, even, though we say she is free, free for what is the question. Is it not? So we have to go back to the state of the Vedic Age, where women were considered as a person and not a chattel of men.
“In the Vedic period, there were many woman who chose to remain unmarried—though marriage was no impediment for spiritual pursuit—and devoted themselves to the pursuit of Truth just like their male counterparts. They were known as Brahmavaadinis, or woman seers. Gargi Vachaknavi, Apala and Maitreyi are some of the well-known Sages of these years. They were also many woman scholars of even very difficult subjects like grammar and mimaamsa, who themselves were teachers of great repute. There were also many woman ascetics who attained the perfection and reached the Absolute. In the later periods of Indian history, the position of woman deteriorated due to various reasons like exposure to other cultures who always held the view that women were inferior to men. But Upanishadic thought viewed woman exactly as it viewed man, as a person with a destiny. The search for this destiny makes her a pilgrim in search of worldly excellence and spiritual realization.
“In all ages of our history, we meet such noble characters as Kunti, Draupadi, Savithri, Sita, Damayanti, Ubhaya Bharathi, Mira and, in later times, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’s wife, Sarada Mani Devi—only India can produce a Sarada Mani Devi or an Amritanandamayi Devi. That is the truth.
“While the Semitic cultures considered Godhead as father, we in India from time immemorial, even before prehistoric times, God was worshipped as Mother. In the Mohenjodaro Civilization, we see the idol of Mother Goddess, which, more or less, continued through these thousands of years until now. Probably, now India is the only country in the world where God is worshipped as Mother.
“In the Taittiriya Upanishad it is said: matr-devo bhavaa pitr-devo bhavaa aacharya-devo bhavaa atithi-devo bhavaa.[‘May the mother be God to thee, may father be God to you, may the teacher be God to you, may the guest be God to you.’] So, the Mother comes first in the Upanishad.
“There is another verse from Manu, which I like to quote:
aacaryaanaam shatam pitaa
sahasram tu pitrn
“‘From the point of view of reverence due, a teacher is 10-fold superior to a mere lecture. A father, a 100-fold to a teacher. And a mother, a 1,000-fold to a father.’
“That is the statues given to women in this country.
“Motherhood is the highest relationship, for the love of the Mother has no selfishness in it. She is ready to sacrifice, she is an embodiment of sacrifice, unselfishness, and she will do anything for the welfare of her children. It is possible that there are bad sons, but never a bad mother. Our Upanishads say that, ‘Mother should be the first in your worship.’
“Now says Swami Vivekananda, ‘Still, on this sacred soil of India, this land of Sita and Savithri, among women may be found such character, such spirit of service, such affection, such compassion, contentment, and reverence, as I could not find anywhere else in the world.’ To the true Indian, woman is mother first and mother last.
“Our Pujya Gurudev, Swami Chinmayananda, used to say, ‘In our country, everything noble is called mother, like Mother India, Mother Ganges, Mother Earth, and Go-Mata, Mother Sruti, etc. She is the living embodiment of the divine mother.’ The power behind the universe is the perennial beats of a mother’s heart of compassion, of love, of fearlessness, of unselfishness. When a woman attains self-transcendence from a biological and social level and finds expression in the ideal of motherhood, the barriers of nation, family, race, creed and gender are all broken, and she assumes a universal aspect. See, we always think that merely by studying or education that we can become free. That is not the truth. Education of ordinary type, only adds to our ego. It is when you transcend that, that you attain that superior state of Motherhood, our Amma is a standing example for that, that She has transcended Her womanly biological nature and has become the Universal Mother to millions of people.
“Her Holiness Mata Amritanandamayi, Amma, whose Golden Jubilee Birthday we are celebrating, is a glorious example of such Universal Motherhood. Her life itself is a lesson on Universal Motherhood, as She took Her painful steps from a neglected childhood to become Amma to millions of devotees and admirers around the world. Tirelessly, She travels to the nooks and corners of the world, bringing consolation and hope to the weary hearts of the people yearning for love. She sees no difference between man and woman, between nations, between castes, and between religions. It is this unity vision that made Her open the doors of Her temples to women priests. In fact, She finds no difference: if a man can worship God, women can also worship God—there is no difference at all. But it is sad to say that throughout the world women are considered unfit to worship in the temples. She is breaking that rule in Her own temples, I heard, and I am very happy about it.
“Even in the highly sophisticated countries of the West, women are not allowed to become priests, but I think times are changing, and people like Amma are giving an impetus to this change to bring about social revolution, as it were.
“In fact, I personally feel that women are stronger than men. What women can tolerate: the misuse to which they are put, the heavy work they are subjected to, the bearing she’s born to bear, not only children, but bear the various types of difficulties to which she is put to by this society, by the family by everyone. But she is born for that type of sacrifice, and hence she is greater. ‘Woman,’ the word contains ‘man.’ but ‘man’ doesn’t contain ‘woman.’ Is it not?
“I would like to go on talking on this. It is a very dear topic, but time is constraint is there.
“Amma has become a real Mother to all the people in the world. Without becoming a mother biologically, She has become the Mother of the Universe, and in Her love for the suffering and the downtrodden people She has opened so many charitable institutions to help people. Let us all make a vow on this auspicious day of Her 50th Birthday, that the greatest Guru-dakshina [offering] that we can give to Mother is to carry out the work that She has envisaged and help Her in all ways to bring up this country, this nation, to the pristine glory that it enjoyed in the Vedic period. That, indeed, is Vedanta in its highest sense.
“Without studying Vedanta, She has done what Vedanta asks for in the highest sense, which again is Her glory. One Mata Amritanandamayi, I feel, can bring about the integration of the people of the world in a deeper sense than any number of organizations like the UN. Love is the greatest conqueror. We can conquer the whole world with love. That which we cannot conquer with mighty weapons, with atom bombs with whatever—love is the greatest conquer.
“To a warring world, Her message, as well as that of India’s, is a clarion call. If the world is to survive, men and women must develop the qualities of a mother’s heart, giving up their projects of hatred and selfishness. Let us expand our hearts in love, in unselfishness, in forgiveness—let us expand. This expansion of consciousness will help us to embrace the whole world in a spirit of true service.
“In conclusion, wishing Mother a long life, so that the people in the world will be benefited more and more. That She lives, in Tamil we say ‘pallandu pallandu,’ for many many, many years let Her live, let Her bring peace and joy to the world around Her, and let Her be the centre point from which we all derive the strength to be true women in this world.
“In conclusion, let me thank full-heartedly Amma and the organisers who extended to me this wonderful opportunity of sharing my thoughts with such an august gathering. Let me also thank all of you for your patient hearing. Thank you. Hari Om.”