Education and the Vedic Woman
By Umapati Swami
Judging from the angry, unprintable letters I have been receiving, it seems there is a misunderstanding about the education of women in Vedic times. Srila Prabhupada, people say, is teaching a conception of the Vedic society where women remain ignorant. It makes me wonder how many people actually read Srila Prabhupada’s books. It is true that Vedic women did not get degrees in business administration or sociology, but still, they were more educated than the most learned scholars in universities today.
What about Queen Kunti? Was she uneducated? People are still studying and poring over her words 5,000 years after they were spoken. And it is all in Srila Prabhupada’s books.
Here is another example. Are these the words of an uneducated person?
"Therefore let me surrender unto the Supreme Personality of Godhead and offer my obeisances unto Him, who is beyond the conception of human speculation, the mind, activities, words and arguments, who is the original cause of this cosmic manifestation, by whom the entire cosmos is maintained, and by whom we can conceive of its existence. Let me simply offer my obeisances, for He is beyond my contemplation, speculation and meditation. He is beyond all of my material activities." [Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.8.41]
Whose words are these? A learned yogi meditating in a forest? Not at all. These are the words of Mother Yasoda, a village woman, after she saw the entire universe in the mouth of Lord Krsna.
In fact, the education of women is approved by the Lord Himself, who incarnated as Kapiladeva just to educate his mother, Devahuti:
"O great sage [Kardama], I shall manifest My own plenary portion through your wife, Devahuti, along with your nine daughters, and I shall instruct her in the system of philosophy that deals with the ultimate principles or categories." [Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.21.32]
Yet even before the Lord appeared, Devahuti was not an uneducated person. She knew something that escapes even the biggest scholars today. She knew what true education was:
"Sri Devahuti said: My lord [husband], you have fulfilled all the promises you gave me, yet because I am your surrendered soul, you should give me fearlessness too." [Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.23.51]
Srila Prabhupada explains:
"Devahuti requested her husband to grant her something without fear. As a wife, she was a fully surrendered soul to her husband, and it is the responsibility of the husband to give his wife fearlessness. How one awards fearlessness to his subordinate is mentioned in the Fifth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam. One who cannot get free from the clutches of death is dependent, and he should not become a spiritual master, nor a husband, nor a kinsman, nor a father, nor a mother, etc. It is the duty of the superior to give fearlessness to the subordinate. To take charge of someone, therefore, either as father, mother, spiritual master, relative or husband, one must accept the responsibility to give his ward freedom from the fearful situation of material existence. Material existence is always fearful and full of anxiety. Devahuti is saying, ‘You have given me all sorts of material comforts by your yogic power, and since you are now prepared to go away, you must give me your last award so that I may get free from this material, conditional life.’"
Of course, Devahuti attained fearlessness through the education given to her by her son, Lord Kapiladeva, and this kind of education is still available to everyone, man or woman, in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
In Vedic times, though, women did not go to school away from home, and maybe this is what confuses people:
"Woman is to follow the husband. That's all. The husband will give instruction to the wife. There is no such thing as the girl should go to school to take brahmacari-asrama or go to spiritual master to take instruction. That is not Vedic system. Vedic system is a man is fully instructed, and woman, girl, must be married to a man. Even the man may have many wives, polygamy, still, every woman should be married. And she would get instruction from the husband. This is Vedic system. Woman is not allowed to go to school, college, or to the spiritual master. But husband and wife, they can be initiated. That is Vedic system." [Srimad-Bhagavatam class 1.3.13 — Los Angeles, September 18, 1972]
Thus, it was the duty of the husband to educate the wife, and this duty was taken seriously:
"In Bhagavata you will see that Rsabhadeva says that ‘One should not become the spiritual master, one should not become the father, one should not become the mother, one should not become the husband, who cannot give relief from these miseries of material existence.’ It is the husband's duty also. Because the wife is under the protection of the husband, he has got so much responsibility." [Bhagavad-gita class 4.12-13 — New York, July 29, 1966]
Please note that not only is the husband supposed to teach the wife, but the mother is supposed to teach the children, and how can she do that if she is not educated herself? What’s more, sometimes the wife may also teach the husband:
"The actual system is that the husband is Spiritual Master to his wife, but if the wife can bring her husband into practicing this process, then it is all right that the husband accepts wife as Spiritual Master. Caitanya Mahaprabhu has said that anyone who knows the science of Krishna, that person should be accepted as Spiritual Master, regardless of any material so-called qualifications; such as rich or poor, man or woman, or brahmana or sudra. So if you can show the women of the community how to help their husbands and children to perfect their home life, and all aspects of life, in Krishna Consciousness by chanting, aratrik ceremonies, and eating Krishna prasadam, then you will improve the conditions of the neighboring communities to an incalculable extent." [Letter to: Silavati — New Vrindaban 14 June, 1969]
There have indeed been great spiritual masters in our tradition who were women, such as Jahnava Devi, Gangamata Goswamini, and Hemalata Thakurani.
All right, but what about the other kind of education? the degree in business administration or whatever? In Vedic society, women did not need it because the role of wife and mother was a highly respected occupation. People felt it was important to take care of the children, to nurture the next generation of human beings. Today, if a woman wants to devote herself to raising her children, people think she is too stupid for the really important things in life, things like pushing staples through paper.
Now I am not against material education. I like to have something on my table and a place to sleep as much as anybody else, and that is really what it’s all about, isn’t it? This kind of education is basically a meal ticket, but it may be necessary for some women because women are not taken care of today as they were in Vedic times. When I took sannyasa, I was glad my wife had a profession because I knew I could not count on anyone to provide for her.
Material education can also provide skills useful in devotional service:
"Satyabhama Dasi is in charge of educating the children in New Vrindaban, and she is very qualified to do this because she is educated and works very nicely with the children." [Letter to: Silavati — New Vrindaban 14 June, 1969]
"I am especially pleased to learn that you are introducing my books as textbooks in the colleges. We especially have to try to attract the educated young men and women in your country so that in future there will be many strong leaders to keep our Krsna Consciousness Movement strong." [Letter to: Govinda — New York 7 April, 1973]
And material education can be a preaching tool for both men and women. Here is an excerpt from a letter of 1967, written by Srila Prabhupada to two teenage sisters who had recently been initiated:
"For the present you should continue going to school because education is important. Without education nobody has any social position and all our students in Krishna Consciousness are expected to be preachers. So preachers must have sufficient education because they have to meet with so many opposing elements. Education should be continued at the same time chanting should be continued. There will be no difficulty." [Letter to: Indira and Ekayani —San Francisco 17 December, 1967]
And that’s what the present discussion on Chakra is all about: One woman wrote in to say she was debating whether to go to college and learn a trade, so I cannot understand why these other women are taking up their battle axes and furiously marching off to defend themselves. They are off to fight windmills, that’s all. No one has attacked their right to an education of any kind.
© Umapati Swami
CHAKRA 13 November 2002