Women in the Upanishads

Portrait of a Hindu woman

by Jayaram V

The Upanishads are the heart of Hinduism. I was introduced to them by chance nearly forty years ago, and ever since my interest in them only grew. It was out of my interest I translated several Upanishads twice in the past. The first attempt was several years ago, and it was meant mainly for the Internet. In my recent attempt, which took me over a year, I translated 16 major Upanishads covering over 1700 slokas. For me the exercise was more like an active meditation with an opportunity to communicate with the best of the ancient minds and making sense of their universal vision of God and existence. In this section I want to share with you the wisdom of the Upanishads, whenever I am inspired to do so. I hope to present at least a few every month until my thoughts are exhausted or my interest has waned. I hope you will find them useful. Jayaram V

Please do not look for complete answers or information in these. They are fragments of thoughts which deal with only certain aspects of the chosen subject


In ancient times, the position of woman in India was one of power coupled with honor. Today the power remains, but the honor has been largely eliminated. John P. Jones, 1903.

Women in the Upanishads. The Upanishads, just as the Vedas and many other Hindu scriptures, were essentially composed with men in mind. The teachers were men, the students were men, and the authors were mostly men. Even the gods who are mentioned in them are mostly male gods. In this male dominated world of the Upanishads, sometimes you hear the faint voices of a scholarly woman, a dutiful wife or a responsible mother.

Some verses extol women because they give birth to male children and bring them up. Some verses even suggest that at times a husband may have to compel his wife to cooperate with him and participate in an act of procreation. Women generally figure in the verses, which deal with procreation rites, sexual intercourse, methods to obtain male children, spells to attract women and rituals to destroy the secret lovers of a married woman.

However, to be fair, we have to acknowledge that although women were not given much importance in the Upanishads, they were not degraded. We cannot also say that they had not been given any importance at all. For example, there is one chapter in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad in which one long verse lists an entire lineage of about fifty teachers. What is special about it? All of them bear the names of their mothers as their last names to denote that men derive their greatness from their mothers since they influence their early development.

There are also references to wives of spiritual teachers and women participating in debates and discussions. In one chapter of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Gargi appears in the court of King Janaka, and challenges Yajnavalkya, the best of the best, in a debate. From Yajnvalkya's response, we learn that she was not an ordinary lady or a housewife.

Apart from her, Maitreyi, Jabali, Usati Chakrayana's wife, Janasruti's daughter, Uma Haimavati, Satyakama Jabala's wife are other women who appear in the Upanishads as the silent and subdued witnesses of a great era when spiritual wisdom unfolded through enlightened teachers of an ancient world.

Although the Upanishads contain deeper spiritual, philosophical and ritual information, we can also find in them a few important facts about the status of women who lived in those times. The following are a few important inferences that are worth mentioning.

1. Men shared their suffering with their women and cared for them. The case in point is Usita Chakrayana, who is mentioned in the Chandogya Upanishad. He was a great scholar of the Vedas, but lived in utter poverty in a village that was devastated by locusts and famine. One day, feeling very hungry, he begged for food from an elephant owner in the village where he lived while the villager was eating the beans.

The elephant owner was a rich man who could feed an elephant during a famine. However, when Chakrayana begged him, he had no food left to give him, but only the beans that he was eating. The villager hesitated saying that they were left over beans. The Brahmana said he would not mind because he was hungry and it was lawful for him to eat them in those circumstances. Hesitatingly the villager gave him the beans.

Usita Chakrayana was so hungry that he ate some of the beans on the spot and carried the rest to home to give them to his virgin wife who was waiting for him. When he gave her the beans, she did not eat them saying that she already ate, and kept them for him for the next day. The next day morning, Chakrayana ate the remaining beans and went to participate in a Vedic sacrifice where he surprised everyone with his knowledge of the Vedas.

Here is a poignant story of sacrifice and caring relationship between a high-thinking erudite husband and an ordinary housewife, both going through a difficult phase in their lives and enduring the hardship. Chakrayana was hungry. Yet he carried a portion of the leftover beans to his wife. His wife probably did not eat anything that day, yet she kept them for her husband for the next day. You cannot expect it to happen, unless there was a strong bond of affinity between them, which transcended their worldly comforts. Their marriage was not yet consummated but they still loved and cared for each other.

2. Men shared their knowledge and wisdom with their wives and engaged them in philosophical conversations. It is wrong to believe that women were treated as only slaves or servants in the house. Men like Yajnavalkya engaged their wives in philosophical debates and discussion according to their interest and acted as their teachers.

There was no coercion in doing it. For example, Yajnavalkya had two wives and only one of them, Maitreyi, was interested in the deeper knowledge of Self and Yajnavalkya spoke to her only about it. From the conversation we learn that Yajnavalkya saw in his wife not a wife or a woman but the immortal Self and loved her for that.

3. Fathers had control over their daughters and gave them away as gifts to whomever they chose. It is untrue that women in ancient India were subservient only to their husbands. Until they were married, fathers had complete control over their daughters and their decision was binding upon them. This tradition continued in India for a long time until the last century. The dowry system in Hindu society is a modern day evil. In ancient times, only the bride's father had the right to accept or reject a marriage proposal and his consent was obligatory for a lawful marriage. Each groom was obliged to pay gifts or money to him in exchange for the bride.

In the Chandogya Upanishad there is an interesting anecdote about a pious, rich man named Janasruti. His fame as a charitable and compassionate person spread far and wide all the way to the heavens. One day he overheard from two travelling swans that there was even a greater person than he named Raikva in that province who possessed better wisdom and knowledge than him which certainly made him still more honorable. Janasruti was seized by an intense desire to meet that person and acquire his knowledge. Therefore, he sent his servant to look for him. After a lot of effort the servant managed to find the seer living under a cart, with rashes on his skin.

Janasruti went to see him carrying a number of gifts with which he thought he could please Raikva and become his student. Raikva insulted Janasruti for trying to bribe him and sent him away without accepting his gifts. Undeterred by the insults, next time, Janasruti went even with more gifts. Sensing that Raikva was a lonely man and probably needed the comfort of a woman, and to make sure that the seer would not refuse to admit him as a student, he also took with him his beautiful daughter to offer her as a gift.

The second time also Raikva's initial reaction was negative, but when he saw the beautiful maiden standing near him, he looked into her face and fell for her saying that for her sake only he would teach him. From this incident we can conclude that fathers had greater control over the fate of their daughters, and in choosing the grooms for their daughters they often used them as a leverage to strike deals. In today's world, people would hold neither Raikva nor Janasruti, in great esteem, but tradition regards them as exemplary men.

4. Women often interfered in the duties of their husbands and gave them counsel. There is a poem in the Mahabharata which exemplifies the status of women in ancient India of the Mahabharata times, which goes like this.

“A wife is half the man, his truest friend;
A loving wife is a perpetual spring
Of virtue, pleasure, wealth; a faithful wife
Is his best aid in seeking heavenly bliss;
A sweet speaking wife is a companion
In solitude, a father in advice,
A mother in all seasons of distress,
A rest in passing through life's wilderness.”

It is true that women of those times gave counsel to their husbands and took interest in their professional duties and activities. For example, in the Chandogya Upanishad, we find another interesting story about Upakosala, the son of Kamala. He was a student of the famous Vedic sage, Satyakama Jabala. Upakosala, a determined young celibate student, worked hard for 12 years to please his master and learn from him the secrets of fire sacrifice, but Satyakam was not yet satisfied that the student was ready. Therefore, he was still reluctant to teach him the knowledge.

Sayakama's wife had been watching the drama that was going on for long between her husband and his student. She was probably aware that her husband was rather harsh and strict with his students to bring out the best in them and prepare them well for their profession. Yet, she could not bear the suffering of the young student who had been fasting for several days and going weak by day.

She urged Satyakama to take pity on his student and teach him the knowledge so that he would not be blamed by the fire spirits of the household for treating him harshly. Satyakama did not heed her advice and went away to another village without teaching the boy. He took several days to return. Meanwhile, the student continued to fast.

Sensing that her husband would not return for days, Satyakama's wife requested the disciple to break his fasting and eat something, but he refused, saying that he was frustrated by his master's decision and would not eat. Fortunately, the domestic fires took pity on him and taught him the knowledge before the master returned. From this event it is evident that although the wife of a teacher did not share the teaching responsibility with her husband, she had a role in the welfare of the students as a guardian mother and did not hesitate to interfere if the situation demanded.

5. Not all women were bound to their husbands or household duties by marriage. If women decided to live freely, they had the option. For example, Satyakama Jabala's mother was a free spirited woman. In her younger days she worked as a maid and had relationship with many masters. Later, after the birth of Satyakama, she seemed to have settled and lived a free life as a single woman, without a husband or a traditional family. Thus, cases of unwed mothers and single parenting were not unknown in ancient India, although society by and large did not favor those practices. From the law books we can also infer that both men and women often cheated their spouses or broke their marriage to live with another for which the law books prescribed punishments. << >>

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