The Vedic religion, called Vedism, is one of the founding religions of modern Hinduism. It was the religion of the ancient Indo-Europeans who journeyed to India from the region that is now Iran around 1500 BCE, and is known to be the oldest stratum of religious activity in India for which there exist written materials. These materials are the Vedas, which were composed and handed down orally from about the 15th to the 5th century BCE, and then later written in archaic Sanskrit.
The Vedas are composed of four main collections: the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda, and the Atharvaveda. These collections characterize a polytheistic sacrificial religion, idolizing numerous natural male gods and a few goddesses. These goddesses include those of Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune; Sarasvati, the goddess of learning; Durga, the goddess of strength and power; Kali, the power of time; and other Vedic goddesses that exemplify inner strength and divine attributes. The goddesses present in the Vedas allow for ancient Vedic culture to be considered one of the most venerating towards women, holding high regard for the qualities of women.
This high regard of women is evident in a Vedic saying that goes as follows: “Where women are worshiped, there the gods dwell.” This saying summarizes the sentiment expressed continuously throughout the Vedas, which is that women are to be respected and treated as equals to their male counter-parts. In the Atharvaveda, it is claimed that when a woman marries into a family, she is entering “as a river enters the sea,” so that she can”rule there along with her husband, as a queen, over the other members of the family”(Atharvaveda 14.1.43-44). The phrasing of this is so important because, where other scriptures may view a wife as ruling under her husband, this religious text asserts that women rule alongside their partners. We see this relationship of women as equals, not only through the pairings of gods and goddesses, but also through powerful women referenced throughout the Vedas scriptures, such as Gargi, a curious intellect.
Although there is great evidence of equality and empowerment of women, oftentimes this empowerment is reliant upon a woman’s faithfulness to their husband. Just as the Arharvaveda proposes that a woman rules alongside her husband over the family, it also reads, “May you[women] be benevolent, the harbinger of good fortune and health, and live in great dignity and indeed be illumined in your husband’s home.” (Atharvaveda, 14.1.64). While this quote promotes women to be the inviters of good fortune and health, it also insinuates that the wife is to be placed within her spouse’s home, meaning that there was an expectation of women to be content by the hearth without possessing joint ownership of their property. This counters the point made above that states that females are to rule on a level plane with males. Additionally, many of the women held in high regard in the Vedic religion were placed there due to their devotion to their husbands. For example, Anasuya, a woman who was said to be able to bring back the life of a dead sage, could only do so due to the power of her own austerity and commitment to her husband. This demonstrated to followers of the faith that devotion to a qualified husband gives the wife fame, power and is the fulfillment of her dharma. This tale is more so about the rewards of faithfulness to men, then it is about a powerful woman.
While the Vedic religion could have allowed for a high regard of women due to its divinity of female figures and evidence of powerful women its scriptures, it also potentially advanced the idea that women were most powerful within the home and by their husbands sides. Resultantly, Vedism may have pushed forth a respect of women and high regard of feminine qualities, however it could not have supported the full independence and equality of women.
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