a r t i c l e s    o n    h i n d u i s m

Rig Veda and the Indian woman - Contributed to this site by Ambassador O P Gupta 

In August/Sept. 2002, one case of committing suttee or sati and two failed attempts to commit suttee in Madhya Pradesh were reported in the media.

Reports also appeared that the Hon’ble Rajasthan High Court allowed prayers within premises of Rani Sati Mandir of Jhunjhunu district, but prohibited organising fairs, distribution of pamphlets and performing chunri ceremony at the temple till final orders.

Some people assert that Rigveda vide richa (X.18.7) (seventh richa of 18th Sukta of tenth chapter) commands a Hindu widow to mount pyre of her deceased husband.

One website quotes PV Kane’s translation of this richa as: “Let these women, whose husbands are worthy and living enter the house with ghee applied as corrylium (to their eyes). Let these wives first step into the pyre, tearless without any affliction and well adorned.”

One may note that even this English translation does not categorically state that let these widows first step into the pyre. This translation simply says “let these wives first step into pyre.” As per common sense, from the moment of death of her husband, a woman is no more called “a wife” but a widow (vidhawa). So phrase “these wives” in above translation of Kane cannot be interpreted to refer to “widows.”

In fact, Sukta 18 commands a Hindu widow to return to world of living beings; to return to her house to live with her children and grand children and Rigveda confers on her all the properties of her deceased husband. One should go through all the fourteen richas of this 18th Sukta (revealed to Rishi Sunkusuk Yamayan) so as to understand the true and correct meaning of (X.18.7).

The third richa (X.18.3) commands “May those who are living remain separate from dead ………..…” (Rigveda Samhita by HH Wilson & Bhashya of Sayana edited by Ravi Prakash Arya and K.K. Joshi ISBN 81-7110-138-7). Dr. Wendy D. O’Flaherty, Ph.D. in her book the Rigveda (Penguin Classics) (page 52) translates: “Those who are alive have now parted from those who are dead….” Ralph T.R. Griffith translates “Divided from the dead are these, the living:….” Shri Ram Sharma Acharya of Bareilly in his Rigveda (in Hindi) translates: “mritak ke pass se jeevit manushya laut aavey…………..”

Dr. Ganga Sahay Sharma, Ph.D., in his Rigveda (Delhi Pocket Books) translates: “ye jite huve log marey huve vyaktiyo ke pass se laut aavey…………...” This command of Rigveda to leave behind the dead; to remain separate from dead is equally applicable to Hindu widows too as the widows are also living/jeevit persons.

English translation of the seventh richa (X.18.7) as given by HH Wilson is “Let these women who are not widows, who have good husbands, enter (anointed) with unguent and butter. Let women without tears, without sorrow, and decorated with jewels, first proceed to the house.” Dr. Wendy O’Flaherty, Ph.D. translates this seventh richa: “These women who are not widows, who have good husbands – let them take their places using butter to anoint their eyes. Without tears, without sickness, well dressed let them first climb into the marriage bed.”

Shri Ram Sharma Acharya translates “yeh sunder patiwaali sadhawa naariya ghrit yukta kaajal lagaati hui apne grih ko prapta ho. Yeh naariya aasuuon ko tyag kar manoovikaaroo ko duur karati hui sundar aishwarya waali ho kar sabase aage chalati hui apne gharo ko prapt ho.”

Dr. Ganga Sahay Sharma, Ph.D., translates: “Ye sadhawa ewam shobhan patniya naariya ghrit aur anna ke sath apne ghar mey pravesh kare. Ye streeya aasuuon ke bina roga rahit aur shobhan dhan waali ban kar apne ghar mey sabse pehle pahuche.”

Shri Radhakrishna Shrimali & Smt. Ashalata Upadhyaya of Jodhpur in their book Rigveda (Diamond Pocket books) (page 156) give similar interpretations of (X.18.7) and (X.18.8). Thus, six different authors, from different places vouch that richa (X.18.7) does not refer to widows at all. What this richa says in a nutshell is that married women should be first (among others) to return to their homes. Readers may see that as per these authors this richa does not say that first these women step into pyres. This seventh richa appears in Atharvaveda at (XVIII.3.57) and (XII.2.31) also.

The eighth richa (X.18.8) especifically and expressly commands a Hindu widow to return alive to her home. HH Wilson translates: “Rise, woman, (and go) to the world of living beings; come, this man near whom you sleep is lifeless; you have enjoyed this state of being the wife of your husband, the suitor who took you by the hand.” This verse is to be recited by dead husband’s brother etc to widow and he has to make widow leave her husband’s body as per Asvalayana Grih Sutra(IV.2.18)

Dr. Wendy D. O’Flaherty, Ph.D., translates: “Rise up, woman, into the world of living. Come here; you are lying beside a man whose life’s breath has gone. You were wife of this man who took your hand and desired to have you.”

Pt. Shri Ram Sharma Acharya translates this richa: “Hey mritak ki patni! Tumhara yeh pati mrityu ko prapta ho chuka hai – ab tum iske pass vyartha baidhi ho. Apne putradi aur ghar ka vichar karti hui uutho. Tum ish pati ke sath garbh dharan aadi stree kartavya ko pura kar chuki ho aur tum uske pran ke chale jaane ki baat bhi jaanati ho attah ghar ko lauto.”

Dr. Ganga Sahai Sharma, Ph.D., translates: “Hey mritak ki patni! Tum apne putro ewam ghar ka dhyana karke yeha se uutho. Aap marey huey vyakti ke pass kyo soyee ho? Ish purush ke panigrahan wa garbhadhan ke anuroop aap vyavahaar kar chuki ho. Aap ishke sath marane ka vichar chhodo.” Arthur A. Macdonell, in his book “A History of Sanskrit Literature”(page106) also says that (X.18.8) is addressed to the widow, who is called upon to rise and take the hand of her new husband, doubtless a brother of the deceased, in accordance with an ancient marriage custom.

Macdonnel quotes following translation of (X.18.8) as given by Ralph T.R. Griffith: Rise up; come to the world of life, O woman; Thou liest here by one whose soul has left him. Come: thou hast now entered upon the wifehood Of this thy lord who takes thy hand and woos thee. Thus, eight different authors from different places confirm that (X.18.8) actually commands a Hindu widow to return to the world of living beings, return alive to her home and return alive to her children.

Also, this very richa confers upon her full right on house of her deceased husband (apne putradi aur ghar). In 1995 Supreme Court interpreted Section 14(1) of the Hindu Succession Act to the effect that a Hindu widow has full ownership rights over properties she inherits from her deceased husband. Supreme Court said that object was to wipe out disabilities imposed by Hindu Shastras.

Supreme Court, thus, restored rights conferred on widows under richa (X.18.8).This richa appears in the Atharvaveda at (XVIII.3.2) also.

In RV(X.18.9) the new husband takes bow (or any symbol or any item) from the hand of dead husband, and while taking the widow as his wife says to her: let us launch a new life of valour and strength begetting male children overcoming all enemies who may assail us. HHWilson translates:Taking his bow from hand of dead man,(new husband says) for the sake of our vigour, energy and strength, I say you(dead) are there(in grave);may we (who are) here (on ground), blessed with male offspring, overcome all enemies who assail us.

According to Achraya Sayana, it is the first six richas of 16th Sukta of Xth chapter of Rigveda (X.16.1 to 6) which are to be recited at funeral pyres; and, none of these six richas either call for burning of widows or make any reference to widows.

I would like to draw attention of readers to richa (X.40.8) of Rigveda which praises Ashwin gods for protecting a widow. It shows gods were praised for protecting widows. How could gods have gone to protect widows, and, thus, behaved against Rigveda if Rigveda had actually commanded burning of widows?

Another richa (X.40.2), may come as a complete surprise to many Hindus who wrongly presume that widow remarriages are not allowed in Hinduism. HH Wilson translates it: “Where are you, Ashwins, by night? Where are you by day? Where do you sojourn? Where do you dwell? Who brings you into his presence in the same place (of sacrifice) as on her couch a widow (brings) her husband’s brother, as a woman (brings) her husband (to her).

Dr. Wendy D. O’Flaherty translates: “Where are the Ashwins in the evening, where in the morning, where do they stop and where have they spent the night? Who invites you as a widow takes her husband’s brother to her bed, as a young woman takes a young man to a room.”

Ralph T.R. Griffith translates (X.40.2): “Where are ye, Asvins, in the evening, where at morn? Where is your halting place, where rest ye for the night? Who brings you homeward, as the widow bedward draws her husbands’s brother, as the bride attracts groom?” Dr. Ganga Sahay Sharma translates in Hindi: “Hey Ashwin kumaroo! Tum raat aur din mey kaha rahate ho? Tumhara samaya kaha bitataa hai? tum kaha nivas karate ho? Jisprakar vidhawa apne devar ko aur sadhawa apne pati ko charpayee par bulaati hai ushiprakar merey atirikta kaun yajaman tumhe yajnavedi par apne anukul banaataa hai?” Thus, Rigveda not only sanctions survival of a widow but also her marriage and her living with her devar with full dignity and honour in the family. So, it expressly sanctions widow-marriage.

In Atharvaveda there are many richas which sanction/ instruct remarriage of widows, such as ,AV(IX.5.27-28) and AV(XVIII.3.1-4).WD Whitney translates AVX.5.27);:Whoever(a female)having gained a former husband,then gains another later one ,if they(both) shall give a goat with five rice dishes, they shall not be separated. AV(IX.5.28) reads :Her later husband comes to have the same world with his remarried spouse who gives a goat with five rice dishes with light of sacrificial gifts.

AV(XVIII.3.1) blesses a widow with progeny (children) and property in this life time. AV(XVIII.3.2) is repeat of RV(X.18.8). WD Whitney &Joshi translate ::Go up ,O woman, to the world of living; you stand by this one who is deceased ; come! To him who grasps your hand, your second spouse (didhisu) ,you have now entered into the relation of wife to husband. AV(XVIII.3.3) is interpreted as the command to turn back a maiden( young calf or young woman)away from dead to home. WD Whitney translates ::I saw the maiden being led, being led about, alive ,for the dead; as she was enclosed with blind darkness(agyanataa) ,then ,I led her off-ward from in front .AV(XVIII.3.4) is translated by another author as ::O ye inviolable one!(the widow) tread the path of wise in front of thee and choose this man (another suitor) as thy husband. Joyfully receive him and may the two of you mount the world of happiness .In this richa word aghnya has been used for widow which means a widow can not be killed .As a cow cannot be killed so a widow cannot be killed. Contradicting his translation of RV(X.18.7),PV Kane in his History of Dharmashastra has himself quoted verses to inform that:: another man is ordained for a woman in five calamities viz,(i)when husband is missing and is unheard of (ii)husband dies (iii)is impotent (iv)becomes ascetic;(v)husband is declared depraved. Agnipurana(154.5-5), ParasarSmriti(IV.30) and Narad Smriti(V.97).(Further details at http://baharna.com)

The third chapter of Rigveda is considered the oldest part of Rigveda. Richa (III.31.1) commands that a son-less father accepts son of his daughter as his own son i.e. all properties of a son-less father shall be inherited by son of his daughter. Richa (III.31.2) commands that if parents have both son and daughter, son performs holy acts of pindadaan (after death of father) and daughter has to be enriched with gifts (rindhan i.e. to be made wealthy). Richa (II.17.7) also attests share of a daughter in property of her father. Custom of daughter being given freedom to select her husband is attested in RV(X.27.12)

Those who misinterpret Rigveda to say that it sanctions suttee do this mischief by mis-spelling the last word of richa (X.18.7) as “yomiagne” and neglecting commands of other richas. The last word of this richa is actually “yomiagre” as shown in Sanskrit in above quoted Rigveda by HH Wilson and Pt. Shri Ram Sharma Acharya.

In fact, body of dead person is not burnt at all on a pyre in this 18th Sukta!! The dead body is being buried under ground ( in a grave) vide tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth richas of this 18th Sukta. So, whose funeral pyre a widow is being asked by pro-sati lobby to mount if corpse of her husband is being buried in the ground under this very sukta of Rigveda!!! Thus, there is no richa in Rigveda calling for widow burning. In fact, Rigveda commands a widow to return alive to her home with a new husband.

During the medieval period, thousands of women were burnt alive on stakes in Europe after Churches declared them to be witches. In his book “In Search of Loving God,” Mark Mason (Chapter IX) has written that towards the end of the Dark Ages in Europe, Emperor Charlemagne had forbidden burning of supposed witches.

In the ninth century, the Church also repudiated the belief that witches had supernatural powers. Papal Bull (ad extirpanda) issued by Pope Innocent III in 1252 authorised seizure of possessions of persons accused of not following the faith as laid down by the Church, their imprisonment and executions.

Pope Innocent VIII issued the bull (1484) against witchcraft and appointed Inquisitors. It is estimated that a few million people were tortured and executed in Europe for witchcraft over three centuries and 85 percent of them were women who were burnt alive on fire stakes.

Others claim figure of burnt alive during 1450 to 1700 should be much less: only about two lakhs!!! No one knows the correct number of women who were burnt alive on stakes in medieval Europe .In Holy Quran, at many places it is said that Kafirs are inmates of fire such as surah(II.39), (III.10) (III.116) etc. In modern era,without recalling the past bitter memories, we may look forward , follow the policy of live and let live, policy of peaceful co-existence.

Veda, Ramayan and Gita are the three and the only three supreme scriptures of Hindus. All others (like Brahmanas, Upnishads, Purana, Dharma Shastras, Sutras, etc.) are just commentaries, explanatory notes written by individuals. As commentaries written on the Constitution of India cannot over-ride the Articles of the Constitution of India and as laws passed by the Parliament or State Assemblies cannot supersede the Articles of the Constitution of India, similarly, commentaries/explanations on Vedas by individuals cannot supersede richas of Vedas or Ramayan or Bhagwat Gita.

Maharishi Vedvyas has himself written in Mahabharat that in cases of conflicting views,Vedas shall supersede all other writings:

“whenever there is conflict between what is declared in the Vedas and provisions in any of the Smritis, Puranas, etc., what is declared in the Vedas shall prevail.”

In Ramayana, everyone knows that after death of King Dasharath, his wives were never asked to step into pyre of Dasharath. Rather, they lived in family with full honour and Bhagwan Shri Ram always bowed his head before his widowed mothers with full respect. In Mahabharat, Kunti, mother of Pandavas did not commit suttee and she was active in all family matters and accorded full respects by all including Lord Krishna .Dharmaraj Yudhishthir ,being gyata of Dharma would certainly have asked his widowed mother Kunti to commit sati if it was a requirement of dharma.

Yudhishthir never did so means committing sati was not a requirement of Dharma. Thus, there is no command either in Ramayana or in Gita to commit suttee.

Over centuries relatives have been murdering or getting assassinated relatives for property, and, it will continue in coming centuries also. Greed is human nature. If greedy people incite a widow to commit suicide on pyre of her husband so as to deprive her of her gold, silver and land, let us not say or believe that widow burning is sanctified by Rigveda or by Hinduism.

Richa (X.18.3) commands a Hindu widow to separate from dead and richa (X.10.8) commands her to return alive to her children/her home. RV(X.18.9) commands her to be remarried immediately to a brother/relative of deceased husband. For their own empowerment, Hindu women will be well advised to remember the seven richas viz. (II.17.7) (III.31.1) (III.31.2) (X.18.3) (X.18.8) (X.40.2) and (X.40.8) to assert and claim their status and Vedic rights.

The writer is the Ambassador of India to Finland. The article are personal views of the author; and, not that of the Govt. of India.










Copyright © 2001 - All Rights Reserved.

a r t i c l e s    o n    h i n d u i s m