Women and Adhikāra in Dvaita Vedānta

The term adhikāra has multiple connotations in Sanskrit intellectual disciplines. It may be loosely translated as eligibility, but it includes within its scope questions of whether a person has a) the capacity to do something and b) the legitimate authority to do so. Discussions on the eligibility of various categories of people to perform Vedic sacrifices are found already in Jaimini’s Mīmāṃsāsūtra, the root text of the Mīmāṃsā school[1]In Vedānta, a significant part of the discussion on eligibility shifts from a focus on undertaking sacrifices to undertaking Vedic study and acquiring the knowledge necessary for liberation. 

All Vedānta schools generally bar women from studying Vedic texts, but dualist (Dvaita) Vedānta has a clearly marked exception to this rule. Madhva, the thirteenth century founder of the system states in his commentaries on both the Brahmasūtra (BSB) and the Mahābhārata (MBTN) that superior women (uttamastriyaḥ) are eligible for Vedic learning. However, this brings up questions on which women belong in the category of superior. Is this category restricted to divine beings, or does it remain open to human women as well? Answers to this question are ambiguous, and I look at Madhva’s commentaries with Jayatīrtha’s sub-commentaries to see whether and how this ambiguity is clarified.

In the Jijñāsādhikaraṇa (1.1.1) of the BSB, Madhva cites from an untraceable text called the Bhāgavatatantra[2] to explain the categories of people eligible for Vedic study. In Madhva’s discussion, the primary eligibility is clearly not for the performance of sacrifices, but for the knowledge of various scriptural texts: the Vedas, the Purāṇas, the tantras, etc. Madhva explains[3]:

Women, śūdras, and fallen brāhmaṇas are eligible for the knowledge of the tantras, but only when they are in the same place where others [who are independently qualified] are being instructed, and not [directly from] the sacred text Members of the first three varṇas who are correctly devoted towards Viṣṇu are eligible for Vedic instruction. They also say that superior women have eligibility for Vedic [knowledge], such as Ūrvaśī, Yamī, Śacī, etc., and the rest.

All the women mentioned here as superior women are divine beings who appear in Ṛgvedic hymns. This is likely why Madhva has to account for their eligibility after his previous statement that women do not have eligibility for Vedic study. However, it is still important that Madhva leaves the category open-ended. The possibility for other non-divine women being included is not foreclosed. 

            Madhva makes another important statement in the MBTN on the issue of superior women. While explaining the knowledge to be acquired for liberation, Madhva lists out texts that each category must know or understand in order to be liberated. In this passage, Madhva says that [all] women of the first three varṇas must know the scriptures other than the Vedas. He goes on to continue that superior women, such as Draupadī, etc. [the female protagonist of the Mahābhārata] should have the knowledge of the Vedas as well. He then defines superior women in a statement that poses an interesting conundrum:  “Goddesses and wives of sages, even when born in human or other families, are designated as superior”[4].The syntax of the statement [a, b, even though (api) c] seems to indicate that goddesses and wives of sages are superior, even when they take birth in human or other families. The example given, Draupadī, is certainly regarded as a divine incarnation by Madhva. This also shows us the importance of the Mahābharāta to Dvaita Vedānta, since it repeatedly figures in discussions on śāstras.

            However, Madhva’s most important commentator Jayatīrtha, writing in the fourteenth century, seems to understand Madhva differently. While commenting on Madhva’s BSB, Jayatīrtha explains Madhva’s statement— “They also say that superior women have eligibility for Vedic [knowledge], such as Ūrvaśī, Yamī, Śacī, etc., and the rest.” In this section, Madhva has given instances of goddesses and left the category open-ended. Jayatīrtha glosses the phrase ‘and the rest’ (tathāparāḥ) as “the wives of the sages and women born in human and other families”[5]. Since this gloss by Jayatīrtha is a direct quotation of Madhva’s words in the MBTN, and Madhva has already mentioned goddesses, it appears as if Jayatīrtha understands the term ‘and the rest’ to refer to the other two categories: the wives of sages, and women from human and other families. This would mean that Jayatīrtha interprets Madhva’s statement from the MBTN as, “Goddesses and wives of sages, as well as those born in human or other families, are designated as superior.”

            This clearly makes a huge difference, since it opens up the possibility of eligibility for human women. However, some commentators do not clarify the issue, and later commentators, such as Rāghavendratīrtha, foreclose this possibility by commenting on Jayatīrtha’s words in ways that again limit the category to divine or semi-divine women. 

            Jayatīrtha’s reading is very surprising considering the stance taken by other Vedāntins, and historical evidence for the loss in the status of women in medieval India. What social or historical factors could have prompted this concession, ambiguous as it is, towards women? Robert Zydenbos has suggested that Madhva had to contend with the egalitarian ideals espoused by the Vīraśaiva movement in Karnataka, and that his doctrines are partly reactionary[6]. Perhaps early scholars of Dvaita Vedānta also had to accommodate doctrinal concessions of this nature, which were revoked post the sixteenth century, when the influence of Dvaita Vedānta expanded across South India. 

This issue opens about questions about śāstra and practice. Despite the ambiguity in the doctrine, women have clearly not been engaged in Vedic study within the Dvaita tradition, or indeed, in any of the Vedānta traditions, for several centuries. Ganeri argues, “[T]here is good evidence for the conjecture that the principal context in which the Indian writers sought to make an “intervention” was a literary/intellectual rather than a physical/socio-political context”[7]. Jayatīrtha’s could also be one of such intellectual interventions.

[1] VI.1.6-21

[2] See Roque Mesquita, Madhva’s Quotes from the Purāṇas and the Mahābhārata (Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 2008): 534. Madhva often cites from untraceable sources that were not extant in his own time. This categorization would therefore be best seen as one specific to Dvaita Vedānta.

[3] strīśūdrabrahmabandhūnāṃ tantrajñāne ‘dhikāritā //
ekadeśe parokte tu na tu granthapuraḥsare /
āhur apy uttamastrīṇām adhikāraṃ tu vaidike /
yathorvaśī yamī caiva śacyādyās tu tathāparāḥ //
BSB 1.1.1

[4] devyo munistriyaścaiva narādikulajā api /
uttamā iti vijñeyāḥ…

MBTN 29.34

[5] tathāparāḥ munistriyo narādikulajāś ca /
Tattvaprakāśikā on BSB 1.1.1

[6] Zydenbos, “An Introduction to Mādhva Vedānta (review),” Philosophy East and West 56, no. 4 (2006), 669. 

[7] Jonardon Ganeri, “Contextualism in the Study of Indian Intellectual Cultures,” Journal of Indian Philosophy 36, no. 5 (2008): 553.

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