Is the Gita’s teaching that women are sinful resposible for female infanticide?
Transcription by – Nishant Arora and Keshavgopal Das
Question– Is the Bhagavad Gita’s assertion, that women are paapa-yonayah (sinful birth), responsible for the female infanticides in India?
Answer– This is like saying that (a rough parallel) E= MC2 is responsible for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
First of all if we look at the Bhagavad Gita statement in 9.32
māṁ hi pārtha vyapāśritya ye ’pi syuḥ pāpa-yonayaḥ striyo vaiśyās tathā śūdrās te ’pi yānti parāṁ gatim
The emphasis of the Gita statement is not on women are paapa-yonayah (sinful birth). The emphasis is on the transcending power of devotion that if they take shelter of Krishna that they can also transcend. The elevating power of devotion is not limited to those who are paapa-yonayah, actually everybody can get elevated and even those who are considered paapa-yonayah, even they can get elevated. So the Bhagavad Gita in that sense is just offering a nominal tip of the hat for a notion that is in its time considered conventional, considered mainstream but then it brings out its non-sectarian universalist message. Even if someone considers women to be low born still they can be elevated.
Actually the starting parallel of E= MC2 is not really fully applicable because whereas E= MC2 is the central tenet of Einstein’s relativity theory, striya as paapa-yonayah is not even the central message of that specific verse of Gita, what to speak of the central message of the whole Gita. Even in the only verse of the Bhagavad Gita refers women to paapa-yonayah there the emphasis is- “even if it is like that, even if it is considered to be like that, still even women can be elevated”.
Now that raises the next question, that ok, Bhagavad Gita does not directly say that women are low born, but why does it acknowledge the notion that women are considered of sinful birth?
Here we have to understand that the Vedic culture operates in a very different world view from our world view. We cannot just judge the standards and practices of another world view based on conception we have acquire based on our world view. Why is that? As a very preliminary example, one medical practitioner judging another medical practice based on purely the practices not the principles. For example some traditional or alternative cancer treatments may not recommend chemotherapy or radio therapy or anything like that for cancer and today in main stream allopath, these are considered to be the only ways of dealing with cancer. So if an allopath doctor finds that someone is using herbal therapy and nothing being literally done to deal with presence of the dangerous cells, cancerous cells, the person may say this is terrible. Important thing here to understand is phalena parichayate. The treatment is working or not we can’t just look at the practices because the practices can be different depending on particular medical system and the mechanism of the body that underlies the particular system.
Same way when the world view is different so practices will be different but beyond the practices we have to look at the principles. The first and most important principle of the world view on which the Gita was spoken is that our existence is not limited to our present body. We had a life before this present life and not just this life but many lives before this and we will have an existence even after our present existence. Therefore with this understanding we come to know that whatever we acquire at the starting point of this life that comes by our past karma.
We also see that in the same Vedic culture, if we look at the accounts of Fa-Hien, Huen Tsang or many visitors who came to India and extensively noted about India, we did not find any norms of persecution of females or female infanticides. Even Al Biruni who wrote quite an elaborate book on the value systems of India, Indica, where-in he mentions that he felt the practice of deity worship was incomprehensible and abominable, he also does not talk about any exploitation of women or anything like that. Within the particular culture, the women were respected. In fact, women are often considered in the traditional culture to be like a manifestation of goddess of fortune. Woman is considered to be like a bhagya laxmi. For example Vedas say that only places where women are happy and respected will the gods shower their blessings.
The important point is, that even if based on understanding that the ultimate purpose of material existence is to get out from material entanglement, and for that purpose a male body is more suitable than the female body, so in that sense Bhagavad Gita doesn’t just say that women only are paapa-yonayah, anybody who is in material existence is having some sin into their account and in that sense we could say that everybody is of a sinful birth. The very fact that we have a material body indicates that we have some sinful activities because of which you have got this body which grows old, which gets diseased, which dies and which causes so much of suffering in the process. Relatively speaking a female body may be less suitable for spiritual realization which is the ultimate goal of life. Why women are found less suitable for spiritual realization? Because spiritual realization often requires philosophical enquiry and female body tends more towards emotionality than rationality. The emotionality can be active and can be an advantage also in path of devotion which focuses primarily on emotions.
The point is that there is a profound worldview behind the whole conception of having multiple lives and our actions from one life affecting another life and not a simplistic value judgment that women are sinful. Women were happy because according to the culture at that time women were respected. The fact that during the time of Bhagavad Gita or after the time of Bhagavad Gita even when several eminent travelers and historians came to India there has been no record of female infanticide happening. This was the time when people followed Bhagavad Gita much more than they follow it today. And the fact that there was never any female infanticide at that time and no record of that and if we see that there were kings who had princes and princesses and similarly general people also had sons and daughters. There is a serious flaw in the idea that Bhagavad Gita causes female infanticides because when the Bhagavad Gita was much more wide spread and accepted at that time there is no record of something like this. And not just the Bhagavad Gita but the broad culture and the world view which is also the expression of the Bhagavad Gita, also accepted in the past that this did not happen.
Then the question comes what is the cause of female infanticides? We do not find that in arguments in western culture or in the other cultures. Every culture has its blind spots and we are not meant here to justify the presence of one evil by pointing another evil. In the western culture there is not just freedom for abortion but also unfortunately there is so much business of embryos that is happening.
Coming back to the question, what has specifically caused female infanticides?
First of all it’s a very horrible practice not only from a sociological perspective but also in terms of how it will skew the gender balance, gender ratio and how it will become a cause of increased violence against women- these are important factors to be considered. But before answering the infanticide question, it is even more important that we first truly understand what the Bhagavad Gita teaches and whether its teachings can have any such implications.
It is important to know that Bhagavad Gita is a philosophical book which first focuses on harmonizing with the will of God. That means, especially in the case of conception, altering the course that the nature has taken, by selecting abortion, is a totally anti-devotional disposition because it focuses on imposing human will on divine will, therefore it cannot be considered at all a devotional activity by any means. It is first of all a non-devotional activity, rather it’s a demoniac activity where brutality is involved. It is a demoniac activity in terms of the blind bias that is there, but sometimes that bias is justified in terms of the religious glorification of the male child over the female but that is a complete misunderstanding of the philosophy. The philosophical principle rest first of all in accepting the will of God. It is not that we become passive about everything but specially such things which is a blatant disregard for the divine will as it manifests through the course of nature when one does selective infanticide, selective abortion rather.
Now let us consider the other religious justification (of the female infanticides) that actually son is required for doing the last rites by which one will attain moksha. First of all this is a rationalization of something which does not apply just like this. In today’s world view, how many people use the traditional notion that when a son does the last rites then one gets liberated? Most people who actually do infanticides are not at all concerned by any such idea. Doing infanticides bhruna hatya is considered to be in the scriptures as bad us (if not a worse than) brahmana hatya because a brahmana is to be respected. Five elements in the society you have to protect-brahmanas, children, elders, cows and women. The selective abortion is extremely bad because it’s a defenseless infant that is being killed. All the other four categories are also people who find difficult to defend but at least they can do something. Embryo cannot do anything. It is not just abortion is bad, killing a female is even worse. A women is meant to be protected what to speak of killing. So it’s a double violation. It is violation of principle of protection of children. It is a violation of protection of women. It is a very brutal thing and it’ll involve such terrible bad karma that there is no question that the son doing a later ritual at the time of death will liberate the parents after they commit some brutal activity like this. There is no justification for such kind of practice. It is a barbaric practice and it must be stopped, and strong legal action be taken against those who do this practice.
Let us now focus on the practical reason of philosophical rationalization. The practical reasons of that are often in the way the Hindu society is constructed. Often women turn out more to be burdens then assets. A woman has to be educated and then her marriage is to be arranged. Even if she takes up a job and becomes a bread winner for the in-laws family a dowry has to be given. In this social structure, its quite understandable if one sees the birth of female child as a burden. But then it is important to understand cultural practices that are drawn from one age into another age cannot be just directly imposed. The dowry practice was just a matter of voluntarily giving gifts, it was not a business proposition where a demand was made and if the girl side did not provide that demand the girl will be persecuted. Nothing like that was ever recommended. In fact the whole purpose of the dowry is to express affection from the parents for the daughter’s departing away to the in-laws place. Also according to traditional property laws the woman does not get any property and property goes to the male children. Therefore it does not mean that female children were cut-off but the dowry was considered to be their property. This whole practice of dowry it’s different in the social context today. There is no need to continue this practice and if gifts are given as a matter of affection that should be given voluntarily. When expression of affection becomes a subject of business negotiation and in fact not just business negotiation but physical and mental abuse then where is the affection in that? Specially in the younger generation abhorrence of such abuse and the rejection of these practices is understandable and such abusive practices are not to be supported. Just like a caste system, its original purpose was different, but the way the caste system has become is quite a terrible perversion now. Similarly the practice of female infanticides has also become a terrible perversion and so as the practice of dowry in many cases. The cause of infanticides is more of financial then any philosophical or religious nature. If this cause is to be dealt with, we need education. Bhagavad Gita, which is being blamed here for female infanticides, itself offers that education which can stop these practices. Let us see how.
First of all Bhagavad Gita tells us that going against the will of God is not at all a religious activity. In fact killing is a sinful activity and killing any infant is sinful but killing a female infant is even more terribly sinful because women are meant to be protected. Bad karma will be there and the reactions will be coming. If one studies the Bhagavad Gita he will understand the difference between the body and the soul and will recognize that bad karma will lead to terrible results and one cannot continue the bad karma. Further, the Bhagavad Gita, if it is understood, and once by understanding one’s consciousness rises to spiritual level (because one understands that he is a soul and one gets real happiness by connecting with Krishna in devotion through bhakti yoga) then the whole world view of rabid materialism, rabid means diseased materialism, which is the cause of the terrible practices like female infanticides, that world view itself will be uprooted. What causes this kind of practices is not a particular religion but it is disproportionate materialism, rabid materialism, where people give uni-dimensional importance to money so much so that they don’t even have scruples about killing the person for the sake of money and therefore the materialism become acute and rabid. Due to the materialistic worldview people think that this life is only that one has, one has to somehow or the other enjoy life by getting more and more. But when we understand that it is not the case and even in this life one can get better happiness by connecting with the God then this whole rabid materialism gets uprooted. That is the best cure for abhorring practices like this. So devotees who live lives based on the Gita certainly oppose this practice and condemn it in strongest possible terms and should spread the spiritual wisdom that can uproot it completely. Thank you.