Isn’t the Gita’s comparing women with vaishyas and shudras derogatory?
Transcribed by: Bhaktin Raji Nachiappan
Question: Isn’t the Gita’s comparing women with vaishyas and shudras derogatory?
Answer: This can be explained at three levels:
Firstly, is it that Lord Krishna is endorsing the comparison of women with vaishyas and shudras or is he simply stating that? Let us examine verse 9.32 of Bhagavad-gita where the reference comes:
maam hi partha vyapashritya, ye ’pi syuh papa-yonayah
striyo vaishyas tatha shudras, te ’pi yanti param gatim
Here, what is the thrust of the verse? That even those who are vaishyas, shudras, women and the lowborn can also attain perfection. The thrust of the verse is not to show how women are, rather to show how potent bhakti is. The potency of bhakti is such that whoever you are, bhakti can elevate to the supreme perfection.
Equating women with a particular social grouping is not a teaching of the Bhagavad-gita. That is just a statement where Lord Krishna is just echoing the conceptions of society at that time. Earlier in the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna says sa kalenaha mahata yogo nashtah parantapa (BG 4.2) which means that by the power of time, that primeval knowledge which he had given was lost. That means that the culture that Lord Krishna appeared in, is not the ideal culture. The culture that the Mahabharata describes is the deviated culture. That is why Lord Krishna had to come to correct the situation, dharma samsthapnarthaya (BG 4.8). Therefore, were the cultural conceptions at that time necessarily right? We do not know which one is right and which is not. However, one thing is that, it is clearly not the teaching of the Gita. Everything that is in the scripture is not necessarily the teaching of the scripture. Sometimes scripture may just be describing the socio-cultural reality at that time.
Secondly, even if we consider the social situation at that time, the whole Bhagavad-gita is a description about attaining transcendence or spiritual reality. For gaining spiritual knowledge and attaining spiritual reality, in the broad human society, there are certain dispositions which are more suitable. The brahmanas are more analytical and intellectual and they are best suited for spiritual understanding. Kshatriyas also have some amount of sattva which regulates their rajas and hence they are also suitable for understanding the spiritual reality. Then, there are the vaishyas and the shudras. We need to understand that at times, there are certain people who would be very money minded, not necessarily in a sinful materialistic way. For such people, it is very difficult to think about the other world. In the same way, it was acknowledged that vaishyas and shudras may never be able to take sannyas and they may not even take vanaprastha. Usually brahmanas take sannyas and kshatriyas take vanaprastha.
For the shudras, it is said that the only reformatory ceremony is vivaha or marriage. What does this mean? This means that in the Vedic culture, it was acknowledged that certain people may not be at a level to embrace renunciation or the path of spiritual elevation. This is simply a fact of life with respect to peoples’ spiritual receptivity.
Similarly, with regards to women. Generally, in the female body, the primary purpose is to nurture and nourish. For nourishing a new life, emotionality is very important. Children or babies are not rational, and similarly if mothers were rational, they may not be best suited to take care of the baby. For mothers to have that emotional connect with children, they will need to have emotional nature. This is not a disadvantage. It is needed for the purpose of nurturing and it is a great strength also.
To achieve spiritual growth, one way is through philosophical analysis, wherein we understand the futility of the material world and then look for a higher alternative. There are certain kind of people, who are just not suitable for that path because they may not be philosophical enough. Hence, Lord Krishna is saying is that some varnas are not qualified for the analytical and intellectual approach to spirituality. However, they are still qualified for the path of bhakti. Therefore, the thrust is that bhakti is possible for everyone. The psychophysical nature and its limitation is a limitation on the path of intellectual spirituality but it is not a limitation on devotional spirituality. In that sense it is not an accusation or condemnation.
Thirdly, Gita begins by saying that we are not our bodies and that we are souls. That means our bodily designation is our temporary situation. There is a dynamic balance or tension between how we act spiritually and how we act physically. Different people grow spiritually in a different way. There are exceptions also in the broad Vedic tradition. There are examples of great sages who were females. In the Upanishads, there is an example of a lady sage, Gargi. It is mentioned that when there was a debate in Mithila, she defeats everyone. No social categorization is watertight. The Shrimad Bhagavatam also says lakshane prokta – ultimately it is by characteristics that we are meant to be known. There are some women who may be very philosophical and analytical. Such women are not to be deprived.
Therefore, if we understand the context, then such statements will not seem very jarring. It is only when we see the statement in isolation from what is being spoken, then they become very jarring.
End of transcription.