The role and importance of women in earlier Vedic literature is much more apparent, and observable than it is today. The participation of women was vital, and much more significant in previous centuries, during Vedic srauta [an extensive body of sacrifices performed on specific occasions; see Leslie (1992)] ritual (Leslie 1992:21). Two myths that are said to be the main cause of women’s restrictions in sacred Vedic ritual are Varuna’s noose and Indra’s curse (Leslie 1992:20). Indra’s curse is said to be the mythic catalyst that led to restrictive rituals that must be adhered to when a woman is participating in religious sacrifice. The Taittariya Samhita reveals that when Indra (God of lightning and thunder) killed Visvarupa, he transferred one third of the “stain” of murdering a Brahmin to women ( 2.5.1). The “stain” that was transferred to women comes in the form of menstrual blood, and is seen as dangerous and impure. It is regarded in this way because the menstrual blood is literally Indra’s curse. Therefore when a woman is menstruating she is not able to perform her religious duty; a ritual must be postponed or a substitution is made in her place. The Taittariya Brahmana states that half the ritual dies if it is performed while the wife is menstruating (188.8.131.52) and for this reason she is prohibited from entering the sacrificial area.
Varuna’s noose is the other mythic tale that has given authority to the types of restriction that women must endure. Although the notion of Varuna’s noose is to restrain the power of women, it also represents the many aspects of femininity that are crucial for worship and religious sacrifices. The wife of the sacrificer is bound with a species of grass called munja, which occurs once the wife enters the sacrificial area. She is bound while sitting because it is said that she becomes virile while in this type of position (Leslie 1992: 25). The binding of the waist is a symbolic representation of Varuna’s noose, which he uses to ensure that the propagation of the created world occurs within the bounds of a properly conceived cosmic order (Leslie 1992:20). Women are an important aspect because they contain a certain kind of power that is attributed exclusively to females, and is expressed primarily through their sexuality and reproductive capacity. Leslie has found support for this notion in the Taittiriya Brahmana, declaring that a sacrifice without the wife is no sacrifice at all; her presence in the ritual assures effective cosmic reproduction which coincides with human reproduction (1992:24). The tying of the “noose” symbolically ties the wife to her husband, and brings her into a meaningful relationship with the gods. The Taittiriya Brahmana concludes that through this working relationship with the gods the wife causes the sacrifice to copulate with her; bringing the sacrifice within her thereby intensifies and expands her feminine creative power (184.108.40.206). Since many Vedic sacrifices include the element of reproduction, the woman is an essential participant. It is through her feminine creative power and the symbolic tying of the rope, which promotes proper or controlled human procreation (Leslie 1992:26).
The asvamedha (horse-sacrifice) is one of the most well known Vedic rituals and has been in existence since the time of the Rg Veda. (Dange 361) Although this ritual has not been performed for centuries, it exemplifies the importance that the wife plays in relation to its concerns with reproduction. Historically the asvamedha is performed by a king partly to gain offspring and gain royal glory [see Dange (2000) for the complete process and variations of the asvamedha]. At one point in the beginning of the ritual the king lies between the thighs of the wife who is named vavata (who is the beloved one) (Dange 377). This physical action between husband and wife is a symbolic act, to bring fertility to the wife; it also mimics the action that the queen performs with the horse after one year. At the end of the year, with the finishing of the ritual, the king’s queens perform a short ritual after the horse has been exterminated, which infuses the horse with vital breath, and brings fertility. As Dange has briefly explained, the three wives circle the horse clockwise and then counter-clockwise, repeating this three times on both sides for a total of nine times. While they are circling the horse they are also fanning it which is said to instil vital breath within themselves and the horse. After this is completed the mahisi (chief queen) lies near the horse, is covered with a large cloth, and performs a mock copulation. This mock copulation is supposed to infuse the queen with the symbolic seed of her husband in hopes that she will produce children. The ability to produce offspring is very important in Vedic tradition, especially in terms of producing a male heir. The need for the presence of the wife is undeniable; without the female power, ritual reproduction would not be possible.
The Rg Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda are the earliest known texts of Indian religion that mention the involvement of women (Leslie 1992:17). Although women are present during sacrifice and play a role in the ritual, they are not able to offer sacrifice. This restriction placed upon women is reinforced by The Laws of Manu. It is stated that sacrifice performed by a woman is displeasing to the gods and inauspicious for men (Manu IV. 205-6). In orthodox Hindu tradition, women are not educated in Vedic verse or ritual; therefore they are not able to perform sacrifice due to lack of experience and understanding. A wife attempting to make a sacrificial offering on her own could bring on a multitude of negative effects to herself and those around her, especially her husband, because of her inexperience. While a woman is not “traditionally” able to perform sacrifice on her own, her presence is essential for her husband to properly perform the ritual. Julia Leslie has found that although The Laws of Manu prohibits women from performing the role of sacrificer, the laws insist that a wife is ordained to take part in joint religious rituals (1989:109). The epics and puranas also have textual evidence that enforces the role of the wife as the individual who shares in her husband’s religious duties (Leslie 1989:110). The magnitude of the woman’s presence is compounded by the fact that a man has no authority to act alone. A man cannot fulfil his religious duties to gods, ancestors and guests without a wife: for the wife shares the sacrifice, bears the children and prepares the food ( Markandeyapurana 21.70-2). The relationship between husband and wife may seem unequal in the orthodox tradition of Vedic rituals, but it is a shared partnership; one may not act without the other.
References and Further Recommended Reading
Buhler, Georg (1964) Laws of Manu/ translated with extracts from seven commentaries. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass
Dange, Sadashw Ambodas (2000) Vedic Sacrifices Early Nature.New Delhi: Aryan Books International
Leslie, Julia (editor) (1992) Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. Rutherford; Madison; Teaneck; Fairleigh Dickinson University Press
Leslie, Julia (1989) The Perfect Wife. Delhi: Oxford University Press
Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge
Vesci, Uma Marina (1992) Heat and Sacrifice in the Vedas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Laws of Manu
Rg Veda Samhita
Noteworthy websites related to the topic
Written by Danielle Nail (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.