Female education: India
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In ancient India
The Times of India, July 13, 2015
Ancient India’s liberated women: In classical times India was more egalitarian than the West – at least in women’s education
Two young women, Atreyi and Vasanti, meet by chance during a trip and start chatting. Atreyi tells Vasanti that she is travelling to the south in search of better education; though she is a student at an extremely famous university in the north, her professor’s preoccupation with his ongoing novel means he has little time to teach her anything of use. Vasanti agrees that this move makes perfect sense.
These young women are not contemporary urban Indians. They were characters in an 8th century Sanskrit play, Uttararamacharita, penned by the dramatist Bhavabhuti. Atreyi’s original professor was Valmiki, who had recently become immersed in writing the Ramayana, being firmly convinced that he was the adi kavi (first poet). A ‘trip’ to the south meant an arduous walk through hundreds of miles of forested land, braving constant threats from robbers, mysterious illnesses, and wild animals. However, this was a trip that Atreyi was very willing to make, hoping to learn more from southern Vedanta scholars like Agastya.
Though Bhavabhuti’s story is fictional, plays were intended for the masses. The fact that an 8th century dramatist casually introduces female characters who travel far from home, alone, in search of education, suggests that audiences during his time would not be overly surprised or disturbed by such incidents. In another play of his, the Malatimadhava, a Buddhist nun, Kamandaki, is close friends with the fathers of the male and the female protagonists, because all three had been classmates in their youth. If girls wanted to be admitted to gurukulas, there was nothing stopping them from doing so.
Earlier, the Upanishads (written about the 7th century BC) contain accounts of very learned women. No one in scholarly circles seems to have had any trouble accepting Gargi, an eminent woman philosopher, as one of them. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad contains a lengthy account of Gargi’s debate with the leading scholar of the age, Yajnyavalkya. The debate was arranged by King Janaka of Mithila, at whose court Gargi was said to be one of the navaratnas (nine gems).
She asked Yajnyavalkya such penetrating questions that eventually he was unable to answer, and had to resort to telling her that her head might fall off if she kept questioning the unknowable. This, however, seemed to be quite a common threat among Upanishadic debaters; men who disagreed with other men would employ it frequently. So, contrary to first impressions, there was nothing sexist about Yajnyavalkya’s reaction. The fact that Gargi, an unmarried woman, was invited to conferences all over the country without exciting comment, seems to point to a liberal intellectual atmosphere.
Going back even earlier, the composers of the Rig Vedic hymns included a number of women. Each hymn in the Rig Veda is attributed to a particular author, and the lineage of the author is mentioned. More than 20 women number among the authors credited with the composition of these hymns.
The Therigatha, written in 600 BC, is the earliest known collection composed solely of women’s writing. These verses, written by early practitioners of Buddhism, were penned by women from a wide array of backgrounds. The contributors included a mother whose child had died, a former prostitute, a wealthy heiress who had renounced her life of pleasure, and the Buddha’s own stepmother. Though women from royal families had access to informal education in most countries, the Therigatha shows that many ordinary women were also well educated in ancient Indian society.
In contrast to ancient India, the ancient Greeks and Romans had a different attitude towards female education. Though they had excellent public schools and gymnasiums for formal education, these were open only to boys, unlike the ashramas of ancient India where girls and young women could learn along with their male counterparts. Eminent Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates thought poorly of the intellectual capabilities of women. Plato maintained that women had no souls, while the Socratic dialogue ‘The Symposium’ concludes that women were incapable of providing men with intellectual companionship.
In later times, Khana, who is sometimes rumoured to have become a victim of domestic violence, was a noted poetess and astrologer of near legendary abilities. Though details of her life are hazy, she appears to have lived in southern Bengal, where many of her writings are still household sayings.
Much later, in 1150, Bhaskara II, the most renowned Indian mathematician of his age, composed the Lilavati – perhaps the only math book in the world whose problems were mostly addressed to young girls. An example of such a problem: “Beautiful and dear Lilavati, whose eyes are like a fawn’s! Tell me what are the numbers resulting from one hundred and thirty five, taken into twelve? If thou be skilled in multiplication by whole or by parts, whether by subdivision of form or separation of digits, tell me, auspicious woman, what is the quotient of the product divided by the same multiplier?” This was to be the prime math textbook in Indian schools for the next 700 years.
It is interesting that as far as gender discrimination goes, ancient Indian society seemed to be much more egalitarian and balanced than other ancient societies, at least in the field of education. Hopefully, this balance is something that could be sustained and enhanced in modern times.