Are Women Duplicitous and Selfish According to Bhagavatam? (Part 1)

KashyapaBy Satyanarayana Dasa, originally published at the Jiva Institute. Read Part 2 here.

According to Jiva Gosvami (in Tattva Sandarbha, Anuccheda 26.2), there are three ways to instruct: like a king, like a friend, or like a beloved. The Vedas instruct like a king, giving direct instructions. The Puraṇas teach like a friend by giving stories which have a moral. And books of Sahitya (Indian literature) teach indirectly. This is described as “like a lover” because traditionally, a girlfriend or wife, who used to have reverence for her beloved, did not consider it appropriate to give direct instructions. Instead she would speak with indirect innuendo or in an implied manner. Srimad Bhagavatam uses all three techniques.

Criticism of Diti by Kasyapa

Here is an example pertinent to the topic of Bhagavatam’s view of women in general. Kasyapa, a great sage, a grandson of Brahma, and a venerable progenitor (prajapati) says:

sarat-padmotsavam vaktram vacas ca sravaṇamṛtam
hrdayaṁ kṣura-dharabham strinam ko veda ceṣṭitam
na hi kascit priyaḥ strinam anjasa svasisatmanam
patim putram bhrataram va ghnanty arthe ghatayanti ca

“A woman’s face is as beautiful as a fully blossoming lotus flower in the autumn season and her words are sweet and soothing like ambrosia, but her heart is sharp like the edge of a knife. Who can understand the intentions of women? No one is really dear to them because their real interest is only to fulfill their own desires. For their own sake they might even kill or assassinate their own husbands, sons or brothers.” Srimad Bhagavatam 6.18.41-42

Anyone, especially a woman, who reads these verses cannot but be baffled how a great sage can speak in such a denigrating manner about women as a class, and furthermore how Srimad Bhagavatam, which is very dear to Vaisnavas and is accepted as spotless literature, can have such a biased view towards half of humanity. Is all the glorification given to scriptures like Srimad Bhagavatam hogwash? Are these scriptures written by male chauvinists who delight in deriding women? Do such scriptures intentionally oppress women and rob them of the equal status they duly deserve? Are these charges true, or is there some other mystery behind these statements that is not evident from a cursory reading?

Indeed, various similar statements can be found in many Puranas, and have become the subject of discussion for modern scholars, Indologists, “outcaste” Dalit thinkers, progressive feminists, etc. Hundreds of books focus on verses like these, criticizing not only the scriptures, but Vedic culture as a whole. I do not deny that women are and have been suppressed and mistreated in Hindu society, but the scriptures are not at fault. The true cause of such mistreatment is ignorance of the true meaning of scriptures. Please consider that mistreatment of women (and other groups) exists in every religion, and among secular societies as well. Therefore, human nature, not scripture, is at the root of the problem—for human nature impels those in power to exploit the weak.

In most cases, verses like this are not an absolute statement and thus cannot be giving as a general principle. They apply to a specific situation and must be studied in the context in which they have been spoken. Otherwise great injustice is done to scripture. One has to consider the speaker of the verse, the circumstances under which it is spoken, and the person it is spoken to. If we do not consider these factors, it is very likely that we will misunderstand the real import of statements in sastra. Many times people intentionally cite controversial verses out of context. The simple audience, not knowing this, is thus mislead into misgivings about scripture.

The truth is that scriptures have nothing to gain by denigrating women nor did the speakers display biased, malignant behavior in their personal lives. Sage Kasyapa, for example, had thirteen wives. That alone can demonstrate that he not was a misogynist, for why would a person who hates women keep thirteen of them around him  constantly?

Diti’s Desire for Revenge

Let us consider the context of Kasyapa’s statement quoted at the outset. Diti was one of Kasyapa’s beloved wives. She gave birth to twins, Hiranyakasipu and Hiranyaksa. They were conceived at an inauspicious time against the will of Kasyapa and predicted to be materialistic by nature. These two brothers terrorized the whole world and disturbed its management by overpowering various devas who look after the managerial affairs. Therefore both of them were killed by Sri Visnu who is in charge of the maintenance of the universe. First Hiranyaksa was killed because he had made the whole earth uninhabitable. Thereafter, Hiranyakasipu, who dethroned Indra, the chief of the managers, was also killed by Visnu in the form of Nṛsimhadeva. When Diti lost both of her sons, she was very angry at heart and wanted to take revenge. She reasoned that it was Indra, the chief manager of the devas, who had plotted against her sons and got them killed by instigating Sri Viṣṇu. Therefore, to take revenge, she decided to get Indra killed. For this she devised a plan which was to please her husband, sage Kasyapa, and then receive a boon from him to have a son who would be able to murder Indra.

With this intention, she began serving her husband and doing every action to please him. With much care, attention and devotion, she took care of Kasyapa. She would speak to him in a very pleasing voice and always smile at him with alluring charm. Eventually Kasyapa wanted to reciprocate her apparent kindness. So one day, in a happy mood, he asked Diti to take a boon from him. Diti, of course, was just waiting for this opportunity. Therefore she immediately asked her heart’s desire: to get a son who could kill Indra. When Kasyapa heard these unbelievable words from the beautiful lips of his devoted wife, it was like a dagger in his heart. He almost collapsed in complete confusion and did not know how to respond, because Indra was also his son, the child of his wife Aditi. In fact, Indra is one of his dearest and most famous sons. How could Kasyapa now grant a boon that would be the murder instrument for his beloved son?

This is the context in which he spoke the verses cited above. Before, criticizing his wife, however, he criticized himself being attached to the pleasure he enjoyed in her charms and thus falling prey to her trap. He admits that he should have been smart enough to perceive her hidden motives, but he failed only because of his weakness towards pleasure.

Kasyapa’s Failure and Frustation

Then, feeling frustrated, trapped and bound his own words, he vented his anger indirectly at his wife, by criticizing women as a class. Indeed, it is quite common that when we become angry at a particular person who is dear to us, we indirectly express our anger towards their religion, ethnic background, etc. These statements are not literal, “king-like proclamations,” they are indirect expressions towards a beloved. It is insane to accept an indirect expression as a direct proclamation. Any sane person knows that generalized statements do not convey literal truths. No community or class can accurately be generalized, because each contains a wide variety of people. Kasyapa, for example, would never say these same statements to his other wife Aditi, who gave birth to Indra and Sri Vamanadeva, an avatara of Viṣṇu.

When one studies the character of Diti as individual, one understands that by nature she was self-centered and uncooperative. The very word diti means “one who creates faction or division.” Kasyapa must have known this, but somehow he succumbed to Diti’s female charm. That was his weakness, which is not uncommon in men. That is why he first condemned himself.

Ego finds pleasure in finding faults in others instead of inspecting itself. It is difficult for one’s own self-esteem to accept defeat. This is why after Kasyapa had realized his own mistake, his ego took over and he turned his criticism outward towards Diti. He expressed this indirectly as a condemnation of women in general. This same flaw is at the root of many men who try to justify their own weaknesses and vindicate their own failures by using sastra to support their ego. Thus, the next time you hear a man using sastra to criticize women, you can be confident that he is just trying to hide his own weaknesses.

We have demonstrated that verses should not be read out of context — although it unfortunately happens quite often, even by those supposed to be spiritual teachers of sastra. The context here was not a literal discussion of the nature of women in general, so Kasyapa’s words should not be misinterpreted as such.

(to be continued)

This article was originally written for and published at the Jiva Institute, and is reproduced here with permission.

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6 Responses to Are Women Duplicitous and Selfish According to Bhagavatam? (Part 1)

  1. I really appreciated this article. It is well written and provides a clear compass for navigating often controversial statements in the Srimad Bhagavatam about women.

    The only weak point I found was this statement, “Sage Kasyapa, for example, had thirteen wives. That alone can demonstrate that he not was a misogynist, for why would a person who hates women keep thirteen of them around him constantly?” Perhaps a sage would not keep women around for the sake of abusing them, but many men do. I don’t think that evidence “alone” says much of anything.

    • Agree. The article itself seems interesting, but that example is deeply problematic and the logic it employs is flawed.

      “The Confederate South, for example, had thousands of black people. That alone can demonstrate that they were not racist, for why would people who hate blacks keep thousands of them around themselves constantly?”

  2. really nice explanation 🙂

  3. This about sums it up for me: “Any sane person knows that generalized statements do not convey literal truths. No community or class can accurately be generalized, because each contains a wide variety of people.”

  4. While the specific point of this article regarding the negative depiction of women in the Shrimad Bhagavatam (SB) and other Vedic scriptures is extremely important–having been used to put down women as a class–the general topic of how to read scripture in context has an even broader use for truly entering into the deeper implications and dynamic applications of these texts in our lives. There is considerable confusion not only about the women’s issue, but in understanding many of the topics of the SB.

    Those of us who are older Gaudiya Vaishnavas (GVs)grew up seeing the scriptures and the guru as absolute in all respects and in only a literal way are at a real disadvantage to share this wisdom today. Shrila Prabhupada, the founder of the Krishna movement (ISKCON) in the world outside of India, didn’t want his followers to just whimsically speculate on the scriptures or think the lila or pastimes of Krishna were mythology or of use only for teaching ethics or morality, and so he took a particular strategy in his presentation that needs illumination. Every author or commentator has a particular purpose and audience in mind and strategy to fulfill it.

    Sorting all that out to understand the spirit and purpose of the text as well as contemplating the perspectives of ancient and modern GV commentaries will help bring these scriptures to life in a way that is relevant to the modern world. Otherwise GVs will seem fanatical or irrelevant to thinking, spiritually minded people, and the times we live in, that so desperately need a spiritual, practical, perspective with intellectual integrity, to counteract the influence of Godless materialism.

  5. For me, the first problem is taking any verse from Bhagavatam, regardless of who is speaking it and what story it comes from, and turning it into some absolute authority on the subject. That is not even logical. Bhagavatam consists of various stories and every verse has to be understood only in it’s original context. We would not dream of quoting Hiranyakasipu’s statements as absolutely authoritative, they are just part of the story.
    The second problem is taking one story from Bhagavatam and extrapolating it on the entire subject matter. One story about a mean king or a cruel woman does not mean that all kings are mean and all women are cruel.
    So let’s get a grip on reality and not use Bhagavatam verses out of context or extrapolate them into absolute authority. Usually people do that simply to support their own views or pet theories.

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