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Wise Women

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Tales of women who inhabited the spiritual landscape of India are not very common but are extremely inspiring. In most tales from Hindu lore, women played the role of nymphs, housewives and goddesses associated with fertility. But from time to time, one comes upon tales of women who had other-worldly aspirations. There were many wise women in India in the times of yore, some of those names are given here. If they had not behaved in this way, perhaps the history would have been quite different --

Vaidik Women

Gaargee -
Brihadaaranyak Upanishad tells the story of Gaargee whose sharp mind and tongue irritated many sages. Raajaa Janak, the King of Videh, dissatisfied with esoteric rituals, invited sages from all over the land to his kingdom and offered cows with gold-plated horns to anyone who helped him understand the true nature of the cosmos. Rishi, Siddh, Yogee, all men attended the debate. Yaagyavalkya dominated the conference with his view that perceived reality is not the absolute truth and that Yog is the real Yagya. During the proceedings, a woman walked naked into Janak's court and introduced herself as Gaargee. While all men looked at her body, it was with her mind that the woman astounded the assembled scholars present there. Exasperated by these un-ending questions, Yaagyavalkya asked Gaargee not to ask too many questions on that which is unfathomable lest her head falls off. Gaargee smiled and declared that Yaajnavalkya was the wisest sage in the assembly. Thus Gaargee reached at the height of scholarship in the debate in her time as she could stand up to Yaagyavalkya, the greatest of the Vaidik scholars in that august assembly.

Maitreyee was another woman who wanted to be the disciple of Yaagyavalkya. Her story also comes in Brihadaaranyak Upanishad. When she wanted to be the disciple of Yaagyavalkya, he was already married to Rishi Bharadwaaj's daughter Kaatyaayanee who was a housewife. She used to take care of his Aashram. Maitreyee was very spiritual. To be disciple of Yaagyavalkya, she asked proper permission from his wife Kaatyaayanee, and she permitted her to live them. Some say that she also lived like his wife. When Yaagyavalkya intended to take Sanyaas, he wanted to distribute his property between his two wives, Maitreyee asked him - "Will this wealth give her true happiness?" Yaagyavalkya Jee said - "This wealth can give you only that happiness which it can buy. The happiness which it cannot buy, it cannot give it to you." Maitreyee then said - "I do not want this worldly happiness because it is momentary, please discourse me on that which can give me the true happiness." And then Yaaggyavalkya Jee discoursed her on spiritual knowledge.

From Raamaayan

Anasooyaa -
Anasooyaa was Maharshi Atri's wife. She was a great Satee. and a great Pativrataa woman. Because of her Paativrat, she reduced all the Gods of the Trinity to baby-form for serving them food in nakedness, and kept them in the same form with her.

Kaikeyee -
Kaikeyee is the most talked character of Raamaayan, as only she was the only cause of the whole Raamaayan. Nor she asked for her two boons from Dasharath - kingdom for her son Bharat and exile for Raam for 14 years; nor Raam went to forest, nor Shoorpanakhaa met Raam, nor Lakshman severed her nose and ears, nor Raavan knew about Seetaa and abducted Her, nor the war broke between them, and nor Raavan was killed. So the whole credit goes to Kaikeyee. She was the Princess of Kaikaya Desh. She was good at warfare, and that is why she could save her husband's life in a Dev-Asur Sangraam. In fact pleased with this feat, Dasharath asked her to ask for two boons which she asked at the time of Raam's Abhishek and created the Raamaayan.

Mandodaree -
Mandodaree was the wife of Raavan. She was a great Satee and was a very intelligent woman. She was so much after Raavan to return Seetaa to Raam, but all the time she failed.

Taaraa -
Taaraa was the wife of Vaanar Raaj Baali. She also counseled Baali not to go to fight with Sugreev when he came to challenge him with the backing of Raam, but failed. Later considering the future of her son Angad, she married Sugreev.

From Mahaabhaarat
The Mahaabhaarat tells us of women whose approach to life was philosophical even when faced with death.

Draupadee -
Draupadee, although legally married to Arjun, but willingly accepted all the five husbands obeying her mother-in-law Kuntee. She could have punished Jayadrath heavily by herself but she did not punish him because he was Dushalaa's husband and she respected another woman. Besides, she did not want that Ashwatthaamaa should be killed as punishment for killing her five sons in sleep, so she requested them to spare him as it would cause immeasurable sorrow to his mother (Kripee) who had also lost even her husband Dronaachaarya. Beside he was her husbands' Guru's son and Braahman. Killing him brought a great sin to her husbands.

Gaandhaaree -
Gaandhaaree, the wife of blind Dhritraashtra, took upon the vow of blindfolding herself only on knowing that her would be husband was blind, saying that she had no right to see that world which her husband cannot see. She had so much power that she put on a Kavach on her son's body when he was going to fight his life's last fight with Bheem. She cursed even Krishn that His family would be destroyed after fighting with one another like Kuru Vansh got destroyed. As her even one look was enough to protect Duryodhan, it was good enough to destroy also. When after the last rites, Yudhhishthir came to see Gaandhaaree, she just had a look at his feet and his nails went black. This was the look from behind the cloth strip, if she had removed the strip from her eyes and looked at his feet...  just imagine what would have happened?

Gautamee -
Gautamee's son died of a snake-bite. A hunter caught the snake and brought it to Gautamee so that she could punish it. She said, "Let it go. Killing it will not get my son back. Serpents bite and people die. Such is the way of Sansaar."

Matsyagandhaa -
Or Satyavatee, daughter of King Uparichar Vasu (brought up by Daash Raaj fisherman) submitted herself to Paraashar in the boat when ferrying him across the river and gave birth to Krishn Dwaipaayan Ved Vyaas Jee on an island.

Sandilee -
Mahaabhaarat also tells the tale of an ascetic woman Sandilee who did not appreciate being treated as a sex-object. Sandilee was a pious woman who lived an ascetic's life atop Mount Rishabh. One day Suparn, the divine falcon-god Garud, saw her and entertained the thought of carrying her away. Instantly his golden wings dropped of. Suparan came crashing to the ground and begged Sandilee to forgive him as he did not seek to molest her. Sandilee forgave him and restored his wings.

Sulabhaa -
In Mahaabhaarat, Shaanti Parv, 321, Bheeshm Jee tells the story of Raajaa Janak and Sulabhaa. Sulabhaa was a single mendicant, She was not unwed because of any shortcoming in her character or physique, but she was single by choice. She used to wander all around. She heard about Raajaa Janak of Mithilaa, that he had emancipation, so she desired to see him to ascertain that whether it was true or not. So she came to Raajaa Janak's court, had a debate with him and defeated him.

Vidur's Mother -
When Satyavatee was seeking progeny from Ved Vyaas jee for her daughters-in-law, Ambikaa and Amabaalikaa, Vyaas Jee reported her about the outcome of their meetings. Satyavatee was not satisfied with that result so she requested Vyaas j Jee to give her one more opportunity. She then asked Ambikaa to go to him again. But she was so much afraid of Vyaas jee that she sent her maid to him in stead of going herself to him. The maid servant of Ambikaa took it as a blessing in disguise, that such a great sage, Sage Vyaas, was impregnating her. She bore Vidur and gave birth to Dharm Raaj himself.

Others - There are many others also --

Avvayar -
Requested the Lord to give her the form of old age so that nobody would be attracted by her youthful form.

Bhaaratee -
Bhaaratee was the wife of Mandan Mishra and was very intelligent. Her intelligence may be guessed by this that when Aadi Shankaraachaarya and Mandan Mishra had the discussion, Shankar himself appointed her the judge. A judge cannot be less intelligent than the discussion holders.

Meeraa -
In medieval times, one hears of Meeraa, the Raajpoot princess from Raajasthaan, who refused to acknowledge her husband as her true Lord. When he died, she did not burn herself on his funeral pyre, as tradition of those times demanded of her. Instead she danced on the streets of Mathuraa and Vrindaa Van singing praises of her divine Lord Krishn. Later she was seen entering the temple of Krishn and the door closed behind her. Later when the door was opened, her cloth (Saaree) was found wrapped around Krishn's Moorti.

Puneedaavatee -
The Tamil Periya Puraan speaks of one Puneedaavatee who lived in the village of Karaikal with her husband Param-datta, a seafaring merchant. She was so devoted to Shiv that the Lord bestowed upon her magical powers. Her ability to conjure sweet mangoes by merely wishing for them, scared her husband who, after his next voyage, did not return home. Instead, he went to the city of Madurai, married another woman and raised a family with her. When Puneedaavatee learnt why her husband had left her, she realized she had no more use of her beautiful body. By the grace of Shiv, she transformed herself into a crone, with shriveled breasts and gaunt features so that no man could look upon her with eyes of desire. Thus she was free to devote herself to her Lord. She became renowned as Karaikal Ammaiyar, the matriarch of Karaikal.

It is interesting to note that Karaikal Ammaiyar rejected her body before she began her pursuit of spirituality. She did not want to be attractive. She knew that an attractive body would result in the unwarranted attention of men and would distract her from her path. She did not for a moment feel that an attractive and loving man could tempt her away. She had full confidence that she would not lose control but clearly lacked confidence in the men around her.



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Created by Sushma Gupta on 7/15/10
Updated on 06/20/13