Why do sanyasa scriptures degrade women?
None of the so-called "sanyasa Upanishads" are part of the traditional orthodox Vedic canon.
Yajnavalkya Upanishad, Sanyasa Upanishad, Naradaparivrajaka Upanishad, etc. are very late medieval productions. That is abundantly evident from their late medieval language style as well as their utter emphasis on renunciation and sanyasa and as the quotes show, the bizarrely contemptuous words used for women.
The only Upanishads that are trustworthy are the classical Vedic Upanishads which all the major Vedantacharyas (Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, etc) have considered authoritative and referenced in their commentaries. These Upanishads are actually part of a Vedic Samhita, Brahmana or Aranyaka.
These are enumerated in a shloka:
ईश केन कठा प्रश्न मुण्ड माण्डूक्य तैत्तिरी ।
ऐतरेयं च छान्दोग्यं बृहदारण्यकं दशम् ॥
Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya and Brhadaranyaka are the ten.
In addition to the above ten, three more ancient Upanishads that occur in Vedic texts are Kaushitaki, Shvetashvatara and Mahanarayana.
For anyone who studies the classical Upanishads deeply, the striking feature they will note is that none of those Upanishads talk about renunciation and sanyasa. Every teacher in the Upanishads is either a Grhastha or a king. Every student in the Upanishads is either a young Brahmachari, a Grhastha or a king, including both men and women.
Even Yajnavalkya himself had two wives and he only says to Maitreyi (Brh. Up. 2.4.1):
मैत्रेयीति होवाच याज्ञवल्क्यः उद्यास्यन्वा अरेऽहमस्मात्स्थानादस्मि । हन्त तेऽनया कात्यायन्यान्तं करवाणीति ।
"Maitreyi!" said Yajnavalkya, "My dear, I am about to get up and leave this place. Well, let me end your relationship with Katyayani."
Points to note:
- Yajnavalkya's entry in the Upanishad begins with the name of his favourite wife.
- He constantly addresses her as "my dear"
- He only says that he is leaving the joint family house. There is no hint of sanyasa or the notion that being married with two wives hindered his path to knowledge.
Then, further in the same section, when Maitreyi asks to be instructed in Brahman, he says to her (2.4.4):
स होवाच याज्ञवल्क्यः प्रिया बतारे नः सती प्रियं भाषस एह्यास्सव व्याख्यास्यामि ते व्याचक्षाणस्य तु मे निदिध्यासस्वेति ।
He said, "My dear, you have always been dear to me, and now you also speak what is dear to me. Come, sit down. I will explain (the philosophy). While I explain, please concentrate."
So, here again, the treatment of women is so elevated and refined. And Yajnavalkya is not denigrating or insulting his wife for asking questions. He is even more pleased and enthusiastically and respectfully teaches her everything that he knows. It is an equal reciprocal relationship.
In Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, Brahman from its original state becomes both male and female. This also shows that enlightenment cannot be obtained by denigrating or degrading women. In 1.4.3:
स हैतावानास यथा स्त्रीपुमांसौ संपरिष्वक्तौ स इममेवात्मानं द्वेधापातयत्ततः पतिश्व पत्नी चाभवतां तस्मादिदमर्धबृगलमिव स्व इति ह स्माह याज्ञवल्क्यस्तस्मादयमाकाशः स्त्रिया पूर्यत एव ।
He (Brahman) was originally of the shape and size as like a woman and a man in tight embrace. He then split his own form in two, from that the husband and wife were originated. Hence, Yajnavalkya said, this body is like one half of a split pea. This space is to be filled by a woman only.
Taittiriya Upanishad has a meditation aid as follows (1.3.3):
माता पूर्वरूपम् । पितोत्तररूपम् । प्रजा सन्धिः । प्रजननं सन्धानम् ।
The mother is the prior form, the father is the posterior form, the progeny is the union, the act of progeny is the connection.
So the meditation itself involves placing woman in a key position.
In Chandogya Upanishad chapter 4, the young boy Satyakama has only his mother as his role model for building his character with honesty and integrity. When he achieves enlightenment through the various benefactors, his Acharya tells him he shines like a Brahmajnani (4.9.2):
ब्रह्मविदिव सोम्य भासि
You shine like a knower of Brahman
And after Satyakama thus became a Brahmajnani, he gets married and establishes his own Acharyakula. In the matter of one of his students, Upakosala who has served him well for 12 years but has not been graduated, his wife actually reprimands him (4.10.2):
तं जायोवाच तप्तो ब्रह्मचारी कुशलमग्नीन्परिचचारीन्मा त्वाग्नयः परिप्रवोचन् प्रब्रूह्यस्मा इति ।
The wife told him, "The Brahmachari has suffered enough, he has served the sacred Agnis very well. Do not let the Agnis blame you, please do graduate him."
This episode shows how the wife was a revered respected spiritually equal partner in ancient times. Even though Satyakama is already a Brahmajnani, his wife is equally brilliant in spiritual splendor, and is not intimidated into subservience. She is bold enough and strong enough to advise even her husband.
All the above examples show the authentic Upanishadic viewpoint of the position of women in spiritual life. The integral worldview of Vedic philosophy does not belittle or denigrate any aspect of life because that is an unbalanced and lopsided perspective.
Genuine sanyasa as demonstrated by great acharyas such as Svami Vidyaranya in medieval times does not denigrate women.
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