Women have always been accorded an exalted status in Hinduism. Manusmriti says “Yatra nariyastu pujyante tatra ramante devatah”; meaning where women are worshipped and respected there the Devas dwell. They were never excluded from any walk of life be it education, work or even the battlefield. There have been numerous Kshatranis who fought wars, ruled over kingdoms and followed Kshatriya Dharma. Then again there were women who became Rishikas. They not only composed hymns but also carried out yagnas, agnihotras and other such rituals. Many Rishikas ran Gurukuls exclusively for girl students. Such was the honour and respect given to women right from the Vedic Age much of which is hardly known and talked about.
A number of women sages or Rishikas have been mentioned in the Rig Veda along with the hymns associated with them. It is important to note that both Rishis and Rishikas are mantra-drasthas meaning they were the one who heard the Vedas and collected them to pass it on to future generations. The role of these women wasn’t merely ornamental. They played an important role through their contributions. Lopamudra is one of the most famous Rishikas. She was the wife of Rishi Agastya. She is also the author of Panchadasi Vedanta mantra belonging to the Shakta tradition. Of the twelve versions of Sri Vidya mantra dedicated to Devi one is attributed to Lopamudra. Aditi, wife of Rishi Kashyap, is the mother of Devas and one of the several women sages talked about in the Rig Veda. Another name that springs up to mind is that of Gargi. She challenged Rishi Yagnyavalkya in a philosophical debate organised by Maharaja Janak of Videha. Her name has been mentioned in the sixth and eighth Brahmana of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. She was the daughter of Sage Vachaknu in the lineage of Sage Garga; hence she was named Gargi Vachaknavi. Indrani, Yami, Godha and Sarama are some of the other well known ones.
Hinduism is the only religion that gives women a place of importance. Mahadev gave half of His body to His consort Shakti passing on the message that both man and woman need each other to be complete. Our Rishis also co-opted their wives, who were themselves accomplished sages, in almost all of their activities. These references aren’t just symbolic but point out to the richness of Hindu tradition where women aren’t confined to the four walls of their houses. They are an essential part of public life and have made, as well as continue to make, significant contributions right from the Vedic period. It is necessary to recognize the presence and service rendered by them. They are an inspiration for today’s women in more ways than one.