The woman who lit her own lamp: Janak- Sulabha dialogue
The status of women in Hinduism has traversed through various stages, from liberation to subjugation to partial autonomy. One striking feature in all these phases of woman freedom and empowerment has been a social belief that women have traces of the Divinity of Kali, Durga or Lakshmi. In many regions, the practising Hindus believe that young girls are a form of divine female Goddess Durga, and on special occasions, young girls are worshipped. Even married women are considered symbols of Lakshmi and Annapurna, reiterating this belief in the various rituals associated with the Hindu marriage ceremony.
The contemporary world is buzzing with female energy, and women are pushing the boundaries to defy and challenge the stereotyped norms of marriage and procreation as identification of women. As a society, we are compelled to look back at our ancient past and evaluate the sanctity of the current struggles of fairer gender to exercise their choice and freedom to live.
Sulabha, the renunciant, emerges as one of the significant personalities mentioned in Mahabharat, an example of hope and guidance for women who do not find satisfaction in the prescribed order of life. The detractors and people having shallow understanding compare the position of women in Hinduism, quoting one single statement from Manusmriti, which says that the woman is to be guarded by her father in childhood, husband in youth and son in old age. They claim that women are subservient and dependent on another gender, so they are forced to seek their social identity in the context of a male relative. This statement from the Manusmriti is taken out of context. The various other rules laid out for freedom and respect of women have been put aside, painting a very dismal picture of women's position in Hinduism. The Hindus and non-Hindus interested in Hindu philosophy ignored or were unaware that Manusmriti is a smriti and not Shruti. Smriti texts are to be read and interpreted in light of changing circumstances over Kala (time), desha (place), and guna (personality), interpretation of these texts in the light of current situations and challenges. Smriti texts were intended to create a social structure and to be relevant with time they should be flexible in response to changing space, time and social realities.
In Shanti Parva of Mahabharat, Bhisma Pitamah gave various discourses while lying on the bed of arrows waiting for the right time to leave his earthly body. To a question asked by Yudhisthira about the possibility of attaining emancipation while still in householder's life, Bhisma Pitamah narrated the story of King Janak. The ruler of Mithila, Janak, was known for being well conversant with the Vedas and following governance rules with a detachment from worldly deviations. He had grown above the feeling of love for his family or hatred for his enemy. He epitomised a renunciant who was a practising king and a householder.
During the same time, there lived a woman named Sulabha, a renunciant and a yogini who wandered around the earth. She heard about king Janak, who was emancipated even as a king and a householder. Desirous of meeting Janak in person and interviewing him, she assumed the look of a young, beautiful woman by her yogic powers and presented herself in the court of king Janak.
Seeing a young woman of unrivalled beauty in the guise of a saint, Janak offered her a seat respectfully and was curious to know about her. He asked her who she was, where she had come from, and what she wanted. Duly gratified by the hospitality offered by king Janak, Sulabha mentioned that she wanted to know about the Dharma of liberation or emancipation that the king had achieved.
Sulabha the yogini, by powers of her yogic practice, enters King Janak's subtle mind. Janak, incapable of hiding the pride of being recognised as a practitioner of emancipation, suddenly experienced the presence of a foreign element in his mind. It was yogini Sulabha in his mind. The entire debate between them goes inside their mind.
Janak asks Sulabha the purpose of her act of entering into his mind to check whether he was emancipated or not. He asks her where she has come from and where she will move to once her purpose is solved.
He further adds that he is the disciple of famous sage Panchshikha and belongs to the Parasara race. He has his senses in control like a practising renunciant and doesn't feel love for his family or hatred for his enemy. He is liberated, and at the same time, he acts like a king. For him, a pot of clay and gold has the same value.
He claims that he is well versed in Vedas and follows the rule of a ruler. He is well versed in the philosophy of Sankhya and yoga. He knows that if a sanyasi carries aversion, anger and attachment within himself, he is not liberated. In contrast, if a householder shuns all these emotions and is in absolute control of his senses, he is emancipated. One attains emancipation by knowledge alone, and though He was involved in religion, kingdom, and family, He still possessed the proper knowledge through his study of Vedas.
Janak further said that Sulabha's behaviour doesn't correspond to the mode of life she has adopted. He said, "You have made an illegal union with me by entering my mind. The association of a Brahmin with Kshatriya is not correct. Whether you are single or married, this unsolicited union amounts to sin. According to Dharma, appearing in disguise before a Brahman or a king or before one's wife is a sin. You have appeared in disguise before a king, which is another sin".
Janak further says that being a rishika (ऋषिका), Sulabha had no control over her desires, which takes away all her merits. After Janak spoke at length about his emancipation and how Sulabha had committed a sin by questioning him, it was Sulbha's turn in the debate.
Sulabha, unaffected by the words of Janaka, challenges his understanding of Vedas. She asked Janak if he was genuinely exposed to the philosophy of non-duality, then the questions posed to Sulabha about her identity, purpose and background became insignificant.
Sulabha says that a king cannot be independent and free. A king depends on his council of ministers for suggestions to govern and strategise against his enemies, and a good king needs to have love and affection for his subjects, which is why welfare is done.
Again as Janak claims he is emancipated, how do caste, race or gender bind him? When he questions the union (which is also doubtful) of a Brahman with Kshatriya, Janak is still bound by the material divisions and differences and has not understood the essence of the Veda. An emancipated person doesn't see the difference in colour, varna, gotra or gender. One who is divided in all these differentiations cannot be liberated.
Sulabha tells Janak that he has exposed his belief in caste stereotypes by assuming that she belongs to Brahman varna (whereas she was born in a Kshatriya family). Since he believed that only a person belonging to Brahman varna could practice and learn the Vedas or practice renunciation, this limitation of thought is proof that king Janak had not been emancipated. An emancipated person doesn't see these differences.
Again Janak had questioned the union of Sulbha and himself as wrong and illicit, to which Sulabha rebuts by saying that if you claim to have practised the philosophy of Veda, then how do you question this union? When My self doesn't belong to my body, and when my body is not my identity, there is no union. What harm has been done to you if I entered your intellect? I did not touch your physical body. Only those who consider soul and body to be one can call this act of mine a union of two opposite genders. After hearing the logical debate of Sulabha, Janak accepted that he still had a long way to go to reach the stage of emancipation.
Sulabha, a rishika, belonged to a Kshatriya family and did not get married since there was no compatible match for her, and she had the freedom to decide. She decided to acquire the knowledge of Vedas. The seers and knowledge seekers well respected her. She was not known to belong to any cult or order and did not have a dependency on any relation, Guru, or social group to derive her identification.
The JanakSulabha debate indicates that the struggles of the women achievers to establish and get accepted were always there; in some times of history, it was relatively easy, and sometimes it wasn't easy. But these struggles are not new for us as a nation, and we have supporting events in ancient Indian scriptures for the same. At the start of the debate, Sulabha got ridiculed by Janak for trying to examine his scriptural knowledge and practices. In contrast, at the end of the discussion, there was acceptance and respect for Sulabha. Gender stereotypes have always existed in society in some form, but what is significant is that Indian scriptures have numerous examples where these stereotypes were challenged and rebuttal accepted by a knowledgeable audience.
It is a pleasant surprise for champions of gender equality to be exposed to Vedic texts, which had a very progressive way of addressing women. The Vedic terms like Aditi, Sumangali, Mena, Subudha, and Visruta expressed women as independent, auspicious, deserving of respect, knowledgable, and learned. In ancient Hindu scriptures, there are examples of female Rishika's, teachers, divine goddesses and a housewife. There has been a respectable history of women assuming unconventional roles in Hinduism, and Sulabha is one example of a woman who made choices.
यत्र नार्यस्तु पूज्यन्ते रमन्ते तत्र देवताः।
यत्रैतास्तु न पूज्यन्ते सर्वास्तत्राफलाः क्रियाः।।
(God reside where women are honoured, and where women are not respected, neither god resides nor do they get any merits of sacrifices and worship.)
In the modern world, Honouring women means honouring their freedom to choose and giving them equality of opportunity.