The Rishikas: Who were they? Why are they important?

Very little is known about women sages and seers of the Vedic era, popularly known as Rishikas. In this article U. Mahesh Prabhu explains briefly about these colossal woman and, also, the reason for our ignorance about them.

The word Veda comes from the root word Vid, which implies Wisdom. Vedic texts, including the Vedas, Upanishads, Aranyakas, Shastras and Sutras are collection of greater knowledge and deeper wisdom on achieving sustainable peace and prosperity at an individual as well as collective level.

The sages and seers who authored these texts are collectively referred to as Rishis. The word Rishi is made of two other Vedic Sanskrit word, namely Ru or Ignorance and Shina or Dispelled. Rishi is anyone who has dispelled one’s ignorance. Like the word Guru, the word Rishi is essentially gender neutral. It can be used for men, women or, even, the third sex.

This is one of the many reasons why a great many significant contribution of women Rishis, better addressed as Rishikas have gone ignored for an exceptionally long time now.

One must understand Rishikas are not the same as Rishi Kanyas, who were daughters of Rishis and Rishikas.

There are over 36 Rishikas specifically find mentioned in various Vedic texts. The following are the names of the important Rishikas in alphabetical order:

Aditi, Aghnya, Brhati, Chandra, Devakama, Devi, Dhruva, Havya, Ida, Jyota, Kamya, Kshama, Mahi, Mena, Nari, Purandhih, Ranta, Ratavari, Sanjeya, Sarasvati, Simhi, Shivi, Shivatama, Stri, Subhaga, Subhada, Sumangali, Susheva, suvarcha, Suyama, Syona, Virini, Vishruta, Yashaswati and Yoshi.

However, just because there are more mentions of Rishis than Rishikas, it is not to conclude that contribution the women in making of Vedas were less or any insignificant. The truth is quite the contrary.

Vinayam or Humility was considered as the greatest value in the Vedic period. In the absence of humility, a person was considered Agyani or bereft of knowledge. Mada or Vanity was completely ignored. So much was the extent of humility that most sages and seers would use a pen name to identify their work.

For example, Chanakya or Vishnu Gupta introduces himself as Kautilya when he presents his edition of Arthashastra. While writing Panchatantra he calls himself as Vishnu Sharma. One preceding author of Arthashastra introduces oneself as Pishuna which simply means Insignificant.

Author of Mahabharata who is known as Vyasa was in fact a pen name. His real name was Krishna Dwaipayana. The Vedic Sanskrit word Vyasa implies one who is trying to get out of Vyasana or addictions.

Vedic Rishis and Rishikas unanimously believed that everyone must be one’s own savior. The very reason why there is no concept of prophets or saviors in original Vedic texts.

The primary reason Rishikas are revered but so little known is owing to their extreme humility. Most Rishikas are known owing to accounts of Rishis and Yogis. In the Shanti Parva chapter of Vyasa’s Mahabharata, Bhishma recollects stories of various Rishikas to Yudhishthira, while answering many interesting questions. In one story he collects an incident where a great might and powerful Rishi is humbled by a housewife who also happened to be a Rishika. He identifies her as Anamika.

In the Vedic era, knowledge was transmitted through Guru-Shishya Parampara – Preceptor-Preceptee tradition. And every Vedic texts recognize Matru or Mother as the Adi Guru or first preceptor. This was not just a figure of speech, but also a reality.

At a time when education was an integral part of life; children were prepared for a life of knowledge and wisdom during pregnancy – Garbha Samskaras. Vedic women were always literate. They were the primary custodians of essential knowledge.

When most people cite some Vedic quote promoting misogyny, one must always bear in mind that not everything in Sanskrit is Vedic. Most misogynistic statements follow Panini Sanskrit, which comes from Panini’s Astadhyayi. They were much later version of Sanskrit and were never followed by any Vedic Sanskrit texts including Kautilya’s Arthashastra.

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