First of all, let’s be clear that men and women are not identical.
Some of the differences between them can be discared as social impositions, but not all. There are, for example, very basic physical differences that cannot be denied. To be blunt, men have a penis and no breasts while women have a vulva and breasts.
The body and mind are intimately related. The undeniable physical difference between men and women generates and/or reflects a very basic underlying difference in their minds. The male sexual organ penetrates and ejaculates. Similarly the male psyche is more assertive and has more immediate goals. The female sexual organs receive and cultivate. Similarly the female psyche is more receptive (perceptive) and has longer-term goals.
This is a basic inherent difference between men and women, but it can be exaggerated or minimized based on culture, upbringing, etc.
Every individual man or woman winds up with a very complex combination of masculine and feminine principles. Nonetheless, there is a different baseline in the bodies, and thus the minds, of male and female. The question at hand however, is whether these differences amount to males being categorically “more intelligent” than females.
Male and Female Intelligence
Women excel at some facets of intelligence and men excel at others. So it appears that male and female intellect is different, but not that one is categorically superior or inferior to the other.
It does not appear so. Current psychology recognizes that intelligence is multifaceted. Women excel at some facets of intelligence and men excel at others.
One may argue, “The great geniuses of history are mostly men.”
One reason may be a bias in the recording of history and in how we asses “genius.”
This explains why many of the most outstandingly genius humans have been males.
Another fascinating factor here is that men statistically deviate from their average IQ more widely than women. This explains why many of the most outstandingly genius humans have been males. It also explains why many of the most outstandingly stupid humans are also males.
One may argue, “Almost all the great leaders of history are men.”
Again, one reason may be the bias of historians, and the assesment of “leadership.”
Another answer simply reminds us that men and women are not identical. The male body and mind – with its muscular strength, immediate goals, and assertive nature tends to take leadership roles in more obvious and measurable ways.
One may say, “Women are better at emotions, not intellect.”
Women are more emotional, but this does not indicate that they are irrational. “Irrational” is a negative emotional condition.
Women are more emotional, but this does not indicate that they are irrational.
Women are more receptive – more perceptive. This acuity certainly extends into the emotional realm.
What makes Vedic culture “Vedic” is that it defines itself from the Vedic śāstra (sacred texts). So the real question is, Does Vedic Śāstra conclude that women are less intelligent than men?
Does Vedic śāstra (sacred text) conclude that women are less intelligent than men? Let us look at a few contentious quotes.
Kunti, “We Women” – ŚB 1.8.20
One statement from Queen Kuntī is sometimes cited as evidence that Vedic culture considers women less intelligent than men. This statement, however, does not appear in a section concerned with a comparison between men and women, nor does it even have a direct statement regarding intelligence.
The statement is the third verse in her very poetic outpouring of petition to Krishna. In the first verse she said, “You are beyond perception.” (alakṣya) The second continues, saying, “A curtain of delusion covers our eyes, making them incapable of perceiving you, Adhokṣaja.”
The verse in question then says,
tathā paramahaṁsānāṁ munīnām amalātmanām
bhakti-yoga-vidhānārthaṁ kathaṁ paśyema hi striyaḥ
“Thus only the greatest swans amongst scholars, who are not covered by that curtain of delusion, can see you through the conduit of devotion (bhakti-yoga). So, how can we ladies see you now!?”
It is unfounded to consider this a comparison between men and women. It is a comparison between paramahaṁsa and regular people.
One may ask, “Is it a comparison between paramahaṁsa and women?”
Yes, but this does not imply that women cannot also be paramahaṁsa. Such a conclusion would contradict the well-established siddhānta that anyone can become perfect in bhakti and attain the highest spiritual realizations (paramahaṁsa).
One may ask, “Why does she say striyaḥ (women) and not lokāḥ (ordinary people)?”
Because she is a woman. When we speak we often identify ourselves by the groups we belong to.
One may ask, “Why does she say striyaḥ (plural) and not strīḥ (singular)?”
There are three complimentary reasons:
(A) In Sanskrit “we” is often used for “I.”
(B) Similarly, people often talk from the perspective of being a member of a group.
(C) She was speaking to Krishna via addressing the women who surrounded her. [1.8.45 indicates that she was standing with other women.]
Śrīla Viśvanātha’s comment indicates that she is speaking on the basis of being a member of a group.
One may say, “The point of her identification with women as a group is because women are less intelligent. That is why she expresses surprise that she can see Krishna.”
It is unfounded to consider this a comparison between men and women. It is a comparison between paramahaṁsa and regular people. Nor is it a comparison of intellect, it is a comparison of realized spirituality: bhakti.
Nothing in the verse or anything surrounding it suggests that Kuntī is comparing her intelligence with the intelligence of paramahaṁsa munīs. Kuntī devī identifies the outstanding trait of a paramahaṁsa munī (distinguishing him or her from the more common munī) as their devotion (bhakti) not their intellect. She has said so explicitly, by describing the paramahaṁsa munī as bhakti-yoga-vidhānārtha.
Devahuti, “After all, I am less intelligent” – ŚB 3.25.30
In Chapter 25 of Canto Three, Śrī Devahūti asked her son how she could attain liberation. Her son, Śrī Kapila, explained that she could do it by yoga. In verses 28-30 she asked him to specify whicy type of yoga would be best, and to explain it in an easy-to-grasp manner. In verse 30, she specifically says:
tad etan me vijānīhi yathāhaṁ manda-dhīr hare
sukhaṁ buddhyeya durbodhaṁ yoṣā bhavad-anugrahāt
Oh Hari, be comapssionate,
explain this complex subject in an easy-to-grasp way
for I am a woman of slow thought.
No comparison between men and women is made here. Devahuti simply says, “my thoughts (dhī) are slow (manda)” or “my concentration (dhī) is weak (manda)” – the latter translation being perhaps more applicable since the context is yoga, which requires fixed concentration (meditation).
One may argue that her use of the word “woman” (yoṣā) implies that this quality of being slow- or weak-witted (manda-dhī) is shared by all or most women. To make this argument more than just an argument, one would have to bring evidence that Vedic śāstra indeed believes that women are categorically slow- or weak-witted.
Why then does she mention that she is a woman? To express that her mind is mostly on normal things like raising children – and therefore she does not consider herself a qualified mystic yogi. After all, she is Kapila’s mother (lit. yoṣā). Thus another way to translate this is, “Please explain this complex subject in a simple way, for your mother has weak concentration.”
Does Devahūti indeed have a substandard wit? No. She speaks on behalf of the common man, and she speaks out of humility. The Bhāgavatam has already noted her as a yogi equal in stature to her husband, Kardama – who performed every pennance and austerity he performed, in addition to her own. Her son, Kapila deva, recognized this clearly, which is why he chose her as the recipient of the very intellectually complex and scientifically detailed system of sankhya yoga. And (see 3.32.39-43), asked her to teach it to others.
Therefore this statement of Devahūti is not an example of śāstra claiming that women are less intelligent than men.
Sūta, “Fools” – ŚB 1.4.25
A statement made by Śrī Sūta is sometimes cited as evidence that Vedic culture considers women less intelligent than men.
strī-śūdra-dvijabandhūnāṁ trayī na śruti-gocarā
karma-śreyasi mūḍhānāṁ śreya evaṁ bhaved iha
iti bhāratam ākhyānaṁ kṛpayā muninā kṛtam
“Women, Laborers, and the so-called educated classes cannot grasp the three Vedas. These fools therefore certainly could not comprehend what was in their best interest, what they should strive for. This is why the Muni [Vyāsa] compiled the Tale of Bhārata [Mahābhārata].”
Again the context here is not to compare men and women, it is to explain why Vyāsa compiled the Mahābhārata and, subsequently, the Bhāgavatam.
The verse does call some people “fools” (mūḍha), indicating that someone is “less intelligent” than someone else. But it does not say that women are less intelligent than men. Specifically it says that women (strī), laborers (śūdra) and the so-called educated classes (dvija-bandhu) are fools.
This verse is not a comparison of men and women, it is a comparison of the people of kali-yuga with the people of previous ages.
Thus the verse does not support the claim that women are more foolish than men. It supports the idea that women and men are more foolish then they need to be to understand the Veda effectively.
One may ask, “Does this mean that there are some men who are intelligent enough, but never any women?”
A few verses prior to this (17-18), Sūta stated that all people in this age (kali-yuga) are bereft of potency and are dvija (“educated”) in name only (dvija- bandhu). The phrase kalau śūdra sambhavāḥ confirms this. Thus the verse actually means that everyone in kali-yuga is unintelligent.
One may ask, “Why are women mentioned distinctly?”
Strī literally means expanders, procreators. It indicates women in the role of mothers. Other words can indicate women in other ways, nārīnām, for example. These statements group people according to their primary duties. Mothers have certain duties, so they are listed as a group when mentioning the other groups of duties, such as laborers, farmers, governors, and priests.
One may ask, “Does this indicate that women are not educated in Vedic culture?”
Krishna, “Lower Birth” – Gītā 9.32
Some cite a statement of Krishna in Gītā as evidence that Vedic culture held women to be of lower birth, and therefore inferior to and less intelligent than men.
māṁ hi pārtha vyapāśritya ye ’pi syuḥ pāpa-yonayaḥ
striyo vaiśyās tathā śūdrās te ’pi yānti parāṁ gatim
“Pātha, if someone turns to me he can certainly attain the supreme destination, even if he might be from a sinful family, or a woman, or a merchant, or a laborer.”
Again, the context here is not a comparison of women and men, nor is there a direct statement that women are less intelligent than men.
The obvious thrust of the verse is that everyone can attain the supreme spiritual perfection through bhakti-yoga. Even those who are not qualified for other paths of yoga — those with a sinful family background (pāpa-yonaya), those who are mothers/ women (striya), those who are money-minded (vaiśya), and those who are simpletons (śūdra).
We must note that there is no mention of intelligence in this verse. These classes of people are disqualified from other paths of yoga for reason which may or may not include intelligence. On the whole, mothers/housewives and the money-minded, for example, are simply too busy and distracted to do the study and discipline required for jñāna-yoga. On the whole, simple laborers lack intellect. And, on the whole, those without culture (pāpa-yonaya) lack the inspiration.
One may ask, “Does this statement show that it is sinful to be born as a woman?”
It may seem that women, laberors and businessmen are described as three examples of “sinful births” (pāpa-yognaya). But it is more accurate the “sin-born” are a fourth group, a distinct group of people outside the Vedic culture.
Even if we think of women, laberors and businessmen as three types of “sinful births,” still we have to see that it is not a comparison between men and women, for two of the three so called sin-born are male.
Ṛg Veda 8.33.17
In fact it is quite willfully ignorant and ludicrous to interpret 8.33.17 as a denigration of women, it is quite the opposite.
Sometimes Rig Veda 8.33.17 is quoted in hopes of establishing that the Veda considers women unintelligent. We can only arrive at this conclusion if we take 8.33.17 away from the verse before and the two verses after it, in other words, this conclusion can only be supported when the verse is divorced from its context.
8.33.17 is a hymn to Indra. The first 15 verses glorify Indra and invoke / invite his presence. The 16th verse introduces the purpose of the hymn.
“She will not accord with my order nor with yours
She accords with someone else, someone who has ruined our relationship.”
The purpose of this hymn is to deal with quarrel and disharmony in a married couple, especially that which arises from an extramarital connection.
Verse 17 (the verse in question) further describes the wife being disharmonious with the husband.
“Thus even you, Indra, will agree that her mind cannot be changed
by reason or argument.”
Verse 18 and 19 say what is to be done about it. 18 says:
“I will make a great effort to yoke these two horses together again
so that their wild, divergent course will once again pull the cart forward.”
This indicates that, if the wife will not align with the husband, the husband has the responsibility to align with the wife. Thus the “pair of horses” are “yoked together” and begin to cooperate.
“I will cast down my eyes humbly and not look up.
Within I will become the woman.
The woman shall become my essence, my God.”
It should now be clear that this hymn from Ṛg Veda is not a comparison between the intellect of men and women, and certainly does not draw the conclusion that women are “less intelligent.” In fact it is quite willfully ignorant and ludicrous to interpret 8.33.17 as a denigration of women, it is quite the opposite.
Certainly there are cases where the Vedas describe women as being foolish, uneducated and so on, but there are just as many or more cases where they describe men in the same way. In the end, I simply do not find a statement saying that “women are less intelligent than men.”
Krishna, “Among Women I am Intelligence” Gītā 10.34
There are clear, direct statements that women are especially intelligent.
Though we could not find a clear, direct statement that women are less intelligent than men, we can easily find a very clear and very direct statement that Krishna considers women to epitomize intelligence.
kīrtiḥ śrīr vāk ca nārīṇāṁ smṛtir medhā dhṛtiḥ kṣamā
“Among women I am the goddess Kīriti – the epitome of venerable reputation, Śrī – the epitome of beauty and opulence, Vāk – the epitome of excellent speech, Smṛti – the epitome of memory and contemplation, Medhā – the epitome of intelligence, Dhṛti – the epitome of forbearance, and Kṣamā – the epitome of forgiveness.”
The goddesses Sarasvatī, Vāk, Medhā, and Smṛti epitomize the highest standards of education, verbal excellence, intellect, and contemplation respectively. Krishna associates these qualities not just with the goddesses but with their facsimiles, human females (nārīṇām).
Indeed the important Vedic mantra like Gāyatrī and even the Vedas themselves are personified in female form.
Gopīs and Rādhārānī
It would be very difficult to explain why the most educated, expert and qualified spiritual beings would appear in a form even resembling women, if women are truly inferior and less intelligent.
It is also quite conspicuous that Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas consider females to be the most perfected and accomplished spiritualists. This refers, of course, to the gopīs and their epitome, Śrīmatī Rādhārānī – who have unparalleled expertise in all the 64 departments of education, and who are the supreme vedāntists.
It may be argued that the gopīs are not ordinary women, but they are women nonetheless. It would be very difficult to explain why the most educated, expert and qualified spiritual beings would appear in a form even resembling women, if women are truly inferior and less intelligent.
A.C. Bhaktivedānta Swāmī Prabhupāda
A.C. Bhaktivedānta Swāmī Prabhupāda, ISKCON’s founder, always behaved in an egalitarian and elevated manner towards the women amongst his followers. However, it is also true that he did not correct the extreme sexism that manifest in ISKCON over the course of 1972 ~ 1974, and consistently described women as being less intelligent than men.
Prabhupāda’s area of expertise was how to develop a deep, intimate relationship with Sri Sri Radha Krishna – thereby attaining the supreme bliss and self-realization. He often discussed incidental points as well, but his followers tend to focus on these incidental points (the location of the moon, the size of women’s brains, and so on) far more than they concentrate on his main teachings. To make matters worse, they also insist that his incidental statements have the same importance and authority as his main teachings.
They insist that he is absolutely perfect in every sense and in every subject – therefore whatever he said about the moon, women, etc. must be accepted as absolute truth. And they say that those who do not embrace the same zealousness are not true followers of Srila Prabhupada.
Why must we insist that Prabhupada has to be an expert on the details of male-female psychology, etc.? Is it not enough that he is an expert on the most important topic in life: Krishna-bhakti?
Why must the guru be made so artificial, as if he or she cannot be an individual with his or her own subjectivity. In truth, the subjectivity of the guru is very important, for it gives them the ability to perform their key function: connecting certain other subjective individuals to the absolute truth.
Srila Prabhupāda’s incidental statements about women and so on come from more modern post-Moghul and post-British India. For example, many are directly tracable to the misogynist political strategist Cāṇakya, many others come from his early 20th century British education at Scottish Churches College. Some may be the result of his own subjective experience of women and marriage, which has been documented as being unpleasant.
Vraja Kishor dāsa