The history of modern Nepali literature spans only a relatively brief period of around a hundred years. Yet, this short span of time witnessed a remarkable growth in literary works, albeit with a noticeable asymmetry tilted toward male authors. In Nepal’s literary landscape, the presence of female writers is nearly imperceptible, as evidenced by the meagre quantity of published works by women and their perceived intellectual dormancy in literary discourse. However, does this disparity accurately reflect a true picture? Were female writers always marginalised in the literary landscape? Was this a setback from the very beginning? Let us embark on an exploration to unearth the root causes.
Historical and Cultural Context
The current predicament observed in Nepali literature was not always the prevailing reality in the past. To understand Nepali society in its civilisational framework, it is essential to acknowledge the dominance of the Hindu religion. The term ‘Hindu’ is believed to have originated from the Indus River Valley Civilisation, referred to as ‘Sindhu’ in the dialectal sense. According to the historical explanation put forth by anthropologists and cultural experts, the phonetic element ‘si’ (/si/) in Sindhu underwent a transformation, inadvertently evolving into ‘hi’ (/hi/) over time, thus giving rise to the word ‘Hindu’—an interpretation widely accepted as the most authentic explanation to date.
Nevertheless, recent research and findings have shed new light on this subject. While this region indeed had a dominant Hindu society, the epicentre of this civilisation might not necessarily be attributed solely to the Indus River Valley Civilisation. When we consider the customary practices, religious beliefs, cultural norms, and political foundations of human settlements emerging near water sources, we can posit that the civilisation of this region originated along the banks of the River Ganges thousands of years ago. Hence, we recognise the Ganges Civilisation as a cultural entity that thrived across regions extending from the east of Madhya Pradesh (which now belongs to India, but was part of the Indian subcontinent encompassing Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan) to certain southern fringes of Burma.
Furthermore, the discovery of marine fossils in the mountainous areas of northern Nepal provides evidence suggesting that the entirety of Nepal was once a part of the Ganges Civilisation. When we delve into the Vedic culture, acknowledged as the archetype of the Ganges Civilisation, we discern the existence of women writers during the earliest stages of world literary history.
The Genesis of Women’s Writing
In our quest to unravel the origins of world literature, it becomes imperative to delve into the history of Vedic texts that emerged during the Ganges Civilisation. The oldest known written work to humankind is the Rigveda. Surprisingly, even in subsequent eras, the annals of women’s writing remain relatively scarce in continents such as Europe, America, and Africa. Hence, we can unequivocally infer that following the evolution of human settlements on Earth, which eventually gave rise to civilisations, the women of this particular civilisation had already emerged as conscious members of society, as scholars, thinkers, and philosophers.
A lucid testament to this development lies within the verses of the Rigveda, which date back over three thousand years. We must acknowledge that this book is not the product of a single individual but rather a collective endeavour, with significant contributions from countless women scholars of that era. When we speak of that epoch, when we paint a picture of that society using references from the book, we encounter a markedly different social order. Women of that time were not only esteemed scholars but also fearless warriors. During the war between Indra, the King of Gods in Hindu mythology, and the demon Namuchi, the latter enlisted a formidable army of women to secure victory. It was an age when girls also performed ‘Upanayana’, a sacred thread-wearing ceremony, that served as a sacrament to pursue Vedic studies. The practice of child marriage did not exist, and women often exercised their autonomy in choosing their life partners through the popular practice of ‘Svayamvara.’ Even widows had the option to either remarry or embrace a hermit’s life. In such a milieu, it was not uncommon for women to occupy the forefront of science and knowledge.
Among the luminous female contributors to this Vedic literature were Apala, Nivavari, Yami, Dakshina, Sikata, Indrani, Aditi, Sri Laksha, Ratri, Vasukrapathni, Vagambhrini, Lopamudra, Sachi, Vishvavara, Shashwati, Sarama, Devayani, and Surya Savitri, to name a few. Additionally, Aangirasi, the author of some of the most potent and renowned mantras (sacred hymns) of Rigveda, Ghosha, who has a mention of her two entire hymns in the tenth Mandala of Rigveda, Gargi, who mostly remained unclothed, was the only female scholar of that era to engage in profound philosophical discussions and challenge Rishi Yajnavalkaya, and Maitreyi, whose hymns from the Vedic literature have been revered as divine proverbs of worldly significance till date, stand as historical examples of the active and prominent roles that women and women’s writing played during that era.
Parallels Between Women of the Vedic Era and Nepali Women
Upon examining the women of that bygone epoch, we uncover a shared ancestral heritage between them and Nepali women, both descending from a common lineage. Hence, while deliberating on matters concerning the profound wisdom displayed by women in that historical era, we recognise that Nepali society, too, emanates from the same civilisation, tracing its roots through the course of lineage. Inarguably, among the various branches of that Vedic era, the present-day Nepali society stands as one of its living extensions.
The Decline of Intellectual Empowerment in Nepali Women
The profound wisdom exhibited by Nepali women over three thousand years ago gradually dissipated during the course of history, leaving a void that the present-day Nepali women have yet to reclaim. Without acknowledging this reality, the intricacies surrounding women’s writing in Nepali literature will remain elusive.
Reflecting on the women of the Vedic era, their intellectual prowess was often overshadowed, if not outright disregarded, in the presence of male scholars of that time. As the reins of power gradually shifted to men and their dominance in society escalated, women scholars found themselves stripped of the respect they once commanded. The erosion of their status commenced with the prohibition on women reading the Vedas—a body of knowledge that owed its creation to the collective efforts of women as well. Under various pretexts, different social policies were enacted as part of a conspiracy to diminish women’s empowerment and constrain them in every possible manner.
Subsequent practices emerged, such as child marriages, burdening women with household responsibilities from a tender age, considering the upbringing of children as their sole duty, the horrific practice of Sati, where women were compelled to self-immolate alongside their deceased husbands, the denial of access to education and knowledge beyond the domestic realm, the glorification of polygamy as a symbol of male valour and monogamous marriages as the epitome of female fidelity, the establishment of a culture where lineage was traced through male family members while married women were identified solely by their husbands’ names, and most significantly, the appropriation of wealth and inheritance rights by men. These norms and customs effectively shackled women with chains of restrictions, relegating them to the infinite boundaries of obscurity for thousands of years. Furthermore, during this transitional phase of history when women’s wisdom witnessed a precipitous decline, Nepali women, in particular, endured this degradation to a greater extent for another hundred years.
The Subsequent Phases of Women’s Writing
Amidst the evolving world, faint traces of women’s writing began to emerge, albeit within the confines of limited knowledge about their own rights and substantial issues like freedom. Their literary endeavours were initially tinged with devotional sentiments and religious fallacies that aimed to confine them once again. Despite certain feudal doctrines, such as the belief that a solitary life leads to a closer connection with God and seeking refuge in God leads to salvation, serving as a source of inspiration for their thoughts and writings, the deep-rooted societal dogmas imprinted on their minds over thousands of years hindered the growth of their consciousness. Their intellectual development was hampered by blind adherence to concocted scriptures that propagated notions such as present-life suffering being the consequence of grave mistakes committed in past lives. In this context, a frail history of women’s writing began to take shape only a few hundred years ago, intertwined with the recitation of devotional hymns and prayers.
The Current State of Affairs
Nepali society has not remained impervious to the influence of global changes, which have gradually impacted its traditional mindset and practices. The recognition of the importance of educating girls has gained traction, marking the beginning of Nepali women’s struggle to break free from societal constraints. The realm of literature is no exception.
In the present day, while some promising possibilities for change are evident in Nepali society, there are still concerted efforts to confine women to domestic chores through coercion and manipulation. Women in Nepali society are often treated not as human beings but as mere commodities within the household. Bound by the threads of religion and shackled by superstition, they are persistently confined to the walls of the kitchen. Paradoxically, in the guise of modernization, the global market portrays them as mere objects of commercial value – toy dolls, ornamental showpieces, or mannequins for various clothing brands. Their consciousness, even in comprehending and navigating the complexities of everyday life, has been crippled. Thus, women have endured the most subjugation within Nepali society for countless years.
In a society where even venturing outside freely or moving about without fear poses a threat due to the prevalent socio-criminal mentality, women confined within the boundaries of their homes are not only deprived of their freedom and rights but are also unaware of the true meaning of these rights and freedoms. Unfortunately, in some cases, educated and modern women have misconstrued women’s liberation as the right to roam and dress freely, change partners at will, and indulge in worldly pleasures akin to men.
Hence, the question arises: What does women’s liberation truly entail? What was its essence in the past, and what does it look like today? How should it have been, and how do we attain it? A thorough and profound study analysing its core principles through extensive analysis, discussions, and actionable steps is still lacking, preventing the emergence of a strong philosophical standpoint.
Currently, there has been a significant increase in the quantity of women’s writing. However, qualitatively, it remains in an embryonic stage. There have been no notable changes observed between the past and the present. Given that women have not even secured a minor representation in society, it is unsurprising to find only a minuscule fraction of potential female voices in our literature—voices that are both regular and impactful, scientifically and philosophically profound, and truly remarkable.
This article can only scratch the surface of how Manu Smriti, the ancient scripture aimed at subjugating women’s legacy in society, intricately wove them into a web of fabricated moral principles, entrapping them within a socio-mental dungeon. A more extensive exploration of this subject would require a separate article. The sole purpose of this piece is to shed light on the existence of our women scholars, thinkers, and philosophers in the annals of human civilisation around four thousand years ago. Despite their significant presence, they were unable to preserve that culture over the next three thousand years, leading to the enforced confinement of women within the four walls of domesticity. Although women’s writing has made strides in recent times, it still struggles to attain equal recognition. An arduous endeavour is necessary to shift societal norms and values in their favour.
In my view, the primary impediment to women’s writing in Nepali literature lies in the lack of clear vision and a pertinent philosophical foundation that can address the underlying issues on profound grounds. This challenge, unfortunately, is not exclusive to female writers but is equally pervasive in male writing as well. This contagious setback has taken root like a pernicious disease, corroding the literary landscape of women’s writing. Therefore, it is imperative for us all to recognise this need, approach it with a scientific vision, and seek the truth to forge a path towards progress.
As we delve deeper into the history of women’s writing and the setbacks it has faced, let us remain steadfast in our pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. By acknowledging the rich heritage of our women scholars from antiquity and recognising the barriers that have constrained their literary expression, we can chart a course for a future where women’s voices and contributions find their rightful place in the tapestry of Nepali literature. This calls for a collective effort to dismantle the entrenched prejudices and misconceptions that have stifled women’s potential for far too long. Embracing a profound philosophy that transcends gender biases will undoubtedly be the cornerstone of a brighter literary future, where women’s writing in Nepal can thrive and flourish.
Editor’s note: 500 women from Kapilvastu, Nepal took refuge to Lord Buddha led by Mahaprajapati Gotami, Buddha’s foster mother, becoming the first nuns or Buddha’s woman disciples. These women composed the songs and poems known as The Therigatha. Charles Hallisey who translated them into English from Pali language in 1953 talks more about it. He writes , “The Therigatha is an anthology of poems by and about the first Buddhist women. These women were theris, “senior ones,” among ordained Buddhist women and they bore that epithet because of their religious achievements. The theris in the Therigatha are enlightened women and most of the poems (gatha) in the anthology are the songs of their experiences. Dhammapala, the sixth-century Buddhist commentator on the Therigatha, calls the theris’ poems udāna, “inspired utterances,” and by doing so, he associated the Therīgatha with a venerable Buddhist speech genre. For Dhammapala, the characteristic mark of an udana was that “the utterance” would be “one or more verses consisting of knowledge about some situation accompanied by the euphoria that is felt there, for an udana is proclaimed by way of a composition of verses and caused to rise up through joy and euphoria…”¹
As salt just seems to go with food, the adjective “first” and the Therīgāthā seem to go together. It is easy to see why. The Therīgāthā is an anthology of poems composed by some of the first Buddhists; while the poems of the Therīgāthā are clearly nowhere near as old as the poetry of the Rig Veda, for example, they are still some of the first poetry of India; the Therigatha’s poems are some of the first poems by women in India; as a collection, the Therīgatha is the first anthology of women’s literature in the world. “
About the author
Jayant Sharma is a writer, literary translator, and editor who works in Nepali-English language pair. He has more than two dozen of literary volumes translated to his credit out of which some noteworthy ones are ‘Guerrilla Girl’, ‘Unsung Heroes’, ‘Children Stories from Nepal’, ‘In the Battle of Kirtipur’, ‘Gurkha War Poems’, and ‘Odes from the Himalayas’ to name a few.
He is also the publisher and editor of an English literary magazine SATHI, which promotes Nepali literature through English translations and the founder of translateNEPAL, which is an initiative of representing Nepal in the global literary scene.
Jayant Sharma also contributes as a writer to major national dailies and South-Asian journals regarding arts, literature, and culture. He writes in Nepali and English both and has a collection of poems ‘To Whom It May Concern’ published from Australia. Currently, he is working on his collection of short stories.
A computer engineer by profession, he switches back and forth between the likes of technology and literature. Right now he is based in Australia.