Questions: Is the use of a veil by women a standard Vedic practice confirmed by scriptures? We see the word “samvita” and it’s translated as veiled, is this correct? What is the standard of chastity in the Vedas for women?
Answer by Hridayananda das Goswami:
“Samvita” does not rule out a veil, but it certainly doesn’t rule it in. The literal meaning, “well covered/dressed” is relative. We know for example that in many conservative parts of India, during various periods, chaste, respectable women did not cover the top part of their body, not to speak of their heads and faces. We see this clearly in exterior temple sculpture where even goddesses, presumably the most respectable ladies, are very scantily dressed. I have seen this myself, in certain rural parts of India.
As a general point, we see throughout history that the “indecent” part of the anatomy shifts over time. For example, during some periods in Europe, a lady’s neck, or arms, was considered more erotic than her bust, which perhaps was seen as maternal.
Certainly there is a long history of respectable women covering themselves, so as not to be seen by unworthy, lower classes, but this tradition is not universal either in time or geography. Thus, although we know that sometimes Greek ladies covered parts of their head or face, most Greek statues show those ladies bare-headed, along with the normal bare-headed goddesses.
My conclusion: chastity is an eternal principle. How chaste women dress varies according to time and place. We do know that Draupadi and other chaste women of Krishna-lila were “well covered”.
We also have stories of Indra and Candra [demigods of Sun and Moon respectively] seducing the wives of others. It seems that only sometimes there is punishment for this behavior.
We also have the cases of heavenly ‘society girls’, as Prabhupada called them, Apsaras, who serve Indra by seducing ambitious yogis and reducing their shakti. Of course there were also the famous prostitutes of Dvaraka.
Apart from that, there are also cultural variations between city and village culture. When Krishna entered a big city like Indraprastha or Hastinapura, the women would go to the roof and worship Him as He passed on the road. In Vrindaban, there is no mention of this. Rather we find much more informal village culture. Of course in big cities, Krishna’s entrance was accompanied by heavily armed troops, huge animals such as elephants and war horses, loud, pushing crowds etc. Thus the women wisely went to the roofs.
Direct evidence for the difference in city and village culture comes from the greatest devotees, the Gopis, who say, “Now that Krishna has gone to the city and become sophisticated, he will no longer care for village girls.” In the Mahabharata, we also find clear differences between different regions. There are frequent references to the unusual customs of the Uttara Kurus, Northern Kurus, referring to those living in the Himalayan foothills, and in the mountains themselves. Similarly, there are different marriage customs in different regions. For example, when Bhishma goes to the Northwest to secure Madri as a second wife for Pandu, Madri’s brother Salya tells him that, “in our kingdom, we don’t give dowries with our women. The groom must give a dowry.” Bhishma, without opposition, gives a dowry on behalf of Pandu.
Similarly, in dress and other cultural details, there is variation, not only geographic, but also in different ages. For example, the Bhagavatam states in the 4th canto that Prthu Maharaja introduced urban planning, which did not exist before him. Also, in the Mahabharata, great sages like Shukra and Shvetaketu declare new “dharmas”, such as monogamy and brahminical abstinence from liquor, based on unpleasant consequences of those activities.
And of course non-sanatana dharma varies in various yugas.
Conclusion: great Acaryas emphasize Sanatana dharma, which is Bhagavata dharma.
With best wishes,
Hridayananda das Goswami