While too clever by half modernists sometimes sneer at the word putra (पुत्रः as a singular subject in the प्रथमा विभक्ति/nominative case) when invoked in a Hindu mantra, believing it to be misogynistic, do interpretations of Hindu scriptures or knowledge of the language of Sanskrit support this contention? They don’t.
‘Putra’ in scriptures
There are mantras invoking which childless Hindu couples seek children. Some of them have the word “putra” in them, some don’t. For example, the mantra पुमांसं पत्रं जाने ताम् पुमणानु जयतं भगवती पुत्रनाम माता जतनाम जन्मष्याम यान ॐ नामा शक्तिरूपाय राजराजेश्री मम गृहे पुत्रं कुरु कुरु स्वाहा has it but ॐ नमो भगवते जगत्प्रसूतये नमः and ॐ श्रीं ह्रीं क्लीं ग्लौं देवकीसुत गोविन्द वासुदेव जगत्पते । देहि मे तनयं कृष्ण त्वामहं शरणं गतः don’t.
The first mantra seeks a putra from Goddess Shakti. The second invokes God as the creator of the world. The third seeks a child from Krishna. So, how do we know that in mantras that do have “putra” — or in those that don’t — the believer is not seeking a son? The evidence is found in Skanda Purana in a dialogue between gods where the word “putra” has been used.
In Skanda Purana, Brahma addresses Daksha, saying the latter will be bestowed with a daughter who will save him from the hell called “put”. The word is described as the “one who saves the father from a hell that goes by the name put (पुत्).
The relevant shloka appears in the 40th verse of the 22nd chapter in the said Purana as
Then, in Srimad Devi Bhagavatam Mahatmya, where Vishnu explains to Narada the importance of Shasthi, the goddess for infants and children, while “putra” appears many times, only in some places, it specifically means a son [click on the two links in this paragraph one by one, the first for the original text in Sanskrit and the second for its English translation].
On the basis of scriptures, therefore, the allegation of gender bias against Hinduism does not hold.
As word or prefix in Sanskrit
While “son” is the most popular sense in which “putra” is used in Sanskrit, the word has other meanings and derivatives. Putrapriya (पुत्रप्रिय), for example, may mean one who is fond of his or her child, whatever the sex of the child may be, whereas the word may also imply “something dear to the son”. Then, putraprada (पुत्रप्रद) is one who can produce offspring, not necessarily sons. Putrakṛtha (पुत्रकृथ) is “procreation of children” who may or may not be sons. Significantly, putrakāmyā (पुत्रकाम्या) is a woman who wishes to bear a child who may be a son or a daughter and putradātrī (पुत्रदात्री) is the mother who gives her child (for some service).
Putrabhāva (पुत्रभाव) is a “filial relation”, not dependent on the child’s gender. Putrakṛtak (पुत्रकृतक) is someone “adopted as a child”.
And curiously, putrajananī (पुत्रजननी) is not the mother of a son but a certain species of plant! As is putrabhadrā (पुत्रभद्रा). The prefix “putra” in these two words even inspired the scientific (botanical) nomenclature of a plant — Putranjiva roxburghii. It’s the lucky bean tree, referred to in Sanskrit as putranjīvaka (पुत्रञ्जीवक), as in Ayurveda, the plant is said to have paediatric medicinal qualities.
A more compelling argument from the vocabulary is the word putraswīkāra (पुत्रस्वीकार), which, unlike how it sounds, does not mean accepting a son. It means adoption (of a child of any gender). Putrapravara (पुत्रप्रवर) is the firstborn, whatever be the child’s sex.
Putrasangkarin (पुत्रसङ्करिन्) is “mixing up or confusing children”. Putraputrādinī (पुत्रपुत्रादिनी) is an unnatural mother, either a stepmom or a surrogate one.
Putrakalatranāshabhīta (पुत्रकलत्रनाशभीत) implies being fearful that something bad might become of one’s wife and children. With all these examples, the notion that “putra” may only mean a son and nothing else is blown to smithereens.
In this article, the English words “sex” and “gender” have been used in the biological sense interchangeably.