Demystefying the myth that women and the śūdra varṇa were not allowed to study the Vedas – review of Class VI CBSE History Text Book

A month ago, a concerned parent brought to our notice some of the content that was published and taught in her child’s CBSE curriculum. After few rounds of discussion, deliberation and even bringing it to the notice of the authorities in our State (Karnataka), we felt that it is time some of us took up a review of the school text books. For us, this was more out of curiosity in knowing what our children are being taught. In this write-up, we attempt to present a deeper understanding of some of the incorrect interpretations which are repeatedly presented in the text book, and for which not many satisfactory answers are found. The reason, as explained in this write-up, is probably because we are looking for answers in the wrong place and in the wrong manner. 

Do you know what is in your child’s History text book?

We took up the CBSE VI standard history book “Our Pasts Part 1” for review. The book was reviewed over a period of one month in Dec 2020. We found many questionable statements pertaining to history and chronology, which is best left to the able minds of Indic historians to rectify. What we will focus on in this write-up is slightly different.

What needs to be brought to our collective attention is something that runs almost as a theme all through the book, sometimes openly and at other times as an insinuation. That theme has to do with how, apparently, women and the śūdra varṇa were not allowed to study the Vedas or participate in Vedic offering and rituals. This has been mentioned repeatedly in different contexts in the book. See the below examples:

In the context of explaining Ashvamedha Yagna: Chapter 6, Page 54

“The ordinary people, the vish or vaishya, also brought gifts. However, some people, such as those who were regarded as shudras by the priests, were excluded from many rituals.”

In the context of explaining Varnas: Chapter 6, Page 56

“Last were the Shudras, who had to serve the other three groups and could not perform any rituals. Often, women were also grouped with the shudras. Both women and shudras were not allowed to study the Vedas. ………

Why did people oppose the system of varnas?”

In the context of mentioning Upanishads: Chapter 7, Page 68

“Most Upanishad thinkers were men, especially brahmins and rajas. Ocassionally, there is mention of women thinkers, such as Gargi, who was famous for her learning, and participated in debates held in royal courts.”

In the context of Buddhism: Chapter 7, Page 66

The Buddha taught in the language of the ordinary people, Prakrit, so that everybody could understand his message.

What was the language used to compose the Vedas?

In the context of Buddhism: Chapter 7, Page 69

Ordinary people could understand the teachings of Mahaveera and his followers, because they used Prakrit.

In the context of Ashramas: Chapter 7, Page 70

The system of ashramas allowed men to spend some part of their lives in meditation. Generally, women were not allowed to study the Vedas, and they had to follow the ashramas chosen by their husbands.

Q. Were all the four varnas allowed to participate in the system of ashramas?

In the context of Kalidasa: Chapter 11, Page 118

Kalidasa is known for his plays depicting life in the king’s court. An interesting feature about these plays is that the king and most brahmins are shown as speaking Sanskrit, while women and men other than the king and brahmins use Prakrit.

In the context of prashastis: Chapter 11, Page 121

Do you think ordinary people would have read and understood the prashastis? Give reasons for your answer.

In the context of Puranas: Chapter 12, Page 128

The Puranas were written in simple Sanskrit verse, and were meant to be heard by everybody, including women and shudras, who were not allowed to study the Vedas.

You can read the text book from the NCERT website here – https://ncert.nic.in/textbook.php?fess1=8-11

How do we comprehend the Vedas?

The Vedas have been analysed from the perspective of sociologists, feminists and historians. Accordingly, the arguments for and against what is prescribed in the Vedas have been argued on the basis of sociology, gender and historicity. Such arguments often indicate, directly or implicitly, that Hinduism looked down upon the female gender (and the śūdra varṇa). But can the core essence of the Śāstra be comprehended merely through an external intellectual study of the texts?

To understand and apply the Śāstra to the human form, perhaps it will help if we first understood the tattvas (the core essence) of the masculine and feminine principles, as understood in Hinduism. In other words, we need to realize what is the nature of Śiva tattva (the masculine principle), and what is the nature of Śakti tattva (the feminine principle).

Here is a beautiful story from the Mahābhāgavata Purāna revealed to ṛṣi Vyāsa, as presented in the book Tantra tattva1, for this context. This story appears in the second chapter of this Purāna,

Nārada extols Śiva as the one who knows the nature of the entire universe and is the greatest of all Devatās. But then a question arises in his mind and Nārada asks Śiva “O Maheśvara, who is the devatā whom You worship too?”

Nārada further says “Whoever worships thee as well as Bhagvan Viṣṇu and Brahma with devotion, attains to such a high state as it is in the power of none on earth to describe. Such being the worldly greatness of yourselves, I desire by all means to know the Devatā who You too worship. Tell me, O Maheśvara who is that Devatā.”

Hearing these words of Nārada, Maheśvara after much thinking said “Great Ṛṣi, that which you desire to know is the highest and most abstruse truth. My child, how can I reveal that unrevealable truth?”

But Nārada continued to plead, praise and beg Maheśvara to answer his question, while Śiva tried all means to avoid answering it. Finally, Bhagvan Viṣṇu also requested Śiva to favour Nārada and to reveal the answer to him. And that is when Maheśvara said to Nārada:

“She who is pure, eternal Mūlaprakṛti is Parabrahman itself and the Devatā We Worship.”

Here is the excerpt of this conversation, from the English translation of the book Tantra tattva.

The nature of the masculine (Śiva Tattva) is to meditate and contemplate to reach the goal of the teachings in the Vedas; that is, to be able to dissolve oneself into the source of creation, the Parabrahman. Whereas, the nature of the feminine (Śakti Tattva) is to be the channel through which this creation and dissolution becomes possible, not just for herself, but for others as well.

Note that the masculine principle is not limited to the male gender, just as the feminine principle is not limited to the female gender. What it instead refers to are certain tendencies that are inherently more dominant in a particular gender, although there are exceptions.

A deeper understanding of the above conversation between Nārada and Maheśvara alone is enough to comprehend the errors in the statement that women were not allowed to study the Vedas. But, for our times, it is perhaps necessary to provide a more elaborate explanation. In the succeeding paragraphs, we will try and resolve three burning questions:

  1. Were women and the śūdra varṇa restricted from a formal study of the Vedas, unlike the other varṇas?
  2. If yes, how come there were Brahmavādinis who are believed to be women scholars who were adept at the Vedas?
  3. If not, was there another way in which the Vedas were taught to the women and śūdra varṇa?

1. Were women and śūdra varṇa restricted from a formal study of the Vedas, unlike the other varṇas?

The well-known Puruṣa Sūkta in the Ṛgveda describes the śūdra’s origin from the feet of the Puruṣa (the primeval man) and that of the other three varṇas, viz. the brāhmaṇa, the kṣatriyā and the vaiśya from his head, arms and thighs respectively.

Naysayers quote this Sūkta to state that there is inherent discrimination starting from the way creation itself was conceived. Others, who seek to justify the Puruṣa Sūkta explain that it only refers to the occupations done by the different varṇas or their mutually benefiting role in society – for ex. brāhmaṇas are engaged in study and therefore come from the upper part (head) while śūdras are engaged in physical work and therefore come from the feet. But this understanding is not sufficient to explain the reason why majority of the śūdravarṇa and women were not initiated in formal study of the Vedas. To understand that, we need to dig deeper into our native sciences.

Let us explore another way of understanding this Sūkta, from the perspective of the knowledge of the sūkṣma śarīra(subtle anatomy). As per Āyurveda and Yoga, the human body is divided into five parts, each governed by a specific vāyu

  • Udāna Vāyu circulates in the region of the head and is an upward and outward moving vāyu (exhalation)
  • Prāṇa Vāyu moves in the region of chest and is an inward moving vāyu (inhalation)
  • Samāna Vāyu operatives in the digestive organs in the region of the abdomen
  • Apāna Vāyu operates in the organs of reproduction and elimination and is a downward moving vayu
  • Vyāna Vāyu in the organs of mobility and is said to course all through the body

While the Udāna and Prāṇa Vāyu are more active and necessary in the spiritual process (mukti), the Samāna and Apāna vāyu are more active and required in day-to-day functioning of worldly life (bhukti).

The Tantra Śāstra too has a similar understanding, through the science of cakras,

  • Viśuddhi and Ājña cakra correspond to the upper regions of the body, i.e. the throat & region between eyebrows respectively (udāna vāyu)
  • Anāhata cakra corresponds to the region of the heart (prāṇa vāyu)
  • Maṇipūra cakra corresponds to the region of the navel (samāna vāyu)
  • Svadhiṣṭhāna cakra corresponds to the region of the reproductive organs (apāna vāyu)
  • Mūlādhāra cakra is the lowest cakra situated below the reproductive organs and from which several nādis (subtle channels) emanate that regulate the movement of prāṇa in the lower extremities (apāna vāyu)

(Note that prāṇa refers to the life-force, while prāṇa vāyu refers to one of the five vāyus)

Based on the lifestyle, diet, personality and choices that people make, they typically operate from one or more dominant cakras:

  • Those who are engaged in spiritual pursuits largely operate from the higher cakras namely viśuddhi and ājña. In this region, udāna and prāṇa vāyu play an important role in raising the consciousness towards the Sahasrāra (the seventh cakra) which is considered as the seat of divine union which we call Yōg.
  • Those who are engaged in aggressive pursuits or materialistic goals operate from the maṇipūra cakra located at the region of the navel. At the same time, if they have to play the role of protectors of society at large, then the play of the anāhata cakra comes into picture.
  • Those whose primary occupation is about ensuring well-being in society through creation and maintenance of wealth, operate from the svadhiṣṭhāna cakra located in the region of the reproductive organs.
  • Those whose work and lifestyle revolves around basic survival and attending to food, shelter and reproductive priorities, operate from the mūlādhāra cakra, located below the genitals.

When we pay attention to the description of varṇas, be it in terms of occupation or in association with specific regions of the body, we find that those who were called the Brāhmaṇa largely operated from the viśuddhi and ājña cakras; the Kṣatriyā from the maṇipūra and/or anāhata; the Vaiśya from the svadhiṣṭhāna; and the Śūdras (as well as all women of reproductive age) have occupations and lifestyle that is predominant in the mūlādhāra and svadhiṣṭhāna cakras.

But what does this have to do with the study of the Vedas?

The Vedas are classified into four major texts – the Saṃhita (the mantras), the Araṇyaka (the rituals, ceremonies and yajñas), the Brahmanas (commentaries on the rituals, ceremonies and yajñas) and the Upaniṣad (discussion on the philosophy and spiritual aspects). The first two, are also referred to as the karma kāṇḍa and the last two are referred to as the jñāna kāṇḍa. It is important to understand that the study of the karma kāṇḍa is not mere reading or discussion of texts, but rather chanting and performance of yajñas, which have a direct impact on the human physiology. The karma that is performed is done at two levels – one, for the benefit of the individual, and two, for the benefit of the collective. The karma performed not only yields results in that direction but also affects the person who performs it. So naturally, there are rules and restrictions pertaining to who can recite the mantras and perform the yajñas prescribed.

Chanting of mantras can have a direct impact on the human physiology, and this can be understood through the knowledge of cakras.

The Ṣaṭ Cakra nirūpaṇa2 text which provides details of cakras as per Tantra Śāstra, depicts each cakra like a multi-petalled lotus, with each petal of the lotus carrying specific alphabets of Saṃskṛtam (see images below of four cakras). This means, each cakra is associated with specific sounds. In other words, the entire language of Saṃskṛtam, when uttered correctly, triggers the cakras and impacts the functioning of the associated vāyu and endocrine glands. The entire science of mantras can be understood through a finer understanding of the shabda associated with each mantra.

Source of cakra images: Swami Sivananda Radha, Kundalini Yoga for the West, copyright 2005timelessbooks

With this knowledge, one can decipher the reason behind why specific mantras and/or yajña are prescribed for specific varṇas and women.

The mantras and yajña that are prescribed for the Brāhmaṇas, for instance, require strict austerities and sādhana on a day-to-day basis, as they work on the higher cakras. As a result, these processes will take away one’s focus from the functions of the lower cakras and could even impair their activity. For ex., the Brāhmaṇas who had to follow severe austerities and sādhana, had weak mūlādhāra and svadhiṣṭhāna cakras and therefore were dependent on the Śūdras, Vaiśya and Kṣatriyā to take care of their day-to-day sustenance. One who follows the path of a Brāhmaṇa in every aspect of his life, will find it difficult to work towards materialistic goals, and will be dependent on others in society to take care of these needs. The phrase “poor brahmin” comes due to this.  

On the other hand, expecting those whose day-to-day functioning and lifestyle depended on the mūlādhāra (such as women and Śūdras) to take to the path of strict religious discipline and sādhana, would not only impact their lifestyle, but also their physical health as prāṇa (life force) is drawn away from their lower cakras. At the same time, there are certain instances where women play the central role. For ex, there are some verses pertaining to the Śrauta yajña which has to be pronounced by the host’s wife, as per the prescript (vidhi)3. In those mantras, the host’s wife has been recognized as the authority to read those mantras. It is likely that those specific mantras were conducive to the lower cakras and hence were to be recited by the wife.

Also, the rules for yajñopavīta, of participation in yajña and recitation of mantras/chants are not uniform even among Brāhmaṇa, Kṣatriyā and Vaiśya, and have different degrees of restriction. These rules too are very likely to be based on the cakras which need to be focussed for each of these varṇas.

So while women and the śūdras might have been restricted from a formal study of the karma kāṇḍa in order to safeguard their health and well-being, there may not have been any restriction pertaining to the discussion of the philosophical and/or spiritual aspects of the Vedas.

2. How come there were Brahmavādinis who were adept at the Vedas?

Indic scholars often point to the fact that Brahmavādinis like Gargi and Maitreyi were allowed to study the Vedas, given that they feature a mention in the Upaniṣad. But if we pay attention to the instance where Gargi is mentioned in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, it is in connection with debate and questioning Yājñavalkya, to understand the philosophical meaning of the Vedic texts. There is no mention of her involvement in performance of yajña, chanting of mantras, etc. When it comes to Yājñavalkya’s wife Maitreyi, it is said that he initiated her into Brahma Vidya, the knowledge of Brahman, and a dialogue between them is presented. This too, does not indicate that Maitreyi was involved in chanting or yajña.

A similar look into the other Brahmavādinis and their association with the Vedas will help us understand things in perspective. Mention is often made of Lopāmudra who is said to have visualized the pañcadaśī mantra, which is part of the Śakta tradition (Tantra). She is also credited with writing a hymn of 6 verses in the Ṛg veda, titled Rati. The hymn emphasizes the importance of sexual fulfilment in marriage as a means to attaining both immortality and spiritual enlightenment.5 The Shakta tradition is an evolution that bridges the gap and helps us to navigate seamlessly from apara to para, that is, from the existential reality to transcendental reality. So while Lopāmudra was considered a Brahmavādini, she was not part of the typical Vedic tradition, and is more an exception than a rule.

There is no restriction in understanding the meanings of the Vedas, and so naturally there were Brahmavādinis who would discuss and debate on the concepts of the Vedas. Discussing the meanings of the Vedas in common language is different from chanting the mantras or performing the yajña (which have a direct impact on the cakras). This is also the reason why the Purāṇas which were in simplified Saṃskṛtam (or even Buddhist teachings in Prakrit) which were in the form of stories in the common language were not restricted to women or the śūdra varṇa.

Making this distinction is important because often we make generic statements to indicate that women were also studying the Vedas. Whereas, most traditional ācāryas will say that the formal study of the Vedas as was prescribed for men from the first three varṇas, was not prescribed for women and śūdra varṇa. The talk titled “How Did Maitreyi & Gargi understand Brahmavidya without chanting the Vedas? by the current Shankaracharya of Govardhan Puri Peeth, Swami Sri Nischalananda Saraswati jimakes this clear.4

Even if, for the sake of argument, we accept that Brahmavādinis learnt and performed the karma kāṇḍa portion of the Vedas the exact same way as the men were taught, still, they were but a minority. Trying to find evidence of women having studied the Vedas in this manner to prove equality of gender in the Vedas is a forced task, because we are looking for the wrong evidence in the wrong place.

And that brings us to the most important section of this write-up.

3. Was there another way in which the Vedas were taught to the women and śūdra varṇa?

What if there was a different way, which took into consideration the necessities to balance the internal vāyu and cakras, especially for women and the śūdra varṇa, and yet, provide a path to moksha that was accessible to all?

Unknown to most of us is the fifth Veda – the Nātya Śāstra – the Veda of the arts, which was created for those who were uninitiated in the other Vedas, that is, the śūdra varṇa. And by its popularity among women, we know that it was created for the women as well. Women who grew up in traditional Hindu homes were taught one or the other forms of these arts. They too had a Guru, had to follow strict discipline and adhere to the traditional methods. This is where we need to look for evidence of how women and śūdra varṇa were taught the Vedas.

Presented below are excerpts from a paper titled “Bharatanatyam and Yoga” by Yogacharya Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani and Yogacharini Smt Devasena Bhavanani.

According to Nātya Śāstra and Abhinaya Darpaṇa, Brahma created the art of dance upon the request of the Devās as a form of entertainment and it became known as the fifth Veda, and was open to all, irrespective of caste and creed. Prior to the creation of the Nātya Veda, Brahma entered a Yogic trance in which he recalled the four Vedas. He drew literature from the Rig Veda, song from the Sama Veda, Abhinaya or expression from the Yajur Veda and Rasa or aesthetic experience from the Atharva Veda. These aspects are the four main constituents of the Nātya Śāstra.

Brahma passed on this Nātya Veda to his son, sage Bharata, who then passed it on to his 100 sons. Thus this divine art descended from the heavens to earth. Śiva took up the Tāndava (masculine form of dance), whereas Parvati, took up the Lāsya (feminine form). Bharata staged the first play with his hundred sons and Apsaras in the amphitheatre of the Himalayas. Śiva, the ultimate dancer, was so enchanted that he sent his disciple Tandu to Bharata, to teach him the true elements of dance. These are depicted in the Nātya Śāstra, in its chapters collectively named the Tandava Lakshana.

The Nātya Śāstra of Bharata Muni lays emphasis on not merely the physical aspects of Bharatanātyam, but also on the spiritual and esoteric nature of this art form. These arts are also evolutionary sciences that work similar to Yoga in achieving the union with the Divine. Smt Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani talks on this subject being both an eminent world famous Yogini and a distinguished Bharatanatyam artist,

“Bharatanātyam is a Yoga, if Yoga means union. For surely this ancient art is one of the most beautiful and satisfying ways of expressing the human longing for union with the Divine. As an art form, Bharatanatyam demands conscious understanding of body, mind and emotions. The sincere dancer must understand the nature of Bhakti and Jnana and the innate longing in all living creatures for Samadhi or cosmic consciousness.”

According to one of the greatest exponents of Bharatanātyam, Balasaraswati:

“If we approach Bharatanātyam with humility, learn it with dedication and practice it with devotion to God, Śṛṅgāra which brings out the great beauties of this dance can be portrayed with all the purity of the spirit. The flesh, which is considered to be an enemy of the spirit and the greatest obstacle to spiritual realization, has itself been made a vehicle of the Divine in the discipline of the dance. Śṛṅgāra thus is an instrument for uniting the dancer with Divinity. Since the dancer has universalized her experience, all that she goes through is also felt and experienced by the spectator”.

A distinctive feature of the Bharatanātyam is the fact that it conceives of movement in space mostly along either straight lines or in triangles or in circles, by which we gain a lot of energy. These movements are in actual act, moving lines, which come together in discernible patterns. These patterns reflect or mirror the Mandalas (mystic shapes or forms), which are associated with the six Cakras of the sūkṣma śarīra, as it is termed in Yoga and Tantra.

While this is the case of Bharatanātyam, the other forms of classical dance, be it Kathak or Odissi also had their own style of poses, mudras and expressions that worked just as Yoga would. Similarly, the seven swars (musical notes) in music are said to correspond to seven cakras.

One who is familiar with the traditional art forms, and studies it through the lens of cakras and the knowledge of Yoga, can discover a whole new spiritual path, that encompassed the very teachings of the Vedas, in practical form, suitable to everyone.

In comparing Yoga and Dance, it is said

The sixth step of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga is Dharana or concentration. This concentration when taken to its extreme leads us into the meditative state of Dhyana. Many of the concentrative practices of Yoga are based on the Mandalas that are assigned to the different elements of the manifest universe. The dancer requires a similar state of utmost concentration in order to bring about the union of Bhāva, Rāga and Tāla in her presentation. The different aspects of Bharatānatyam  such as nṛtta,    nṛtya and nātya must be seamlessly unified with great concentrative ability for the performance to peak in its intensity. When the dancer achieves that peak of concentration in her performance she loses herself into the state of meditation. The Yogic state of Dhyana and the trance like states experienced by the dancers while performing are quite similar in their universal nature. Shri Tiruvenkatachari, an eminent dance historian (1887) compared Yoga with the dance and said that the secret is ‘forgetfulness of the individual self’. He also mentioned that dance is a means of attaining Moksha just as is Yoga.

While it seems as if concentration (dhārana) is a prerequisite for achieving the higher states, but the techniques of Nātya, when applied in the right way, might make it easier to accomplish the refined dhārana, leading to dhyāna and samadhi. That is probably one of the reasons why the traditional Gurus of classical dance rarely approve of modifications to the ancient techniques. There is also perhaps no need for it.

According to the Nātya Śāstra, “There is no wisdom, nor knowledge; no art nor craft; no device, nor action that is not to be found in Nātya”.

(The lectures and online course on Nātya Śāstra by Dr. Bharat Gupt is an excellent source for gaining more knowledge on this.)

Conclusion

The excellence of the Hindu Śāstra is that there is not one, but many ways of learning and experiencing the core essence of the Vedas. It is nothing but our social conditioning and subconscious bias which makes us assume that the intellectual study is superior to the experiential study. In Hinduism, we talk not of equality, but of customized unique paths, suitable to each one of us. This is the point that gets overlooked when we engage in debate through the western lens of ‘equality and inclusiveness’. The Śiva Tattva and Śakti Tattva are complementary paths, which one can choose, based on their physical attributes, spiritual orientation, and lineage.

Nātya Śāstra is the Śakti Tattva (the feminine principle) in action, which elevates not just the performer but also the audience. It is the nature of Śakti, embodied in all artists, to become the channel for moksha, through disciplined movement.

And that is how women and the śūdra varṇa mastered the Vedas.

Source:

  1. Vidyarnava, Pandit Shiva Chandra. Tantratattva
  2. Purnananda, Swami. Shat Chakra Nirupana, 1526 CE
  3. A talk by the current Shankaracharya of Govardhan Puri Peeth, Swami Sri Nischalananda Saraswati-ji – How Did Maitreyi & Gargi understand Brahmavidya without chanting the Vedas?
  4. A talk by the current Shankaracharya of Govardhan Puri Peeth, Swami Sri Nischalananda Saraswati-ji – यज्ञोपवीत संस्कार क्या है और नारीओं को यह कराना चाहिये ?
  5. Brahmavadini | The Forgotten Tradition of Women Scholars in Ancient India
  6. Bharatanatyam and Yoga
  7. Featured image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Indian_Village_Life.jpg

This write-up is co-authored by Sinu Joseph and Udaya Bhaskar.

6 comments

  1. Dear Mythri Speaks,
    Thank you so much for bringing out this. I am a Humanities Student and working on trying to locate these myths and false claims about the education system of our country in antiquity in our curriculum today. In fact I am expected to study these ‘facts’ and reproduce the same in examinations. Thank you so much for giving a space to this topic on your platform. May I extend a note requesting help and guidance from your end (if required in future) for my endeavours.
    Regards..

  2. Dear Ma’am,

    It is engrossing and interesting. I couldn’t stop myself of marveling at your in depth knowledge into subjects and topics that you delve into. I am wondering with such repertoire of yours, why your knowledge is not been used by governments to educate society at large? I am sure your endeavors are making impact in the society at a decent level. But government can pitch in and scale it up to spread your knowledge. Just a thought. Anyway, Kudos to your writings and thoughts.

    Balaji Parthasarathy 9811040997. Sent from my iPhone

    >

  3. Hello Sinu,

    I have just begun freelance podcasting in Kannada, called “Namaskara by heyshri”. I have been watching your interviews and reading these articles from a couple of days, and I cannot thank you enough for helping me find the Indic lens to understand Indic knowledge. I want to use the same (information provided by you in this article and other youtube videos), in my podcast with your consent.
    Looking forward to a response from your end.

    -Shriraksha Hegde

  4. It is very sad that we were not taught so many amazing things produced by our ancestors. Excellent article…

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