The Journey of Indian Women
Rig Vedic society (1500 BC to 500 BC)
This is the time period when the Vedic Sanskrit texts were composed in India.This civilization laid down the foundation of Hinduism as well as the associated Indian culture.
Some Interesting Points:
- Women were assigned a high place in society and shared an equal standing with the men.
- The feminine forms of Absolute Hindu Goddesses are believed to have taken shape in this era.
- Goddess Kali depicts destructive energy,
- Durga the protective,
- Lakshmi the nourishing, and
- Saraswati for knowledge.
- Girls and Boys were equally educated. The educators wisely divided women into two groups namely Brahmavadinis and Sadyodvahas. “The former were life-long students of theology and philosophy, the latter used to prosecute their studies till their marriage at the age of 15 or 16.” Brahmavadinis are female Brahmacharis. So marriage was an option for women.
- Many educated women became teachers or Upadhyayinis.
- Seventeen of the Seers to whom the hymns of the Rig Veda were revealed were women.
- The girls and boys of the Rig Vedic society had freedom to choose their partners in life.
- Inter-caste marriages were also very much possible in this era.
- Book 5 hymn 6 verse 8 of Rig Veda expresses that “..the wife and the husband being the equal halves of one substance were regarded equal in every respect and both took equal part in all duties, religious and social.”
- There are indications of matrilineal influence in the society. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad mentions genealogies of teachers that bear matrilineal influences.
In short, this was the golden age for Indian women !!
The degradation in their status came in the post vedic period.
2nd century BC (Dharmashastras)
Dharmashastras refer to the genre of Sanskrit text pertaining to Hindi dharma, a product of the Brahmanical tradition in India. Dharmashastras are linked to Hindu law.
- The Arthashastra is an ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy, written in Sanskrit. It identifies its author by the names “Kauṭilya” and “Vishnugupta“, both names that are traditionally identified with Chanakya. Kautilya’s Artha Sastra which is a social and historical document reveals the status of women in India.
- Some Interesting Points
- Kautilya considered women as a child bearing machine and encouraged pre-pubescent marriage. If a wife was barren for eight years or if she had borne only daughters over a twelve-year period, the husband could take a second wife without paying compensation to the first or returning her dowry.
- When a man had more than one wife, the earliest surviving wife or the one who had borne many sons was given priority
- The text records the number of restrictions that were imposed on women. “According to him a woman who goes out during day time, to sports or to see a woman or spectacle shall pay a fine of six panas.”
- Not being a virgin at the time of marriage was an offence punishable by a fine of 54 panas.
- A wife did have certain rights! The physical punishment which a husband could inflict on his wife was limited to three slaps .
- Manusmirti is an important Dharmanshastra texutal tradition of Hinduism. The text presents itself as a discourse given by Manu, the progenitor of mankind to a group of seers, or rishis, who beseech him to tell them the “law of all the social classes”.
- Some Interesting Points:
- Manusmriti did not favor inter caste marriages as that would pollute the Aryan society. So, “. .to avoid pollution, you must control birth . . . but you lose control over birth, if you lose control over women.” .
- The text visualizes the role of an ideal Hindu or Indian woman . Woman by nature is wicked, susceptible to passion and infirmities. Hence she should be controlled by a male who is supposed to be strong and superior to her.
- The text insisted that a woman should never be allowed any freedom. “Day and night women must be kept in dependence by the males of their families. Her father protects her in her childhood, her husband protects her in her youth and her sons protect her in old age; a woman is never fit for independence.
- According to Manu, a wife is never freed from her husband. A wife must tolerate and obey even a cruel husband. In one passage, Manu even declared that selling a wife is a minor crime.
- Widows did not have any right over husband’s property or money.
- The purdah system existed among Kshatriyas in the period of Dharma Sastras. But the Hindu women veiled only their face or sometimes only covered their heads with sarees or “dupattas.”
- Thus we see that the Rig Vedic Concept of “Sahadharmini“(or equal partner) was slowly being replaced by “Pativrat Dharma“(or duties of a chaste wife).
The Buddhist Influence (3rd century BC to 6th century BC)
- The Buddhist Age witnessed a series of changes which lifted woman out of her complacency. More seen as compassion than a desire for equal rights.
- Budha made the adoption of daughters valid which went against the custom of the prevailing Brahmanical religion. This squashed the general 46 belief that the birth of a son was indispensable to attain moksha or salvation
- Women were accepted as nuns in the Buddhist monasteries and were free to cross the boundaries of the country.
- Gautama the Buddha believed in woman-man equality, as evidenced in his concept of marriage.
- The age at whlch a woman could marry was made twenty.
- Education to girls were encouraged.
- Buddhism recognised the real meaning of the word “dampati” which etymologically meant “the joint owners of the house.”In order to emphasize this aspect Buddha gave the wife the right to inherit the husband’s property.
- Buddhism also permitted divorce in exceptional cases.
3rd century AD to 12 Century AD
After the decline of Buddhism, the ineligibility for learning Vedas by women was encouraged by the Brahmanical religion. By 15th century A.D, most of the women in Indian society were uneducated. But the Buddhist impact certainly was there on the Kshatriya classes. The women belonging to the Kshatriya families were educated at their homes, with the purpose of enabling them to manage their affairs on their own.
- The status of women underwent further deterioration and they were regarded as equal to Sudras.
- Seclusion of women became very common even before the advent of Muslims, especially in the upperclass society, due to the rigidity of the caste system.
Medieval India (12th Century to 16th Century)
- Many social evils like female infanticide, sati, child marriages, Purdah system or zenana, the seclusion of women developed during the middle ages, due to the political instability of northem India, especially due to various invasions.
- Female infanticide was prevalent among Rajputs and other high castes.
- Dependence of women on their husbands or other male relatives was a prominent feature of this period.
- Indian women were politically, socially and economically inactive except for those engaged in farming and weaving.
- Dowry system was a common phenomenon.
We all know the rest of the story ! Indian womanhood was mercilessly locked in the echo chamber.
In the family, man began to assert his power. Violence was also used to secure this end. This made an average Indian woman a storehouse of fears and weaknesses. Her self-respect was torn into shreds and there was no escape from the miasma of discrimination. There was neither equality nor freedom.
The damage that was done continues even now.
An ideal Indian woman is the one who is totally committed to her husband and family. “It is precisely this rootedness that has made it impossible for even the Indian feminist to challenge family as the single most oppressive institution.” !
Lets hope we bounce back to atleast how it was in the Vedic Age.
To be honest, the Vedic age seems like a luxury now.
Fast Forward to 2018 …… Not every one has changed their mind set from the 2nd century !
Its true that some men of upper middle class , educated families are truly genuine and modern and they care for their women , encourage them and want to help them in all possible ways, be it their wives, sisters, daughters or friends.
But how about the women themselves? Are we ready to change ourselves? Are we going to support, encourage and help other women in their growth and advancement. Are we ready to stop being judgmental about ourselves and other women? Are we okay to just let it be, and not worry so much about our physical appearance to appease men? Are we ready to choose an outfit that makes us feel ‘comfortable’ rather than ‘hot’. Coz the responsibility lies more on our own shoulders to change the the tens of thousands of years of footprint we have left behind.
Now its on us women to decide, whether we need to wait and hope that a new age “Chanakya” or “Manu” will write up another document to change our future or whether we need to write one for ourselves, to show case the world how we intend to work from now on!
Some Books on Ancient India
- Women and Gender in Ancient India: A Study of Texts and Inscriptions
- Sacrificed Wife/Sacrificer’s Wife: Women, Ritual, and Hospitality in Ancient India
- Women education in ancient and medieval India (Women and educational development series)
- Everyday Life in Ancient India (Jr. Graphic Ancient Civilizations)
- Ancient India (The Ancient World)