Position of Women in the Indian Civilization

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Position of Women in the Indian Civilization

Compiled by Sanjeev Nayyar November 2000
The Indian Women fascinates me. Her ability to give, share, bear, nurture, cook, work, qualities of head and heart, adjust are just some of the qualities that I admire. Throughout our country’s tumultuous history, she suffered so much yet she continues to retain qualities that make her unique. She has done great service to religion by preserving age old traditions, moral fervor and spiritual vein in our society. It is the mother who conducts puja in our homes, attends spiritual discourses, wears Indian clothes i.e. sari while men have adopted western wear completely.
This essay is dedicated to the Indian women. As a nation, we progressed when the Indian woman was accorded her rightful place in society. Its time we treat her like she was up to 300 B.C. It is my belief that India will progress much faster if a greater number of women are educated, financially independent and realize that equality does not mean that you listen to yourself only. Let us resolve to allow her to blossom, flower and show her inner beauty.
The position of women is covered under the following chapters and periods.

  1. 2500 to 1500 BC

  2. 1500 to 600 BC

  3. 600 BC to 300 AD

  4. 320 to 750 AD

  5. 750 to 1000 AD

  6. 1000 to 1300 D

  7. 1300 to 1526 AD

  8. 1526 to 1707 AD

  9. 1707 to 1818 AD

  10. 1818 to 1905 AD

  11. 1905 to 1947 AD

  12. Status of women in Western society – must read.

The Age of the Rig Veda (2500 to 1500 BC) Chapter 1
The frequent reference to unmarried girls speaks in favor of a custom of girls marrying long after they had reached puberty. Among Aryans, marriage among brothers and sisters was prohibited. There seems to have been considerable freedom on the part of young persons in the selection of their life partners as they generally married at a mature age. Approval of the parent or the brother was not essential, the boy and the girl made up their minds and then informed the elders though their participation in the marriage ceremony was essential i.e. the blessings of the elders were sought.
Suprising as it may sound, in some cases a bride-price was paid by a not very desirable son in law. So also when a girl had some defect, dowry was given. A hymn in the RV gives us an idea of the old marriage ritual. The boy and his party went to the girl’s house where a well-dressed girl was ready. The boy catches the hand of the girl and leads her round the fire. These two acts constitute the essence of marriage. The boy takes the girl home in a procession followed by consummation of the marriage.
The wife was respected in her new house and wielded authority over her husband’s family. The wife participated in the sacrificial offerings of her husband. Abundance of sons was prayed for so, naturally so in a patriarchal society since the son performed the last rites and continued the line.
There is little evidence to show that the custom of Sati existed. Even if known, it was limited to the Kshatriya class. Remarriage of widows was permitted under certain conditions. Female morality maintained a high standard although but the same degree of fidelity was not expected from the husband.
Net Net women enjoyed much freedom. They took an active part in agriculture, manufacture of bows. They moved around freely, publicly attended feasts and dances.
1500 to 600 BC Chapter 2
The age of the Atharva, Sama and Yajur Vedas - Freedom of marriage continued and remarriage of widows continued to be allowed. The sale of a daughter was known but viewed with extreme disfavor. Dowries continued to be given but not in the sense that we understand today. The marriage ceremony was the same as in the previous period except that the girl had to mount a stone before the boy caught her hand. As in the previous period the picture of an ideal family life continued.
Gradually religious ceremonies increasingly were conducted by the priests resulting in loosing her preeminent position in the household. This was the period during which the importance of rituals increased and so did the importance of the Brahmans.
Desire for sons continued, sati was not prevalent. Net net, the position of women was not as high as it was in the Rig Vedic period. Female workers were involved in dying, embroidery and basket making.
The Age of the Upanishads - The anuloma system of marriage ie between the male of a higher caste and female of a lower caste prevailed during this period. The rules of Panini regarding Abhi-vadana ( salutation as a mark of respect to elderly persons in the house ) show that the presence of wives of the lower caste in a house and their association with ladies of a higher caste brought down the general level of womanly culture and led to a deterioration in their status.
The Grihya-sutras give detailed rules regarding the proper seasons for marriage, qualifications of bride and bridegroom. The various stages of a marriage ceremony are:

  1. The wooers formally go to the girl’s house.

  2. When the bride’s father gives his formal consent, the bridegroom performs a sacrifice.

  3. Early in the morning of the first day of marriage celebrations, the bride is bathed.

  4. A sacrifice is offered by the high priests of the bride’s family and a dance of 4/8 women takes place as part of the Indrani karman.

  5. The bridegroom goes to the girl’s house and makes the gift of a garment, mirror to the bride who has been bathed earlier.

  6. The Kanya-pradana, formal giving away of the bride takes place now followed by.

  7. The clasping of the bride’s right hand by the bridegroom’s own right hand takes place now.

  8. The treading on stone.

  9. The leading of the bride round the fire by the bridegroom.

  10. The sacrifice of the fried grains.

  11. The Saptapadi i.e. the couple walking seven steps together as a symbol of their livelong concord.

  12. Finally, the bride is taken to her new house.

  13. After the bride came home, the couple is expected to observe celibacy for three days after which the marriage was consummated. The logic was to emphasize at the outset that self-control was very much part of married life.

The bride is at a mature age, over 15 or 16. The elaborate rites indicate that marriage was a holy bond and not a contract.

The women held an honored position in the household. She was allowed to sing, dance and enjoy life. Sati was not generally prevalent. Widow Remarriage was allowed under certain circumstances. On the whole the Dharma-sutras take a more lenient attitude than the Smritis of a later age. The Apastamba imposes several penalties on a husband who unjustly forsakes his wife. On the other hand, a wife who forsakes her husband has to only perform penance. In case a grown up girl was not married at a proper time by her father, she could choose her husband after three years of waiting.
The most pleasing feature of this period is the presence of women teachers, many of whom possessed highest spiritual knowledge. The famous dialogue between Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi and Gargi Vachaknavi show how enlightened the women of that age were. According to the Sarvanukramanika, there were as many as 20 women among the authors of the Rig Veda. These stories stand in contrast to the later age when the study of Vedic literature was forbidden to women under the most severe penalty.
Birth of a Daughter Unwelcome – As in all patriarchal societies during that age the birth of a daughter was unwelcome. The son lived with his parents, earned money for the family, protected the family from enemies and perpetuated the name of the family. However, the latter’s birth was not considered so bad. One of Upanishads recommends a ritual for ensuring the birth of a scholarly daughter. Although it did not become as popular as the one for the birth of a son, it indicates those cultured parents eager for daughters. During this period the daughters could be initiated into Vedic studies and could offer sacrifices to Gods, the son was absolutely not necessary. The importance of ancestor worship by sons led to a decline in the importance of daughters.
The feeling of dejection on the birth of a daughter did not lead to Female Infanticide in ancient India. This custom crept into India during the medieval period. Once the disappointment on the birth of a daughter was over, the family did not distinguish between their son and daughter.
In subsequent periods, growing incidence of Sati meant that parents saw their daughters jumping on to funeral pyres or if she became a widow, live a chaste life since widow remarriage was not permitted. In such an environment to become a daughter’s parent became a source of misery.
In the post Vedic period, the professions open to woman in higher sections of society were teaching, medical doctors and business. They suffered from no disabilities in doing business and could even pledge their husband’s credit and enter into contracts on their behalf.
Purdah system was not prevalent during this period. There is nothing in our tradition or literature to suggest that the father/elder brother in-law could not see the face of the daughter-in-law as is the case in North India today.
Man is only one half” says a Vedic passage; he is not complete till he is united with his wife and gives birth to children. The husband is to treat his wife as his dearest friend. The wife is a companion friend of a man, says a Vedic passage. The Mahabharat and Buddhist thinkers concur with this view.
600 BC to 320 AD Chapter 3
Marriage between the same caste was preferred although inter caste marriages were prevalent. Of the eight forms of marriage prescribed by the Dharma-sutras, the Arhsa form of marriage was most popular which was the father gave his daughter after receiving from the bridegroom a cow and a bull or two pairs. The bridegroom was selected by the girl’s father or guardian. According to Nearchus the Indians “marry without giving or taking dowries but the girls, as soon as they are marriageable, are brought forward by their fathers and exposed in public, to be selected by a person who excels in some form of physical exercise”. This indicates a modified form of Svayamvara.
While girls continued to be married around 16, there was a tendency to marry them before they attained puberty. It was probably due to the anxiety to maintain their body purity. Lowering of the marriage age affected their education and culture adversely. After all, if she got married early then how could she study? Extreme emphasis was now laid on the physical chastity of women which discouraged widow remarriage, divorce and encouragement of sati. We must remember that India faced its first foreign invasion ie Greeks during this period.
During the earlier part of this period, there were highly educated women holding an honorable position in society and household. There were lifelong students of sacred texts or those who pursued their study till marriage. Women also recd training in arts, music, painting and for some military training also. Female bodyguards are referred to in Kautilya’s Arthasastra. Buddhist and Jain nuns renounced the world for the sake of spiritual salvation. Jain texts refer to Jayanti who carried on discussions with Mahavira himself and later on became a nun.
Inspite of the progress, there were growing disabilities. Earlier the girls went through the Upanayana ceremony but now it was only a formality. Manu laid down that marriage was equal to Upanayana while Yajnavalkya took the step of prohibiting Upanayana ceremony for girls. The wife who performed Vedic sacrifices was denied the right to do so. Narada is however, more considerate towards women. Greek writers have stated that sati existed, was in vogue in Punjab, possibly confined to the warrior class only.
Women courtesans were not looked down by religious leaders or kings. Some of them were highly accomplished and in the point of culture, standing resembled the Hetairai of Athens. A famous courtesan Amrapali who lived during the reign of Bimbisara (300 to 273 BC) was a beauty whom Buddha visited.
Social customs are a product of the environment we live in. India had never seen, till 327 BC, an invasion like the Greeks. Quoting freedom fighter, writer K.M. Munshi “About the beginning of the Christian era, perhaps under the influence of foreigners, the spiritual disenfranchisement of women began. Rituals came to be performed without the Vedic mantras; the Vedic sacrifices were tabooed for the wife. Widow Remarriage and divorce were discouraged. On the other hand, Kautilya, in the matters of divorce, placed man and women on an equal footing. But as people with lax morals came into the social framework on account of the expanding frontiers of Dharma, the marital tie assumed greater sanctity”.
320 to 750 A D Chapter 4
Marriage – there was a growing tendency to lower the marriageable age of girls with girls being married before or after puberty. Marriage within the same caste was preferred but prohibited within certain degrees of relationship. A young man could under special circumstances apply himself to winning the girl of his choice by courtship and wooing when successful was to be followed by a gradual winning of the girl’s confidence.
Education - Girls of high families had adequate opportunities for acquiring proficiency in higher learning. In Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, instances of princess are mentioned whose intellect was sharpened by knowledge of the Sasatras. The literary evidence of the Gupta age proves that girls of high families as also those living in hermitages read works on ancient history & legend. Girls living in royal courts were trained in singing & dancing too.
The Ideal Wife – Vatsyanana draws a picture of a good wife which may be taken as a reflection of the real life during that period. When a woman is the only wife she has to devote herself to him as if he were a deity. She must be fully devoted, take care of his comforts and attend festivities with his permission. She honor’s her husband’s friends and looks after his parents. Apart from looking after his friends & family, she has complete charge of the household. In case she has a co-wife she looks upon her as her younger sister or mother depending on her own age.
The Widow – in the Gupta period lived the chaste and austere life prescribed by the Smritis. Sati was extolled by some but strongly disapproved by others. In the absence of any reference by the Chinese travelers it would be correct to believe that the custom was not widely prevalent during this period. Remarriage of widows though coming into disfavor was not forbidden.
General Status of Women – Due to a lowering of the age of marriage, girls were not educated as before. This reduced the position and status of women. Brides being too young had no say in choosing their partners. Love marriages were a thing of the past. During this period, marriage became an irrevocable union, but it was one sided in favor of the husband. Since women were not as educated as before they did not know what their rights were. Among the most striking changes may be the increased recognition in Katyayana of the women’s right to property and a remarkable rule in Atri that allowed women molested by robbers to regain her social status. Some women enjoyed political power e.g. Prabhavati-gupta, daughter of Chandra-gupta II who ruled the Vakataka kingdom on behalf of her son, in the 4th century a.d.

Viel – Available literature seem to indicate that married women in higher families did not usually appear in public without veils. The silence of Hiuen Tsang indicates that women in general did not observe the Purdah or remain in seclusion.
Reasons for Deterioration in the status of women between 500 BC to 500 AD

Their status deteriorated considerably during this period. With time and progress, one would expect the condition of people to improve but in this case it was the opposite.

  1. The introduction of slavery revolutionised the position of women in the classical period of Greek history, they lost esteem in society. The same thing happened in India when a semi servile status came to be assigned to the Sudra class whose only duty was service of the higher castes. Over time and due to various factors, inter caste marriages started happening during the period 1000 to 500 BC. The introduction of non-Aryan women into the Aryan household is the starting point to the deterioration in a women’s status. Having said that it was non Aryan mothers that gave birth to Veda Vyasa and Krishna.

Unfamiliar with religious customs, rituals and Sanskrit the non Aryan wife would have goofed making the priests angry. In love with his wife, the Aryan man overlooked the shortcomings in his wife. But what about the priests? To avoid this problem it was decided that the whole class of woman were ineligible for Vedic studies and religious duties.

  1. Another reason was that Vedic sacrifices became complex making it difficult for the wife to have mastery over them. In the Vedic age, a young women would take a Soma stalk and proceed straight to offer it to Indra in a sacrifice performed by herself alone. But things became more complex with time. In the Vedic age, she got married at about 16-17 by which she could devote 6-7 yrs to study but to know all the rituals etc she would have to marry around 22-24 ie about 12 yrs of study. This was impractical at that point of time. This plus an increase in the desire for a son led to a lowering of the marriage age of girls which in turn discouraged their education. Although, the view that women must not be allowed to perform sacrifices was opposed by parts of society, but its vigorous advocacy by one school coupled with a lowering of the marriage age led to the neglect of the Vedic education of girls.

  1. The period of 500 years between 200 BC to 300 AD was very dark for Northern India. First came the Greeks (190 to 150 BC), Scythians and Parthians (100 BC to 50 AD). These barbarians were followed by the Kushanas in the 2nd century AD. Political reverses, war reverses and the decline of prosperity produced a wave of despondency all around. The ascetic ideal of the Upanishads, Buddhism and Jainism which was opposed by Hindu society earlier began to get a real hold over social mind owing to the prevailing wave of despondency at the beginning of the Christian era. It strengthened the hands of those who were opposed to widow remarriage. A woman was to lead a chaste life, to aim for salvation, follow the footsteps of thousands of monks, nuns who had entered the Sanyasa stage direct from Brahmacharya without passing through married life.

  2. Sati – due to the foreign invasions and its consequences for women, the custom of sati, though confined to the warrior class earlier began to gain widespread acceptance, be perceived as a great sacrifice. The tendency to regard women as weaker and not of strong moral fibre got stronger during this period although women as mother, sister continued to be highly respected.

  1. The only direction in which the position of women improved was in the sphere of proprietary rights. As society began to discourage widow remarriages, there began to arise a class of childless widows who needed money to maintain themselves.

  1. History is witness that conquest of a country implies conquest of its womenfolk. What follows is shameful but reality of life. The wars that preceded the Greek invasion did not result in conquest of women. Invasions resulted in great emphasis being placed on the purity and chastity of women. Naturally, it impacted the way society perceived women.

750 to 1000 AD Chapter 5
Marriage – The Smriti authorities of this period treat earlier marriage rules with some modifications. Medhatithi made inter-caste marriages exceptional. Marriage with the daughter of a maternal uncle is condemned. Marriage by mutual love is condemned by Medhatithi and he said that one should marry a girl who is much younger than himself, she must get married between the age of eight and achieving puberty.
If a girl’s guardian cannot find her a match before she becomes of marriageable age, then she can choose her partner after staying in her father’s house for three years after attaining puberty. While love marriages were known they were solemnized after approval of the girl’s guardians. Sometimes, girls with the approval of their parents opted for a Svayamvara ceremony.
Education – Due to a reduction in the marriage age, the education levels among women dropped drastically although some women of all classes had an opportunity for liberal education, fine arts. According to Medhatithi, the women did not know Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas. Rajasekhara refers to princesses, daughters of high officials who were poetesses as well as adept in sciences. In Avantisundari, we have a striking e.g. of a women learned in Sanksrit lore. In the plays of Rajasekhara, we find that court-ladies and even the maids-in-waiting capable of composing Sanskrit and Prakit verses.

Remarriage - While Agni Purana, Visvarupa permits a woman to take a second husband under five circumstances, lost, dead, impotent, and outcaste or adopted the life of a recluse it is forbidden by Medhatithi, Brahma Purana.
Widow – As in the previous period, the life of strict celibacy and self-restraint enjoined upon her was sought to be enforced during the period. The tonsure of widow came into vogue about the 8th century a.d. and was to help her lead an ascetic life.
Sati – The rite of sati was enjoined by some authorities but condemned by others but the custom was mainly confined to royal families. According to Arab writer Sulaiman “the wives of kings sometimes burnt themselves on the funeral fires of their husbands, but it was for them to exercise their option in this matter”. Remember the first Muslim invasion in Sind, 712 A.D. was during this period.
Purdah - was not prevalent during this period. According to Abu Zaid, most Indian Princess while holding court allowed their women to be seen unveiled by the men present, whether native or foreigners.
General Status of Women – As in the previous period, the Smritis emphasize the duty of absolute devotion and obedience of wives to their husbands. Medhatithi says that a wife must shampoo her husband’s feet provided the husband follows a righteous path and is free from hatred, jealousy towards his wife. Equal right of the husband and wife to seek legal remedy is advocated by Medhatithi. He takes Manu to enjoin not the actual beating of the recalcitrant wife but only a method of putting her on the right path.
The general condition was the same as in the preceding period. Medhatithi observes that a women needs to be guarded by male relations at all times (impact of foreign invasion); women should have no freedom of action regarding virtue, wealth and pleasure. On the other hand he takes a human view. A wife must not be forsaken unless she becomes an outcaste and forsaking means she cannot do household work but gets food, clothing. A mother must never be abandoned if she becomes an outcaste.
The custom of dedicating maidens for service in temples continued during this period.
Quoting K. M. Munshi “Varnasrama-dharma of Medhatithi is a dynamic world force and not a static social order. Inter caste marriages is permitted. A Kshatriya and a Vaisya have the right to recite the Gayatri-mantra. Brahmanhood is not acquired by birth alone.
He accords to women a position in refreshing contrast to some of the later authorities. Women can perform all the samskaras, only thee should not recite the Vedic mantras. At a partition an unmarried sister should be given one fourth share of the dividing brothers.
A wife is obtained from God, not secured like cattle or gold from the market, a husband has no ownership over his wife. Before the wife must be compelled to serve her husband he must have the necessary qualifications, among others, a loving attitude towards her. The practice of Sati, is nothing but suicide and it is not permissible.
The general level of their culture is high. Silamahadevi, wife of the Rashtrakuta emperor, Dhruva, probably ruled jointly with her husband. Several Queens of the Kara dynasty ruled in Ores. Sugandha and Didda of Kashmir administered extensive kingdoms. There were learned women as well as administrators. Sarasvati, wife of Mandanamisra, who acted as an arbitrator in her husband’s disputations with Sankaracharya, was a learned scholar herself”.
1000 to 1300 A.D. Chapter 6
Marriage – As in the previous period girls got married at an early age.
As regards Royal marriages Vaijayanti, gives us a two fold classification. The king’s married wives consisted of the chief queen, the queen born of a royal family, the honored lady, the dearly beloved lady, the lady who is not the daughter of a king and lastly the lady who has been won in war.
The Kathasaritsagara says that the tradition of the girl’s guardians getting off their girl’s married continued from the previous period. There were some irregular marriages also like Brahmans marrying Kshatriya girls, sometimes with their parent’s blessings or by elopement of girls with their lovers. There were a number of cases of inter caste marriages reported during this period.
Education – As in the previous period, the average level of education dropped drastically since they were married off before attaining puberty.
Widow – as in the previous period widow remarriage was forbidden.
Sati – perhaps due to the impact of foreign invasions, self-immolation of widows on the funeral pyre was getting more common in North India.

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