Position of Women: From Ancient India to Present

      Over last 4000 years, Indian subcontinent has been witness to a lot of shifts in the conditions of women's position in the society. To begin with, Ancient India had equal status to women in all respects like education, property rights, marriage of choice, and freedom for contributing in all religious and social functions. This status got lowered during the medieval time and worsened even further during later period of modernity.

Much of the ideal role of women can be ascertained from the images of a maiden and bride in the Rig-Veda. A daughter and maiden were praised for the characteristics of beauty, radiance, appealing adornment, sweet odours, ample hips and broad thighs. This description suggests interest in feminine sensuality, childbearing capacity of the young girl. At festival gatherings, young virgins met eligible men, with flirtatious coupling after initiating a relationship. They then turned to their parents for approval and marriage arrangements were made. To be a virgin bride was of paramount importance. Practical advice was given to the new bride like not to be angry or hostile to her husband, to be tender and to bear sons to carry forward the family lineage.
Women in Ancient India

      Ancient India spans a vast period 2500 BC to 250 BC. Archaeology; ancient texts, and artifacts are but various tools to reconstruct the expected lives of women during that period. The earliest materials found by archaeological excavations suggest the worship of goddesses. The earliest recorded religious texts of around 1500 BC call on the life-giving power of goddesses to give life and to nurture and sustain it. Extensive remains at Mohenjo Daro, Harappa, and Lothal show a well organized, prosperous agriculture and commercial society that traded with other civilizations in other regions. The most famous ancient artifact is that of a young slender girl posing confidently. Numerous toys found convey a society that valued family life. While their inscribed ancient seals have not been deciphered to determine the actual meanings, extensive female images have been found that suggest goddesses played a central role. Often called fertility goddesses, very few depict pregnant women, women giving birth or women nursing children. Several of the seals suggest a goddess associated with vegetation and fertility.

      Apparently this civilization succumbed to major natural disasters that changed the course of the Sarasvati River. Then came the Vedic time, which was a highly hierarchical society; led by the Brahmin priests, who imposed political and religious power over the rest. The Brahmins kept composing remaining Vedas that postulated the beliefs that continue to be revered today by the Hindus. The Rig-Veda, oldest of these texts is reported to have few women composers as well. There is a creation story, where the goddess Aditi gives birth to the earth, also personified as a goddess, Prithivi. Mother Earth's role was to be tender to the dead and Aditi was to be prayed to release from sin. Women of this time had access to learning similar to men, married at mature age and had right for selection of their life partners under the well known system of swayamwar.

      Much of the ideal role of women can be ascertained from the images of a maiden and bride in the Rig-Veda. A daughter and maiden were praised for the characteristics of beauty, radiance, appealing adornment, sweet odours, ample hips and broad thighs. This description suggests interest in feminine sensuality, childbearing capacity of the young girl. At festival gatherings, young virgins met eligible men, with flirtatious coupling after initiating a relationship. They then turned to their parents for approval and marriage arrangements were made. To be a virgin bride was of paramount importance. Practical advice was given to the new bride like not to be angry or hostile to her husband, to be tender and to bear sons to carry forward the family lineage.

      A woman's role as outlined in Hinduism at this time was to be a good wife so that the gods and goddesses would respond to the couple's requests and needs. An altar tended mainly by the father/husband, was overseen by the wife/mother when he was gone from the home. Her job was to keep the sacred flame burning 24/7. It was also the woman's responsibility to recite and sing hymns to the deities, a duty ascribed to women in most all other cultures as well. Divine couples like Indra and Indrani, and Surya and Soma acted as role models. Goddesses were generally viewed positively; although occasional glimpses of their darker side surfaced. Other early goddesses were the sisters Usha and Nisha (Morning and Night).

      In the next segment of ancient texts, the Upanishads dated about 800 BC to 600 BC, writers began to reinterpret earlier Vedic
literature. Now a person was able to reach the universal soul Brahman through self-knowledge not just through ritualistic knowledge performed by the Brahmin priests. In this period also, we have presence of Gargi and Maitreyi who were highly learned women and participated in theological discussions with the best in trade. Maitreyi was wife of Yajnavalkya who also had another wife named Katyayani. This second wife is projected in Brahad-arnakya Upanishad as a lady whose understanding is limited largely to look after domestic affairs. Clearly, you have only a countable few exceptions to stand against the general rule that women are objects and have limited prototypes of roles at different stage of their life.

      With the onslaught of urbanization and surplus produce resulting in excess of resources with average household, inheritance became an issue probably first time. Urbanization gave property rights as well as more sexual freedom to women. This freedom cautioned many fathers to give away their daughters in marriage at young age lest they do something that brings bad name to the family. Para number 6.4.7 of Brahad-arnakya Upanishad, a chapter dealing with procreation, speaks general approach of the time and it says:

"... if she does not grant him his desire (succumb to have sex with the husband) he should buy her a gift. If she still does not agree, he should hit her with a stick or hand and overcome her with power and glory and say "I take away your glory". Thus she will be devoid of glory."

      This paragraph is proof enough of dilution of women, say; in matters relating to her limited options as compared to men.

      Women's economic contributions were important in ancient India. As India was an agricultural country; women were needed to assist the men folk in the various seasonal activities. As today, in the past also, India was made up of thousands of villages. It was the family not the individual that was the basic unit. Usually three generations of the family lived together in an essentially patriarchal structure. This patriarchal system prevailed in the religious rituals. The Indians practised a form of ancestor worship, whereby the oldest male was responsible for conducting the rites on a regular basis in the home. It was the eldest son's responsibility to incinerate his parents' funeral pyre. Women could not serve as Brahmin priests or study the sacred Vedas. Some women could be seers, though.

      After 500 BC, the economy further increased to newer heights with many cosmopolitan cities coming up like Varanasi and Kaushambhi serving the Gangetic Plains and great empires of Maurya dynasty reaching newer heights. During this period, once again, there were few examples of individual woman making her place in society on her own but again more as exception than as rule. And such women got attracted to follow alternate religions of Buddhism and Jainism as against Hinduism as they had better say outside Hinduism.

      The next texts that speak about women in Ancient India are the Laws of Manu around 150 CE and Artha Shastra. Here we can gain insights into the legal status of women but not necessarily what was actually practised. Law codes are nearly always prescriptive not descriptive literature. Manu in particular has been rather harsh to women's plight. He seems to be against her independence at any time in her whole life. In her younger stage, she was supposed to be under the guardianship of her father, after marriage under her husband and lastly under her son. Post marriage, a woman was regarded to have her second birth with a new name and new family. However, she was to remain present in all successful religious rituals. Adultery was not punished as severely as in other ancient cultures. Divorce was possible for the woman too but only if the husband was impotent or insane. Generally; there were practices like sati where she was supposed to finish her life after death of her husband. In other cases, the majority of widows apparently did not remarry.
It may also be interesting to look at following eight types of marriage mentioned by Manu Smriti:

• Brahma: Where father gives away her daughter to a boy he has summoned.

• Gods: Father gives his daughter to the officiating priest in course of sacrifice ritual being conducted.

• Sages: Where father gives away his daughter to a man after receiving a gift of cows and bulls.

• Lord of Creation: Where he gives away her to a man of her choice saying that "may the two of you fulfill your dharma together".

• Anti God's: Man takes a girl because he wants her and gives as much wealth to her and family as much he can.

• Gandharva: Both join in sexual union out of lustful desire.

• Ogres (Rakshasas): Man picks up the girl against her will and harms her family.

• Pishacha: Man has sex with her in a condition where she is sleeping, intoxicated, drunk or otherwise out of her mind.

      Manu suggest that best marriage for all classes other than Brahmins is number four where there is a mutual liking as well as consent of the family. But he suggests only Brahma marriage suitable for a Brahmin girl. But if one is to look more closely, it will be obvious that in all the last four options there is no willingness of the girl or her family. This certainly does speak volumes of social condition of woman in India around the turn of millennium.

      After this time, we have the time of epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. These points we have discussed in some details under the chapter relating to epics. But suffice to say that while Ramayana tries to project a perfect picture of ideal woman in Sita, it also talks of Kaikeyi and Surpnakha. In any case one does not find any one giving birth to a girl child in both the epics. How come all the children born to Kauravas, Pandavas as well as Rama Sita are all boys? Does it speak of equality? Certainly not. Either a daughter's birth is not auspicious or it is not worth mentioning. In both situations, social preference for sons gets highlighted.

      All said and done, in the epics, women are shown as having more freedom and competency than in the religious and legal literature until that time. In the Mahabharata, there is evidence of both polyandry and polygamy. Events in these stories demonstrate women's managing and problem-solving skills. In the Ramayana, the heroine, Sita, is the example of the good wife, who still shows determination to manage her life. When Sita is accused of sexual misconduct, she has to prove her sexual purity. Public opinion still negates her innocence, forcing her to go into exile, where she goes back to her mother, Earth. This ritual suicide then becomes the prototype for sati, the self-sacrifice of a wife on her husband's funeral pyre, which occurs later in Indian history.

      But outside of the epics, one comes across tales of courtesans and prostitutes who were part of ancient Indian society. Courtesans
were often literate, and skilled in music and dancing besides the usual sexual services. Regular prostitutes engaged in their trade in busy places and paid taxes. Even in Kama Sutra, one finds some sympathy with women but not the empathy, which remains missing. A deep look at Kama Sutra and one can clearly see the tone of the composer who is ultimately using women in the exploitative mould. Repentant courtesans and prostitutes sometimes went into Buddhist nunneries. Just as in the medieval west, wives and daughters in Indian traditions also could become ascetics if their present life was untenable.

      But Manu Smriti, the so-called moral code of the day, comes out the flag bearer of Hindus oppression on women. Manu treats women as a sexual crime about to happen. Manu identifies six clear ways of easily corrupting a women which included drinking, association with people of ill repute, separation from husband for long period, wandering about aimlessly; sleeping and living in the house belonging to some other person. He is totally against her having any independence any time in her entire life.

      As Hinduism developed, certain facets became dominant: the caste system, karma, dharma, and reincarnation. In certain cases a man was allowed to marry a woman of a lower caste, but a woman could not do so without disgracing her family and defiling herself. Because of the relative lower status of women in India, if you did not do your proper duty or dharma, then you did not accrue good enough karma to be reincarnated in a higher caste or life form, including being reborn as a woman, who was inferior to a man.

      Padmapuran is yet another classic case of picturing women of the day. Some of the language used here comes out quite demeaning and full of shame for a culture that has been better than most others on most matters relating to morality. No wonder our sisters and mothers have suffered a lot under earlier systems and we have no right to call ourselves as Jagad Gurus unless we succeed in changing our complete moral fabric to provide women just and equal place with men. Nonetheless, here is a complete excerpt of Padmapuran about dos and don'ts for the woman of that day:

"In spite of any deformation, aging, infirm, offensive, immoral, drunkard, gambler, visitor to places of ill repute, having no affection for his home, living with other women, let him be blind, deaf or crippled, a wife should always look at him (her husband) as her God, should lavish on him all her care and attention and give him no cause of displeasure.

She must be always attentive and diligent in all her domestic duties, watchful of her temper, never covetous of the belongings of others, never quarrelsome with her neighbours, always calm in her conduct.

Should any man make proposal to her and endeavour to seduce her by offering her nice clothes or jewels of great value, she should not lend an ear to him and should hasten to flee from him.

She should laugh only when her husband is happy and feel sad when he is unhappy. She must answer only when her husband questions her. This is how she will present proof of her dispositions. She should take heed not to remarks that other person is young, handsome or well proportioned and above all she must not speak to such person. Such modest behaviour will secure her the reputation of a faithful spouse.

Let her bath every day, rubbing saffron on her body. Let her attire be clean, her eyelid tinged with antimony and her forehead marked with red pigment. Let her hair be well combed and adorned. Thus shall she will be like the Goddess Laxmi.

Before her husband, her words shall fall but softly and sweetly; and let her completely devote herself to please him everyday more and more. Prudent in her conversation, she must be careful in conversing with the Gurus, Sanyasi, strangers, Servants and others to adopt a tone suitable to the position of each."

      After going through such strict list of expectations from the wife, one only wishes that there should have been similar standards applied to the husband of that time. Let us admit that our culture has had double standards when it came to genders. One also tends to conclude that crimes generally propagated against women, including dowry; rape, sexual harassment, work place harassment, domestic violence, female infanticide etc., all have their roots in our cultural weakness of treating women as an object or piece of property. That is why we had provided them unequal status all along. Even today; many instances comes to light where their very decision making is questioned and most of the crimes against women being committed today, are deep rooted in such old practices which have badly treated them and have oppressed them continuously without bestowing them the place of respect they deserved.

      Let us also discuss women's plight in mythological stories about Gods and Goddesses. Hindus came to think that various deities were manifestations or avatars of the Brahman' the world soul. Each god has had many rebirths. Goddesses of special reverence were Kali, Sarasvati, Parvati, Lakshmi, Durga, and Devi.

      Sarasvati was the consort to Brahma, who set the world in motion, but lost importance with the emergence of the gods Shiva and Vishnu. Sarasvati was the goddess of learning, writing, knowledge, mathematics, the arts, music, magic, and eloquence. She created the first alphabet. Many consider her the mother of all life since it was her divine energy that united with the awareness of Brahma, who was born from the golden egg from ocean. Thus the two created all knowledge and all creatures of the world. Sarasvati was also a river goddess, and her name translates as the flowing one. She is usually shown seated on a lotus blossom throne accompanied by a white swan. She has four arms, showing that her power extends in all four directions. Two of her arms hold books and beads (showing her spiritual knowledge), with the other two arms and hands she is playing the veena, an Indian lute.

      Parvati was Shiva's wife. She is often seen with him in statues and paintings. They look like the model loving couple. In some of her avatars or reincarnations she is also Durga, the ten armed goddess of battle, Kali, or Uma, the beautiful one who rides on a tiger. Parvati means mountain girl and she is considered the daughter of the Himalayan Mountains.

      Lakshmi was the wife of Vishnu, the preserver. She is often shown seated on a lotus as she was bom from an ocean of milk standing on a lotus flower. She is the goddess of good fortune, prosperity wealth, and beauty. Representing all that is feminine, while her consort Vishnu represents all that is masculine. Many paintings show them riding on the back of Garuda, the eagle, the giant king of birds, as they fly across the land. Lakshmi chose Vishnu. They had a son, Kama, who was the god of romantic love, and in many paintings he looks similar to the cupids on valentine cards. Her attendants are white elephants. Lakshmi is also worshiped as Sita, the reincarnation of the perfect wife to Rama in the Ramayana. All Indian householders keenly invite Laxmi on Diwali for blessing them with good fortune and prosperity for the coming year. Lakshmi lives in the sky with the most beautiful jewels of all, the stars.

      Durga, the warrior goddess, is one of the avatars of Devi. She is invincible in battle, and was created by the gods to destroy the buffalo monster that was threatening their power. Taking a weapon in each of her ten hands, she killed the beast.

      The goddess Devi was the essence of being and, as Shakti, she was the one great mother goddess, and she was responsible for fire, water, earth, and air. Devi is unknowable, omnipotent, and the myth of Devi as Kali dates back to goddess worship in the early Sindhu Sarasvati culture. Kali is the most terrible aspect of Devi. Sent to earth to destroy the race of demons, Kali caused such devastation that many died. She has four arms and hands. One holds a sword and the other a severed head, both symbols of death. With the other two hands she holds a holy book and prayer beads, both symbols of life. Sometimes Kali is depicted as a black goddess, signifying the essence of all perishable things, with her dark skin reflecting the dark soil of earth. Her teeth are bloodstained fangs, and rivers of blood flow from her. In India today bloody sacrifices still are made to her at her Kalighat Temple in Kolkata, the city named for her.

      Buddhism was open for all people irrespective of caste and gender but even Buddha generally discouraged women from becoming nuns. Usually it was the widows, abandoned wives, and courtesans who did become nuns, travelling to various areas, giving public talks and visiting individual homes. And nuns were always to be under the strict supervision of monks. Surviving sources from the earliest Buddhist texts suggest monks and Buddha also viewed women's sexuality as a threat to spiritual growth of men and monks, just as in later medieval Christian Europe. Buddhism also stressed that the proper relationship in India was between a married couple. Wives should be encouraged to provide the home atmosphere conducive to the maintenance of society as their main contribution.

      A lot more can be said about women's plight at different stages. But they were not treated equally and gender bias appeared all around the social evolution under Hinduism. Unfortunately; on this count, Hinduism does not appear standing much away from Islam as well as Christianity.

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