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 in her. 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 being independent does not mean that you listen to yourself only. Let us cease to treat her as a symbol of desire and allow her to blossom, flower, show her inner beauty without any inhibitions.
This essay is based on inputs from The History and Culture of Indian People by the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan & The Position of Women in the Hindu Civilization by A.E.Altekar.
The Age of the Rig Veda (2500 to 1500 BC) - 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
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 was 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:
a) The wooers formally go to the girl’s house.
b) When the bride’s father gives his formal consent, the bridegroom performs a sacrifice.
c) Early in the morning of the first day of marriage celebrations, the bride is bathed.
d) 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.
e) The bridegroom goes to the girl’s house and makes the gift of a garment, mirror to the bride who has been bathed earlier.
f) The Kanya-pradana, formal giving away of the bride takes place now followed by.
g) The clasping of the bride’s right hand by the bridegroom’s own right hand takes place now.
h) The treading on stone.
i) The leading of the bride round the fire by the bridegroom.
j) The sacrifice of the fried grains.
k) The Saptapadi i.e. the couple walking seven steps together as a symbol of their livelong concord.
l) Finally, the bride is taken to her new house.
m) 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 im
portance 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
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
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 women 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.
he 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.
2. 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.
3. 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 women 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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
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 women to take a second husband under five circumstances, lost, dead, impotent, 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 wif
e. 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.
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.
Purdah – As in the earlier periods, it has restricted usage. With the advent of Muslim rule it gradually spread to the higher classes of Northern India.
General Status of Women – Men continued to be as protective about their womenfolk as in the previous period. They must be guarded against physical abuse and mental unchastity. This is best done by keeping the wife in seclusion. She must be kept so busy at home that she does not have time for anything else. The husband must honor his wife with gifts, clothes while the other male relatives must honor her on festive occasions.
The laws relating to suppression and abandonment have a strong tendency to emphasize some points in her favor. The wife may be superseded on specific grounds. The husband in some cases has to ask her permission or in others has to wait for a long periods of time. Even if a superceded wife gets angry and leaves her husband she must be maintained by him. The superceded wife, must be given a sum equal to what is spent on the second marriage or is given to the second wife. When a wife is guilty of adultery, she must be maintained till her performance of penance. Only in extreme cases, as when a wife is guilty of abortion or attempting to kill her husband must she be driven out of the house.
When a husband leaves, deserts his good wife wrongfully, he would be punished by the King like a thief.
The custom of dedicating women to the service of temples continued continued from the previous period.
There is a strong tendency in this period to maintain but increase women rights to property. The women’s right to inherit the property of her male relations is emphatically stated by the authors of Smriti-chandrika. The widow is entitled to succeed to the whole estate of her deceased sonless husband provided she is chaste and the property was divided at the time of his death.
As in the previous period, some women exercised a commanding influence upon the administration of the state. In Kashmir, Suryamati, queen of Ananta, rose to be the de facto ruler of the king. The political influence of ladies can also be traced to the Deccan and South India. In South Canara district, 13th century a.d. queen Ballamahadevi of the Alupa dynasty ruled for atleast 14 years.
1300 to 1526 A.D.
Slavery - Slavery was quite common and Iv Batutah refers to the acquisition of slave girls in lots and their distribution as gifts. Sadly, a sort of communal spirit seems to have prevailed in the matter. The Muslims took pleasure in enslaving Hindu women enmass. Muhammad Bin Tughlaq sent as presents to the Chinese emperor 100000 male slaves and 100000 slave dancers from among the Indian infidels. On the other hand Muslim women were turned by the Rajputs into slave girls and taught the art of dancing.
Marriage - Girls continued to get married early except those from Kshatriya families who got married around 14 or 15. The Kshatriya father was worried that if his daughter got married very early, her husband dies in war (very prevalent during this period), how would she manage widowhood before she came of age. Another reason was that many Kshatriya women were called to accept governmental responsibilities so needed to be trained in administrative duties and military exercises. For girls who got married early, education was not possible.
Marriages within the same caste became more common although upper caste did marry more than once, once within their own caste and second time outside their caste. As in the earlier period marriage within the same gotra was forbidden and girls were given away in marriage before the age of puberty. Widow remarriage was forbidden during this period. The features of marriage in the previous period continued in this period too.
Sati - was more prevalent during this period than in earlier periods. It is best brought out with this quote from the Prabuddha Bharata issue of November 2000 “ After Maharana Sanga dies, his son Vikramditya (1531-36) sat on the throne of Chitor. The king was weak. Seizing the opportunity, the Pathan kings of Gujarat and Malwa attacked Chitore. The King lost the battle and run away. The Pathans entered the fort. It was usual for women of those days to commit jouhar i.e.-mass self-immolation to protect their womanhood. The wife of the king, Jawaharbai was a lady of rare qualities. Riding on a horse back, the women army attacked the surprised pathans. Blood flowed, many Pathans were killed. Almost all the women laid their lives down fighting and the rest committed jouhar”. Hats off to those women, they were made of steel.
Purdah – The purdah had become a common practice during this period but was unknown among lower classes of society, especially in the rural areas. Muslim rule was weak in the South and found limited acceptance there.
General Position of Women - The position of women was not made worse but actually strengthened on some points. The old rules enjoining upon the guardians the responsibility for marrying their girls early along with the right to the girl to make her choice of husband continued. Also the revocation of marriage with a bridegroom under special circumstances was allowed. The rules relating to sinful women continued though with less severity though. The wife was to continue to look after husband and family and the husband’s reciprocation of maintaining the faithful wife continued. As before, the husband is to pay compensation extending to one third of property to his supreseded wife.
However, the feeling that women are symbols of conquest became stronger during this period.
A widow was considered to be the foremost heir of her sonless and divided husband as also a women’s complete ownership of her stridhana ( certain kinds of property acquired by a woman on specific occasions and at different stages of life)
1526 to 1707 A.D.
Purdah – Through the ages, there was a deterioration in the status of women but there was no seclusion ever. Strict veiling of women was a common practice among the Muslims in thei
r native lands and naturally great stress was laid upon it by all kings including a liberal like Akbar. Hindus adopted purdah as a protective measure to save the purity of their women and maintain the purity of their social order. Purdah was, however, less rigorously followed in Rajput families. Their women, trained in all arts of warfare, took part in hunting expeditions. Barring, notable Muslim families, South India did not adopt purdah. Hindu women used a dopatta to cover their heads with women from lower strata of society not following any system of purdah at all.
Sati – was widely prevalent during this period. Widows who would not burn themselves were harshly treated by society, they were not allowed to sport long hair or put on ornaments.
Education – Women’s education was not completely ignored though education was imparted by their parents. Muslim girls learnt the Quran. The rich appointed tutors to teach their daughters at home. The daughters of Rajputs chiefs were able to read and write. Mughal princesses were more able to read and write. The average women had sufficient knowledge about her native language. The knowledge of Sanskrit was widely spread in the South. However, since the average age of girls was low, the average girl did not get the benefit of education.
General Status – The birth of a daughter was considered inauspicious ( in the previous periods it was not like that – a product of the environment they lived in ). Girls were married off at an early age less than 10, leaving no room for her to be educated or choose her partner. Dowry was demanded and paid. In some cases, the bridegroom has to pay the bride’s guardians. Girls belonging to high class Rajput families had greater freedom to choose their husband.
Monogamy seems to have been the rule among the lower strata of society in both the communities during this period. After getting married the girl was responsible for the management of her household. She was to be a devoted wife who took care of her husband’s needs. On the other hand, her husband was to take good care of her. It appears that most Hindus led a happy domestic life.
Divorce and remarriages common among Muslims was prohibited to Hindu women. Widow remarriage, except for the lower strata of society, had completely disappeared in Hindu society during this period.
A Muslim women inherited a definite share of her husband’s or father’s share of property with an absolute right to dispose it. Unlike her Hindu sister she retained the right after marriage. Mahr was another safeguard for her while a Hindu women had no right to the property of her husband’s parents. A Hindu women was entitled to maintenance besides movable property. Thus, women were led to a position of despondency in every sphere of life. They became home birds, period.
Inspite of their seclusion, some Mughal ladies were writers of distinction and administrators of rare merit. Mira Bai, Salima Sultana, Zib-un-Nisa (eldest daughter of Aurangzeb) were poetess of distinction. In Maharashtra, Aka bai and Kena disciples of Ramdas Swami were imp literary figures. Shivaji’s mother Jijabai developed in him a spirit of defiance and self assertion. Tarabai Mohite was the supreme guiding force in Maharashtra after the death of her husband Rajaram. Her brilliance helped counter the Mughal onslaught by Aurangzeb.
Whatever may have been the position of women in society, she certainly occupied a most respectable position as mother.
1707 to 1818 A D
From whatever point of view the 18th century was an inglorious period in the history of India. Gradual disintegration and collapse of the Mughal empire and debased character of nobility subjected the country to political turmoil, social disorder and economic decline.
Marriage – was a universal social practice except on the part of those who observed celibacy on religious grounds. To arrange for marriage of their children was considered to be the parent’s duty. Marriage was an indissoluble and sacred bond and not a contract for materialistic comforts. A duly married wife could not be discarded except on charges of adultery. Although took place at an early age, consummation did not take place till they attained maturity.
Purdah – was observed in Hindu and Muslim families. However, women of poor families who used to go out to earn their livelihood and those of South India did not observe it with the exception of the Moplahs of Malabar in Kerala.
Sati – It was more widely prevalent in Rajasthan and Central India with hardly any followers in the South. In Bengal Sati was not universally followed by all castes. As a result of Western education and the enlightened public opinion under the leadership of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the got of Lord William Bentick abolished Sati in 1829.
Education – Since most girls got married early, they did not have the benefits of education. ? No major changes from the previous period.
Polygamy – There was ordinarily no polygamy amongst the common man except the Rajahs, Princes others. But polygamy had become a notorious practice among the Kulins of Bengal and the Brahmins of Mithila. Raja Ram Mohan Roy protested vehemently against this custom.
Widow Remarriage in high caste Hindu families was not permissible in Bengal. The Peshwas collected a tax called patdam on the remarriage of widows. Widow remarriage was widely prevalent among the non-Brahmins of Maharashtra. On the whole, remarriage was not prevalent across the country.
Status, European View – Family system had Men as the head of the family while the wife followed his will. Having said that, she had a dignified position in the house and the authority in regulating its affairs. Piety, charity, modesty and affection were the qualities of a Hindu wife. Contemporary European writers like Orme have praised the Hindu women “Segregated from the company of the other sex and strangers to the ideas of attracting attention, they are only handsomer for this ignorance, as we see in them beauty in the noble simplicity of nature”. Quoting missionary Abbe Dubois “ Hindu women are naturally chaste. I would go so far as to say that Hindu women are more virtuous than any of many other civilized countries”. Society in general had feelings of reverence for womenfolk.
Forward-looking women – Angels at home could stand side by side when the need arose. Quoting Malcom on the women of Maharashtra “ The females of both the Brahman and Sudra Marathas, have, when their husbands are princes, great influence, not only by their over individuals but sometimes in the affairs of the state. If married to men of rank, they usually have a distinct provision and estate of their own, enjoy as much liberty as they desire, seldom wear a veil’. Two imp egs. in the 18th century are Rani Bhavani of Natore and Shri Devi Ahalya Bai who ruled over Indore from 1766 to 1795. Rani Bhavani was guided by deep religious convictions with good administrative skills and charity for pious objects, which have immortalized her memory. Ahalya Bai was inspired by higher virtues of idealism and piety. She was a good administrator. Quoting Malcom “ She appears within her limited sphere, to have been one of the purest and most exemplary rulers that ever existed, and she affords a striking eg of the practical benefits of a mind received from performance of worldly duties under a deep sense of responsibility to it creator”.
Muslim ladies who participated in political affairs were Dardanah Begum, wife of the governor of Orissa, Zebunisa, wife of Shuja-ud-din, assisted her hubby in administration and so was the case with Ali Vardin’s wife.
General Notes – Slavery was another evil. Under duress men and women were sold as slaves. Unable to withstand the impact of natural calamities, people sold themselves, family to a rich man in lieu of money. Dancing girls
were purchased when young by Naikins i.e. dance companies. Female children and young women were bought by all ranks.
1818 to 1905 AD
An important reason for the decadence of Indian society was the gradual but steady deterioration in the position of women. The reason why the attention of English educated Indians were first drawn to the necessity of reform in the status of women is that it affected their own kin whose miseries stirred their emotions. Inspite of the good words said by European scholars about the condition of women in the previous period, on an average, their condition was deplorable. Child marriage, lack of education, no widow remarriage, sati were some of the problems that she faced. Their condition in Bengal particularly was pitiable.
Through the efforts of English educated Indians sati was banned, education was promoted, widow remarriage was legalized. Inspite of best efforts, polygamy was not banned in that period. So also the custom of Purdah, more strictly observed by Muslims and borrowed from them by the Hindus of North India was opposed by religious sects like the Brahmo, Arya Samaj.
In Mumbai, the agitation for social reforms started earlier than West Bengal due to the fact that the Maratha rulers of the 18th century followed the old Hindu tradition of regulating social affairs and showed a spirit of readmitting converts, intermarriage, remarriage of girls, prohibition of sale of girls. The establishment of the Prarthana Samaj gave a great impetus to social reform. Jotiba Phule took up the cause of women and started a girl’s school in Pune in 1851, helped widows to remarry.
The spirit of social reform was evident in most provinces. The Mysore govt passed a law making marriage before the age of 12 illegal for girls. Baroda fixed the minimum age for girls at 12 and 16 for boys. The systems of Devadasis was declining.
Sati was abolished in 1829. The Hindu Widow’s Remarriage Act was passed in 1856. It legalized the marriage of widows and held children born of such marriages to be legitimate. Inspite of the act, remarriage did not make much progress.
Education – Although the preceding paras refer to the high educational attainment of women in the Vedic ages and its gradual decline, things had come to such a pass during the 19th century, that a regular system of female education was unknown in India. Daughters of aristocratic families got some elementary education at home, period. Missionaries did make some valiant efforts in Bengal to educate girls but they failed because too much attention was placed to preaching of Christianity and lack of good teachers.
Although serious efforts were made to educate women it failed because of the existence of Purdah, apprehension of the parents that their daughters would imbibe Christian principles, there was no perceived tangible benefit to the educated women, family was worried that she would not do household work because of which family budgets would go up.
We must remember the contribution made by Pandit Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar to the cause of women’s education in Bengal. He opened no less than 35 girl’s schools between 1857 and 1858.
In Mumbai women led a comparatively freer life as there was no Purdah among the Marathas. Is that not true even today ? In Mumbai and Pune english educated boys spread education through a girl’s school set up in 1851.
Some prominent members of the Brahmo Samaj started journals for the promotion of education among women. The Arya Samaj initiated education in Punjab by establishing the Mahakanya Vidyalaya at Jullandar in Punjab. ( my mother went to this school). Gradually the institution secondary and primary schools all over India. Starting 1882, govt grants for schools were more liberally given. In 1901-02, there were 12 female colleges in Bengal, Madras and United Provinces.
1905 to 1947 AD
Education – Women’s education made steady progress. The number of female students at each stage increased rapidly. Obstacles like early marriage and orthodoxy were gradually being removed. A new feature introduced during this period was co-education. Divergent views were expressed on the benefits of this policy. This was however, a must in post-graduate education where the number of women students were far fewer. Serious defects in this new system were observed by the Radhakrishnan Commission. “ There are few truly co-educational colleges in this country. There are men’s colleges to whom women have been admitted which is quite a different matter. Sanitary facilities for women are totally inadequate and sometimes even lacking.”
On the other hand, there was a gradually growing tendency among girls not only to be equal to men, but to be like them in all her interest and activities. The progress of Muslim girl’s education was unsatisfactory.
The spread of education among women made them eager for improving their rights. A Ladies section was added to the Indian National Social Conference in 1903. While this facilitated change, the actual changes introduced by legislation were few. The Child Marriages Prevention Act became effective in 1930, became applicable to all communities, penalized marriage if the girl was below 14 yrs and boy 18 yrs of age.
Attempts to have a civil marriage law, validate intercaste marriage failed. In 1939, the Indian Legislature passed the Hindu Women'’ Right to Property Act, which conceded to the Hindu widow a share in her husband’s property and the right to demand partition. While the Baroda govt legalized the Divorce by an act in 1931, it could not be achieved elsewhere in India.
Devadasi – The institution of Devadasi, a class of women who dedicated themselves to the life-long service in temples may be traced back centuries. Although it was a good institution earlier on, it had degraded to nothing but prostitution. An Act was passed in 1925 which extended to the Devadasis the Sections of the Penal Code which made traffic in minor girls a criminal offence.
Widows – Although the Act of 1956 accorded legal sanction to widow remarriage, it was not easy to break centuries of orthodoxy. Measures were taken to improve their lot. Widow’s homes were founded throughout the country, the most prominent one’s being the Widow’s Home in Mysore, Bangalore, Mahila Silpasrama in Calcutta amongst others. The Arya Samaj opened homes in Jullundar and the Jains at Bombay. We cannot forget the pioneering efforts of Prof. D.K. Karve who founded a widow’s home in Pune to which he added a High School for girls and social service center.
My 70 year old mother who hails from what is today Pakistan, told me that ladies of the previous generation used to spin the charkha when ever they got free time. It kept them occupied and earn some money.
The Swadeshi, Home Rule and Non-Cooperation Movements drew out women of their homes and made some of them participitate in the struggle for freedom. An important consequence of this was the near disappearance of the Purdah system amongst the Hindus. On April10, 1930, Gandhi made a special appeal to the women of India to take up the work of picketing and spinning. The effect was miraculous. Women came ot of their homes and offered themselves for arrest and imprisonment.
The World Wars, particularly the second one led to an increase in the employment for women. This economic freedom along with the struggle for freedom wrought changes in the intellectual, moral and social outlook of Hindu women of the upper classes as had not been witnessed in the past seven hundred years.
Abolition of purdah, coeducation, free social intercourse between men and women, increase in the marriageable age and near abolition of monogamy of men were revolutionary changes to have swept India during this period. Alas! These changes were limited to the Hindus. Did the British not help the Muslim women because they did not want to antagonize t
he Muslim community, as part of their Divide and Rule Policy or what ever, the truth is that the condition of Muslim women has not substantially improved over the years. The Shah Bano Case in the late eighties is an example. In India’s most cosmopolitan city, Mumbai, we see so many Muslim sporting Purdahs, making you wonder which age we are living in.
Under influence of modern education, government support the condition of the average Hindu women improved substantially during this period. Post independence, there was a change with every generation starting girls born after 1950. Indira Gandhi’s becoming Prime Minister must have been a source of inspiration for many parents and girls alike.
Dowry - The dowry system did not stand as a stumbling block in a daughter’s marriage in ancient India. In prehistoric times it was the other way round with the bride’s father demanding payment at the time of shaadi. In rich & royal families, some gifts used to be given to the son-in-law at the time of marriage. Gifts were given out of love and affection for the daughter, sister and not under any compulsion. The system became prevalent in Rajputana during the medieval times because the Rajputs took great pride in their ancestry so if a father wanted a blue-blooded son-in-law he had to pay for it.
In ordinary families, dowry was a nominal one. It is not till the middle of the 19th century that dowry became an impediment in marriages. Prior to the advent of the British, India was an agricultural economy but subsequently good education, lucrative job, economic position became parameters on which boys began to be measured. The problem seems to have got accentuated starting the 1900’s. Its time this system is dumped.
A Note on Status of Women in Western Society
The Doctrine of perpetual tutelage of women was not taken seriously by Hindu society can be gauged from the fact that a women’s share in property kept on increasing. If suppression of women was indeed the aim, her share in the property should have come down but the opposite happened. According to Dr Leitner, the Educational Commissioner of Punjab during the third quarter of the last century, the elderly women of the house had the difficult job of mediation in family disputes.
It must be noted that the doctrine of perpetual tutelage of women was universally accepted everywhere till recent times. Quoting Prof Gilbert Murray “ To the average Athenian, it was probably rather wicked for her to have any character, wicked for her to take part in public life, wicked for her to acquire learning.” Even Aristotle’s thought that like slaves, artisans and traders, women should occupy a subordinate place. Their will is weak, virtue less perfect and self-sufficient and deliberative faculty rather inconclusive. Male by nature is superior and female inferior. The one rules and the other is ruled.
The Roman Law regarded the wife as the daughter of her husband as far as her juridical status was concerned, for a long time, she could not sign a will, make a contract or become a witness. Down to 200 AD, even mothers of several children, continued to be under the tutelage of their male relations. Women is always dependent says Confucius and owes due homage to her father-in-law and husband. In the Christian marriage, the wife has to take the vow of obedience at the time of her marriage, logically speaking this places under the perpetual tutelage of her hubby.
The Bible argues that women should never usurp the authority over man, but be always subordinate to them, firstly because Eve and not Adam, was deceived and secondly because the former was created out of a rib of the former. At the synod of Macon in 585 AD, the assembled bishops debated whether human beings were women at all and finally concluded they were.
Numerous writers of medieval Europe have emphasized the inferiority of women. Milton held women ought to obey without argument. Rousseau, the apostle of freedom, condemned women to a servile position. Girls, he argues, should be subject to restraint. Even educated ladies of the 18th century felt that women should not dream of independence. The French Revolution which stood for Equality, was not prepared to grant it to Women. The French National Assembly treated women so contemptuously that it even refused to read their petition. In the Anti-Slavery Congress held in London in 1840, women delegates from America were not admitted because British representatives felt that it was contrary to the word of God that women should sit in the Congress. In England there was a determined opposition to the admission of women to the medical course down to 1888 AD. Oxford University would admit women students but would not give them degrees till 1920 AD.
Divorce – The earlier Dharmasastras tell us that divorce was permitted under certain circumstances at the beginning of the Christian era. Around the 5th century BC a wave of asceticism passed over Hindu society. Inspite of lots of opposition, it became well grounded around the beginning of the Christian era that a women could be married only once. To divorce one husband and to marry another , because the marital life was not happy, began to appear as a grossly sensual procedure. It may be pointed out that the Roman Catholic Church holds the same view today, as it regards marriages as indissoluble. (the book was written in 1956). In England, down to the middle of the 19th century, a divorce could be had only by an Act of Parliament. Between 1715 and 1855 A.D., only about 180 persons could get divorce through Parliamentary Legislation.
Duty of Obedience - According to the Avesta a good wife is one who is obedient to her husband. The Vedic marriage ritual, does not enjoin the duty of obedience upon the wife. The original Christian ritual, specify enjoined the duty of obedience upon the wife. She took the oath that she would love and obey her husband till her death, while the latter merely observed that he would love and cherish her. The deliberate differentiation in the oath was a natural corollary of the theory adumbrated in Paul, V, 22, that the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church. It is interesting to note that even in 1928, the British Parliament refused to sanction the proposal to delete the reference to obedience from the wife’s oath. The theory of wife’s subordination is dying out in the West.
Physical Assault of Wife – With the reduction in the average age and education of girls, physical assault of the wife did happen in India. But was the situation any different in the West ? In medieval Russia, the bride’s father supplied his son-in-law with a new whip as a symbol of his authority and it was hung over the bridal bed. There was a proverb current in Germany during the 15th century that women and an ass existed only to be beaten. In England, as late as 1891 A.D.only, was the husband’s right to inflict corporal punishment on his wife first denied by law courts. We should, thus, not be very surprised if Hindu Smritis had 2000 yrs ago, recognized the husband’s right to inflict a mild punishment on his wife, warning him at the same time that he would be liable to punishment if he overstepped his limits.
Sati – The custom of sacrifice of the widow at the funeral of her husband was widely prevalent since ancient times. Although there is no direct evidence that it prevailed during the Indo-European Age, the fact that it was practiced among the Gauls, Goths, Norwegians, Celts, Slaves and the Thracians would justify that it was probably well established among the Indo-Europeans. In China, when a widow killed herself in order to follow her husband to heaven, her corpse was taken out in a great procession. Sati was quite common in Kashmir probably due to its proximity to Central Asia, which was the home of the Scythians, among whom the custom was quite common. It traveled to the islands of Java, Sumatra and Bali along with the immigr
ation of Hindus there.
Niyoga or Levirate ( is a widow marrying her husband’s brother ) – Up to about 300 B.C. widows were not required to commit sati. They could remarry, marry their husband’s brother or remain widows. It may be noted that the custom of Levirate was quite common in many ancient civilizations. Among the Jews a women could become the wife of her husband’s brother without any ceremony. If he refused, she would spit on his face. The Old Testament also declares that if a women becomes a widow, her husband’s brother shall go unto her and take her into wife and perform the duties of a husband’s brother unto her. ( Deuternonomy,25,5-10). The marriage of Hamlet’s mother with Claudius and of Henry VIII with Katherine indicate an earlier custom of Niyoga, eventually developing into a regular remarriage with a brother-in-law. Swami Dayananda Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj encouraged niyoga, probably because it had Vedic sanction.
Purdah – There is no doubt that Purdah was unknown in India down to 100 B.C. It is only after the starting that some sections of society in Northern India, notably royalty, began to advocate greater seclusion for women, ie they put a veil. (could be the impact of foreign invasion). The Chinese travelers of the 7th century A.D. did not mention it too. The Purdah system became widely prevalent in North India subsequent to the Muslim invasion.
Seclusion of women was not confined to India alone. In Athens, 500 B.C., women could not meet their husband’s guests or go out of the house without proper guards. A bridegroom could not see his bride before marriage in ancient Greece. At Sparata, women had separate apartments and could not be present at banquets. In Assyria veil was worn by all married women. In Persia, seclusion of women had become quite common before the beginning of the Chrisitan era. The Bible lays down that women should not speak in public at the Church. Tertullian says “ For a virgin of virtuous habits every appearance in public with an unveiled face is equivalent to suffering a rape”.
To come down to modern times, women lived under restrictions. Down to 1850 A.D. in England, a woman could not take ca walk, much less a journey, alone, nor could she ask a fellow worker to visit her, unless the worker was a girl. When two ladies spoke at a meeting convened for the purpose of supporting a women’s cause in Parliament, a member of Parliament said “ Two ladies have disgraced themselves for speaking in public”. When the House of Commons was built in 1844, it was great difficulty that a Ladies Gallery was sanctioned.
Child Marriage – In the Vedic Age down to 400 B.C. girls were married between the age of 16 to 18. Between 400 B.C. to 100 A.D. the age was gradually lowered and the tendency was to marry girls at the time of puberty. With importance being attached to chastity, pre-puberty marriages came in vogue after 200 A.D. Sati, satisfactory economic condition and the joint-family system encouraged early marriage. The Sarda Act of 1929, made the marriage of girls and boys before the age of 14 and 18 an offence.
Child marriages were common in Europe for a long time. In ancient Rome, maidens were married at the age of 10 or 12. In the age of chivalry, girls were often married at the age of 5 because marriage was a matter of military tactics and alliances. The rule of the Church that boys and girls should be married at the age of 15 and 12 was openly flouted. In England, except in the upper classes, child marriage were common in Tudor times. Though in actual practice, late marriages became common by 1850 A.D., up to 1929, the minimum legal age of marriage continued to be 12 for girls and 14 for boys. In 1929, Parliament raised it to 16 for both boys and girls, partly as a reaction to the Sarda Bill introduced in India.
Franchise – There were democratic assemblies in the Vedic Age. Women were expected to speak with composure and success in public assemblies. Things, however, changed after around 300 B.C. Starting about 1920, women began to play an important role in the Independence Movement as well. Sarojini Naidu, Vijaylakshi Pandit to name a few. Indian women are lucky that they got the right of franchise, almost, without asking.
It is well known how the First World War worked as a miracle in winning over the most deadly opponent’s of women’s franchise. The British Parliament granted franchise to its women in 1918.
Ascetic School Hostile to Women - It appears that some Hindu writers have painted women in very black colors, not because they believed in what they said, but because they were anxious to dissuade men from marriage and family life. It may be noted that this tendency to attribute all and imaginary faults to women is not confined to the Renunciation School of India alone.
Said Socrates “ Women is the source of all evil, her love is to be dreaded more than the hatred of man, the poor young men who seek women are like fish who go to meet the hook”. While Christ did not indulge in any tirade of women the same cannot be said of other saints. St Paul says “ It is good for man not to touch a woman, marriage was a concession, a degradation to avoid fornication”.
Nuns - During the Vedic Age, a woman was indispensable to her husband from a spiritual and religious point of view. During 1500 to 1000 B..C the volume of Vedic studies became very complicated and time consuming which meant that lady Vedic scholars became rarer. With the steady deterioration in her position starting 300 B.C. things began to change. Buddha reluctantly admitted women as monks and Digambara Jains held that women can never get salvation except by first being born as men.
It may be noted that early Christian fathers shared similar views. The Council of Laodicea closed the doors of preaching career to women in 365 a.d. and not all agitation’s has succeeded even till 1956 in getting them opened. Islam permits women to read the Koran but not preach it.
Nudity – The real explanation of women appearing without covering their busts properly in the sculptures, paintings of Southern, Central India seems to be the artistic convention of that age. Breasts are the most significant symbol of motherhood and the artistists felt that they may be uncovered in works of art, though they may be actually covered in real life. Lets not confuse the matter with our indecent thoughts. Its all in the mind na.
Convention in India or European countries prescribed a scantier dress for woman than what is actually used in real life. This will be apparent to all students of ancient and modern sculptures & paintings of Europe. We cannot conclude that women in modern Europe move about in a nude condition because they appear uncovered in some works of art, so also the same logic applied to the Indian women.
Religion of Goddess – Quoting Jagdish C Joshi from The Times of India “ The phenomenon of feminine theology in Brahmanical religion tradition is unique because all over the world the female gods were replaced by male gods. Diana and Berecynthia, Isis and Cybele were exiled with the coming of Christianity although female hierophanies reappeared in the figures of Mary and the female saints. However, the figure of the version and its supporting theology are subordinate to her son.
Of all the religious practices and beliefs concerned with feminine divinities it is Shaktism which gives the Goddess a place of supreme importance. In this tradition female is raised above the male as Durga described as Shakti, the energy of the cosmos. Without her we are told in one of the texts that the world is lifeless and even, the great Shiva is merely a corpse. An analysis of the legends, doctrines and abstract philosophies indicates the first, the Goddess is portrayed as power, and the female Shakti element is identified as the essence of reality, the male element playing a subservient role. Second she is iden
tified with Prakriti, the primeval matter. As such she is identified with existence or that which underlines all existent things. Thirdly, she is described as giving food to all nourish all life and to cause decay. Fourthly, the Goddess incarnates in herself all the brilliance and power that the Gods collectively possess and her pervasive magic gives them sufficient power to be able to battle with all evil.
It is an exuberant celebration of the various forms of Devi, the Goddess, and their role in her victory over the demons who are supposed to be tormenting the people of this earth. She is also described as the embodiment of supreme eternal knowledge which becomes the cause of the release from bondage ”.