Status of women in ancient India
This was contributed by Nirmal, and first published in Hinduism Today.
They call it a bad rap when someone is wrongly accused of something, and in recent Indian history both women and Hinduism have suffered just such an injustice. To be sure, women are sometimes egregiously mistreated in India, as elsewhere in the world. But this is not owing to Hinduism. Indeed, it is a violation of the Sanatana Dharma. Although the position of women declined in modern times—especially during the long period of foreign rule, which disrupted every aspect of society—most scholars agree that women in ancient India held a most elevated position. They had similar education as men and participated with men in philosophical debates.
[pullquote]India’s customs regarding women were severely impacted by the centuries of invasions and foreign occupation, when the careful protection of Hindu women became essential. [/pullquote]
During Vedic times, women so inclined wore the sacred thread and were taught the holy mantras of the Vedas. Some were brahmavadinis, women who devoted their lives to scriptural study, expounded the Vedas and wrote some of the Vedic hymns. Women of the kshatriya (warrior) caste received martial arts coaching and arms training.
The Vedas, Upanishads and other scriptures give numerous examples of women philosophers, politicians, teachers, administrators and saints. The Rig Veda says, “The wife and husband, being the equal halves of one substance, are equal in every respect; therefore, both should join and take equal parts in all works, religious and secular.” The Upanishads clearly declare that we individual souls are neither male nor female. Hinduism teaches that each of us passes through many lives, both male and female. It further teaches the law of karma, which informs us that what we do to others will in turn be done to us—and that ahimsa, non-hurtfulness, must be the guiding precept of our lives. Thus, Hinduism gives no justification for the mistreatment of others, whether on the basis of gender or for any other reason. (In the actual lives of adherents, of course—as in any religion—“results may vary.”)
Comparing the general position of women in our scriptures with those of any other faith, we will immediately discover their elevated status in Hinduism. The Semitic faiths, by comparison, associated women with evil and mortality. The Old Testament says, “And a man will choose…any wickedness, but the wickedness of a woman…Sin began with a woman, and thanks to her we all must die” (Ecclesiasticus, 25:18, 19 & 33). The New Testament, too, is partial to men: “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God” (1 Corinthians 11:7). “And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner” (1 Timothy 2:14).
In Hinduism, girls are revered as forms of Goddess Lakshmi. Boys are not correspondingly revered as forms of Rama or Krishna. In the Sindhi, Punjabi, Nepali and other communities, girls are not supposed to touch the feet of their parents; instead, on occasions like Navaratri, everyone—including parents—touch the feet of the girls.
We can inquire, in what major religion besides Hinduism do people worship the Supreme Being as Goddess? While the Western religions are male-centric, the largest pilgrimage site in North India (and second largest in the entire country) is Vaishno Devi. Throughout the country—north, south, east and west—one can see pilgrimage places centered around the shrines of various forms of the Goddess—Durga, Parvati, Kali, Lakshmi, Saraswati, etc. The Shakta Hindus consider the Mother Goddess to be the Supreme Creator; and even Vaishnavites and Saivites, who worship Lord Vishnu or Lord Siva as the Supreme Deity, affirm that God cannot be approached except through His Shakti.
[pullquote]Hinduism gives no justification for the mistreatment of others, whether on the basis of gender or for any other reason. [/pullquote]
Hindu scriptures are of two classes. Sruti is revealed scripture—the Vedas and the Upanishads. The smriti comprise lesser scriptural texts, composed by human beings—the Itihasas, Puranas and Dharmashastras. Within smriti, the Itihasas (the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata) are the most important and authoritative. By the time those were written (the “epic period” of India’s history), the position of women had deteriorated considerably, although there still existed women called brahmavadinis, who devoted their lives to study and spiritual meditation and who participated in the philosophical discussions.
Women in the Vedas
Many of the Vedic rishis were women. Married and single women alike were acknowledged authorities on the Vedic wisdom. The prophetess Gargi composed several Vedic hymns questioning the origin of all existence. Other Vedic hymns are attributed to Vishwawara, Sikta and others. The Rig Veda identifies many women rishis; indeed, it contains dozens of verses accredited to the woman philosopher Ghosha and to the great Maitreyi, who rejected half her husband Yajnavalkya’s wealth in favor of spiritual knowledge. It also contains long philosophical conversations between the sage Agasthya and his highly educated wife Lopamudra.
Rig Veda clearly proclaims that women should be given the lead in ruling the nation and in society, and that they should have the same right as sons over the father’s property. “The entire world of noble people bows to the glory of the glorious woman so that she enlightens us with knowledge and foresight. She is the leader of society and provides knowledge to everyone. She is symbol of prosperity and daughter of brilliance. May we respect her so that she destroys the tendencies of evil and hatred from the society.” (1.48.8)
Atharva Veda states that women should be valiant, scholarly, prosperous, intelligent and knowledgeable; they should take part in the legislative chambers and be the protectors of family and society. When a bride enters a family through marriage, she is to “rule there along with her husband, as a queen, over the other members of the family.” (14.1.43-44)
Yajur Veda tells us, “The scholarly woman purifies our lives with her intellect. Through her actions, she purifies our actions. Through her knowledge and action, she promotes virtue and efficient management of society.” (20.84)
Women in the Upanishads
Each of the four Vedas has four parts, the fourth of which comprises its Upanishads, which expound the otherwise obscure philosophical meanings. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (part of the Yajur Veda) contains an account of a philosophic congress organized by King Janak of Videha. The aforementioned Gargi, one of the eminent participants, challenged the sage Yajnavalkya with questions about the soul which confounded that learned man. Another incident in the same Upanishad relates the spiritual teachings given by Yajnavalkya to Maitreyi.
Women in the Mahabharata
In the epic history Mahabharata, the noble prince Bhishma Pitamah declares, “The teacher who teaches true knowledge is more important than ten instructors. The father is more important than ten such teachers of true knowledge and the mother is more important than ten such fathers. There is no greater guru than mother.”
Some people question Draupadi’s having five husbands, considering that to be evidence of inferior status. Does the opposite practice, polygamy, indicate the inferior status of its male practitioners?By no means should Draupadi be considered subjugated. She did not hesitate to question Yudhisthira Maharaj, something which even his brothers would not do. When the Pandavas captured Ashwattama, who had mercilessly killed all five of Draupadi’s sons in their sleep, Bhima and Krishna wanted to kill him. Despite her unimaginable grief, the compassionate Draupadi did not want another woman to suffer the loss of a child, and her moral strength and determination prevailed over the vengeful men.
Certainly Draupadi, like all humans, had her moments of weakness. The scriptures show the various trials and tribulations in people’s lives. Rather than judging people as right or wrong, good or bad, strong or weak, based on isolated characteristics or events, we should always look at the total picture.
In the Mahabharata, Krishna accepted the curse of Gandhari, whose 100 sons were killed on the Kurukshetra battlefield. The bereaved woman blamed Krishna for not stopping the war. Krishna did not rebuke her—he listened respectfully and addressed her as Mother, accepted the curse and departed from the Earth. How can anyone claim that the Mahabharata is demeaning to women?
Women in the Ramayana
Two incidents from the Ramayana are frequently cited to indicate the subjugation of women: Sita’s Agni Pariksha, trial by fire, and her banishment to the forest.
In those times, social standards were much stricter than the “anything-goes” attitude common in today’s world. Royalty in particular, unlike politicians today, were held to a high standard. As Rama and Sita were to become king and queen of Ayodhya, they were obligated to prove, through the Agni Pariksha, that Sita had remained chaste while held in captivity by Ravana.
Sita’s banishment to the forest is described in a section of the Ramayana called Uttara Ramayana. This entire section may well be an interpolation, written and inserted much later than Valmiki’s original Ramayana, as the language is not consistent with the other parts of the Ramayana. Tulsidas and Kamban, the translators into Hindi (Ramcharitmanas) and Tamil (Ramavataram), do not include the Uttara Ramayana in their translations. But even if we do accept the banishment story, this is simply another incident of royalty being held to a lofty standard, being accountable to their subjects.
Sita is often characterized as submissive, never opposing her husband. Yet when Rama didn’t want her to join him in the forest, she insisted—and prevailed—saying she was well versed in the Vedic tradition, according to which a wife’s place was always with her husband. When Rama attempted to convince her (correctly in this case) that the golden deer was not real, and must be a demon in disguise, Sita would have none of it; she persuaded Rama to go after the deer.
Rama entrusted Lakshmana with the protection of Sita while he chased the deer, but the strong-willed Sita insisted Lakshmana leave her and go to assist Rama. And though she had been categorically told not to cross the Lakshmana Rekha (a protective barrier), she still stepped out in order to feed the hungry guest—who was the demon Ravana in disguise.
Even during the Agni Pariksha, Sita was not meek and submissive. She was angry, and she spoke her mind in no uncertain terms. And finally, she refused the conditions of being reunited with Rama and requested Mother Earth to take her back. In obedience, the Earth opened below her and closed again above her head.
In her wise understanding of dharma, the magnanimous Sita even prevailed upon Hanuman to forgive her tormentors: “Kindness is to be shown by a noble person either towards a sinner or to a virtuous person, or even to a person who deserves death, for there is none who never commits a wrong.” (8.113.46). Perhaps that is why Valmiki, who wrote the Ramayana, speaks of it as the “magnificent history of Sita” (“Sitayah charitam Mahat”) (1.4.7).
Women in the Manu Samhita
The Manu Samhita, written long after the Vedic period, is one of the Dharma Shastras. Its derogatory statements about women have been highly publicized by those who would denigrate and destroy Hinduism. But Manu Samhita is a minor smriti; and while other sections form the basis for much of Indian law, its sections on women do not.
Manu himself wrote, “Where women are honored, there the Gods are pleased. Where they are not honored, no sacred rite yields rewards,” and “Strike not even with a blossom a woman guilty of a hundred faults.” He insisted that a mother’s wealth is to be inherited solely by her daughters, who also inherit some of the father’s wealth.
Women in India Today
Social customs vary from age to age and from place to place. India’s customs regarding women were severely impacted by the centuries of invasions and foreign occupation, when the careful protection of Hindu women became essential. All aspects of Indian society have suffered the British-imposed Christian educational system, the tearing apart of families by proselytizing faiths determined to gain converts by any possible means, and the further disruptions caused by a relatively swift change from a historically stable, largely agrarian society to one intensely focused on manufacturing and technology.
Under the influence of the male-centric Western religions, the role that comes most naturally to most women—wife and mother, the children’s first guru, the Shakti of the home, the preserver and enhancer of the spiritual force field of the home and family—has been effectively disparaged and has become so despised in the mass mind that any reference to it is now perceived as an attempt at subjugation.
Every religion looks to its scriptures and its holy men and women for guidance. What other religion has access to the sort of guidance regarding women that is contained in our revealed Hindu scriptures? What other religion has scriptures that treat women with respect, not to mention reverence—and that speak of God as both male and female (though ultimately neither)? What other religion has female leaders comparable to our great women gurus?
Although the more recently written smriti scriptures show considerable divergence from shruti through the millennia, our revealed holy texts depict the noble place of women in society. As the dawning Sat Yuga returns in its fullness and the entire world comes to appreciate and honor the Sanatana Dharma, we can look forward to the time when women will once again be accorded respect and their rightful place in society—each one revered, whether she chooses to focus on the role of wife and mother or to become a scholar, philosopher, temple priest, medical practitioner, scientist, author, astronaut, artist or stateswoman.