The Status of Women in India, Then and Now. Part 1

By Illindila Saraswati Devi.

Every individual commands respect in the society as long as he/she lives in that society. The respect, however, depends on his/her place in the society and the role he/she plays.
Nature has created man and woman. They have been attracted to each other and become instrumental in the procreation. That is a truth that needs no proof. The two individuals, man and woman, share household responsibilities and continue to live as a couple. However, the questions such as who is superior and who is more important have risen when they were born, and have grown stronger in course of time. The questions remained unanswered to this day.
Bruhadaarakopanishad has created the concept that “man is superior ” and further strengthened it. Since he is superior, he has been treated as the primary individual. The Prajapati (the creator) felt his loneliness unbearable, and cut his body into two in order to have a happy life. The other half turned out to be a woman and that gave him immense pleasure. That being the result of a patanam (fall), they came to be known as pati (husband) and patni (wife). In course of time, the word pati came to mean husband(the one that bears the burden) and patni the wife (the one whose burden the husband bears) and got rooted deep. We can find a similar story in the Bible. The story goes like this: God created man and the man felt an unbearable pain for want of company. Then God created the woman from a bone in his side.
These two stories, one from the Bible and the other from the Bruhadaaraka Upanishad, vary in wording but are similar in essence. The question of who is the superior of the two is not peculiar to one society or one country. Every country has grappled with this question. Every country has debated it. At the same time, however, women also have commanded respect to a certain degree in every country. Does she have equal status with man and, if not, should she have equal status? These questions are being debated even now. As a result of persistent discussions and movements, women in some countries have acquired equal status. In a few other countries, laws have been created but are futile in actuality. The difference is only in degree.
“Women in Western countries have progressed significantly and acquired equal status with men. Women in India are lagging far behind. Their status in society is hopelessly bad.” This view is prevalent not only among foreigners but also among some people in our country as well.
However, there is a huge difference between the status of women in India and the women in other countries. The perception of women in India is very different.
yatranaaryastu pujyante
ramante tatra devataah
yatraistu taastu na pujyante
sarvaastatraah phalaah kriyaah

” Where women are worshipped, there Gods are pleased. Where women are not worshipped, all deeds are futile there.” This is the ideal for Indians. It has been prevalent from prehistoric times.
A French writer, Louis Jacoilliot, stated his view of Indians as, “The civilization of India, which has created the highest status for women at home and in society dates back to prehistoric times. No other religion has given this much respect to women as the Hindu religion in the Vedas. Their civilization and culture are older than the Jewish culture and civilization.”
In today’s society, the status of men and women are valued based on their financial status, educational qualifications and opportunities in politics. But in ancient times, their status was based on their specific duties in religious activities.
Since woman is created for a different purpose than man, her physical build is also different. For the same reason, women do not possess the ability to do some acts that a man can do by his strength. Her physique stands in her way to do the same. However, just for that reason, to consider a woman as lower in status than a man is wrong and foolish. Religion and society must lend support to the men and women in performing their duties as assigned to them individually. Woman is an equal partner to a man in conceiving, delivering and raising children, and further by cooperating with the man in accomplishing his Gruhasta dharma (duties as a family man).

There is an enormous difference between the institutions of Western countries and India. In those counties the institution of marriage has been created exclusively based on materialism. In India, the institution of marriage is deep-rooted in Dharma, and Artha and Kama are two other branches of it. According to Vedas, pleasing Gods by performing Yajna and similar Vedic rites, and thereby seeking heaven are duties of man. A man or a woman does not have the right to perform Yajna rituals by himself or herself. The ancient sages have determined that only couples are qualified to perform them. Since the husband is not eligible to perform the ritual by himself without the wife’s participation, the prominence of the wife and the necessity for marriage have acquired a significant place in Hindu religion. The husband and wife should respect each other and make the Gruhasta[ Second of 4 Asramas, viz. Brahmacharya, Gruhastha, Vanaprastha, and Sanyasa] asrama purposeful. In Hindu religion, the status of marriage has received the highest status for the same reason. The Gruhasta asrama is held highest in a man’s life and the man is expected to serve guests, sages, disciples of Vedic studies, the needy and the poor with utmost respect. It is the wife’s duty to stand by her husband’s side and support in performing the Vedic Rites and help him in completing his duties. The Daksha Smruthi holds the couples who respect each other and perform their duties in high regard. The woman who is harmonious, sympathetic, modest, proficient, reclusive, and loving toward her husband is considered not a human but the goddess in every sense of the word. The creators of Smrutis have ascertained that the man who has gotten such a wife enjoys heaven on earth.
Wife is not husband’s slave. The reference in Rigveda, jayedasta (man is borne by woman in the form of progeny) asserts the same view. We can find similar views in Yajurveda also. Because a woman is instrumental in accomplishing the primary goals of Dharma, Artha and Kama, she is held in highest regard. The woman has been given extraordinary respect because she functions in consonance with her husband side by side in rendering his duties in all the three Asramas- Dharma, Artha(Material) and Moksha(Salvation).
prajamanu prajayase
tadute marthyamrutam.

(Oh Man, you were born in accordance with the principles of procreation. Therefore, procreation is your ambrosia.)
Women have been given unparalleled respect in our society because she offers immense support to her husband and the family in multiple ways. She has been created not only for providing physical pleasures to man but also for his redemption in the form of sons, who, in turn, are the means to obtain salvation. That being the case, the argument that woman has been created only for man’s physical pleasure goes against the grain of the fundamental Vedic principles.
At the time of marriage, the groom, while walking the seven steps around the sacred fire, tells the bride, “by walking these seven steps together, we have become friends now. Let’s not leave each other ever. Let’s be supportive of each other in performing our duties, be devoted to each other, and live in harmony.” Since the bond of marriage continues beyond death, marriage is considered unbreakable. The Vedas imply that neither husband nor wife must leave the other. The Vedas praise highly the woman who wins over her husband through love.
There is a huge difference between the affinity the couples will have for each other; and the other kinds of amity as well. However, other kinds of affinity may die in course of time but the affinity between the husband and wife does not die because of the Vedic mantras, recited during their wedding ceremony. The Vedic hymns note that not only the amiability between husband and wife must exist as long as the marital status exists but the marital status also must continue as long as amiability exists. The marital precept is, “Marriage is permanent and so is amiability. Thus, those, who walk out on a marriage, are essentially considered to have violated the Vedic principles.
Although the husband has command over the wife, he should win her over by being amiable toward her. A woman without love at heart cannot gain the affection of her husband, is it not so?
The couple prays sammaatariswasam dhata samudeshtri dadhaatanau (May we two, together, be blessed with congruous intelligence by God of Wind, Brahma and Saraswati).
In view of the above, the status a man gives to a woman sounds somewhat strange, regardless of his apparent superiority. In the Vedas, man regards woman not only as his equal but also gives himself up to her.
asmin gruha garhapatyaya jaagruhi. (Oh Bride! Be awake to rule this home). The bride is not a slave to man. She is the lady that has been invited to grace the throne. She is the lady who came to command the home with universal maternal love. Her rule does not cause distress for the citizens of her kingdom. Under her rule, all the troubles, which previously existed, would be absolved. It becomes heaven on earth. In those days, the heaven that resulted from man’s good deeds had been subject to woman’s will. Thus the adage bhaaryaadheenasthadha swargah (heaven is based on wife’s will) has come into vogue.
During that period, women played a prominent role in mundane activities. Bruhaspati wrote Artha Sastra in accordance with the prescripts of humans, Gandharvas and Goddesses, after serving them for some time. During the period of Rishis, Anasuya and Arundhati were scholars in Artha Sastra; Maitreyi and Gargi were great orators; and, Gargi was an eminent scholar in Vedic texts. Gargi’s work, Brahmanyam, shows that she has participated in Vedic debates. Similarly, Lopamudra and Viswavaara are memorable for their unparalleled Vedic knowledge. Therefore, we cannot say that there were no poets in the past, although the number was small.
It is well-known that 23 of the 1028 hymns of Rugveda were authored by women. Since some hymns were created by women, and a few mantras in other texts were allowed to be studied by women, it is not fair to say that women were forbidden to read Vedas always and on all occasions.
During the Vedic period, also known as the Sruti period, women clearly had the right to participate in religious activities. Women had written Veda Sutras. Men were not allowed to perform Vedic rituals like Yagna, Yaga, Havana and Krathuvu[ Various types of Vedic rituals.] without women’s participation. At some point, salvation by penance became important and women were considered an obstruction to achieve that goal. Later during the Daiva Smruti period, women were declared ineligible to study Vedas.
Upanayanam(Initiation rite for Vedic studies) was a necessary step to study Vedas. It was performed at the age of seven. It was an important event in the lives of boys and girls. Both Upanayanam and Vedic Studies played a significant role in arranging marriages.
Dharma Sastra treatises written by sages are called Smruthis. During the Smruthi period there was no lack of respect for women. They believed that the lineage would be served better by daughters, who had no male siblings, than the daughters, who had brothers. A daughter could continue the lineage in much the same way as a son. For that reason, she was referred to as putrika, a term specific only to the daughters without brothers. A daughter, who had no brothers, could save her father from the hell called puth, from which the term putrika was coined.
Manu Smruti said aputro nekavidhina sutaam kurveeta putrikaam, meaning those who had no sons should accept the daughter as a son. That was one way for men, who had no sons, to continue their lineage. Giving away a daughter in marriage was valued highest of the sixteen benevolent acts as prescribed in Vedas. In ancient works, giving away a daughter in marriage facilitated salvation for not only her father but also for the parents of previous generations.
dasyaami Vishnave thubhyam
Brahmaloka jigeeshaya

“I am giving away my daughter to you, an embodiment of Vishnu, with the hope of going to the world of Brahma,” says the father to the groom at the time of marriage.
tvaddaanaath moksham aapnuyaam
“I may obtain redemption through the act of giving you away,” says the father to his daughter.
kanyaam imaam pradasyaami
pitruunaam taaranaayavai

“I am giving away this young woman for the redemption of my forefathers.”
In the Samvartha Purana, the result of giving a bride away is described as follows: He, who gives away [in marriage] a beautifully decorated young woman through the process of the Brahmin wedding ceremony, will receive plenty of grace, fame, company of the virtuous, and several material goods. The result will be one hundred times better than the one received by performing Jyotishtoma rite. He who gives away a woman, sanctified by Homa mantra and decorated with valuable jewels, will go to heaven and be worshiped by the gods.
It shows how a girl can be a great savior of her parents and their ancestors. It also illustrates that the authors of Smruthi held women in high regard.
Daughters have helped their families for several generations. Smruti also expresses the opinion that daughter’s daughters also contribute to the redemption of their ancestors.
Bodhayana states that a man cannot marry a woman of his own accord. Gods bestow the wife on him. Husband should always respect the woman he has married. That pleases Gods.
And Bodhayana continues to specify the harshest punishment for the man who leaves his wife.
Daksha Smruti stated, “Although during the Smruti period a woman was declared ineligible to study Vedas or to have Upanayanam, she, however, was considered to have performed the rituals that were performed by her husband by virtue of paanigrahanam (holding man’s hand) at the time of marriage. She was required, inevitably, to participate in some rituals. During some of the Srauta ceremonies, wife was considered to have attempted sannahanam[ Lit. Attempt, breast armor. ]. Even when she did not have to recite the mantras she was considered to have done so along with her husband. But nowhere it is said that she had to share his sins. A wife could go to heaven despite any sins her husband might have committed.

In Manu Smruti, each brother should give one fourth of his property to his sister. He would go to hell if he failed to do so. Yajnavalkya stated clearly that the brother should spend one fourth of his property on her marriage, in the case the occasion should arise. Manu stated that the woman also was entitled to a portion of her maternal grandmother. Smruti mentions that daughters should share their mother’s property after her death. Manu has stated that not only daughters but mothers also will have rights to the property in some situations. Manu added that the property of the childless son belongs to the mother. Yajnavalkya ruled that after the death of a man, the mother(his wife) has a right to his property along with sons. There are also other means by which women may inherit property in addition to the above mentioned conditions.
According to the creators of Smruti, there are six categories by which a woman would be eligible for receiving the wealth:
1. The money given to the bride by her parents with the sacred fire as their witness at the time of marriage.
2. The money given to the daughter at the time she leaves for husband’s home.
3. The property given by her husband voluntarily.
4, 5, and 6. The money given to her by brothers, mother and father on various occasions.
Yajnavalkya confirms the same view. He said brothers, mother, father and brothers-in-law must be respectful toward her and give jewelry etc. to her regularly. Ancient sages also stated that the house in which girls are not adored would be accursed by the women, and that house will be annihilated. The wealth given by brothers and others could be in various forms. There is a custom of groom money to the father of the bride and also to the bride. That money belongs to the bride, and must not be used by her parents. Husband must not remarry if the wife is healthy and has given birth to children. In the event the husband needed to remarry, he should give his first wife a sum equivalent to the money he spent on the second marriage. It is the responsibility of the king to protect women’s assets. Stealing a woman’s money is considered a great sin.

It is established that the Dharma Sutras were formed by Gautama rishi. Manu Dharma Sutras were written in 2000 B.C. and Yajnavalkya Samhita in 1000 B.C. according to research scholars. There were no standard treatises in regard to traditions and royal inscriptions prior to Manu. There were historical records of kings but no records of duties of people.
According to Manu Dharma Sastra, women had no rights. Women should be protected by father in childhood, by husband in adulthood, and by sons in old age. Manu prescribed na stri swatantryam arhati (no woman deserves freedom). Yajnavalkya however prescribed a few rights to women. He specified a few rights for widows both in joint families and individual families. In joint families, he arranged a sum suitable for their status to be given to widows, who had no children. In individual families, a childless widow was entitled to enjoy her husband’s wealth only during her lifetime.
In the 11th Century, Vijnaneswarudu wrote an interpretation of Hindu Dharma Sastra. It is called Mitakshari. It was to be adopted by the entire country. This allowed women to have a few rights and powers. Women were allowed to adopt children. She possessed the right to use husband’s property after his death in times of dire necessity and for the welfare of the family. By this rule, she was able to sell some property and spend on her daughters’ marriage, and court costs. She was also required to settle husband’s loans. She even received the right to manage and improve property values.
In Hindu Dharma, women received property in two ways: Through blood relationship and religious rites such as death ritual. Close relatives would have to perform the death ritual for the dead person. If the dead person had sons, the responsibility falls totally on the shoulders of the sons. If he had no son, the widow would have to take up that responsibility. Thus the Mitakshari of Vijnaneswarudu combined the religious duties, blood relationship and death ritual into one.

In regard to marriage also, the ancient rishis had made a few rules for the same of society’s welfare. According to Dharma Sastra the couples, married according to tradition, must remain bound for the rest of their lives. Kautilya, 4 BC, provided for the couples to break up under certain conditions. This permission was however granted only in the case of marriages performed in accordance with the Gandharva, Asura, Paisachika traditions. And it was limited to non-Brahmin castes. According to Dharma Sastra of Kautilya, the woman, who was left by her husband, was entitled to receive some maintenance allowance known as manovarti. The amount depended on the husband’s income. He also laid rules for women to remarry under certain circumstances. Kautilya considered a woman’s remarriage a niyogam[ Mandate], prescribed one. Women belonging to the castes of Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya, Sudra were permitted to remarry if the husband left for another country or she had no children. If the husband moved to another country, became Sanyasin, or died, and she had no children, she was permitted to remarry after seven months. She could marry her husband’s brother or someone from a proper gotra[ Lineage from ancient times.].
Kautilya stated a woman could remarry or remain a widow and lead a chaste life. He set many rigorous rules for men to be able to remarry. The man could remarry only if his wife had no children, or all his children were dead, and only after eight years had passed. If his wife had given birth to a dead child, he would have to wait for ten years. If he had no male child, he would have to marry according to the principles detailed above. He who violates these rules would have to face punishment.
In short, Kautilya’s are more favorable to women than men.
It is obvious the Dharma Sutra were not uniformly set even in ancient times. The Dharma was defined based on the social conditions at the time and codified. That is why we see variations in different texts by Manu, Parasara and Kautilya.

Men and women will have equal rights to the money because of marriage. Apasthamba Rishi considered it a plausible equality if the husband earns money and the wife manages it efficiently. Manu also stated,
arthasya sangra chaivaam
vyaye chaivaam niyojayet
By that he meant, women should be appointed to protect and spend money wisely. The woman also would have the right to the money after her husband’s death, but she would not be obliged for paying off his debts. There were exceptions to this latter rule. She would be responsible to pay off his debts under the following circumstances:
1. The loan he had asked her to pay off at the time of his death;
2. The loan she co-signed along with her husband; and,
3. The loans she had obtained on her own accord.
These three types of loans must be paid by her. In joint families, after a man’s death, his brothers should take care of his wife, stated Narada. In short, women appeared to have enjoyed fairly respectable status, regardless of opposition by some persons.

It is obvious women were respected in various measures. Within a family, they were respected in different ways in different roles. The kind of respect varied based on her role as mother, wife, daughter, and widow. Women received the highest form of respect as mothers. Manu said,
iyam lokam matru bhaktya
pitru bhaktya tu madhyamam
guru sushrushaa yatyeva
Bhrahmalokam samasnute
(One may win this world through devotion to mother, ordinary world through devotion to father and the world of Brahma by serving guru.)
Mother, father and guru are the three important worlds, the three Asrama, and the three Agni (sacred fires). Among these three states, mother takes the highest place and thus is held in the highest esteem. One guru is revered by more than ten teachers, one father is revered by more than one hundred gurus, and one mother is revered thousand times more than one father.
upadhyayaan dasacharyaa
aacharyaanam satam pitaa
sahasram tu pitruunmaataa
gauravenaati rityachyate
, stated Manu.
In Vasishta Smruti, it is said that
yathaa mataram aasritya
sarve jeevanti jantavah
All animals follow in their mother’s footsteps.
There is one more precept. If the father falls short of being an ideal, the sons need not respect him. On the other hand, mother must be adored even when she had fallen. Sons have no right to judge the mother. Vasishta argues that the mother is never a fallen woman in the eyes of sons.
Not only mother but mother’s mother, wife of guru, sisters of mother and father, mother-in-law, her sisters should be respected by a man. In fact, not only they all but his mentors also should be held in high esteem. At one point, he says that all women must be revered. Manu and Yajnavalkya also declared that the wishes of a pregnant woman must be fulfilled, and forgive any mistakes she might have committed. Manu also ruled that a man must step aside and give way to women whenever he encounters them.

There is a baseless perception that women must not be allowed freedom. It is not clear when and where it was stated. It is possible some rules were incorporated by some unknown authors. No amount of research may yield a convincing argument. Even if we accept it as reliable, it is not proper for us to assume that women were not respected. All Smruti texts declared the woman as the most revered, and to be regarded, as a goddess on Earth. During ancient times, freedom was denied to those who failed to wish for the welfare of the others.
During that period, women got together, and held exclusive gatherings to discuss worldly matters. They also attended gatherings held by men. They served the kings. There is also evidence that they fought in wars and performed rites meant for men.
In Vedas, some hymns, which could be defined only by female philosophers, were authored by women. They have not remained as elitist authors but also, participated in philosophical debates. Women were also earners, and scholars in various other disciplines such as music, dance, and other professions.
In those days, children belonged to the same caste as mothers.
The respect and proper conduct men had shown towards women were clearly evident in the text of Ramayana. That was because of the conduct of the eminently virtuous man, Lord Rama. His brother showed remarkable respect and childlike admiration toward in the same text.
naaham jaanami keyuure
naaham jaanami kankene
nuupure tvabhi jaanami
nityam paadaabhivandanaath
(I do not know her by her ornaments on her arms and wrists, but I do know her by her anklets, which I had noticed as I saluted to her feet every day). During that period, men treated the mother, guru’s wife and older brother’s wife, even when she was younger in age, as mothers according to tradition.
When Lord Rama went for a visit, Sage Atri introduced his wife, Anasuya, as
Anasuyaam, mahabhaagaam
taapasiim, dharmachaarineem

and added, “She is the mighty woman who has produced fruits and abundant water from the River Ganges when the sages were starving, due to a huge famine for over ten years. She is the gifted woman that has performed intense penance for ten years. She is a great wife that performs numerous rituals everyday; and, the unparalleled mother that has watched over the sages and prevented any obstructions they might face. Several years ago, she was able to convert ten nights into one night with her powers in order to accommodate a divine event. You worship that great woman as your mother, and receive her blessings. Let Sita bow to her feet, and seek her blessings.”

It has been established that women have received the highest honor during the Vedic period and at the time of Smruti. From the times immemorial, Indian women have been worshipped as mothers. Swami Vivekananda has reiterated this view in his speeches abroad. He said, “In the West, people treat women as equal. We worship them as mothers.”
So far we have revisited women’s status during ancient times.
(The Telugu Original Bharata naari, naadu – nedu has been translated by Nidadavolu Malathi.)
(December 22, 2021)

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