Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The status of India's ancient women - 01

 "Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists primarily in dealing with men".              ........    Joseph Conrad

If we go back on the history of most of the known civilizations world over, it is clearly observable that the farther  we go into antiquity, the more unsatisfactory  is the position of women. The Hindu civilization is unique insofar as we find here in the Indian subcontinent a marked exception. The position of Indian women was quite satisfactory.

Many historians claim that women in ancient India enjoyed an equal status with men and their opinion or suggestions regarding  family matters were taken seriously, thus giving them the rights 
to  take important decisions  of life. They were treated  as “Ardhanginis”.  During the early Vedic period (300 BC to 600 BC) in many aspects of life,  women were on par with men and enjoyed equal status and had  formal education as suggested by ancient Indian grammarians such as Patanjali and Katyayana. The Atharvaveda stresses the importance of women's education and its bearing on successful married life. 

In the Rigveda, it is mentioned, that  women  were given in marriage after their puberty  and were free to select their own life-partners without any compulsion or so. No imposition of marriage. Marriage, a holy sacrament, was  considered a social necessity and motherhood was an important aim of the Indian marriage. The ancient system of "Swayamvara"- selection of a life's partner  among many is mentioned in holy scripts and also in many epics. It was prevalent among Kashatriya rulers

ancient Indian woman The Metrognom
There existed   love marriages called “Gandharva Vivaha” in those days!. Monogamy was the major form of marriage during the Vedic days. Re-marriage of widows was allowed. The practice of  a custom called  “Niyoga” did exit whereby  a brother or the nearest relative of a deceased husband could marry the widow with the permission of the elders. Remarriage was  allowed after satisfying certain conditions according to Parasara. However, many preferred to lead a life of hardship or would end their lives along with their husbands. 

A man could perform his Vedic rites only with his wife by his side so that he could propitiate his pithroos (forefathers) by conducting Thithi with his consort. Down to the Mauryan rulers, the couple were expected to offer oblation to the household fire unaided by the husband.  

Surprisingly,  Child marriage was unheard  of in those days.  Not only did the well-read women impart their knowledge to the youngsters but also proved their depth of knowledge in philosophy  and religion. There were  several women sages and seers, notably Gargi and Maitreyi , according to Scriptures such as the Rig Veda and Upanishads. The women had a respectable place in the society. In  Hindu society, man is only one half of an entity and both husband and wife had equal rights. A home without  a wife was considered a forest, according to Scriptures. Divorce was not allowed  and men had no  rights to divorce their wives!

Gori act of Sat-- self-immolation  by a widow.www.newindianexpress.com
The obnoxious  practice of “Sati” is not mentioned in the Rig-Veda. Though the  practice of taking dowry was there for the protection of the new household; it never became a social evil.

The women in ancient India were not looked upon with Shakespearean derision: "Frailty! Thy name is Woman" or "Woman may fall when there is no strength in men". Rather they were considered the pride of the family. They had their own identity and individuality  that defined their character. In the Vedic period, they enjoyed an honorable  and comfortable place on par with men.

 However, women  had  limited rights  in inheriting property. A spinster was entitled to one-fourth share of patrimony received by her brothers whereas married daughter had no share in her father’s property. The  family property was under the control and management of the patriarch. As  for wife living separately, she  was entitled to 1/3rd of her husband’s wealth. Unfortunately a  widow  had no share of her husband's estate and the the society preferred her to lead life similar to that of an ascetic.Women’s participation in public meetings and debates, however, gradually declined in later Vedic period because in such gathering  gambling and drinking were allowed.

During the Epic period  the  Indian women continued to enjoy an honorable position at home as revealed by the various episodes in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. There are references to  the valor and wisdom of  great women like Sabitri, Draupadi, Kaikeye, Sita, Rukmani, Satyabhama and others.

During the period of Dharmashastras and puranas, the status of women  was not satisfactory as one could see gradual erosion of their status and equal rights. They were relegated to second class citizens. No access to education, no freedom and the society was dominated by men.
Purdah. www.outlookindia.com

On the social side, child marriage (pre-puberty marriage) took roots. There was no room for  either widow's remarriage or access to education. Slowly creeped-in  was the scourge of Sati. So was the purdah system. As for males,  polygamy  was allowed and the wife had to put up with this injustice. 

Modern Indian woman. Original Wavelength
 One could see some changes during the time of Buddha.There lived a number of  women Bhikunnies, wearing Khashaya  during that time and women ascetics became part of the sang after a strong plea. However, on many fronts, the status of women remained unchanged.

The women had to climb the social ladder with patience and caution. In the later centuries and after the arrival of the colonial rule, they had a flicker of hope and desperation to surge forward to prove their worth in the society.