Women in Ancient India and Culture

Posted on May 18, 2010 in Culture-Vulture

Kush Sharma:

The status of Indian women has seen myriad significant changes over the past couple of millennia. From equal status with men in ancient times through the low points of the medieval period, to the promotion of equal rights by several reformers, the history of women in India has been eventful.

Yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra Devata,

yatraitaastu na pujyante sarvaastatrafalaah kriyaah !

Translation: Deity rejoices where women are respected and where they are not respected, all actions become fruitless.

In ancient Indian society, women held enviable position. Scholars believe that women, in Vedic period, enjoyed equal status with men in all spheres of life. They could avail of the highest learning in the society; works like Patanjali & Katyayana suggest that women were disseminated Vedic knowledge (education at that time). Seers, Sages and philosophers like Gargi, Maitreyi, Vishwvara, Surya, Ghosha, Yami, Indrani, Apala, etc. highlight the esteem which women enjoyed in ancient times. Devi-sukta section of Rigveda is a courtesy of vac (daughter of sage Ambhrna).

While reading, I came across one of the instances where Ubhaya Bharathi was the judge of theosophical debate between Shankaracharya & Mandana Mishra – surely because of her superior wisdom and spiritual attainments. Girls were, generally, not married till their late teens and sometimes even later. They also enjoyed full liberty in selection of their mates and we have the cases of Sita, Draupadi, Damayanti & Shakuntala which shows the prevalence of ‘Swayamvara’-choosing groom by oneself- system at that time. Women were also permitted to observe celibacy.

The Ashvalayana & Gobil Grihasutras show that even the ceremony of sacred thread (the Upanayana Samskara) used to be held for women. Women were trained in fine arts and literature. Avantisundri, wife of poet Rajsekhar, was an accomplished artist & lyricist. Women partook in both social and business life. In scriptures, women have been shown teaching, training, running the businesses, ruling the kingdoms and even fighting at battlefields. Shila-Mahadevi ruled jointly with her husband Dhruva over the empire of Rastrakuta. Didda & Sugandha and several queens of Kara dynasty too were rulers. We have examples of queens like Kaikeyi who helped their husbands in the battlegrounds. It can be observed from the scriptures that there was not a single field where women didn’t participate or excel their male counterparts. Interestingly, in ancient times, we had a tradition called Nagarvadhu (bride of the city), similar to beauty contests in modern times, where the most beautiful woman was selected as Nagarvadhu. Though a Nagarvadhu was treated like a goddess, basically, she used to be a courtesan (a woman courtier & not a prostitute). Amrapali was a famous Nagarvadhu.

The status of women started declining with the advent of Manusmriti, Islamic invasion and then Christian missionaries curtailing the women’s freedom & rights. Since life, property & chastity of women barely had values to invaders, each community put walls of social norms to protect their women-resulting into child marriages (before a girl could be of an age attractive enough to be abducted),the shaving of widows heads (to make them look unattractive), Dudhpiti, the practice of Sati, etc. Since then, women have not been able to enjoy the same liberty as they used to have. Since independence, successful endeavours have been made to gain back the same liberty and status of women. The constitution of India guarantees equal status to women with that of men. And as history repeats itself, woman metamorphosed & saw herself, again, marching shoulder to shoulder with males in every sphere of the life. Though much has been done, we still have a long way to go before we shed our blind beliefs, taboos or social stigmas and start recognising & respecting her individuality.

From birth till death, Hindus perform hundreds of ceremonies and not a single of them can be performed without the presence of the wife/mother/women (Rigveda-5.102). Even today, though Indian society is patriarchal in nature, mother enjoys similar or, very often, higher status than father! Ending a note with a quote by PB Shelley — “Can man be free if woman be a slave?”.

Matrudevo Bhav !

I am an atheist & non-sectarian. Only Hinduism (as an Indian culture) has been discussed here because it was the only sect then in India.