Women play a key role in strengthening the dynamism of human civilization. According to Altekar (1938, p. 1), “one of the best ways to understand the spirit of a civilization and to appreciate its excellences and realise its limitations is to study the history of the position and status of women in it.” Although the ancient Indian texts have focused on women’s visibility in this regard, historians, while reconstructing the past, have created certain spaces for women that exist merely within definite parameters (Chakravarti & Roy 1988). In regard Indian history, women’s studies have a tendency to throw light on the broad terminology of women’s status, which has, consequentially, focused on a restricted set of queries. These queries, as well as their parameters seek to explore women’s roles and positions in different socio-cultural, as well as economic and political spheres of the country (Sharma 2014). Moreover these parameters have tended to create a major lacuna in our perception of the societal structure that had endeavored to shape gender roles and positions in ancient India. The influence of Indian society on gender has varied widely over time and space due to the differences in socio-cultural traditions and practices (Chakravarti & Roy 1988). Since early times, societal structure has played an active role in stimulating change in women’s roles and positions, but with time has also hindered the progress of the country. In this context, this study has made an attempt to assess women’s status and to highlight the structural framework of gender relations in ancient Indian civilization.
Based on the ancient Indian manuscripts and texts: the Védas; the Great Epics, the Rámáyana and the Mahābhārata; the Buddhist texts; the Smritis; the Purānas; and the Dharmaśāstras; this study has made an attempt to assess women’s roles and positions in ancient Indian civilization. Following the chronology of the ancient period in Indian history, the study has been confined to four distinct periods: the Early Vedic or Rig Vedic period (1500 BC–1000 BC), the Epic or Later Vedic period (1000 BC–600 BC), the Jainism and Buddhism period (600 BC–200 BC) and the age of Dharmaśāstras, Mánusmriti (200 BC–647 AD).
The Dharmaśāstras are part of Hindu discourse, and the Dharmaśāstras period is considered to be from 600 BC to 200 AD. On the other hand Jainism and Buddhism also flourished in ancient India during the same period. Women’s status began to decline in 200 BC during the Dharmaśāstras period with Mánu’s codification (Mánusmriti) of societal legislation. Therefore, to avoid an overlap of periods and to highlight women’s status in ancient Indian civilization irrespective of religious bias, the Jainism and Buddhism period and the period of Dharmaśāstras, Mánusmriti is considered separately as 600 BC to 200 BC, and 200 BC to 647 AD, respectively.
Women were dignified with a respectable status in early Vedic civilization. Dravidian culture “has had a very long history as a referential term for the southern portion of India” (Marr 1975, p. 30), in which women were honored as well as empowered in the affairs of the home and family. They were also honored by their participation in all the socio-cultural activities of early Indian civilization. Moreover, “the Aryan culture, based on the Vedic culture, remained the centralizing factor” (Burrow 1975, p. 29) of the early Vedic civilization. Women’s freedom to participate in war, gymnastics, archery, horse riding, public activities, education, decision making, and in the selection of male partners has portrayed the nature of women’s status in the social canvas of the Rig Vedic period (Altekar 1938). As explained in Devi and Subrahmanyam (2014), the value of women and the respect shown towards them was not only limited to the idea of mistress of the household, rather, women demonstrated huge potential for contributing to human civilization during the Vedic period. The Ṛg-Vedá-Saṃhitā text revealed that the “goddess
Despite the existence of a preference for sons, daughters were always accepted and treated well in early Vedic India, where the “girls’ education passes through the stages of
In early Vedic family affairs, women who enjoyed both their autonomy and their role as wives were considered to be
Women of the early Vedic period enjoyed absolute economic freedom. They engaged in professions for increasing health and well-being, as well as in teaching professions as
In addition to this, in early Vedic religious discourses, women had the privilege and full right to regularly participate in ceremonies and rituals. In Rig Vedic society the women would have been honored to carry out sacrifices jointly with their better half. Women also had the liberty to read sacred literature, and also had the right to take part as debaters in public assemblies.
Special attention to the female’s priority and satisfaction during sex has been markedly observed in Vātsyāyana’s Kāmasūtra, which highlights the Rig Vedic’s sexual eroticism and emotional fulfillment in life (trans. Fosse 2012). Moreover, Jayadeva’s Ratimañjari (based on the Kāmasūtra) has thrown a light on a profound illustration of
Womanhood was idealized as an honorable position both in and outside the home during the Epic period of Indian civilization. The two great epics of India, the Rāmāyaṇa by Válmíki and the Mahābhārata by Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, depicted women as the root of
In the Rāmāyaṇa, ideal womanhood was well illustrated as glorifying the value of
Women possessed unconditional economic freedom during the Epic civilization period, while the Mahābhārata upheld the religious importance of the mother in the betterment of the family. As Ganguli indicated (1883–1896), the character as well as the contribution of the Mothers, that is, Gaṅgā, Gāndhārī, Pārvatī, Uttarā, and Kuntī, towards their families’ benediction was considered worth mentioning in the Mahābhārata.
The prevalence of the
Women were given “sexual liberty” (Ganguli 1883-1896, Section XXX, p. 65), and higher roles and positions in war, during the Epic period of Indian civilization. The Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata offer a picture of Kṣatriya women taking part in wars to defend and protect their culture. On the other hand, the Mahābhārata also disclosed men’s dependency on women in the area of sex during the Epic period (Ganguli 1883-1896).
The existence of a persistent gender equity was observed during the period of Jainism and Buddhism. In the Tipitaka, the “
During the period of Jainism and Buddhism, Buddhist philosophy encouraged women to lead a liberal and honorable life. Moreover, the Tipitaka disclosed the “admission of
During the period of Jainism and Buddhism, women occupied esteemed positions in religion and were permitted to become Sanyāsinis. In the Tipitaka, women “left the household life like their menfolk” (ed. Ko Lay 1990, p. 23) to lead a Buddhist monastic-life during this period. Women who had superior intellect had enough confidence to run their own
However, women’s economic status deteriorated during the Jainism and Buddhism period, in which they were also prohibited from political participation. The low politico-economic status of nuns compared to that of monks indicated a deterioration in women’s roles and positions during the of Jainism and Buddhism period.
Women’s right to education was fully withdrawn with Mánu’s codification of the laws governing society. During the age of Dharmaśāstras (the rules of right conduct), Mánusmṛiti, a number of problems started to creep in with the introduction of various restrictions on women’s ability to obtain an education.
Pre-puberty marriage (child marriage) occupied a significant place in societal customs and husbands were given the status of god during the age of Dharmaśāstras, Mánusmṛiti (Altekar 1938). In the Arthaśāstra, while explaining “the duty of marriage, the property of a woman, and compensations for remarriage” (trans. Shamasastry 1956, p. 222), Kautilya stated that men, “having given his wives the proportionate compensation and an adequate subsistence (
Apart from this, motherhood had been “glorified as compensation for an imposed reality in which women merely gratified society’s preference for male progeny” (Bhattacharji 1990, p. WS50). During this age, the contribution of women to society was always outshone by that of the men. Self-sacrifice and the observation of social rituals for the welfare of the male members of their family was considered to be a woman’s duty. As in Śūdraka’s Mṛcchakaṭikā (500 AD), the custom of
Mánu’s codification of social norms considered women to be impure as well as second class citizens. Following from this, a strict prohibition and oppression of women offering prayers, sacrifices, and undertaking pilgrimages, was declared during the of Dharmaśāstras, Mánusmṛiti period. In addition, they were strictly prohibited from practicing penance.
Women were completely deprived of inheriting any share of their husband’s property under the-then Indian socio-economy. The Arthaśāstra disclosed that “no woman shall succeed in her attempt to establish her title to the property of her husband” (trans. Shamasastry 1956, p. 220). Furthermore, Mánu’s codification declared that women would be dispossessed of any sort of property inheritance and thus snatching away women’s independence. In the Mánusmṛiti, while codifying “the duties of women” (trans. Buhler 1964, p. 33) Mánu stated that “by a girl, by a young woman or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house” (trans. Buhler 1964, p. 33). These laws also stated that “in childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; an women must never be independent” (trans. Buhler 1964, p. 33).
During this period “the growth of monogamous families with insistence on female chastity indicated the direct influence of economic developments in favour of male domination” (Tharakan & Tharakan 1975, p. 119). According to Wadley (1977, p. 119) “the basic rules for women’s behavior, as expressed in the Laws Mánu, ca. A.D. 200, stress the need to control women because of their evil character.” Mánu’s codification also asserted that females were not at all independent, either in childhood or adulthood, nor when she is aged (Wadley 1977). Moreover, women’s character was depicted as being fully malevolent in which they became possessed and acted like slaves in order to satisfy the uncontrollable vice of masculine demand and sexuality. Therefore, the age of Dharmaśāstras, Mánusmṛiti, was characterized by the subordination of women’s status.
In the subsequent period to the Dharmaśāstras, Mánusmṛiti with the introduction of Brahmanism, the dignity and fame of women’s status was entirely reduced to one of virtual subservience. The conflicting social and religious thoughts converted the position of women in to a subordinate and unsatisfactory one (Halli & Mullal 2016). During the age of the Smṛitis (Holy Scriptures of Hindu) women had the right to attain an education related only to household purposes. Moreover, as written in the Arthaśāstra (350 BC–275 BC), being deprived of formal education, girls were considered to be an inconsequential section within a patriarchal society (Jaiswal 2001). Women were not only deprived of learning the Védas but also had a strict prohibition on becoming Brahmacharinis. Gender inequity had started to creep into society during the Dharmaśāstras, Mánusmṛiti period, and gradually women’s positions were degraded to such an extent that they were deprived of all sorts of freedoms. Women were restricted in exercising their human rights as well as being barred from enjoying fundamental freedoms. A preference for sons was at its apex during this period, which, too, curtailed the freedom of women and girls (trans. Shamasastry 1956, p. 222). Hence the roles and position of women was gradually turned around through the major changes that occurred during the period of Dharmaśāstras, Mánusmṛiti. During this period the “caste hierarchy and gender hierarchy are the organising principles of the brahmanical social order and closely interconnected” (Chakravarti 1993, p. 579). Women were also barred from practicing religious activities, although women who devoted themselves to being
The dignified role and position of women in the early Vedic period, the Epic period, and the Jainism and Buddhism period was completely reduced to one of virtual subservience during the age of Dharmaśāstras, Mánusmṛiti. Although the Mánusmṛiti considered women’s subordination to be a common phenomenon, the socio-cultural set-up further hardened the form and extent of women’s confinement during the age of Dharmaśāstras, Mánusmṛiti. During the period 1500 BC to 647 AD, the deterioration in women’s roles and position can be attributed to the imposition of Mánu’s codification of social rules, gender based discrimination, Brahmanical austerity applied to the entire Indian society, the crudest materialization of women, the implementation of rigid restrictions induced by the societal caste system and the system of joint families, women’s exclusion from educational facilities, foreign invasions, as well as the introduction of non-Aryan females as wives in Aryan families. Historical studies and women’s contemporary status have disclosed that although Indian society has never accepted womanhood as being equal since the age of Dharmaśāstras, Mánusmṛiti, even today women’s stories are reflected repeatedly as interesting episodes from the ancient period of Indian civilization.
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