Position of women in Ancient India – best Explanation

Position of women in Ancient India

Position of women in Ancient India – The start of life happened with two being one being male one being female, one being Adam one being Eve. This statement very well establishes the fact that foundation of human kind was made by a man with a woman, which boils down to another fact that the human kind would not have had an existence without presence of a women, the same applies to any society.

But somehow the continuous boost in activities harming the womanhood tells a different story. Men and women are made to coexist and to supplement each other for the survival of their lives as well as society. This so called setup is supposed to be the basic establishment for the society which now is the most mistreated facet in social life.

As the opening statement conveys that women are equally responsible in existence or formation of any society and hence should be enjoying equal rights, but the reality is way different than this, as of now women are more like a commodity for easy exploitation by the counter gender. This male chauvinistic approach, is the root cause of the problem of violence against women.

Well this was not the situation always, this part of the chapter discuss the position of women in past. In order to understand the scenario better, position of women will be discussed in 3 time frames i.e. in ancient times, the medieval times and modern times.

Ancient India

India has always been a male dominated patriarchal society. Despite of the male domination there was a scenario of respect and reverence for women.

Status of women then was grand and there are various texts in form of inscriptions which mentions the same, women often made liberal gifts to religious institutes like dharma salasa etc. There lie evidences of women participation in religious as well as tribal assemblies.

It was very clear that women did not restrict themselves to household but equally participated in social affair but they continued to be dependent on their respective husbands.

The wife was supposed to help the husband with secular duties also no religious rite could be performed without the wife. It was duty of wife as well as husband to keep the fire of house hold burning. Women were to be provided with all the luxuries and were suppose to be taken care of in the best way by the husband.

Any kind of domestic violence was not acceptable as it was believed that any kind of deeds done in order to please the almighty, were in vain if domestic violence was practiced on a woman.

Women were dignified with a respectable status in early Vedic civilisation. Dravidian culture proclaims the women to be empowered with the best hold on home and family in south. The women made their presence in socio- cultural activities too. The Aryan culture based on vedic culture, witnessed women participation in activities like war, horse riding, education, gymnastics etc. Not only this, there has been evidences of women selecting their male counterparts which portrays women as a very strong character in the past.

The value of women was not only limited to their roles as a mistress or a wife, they contributed huge potential to human potential for which they were respected. Women held strongest of position as goddess and the earliest texts found in the archaeological excavations mentions the evidence of the same.

They moreover interpreted that the life giving powers, the power to nurture, its sustenance, were held by the goddesses. Rigveda which displayed respectful image of women further conveys the detail that goddess Durga, goddess Aditi, goddess Sarasvati were worshipped dedicatedly and had a huge fan following.

There exists evidence of women placed in high status of the society through sculptors. No doubt son being the successor of the clan was preferred but the girls were treated equally of a boy. A girls education was equally important, anyone who choose the path of educating had to go through he staged of upanayana and brahmacharya, if willing then to a marital status.

When it comes to literacy of women this period can be considered as one of the best ones, reason being there were equal opportunities to both the genders to study Vedas, which made the role of women in ancient India an influential one.

Many women came up to be sages a few of them being Maitreyi, Gargi Vachaknavi, Lopamudra, Ghosa, Visvavara, and Sikata Nivavari, who further came up to be famous authors of Vedic mantras. The above scenario is no less than a proof to intellectual individual women who made powerful impact in that particular era.

The early vedic text reveal the glory of women in the field of education. The women pursuing the knowledge of veda were categorised in 2 categories, Brahmavadinis and Sadyodvahas. The former ones never got married in order to learn Vedas were as the later ones studied Vedas till they got married.

Any female educator of Vedas was referred as Upadhyayas or Upadhyayanis. The former ones were again those who never got married but the later ones were those who got married. The Great Ashoka encouraged her daughter to learn and preach Buddhism. Kousambi’s princess named Jayanti, narrated to have lived life of a spinster to study religion and philosophy, in Jain text.

Marriage was never a forced practice in that time. On completion of their studies and after puberty, girls could choose to get married; the partners were selected through ceremonial swayamwara. There exists the trace of not juts polygamy but polyandry too, Rig veda quotes, “wife in connection with husbands.” Remarrying was an acceptable practice, except for widows, because divorce was not an acceptable practice, there is no hint of child marriage.

Position of women in ancient India
Women as a wife was not only considered as ardhangini but also sahadharmini which makes her and equal partner of the man. Women were taken to be the source of puruharthas in context of dhram, artha, kama and moksha. There was a complete economic freedom to the women then. They were part of all the possible profession especially that of teaching, betterment of health and wellness. During this period, women also earned money through the spinning and weaving of clothes at home, while also helping their husbands in agricultural activities.

As every other facade, women had a strong stand when it came to politics in ancient India. They held prominent role in the political front. Pandya women use to run the administration as mention by Megasthenese. Nayanika, the queen of satavahana widow of Satakarni, on behalf of her son ruled the kingdom.

There were many such examples like Pravbati, daughter of Chandragupta II, Princess Vijaybhattarika who happened to be the provincial ruler under Vikramaditya I. Towards the end of the Gupta Period places like Orissa, Andhra Kashmir had lady rulers. Kannada region witnessed women as provincial and village administrators. Because ancient India had a system which made education of women equally important as men it helped the women enjoy the aristocratic positions.

Hinduism outline a model of women  under which a women is expected to be a good wife, take up role of a care taker when the male is not around, keep the sacred flame lit, follow all the rituals which are done in order to worship a deity etc.

Upliftment of women and their glories are all over the vedic times. How a woman is treated in society is how we come to know the cultural, moral, spiritual self of that particular society.

As it is an established fact that Rig vedic period has seen some remarkable times for women. ‘Aditi’ considered to be eternal mother of all being, ‘Indrani’ to be the imperious mistress of the household; ‘Vak’, the symbol of eternal cosmic energy of the universe’, ‘Saraswati’ acing the pattern of fine arts and learning; ‘Usha’ being the breath and life of all beings; ‘Ila’ takes the place of first teacher; and so on.

Boy was always a prayed offspring than a girl but exceptions always existed where the couple underwent religious rituals praying for daughters. Not only Rig veda but Atharva Veda also illustrates the prosperity of women, it quotes that a maiden could, by preference, after completion of the proper education, get married.

Girls were educated like boys. Atharvaveda observes that a maiden can succeed in her marriage only if she has been properly trained during the period of studentship. On a general view it can be understood that if there happened to be these many scholars, it can be well concluded that there must have been enormous number of educated females. Education gave the girl the confidence and liberty to lead their own life in their own way to the extent that they could choose their life partners themselves.

“A friend thou shall be, a friend, thou hast become, may your friendship be everlasting”

That happens to be hymn addressed by a husband to his wife depicting a real essence of marriage. Wives were considered to be gift from god, she was to be respected and supported at all times, with the husband being alive or dead. This period gracefully allowed the women to remarry after the death of the husband. This period has witness the existence of love marriages or to say Gandharva Vivah.

Women accompanied their lovers in these times and could freely be a part of the society. Vedic period represented the best of woman life and its growth and prosperity. The position of women, on the whole, was fairly satisfactory.

The community, as a whole, was showing proper concern and respect for women, allowing them considerable freedom in the different activities of social and political life. As a matter of fact, religious sanctions, social recognition, family support and above all, the highly determined self of the woman, made her a big achiever. Whatever may be the field, she excelled and earned glorious achievement.

Though women have been treated the best and got the best during the vedic age but there it can’t be neglected that a son was always prioritized over girl child in order to carry forward the name of the lineage. In societal scenario women had the best but a text like manu had different beliefs for the women.

Pita rakshati kaumare, bharata rakshati yauvane, 

Putro rakshati Vārdhakya, na stri Svātantrayamar’hatī.

According to the shloka above, women can’t be an individual entity. The women either will be taken care of either her father or her husband and then by the sons and finally in absence of all the above relation she will under her agnostic relation. It seems that women never had an individuality of her own, it had to be protected by some or the other male. The history has mainly portrayed women to be a fragile and dependant, well except a few which came across to be strong and could defend themselves.

Hindu religion was pretty much inspired by Aryan culture which was hard-core patriarchal society. On top of it believed in the concept of joint families. Patriarchal basis of the society led to wanting of a son, which was welcomed with open heart as sons could render better contribution in wellbeing of the family and community, also they were the only individuals who would carry the name of the race forward.

With the codification of Mamusmriti during the age of dharmshastra the deterioration of womanhood had started. Rigveda period though was the best for women but this fact cannot be neglected that women never could inherit properties, being a patriarchal society inheritance was only for the sons.

In fact a few texts also says that women were not allowed to hold any kind of property in their names until they are strong, powerful and fall in the category of warriors who are capable of defending their properties. The unmarried daughters were, after a lot of hardship, would be given a part of the property.

Right to education was totally taken away from the women when the codification of manu began. The law governing society by manu introduced tons of restriction to the women which was the start to deterioration of women. Child marriages started to become a trend by this time and husbands were to taken as gods by the women, was the preaching which was given to the women getting married under Dharmaśāstras, Mánusmṛit.

Women were further being imbibed with the preaching that it is alright for the men to have multiple wives in order to attain the pleasure of son. This gradually led to a sentiment of compensation towards motherhood too for a male progeny.

There existed no contribution of women to the society during this period, they could be observed self-sacrificing themselves for the welfare of family member and this was considered to be their duty. Remarriages of widow became illegitimate, and as there existed no individuality of women back then, without the husband the solution to their lives was full of problems, sati was imposed on them.

Women were treated as second class citizen and were considered to be impure. Because they were considered to be impure they were not allowed to perform religious rituals and further as it has already been discussed they could not inherit the property of the husband.

Not just this, they further were casted out of any of the property, if inherited in the past, which kind of took away the financial support the women had. Making the women completely dependent on the males, manu codified this fact in its law stating that women mustn’t do anything independently, taking away all their independence.

Codification of manu somehow character assassinated the women of that era; the text did not hesitate to address women as malicious which portrayed, as all they wanted was sexual activities. Hence dharmasutra, in order to subdue this character of women, by law, took away their independence.

The status of women went down the hill with full force from vedic age to the age of dharmashastra and with introduction to Brahmanism the status women had was not less than of a slave who never asked a question and performed as the master asked.

As the right to education was taken, but the field where women could get some learning was related to household purposes only during the age of smritis. Women were now being considered to be as a pleasure object for men for their leisure. Manusmriti states it to be the principle duty of women life to subordinate to men especially when it came to sexual interactions.

The preference to sons reached it epitome, resulting in curtailing the freedom of any kind to women. The restriction on women was so high that they were incapable of claiming basic human rights as well. Women were treated to be chattels which belonged to men i.e. they were like property which either belonged to a father, a husband, a son or some male figure.

The introduction of casteism had a major impact on deterioration of woman in those times. The trending misogyny under Brahminical times did not let women to part of any religious ritual but when the same female practiced sati, and got burnt with pyre of her late husband, the hypocrisy of the so called society then considered her to be a goddess. It ruined the position of women on every aspect be it political be it economical.

Manuismriti became one of the most absurd text when it came to dealing with the women. It lowered the women status to the worst with its societal governing laws. It highlights the fact that if women are not honoured the gods are not happy and further no wishes will come to yield. But this is just one aspect of the coin.

The other side of coin is where manu states women to have no personality of their own and expects a complete submission of the woman to the man, who owns her as a property of pleasure to yield sons through her. A women should take husband as god and should be worshiped by the women, and the god at any point of time should not be displeased.

A woman attains paradise only by sheer obedience toward her husband; her reparation has no importance in her achieving paradise. All the fasts or sacrifices are subjected towards their husbands. With the evolvement of dharmasutra and codification of manusmritri the condition of women was at its worst.

It was time when women suffered in all the aspects and it was impossible to imagine going lower. Hindu society was evolving under the command of Sankracharya and the aim was to expand the influence of Vedas against huge following of Buddhism. But a setback to this entire scenario was the very first invasion of Mughals. Babur was the first mughal to invade India. It was still acceptable for Hindus to mingle and to some level accept the culture brought by Aryans.

They had some common views or thoughts. But what Mughals brought to the table was an absurd form of the civilization. With the development of Brahmanical society the principle and the school of thoughts were something which could not stand with what Mughals got.

Medieval Times

With the invasion of Mughals the ancient era came to end and it gave a start to medieval period. Mughals arrived from Middle East, they brought different norms like inheritance and divorce which were new to the already existing patriarchal brahmanical society prevailing in India. The commonality between both the cultures was that of their fondness of son, a male over a female child. A woman was still inferior and was not more than a service provider to the family.

The Muslims traditions were different in different places. Turks gave a fair amount of freedom to the women, not like the Persian treated women like queens, but Persian women were in better position than that of Indian women

Soon there happened a second invasion by Mohammad Ghazni. Which furthermore was a blow to the any ounce of good that was happening to women. Mughals with the most absurd culture created an atmosphere of insecurities towards Hindu women and hence in the same terror the practice of child marriages took a high rise.

The marriages were happening at the age of seven, eight or maximum by twelve. With child marriage there was an additional exercise which came into practice which was known as Purdha. The Muslim women already practiced it and now the same was done by the Hindu women too. The problem of infanticide was at a rise, the penchant toward a male child was leading to the killings of baby girl child.

Like this was not enough, with Firoz Tughlaq and Sikandar Lodhi’s reign, the women were not approved of pilgrimage to anywhere. The one thought were Hindus and Mughals could have bonded was that were how could women be suppressed further. With the other absurd practices the practice of sati was trending and so was jauhar.

The components like religion, castiesm and on top of it brahmanical tradition which were totally of the view to oppress the women were making any woman’s life hell.

Before the invasion of Mughals the only upper caste member of the society were allowed to take up multiple marriages, who could afford a compensation to the wives, in order to just maintain them under the principle governing the society, caste kshatriyas were the once practicing it the most. But with the invasion of this new culture bought by Mughals, multiple wives were fashion and were followed by every other person.

With infanticide on the rise, sati became a common practice, there came on more evil for women, which was Devdasi system adding to the beginning of slavery which can be considered as a form of human trafficking then. Devdasi happened to be unmarried woman who is servant to the temple given to the place when they were young.

They are bound to perform a few services to the deity of the temple. Of course with gradual growth of the Brahmanical temple this kind of slavery became common practice. A devdasi is expected to know the art of dancing singing and they extended their sexual services to various people.

Devdasi was supposed to be married to a god and their only duty was to fan, dance and sing for the deity, hence they were called god’s slave. Devdasis were accompanied by chamaras in various processions also devdasis carried kubharti.

Donating one’s daughter to temple to be a wife to deity was considered to be great spirituality. Devdasi is a religious practice offering girls to the temples after they reach puberty which makes her sexually available. It was believed that these girls were destined to be servers to the society, due to this whole set up they occur to be the courtesans in god’s court.

Marriage made women to be a transferable property from one male i.e. father to husband hence devdasis were no allowed to marry one particular man. So now when the women devdasi is property of divinity she obviously gives herself to the whole community, which can be understood in saying, “devdasi is a servant of god but wife of the whole town.”

Brahmanical way of life became strong by this time and this devdasi system happened to be one of the mode of suppression of women. The so called pseudo lords at those time happened to have exploited these devdasis at fullest. They paid the devdasis some amount of money which kind of became their source of earning. It was an inhumane practice which was born out of the Hindu rules or principles for society.

Several parents knew that they were pushing their girls towards being devdasi, were actually being pushed to brothels. But most of the parent still went forward with it ignoring the fact about the daughters being trafficked, mostly because to maintain a girl was difficult, their urge for a boy and to maintain him was their first priority.

Female child always being a burden and hence the parent did anything to take this burden off and what better way than to let the girl be in position which is surrounded by divinity and spirituality, superficially.

The same girl will sooner or later will be taken up by some or the other rich person or landlord, depending on her fate. The practice existed in Muslims as well, the girls were offered to dargha and after being married to the deity they were called Bibi. They were later on were condemned to prostitution.

Female trafficking comes across as an organised affair. Trafficking could be directed to forceful prostitution, removal of organs, slavery forced labour. Co-relating sex trafficking to devdasi system, there are a lot of similarities which come into play.

Devdasis were auctioned and the highest bidder would get the chance of touching the girl first. Devdasis were supposed to serve the deity serving in the temple, but with the nature of sex services they provided, they happened to be sex worker and some might have ended up in brothels. Devdasi took another form gradually at that time, with all the sexual abuse, women now were slaves.

The medieval period has seen some great women, there work is till now recognised. To start with, Razia Sultana, one of the most powerful women to take over the Delhi throne. She belonged to the time when slavery was highly prevalent in the society.

She became the first Muslim women to reign India sitting on the throne at Delhi, succeeding her father Shams-Ud- Din-Itutmish. She happened to be the one of the fine administrator and a fearless warrior. Gulbadan Begum was another name which makes place in the history, she was the youngest offspring of Babur and the one who created Humayun-Nama.

MahamAnga, who is the second mother to Akbar after Hamida Begum, held a very crucial position politically during Akbar’s reign. She was an active member in the court and was highly praised. She headed the imperial harem of the Mughal Empire. Being a second mother and closer to Akbar she exploited her position well and played on emotional front when it came to matters with Akbar.

Power held by Jodhabai is known popularly, she was a rajputi princess who under an alliance had to marry Akbar in order to make sure the safety of her own kingdom. Though this alliance was not her choice but she being a daughter to king who had an obligation to protect his kingdom, she got married. This marital alliance happed to be a famous for a successful Hindu Muslim association.

She happened to an active participant of the Mughal court and was given the title of Mariam-Uz-Zamani. She being a stern headed rajputi princess never gave up her religion even after getting married and remained a follower of Lord Krishna. Noor Jahan, lover and wife of Jahangir, was a sturdy powerful woman. She was given the authority to administer by the king himself.

Later, when the emperor fell under the influence of opium and got addicted to it, Noor Jahan started taking charge of the kingdom. During her control the Mughal period saw a prospering period. She made Agra the epitome of business, internationally and nationally both. She not only administered the royal government but also had coinage stamped with her name, which is an example of her hold over the reign.

Zeb-un-nisa, daughter of Aurangzeb gained popularity when it came to political matters during Aurangzeb’s time. She was witnessed assisting her father with court matters. Durgavati Marvi also known as the gond queen, was grandchild of Maharana Sanga.

She was trained as a warrior when she was young, she aced in horse riding, sword battling and archery. Her knowledge towards warfare made her a successful queen in south. She fortified in Satpura’s slops, which happened to be a slope area benefitting the troops in situation of war. She expanded her domain with respect and strength.

There happened to be a few women who rose from the most difficult of times in the most stringent periods too. They happened to make history and are still remembered as influential women of that era. But the struggle to rise and shine would have been tough seeing the times and the thought process the society was undergoing. Fighting the odds they claimed their place and became who they were.

Some scholars on the basis of the research say that devdasis had a considerably good status before the arrival of the British. They had a high social as well as economic status.

Their existence affected the art of dance and music for better. Though they were personal performers for the deity but with proper support they did perform in the palaces when called for by the king. They were considered to be the entertainer but land lords and locally powerful males did not hesitate to involve them for sexual favours. Though most of these women belonged to the lower caste but the upper caste also did not falter to dedicate their daughters.

Though towards the end to the 19th century there happened to be lot many social movements in India. The awakening of nationalism led to social movements which affected the devdasi system too. The movements were classified in two categories one being the reformists or abolitionists and the second being revivalists.

The Reformists or abolitionists took devdasis to be prostitutes and this practice of devdasi was sheer practice of misdeed, conceived by them. Their very first Anti- dedication movement happened in 1880-90.

The persons who formed the reformists happened to be highly educated individuals like doctors, journalists, social works so they worked around their target in a cultured manner by campaigning, organising seminars, conferences, in ordered to create a public opinion.

With gradual success they made and appeal in 1892 to Viceroy and Governor General of India, the same appeal was also forwarded to Governor of Madras, defining the position of the Anti-dedication movement, questioning the practice and further for its abolition. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, rose up as an individual this his social thinking with other social thinkers like Ishwar Chand Vidhyasagar, Govind Ranade Karve.

As said practice of this immoral trend was initiated long ago and there happened a lot many transformation to secure the position of such women, but it’s shocking to know that this kind of practice still was existent in our culture.

There are various reasons for the continued existence and practice of this system. Some women are ignorant of the fact that there were laws to protect them, some just wish to be ignorant because they do not know what else they will or can do, and the young girls which were still given as offerings to the temples were unaware of anything due to their innocence.

It had been a trend to suppress the female gender and taking this suppression most of the women do not remember a normal way of life, neither do the males. Dominating females have become a birth right of every male in Indian Culture.

The point again here is that no matter what and how, women in our country have accepted this way of life. The atrocities by the male counterpart or by the society has been embraced, imbibed and unquestionably understood to be a lifestyle of a female in India, this particular understanding is within the culture and any outsider perceives the same about any Indian women.


Also Read :

Probation offenders Act

Competition Act 2002