The best basis for understanding the soul of a civilization and evaluating its achievements and excellence is to study the condition of women in it. The status of women is considered to be the norm of the culture of a country.
The attitude of the community towards women has a very important social basis. Its study in Hindu society certainly indicates its dignity. Women have been given a very respectable place in the Hindu civilization.
In the religion of India’s oldest civilization, the Indus civilization, giving the highest position to Mother Goddess can be considered as an indicator of the advanced women’s condition in her society. In the Rigvedic period, the society gave them a respectable place. Their religious and social rights were equal to those of men.
Marriage was considered a religious sacrament. The couple were joint officers of the house. Although at some places concern has been expressed in the name of the girl child, but there are some instances where fathers perform special religious rituals for the attainment of intelligent and qualified girls.
The girl child was given the same educational rights and facilities as the son. The girls also had the Upanayana ceremony and they also used to lead a life of celibacy. The names of many such women are found in the Rigveda who were scholars and philosophers and they also composed many mantras and hymns.
Vishvara has been called “Brahmavadini” and “Mantradrashtri” who composed a hymn of Rigveda. Ghosha, Lopamudra, Shasvati, Apala, Indrani, Sikta, Nivavari etc. There are many names of learned women who are the authors of Vedic hymns and stotras.
The story of Brihaspati and his wife Juhu is found in the Rigveda. Brihaspati left his wife and went to do penance, but the gods told him that it is inappropriate to do penance alone without a wife. It is clear from these types of quotes that like men, women were also entitled to do penance.
There were two classes of female students:
The first was a lifelong scholar of religion and philosophy and the second studied till the time of her marriage. There are also examples of Rigvedic women arguing with men on philosophical problems. During this period, girls were usually married at the age of fifteen to sixteen years and thus they got sufficient leave of study. Sati and purdah system was not prevalent in the society.
But the woman was considered unsuitable at this time in two respects:
(1) She had no right to property.
(2) She was not fit to rule.
In the Rigvedic era, certain reasons were responsible for depriving women of the rights of property and governance. The possessor of landed property was the one who would be able to defend it by force from powerful enemies.
Since this work was not under the control of the woman, her monetary rights were not recognized. Similar inefficiency has also been there in the field of governance. Aryans were gradually establishing their kingdom in a foreign land. The number of their enemies was more.
In such a situation, giving governance-related rights to women is not appropriate from the point of view of the security of their newly formed state. The condition of women remained the same even in the later Vedic period, although at one place in the Atharvaveda, the girl child is said to be a cause for concern.
But her general condition remained satisfactory. Special attention was given to the education of the girl child. She used to have upanayana and she studied while living in the celibacy ashram. In Atharvaveda it is said that “Brahmacharya alone can make a girl successful in getting a worthy husband (brahmacharyan kayanam yuva vindate patim).
We find married women participating in yagyas. Some women had acquired proficiency and scholarship in the field of religion and philosophy. But with the passage of time we find some decline in female education. The practice of sending girls to the Gurukul for education was abolished and education at home was supported.
Now she could take education only from her father, brother or uncle etc. In such a situation only the daughters of aristocratic family could get education. As a result their religious rights were reduced. The marriage of the girl was done when she became an adult as before.
Altekar is of the view that the political needs of the Vedic period were responsible for the abolition of the prehistoric Sati system and recognition of Niyoga and remarriage. The study of Brahman and Upanishad texts also gives knowledge of the satisfactory condition of a woman.
It is known from the Shatapatha Brahmana that women were equal partners of men in the maintenance of household and responsibilities. An unmarried person was not able to perform yagyas and religious rituals. The work of reciting mantras on the occasion of Yagyas was actually performed by the wife.
In the Upanishad period we find many women rising in the ranks of philosophers. The names of Maitreyi, Gargi, Atreyi etc. are notable. Gargi had debated with the then eminent philosopher Yajnavalkya on esoteric philosophical questions in the assembly of King Janak. Some women of this period used to study philosophy while performing the rituals of celibacy for a lifetime. Many educated women also followed the teaching job.
But it has also been told in Brahmin texts that women are weaker and emotional than men and are easily attracted to external attractions. She also has a special attraction towards fine arts.
Sutra- State of a Woman in Epic Times:
The condition of women became degraded during the Sutra period. The birth of a girl was not desired. The Upanayana ceremony of women was stopped and Vedic mantras were not recited in other rites related to them except marriage. The age of marriage of girls was also reduced, which made it difficult for them to get proper education.
By the first half of AD, the Upanayana of most of the girls remained a mere formality and was performed sometime before the marriage. By the second century it was completely stopped and now marriage was accepted as an alternative to Upanayana.
Girls were married at the age of nine to twelve years. Due to the absence of the Upanayana ceremony, the status of the girl was reduced to the category of Shudras. Now she could neither recite Vedic mantras nor could she perform yagyas. The presence of a woman with her husband in yagyas and rituals also remained a formality.
But girls were educated in rich and aristocratic families. The women of the royal family were also educated. They were given proper education in fine arts, such as music, dance, painting, garland etc. Vatsyayana has written that women should be proficient in sixty-four arts. During the period of the Sutras, restrictions were imposed on the freedom of women.
Vashistha expressed the opinion that – “Women are not worthy of freedom. Her father protects her in childhood, husband in youth and son in old age. Some other Smritis like Manu etc. have also supported this view. Manu even said that it is the duty of the wife to worship her like a deity even in the event of her husband being wicked and characterless.
The period from the second century BC to the third century AD was the period of foreign invasions in northern India, which caused great disorder in the society. This affected the status of women. The practices of niyoga and remarriage stopped.
Instead of remarriage for women, the principle of attaining salvation through renunciation was propounded. The practice of Sati also became prevalent in the society and it was said to be a great religious sacrifice. This further worsened the condition of women. But in one direction the condition of women improved.
She was not given property rights during the Vedic period. Now the number of widows and sonless women increased due to the absence of remarriages. Therefore, for the purpose of their upbringing and marriage, the arrangers started recognizing their monetary rights. Gradually this right of his was recognized.
The Condition of Women till the Twelfth Century:
At this time the later memories were written and many commentaries were presented on them. During this period the condition of women continued to decline. Only her money-related rights were recognized in the society. By the twelfth century, the principle of a widow being the successor of the deceased husband was practically accepted throughout the country.
The woman’s own property over which she had full rights was called “Stridhan”. During this period, the area of Stridhan was widened and the property of inheritance and division was also included in it. In Mitakshara and Dayabhaga, the woman was declared the full heir to the property of the deceased husband.
But her condition in other areas of life remained as bad as before. The abolition of Upanayana and the practice of child marriage brought him to a very low position in the society. Her position became like that of Shudras. In this era the age of marriage was further reduced and a girl between the age of eight to ten years was considered suitable for marriage.
Widow marriage stopped and the practice of Sati became a special practice in the Rajput clans. In Rajput dynasties, girls were married at the age of fourteen or fifteen. Many girls also had to take the responsibility of governing as guardians, so they were given education in administrative and military subjects.
This led to some increase in the age of their marriage. But the girls of non-government families were married at a very young age. Till the twelfth century, some girls from aristocratic families were educated in literature and some of them also gained fame as poets and critics.
But with the establishment of Muslim power, there was a complete decline in female education. Before the age of ten, which was ideal for marriage, no education of any kind became possible. The purdah system was also prevalent in the society, due to which the public life of the girls ended and their field of work remained confined within the house.
Due to the ignorance of women, Smritis propounded the theory that husband is the only deity of wife and her religion is only to obey and worship her. Polygamy became common in aristocratic families.
The number of child widows also increased in the society because after one thousand AD the widow of any elite clan could not remarry herself. By the eighth century, the practice of shaving widows also became prevalent in the society. Because of the women being counted in the category of Shudras, they were deprived of the study of Vedic literature and philosophy.
In some parts of the country, the practice of ‘Devdasi’ was prevalent, under which virgin girls were dedicated to the temples for dance, anthem. Initially its nature was purely religious, but in the later it became a medium of sexual exploitation of women.
By the early medieval period, the role of devadasis was limited to pacifying the lust of kings and feudal lords. Alberuni writes that the devadasis were also helpful in pacifying the cravings of unmarried soldiers. This practice was widely prevalent in the South.
There are reports of the presence of four hundred devadasis in the Tanjore temple and five hundred in the Somnath temple. Devadasis also lived in the temples of Orissa. Presently the main center of this practice is the temple of Yellamma situated on a hill in Saudanti Nagar (Belgaon) of Karnataka where it is still practiced today. It is an indicator of the inferior and downtrodden condition of women.
The Emergence and Development of Sati :
The belief was prevalent among the people of the prehistoric age that man continues to exist even after death and that he needs things that are useful in this world. Due to this belief, people used to bury the dead as well as items of daily use.
On the death of a king or a noble person, it was considered that all the things were related to him: wife, horse, servant etc. This belief contributed to the origin of the practice of Sati, in which the deceased was burnt along with his wife.
This practice was prevalent in many ancient castes of the world. It seems that before the arrival in India this practice was prevalent among European castes also. By the time they entered India, this practice was over. It is not mentioned in Avesta or Rigveda.
The Atharva Veda reveals that at this time to complete the formalities of the ancient Sati system, the wife used to lie down on the pyre with her husband from where her relatives urged her to get up. On this occasion, it was prayed that women can lead a life of prosperity by making use of sons and money.
It is clear from these mentions that the practice of Sati was not prevalent in the Vedic society and the woman used to settle her home again through widow marriage. There is no mention of this practice even in the Brahmanical literature and the Grihyasutras. Buddhist literature also seems to be unaware of this.
Both Megasthenes and Kautilya do not mention it. The Dharmasutras and early memories also do not indicate the existence of the practice of Sati. Thus it is clear that the practice of Sati was not prevalent in Indian society till the fourth century BCE.
The practice of Sati in Indian society must have happened sometime after the fourth century BCE. It is not mentioned in the original part of the Ramayana, but in the Uttarkand there is a mention of Vedavati’s mother being sati, which is probably a projection. The wives of Dasaratha or Ravana are not shown to be sati after their death.
There is a sporadic mention of this practice in the Mahabharata. After the death of Pandu, his wife Madri became sati. After the death of Krishna’s father Vasudeva, his wives followed chastity. But many such examples are found in this epic itself where even after the death of husbands, their wives remained alive.
Greek writers mention the practice of Sati in some parts of the country. Strabo mentions the prevalence of the practice of Sati among the women of Taxila and the Kath caste of Punjab. This practice started gaining popularity from about the fourth century AD. Writers like Vatsyayana, Bhasa, Kalidasa and Shudraka have mentioned this.
The first inscriptional evidence of the practice of Sati is from the Gupta period. The Eran inscription of 510 AD shows that Gopraja, a friend of the Gupta king Bhanugut, was killed fighting against the Huns and his wife was burnt in the fire. Harshacharita reveals that Prabhakarvardhana’s wife Yashomati had committed sati before her husband’s death.
Rajyashree was also going to burn after making a pyre, but Harsh saved her. There is also a mention of sati being performed by Rani Rajyavati of Nepal. Some writers and commentators strongly opposed this practice. Opposing this, the great poet Banabhatta called it a great foolish act which does not bear any fruit.
It is self-murder, the woman who follows it is hell-gamini. On the contrary, widowed women do welfare of both themselves and their deceased husband. By doing Sati, she does not benefit anyone.
Medieval commentator Medhatithi also considers it to be a suicide and says it is prohibited for women. Devannabhatta is of the view that committing sati is more heinous than being celibate for a widow. But despite these protests, the practice of Sati became prevalent in the society and people started coming forward in its support from the seventh century AD.
Angiras decreed that sati was the only religious option for a widow. According to Harit, through the fasting of Sati, the wife liberates her husband from heinous sins and both live happily for three and a half crore years in heaven.
As a result of these ideas, this practice became quite popular in northern India during the period from the seventh to the eleventh century. It got special promotion in Kashmir. Many examples of the practice of Sati are found from Kalhana’s Rajatarangini. It was widely practiced in the princely states.
Even the concubines and prostitutes of the rulers have been shown to be sati. There are many instances of Sati practice in Kathasaritsagar also. The practice remained relatively less popular in southern India. The practice of Sati was initially only in the Kshatriya or warrior clans. In the Padma Purana, this practice is clearly said to be prohibited for Brahmin families.
But from the tenth century, we find the practice of this practice among the Brahmins also. This practice was especially prevalent during the Rajput period. It is also mentioned in many Rajput writings. Thus gradually this practice became a recognized practice in Hinduism.
Religious superstition and bigotry popularized this inhuman and barbaric practice. Jimutavahana has written in the Dayabhaga that its purpose was to deprive the woman of the right to property and for this reason she was forced to die with her husband.
After the twelfth century, the practice of Sati became highly prevalent in the Rajput clans. The Mughal ruler Akbar tried to stop it but he did not get success. Finally, in the British era in 1829 AD, Lord William Bentinck made a law and stopped this inhuman practice.
Condition of Widow:
It is clear from the earlier discussion that in the Vedic and later Vedic ages, after the death of the husband, the wife could remarry herself. The practice of Niyoga was also prevalent in the society, according to which she could establish a sexual relationship with her brother-in-law for the production of children.
Around the fifth century, these practices were stopped. The practice of remarriage of widows continued till the tenth century, but after that it was also stopped. Widows were considered impure. Her hair was cut off and she could not participate in any auspicious work.
She had to lead a life of strict celibacy and spiritual practice. Some widows used to follow Sativrata to get relief from the rigors of life. From the second century AD onwards, property and succession rights were given to the widows, due to which there was some improvement in the situation.
But with the practice of Sati, her position deteriorated. Sometimes they were forcibly thrown into the pyre. The attitude of the society towards her became one of hatred and cruelty. If she lived in her family, she had to work hard and earn a living.
If she lived alone, little money was given for her subsistence. She had to live with bare hands and a shaved head. Her darshan was considered inauspicious and she was excommunicated from all the festivals. In the Ramayana, the widow woman has been called a great disaster. Some widows lived a life of religious purity and spiritual practice. Service to family and society was her ideal.
Circulation of Curtain Custom:
There is a difference of opinion among scholars on the subject of when the purdah was introduced in Hindu society. It is almost certain that it was not prevalent in the Vedic age. Women moved freely in public places and could mingle with men.
Rigveda reveals that after marriage the bride was shown to all the visitors. She was expected to speak in public meetings till old age. The word “Sabhavati” has also been used for the woman, which is an indicator that the purdah system was not prevalent in the society.
In Ramayana it is said at one place – “Griha, clothes, prakara and separation are useless for all women. Her character is the veil for him.” Queens like Kaushalya, Kaikeyi and Sumitra are nowhere shown wearing veils.
Sita is also not shown wearing a veil as she walks through the streets of Ayodhya or roams in the forest. In the Mahabharata we find that Draupadi comes free to the hall. Kunti or Gandhari is nowhere to be seen on the screen.
The practice of curtains in Hindu society appears to be becoming prevalent from the beginning of AD. We see this particular trend in the princely states, where women were recommended to wear veils to protect them from public view. Some queens of the Buddhist period used to travel in chariots with veils.
In the plays of Bhas, there is a mention of the purdah system. In the play “Pratima”, Sita is shown in a purdah. In Swapnavasavadatta, Padmavati does not wear a veil before marriage, but after marriage she prefers to remain in a veil. From the joyful Nagananda it is known that after marriage, women used to live in veils.
The compositions of Bhavabhuti and Magha also give information about the prevalence of purdah. Thus it is clear that the purdah system started in the women of the nobles or princes of the society from about the third century and it was followed in the ordinary families of the society as well.
In Mrichhakatik we also find Basantasena protesting against wearing the veil. Sometimes we find ourselves even opposed to the adoption of girls. It is known from the Lalitavistara that the Buddha’s wife Gopa objected to wearing a veil over her face, saying that a pure-minded person does not need an outer covering.
Due to such views, the practice of purdah did not become widespread and it remained confined to a few families. There is no information about the purdah system from the paintings of Sanchi and Ajanta. Chinese travelers such as Fahien, Huensang and Itsing who visit India do not mention this practice.
We find a woman named Ratnaprabha in the eleventh century composition Kathasaritsagara clearly opposing this practice. She expresses her view in this way – “The tight veil and control of women is foolishness born of jealousy. it’s no use . Women of character are protected by their virtue, not by any other substance.
There is no information about the practice of the purdah system even from the Kashmiri poet Kalhan’s Rajtarangini. The description of the tenth century Arabic writer Abuzaid also shows that Indian queens used to attend the court without any curtains. Thus we come to the conclusion that the practice of veils was not widely practiced in Hindu society before the twelfth century.
In fact, it became popular only after this. It seems that the widespread practice of purdah in Hindu society was due to the influence of Muslim invasion. Purdah was strictly observed in Muslim society. Hindu chieftains and feudatories followed this practice in their respective families.
Since the Muslim power in northern India continued for a long time, the purdah system became more and more popular here. It was relatively less prevalent in the South. The Maratha rulers first introduced this practice to their women in the south. There was also a sense of security behind adopting this practice.
The conquering Muslim rulers and soldiers looked at Hindu women with a bad eye. Therefore, it was considered necessary that to protect her honor, she should be kept under veil. The Hindu women of this period also did not oppose it. After the twelfth century, the purdah system became widely practiced in the Hindu society.
Prestige of Women in Ancient Texts:
There are conflicting views regarding women in ancient Indian texts and writers. Although some texts and writers criticize her harshly, seeing the flaw in her character, yet in the scriptures and epics, the prestige of the important ideal of woman is found.
In the Vedic period, she got social and religious prestige along with men. In the Shatapatha Brahmana, the woman is described as the half-wife of the man (Ardhona Hawa Esh Atmano). In the epics, the high ideal of woman is respected.
According to Mahabharata, “It is the housewife who is actually said to be. A home without a housewife is like a wilderness. Women should always be worshipped. Where there is respect for women, all the gods are happy and where there is disrespect for them, all actions become meaningless.
In the form of a mother, a woman is said to be stronger than the land (Matagurutaro Bhume:). According to Vashistha, the pride of an Acharya is greater than ten Upadhyayas, the pride of a father is greater than that of a hundred Acharyas, but the pride of a mother is greater than that of a thousand fathers.
The Mahabharata writer has also written that women are the goddess of prosperity. A person seeking prosperity should respect her. In the Mahabharata, a woman has been called adbhya. Thoughts with praise for women have also been expressed in the memoirs.
It is clearly stated in Manusmriti that – “Where women are worshipped, the gods rejoice there and where women are not worshipped, all the works go in vain.” It has been told further that the family in which women are insulted, that clan is destroyed.
Therefore, it is the duty of a person who wants the welfare of the family that he should always respect women. According to astrologer Varahamihira – women are Lakshmi in the family. Therefore they should be respected (grihe lakshmyo manyaah samtam abla maan vibhavaih). Those who see fault in their character are themselves degraded and their thoughts are not inspired by good faith.
In fact, women are pure in all respects. The clans in which they are not respected, those clans perish. The great poet Kalidas has also accepted the importance of a woman as a housewife, a companion who gives consent and a friend of solitude.
Thus it is clear that in Hindu society generally liberal and respectful views were adopted towards women. In fact, her glory as a mother was very great. Manu has clearly written that the position of mother is higher than that of father.
In Mahabharata, the wife is said to be the root of Trivarga i.e. Dharma, Artha and Kama (Bharya Moolam Trivargasya). The prestige of women in Hindu society is well known from the fact that the worship of goddesses is prevalent in her group of gods and the names of goddesses are combined before the names of many famous gods, such as Lakshmi-Narayan, Uma-Mahesh, Sita-Ram, Radha. – Krishna etc.