By: Vishal Agarwal
January 28, 2006
expressed here are author’s own and not of this website. Full disclaimer
is at the bottom.
in Hindu Dharma & CA Textbooks - I
Hindu Dharma & CA books - II
9.0 Social Status of
However, it is fair to
say that Hinduism has a mixed record when we deal with the social status
of women, just as all traditional (and practically all modern) societies,
and all religious traditions. The revealed texts of Hindus do not contain
much that deals with socio-cultural codes in a concrete manner because
social mores cannot be eternally and universally valid or applicable. They
must change from place to place, and from time to time. The main intent of
Hindu Revelatory texts is to serve as a guide in expounding the more
eternal principles and practices dealing with cosmology, theology,
ritualism (which too changes with time), spirituality and so on.
Injunctions on morality, social codes, political maxims etc., are rather
explained in non-revealed texts of Hinduism, called the Smritis. Because
of the temporal nature of social, political and moral codes, Hindu Sages
have authored their own Smritis from time to time, and from region to
region to serve the respective populations of their area. These Smritis
have often been merely ‘normative’ texts and their views did not always
reflect social reality. In many ways, the actual position of women in the
Hindu society has been better than what is enjoined by these texts, and
vice versa as well.
9.1 Woman as Mother:
In Hindu Dharma, God is often compared to a mother, and is worshipped in
the form of the Divine Mother. In social contexts as well, no person is
considered as exalted and worthy of respect and service as one’s mother.
The tender love and care of a mother for her children is the subject of
numerous Vedic verses. In Hindu culture, the mother is the very embodiment
of love, of sacrifice, or selfless service to her children and of
forbearance. She is considered the first teacher of every child, and is
regarded as the highest Guru.
Hindu texts remind us that as long as we live, we must never forget the
efforts and sacrifices our mothers make to bring us up in our childhood.
In a recent Indian movie, a daughter makes a statement that perhaps sums
up the Hindu reverence for motherhood – “Since God could not appear
everywhere to take care of us, He created mother.”
In a hymn, Shri Shankaracharya (8th century CE) declares that
while a son can be a bad son, a mother can never be a bad mother. The
mother is considered a thousand times more venerable than the father.
When students graduate from their school, their teachers exhort them to
consider first their mothers,
followed by others, as embodiments of God. If a Hindu man becomes a monk,
he is required to sever all his biological relationships so that even his
own father is required to salute to him. The sole exception is made for
his mother – a monk must salute his own mother if he encounters her in the
course of his itinerant lifestyle. Motherly love and affection are
considered so exalted and pure that the Hindu doctrine of
vaatsalya-bhakti advocates loving God just as a mother loves her
child. A recurring theme in Hindu devotional literature is the childhood
of Divine Incarnations in the loving care of their mothers. For instance,
Mother Yashoda (adoptive mother) and Devaki (biological mother) are
frequently remembered in hymns together with Lord Krishna.
Pregnant women were exempted from paying ferry tolls,
and were granted some other exemptions due to the high regard for
motherhood in the traditional Hindu society. The sanctity of motherhood
was so highly regarded that it was also extended to the animal kingdom. It
was forbidden to hunt pregnant animals.
Amongst the most important reason for considering the cow a sacred animal
in Hinduism is the exceptional motherly love, patience and concern that
she exhibits towards the newly born calf
– a scene used frequently in metaphors occurring in Vedic hymns. By
revering cows (the exalted status is not extended to the bull), Hindus are
not degrading their mothers, rather they express their deep reverence for
the principle of motherhood – reverence that is also manifested in our
seeing the Divine Mother in Nature, rivers and earth that nourish us.
It is said that when
Adi Shankaracharya took leave of his grieving widowed mother, he promised
to her that as her only son, he will certainly come to meet her at the
hour of her death. When the moment came, he was at her bedside, horrifying
the orthodox Brahmins of the area for violating the rules of Hindu
asceticism which requires the monk to sever all his worldly ties. They
boycotted him, but through a miracle, the pyre of his mother that the
Saint set up in his home’s courtyard caught fire spontaneously. The
Brahmins repented upon seeing this Divine intervention and since then many
Namputiri Brahmins cremate their relatives in the courtyard of their homes
as a mark of respect to the great Saint.
There was no restriction in the ancient Hindu society that sons must
always be named after their father. Numerous heroes of Hindu tradition are
frequently addressed as sons of their mother. For instance, Arjuna, the
greatest warrior of the Hindu Epic of Mahabharata, is often addressed as
‘Kaunteya’ (son of Queen Kunti) in the text. Lord Krishna is likewise
addressed as ‘Devakiputra’ (son of mother Devaki) in the Chhandogya
Upanishad and elsewhere. The Aitareya Upanishad, one of the 10 major
Upanishads (texts of Hindu spirituality), is named after Sage Aitareya
Mahidasa, whose name derives from his mother Itara. The name of his father
is not known. Likewise, the greatest Sanskrit grammarian Panini is also
called Daakshiputra, or the son of Daakshi. Again, the name of his father
In the Vedic verses, when both the parents are mentioned, the mother is
typically mentioned before the father.
The position of a mother in Vedic rites is more exalted than that of the
Numerous childhood sacraments and rites are performed by mothers. In the
Upanayana ceremony, after which the child commences his Vedic study and
the period of celibacy, there is no mention of the father but the child
approaches his mother for alms. This indicates that the mother is
considered a child’s best well-wisher in life, who would never refuse him
nourishment even though his father may. And when the period of study is
over and the student returns home after his long absence, he first bows to
his mother, and gives whatever he may have acquired during that period to
his mother. After one’s parents pass away, annual ceremonies called the ‘shraaddha’
are performed by Hindus. In these ceremonies as well, the mother is
remembered before the father, and special ceremonies are sometimes
performed for the mother (though there are none specifically for the
father). In fact, the Chandanadhenu Shraddha, the costliest and
most ceremonial of all such ceremonies, is performed for one’s mother. If
one’s father had been excommunicated for misconduct, shraaddha
ceremony for him need not be performed. A mother is never considered
excommunicated by her son however.
The son does not have the option of not performing the ceremony for her,
and is responsible for atoning for her sins.
This is because whatever may be the crime of one’s mother, she is always
one’s mother and deserving of her children’s love and respect. How can we
ever condemn her who nurtured us for 9 months in her womb, and underwent
great pains to give us birth, and to bring us up in our childhood?
9.2 Woman as Daughter:
As in all human cultures
and all organized religions, Hindu culture also unfortunately shows a
preference for the male child. There are pre-natal rites
prescribed by Hindu texts to ensure that the fertilized embryo is male and
In ancient times (and also in modern times), birth of a son ensured
financial and emotional security for parents when they became too old to
fend for themselves because there was no organized social security
infrastructure. Whereas the daughter was married off to another man and
moved out, the devoted son was supposed to take personal care of his aged
say that the birth of a daughter made her parents weep, because as soon as
they saw her face for the first time, they realized that their precious
jewel would eventually leave them and live with someone else. Daughters
were therefore traditionally regarded as ‘paraayaa dhana’ or ‘a
treasure that really belongs to someone else’. At the time of her wedding
therefore, her father or her brother ritually ‘gifted’
their most precious diamond (i.e., their daughter/sister) to her husband,
after extracting promises that he would always take good care of her even
if he has to forsake his life, just as her father and brother had done
earlier. In fact, in Hindu families that are financially comfortable,
daughters are literally pampered (compared to sons) because they would
have to manage a lot of household work in their future husbands’ home
anyway. At seeing their daughters leave their homes and proceed to their
husband’s abode, parents are filled with grief.
Things are changing rapidly in the Hindu society however and it is often
seen that a married daughter takes more care of her aged parents their
Fortunately however, Hindu texts do contain several teachings which equate
a son with a daughter.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 6.4.17 actually prescribes a ritual for parents
who desire a scholarly daughter to be born to them. During the marriage
ceremony, the husband touches all the fingers of his wife except the
thumb, if the couple is desirous of a daughter.
After their marriage, the husband shows his wife the Pole Star and other
heavenly bodies if he desires that a daughter be born to them.
Several kaamyashraddhas (rites done to obtain a specific result)
are prescribed in ritual literature to ensure the birth of a daughter.
A text asks the father to greet both his son and his daughter upon
returning from a journey.
text states that the birth of a daughter is very meritorious.
There have been cases where fathers are said to have been more fond of
their daughters than their sons. For instance, according to the
Brahmavaivarta Purana, King Ugrasena was more fond of his daughter Devaki
(the mother of Krishna) than his son Kamsa. In another Vaishnava Purana, a
childless Brahmin prays to Lord Vishnu for a child. When the pleased Lord
asks him whether he wants a daughter or a son, he responds – “What
difference would it make, for a son would be your likeness while a
daughter would be the likeness of Devi Lakshmi.” Lord Vishnu blesses him
with a daughter. The text says that the Brahmin was overjoyed with the
birth of his daughter, and educates her to be a great scholar.
In several Purana texts, the Universal Divine Mother is born in the
household of her devotee Daksha as his daughter Sati.
Indeed, in many Hindu households, daughters are considered as
manifestations of Devi. Many rituals and pilgrimages (to Shakti shrines
such as Vaishno Devi) are completed by worshipping and offering food to
eight young girls (which may include one’s own daughters) who are
considered as forms of the Devi. A text says that Devi Lakshmi always
dwells within our good daughters.
The idyllic description of a devout family blessed by Indra includes both
sons and daughters.
The Tantras accord a very high place to the daughter. The Mahanirvana
Tantra 8.47 says that the daughter ought to be brought up with great care
and affection and should be educated by her parents with as much care as
In several cases, the daughter also provided the family’s lineage. Of the
two most prominent royal dynasties of the Hindu society namely Suryavamsha
(Solar Dynasty) and Chandravamsha (Lunar Dynasty), the latter owes its
origin to Ila, the daughter of Manu (the equivalent of Biblical Noah in
the Hindu tradition). According to Puranic texts, most of the kings of the
Indian subcontinent belong to the Lunar dynasty, including Lord Krishna. A
holy place called ‘Ilayaspada’ or the place of Ila, the daughter of Manu
is said to be located close to the confluence of Sarasvati and Drishdvati
rivers in northern India. Vedic texts call this site as the holiest place
on the earth.
Chandragupta I, the founder of the Gupta dynasty (whose reign is
considered the Golden Age of Hindus according to some) married a Licchivi
Princess, and many later Gupta Emperors took pride in their mother’s
Hindu texts say that the daughter deserves compassion from her parents,
and is the highest object of his father’s compassion.
It was forbidden to inflict physical punishment on one’s daughter. Some
passages of Hindu texts
are grotesquely misinterpreted by prejudiced scholars and by anti-Hindu
websites to ‘prove’ that female infanticide through exposure of girl
infant is sanctioned in our Dharma. In reality all forms of infanticide
and abortions are considered heinous sins in our tradition. How can a true
Hindu ever kill his own daughter, who is the very embodiment of Devi, and
the object of reverence as well as of supreme compassion?
9.3 Woman as Sister:
Hindu Dharma is perhaps unique in having a ‘brother-sister’ festival,
called the Rakshabandhan. On this day sisters come to visit their
brothers and tie them a sacred thread (called ‘Rakhi’) on their
wrist to symbolize that if ever some adversity befalls upon them, their
brothers will rise to the occasion. Sisters pray for their brothers’
welfare, and brothers give gifts to their sisters. In the Hindu tradition,
a woman can make someone else a ‘brother’ by tying the Rakhi to him. If
that happens, the relationship becomes one of real brother and sister, and
all the requirements and duties of a brother towards his non-biological
sister are then expected to be fulfilled by him. A brother is also obliged
to present gifts to his married sister whenever she visits him. In the
absence of their father, it is the brother who took care of her and made
gifts to her as well as to his brother-in-law.
And just as it happens today, the protective brother kept a watch on his
unmarried sister’s boyfriends.
9.4 Woman as the Bride:
It appears that women had considerable freedom in Vedic times to choose
their own husband.
Although there is no evidence in Vedic literature for early marriage of
women, classical Hinduism texts advocate marrying off one’s daughter
before she reaches puberty (although the marriage cannot be consummated
till she attains puberty). Premature marriages has had a disastrous effect
on the health of Hindu women, and laws have been enacted in
India to prevent
marriage of women till they turn 18 years of age.
The evil of dowry which is so prevalent amongst certain Hindu communities
today is conspicuous by its absence in the entire range of authoritative
religious literature of Hindus. Scholars
have shown that dowry amongst Hindus started as a result of peculiar
conditions created during the British rule in India, and that this
practice is actually attested quiet well in medieval Europe. In lieu of
dowry however, brides were gifted lavishly by her father and brothers upon
her wedding. These gifts constituted her personal property not subject to
use or control by her husband or her in-laws. Upon her death, it passed
onto her daughters. A bride’s or a wife’s personal wealth was called ‘stridhana’
or the woman’s wealth. If the bride’s father was no longer alive, her
brothers were obliged to grant her a share of their own inheritance to
create her stridhana and also for her marriage. Relatives who
usurped the bride’s personal property were punishable under law.
The wedding ceremony involves the bride and the groom walking seven steps
together. At the seventh step, the groom is made to declare that he
chooses his wife as his lifelong friend. Another custom is to tie the hems
of their garments together in a knot, and going around the sacred fire
altar four times. The last of these four circumambulations, symbolizing
salvation is lead by the bride. This indicates that the salvation of the
husband (and the wife) is not possible without her involvement in
procreation of children and in religious observances.
In an interesting custom seen in some parts of India, the bride says ‘I
do’ after making the groom concede seven demands. These include things
like the groom promising that as her husband, he will never interfere in
her decisions relating to the management of their household, and that he
will trust her discretion in the management of their household
resources.The bride is considered an embodiment of good-luck and
auspiciousness and is welcomed by the groom’s family. The Vedic verses
express the hope that the bride will be regarded like an Empress by her
9.5 Woman as Wife:
‘The wife indeed is the home’
says a Hindu text. The wife was considered one with her husband.
A good wife was considered a gift of gods, whom the husband could never
neglect or fail to support.
For the happiness of the household, it was not sufficient for the husband
alone to be pleased with his wife. The wife must also be pleased with her
A law-giver actually states that a husband and wife who live together even
though they do not love each other commit a sin.
The status of the wife and husband was not exactly equal however, just as
in all other religious traditions. While a disobedient wife could be
the wife herself was exhorted to treat even a husband destitute of virtues
as her Lord because such dedication itself could take her to heaven.
However, she could abandon a husband who was impotent, mentally deranged
or who suffered from other wasting diseases.
She was exhorted to consider her husband alone as her honor and pride
and seek her fulfillment within her home.
However, the texts also state that women can never be controlled by force,
and only wives themselves can guard their own virtue.
In the worldview of classical Hindu texts, the wife was not a producer of
wealth. Her sphere of activity was restricted to her home, and her family
members. She did all the household chores, managed her husband’s wealth,
maintained her household possessions, brought up children, cooked food for
the family, served her husband and took a leading role in fulfilling
several domestic ritual observances. This was true for all traditional
societies, and things are changing very fast in Hindu societies today with
more and more women exploring opportunities for self-fulfillment outside
their homes with the support of their husbands and other family members.
In fact, it was never entirely true that women do not produce wealth.
Since times immemorial, Hindu women have worked in the fields, as artisans
and so on.
So esteemed was a devoted wife that she was considered to have the power
to ensure her husband’s welfare even after his death.
Hindu tradition reveres the story of Princess Savitri who was so learned
that her father was unable to find a match of her. She met a humble
student in a one of her sojourns and expressed her desire to marry him,
against her parents’ wishes, although it was prophesied to her that he
would die within one year of their marriage. After their marriage, when
that day came, she showed great courage and wit in snatching back the soul
of her husband from the Messenger of Death, and they lived a long life
together happily thereafter. Far from being a meek, docile woman, Savitri
was a strong-willed, educated and a powerful woman who defied death, and
who married the man she loved.
In another tale, the beautiful Princess Sukanya accidentally blinds the
old Sage Chyavan. To make amends, she marries him. The handsome divine
twins and celestial physicians namely Ashwin Kumars approached her and
asked her to forsake her husband and instead marry one of them. But
Sukanya remarked that she would never leave her husband as long as he
Pleased with her love for her husband, the celestial physicians restored
Sage Chyavan’s sight and transformed him into a handsome young man.
The loyal husband:
Likewise, Hindu scriptures also have several other sacred stories that
show the devotion of husbands towards their wives. When due to some
objections from his subjects King Rama had to forsake Devi Sita, his wife,
he did not remarry. The deep affection and love that Lord Shiva has for
his wife Parvati is the subject of numerous Sanskrit works. Even today,
Hindu maidens aspiring for a good husband fast for 16 consecutive Mondays,
the day considered holy by Shaivite Hindus.
Hindu texts say that the wife is prosperity of the home personified
and is to be considered fit for worship.
The Vedas consider the wife as auspicious,
the most auspicious one.
She is the light of the home, the harbinger of many blessings, and worthy
of great honor.
The Mahabharata says the wife is her husband’s best friend. Even in a deep
forest, she is like refreshment and solace to her husband. Whenever men
are afflicted with sorrow or are in physical pain, the presence of wives
serves to alleviate their suffering just as a perspiring person feels
refreshed after a cool bath. Dharma, acquisition of wealth and pleasure
are all dependent on one’s wife. Therefore, even in anger, husbands must
never do anything that is disagreeable to their wives.
man becomes eligible to perform Vedic rituals only after he marries.
The husband and wife are exhorted to perform their religious ceremonies as
If the husband is married, he cannot perform Vedic ceremonies without his
During religious ceremonies, the wife holds the hand of her husband
whenever he pours the oblation into the sacred altar, signifying that the
ritual is performed jointly by them.
Men and women form complement each other, just like heaven and earth,
lyric and melody.
They are equal partners in married life. Sage Agastya tells his wife
Lopamudra – “In this world, we will overcome all adversities if we two
exert ourselves together.”
Soon after her wedding, the wife is requested to address a religious
gathering or assembly.
For a husband, his wife is his own half
and is therefore called ardhaangini (‘half of oneself’). She was a
comrade in life (sahachari), an equal participant in performance of
and in reaping fruits of good deeds (sahadharmini).
There is no greater sorrow than to see the death of one’s sons and one’s
The wife is dearer than one’s own life, she is to be treasured like one’s
mother, and respected as an elder sister.
The very essence of married life is stated in the following words – “Faithfulness
to each other must be observed till death – this is the essence of the
Supreme Law that must be followed by the husband and wife. After
completing the marriage rites, they should exert with all their might to
avoid being unfaithful to each other, and to avoid splitting from each
9.6 Woman as Widow:
The Vedic texts
indicate that widow remarriage was allowed. The Dharmasutras appended to
various Vedic schools also permit widow remarriage.
This general permission for remarriage of widows was maintained in some
texts of classical Hinduism.
In certain cases, if the husband went abroad for longer than a particular
period of time, the woman was permitted to remarry as well.
In general however, the status of widows declined steeply when the texts
of classical Hinduism were formulated. As a result, remarriage of widows
was highly frowned upon
and the ideal widow was expected to live a life of piety, austerity and
Likewise, a widower was excluded from the sacred ritual but could remarry
in order to enter normal life, or he could chose to live celibate. No
stigma was attached to the remarriage of a widower.
Clearly however, widow remarriages continued to occur in historic India,
and are mentioned in Dharmashastra texts themselves.
One may cite several examples of widow remarriages from ancient India. In
the Harivamsha Purana, Ugrayudha proposes to Satyavati, the widow of
Shantanu, indicating that it was not taboo to marry a widow. Ajuna married
Uloopi, the widowed daughter of the Naga king, and even had a son by her.
The Jataka tales narrate some other instances of men marrying widows in
the Hindu society in the pre-Buddhist period. Emperor Chandragupta II in
the 4th century CE married the Dhruvadevi, the widow of his
elder brother. Vira Hammira of Chittor married the widowed daughter of
Maldeo and their son Kshetrasimha succeeded him to the throne of
Remarriage of widow was generally recommended with her younger brother in
law, though there does not seem to be an absolute restriction in this
regard. Such examples were not commonplace though and a life of celibacy
was generally recommended for widows.
Widows were often considered useless members of the household, and too
inauspicious for invitation to celebrations. In some cases where the bride
was widowed at a very young age, she had to spend the long remainder of
her life in misery and sorrow.
In actual practice however, numerous Hindu communities such as Jats
practiced widow remarriage (the custom was called ‘karewa’) down to
modern times. Currently, the stigma against widow remarriages is vanishing
fast especially in large cities in
It is preferred by family members that the widow remarries a widower,
though there is no such compulsion.
There are mixed injunctions on the inheritance rights for widows. Some
Hindu texts contain the world’s oldest injunctions on the right of
inheritance of a widow, while other Hindu texts state that a widow with a
grown up son will be provided for by him from his father’s inheritance.
In the past, the Hindu wife who had been her husband’s comrade and
companion when he lived, also often chose to accompany him in death by
immolating herself on his funeral pyre. This custom, called Sati,
is conspicuous by its absence in the Vedic texts. The oldest mention of
this practice do not attach any special merit to it, but merely list it as
an alternative for widows,
the other options being remarriage or living as a widow. Even Manusmriti
is silent about it, but later texts such as several Puranas and
law-digests (dharmanibandhas) glorify it. Several poets (such as
Bana Bhatta), law-digest writers (such as Devannabhatta, and Medhatithi
who authored the oldest extant complete commentary of Manusmriti)
condemned the practice, which seems to have remained largely confined to
the very elite sections of ruling Hindu classes in India. The Peshwas,
Hindu Maratha rulers, tried to ban it without success.
The word ‘Sati’
literally means a truthful woman. According to the Shiva Purana, Sati,
herself an incarnation of Shakti, was the wife of Lord Shiva. Anguished by
the insult of her husband of her own father, she immolated her own body in
full public view by the strength of her inner Yogic powers. Shiva was very
aggrieved upon her death, and the text says that he carried her remains
and roamed around in grief all over the Universe for a long time before
the gods intervened. In course of time (or rather mainly after the British
India), the word ‘Sati’ was itself applied to the practice of women
immolating themselves at their husband’s pyre. There is no evidence that
the story of Sati and Shiva had anything to do with the practice. Several
accounts left by foreign travelers indicated that these self-immolations
were not forced or induced, nor was there any compulsion
for the widow to commit suicide. Rather, they note that they were done by
devoted wives who were very resolute in their decision, and could not bear
to live apart from their husbands. The Puranas saluted the loyalty of
these women by attributing them powers to elevate their husband and
several other family members to Heaven for long periods of time. The sites
of these self-immolations were commemorated by construction Sati Mata
temples, indicating that such women were credited with super-natural
powers by ordinary Hindus.
Considering this context, it is unfair to insult the memory of these pious
women by alleging that all such self-immolations were done by widows under
duress or always with some ulterior motive (such as the greed of living in
Heaven). Perhaps it is difficult for the modern mind to comprehend the
fact that a devoted wife could chose to follow her husband to death out of
a firm conviction in rebirth, life beyond death, and a deep love for him.
If patriotic and brave soldiers can sacrifice their lives for their
country, and the faithful for their faith, principles and beliefs, it
cannot be impossible for devoted wives to sacrifice their lives to be with
their husbands in the world beyond.
Cases of forced Sati
have surely occurred, and it is perfectly legitimate to argue within the
paradigms of Hindu philosophy that such a self-immolation is futile
because the fruits of the karma of one person cannot be transferred to
another (husband or anyone else), or that the Hindu texts preach the
performance of karma without motive of rewards such as Heaven. This is
what social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy did, in arguing with some Pandits
who supported the practice. The British finally banned it, without
eliciting any significant whimper of protest from Hindus (showing that
Hindus themselves were keen to stop it) and now it is a thing of the past.
An event or two of Sati still occurs in India once every 20 years or so,
and generates a slew of ‘scholarly’ publications written in journalistic
and sensationalist tones, and reams of ‘research papers’ by arm-chair
scholars. But the custom must be considered rare in the context of
pre-modern Hinduism (with very little scriptural backing), and defunct in
It does appear that
before 550 AD, when the narrative of CA textbooks ends, Sati was very rare
and exceptional practice, and it continued to be a rare practice involving
less than 1% of Hindu widows even through late medieval
India when the
practice reached its peak.
And yet, some members of the Michael Witzel – FOIL gang want this
practiced to be mentioned specifically in sixth grade textbooks (and
reinforce stereotypes in the process) when in fact even the corresponding
Grade VI NCERT textbook by Romila Thapar on ancient India is silent on it,
and when in fact the CA textbooks do not mention witch burnings in the
case of Christianity etc. Some textbooks have a mere 1 page on Hinduism,
or a few pages. Then what motivates these people to insist that Sati
should be mentioned in these textbooks?
The Woman as a Woman: Of Panegyrics and Caricatures
The texts of all religions are largely male oriented and so is the case
with Hindu Dharma although our Dharma does have a very strong feminine
component as a part of its very core. It is natural then that Hindu texts
make some judgmental remarks concerning women. These remarks are sometimes
blanket negative characterizations, or blanket positive characterizations,
or they are balanced and nuanced statements that do not stereotype women.
Many of these negative
statements are actually found in texts meant for celibate male renunciates
or monks for whom sexual temptations are taboo and attraction towards
women is considered a hindrance in their spiritual path. Conversely, the
feminine spiritual traditions in Hindu Dharma tend to sublimate sexual
desires by perceiving the entire ‘mankind’ as feminine. For instance, it
is said that once Sant Meerabai went to visit Sant Tulasidas (who had
become a celibate Hindu monk by then) but was stopped by his disciples
with the plea that their Guru does not meet women. She replied – “How can
that be so because I thought that all human beings are women, and God is
the only Purusha (Male).” When Sant Tulasidas heard her response, he
invited her himself with great respect, realizing that a great devotee of
God was at his doorstep. Similar stories are narrated with regard to other
lady Sants such as Lalleshvari and others as well. The Tantra texts often
invert the patriarchal paradigm, and declare the woman to be superior to
Some of these negative statements actually yield a very different import
when they are seen in their textual context. For instance, the following
verse is often cited to say that Hinduism caricatures women –
women there can be no lasting friendship,
their hearts are like
the hearts of hyenas.”
In reality, this
statement was made by a woman herself, the celestial nymph Uruvashi, who
wanted to spurn the advances of King Pururava. She tries all means to shoo
him away, and it is in this context that she makes this statement about
women, so as to dissuade him in his overtures towards her. The hymn in
question is called an ‘aakhyaana’ hymn or a hymn that contains a
story-line with some dialogs and which was probably enacted in theatres in
Obviously, one would see melodramatic and theatrical remarks in these
On the other extreme,
Hindu scriptures contain numerous eulogistic remarks on women. A passage
in a text argues that ‘given the dependence of women on men for all deeds,
they can never be blamed for any fault because it is men who force them to
commit sin. It is men who seduce them and cause them to commit adultery.
It is men who though married, commit adultery with other women. Women must
not be blamed for adultery, only men should be blamed for this sin. A man
who neither takes care of his wife nor provides for her does not deserve
to be called her husband or her provider’.
It is stated that unlike men, women never kill.
In his encyclopedia
(of Hindu branches of learning) named Brihatsamhita, Varahamihira devotes
the 72nd chapter to the praise of women. He says that women are
superior to men because all men are born from women, because women are
more faithful to their spouses than men, and because women are more
faithful in following Dharma. On the whole, if we ignore passages that
eulogize women in their roles of mother and wife, passages caricaturing
women predominate over eulogistic passages. And many passages in the
latter category actually deal with unchaste wives and do not pertain to
women in general.
And finally, as stated
above, many passages exhort us to take a balanced view and distinguish
between different types of women. The chaste women are worthy or praise,
while those who are not chaste are worthy of condemnation.
11.0 The Strength and
Inspiration of Great Men:
It is said that the
behind every successful man, there is a powerful woman. This seems to be
quite well-exemplified in the Hindu tradition. Numerous texts within the
Hindu tradition have been named by male authors lovingly after their women
family members. For instance, Vachaspati Mishra, a celebrated Hindu
philosopher, named his magnum opus on Hindu spirituality (Vedanta) after
his wife ‘Bhaamati’. Bhaskara, an ancient mathematician named his work on
arithmetic and algebra after his daughter Lilavati. In this way, grateful
Hindu scholars have perpetuated the memories of their loving wives,
mothers, daughters and so on down the ages.
In the Mahabharata,
Queen Kunti (she belongs to the pentad of ‘panchakanyaa’) narrates
the soul-stirring ancient sermon of Queen Vidula to her son, in order to
boost the morale of her sons, the distraught Pandava brothers who had been
deprived of their kingdom and livelihood by their cousins. The sermon
contains memorable passages exhorting men to shun self-pity and a sense of
defeat and instead rise to take charge of their own destiny. The narration
obviously had its effect because the Pandava brothers soon prepare for the
It is said that Goswami Tulsidas (16th-17th century
CE), one of the most prominent saint poets of Hindi, was very infatuated
with his newly wedded wife. One day, she reminded him that if he were
infatuated with Lord Ram in the same way, he would have attained
salvation. The words transformed Tulsidas into a great saint and a devotee
and he went on to author 12 beautiful devotional works in Hindi.
Jijaamata, the mother of Shivaji, inspired her son from his childhood with
stories of great Hindu heroes, and motivated him to become a noble Hindu
king who liberated parts of India from the tyrannical rule of the bigoted
Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb in the late 17th century. Today, she
is revered as an inspirational figure in large parts of India along with
her illustrious son.
particularly touching instance in Hindu tradition is that of Haadi Rani.
Newly married, her husband did not heed the call to arms against the
enemies of his country. She had her head severed and sent to him on a
platter, motivating him to forsake all fear of death and plunge headlong
Amongst some Hindu communities, notably the Rajputs, when the fall of
their citadel or city to Islamic invaders became imminent, the Hindu women
of the area committed suicide by mass immolation. This act of sacrifice
was termed as Jauhar. As a result, shorn of all love ties to their
families, the Hindu men-folk of area would rush out of their forts and
attack the invaders with their full might and motivation without any fear
of death. Such instances of Jauhar happened because the Muslim
invaders would molest and rape captured Hindu women after victory
and therefore Hindu women often preferred death to dishonor and indignity
of concubinage. One such instance of Jauhar by Rani Padmini and 700 other
maidens of the fort of Chittor before its imminent fall to the invading
Muslim Emperor Allauddin Khilji is the subject of a Hindi epic named
Padmaavat authored by a Muslim poet Malik Muhammad Jaayasi.
More than a thousand years ago, the Buddhist queen of a Hindu Pandyan
Ruler of southern India was so disturbed by reports of massacres committed
by the army of her husband in a neighboring enemy kingdom that she
committed suicide as a way to protest and to impel her husband to shun the
path of bloodshed.
It is said that it was the mother of the famous monk Yadavaprakash who
motivated him to shun his pride and become a disciple of Ramanuja (who had
been his own disciple but had become a renowned spiritual teacher).
Little wonder then that according to Hindu texts, the wife gets half the
fruit of her husband’s good karma.
12.0 ransforming Hindu
Women into Shakti
It is clear from the overview on Hindu women above that in our Dharma, the
woman is not merely an adjunct or an associate of men. She is not just
that ‘extra rib’, or merely a ‘field that is watered by her husband’. She
and her male partner actually form a pair together, or rather, the husband
and wife form one whole.
We would do well to remember the following words from out texts –
Fathers, brothers, husbands and
brothers-in-law who desire their own good must honor and adorn their
women. Gods are pleased only where women are venerated. And where women
are not venerated, all the sacred rituals are futile.
A family whose women live in sorrow soon
perishes. The family whose women are happy always prospers. A household
whose unhappy women members curse soon perishes completely.
Five centuries ago,
Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru
“Man takes birth from
woman. Within woman does the creature’s body grow.
To a woman does a man
get engaged and married. Through her are established blood relations.
The cycle of births in
this world is sustained by women.
When a wife dies, the
desolate husband seeks another.
Indeed, through women
alone are all social connections maintained.
Therefore, why call
that woman inferior, from whom great emperors are born?
A woman is born only
from another woman (and never from a man).
None in this Universe
can take birth without a woman.
Nanak says – Only the
Eternal Lord is never born from a woman.”
These words above are
of eternal relevance. Whenever given a chance, Hindu women have shown
their mettle in all arenas of life, overcoming numerous social stigmas and
religious prejudices by their internal and innate Divine Shakti.
We cannot make the
Divine Mother into a Male God, because no man or woman can change the
eternal nature of the Supreme Being. But we can surely be more truthful to
the Divine Mother by taking steps to ensure that our women, who are Her
earthly manifestations, become Her reflections in the true sense – in all
Her Beauty, Power, Wisdom, Spirituality, Learning and Freedom. The
beatific smile that graces the face of Devi, must adorn the faces of all
our women. Otherwise our prayers to the Devi will remain mere
Brahman, the Supreme
Being, has already shown us the way by manifesting as the Divine Mother on
numerous occasions. ‘He’ has often bypassed men to honor his women
devotees. Hindu revelations, theology, ritual and philosophy have by and
large created and protected adequate ‘feminine space’. All women and men
are manifestations of God, and all are born from God.
Not just men, but women as well were created in the image of Supreme
Being. Ardhnaariishvara, our Lord or Lady is half feminine.
Therefore, how can we Hindus venerate Her one half and bear contempt
towards His other half? We pray to Devi that the social status of Hindu
women will continue to improve in future through internal reforms in the
Hindu society. May the Divine Mother guide us in the right direction!
vidmahe kanyakumaari dhiimahi |
Numerous websites and books have been consulted for this brief
compilation, but the following deserve a special mention:
Tribute to Hinduism:
A beautiful website set up by Sushama Londhe, a Hindu woman, as a labor of
http://www.atributetohinduism.com . Numerous pictures and a lot of
material from this website has been used in this compilation.
following website of Dakshina Kannada Philately and Numismatic
Association provided several pictures of postage stamps used in this
Narayanan provided information on illustrious Hindu Queens in
South East Asia
whereas Dasharath Lohar pointed out the role of Princess Bhrikuti of
Nepal and also
supplied a useful book.
Send your views to author
Gautama Dharmasutra 2.57; Yajnavalkya Smriti 1.33; Mahabharata
Taittiriya Upanishad 1.11.2
The famous Banda Bahadur (d. 1713) became an ascetic out of remorse
when he discovered that the dear he had killed with his arrow was
There are of course many other symbolic reasons for the exalted status
of Gaumata (mother cow) in Hindu Dharma, details of which are beyond
the scope of this compilation.
J. B. Chaudhari. “The Position of Mother in the Vedic Ritual”, in
Indian Historical Quarterly, vol. XIV, Dec. 1938, pp. 822-830
Vasishtha Dharmasutra 13.47; Gautama Dharmasutra 20.1 etc.
Hiranyakeshin Grhyasutra 220.127.116.11; Shankhayana Grhyasutra 3.13.5
The preference for male children over female children manifests in
many ways. For instance, studies conducted in the United States show
that couples with daughters are more likely to divorce than those with
sons. And single mothers with daughters are more likely to remarry
than those with sons.
This rite is called ‘Pumsavana’. Of course, it is useless from
a scientific perspective because the sex of the child is determined
right at the moment of conception. The rite has fallen into disuse for
quite sometime now and is not now performed.
However, traditional commentators do emphasize that the same rite may
be performed for birth of daughters by merely changing the gender or
other things through a standard ritual technique called ‘Uuha’. See J.
B. Chaudhari. “The Significance of the Vedic Rite Pumsavana”, in
Indian Historical Quarterly, vol. XIV, Dec. 1938, pp. 831-835
For instance poet Bhavabhuti
The ceremony is called ‘kanyaadaana’ or the ‘gift of one’s
daughter’ and is regarded as the greatest of all acts of ‘charity’.
However, Hindu scriptures are quick to emphasize that the ‘gift’ of
daughters is merely a religious formality and it does not imply at all
that women are commodities that can be sold and purchased (cf. Purva
Mimamsa Sutras 6.1.15). Manusmriti 9.93 explicitly prohibits sale of a
daughter. Likewise, Manusmriti 3.53 promises hell for parents and
other relatives who sell their daughter in exchange for commodities as
if she were a piece of property.
E.g., Matsya Purana 154.497 where Himaachala is filled with grief when
his daughter Devi Parvati leaves her home after marrying Shiva.
E.g., Manusmriti 9.130. A similar verse is also cited at Nirukta 3.4
and the accent marks indicates that it is quoted from a lost Vedic
Ashvalayana Grhyasutra 1.7.4; Apastamba Grhyasutra 4.12
Devapala’s commentary on Kathaka Grhyasutra 25.45
J. B. Chaudhari. “The Significance of the Vedic Rite Pumsavana”, in
Indian Historical Quarterly, vol. XIV, Dec. 1938, pp. 831-835
Apastamba Grhyasutra 6.15.12-13
Matsya Purana 154.414-417
cf. Devibhagavata Purana 7.30
Aitareya Brahmana 7.13
Yajurvedic Maitrayani Samhita 4.6.4; 4.7.9. These passages merely mean
that whereas a newly born son is lifted up by his father for
‘showing’, the daughter is not shown and is placed down. At worse,
these passages could indicate dejection at the birth of a daughter,
nothing more. For a reasonable interpretation of all such passages
explaining the ritual purpose of this custom, and for a rejection of
contrary views, refer –
J B Chaudhuri,
“The Position of the Daughter in the Vedic Ritual”, in New Indian
Antiquary (May 1941), pp. 77-85
e.g., Rigveda 10.27.12
Ironically, while this seems to have solved the problem in India to a
considerable extent, western countries such as the United States are
currently beset with the problem of teenage pregnancies.
Such as Veena Talwar Oldenburg
Shatapath Brahmana 18.104.22.168
Shatapath Brahmana 22.214.171.124
Conversely, society also unfairly blamed her if she became a widow due
to her husband’s premature death. Unfortunately, women often turned
out to be the worst oppressors of such grieving widows.
Madhyandina Shatapath Brahmana 126.96.36.199
Taittiriya Brahmana 188.8.131.52; Manusmriti 9.26
Maadhaviya Shankaradigvijaya 2.14
Rigveda 8.31.5-9; See Shabarswami’s commentary on Purvamimamsa Sutra
6.9.17; Siddhantakaumudi on Ashtadhyayi 4.1.33 etc.
Taittiriya Brahmana 184.108.40.206
Taittiriya Brahmana 220.127.116.11
E.g., Atharavaveda 9.5.27; Rigveda 10.40.2
Baudhayana Dharmasutra 4.1.16; Vasishtha Dharmasutra 17.19-20 etc.
Parashara Smriti 4.30; Garuda Purana 107.28; Agni Purana 154.5
Manusmriti 5.158; 5.162; Apastamba Dharmasutra 2.6.13-14
N K Dutt, “Widow in Ancient India”, in The Indian Historical
Quarterly, vol. XIV.4 (December 1938), pp. 661-679
The situation was particularly alarming in Bengal in the 19th
century, where certain ‘high’ Brahmin families extensively practiced
polygamy and married girls to much older grooms. So pitiable was the
condition of widows in some sections of the Hindus society in the 19th
century that the Hindu reformer Dayanand Sarasvati (1824-1883)
lamented – “The extremely distressful state of India is due to the
curse of (oppressed) widows and Sudras.”
This term with the meaning attached to it currently itself is a
colonial invention. Older texts mention it by other names such as
anumarana, sahagamana etc.
Ram Kumar Chaube, India as Told by the Muslims, Prithivi
Prakashan, Varanasi (1969), pp. 233-234
It may be noted that upon the death of a King, several of his servants
and retainers also sometimes committed suicide. For the accounts of
foreigners on this practice see - Ashok Kumar Srivastava, India as
Described by the Arab Travellers, Sahitya Sansar Prakashan,
Gorakhpur (1967), pp. 42-43
See “Anant Sadashiv Altekar, 1938, The Position of Women in Hindu
Civilization, Culture Publication House, Banaras Hindu University”
for an estimate.
Shatapath Brahman 18.104.22.168
Brahmavaivarta Purana, Prakriti Khanda 16.61-67
In a particularly large-scale instance, some 24,000 women of the Hindu
kingdom of Jaisalmer committed mass-suicide just before it was sacked
by Muslims in 1295 CE, to avoid falling into their hands. See – Enrica
Garzilli, “First Greek and Latin Documents on Sahagamana and Some
Connected Problems (Part I)”, in Indo-Iranian Journal, vol. 40:
205-243 (1997), endnote no. 2
cf. Mahabharata XIII.46
Today, Sikhism is considered a separate religion although Hindus
consider the Sikh Gurus very much a part of our Dharmic tradition.
Atharvaveda (Paippalada) Samhita 8.9.11
Durga Gayatri mantra, Taittiriya Aranyaka 1.33
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