Read this comprehensive essay about the social status and importance of women in Vedic and Post-Vedic Period of India.
Male and Female, the two basic components of our human society, depend upon each other and each one of them constitutes about half of the population. Over years sociologists and other scholars have tried to assess the problems faced by women and to study changes in their status around the globe in general and in Indian society in particular. We find that man and woman have been established as the two wheels of a chariot.
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The status represents the position of individual in the group. The word status denotes the position of an individual in a system with attendant rights and duties. It is the position which the individual occupies in the group by virtue of his or her sex, age, family, occupation, marriage and achievement.
The status of women refers to her position in the network of social role structure, privileges, rights and duties. It refers to her rights and duties in family and social life. The status of a woman is generally measured in the comparative amount of prestige and respect accorded to her with that of man.
The status of Hindu women in India has been fluctuating. It has gone through several changes during various historical stages. Historically speaking, women in India have passed through two phases of their life – the period of subjugation and the period of liberation. At times she has been suppressed and oppressed and at times she is regarded as the deity of the home. From the Vedic age till today, her status and position has been changing with the passing of time.
Therefore, it is necessary to analyse the status of Hindu women in the various ages to assess her real position today.
The Rig-Vedic society was a free society. The Aryans evidently preferred male child to female child. However, females were as free as their male counterparts. Education was equally open for boys and girls. Girls studied the Veda and fine arts. Women never observed purdha in the Vedic period. They enjoyed freedom in selecting their mates. But divorce was not permissible to them. In the family, they enjoyed complete freedom and were treated as Ardhanginis.
In domestic life women were considered to be supreme and enjoyed freedom. Home was the place of production. Spinning and weaving of clothes was done at home. Women helped their husbands in agricultural pursuits also. Husband used to consult his wife on financial matters.
Unmarried daughters had share in their fathers’ property. Daughter had full legal rights in the property of her father in the absence of any son. Mother’s property, after her death, was equally divided among sons and unmarried daughters. However, married women had no share in father’s property. As a wife, a woman had no direct share in her husband’s property. A widowed mother had some rights.
The woman was regarded as having an equally important share in the social and religious life because a man without woman was considered as an inadequate person. She regularly participated in religious ceremonies with her husband. There were many scholars who composed hymns of Rig Veda. Lopamudra, Gargi and Maitreye were the pioneers among them. Lopamudra, the wife of Agasti rishi, composed two verses of Rig Veda.
It may be concluded that during vedic period the status of women was not unequal to that of men. Women got the same education as men and participated in the philosophical debates.
Prabhu has remarked,
“This shows that men and women were regarded as having equally important status in the social life of the early period’.
Women had equal rights in social and religious fields but had limited rights in economic field.
Status of Women in the Epics:
Epic age, in the history of female freedom, may be regarded as a golden age. Women had been accorded an honorable status in the society. Most of the female characters of Ramayana and Mahabharata were well educated.
The Ramayana illustrates the Hindu ideal women of India. In Mahabharata we find instances where women gave counsel and advice to men on social and religious issues. Women had an effective role in social and political life of the then society.
A general survey of the Puranas reveals that the position of women declined in the corresponding age.
Status of Women in the Smritis:
While speaking about woman and her relation to man, Manu says “Women must always be honoured and respected by the father, brother, husband and brother-in-law who desire their own welfare, and where women are honoured, there the very Gods are pleased, but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite even could yield rewards”.
Manu observes that the family, in which women suffer, is bound to be ruined, while the family in which women are happy is bound to prosper. He further enjoins that every person is to maintain peace with the female members of the household. He also advises every householder to treat his daughter as the highest object of tenderness and honour mother as the most venerable person in the world.
On the other hand we find a number of provisions in the Manu Smriti, which certainly go against her interests.
Women are deprived of the Upanayana ceremony and thereby of education. Manu relegates her to an entirely subservient position. He preaches self-negation as the highest ideal of a wife. She is asked to serve and worship her husband even if he is not a person of all virtue and character. Since service and worship of the husband are the primary duties of a wife, by so performing she can hope to attain heaven.
Manu deprives women of her economic rights also. He says, “A wife, a son and a Slave, these three are declared to have no property, the wealth which they earn is for him to whom they belong”.
It appears that Manu had a very poor opinion about women. According to him women should be guarded against her evil inclinations. Otherwise she will bring sorrow to both the families. He also observes that if a woman is chaste, it is because she has not found a proper man, place and opportunity. He, therefore, calls her a ‘Pramada a temptress. So, he wants woman to be under the surveillance of father in her childhood, her husband in her youth and her sons after the death of her husband. He declares in unequivocal terms that no woman deserves independence.
There are two schools of thought regarding the status of women in ancient India. One school has described women as the ‘equals of men’, while the other school holds that women were held not only in disrespect but even in positive hatred.
Status of Women in the Buddhist Period:
Many evil social practices, like the practice of prepuberty marriages, denial of right of women to education and also to mate selection etc were imposed on women during the periods of Brahmans and Puranas.
In the Buddhist period, the position of women improved to some extent. In the religious field, women came to occupy a distinctly superior place. They had their own Sangha called Bhikshuni ‘Sangha’, which provided avenues of cultural activities and social services. They got ample opportunities in public life. However, their economic status remained unchanged.
Status of Women in Medieval Period:
According to ancient Hindu texts and tradition, until about 500 B.C. women in India enjoyed considerable freedom. But dur.ng the next thousand years, women’s position gradually deteriorated. Educational and religious parity was denied to them and widow remarriage was forbidden.
In fact, the status of women started degenerating in the post-Vedic age because of the conception of purity and pollution and restrictions of inter-caste marriages. Child marriage had started in the Smriti age. During this period, a woman’s husband was regarded as God. During the middle ages, the position of women in Hindu society further degenerated. A number of problems arose for Hindu women in the Mughal period.
The first Muslim invasion took place in India in the eighth century. During this period the Hindu society was engaged in evolving, under the leadership of Sankaracharya, a technique to face the expanding Buddhism. Sankaracharya re- emphasised the supremacy of Vedas to counter the spread of Buddhism, and the Vedas had given a status of equality to women. India experienced a second Muslim invasion in the eleventh century when Mohammad Ghazni conquered India. From this period till the middle of the eighteenth century, when the British rule was established in the country the breakdown of social institutions, the vast migration of people and the economic depression in the country contributed to a general decline of social life, particularly among women.
The ‘Purdah’ system was followed which resulted in seclusion of women. Education of women in whatever form came to be stopped. Child marriage was started. During this period the inhuman practice of ‘Sati Pratha was in vogue. Purdah Pratha, Sati Pratha, child marriage, girl killing, polygamy etc. were the main social evils of this period.
However, during the fifteenth century, the situation underwent some change. The Bhakti movement organised by Ramanujacharya during this period introduced new trends in the social and religious life of Indian women. The saints like Chaitanya, Nanak, Kabir, Meera, Ramdas and Tulsi stood for the right of women to religious worship. Hence, this movement, atleast, provided religious freedom to women.
As a result of this freedom, they secured certain social freedom also. The saints encouraged women to read religious books and to educate themselves. Although the Bhakti movement gave a new life to women, this movement did not bring any substantial change in economic status of women. Hence, women continued to hold low status in the society.
The early Vedic period is marked by the infiltration of Aryan peoples into the Indian sub-continent and their interaction with the Dravidian people. Aryans spread into the Ganges River valley about 1000 B.C.E. About that time, they developed the use of iron tools and weapons. They used iron axes to clear forests for agriculture; and as their agricultural practices flourished, their population grew immensely. As their populations grew, their political structure evolved also. The local chiefdoms became kingdoms ruled by kings in permanent cities. These kings depended on the services of professional administrators to handle the day to day tasks of governance. Still, they did not establish large states. Only in the 4th century B.C.E. did any Aryan state equal the size of Harappan society.
During the early Vedic age, the Aryans placed substantial reliance on sacrifice of animals to their gods. It was believed that during sacrifice, the gods visited earth, and joined worshipers in eating and drinking. Since the presence of the gods was deemed beneficial, sacrifice became almost non-stop. A proper household would have the Brahmins offer sacrifices not less than five times per day; a process that was expensive and time consuming.
In time, the practice grew old and the people disenchanted. A number of people began retreating to the woodlands to live as hermits and contemplate the relationship between people, the world, and the gods. A number of them were inspired by Dravidian practice. The Dravidians had worshiped spirits associated with fertility and the generation of new life. They had also believed that human souls took on a new physical form after death, either as another human, or even as a plant or animal.
The combination of Dravidian and Aryan religious ideas culminated in the Upanishads, (literally, "sitting in front of," as a student sits in front of a master to receive instruction,) a group of religious works that appeared over a period of time. The Upanishads taught that individual humans were in fact part of a greater universal soul known as the Brahman. The Brahman was unchanging and universal, whereas human existence was in a constant state of flux. The individual soul lived in a cycle of reincarnation, in which he would die and be reborn as another person, animal, or plant. This reincarnation was known as karma. This cycle was not completely desirable, as it involved a continuation of the suffering and death all humans encountered. The ultimate goal was to break the cycle and enter into a permanent union with Brahman, sort of a "heavenly state."
The teachings of the Upanishads either purposely or inadvertently justified the caste system, as one in a higher caste was believed to have lived a virtuous life in his previous existence, and vice versa. They spoke against gluttony, vice, materialism and failure to consider one’s relationship with Brahman; and also encouraged personal integrity. A healthy respect for all living things, animal and human, was also encouraged. Even though animals represented souls who had suffered from their past life, they should not be caused additional suffering; therefore a vegetarian diet became the norm for all who practiced the religion.