The importance and respect accorded to women in Hindu society can be gauged from Hindu icons that all Hindu gods have their spouse besides them on the same pedestal as theirs. They enjoy the same reverence as that of the God and are not mere objects of pleasure. Verses have been composed in the scriptures in praise of goddesses, and they are equally empowered to grant as much blessings and inflict curses as their spouse!
Since nomadic period, all over the world, by and large, females continued to look after indoor responsibilities, while males managed the external environment, but in Hindu society women had plenty of indoor as well as out-door freedom, since the Vedic and Epic age.
Females in Hindu society had equal opportunities and scope for individual development, especially in the field of religious, spiritual, social and artistic activities. They could study Vedas, become teachers or even ascetics if they wished. They could pursue study of subjects such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, or achieve expertise in performing arts like music, dance and drama. They could learn even martial arts and could accompany the males in battlefield. One noteworthy reference is available in Ramayana, when Queen Kaikeyi protected her wounded husband King Dasrath on battlefield, who made two standing promises to her. Even during Sanyasa Ashrama Sages and Rishis were accompanied by their wives. Arundhati, Gargi, Savitri, and Anusooya are few names of learned women mentioned as samples of feminine wisdom.
Special status granted to women in Hindu society can be gauged from the following verse of Sage Manu, the law giver:
यत्र नार्यस्तु पूज्यन्ते रमन्ते तत्र देवताः। यत्रैतास्तु न पूज्यन्ते सर्वास्तत्राफलाः क्रियाः।।
– (मनु स्मृति 3-56)
(Meaning – Gods reside in the abode where women are respected, but where women are insulted, all noble deeds and knowledge get destroyed)
Status of women in Hindu Society can be compared in contrast with some other faiths where women are nothing but confined to harems for the purpose of pleasure, and cannot be relied upon as a witness to testify an atrocity alleged against a man. They cannot join the men-folk even in prayers at public places. They are debarred from education also in certain faiths.
The Institution of Marriage
Nowhere women were sold, or forced into marriage in Hindu society. Unlike other societies, physical love and attraction do not form the basis of husband – wife relationship, but it the duty of each partner to love and care for the person one is married to. This is the stark difference in Hindu marriage and that in other societies. There was no divorce. Hindu marriage is not an act of contract, but a bond of perpetual relationship expanding the span of several lives of the couple.
In Hindu families, wife is called Dharampatni, since she is a spiritual partner of her husband. No religious ritual is complete without her participation. Hinduism considers Moksha as the ultimate goal of human life including women. The paths prescribed for the attainment of Moksha is identical for males and females. Purity, self-control, devotion and austerity are as much necessary for women as for men.
Mostly parents arranged the marriages for their sons and daughters, but Hindu women had right to choose their life partner through Swaymvar also. However, in Hindu society, a shameless woman is considered to be a Sarupnakha, despite her physical charms and family status. Women violating the norms of their society and family suffer, and the same has been well depicted in Ramayana. Sita, the ideal home-maker also had to suffer when she stepped out of the limits of the house-hold dictate, even for giving alms to Ravana in disguise as a hermit. She had to undergo Agni-parikhsha for making re-entry to the household.
Since ancient times, Hindu society was liberal enough to have recognized Gandharva Vivah, implying marriage without formal rituals, but there is no sanction for living in kind of relationship even today.
There are instances of inter-caste marriages also in Hindu scriptures. Maharishi Ved Vyasa, the compiler of Vedas was a love-child of Rishi Prashara and Satyawati, the daughter of a fisherman. Satyawati was subsequently married to King Shantanu, on the condition that the eldest son born to the couple shall succeed Shantnu on throne, instead of Shantanu’s previous son Bheeshama. In another incidents, Demon Guru Shukracharya’s daughter Devyayani was married to Kshatriya king Yayati; and Rishi Kanva’s adopted daughter Shakuntala was also married to King Dushyanta through Gandharva Vivah. Similarly Pandava princes Bheema was married to Rakshasa girl Hidamba, and Arjuna was married to Naga princess Ulupi.
Role of Homemaker
Hinduism does not shut its eyes to the differences that do exist between men and women, biological as well as temperamental. In reality women differ profoundly from men. Every one of her body cells bears the mark of her sex. Thus Hindu society has divided the areas of activity between males and females, depending upon their physical characteristics resulting in slightly different modes of life and discipline.
As per Hinduism the family sustains the strength of every society, and women play the pivotal role in the family. The role model placed before the Hindu women is that of the ideal Home Maker (Grihini), who is expected to be an ideal wife, an ideal friend, and an ideal mother – all rolled into one. Role models for Hindu womanhood are of Sita, Savitri, Damayanti and Gandhari, and not the likes of Helen, Juliet or Laila. Women can mould themselves as Lakshami, as a householder, as Sarsawati in the form of learned, and Durga as social reformer and defender of the oppressed.
There are several incidents in Purana as well as in history, where women such as Shakuntala, and Jijabai raised their sons against odds, when separated from the husband.
Conflict with Western Culture
The impact of western civilization has caused confusion on the role of women today. Some women seem to be getting discontented with their role of child-bearing and home making. They wish to devote to some other outdoor activity. Consequently, hotels are slowly replacing homes. In the name of economic independence, life is tending to become more and more hectic, irregular, and even vagrant. Children are being brought up in child caring centers and thus being deprived the affection of caring mothers.
Modern Hindu woman is coming into conflict with her own inner nature. One can look around in his neighborhood to assess for himself that the upbringing of children is better organized where wife has donned the role of home maker, in comparison to the couple in external competition.
Companion, not Competitor
The division of duties all over the world followed a pattern that while males generated resources, females conserved and put them to optimal use of the family. However, of late some activists propagating gender equality between males and females are misleading Hindu society towards aping of Westernized identity for the role of women. Thus instead of being companions, women are being put up as competitors to men.
The irony is that every ‘liberated woman’ also desires to have a husband who is ‘superior to her’ in all attributes. This reality proves the point!
The remedy lies in resorting to the kind of female education with natural role of women as its center. All other training should be secondary to this role that nature has prescribed for their gender. In Hindu household freedom for development was available to Women in India since Vedic age. Such facility was not available to women in other parts of the world till beginning of twentieth century. Today Indian women can contest for all the seats in Parliament and can enjoy total empowerment.
Chand K Sharma
(Next: Splashes – 25/72 –Sati and Female Infanticide)