Hindu women as life partner

  • By Dr Usha Kapoor
  • August 2005

Copyright Prabuddha Bharata     

Hinduism regards man and woman as the two halves of the eternal Being, each constituting a vibrant, existential part, quite incomplete in itself. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Prajapati, the primordial God, divides himself into two-man and woman, the symbols of cosmic polarity deriving sustenance from the same source.1 In the cosmic scheme man represents Purusha (the Person, Spirit) and woman Prakriti (Nature, Primal Matter), both of whom unite to keep the world going. So goes the Vedic verse: ‘I am He, you are She; I am song, you are verse; I am heaven, you are earth. We two shall here together dwell becoming parents of children.’2

The Matrimonial Ideal
Marriage is the coalescence of complementary opposites for pleasure, progeny and self-fulfillment. The cosmic model of the marriage of Surya, the daughter of the Sun, with the Asvina twins (who defeated the prime suitor, Soma, in a racing contest) determines the praxis of the Hindu concept in this respect.3 Being equal halves of one essence, husband and wife are parents in joy and sorrow and in the fulfillment of the fourfold aim of life-dharma (ethical perfection), artha (material advancement), kama (pleasure) and moksha (liberation). Neither is superior to the other as each has different natural functions to perform and social obligation to fulfill. Hinduism expects the partners to shed their individual identities to become one at the physical, mental and psychical levels before transmuting the material relationship into a spiritual one. Says the Rig Veda in the context of ‘Surya Vivaha’: Bless now this bride, O bounteous Lord, cheering her heart with the gift of brave sons. Grant her ten sons; her husband make the eleventh’ (10.85.45).

Nowhere do the Vedas say that woman is man’s property, as she came to be considered in certain periods of history. Nor it is enjoined that her role shall be subordinated to that of her husband. This is evident from the sukta of Surya’s bridal in the Rig Veda: Enter your house as the household’s mistress. May authority in speech ever be yours!’ 10.85.26).’Watch over this house as mistress of the home. Unite yourself wholly with your husband’ (10.85.27). ‘Here dwell ye, be not parted; enjoy full age, play and rejoice with sons and grandsons in your own house’ (10.85.42). ‘Act like a queen over your husband’s father, over your husband’s mother likewise, and his sister. Over all your husband’s brothers be queen’ (10.85.46).

In the Hindu rite of marriage, when the bridegroom holds the hand of the bride, he in a way promises his companionship on equal terms. When he asks her to tread on the stone, he wants her to be strong like it and not show weakness of any kind in any situation. ‘Resist the enemies; overcome those who attack you.’4 Subsequent rites of marriage like the oblation of parched grain, circumambulation of fire and the tacking of seven steps by the bride are equally dignifying for the girl. After the seventh step is taken the bridegroom tells her that they have come closer to each other. ‘With seven steps we become friends. Let me not be severed from your friendship. Let not your friendship be severed from me’.5 Obviously  ‘friendship implies equality, not submission.’ Before the departure of the bride from her parental home, the bridegroom touches her heart and reiterates the same feelings, adding that the Lord God has brought them together: ‘I hold your heart in serving fellowship. …You are joined to me by the Lord of all creatures.’ After reaching her husband’s home, the bridegroom makes her look at the polar star after sunset and exhorts her to ‘be firm with me’ ‘bear children’ and stay together ‘a hundred years’ (1.8.19).

All this shows in an ideal Hindu marriage the girl is not a commodity but a respectable human being. Although monogamy is preferred and divorce discouraged, as the couple is believed to be united for ever in this and the next world, the smrtikaras and other like Kautilya allow the dissolution of some forms of marriage such as the brahma, daiva, arsa and prajapati with the consent of both parties in certain circumstances.

An Equal Half        
The Hindu woman as life partner has a fourfold character: she is ardhangini, one half of the her husband, metaphorically speaking; sahadharmini, an associate in the fulfillment of human and divine goals; sahakarmini, a part to all her husband’s action and sahayogini, a veritable cooperator in all his ventures. Husband and wife together are called dampati, joint owners of the household, sharing work in terms of their biological, psychological and individual dharma. The former provides the seed (bija) and the latter the field ( ksetra) for its fructification, so that humans could be perpetuate in the cosmic process of evolution. Both have the joint responsibility of helping their children grow in all respects, but the contribution of the wife is always immense.

As life partner the Hindu woman has equal right to participate in religious right to participate in religious rites and ceremonies; in fact, certain sacrifices like the Sita harvest sacrifice, the Rudrayaga for suitable sons-in-law or the Rudrabali sacrifice for material prosperity are performed by women alone. Hindu lawgivers like Gobhila and Asvalayana ordain that no ritual or sacrifice can be complete (sampurna) without the presence of the wife. Even Rama had to order for Sita’s statue in gold to make up for her absence during this asvamedha sacrifice. In the Ramayana, Rama’s mother Kausalya offers oblations to the fire god Agni and Tara performs the Svastyayana ritual for the success of her husband Vali against Sugriva. Women of those days were quite learned in the Vedic lore. Draupadi was a brahmavadini and Tara an adept at reciting mystic syllables. Oghavati, Arundhati and Sulabha possessed a thorough knowledge of the Vedas and imparted religious knowledge even to rishis. The spiritual attainments of Savitri and Anusuya have become legendary. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad one meets women of wisdom such as Maitreyi and Gargi. The former abandoned wealth for wisdom and the latter entered into a debate with sage Yajnavalkya at the court of King Janaka. Much later, Bharati, the wife of Mandana Misra, carried forward the tradition by acting as judge in the philosophic debate between her husband and Shankaracharya. When she found her husband losing the debate, she emphatically told Shankaracharya that his victory would be complete only if he could defeat her, since she constituted her husband’s better half.

The Vedas give a married woman the right to talk and debate independently. The wife is the home (jayedastam), says the Rig Veda.7 Besides, she is treasure house of happiness,8 a point elaborated by Manu in a much more explicit way: ‘Women must be honored and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands and brothers-in-law who desire (their own) welfare.’9 Where women are honoured, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honoured, no sacred rites yield rewards, (3.56). ‘Offspring, (due performance of) religious rites, faithful service, the highest conjugal happiness and heavenly bliss for the ancestors and oneself depend on one’s wife alone’ (9.28).

Manu declares that the perfect man is one who constitutes a trinity made up of his wife, himself and their offspring (9.95), The wife being a gift from the Gods (9.95),she ought to be supported to the end of her life. If Manu points out of seductive nature of women (2.213-4), he is equally unsure of the unbridled passion of men. He advises that wise men must not be in the company of even their own mothers, sisters or daughters in a lonely place, for they may deviate from the right path (2.215)! Manu regards woman as a precious unit of the family and of society but denies them absolute freedom due to their physical vulnerability. He, however, distinguishes between the noble and virtuous and the degenerate women, and like other smrtikaras, criticizes those who are faithless, fickle, sensuous, immodest, quarrelsome and loose. ‘Day and night women must be kept in dependence upon males and if the attached themselves to sensual enjoyments they must be kept under one’s control’ (9.2). Manu prescribes capital punishment for killers of women, exempts pregnant and old women from paying fines and suggests that as mater of courtesy, they should be given precedence when crossing the road.

Such is the protection given to the Hindu wife in the Dharmashastras that she cannot be abandoned by her husband even if she in dulges in sexual congress outside marriage or is raped. Both Devala and Yajanavalkya opine that a raped woman cannot be divorced as she becomes pure after menstruation. The latter adds that the wife can be abandoned if she conceives a baby from another person, kills a brahmin or insinuates against her husband; if she is a habitual drinker, suffers from prolonged illness, is cunning, treacherous, sterile, exceptionally extravagant, or uncouth. But even in these cases she should be fed and clad well and properly looked after.10 An abandoned woman without an issue or a male protector becomes a social responsibility, says Manu.11 If anyone grabs her property during her lifetime, that person deserves to be punished like a thief (8.29.352).
When Kalidasa wrote that women go the way of their husband as moonlight follows the moon or lightning the cloud,12 he meant thereby that they were not different from each other. The Hindu scriptures lay emphasis on harmony between husband and wife that is so essential for family peace and prosperity. Harmony requires understanding, which can only be among equals. In the Rig Veda, the couple jointly pray: ‘ May all Devas and Apas unite our hearts. May Matarisva, dhata, Destri all bind us close.’13 The highest duty of man and wife says Manu, is to be faithful to each other. While the supreme duty of the husband is to safeguard his wife, to care for her needs and necessities, and to keep her happy with gift and presents, the wife is expected to be pious and chaste, sincere and faithful to her partner, gentle, suave, skilled and sweet- tongued.

The Pativratya Ideal
The observance of the pativratya dharma by women is not tantamount to servility and subordination. Marital fidelity is greatly valued in the Hindu tradition as it leads to family harmony and bestows occult powers. A woman who sees the Lord in her husband and makes him her very life cannot deviate from the path of virtue; and virtue is power itself. There are many examples of Hindu women who as life partners made great sacrifices, underwent trials and tribulations, and some times showed their thaumaturgic powers born of chastity (satitva). Gandhari covered her eyes with a strip of cloth as her husband Dhritarashtra, the king of Hastinapura, was blind. Madri, one of Pandu’s wives, burnt herself on the funeral pyre of her husband, a practice which remained current in some Indian communities and regions down to the British period, when it was banned in 1829. Sita accompanied Rama to the forest during the days of his exile, kept her chastity intact while in the custody of Ravana, the king of Lanka, and went through the agni pariksa so that her husband could fulfil his raja dharma. Savitri confronted Yama, the god of death, and saved the life of her husband. Sati Anusaya turned the Hindu trinity of gods into children. Littérateurs like Kalidasa and Tulsidas became men of learning because of their wives. During the Muslim invasions, many women committed jauhar (the custom of entering a bonfire when the defeat of their menfolk was certain) in order to preserve their chastity. The resistance put up by Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi (widow of Gangadhar Rao) and the Rani of Ramgarh (widow of Raja Lachman Singh) against the British during the rising of 1857 has few parallels in history. Countless Hindu women participated along with their husbands in India’s struggle for independence.

Although the concept of pati-paramesvara (regarding one’s husband as god) has suffered an erosion in the wake of women’s empowerment, respect for the husband continues, as is evident from the observance by Hindu women of such traditional vows as Vata Savitri, Haritalika and Karka Chaturthi - all aimed at a long and happy conjugal life.

Nowhere do the accredited Hindu scriptures ordain that women should be abused, disgraced, chastised without reason or divorced in ordinary circumstances. Yet expectation from women as life partners have been many and varied. The best female partner, according to a popular Sanskrit adage, is one who renders advice like a minister, obeys like a maidservant, feeds like a mother, pleases like the nymph Rambha, acts as a veritable companion, and has the forbearance of Mother Earth.

1. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.4.3.
2. Atharva Veda, 14.2.71.
3. Rig Veda, 10.85.20-47.
4. Sankhyayana Grihya Sutras, 1.13.12.
5. Hiranyakeshi Grihya Sutras,
6. paraskara Grihya Sutras, 1.8.8.
7. Rig Veda, 3.53.4.
8. Atharva Veda,
9. Manu Smriti, 3.55.
10. Yajnavalkya Smriti, 1.72-4
11. Manu Smriti,8.28.
12. Kalidasa, Kumarasambhava, 4.33.
13. Rig Veda,10.85.47.

1. G Buhler, The Laws of Manu (New York: Dover,1969).
2. P V Kane, The History of Dharmashastra (Poona:Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1941).
3. Usha Kapoor, Women and Welfare : A Study of Voluntary Agencies (New Delhi : Indus,1995).
4. Raimundo Panikkar, The Vedic Experience: Mantramanjari (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1977).
5. Herman Oldenberg, Grihya Sutras (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1973).

Partner in Faith

The sage [-woman] placed her hand on the head of Sita and said: ‘It is a great blessing to possess a beautiful body; you have that. It is a greater blessing to have a noble husband; you have that. It is the greatest blessing to be perfectly obedient to such a husband; you are that. You must be happy.’

Sita replied, ‘Mother, I am glad that God has given me a beautiful body and that I have devoted a husband. But as to the third blessing, I do not know whether I obey him or he obeys me. One thing alone I remember, that when he took me by the hand before the sacrificial fire-whether it was a reflection of the fire or whether God himself made it appear to me-I found that I was his and he was mine. And since then, I have found that I am the complement of his life, and he of mine.’
      -Swami Vivekananda, ‘ The Women of India’  

Editor – I have always believed that India’s future is intertwined with the status accorded to her women. The more we respect her, the more she prospers the more India will progress. Unfortunately India’s attitude to women and sex is influenced by Victorian concepts and Islamic influence. Let us resolve to allow the Indian women to blossom!

Also read:
1. ‘A Tribute to the Indian Women’section History – the article traces the status of the Indian women from Vedic times to 1947.
2. Marriage Ceremony in English- section Ceremonies.

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