The Status of Women in India

1500 to 600 B.C.

The Age of the Atharva, Sama and Yajur Vedas

Freedom of marriage continued and remarriage of widows was allowed. The sale of a daughter was known but viewed with extreme disfavor. Dowry system was continued but not in the sense that we understand today. The marriage ceremony was the same as in the previous period except that the girl had to mount a stone before the boy caught her hand. As in the previous period, the picture of an ideal family life continued.

Gradually, religious ceremonies were mostly conducted by the priests which resulted in the wife losing her preeminent position in the household. This was the period during which the importance of rituals and Brahmans increased.

Desire for sons continued but Sati system was not prevalent. Net net, the position of women was not as high as it was in the Rig Vedic period. Female workers were involved in dying, embroidery and basket making.

The Age of the Upanishads

The anuloma system of marriage i.e., between the male of a higher caste and female of a lower caste prevailed during this period. The rules of Panini regarding Abhi-vadana (salutation as a mark of respect to elderly persons in the house) show that the presence of wives of the lower caste in a house and their association with ladies of a higher caste brought down the general level of womanly culture and led to a deterioration in their status.

The Grihya-sutras give detailed rules regarding the proper seasons for marriage, along with the qualifications of bride and bridegroom. The various stages of a marriage ceremony are:

1. The wooers formally go to a girl’s house.
2. When the potential bride’s father gives his formal consent, the groom performs a sacrifice.
3. Early in the morning of the first day of marriage celebrations, the bride is bathed.
4. A sacrifice is offered by the high priests of the bride’s family and a dance of 4-8 women takes place as part of the Indrani Karman.
5. The groom goes to the girl’s house and gifts a garment and a mirror to the bride who has been bathed earlier.
6. Following this, the Kanya-pradana, formal giving away of the bride takes place.
7. The clasping of the bride’s right hand by the groom’s own right hand takes place.
8. The treading on stone.
9. The leading of the bride round the fire by the groom.
10. The sacrifice of the fried grains.
11. The Saptapadi i.e., the couple walking seven steps together as a symbol of their livelong concord.
12. Finally, the bride is taken to her new house.
13. After the bride came home, the couple is expected to observe celibacy for three days after which the marriage was consummated. The logic was to emphasize at the outset that self-control is a crucial part of married life.

The bride was at a mature age, over 15 or 16. The elaborate rites indicate that marriage was a holy bond and not a contract.

The women held an honored position in the household. They was allowed to sing, dance and enjoy life. Sati was not generally prevalent. Widow remarriage was allowed under certain circumstances. On a whole, the Dharma-sutras took a more lenient attitude than the Smritis of a later age. The Apastamba imposed several penalties on a husband who unjustly forsakes his wife. On the other hand, a wife who forsakes her husband had to perform penance only. In case a grown up girl was not married at a proper time by her father, she could choose her husband after three years of waiting.

The most pleasing feature of this period was the presence of women teachers, many of whom possessed highest spiritual knowledge. The famous dialogue between Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi and Gargi Vachaknavi show how enlightened the women of that age were. According to the Sarvanukramanika, there were as many as 20 women among the authors of the Rig Veda. These stories stand in contrast to the later age when the study of Vedic literature was forbidden to women under most severe penalty.

Birth of a Daughter Unwelcome

As in all patriarchal societies during that age, the birth of a daughter was unwelcome. The son lived with his parents, earned money for the family, protected the family from enemies and perpetuated the name of the family. However, the latter’s birth was not considered so bad. One of Upanishads recommends a ritual for ensuring the birth of a scholarly daughter. Although it did not become as popular as the one for the birth of a son, it indicates the parents of that culture eager for daughters. During this period, the daughters could be initiated into Vedic studies and could offer sacrifices to Gods, the son was absolutely not necessary. The importance of ancestor worship by sons led to a decline in the importance of daughters.

The feeling of dejection on the birth of a daughter did not lead to female infanticide in ancient India. This custom crept into India during the medieval period. Once the disappointment on the birth of a daughter was over, the family did not distinguish between their son and daughter.

In subsequent periods, growing incidence of Sati meant that parents saw their daughters jumping on to funeral pyres or if she became a widow, live a chaste life since widow remarriage was not permitted. In such an environment, becoming a daughter’s parent was a source of misery.

In the post Vedic period, the professions open to woman in higher sections of society were teaching, medical doctors, and business. They suffered from no disabilities in doing business and could even pledge their husband’s credit and enter into contracts on their behalf.

Purdah system was not prevalent during this period. There is nothing in our tradition or literature to suggest that the father/elder brother in-law could not see the face of the daughter-in-law

Man is only one half”, says a Vedic passage; he is not complete till he is united with his wife and gives birth to children. The husband is to treat his wife as his dearest friend. According to a Veda, “The wife is a companion friend of a man.” The Mahabharata and Buddhist thinkers concur with this view.

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