The Status of Women in India

600 B.C. to 320 A.D.

Marriage between same castes was preferred although inter-caste marriages were prevalent. Out of the eight forms of marriage prescribed by the Dharma-sutras, the Arhsa form of marriage was the most popular. In this form, the father wed his daughter after receiving a cow and a bull or two pairs from the bridegroom. The bridegroom was selected by the girl’s father or guardian.

According to Nearchus, “Indians marry without giving or taking dowries but the girls, as soon as they are marriageable, are brought forward by their fathers and exposed in public, to be selected by a person who excels in some form of physical exercise”. This indicates a modified form of Svayamvara.

During this period, there was a tendency to marry girls before they attained puberty. It was probably due to the anxiety to maintain the purity of their body. Lowering of marriage age affected their education and culture adversely. At the age of learning and studying, girls were married. Extreme emphasis was now laid on the physical chastity of women which discouraged widow remarriage, divorce and encouragement of sati.

During this period, India faced its first foreign invasion by Greeks.

During the earlier part of this period, there were highly educated women holding an honorable position in society and household. There were lifelong students of sacred texts or those who pursued their study till marriage. Women also received training in arts, music, painting, along with some military training. Female bodyguards are mentioned in Kautilya’s Arthasastra. Buddhist and Jain nuns renounced the world for the sake of spiritual salvation. Jain texts refer to Jayanti who carried on discussions with Mahavira and went on to become a nun.

Inspite of the progress, there were growing disabilities. Earlier the girls went through the Upanayana ceremony but now it was only a formality. Manu laid down that marriage was equal to Upanayana while Yajnavalkya took the step of prohibiting Upanayana ceremony for girls. The wife who performed Vedic sacrifices was denied the right to do so. Narada was however, more considerate towards women.

Greek writers have stated that sati existed, though vaguely in Punjab, possibly confined to the warrior class only.

Women courtesans were not looked down by religious leaders or kings. Some of them were highly accomplished and in the point of culture, resembled the Hetairai of Athens. A famous courtesan Amrapali, who lived during the reign of Bimbisara (300 to 273 B.C.) was a beauty whom Buddha visited.

Social customs are a product of the environment we live in. India had never seen, till 327 B.C., an invasion like the Greeks.

Freedom fighter and writer K.M. Munshi quoted, “About the beginning of the Christian era, perhaps under the influence of foreigners, the spiritual disenfranchisement of women began. Rituals came to be performed without the Vedic mantras; the Vedic sacrifices were tabooed for the wife. Widow Remarriage and divorce were discouraged. On the other hand, Kautilya, in the matters of divorce, placed man and women on an equal footing. But as people with lax morals came into the social framework on account of the expanding frontiers of Dharma, the marital tie assumed greater sanctity”.

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