The Status of Women in India

320 to 750 A.D.

Marriage: There was a growing tendency to lower the marriageable age of girls with girls being married before or after puberty. Marriage within the same caste was preferred but prohibited within certain degrees of relationship. A young man could, under special circumstances, apply himself to winning the girl of his choice by courtship and wooing, followed by a gradual winning of the girl’s confidence.

Education: Girls of high families had adequate opportunities for acquiring Proficiency in higher learning. In Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, instances of princesses are mentioned whose intellect was sharpened by knowledge of the Shasatras. The literary evidence of the Gupta age proves that girls of high families and those living in hermitages read works on ancient history and legend. Girls living in royal courts were trained in singing and dancing too.

The Ideal Wife: Vatsyanana draws a picture of a good wife which may be taken as a reflection of the real life during that period. When a woman is the only wife, she has to devote herself to him as if he were a deity. She must be fully devoted, take care of his comforts and attend festivities with his permission. She has to honor her husband’s friends and look after his parents. Apart from looking after his friends and family, she had to take complete charge of the household. In case of the presence of a co-wife, she looked upon her as her younger sister or mother, depending on her own age.

The Widow in the Gupta period lived a chaste and austere life prescribed by the Smritis. Sati was extolled by some but strongly disapproved by others. In the absence of any reference by the Chinese travelers, it would be correct to believe that the custom was not widely prevalent during this period. Remarriage of widows, though disfavored, was not forbidden.

General Status of Women: Due to a lowering of the age of marriage, girls were not educated as before. This reduced the position and status of women. Brides being too young, had no say in choosing their partners. Love marriages were a thing of the past. During this period, marriage became an irrevocable union, but it was one sided, in favor of the husband. Since women were not as educated as before, they did not have knowledge about their rights. Among the most striking changes were increased recognition of the women’s right to property in Katyayana and a remarkable rule in Atri that allowed women molested by robbers to regain their social status. Some women enjoyed political power e.g. Prabhavati Gupta, daughter of Chandra-Gupta II, who ruled the Vakataka kingdom on behalf of her son, in the 4th century A.D.

Veil: Available literature seem to indicate that married women in higher families did not usually appear in public without veils. The silence of Hiuen Tsang indicates that women in general did not observe the Purdah or remain in seclusion.

Reasons for Deterioration in the status of women from 500 B.C. to 500 A.D.

The status of women deteriorated considerably during this period. With time and progress, one would expect their condition to improve but in this case, it was the opposite.

One, the introduction of slavery revolutionised the position of women in the classical period of Greek history and they seemed to have lost esteem in the society. A similar thing happened in India when a semi-servile status came to be assigned to the Sudra class whose only duty was service of the higher castes. Over time and due to various factors, the cases of inter-caste marriages started increasing during the period of 1000 to 500 B.C. The introduction of non-Aryan women into the Aryan household was the starting point to the deterioration in a women’s status. Having said that, it was non- Aryan mothers that gave birth to Veda Vyasa and Krishna.

Two, unfamiliar with religious customs, rituals and sanskriti, the non-Aryan wife would have goofed, making the priests angry. In love with his wife, the Aryan man overlooked the shortcomings in his wife. But what about the priests? To avoid this problem, it was decided that the whole class of woman were ineligible for Vedic studies and religious duties.

Three, another reason was that Vedic sacrifices became complex, making it difficult for the wife to have mastery over them. In the Vedic age, a young woman would take a Soma stalk and proceed straight to offer it to Indra in a sacrifice performed by all by herself. But things became more complex with time. In the Vedic age, she would get married by the time she was 16-17 years old by which she could devote 6-7 years to study but to know all the rituals etc., she would have to marry around 22-24 years i.e., about 12 years of study. This was impractical at that point of time. This, plus an increase in the desire for a son led to a lowering of the marriage age of girls which, in turn discouraged their education. Although the view that women must not be allowed to perform sacrifices was opposed by parts of society, but its vigorous advocacy by one school coupled with a lowering of the marriage age led to the neglect of the Vedic education of girls.

Four, the period of 500 years from 200 B.C. to 300 AD was very dark for Northern India. First came the Greeks (190 to 150 B.C.), Scythians and Parthians (100 B.C. to 50 A.D.). These barbarians were followed by the Kushanas in the 2nd century A.D. Political reverses, war reverses, and the decline of prosperity produced a wave of despondency all around.

The ascetic ideal of the Upanishads, Buddhism and Jainism which was opposed by Hindu society earlier, began to get a real hold over social mind owing to the prevailing wave of despondency at the beginning of the Christian era. It strengthened the hands of those who were opposed to widow remarriage. A woman was to lead a chaste life, to aim for salvation, and follow the footsteps of thousands of monks and nuns who had entered the Sanyasa stage direct from Brahmacharya, without passing through married life.

Five, due to the foreign invasions and its consequences for women, the custom of sati, though confined to the warrior class earlier, began to gain widespread acceptance and be perceived as a great sacrifice. The tendency to regard women as weaker and not of strong moral fibre got stronger during this period, although women as mother and sister continued to be highly respected.

Six, the only direction in which the position of women improved was in the sphere of proprietary rights. As society began to discourage widow remarriages, there began to arise a class of childless widows who needed money to maintain themselves.

Seven, history is witness that conquest of a country implies conquest of its womenfolk. What follows is shameful, but reality of life. The wars that preceded the Greek invasion did not result in conquest of women. Invasions resulted in great emphasis being placed on the purity and chastity of women. Naturally, it impacted the way society perceived women.

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