STATUS OF WOMEN IN ANCIENT AND MEDIEVAL INDIA
- Dr. Ch. Durgaprasada Rao, firstname.lastname@example.org
In recent times it has become a popular notion that women in India were humiliated and deprived of their fundamental rights and privileges. It is also opined by some that they were treated as mere slaves and freedom was denied to them to live according to their wish and will. In order to support their view they quote some laws of Manu such as “Na Stree Svatantryamarhati”, (न स्त्री स्वातन्त्र्यमर्हति ) meaning “Woman doesn’t deserve freedom”, Na Bhajet Strii Svatantratam ( न भजेत् स्त्री स्वतन्त्रताम्) “Woman is not fit to be independent etc,”
They further argue that Manu was responsible for the degradation of women in India by being the author of such biased dicta.
But on a closer perusal of the history of women in ancient India and the Manusmrithi in its entirety, we can conclude that the fact is entirely different as the status and privileges enjoyed by the women in society were of a high order.
More over Manu paid a great tribute to women by saying that “where women are honoured the Gods are delighted and where they are not honoured and humiliated all sacred rites performed become futile.
यत्र नार्यस्तु पू ज्यन्ते रमन्ते तत्र देवता:
यत्रैतास्तु न पूज्यन्ते सर्वास्तत्राफला: क्रिया:
(Yatra naryastu pujyante
Ramante tatra devatah
Yatraitastu na pujyante
Such a one can not be expected to take a stand against women which belittles their status as stated above. Therefore a proper understanding of his dicta “ Na stri svatantryamarhati” (न स्त्री स्वातन्त्र्यमर्हति ) and “ Na bhajet stri svatantram” (न भजेत् स्त्री स्वतन्त्रताम्) is essential. In this article an attempt is made to give a more reasonable and consistent interpretation of the statements.
In the Vedic period woman used to enjoy the highest status in the family.
सम्राज्नी श्वशुरे भव सम्राज्नी श्वश्र्यां भव
ननान्दरि सम्राज्नी भव सम्राज्नी अधिदेवृषु
Samrajni swasure bhava
Samrajni swasryam bhava
Nanandari samrajni bhava
Samrajni adhidevrishu) (Rigveda.X.85.46)
Become a queen to thy father – in- law
Become a queen to thy mother-in- law
Become a queen to thy husband’s sisters
Become a queen to your husband’s brothers.
Have control over them through your enchantingly good behaviour. This Vedic hymn reveals the status of woman in a family. This shows that the woman is greatly honoured in her father’s –in- law house. Not only she had a respectable position in the family but had an authority over her husband, Father-in- law, Mother-in-law sister –in law and brother in -law.
Women ought to have undergone Upanayana ceremony before mastering Vedas. After mastering the Vedas they were allowed to participate in debates along with men.
पुरा युगेषु नारीणां मौंजी बन्धनमिष्यते
वेदस्याध्ययनं सम्यक् गायत्रीवचनं तथा
( Pura yugeshu narinam
Gayatri vachanam tatha).
( In ancient days, it was practice to conduct Upanayana even for ladies and then enable them to study the Vedas and recite the Savitri ). They used to marry after their education was over some of them like Vedavati, a daughter of sage Kusadhvaja, would not marry at all.
Women in the Vedic age enjoyed the status of teacher also. The sayings such as “ मातृमान् पितृमान् आचार्यवान् पुरुषो वेद" ( Matriman pitriman Acharyavan purusho veda) which means that a person who has mother father and guru is qualified to acquire knowledge. Here, we can notice that woman occupies first place among teachers. In these days it is said that woman should have equal rights with men, but scriptures have granted them special privilege.
सहस्रं तु पितृन् माता गौरवेणातिरिच्यते
(Sahasram tu pitrin mata
gauravenatirichyate) ( Manu . II. 145) which means that mother is thousand times greater than father.
They were also allowed to study Vedas. In the Vedic age, women – sages were called Rishikas and Brahmavadins. There are a number of women who composed Vedic hymns. Here, Romasa, Lopamudra, Sraddha Kamayani, Saranga, Yami, Indrani are worth mentioning.
Women like Gargi and Maitreyi studied Vedas extensively and used to participate in debates on sastras. A shining example is found in lively discussion on Vedanta between yajnavalkya and Maitreyi.
In Ramayana we find many instances where women fought for their rights. For example Sita being deprived of following Rama to exile, went to the extent of speaking harsh words in the following way.
किं त्वा मन्यत वैदेह: पिता मे मिथिलाधिप:
राजा जामातरं प्राप्य स्त्रियं पुरुषविग्रहम्
( Kim tva manyata vaidehah
Pita me mithiladhipah
Raja jamataram prapya
Striyam purushavigraham ) (Ramayana, Ayodhyakanda, 30 /2)
(Oh Rama, what will my father, king of Mithila think after having got as his son-in-law, you, the embodiment of manliness, when you behave like a woman?)
Similarly, Sakuntala also argued with her husband Dushyanta when the later refused to accept Sakuntala as his wife and Bharata as son. She fought for her right as wife and son’s rights to success him to the throne and won ultimately.
Similarly Savitri fought tooth and nail by arguing very convincingly with the God of death and got back the life of her husband.
Draupadi also challenged her husband and the entire assembly of learned elders when she was wagered in the foul game of dice and consequently faced an ugly situation.
In the medieval period also women were given a highly respectable position. Ubhayabharati, the wife of Mandana Mishra, had the privilege of presiding over the marathon debating session where a furious debate took place between the two great scholars of the time Sankara and MandanaMishra on highly esoteric philosophical issues. What is more stunning is that she, as judge, declared Sankara, not her husband, MandanaMisra - the winner. The impartial judgement that she delivered at the end of the intellectual debate is a land mark in the history of Indian philosophy and has no match any where in the world.
From all the above cited instances it is quite evident that women of ancient and medieval India down the centuries were equally intellectual and were never discriminated against on the basis of gender.
But in subsequent period, the rights of women were some what abridged and curtailed according to the changing circumstances of the society. Our country was subjected to violent foreign invasions which took heavy toll of woman and also made many onslaughts on our culture and ethos. At this juncture certain prohibitions were imposed on women in the interest of the society in general and women in particular. As a part of it, they were deprived of receiving higher learning and allowed to learn only fine arts restricting them in their houses.
Irrespective of our acceptance or rejection it is an irrefutable fact that women have certain biological limitations and they require protection at every stage. Hence the restrictions on their movement should be viewed from the changed perspective.
In order to protect our small kids we generally impose certain rules and regulations such as not allowing them to go out without any assistance of somebody so that, they would not come to any grief by accidental fall or hurt. In the same manner Manu, the law giver might have imposed certain restrictions with in the broad frame work of rights in tune with the peculiar tempore of the times.
It is not out of place to mention here that the spirit is more important than the letter and while commenting a particular point the entire context should be kept in view but not the point in isolation.
Here also the dictaन स्त्री स्वातन्त्र्यमर्हति ( ‘na stri svantryamarhati’) deserves to be commented integrally. Here the complete verse is as follows:
पिता रक्षति कौमारे भर्ता रक्षति यौवने
तनय: स्थविरे भावे न स्त्री स्वातन्त्र्यमर्हति
(Pita rakshati kaumare
Bharta rakshati yauvane
Tanayasthavire bhave s
Na stri svatantryamarhati) .
‘‘Father protects in child hood; Husband protects in youth; Son protects in old age; women does not deserve freedom’’ is the literal meaning of the verse.
Here the word रक्षति ‘rakshati’ meaning protects in the first three lines should be correlated with the fourth line to get its true meaning and purport.
It is not out of place to mention here that the Vedic sentences are meaningful only in so far as they are related to some action. More over every verb used there in present tense should be understood in imperative sense. Since Smriti is derived from Sriti i.e Veda the verb रक्षति 'rakshati’ which means ‘protecting’ should be understood as ‘should protect’. Then it implies that ‘Father should Protect in child hood; husband should protect in youth; son should protect in old age and a woman should always be protected at every stage and she should not be left with out protection under any circumstances’.
The result of ignoring this dictum causes many problems in the present day world. Father is not taking proper care in bringing up his daughters; husband his wife and children their mothers. Female children are killed before they see the light of the world. Dowry- deaths are increasing day by day. Gang rapes are witnessed. Old women are left without proper care. Not a single day passes when we do not come across the news of these categories in the news papers. The status of women is not improved despite many acts legislations and prohibitions, constituted by the government to protect their interests. So in order to bring back the past glory of woman, we should understand the dictum of Manu rightly and implement the same scrupulously.
In our country from times immemorial woman have been given equal status and privileges as men and were never subjected to gender discrimination. They were treated as Goddesses, great mothers, valorous queens and noble teachers.
Mahatma Gandhi, the father of our nation describes gender discrimination as partial paralysis. Thus: “….. as long as the birth of a child does not receive the same welcome as that of a boy, so long we should know that India is suffering from partial paralysis……”.
As an optimist I hope that a golden age will certainly come in near future in which women also enjoy the equal status with men.
2. The Ramayana of Valmiki.
3. The Mahabharata of Vyasa.
4. Manusmriti of Manu.
5. Writings of Mahatma Gandhi.
6. Eternally Talented India.