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Women in Ancient India

Updated: Mar 8, 2022

Modern days’ corporate buzz words are diversified workforce, gender inequality, POSH Committee etc. There are also various policies and acts to address them. Often, it makes us wonder how was the status and condition of the female folks in ancient India.

Various studies indicate that women used to play significant roles in strengthening the dynamism of Indian civilization by playing a lead role in multiple arenas - from spirituality to science, from the battleground to the development of peace & harmony you name any stream, they were there and excelled to a significant extend.

1.0 Women’s Status in the ancient Indian Society:

The status of women can be realized in ancient texts & literature. For example, during the early Vedic Period (1500 BC–1000 BC), women were dignified with a respectable status. Dravidian culture “has had a very long history as a referential term for the southern portion of India”, in which women were honoured as well as empowered in the affairs of the home and family. They were also honoured by their participation in all the socio-cultural activities of early Indian civilization. Moreover, “the Aryan culture, based on the Vedic culture, remained the centralizing factor” of the early Vedic civilization. Women’s freedom to participate in war, gymnastics, archery, horse riding, public activities, education, decision making, and in the selection of male partners has portrayed the nature of women’s status in the social canvas of the Rig Vedic period.

The value of women and the respect shown towards them was not only limited to the idea of the mistress of the household, rather, but women also demonstrated huge potential for contributing to human civilization during the Vedic period. Goddess Saraswati, Laxmi and Durgā were worshipped with complete dedication and often they were more respected than their husbands - Bramha, Vishnu and Maheswar.

Sculptures representing early Vedic society have also shown that women were placed in higher status in this society.

2.0 Women’s Education:

In the Vedic era, women used to play a glorious role in education. Although all genders were offered the privilege of equal educational opportunity to study the Vedic literature, and the role of women in ancient Indian literature became of great importance.

The ancient texts mention several highly educated women scholars like Maitreyi, Sulabha, Gargi, Lopamudra etc. Also, there are references of female teachers, known as Upadhyayas (unmarried female teachers) and Upadhyayanis (married female teachers) within the society.

3.0 Women Saints and Sages:

There was no dearth of women saints and sages. The notable female rishikas were Romasha, Lopamudra, Apala, Kadru, Visvavara, Ghosha, Juhu, Vagambhrini, Paulomi, Yami, Indrani, Savitri, Devayani, Nodha, Akrishtabhasha, Sikatanivavari and Gaupayana.

4.0 Respect, Freedom and Empowerment:

Womanhood was idealized as an honourable position both in and outside the home during the Epic period of Indian civilization. The two great epics of India, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, depicted women as the root of dharma, pleasure, and prosperity.

In the early Vedic period, in family affairs, the women used to enjoy both their autonomy and freedom. Their role as wives were considered to be ardhangini (better half) and sahadharmini (equal partner).

Women of the early Vedic period enjoyed absolute and unconditional economic freedom. They engaged in professions for increasing health and well-being, as well as in teaching professions. The religious importance of the mother in the betterment of the family was always emphasised.

During this period, women also earned money through the spinning and weaving of clothes at home, while also helping their husbands in agricultural activities. However, the Vedāḥ has emphasized women’s greatly restricted right to the inheritance of property, in which married daughters were never allowed to inherit their father’s property. However, spinsters had access to patrimony in the form of one-fourth of the share allocated to their brothers.

In addition to this, in early Vedic religious discourses, women had the privilege and full right to regularly participate in ceremonies and rituals. In Rig Vedic society the women would have been honoured to carry out sacrifices jointly with their better half. Women also had the liberty to read sacred literature, and also had the right to take part as debaters in public assemblies.

They were women sarathis of the chariots (horse carts). Examples are Satyabhama and Kaikeyee, the sarathis of Bhagawan Sree Krishna and King Dasharath.

Women were honoured as the “very source of Puruṣārthas (object of human pursuit), not only Dharma, Artha and Karma, but even Mokṣa”. Women were given “sexual liberty” and higher roles and positions in war.

5.0 Marriage and Sex:

Marriage was never forcibly imposed on them. The spinsters were referred to as “Amajuh, one who grows old in (one’s parents’) house”. After puberty and the completion of their education, girls had permission to take up married life by selecting their life partners through swayamvara (choosing a husband).

Not only polygamy but also polyandry was in existence and remarrying was also socially acceptable for widows. The tradition of child marriage cannot be traced to Védas. The bride is designated as the queen of the house whose position is supreme above all the members of the groom’s family.

Rig Vedic civilization endeavoured to create a picture of the idyllic conditions of women’s sexuality. Special attention to the female’s priority and satisfaction during sex has been markedly observed in Vātsyāyana’s Kāmasūtra, which highlights the Rig Vedic’s sexual eroticism and emotional fulfilment in life.

The prostitutes, along with their practices, were never considered to be undignified or shameful, rather female sex workers were depicted as classy women, without societal restrictions. They were also portrayed as being beautiful, talented, and prosperous within this societal canvas. Moreover, a broad understanding of sexuality through tantra sex (divine prostitution) has been revealed in early Vedic society.

6.0 Conclusion:

To Conclude, we may say, with time, the dignified role and position of women started declining in India due to foreign invasions, as well as the introduction of non-Aryan females as wives in Aryan families.

But I leave it to the readers to introspect and answer a small question, “Is it possible for the corporates to bring back the glorious past of the Indian women through policies and acts?”

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