9.0 Social Status of Hindu Women:
However, it is fair to say that Hinduism has a mixed record when we deal with the social status of women, just as all traditional (and practically all modern) societies, and all religious traditions. The revealed texts of Hindus do not contain much that deals with socio-cultural codes in a concrete manner because social mores cannot be eternally and universally valid or applicable. They must change from place to place, and from time to time. The main intent of Hindu Revelatory texts is to serve as a guide in expounding the more eternal principles and practices dealing with cosmology, theology, ritualism (which too changes with time), spirituality and so on. Injunctions on morality, social codes, political maxims etc., are rather explained in non-revealed texts of Hinduism, called the Smritis. Because of the temporal nature of social, political and moral codes, Hindu Sages have authored their own Smritis from time to time, and from region to region to serve the respective populations of their area. These Smritis have often been merely 'normative' texts and their views did not always reflect social reality. In many ways, the actual position of women in the Hindu society has been better than what is enjoined by these texts, and vice versa as well.
9.1 Woman as Mother:
In Hindu Dharma, God is often compared to a mother, and is worshipped in the form of the Divine Mother. In social contexts as well, no person is considered as exalted and worthy of respect and service as one's mother. The tender love and care of a mother for her children is the subject of numerous Vedic verses. In Hindu culture, the mother is the very embodiment of love, of sacrifice, or selfless service to her children and of forbearance. She is considered the first teacher of every child, and is regarded as the highest Guru. Hindu texts remind us that as long as we live, we must never forget the efforts and sacrifices our mothers make to bring us up in our childhood. In a recent Indian movie, a daughter makes a statement that perhaps sums up the Hindu reverence for motherhood – "Since God could not appear everywhere to take care of us, He created mother."
In a hymn, Shri Shankaracharya (8th century CE) declares that while a son can be a bad son, a mother can never be a bad mother. The mother is considered a thousand times more venerable than the father. When students graduate from their school, their teachers exhort them to consider first their mothers, followed by others, as embodiments of God. If a Hindu man becomes a monk, he is required to sever all his biological relationships so that even his own father is required to salute to him. The sole exception is made for his mother – a monk must salute his own mother if he encounters her in the course of his itinerant lifestyle. Motherly love and affection are considered so exalted and pure that the Hindu doctrine of vaatsalya-bhakti advocates loving God just as a mother loves her child. A recurring theme in Hindu devotional literature is the childhood of Divine Incarnations in the loving care of their mothers. For instance, Mother Yashoda (adoptive mother) and Devaki (biological mother) are frequently remembered in hymns together with Lord Krishna.
Pregnant women were exempted from paying ferry tolls, and were granted some other exemptions due to the high regard for motherhood in the traditional Hindu society. The sanctity of motherhood was so highly regarded that it was also extended to the animal kingdom. It was forbidden to hunt pregnant animals. Amongst the most important reason for considering the cow a sacred animal in Hinduism is the exceptional motherly love, patience and concern that she exhibits towards the newly born calf – a scene used frequently in metaphors occurring in Vedic hymns. By revering cows (the exalted status is not extended to the bull), Hindus are not degrading their mothers, rather they express their deep reverence for the principle of motherhood – reverence that is also manifested in our seeing the Divine Mother in Nature, rivers and earth that nourish us.
It is said that when Adi Shankaracharya took leave of his grieving widowed mother, he promised to her that as her only son, he will certainly come to meet her at the hour of her death. When the moment came, he was at her bedside, horrifying the orthodox Brahmins of the area for violating the rules of Hindu asceticism which requires the monk to sever all his worldly ties. They boycotted him, but through a miracle, the pyre of his mother that the Saint set up in his home's courtyard caught fire spontaneously. The Brahmins repented upon seeing this Divine intervention and since then many Namputiri Brahmins cremate their relatives in the courtyard of their homes as a mark of respect to the great Saint.
There was no restriction in the ancient Hindu society that sons must always be named after their father. Numerous heroes of Hindu tradition are frequently addressed as sons of their mother. For instance, Arjuna, the greatest warrior of the Hindu Epic of Mahabharata, is often addressed as 'Kaunteya' (son of Queen Kunti) in the text. Lord Krishna is likewise addressed as 'Devakiputra' (son of mother Devaki) in the Chhandogya Upanishad and elsewhere. The Aitareya Upanishad, one of the 10 major Upanishads (texts of Hindu spirituality), is named after Sage Aitareya Mahidasa, whose name derives from his mother Itara. The name of his father is not known. Likewise, the greatest Sanskrit grammarian Panini is also called Daakshiputra, or the son of Daakshi. Again, the name of his father is unknown.
In the Vedic verses, when both the parents are mentioned, the mother is typically mentioned before the father. The position of a mother in Vedic rites is more exalted than that of the father. Numerous childhood sacraments and rites are performed by mothers. In the Upanayana ceremony, after which the child commences his Vedic study and the period of celibacy, there is no mention of the father but the child approaches his mother for alms. This indicates that the mother is considered a child's best well-wisher in life, who would never refuse him nourishment even though his father may. And when the period of study is over and the student returns home after his long absence, he first bows to his mother, and gives whatever he may have acquired during that period to his mother. After one's parents pass away, annual ceremonies called the 'shraaddha' are performed by Hindus. In these ceremonies as well, the mother is remembered before the father, and special ceremonies are sometimes performed for the mother (though there are none specifically for the father). In fact, the Chandanadhenu Shraddha, the costliest and most ceremonial of all such ceremonies, is performed for one's mother. If one's father had been excommunicated for misconduct, shraaddha ceremony for him need not be performed. A mother is never considered excommunicated by her son however. The son does not have the option of not performing the ceremony for her, and is responsible for atoning for her sins. This is because whatever may be the crime of one's mother, she is always one's mother and deserving of her children's love and respect. How can we ever condemn her who nurtured us for 9 months in her womb, and underwent great pains to give us birth, and to bring us up in our childhood?
9.2 Woman as Daughter:
As in all human cultures and all organized religions, Hindu culture also unfortunately shows a preference for the male child. There are pre-natal rites prescribed by Hindu texts to ensure that the fertilized embryo is male and not female. In ancient times (and also in modern times), birth of a son ensured financial and emotional security for parents when they became too old to fend for themselves because there was no organized social security infrastructure. Whereas the daughter was married off to another man and moved out, the devoted son was supposed to take personal care of his aged parents.
Hindu poets say that the birth of a daughter made her parents weep, because as soon as they saw her face for the first time, they realized that their precious jewel would eventually leave them and live with someone else. Daughters were therefore traditionally regarded as 'paraayaa dhana' or 'a treasure that really belongs to someone else'. At the time of her wedding therefore, her father or her brother ritually 'gifted' their most precious diamond (i.e., their daughter/sister) to her husband, after extracting promises that he would always take good care of her even if he has to forsake his life, just as her father and brother had done earlier. In fact, in Hindu families that are financially comfortable, daughters are literally pampered (compared to sons) because they would have to manage a lot of household work in their future husbands' home anyway. At seeing their daughters leave their homes and proceed to their husband's abode, parents are filled with grief. Things are changing rapidly in the Hindu society however and it is often seen that a married daughter takes more care of her aged parents their son.
Fortunately however, Hindu texts do contain several teachings which equate a son with a daughter. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 6.4.17 actually prescribes a ritual for parents who desire a scholarly daughter to be born to them. During the marriage ceremony, the husband touches all the fingers of his wife except the thumb, if the couple is desirous of a daughter. After their marriage, the husband shows his wife the Pole Star and other heavenly bodies if he desires that a daughter be born to them. Several kaamyashraddhas (rites done to obtain a specific result) are prescribed in ritual literature to ensure the birth of a daughter. A text asks the father to greet both his son and his daughter upon returning from a journey.
A text states that the birth of a daughter is very meritorious. There have been cases where fathers are said to have been more fond of their daughters than their sons. For instance, according to the Brahmavaivarta Purana, King Ugrasena was more fond of his daughter Devaki (the mother of Krishna) than his son Kamsa. In another Vaishnava Purana, a childless Brahmin prays to Lord Vishnu for a child. When the pleased Lord asks him whether he wants a daughter or a son, he responds – "What difference would it make, for a son would be your likeness while a daughter would be the likeness of Devi Lakshmi." Lord Vishnu blesses him with a daughter. The text says that the Brahmin was overjoyed with the birth of his daughter, and educates her to be a great scholar.
In several Purana texts, the Universal Divine Mother is born in the household of her devotee Daksha as his daughter Sati. Indeed, in many Hindu households, daughters are considered as manifestations of Devi. Many rituals and pilgrimages (to Shakti shrines such as Vaishno Devi) are completed by worshipping and offering food to eight young girls (which may include one's own daughters) who are considered as forms of the Devi. A text says that Devi Lakshmi always dwells within our good daughters.
The idyllic description of a devout family blessed by Indra includes both sons and daughters. The Tantras accord a very high place to the daughter. The Mahanirvana Tantra 8.47 says that the daughter ought to be brought up with great care and affection and should be educated by her parents with as much care as sons.
In several cases, the daughter also provided the family's lineage. Of the two most prominent royal dynasties of the Hindu society namely Suryavamsha (Solar Dynasty) and Chandravamsha (Lunar Dynasty), the latter owes its origin to Ila, the daughter of Manu (the equivalent of Biblical Noah in the Hindu tradition). According to Puranic texts, most of the kings of the Indian subcontinent belong to the Lunar dynasty, including Lord Krishna. A holy place called 'Ilayaspada' or the place of Ila, the daughter of Manu is said to be located close to the confluence of Sarasvati and Drishdvati rivers in northern India. Vedic texts call this site as the holiest place on the earth. Chandragupta I, the founder of the Gupta dynasty (whose reign is considered the Golden Age of Hindus according to some) married a Licchivi Princess, and many later Gupta Emperors took pride in their mother's lineage.
Hindu texts say that the daughter deserves compassion from her parents, and is the highest object of his father's compassion. It was forbidden to inflict physical punishment on one's daughter. Some passages of Hindu texts are grotesquely misinterpreted by prejudiced scholars and by anti-Hindu websites to 'prove' that female infanticide through exposure of girl infant is sanctioned in our Dharma. In reality all forms of infanticide and abortions are considered heinous sins in our tradition. How can a true Hindu ever kill his own daughter, who is the very embodiment of Devi, and the object of reverence as well as of supreme compassion?
9.3 Woman as Sister:
Hindu Dharma is perhaps unique in having a 'brother-sister' festival, called the Rakshabandhan. On this day sisters come to visit their brothers and tie them a sacred thread (called 'Rakhi') on their wrist to symbolize that if ever some adversity befalls upon them, their brothers will rise to the occasion. Sisters pray for their brothers' welfare, and brothers give gifts to their sisters. In the Hindu tradition, a woman can make someone else a 'brother' by tying the Rakhi to him. If that happens, the relationship becomes one of real brother and sister, and all the requirements and duties of a brother towards his non-biological sister are then expected to be fulfilled by him. A brother is also obliged to present gifts to his married sister whenever she visits him. In the absence of their father, it is the brother who took care of her and made gifts to her as well as to his brother-in-law. And just as it happens today, the protective brother kept a watch on his unmarried sister's boyfriends.
9.4 Woman as the Bride: It appears that women had considerable freedom in Vedic times to choose their own husband. Although there is no evidence in Vedic literature for early marriage of women, classical Hinduism texts advocate marrying off one's daughter before she reaches puberty (although the marriage cannot be consummated till she attains puberty). Premature marriages has had a disastrous effect on the health of Hindu women, and laws have been enacted in India to prevent marriage of women till they turn 18 years of age.
The evil of dowry which is so prevalent amongst certain Hindu communities today is conspicuous by its absence in the entire range of authoritative religious literature of Hindus. Scholars have shown that dowry amongst Hindus started as a result of peculiar conditions created during the British rule in India, and that this practice is actually attested quiet well in medieval Europe. In lieu of dowry however, brides were gifted lavishly by her father and brothers upon her wedding. These gifts constituted her personal property not subject to use or control by her husband or her in-laws. Upon her death, it passed onto her daughters. A bride's or a wife's personal wealth was called 'stridhana' or the woman's wealth. If the bride's father was no longer alive, her brothers were obliged to grant her a share of their own inheritance to create her stridhana and also for her marriage. Relatives who usurped the bride's personal property were punishable under law.
The wedding ceremony involves the bride and the groom walking seven steps together. At the seventh step, the groom is made to declare that he chooses his wife as his lifelong friend. Another custom is to tie the hems of their garments together in a knot, and going around the sacred fire altar four times. The last of these four circumambulations, symbolizing salvation is lead by the bride. This indicates that the salvation of the husband (and the wife) is not possible without her involvement in procreation of children and in religious observances.
In an interesting custom seen in some parts of India, the bride says 'I do' after making the groom concede seven demands. These include things like the groom promising that as her husband, he will never interfere in her decisions relating to the management of their household, and that he will trust her discretion in the management of their household resources.The bride is considered an embodiment of good-luck and auspiciousness and is welcomed by the groom's family. The Vedic verses express the hope that the bride will be regarded like an Empress by her in-laws.
9.5 Woman as Wife:
'The wife indeed is the home' says a Hindu text. The wife was considered one with her husband. A good wife was considered a gift of gods, whom the husband could never neglect or fail to support. For the happiness of the household, it was not sufficient for the husband alone to be pleased with his wife. The wife must also be pleased with her husband. A law-giver actually states that a husband and wife who live together even though they do not love each other commit a sin. The status of the wife and husband was not exactly equal however, just as in all other religious traditions. While a disobedient wife could be discarded, the wife herself was exhorted to treat even a husband destitute of virtues as her Lord because such dedication itself could take her to heaven. However, she could abandon a husband who was impotent, mentally deranged or who suffered from other wasting diseases. She was exhorted to consider her husband alone as her honor and pride and seek her fulfillment within her home. However, the texts also state that women can never be controlled by force, and only wives themselves can guard their own virtue.
In the worldview of classical Hindu texts, the wife was not a producer of wealth. Her sphere of activity was restricted to her home, and her family members. She did all the household chores, managed her husband's wealth, maintained her household possessions, brought up children, cooked food for the family, served her husband and took a leading role in fulfilling several domestic ritual observances. This was true for all traditional societies, and things are changing very fast in Hindu societies today with more and more women exploring opportunities for self-fulfillment outside their homes with the support of their husbands and other family members. In fact, it was never entirely true that women do not produce wealth. Since times immemorial, Hindu women have worked in the fields, as artisans and so on.
Savitri: So esteemed was a devoted wife that she was considered to have the power to ensure her husband's welfare even after his death. Hindu tradition reveres the story of Princess Savitri who was so learned that her father was unable to find a match of her. She met a humble student in a one of her sojourns and expressed her desire to marry him, against her parents' wishes, although it was prophesied to her that he would die within one year of their marriage. After their marriage, when that day came, she showed great courage and wit in snatching back the soul of her husband from the Messenger of Death, and they lived a long life together happily thereafter. Far from being a meek, docile woman, Savitri was a strong-willed, educated and a powerful woman who defied death, and who married the man she loved.
Sukanyaa: In another tale, the beautiful Princess Sukanya accidentally blinds the old Sage Chyavan. To make amends, she marries him. The handsome divine twins and celestial physicians namely Ashwin Kumars approached her and asked her to forsake her husband and instead marry one of them. But Sukanya remarked that she would never leave her husband as long as he lives. Pleased with her love for her husband, the celestial physicians restored Sage Chyavan's sight and transformed him into a handsome young man.
The loyal husband:
Likewise, Hindu scriptures also have several other sacred stories that show the devotion of husbands towards their wives. When due to some objections from his subjects King Rama had to forsake Devi Sita, his wife, he did not remarry. The deep affection and love that Lord Shiva has for his wife Parvati is the subject of numerous Sanskrit works. Even today, Hindu maidens aspiring for a good husband fast for 16 consecutive Mondays, the day considered holy by Shaivite Hindus.
Hindu texts say that the wife is prosperity of the home personified and is to be considered fit for worship. The Vedas consider the wife as auspicious, the most auspicious one. She is the light of the home, the harbinger of many blessings, and worthy of great honor. The Mahabharata says the wife is her husband's best friend. Even in a deep forest, she is like refreshment and solace to her husband. Whenever men are afflicted with sorrow or are in physical pain, the presence of wives serves to alleviate their suffering just as a perspiring person feels refreshed after a cool bath. Dharma, acquisition of wealth and pleasure are all dependent on one's wife. Therefore, even in anger, husbands must never do anything that is disagreeable to their wives.
A man becomes eligible to perform Vedic rituals only after he marries. The husband and wife are exhorted to perform their religious ceremonies as a pair. If the husband is married, he cannot perform Vedic ceremonies without his wife. During religious ceremonies, the wife holds the hand of her husband whenever he pours the oblation into the sacred altar, signifying that the ritual is performed jointly by them.
Men and women form complement each other, just like heaven and earth, lyric and melody. They are equal partners in married life. Sage Agastya tells his wife Lopamudra – "In this world, we will overcome all adversities if we two exert ourselves together." Soon after her wedding, the wife is requested to address a religious gathering or assembly. For a husband, his wife is his own half and is therefore called ardhaangini ('half of oneself'). She was a comrade in life (sahachari), an equal participant in performance of and in reaping fruits of good deeds (sahadharmini).
There is no greater sorrow than to see the death of one's sons and one's wife. The wife is dearer than one's own life, she is to be treasured like one's mother, and respected as an elder sister. The very essence of married life is stated in the following words – "Faithfulness to each other must be observed till death – this is the essence of the Supreme Law that must be followed by the husband and wife. After completing the marriage rites, they should exert with all their might to avoid being unfaithful to each other, and to avoid splitting from each other."
9.6 Woman as Widow:
The Vedic texts indicate that widow remarriage was allowed. The Dharmasutras appended to various Vedic schools also permit widow remarriage. This general permission for remarriage of widows was maintained in some texts of classical Hinduism. In certain cases, if the husband went abroad for longer than a particular period of time, the woman was permitted to remarry as well. In general however, the status of widows declined steeply when the texts of classical Hinduism were formulated. As a result, remarriage of widows was highly frowned upon and the ideal widow was expected to live a life of piety, austerity and self-abnegation. Likewise, a widower was excluded from the sacred ritual but could remarry in order to enter normal life, or he could chose to live celibate. No stigma was attached to the remarriage of a widower.
Clearly however, widow remarriages continued to occur in historic India, and are mentioned in Dharmashastra texts themselves. One may cite several examples of widow remarriages from ancient India. In the Harivamsha Purana, Ugrayudha proposes to Satyavati, the widow of Shantanu, indicating that it was not taboo to marry a widow. Ajuna married Uloopi, the widowed daughter of the Naga king, and even had a son by her. The Jataka tales narrate some other instances of men marrying widows in the Hindu society in the pre-Buddhist period. Emperor Chandragupta II in the 4th century CE married the Dhruvadevi, the widow of his elder brother. Vira Hammira of Chittor married the widowed daughter of Maldeo and their son Kshetrasimha succeeded him to the throne of Udaipur. Remarriage of widow was generally recommended with her younger brother in law, though there does not seem to be an absolute restriction in this regard. Such examples were not commonplace though and a life of celibacy was generally recommended for widows.
Widows were often considered useless members of the household, and too inauspicious for invitation to celebrations. In some cases where the bride was widowed at a very young age, she had to spend the long remainder of her life in misery and sorrow. In actual practice however, numerous Hindu communities such as Jats practiced widow remarriage (the custom was called 'karewa') down to modern times. Currently, the stigma against widow remarriages is vanishing fast especially in large cities in India. It is preferred by family members that the widow remarries a widower, though there is no such compulsion.
There are mixed injunctions on the inheritance rights for widows. Some Hindu texts contain the world's oldest injunctions on the right of inheritance of a widow, while other Hindu texts state that a widow with a grown up son will be provided for by him from his father's inheritance.
In the past, the Hindu wife who had been her husband's comrade and companion when he lived, also often chose to accompany him in death by immolating herself on his funeral pyre. This custom, called Sati, is conspicuous by its absence in the Vedic texts. The oldest mention of this practice do not attach any special merit to it, but merely list it as an alternative for widows, the other options being remarriage or living as a widow. Even Manusmriti is silent about it, but later texts such as several Puranas and law-digests (dharmanibandhas) glorify it. Several poets (such as Bana Bhatta), law-digest writers (such as Devannabhatta, and Medhatithi who authored the oldest extant complete commentary of Manusmriti) condemned the practice, which seems to have remained largely confined to the very elite sections of ruling Hindu classes in India. The Peshwas, Hindu Maratha rulers, tried to ban it without success.
The word 'Sati' literally means a truthful woman. According to the Shiva Purana, Sati, herself an incarnation of Shakti, was the wife of Lord Shiva. Anguished by the insult of her husband of her own father, she immolated her own body in full public view by the strength of her inner Yogic powers. Shiva was very aggrieved upon her death, and the text says that he carried her remains and roamed around in grief all over the Universe for a long time before the gods intervened. In course of time (or rather mainly after the British started ruling India), the word 'Sati' was itself applied to the practice of women immolating themselves at their husband's pyre. There is no evidence that the story of Sati and Shiva had anything to do with the practice. Several accounts left by foreign travelers indicated that these self-immolations were not forced or induced, nor was there any compulsion for the widow to commit suicide. Rather, they note that they were done by devoted wives who were very resolute in their decision, and could not bear to live apart from their husbands. The Puranas saluted the loyalty of these women by attributing them powers to elevate their husband and several other family members to Heaven for long periods of time. The sites of these self-immolations were commemorated by construction Sati Mata temples, indicating that such women were credited with super-natural powers by ordinary Hindus. Considering this context, it is unfair to insult the memory of these pious women by alleging that all such self-immolations were done by widows under duress or always with some ulterior motive (such as the greed of living in Heaven). Perhaps it is difficult for the modern mind to comprehend the fact that a devoted wife could chose to follow her husband to death out of a firm conviction in rebirth, life beyond death, and a deep love for him. If patriotic and brave soldiers can sacrifice their lives for their country, and the faithful for their faith, principles and beliefs, it cannot be impossible for devoted wives to sacrifice their lives to be with their husbands in the world beyond.
Cases of forced Sati have surely occurred, and it is perfectly legitimate to argue within the paradigms of Hindu philosophy that such a self-immolation is futile because the fruits of the karma of one person cannot be transferred to another (husband or anyone else), or that the Hindu texts preach the performance of karma without motive of rewards such as Heaven. This is what social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy did, in arguing with some Pandits who supported the practice. The British finally banned it, without eliciting any significant whimper of protest from Hindus (showing that Hindus themselves were keen to stop it) and now it is a thing of the past. An event or two of Sati still occurs in India once every 20 years or so, and generates a slew of 'scholarly' publications written in journalistic and sensationalist tones, and reams of 'research papers' by arm-chair scholars. But the custom must be considered rare in the context of pre-modern Hinduism (with very little scriptural backing), and defunct in modern times.
It does appear that before 550 AD, when the narrative of CA textbooks ends, Sati was very rare and exceptional practice, and it continued to be a rare practice involving less than 1% of Hindu widows even through late medieval India when the practice reached its peak. And yet, some members of the Michael Witzel – FOIL gang want this practiced to be mentioned specifically in sixth grade textbooks (and reinforce stereotypes in the process) when in fact even the corresponding Grade VI NCERT textbook by Romila Thapar on ancient India is silent on it, and when in fact the CA textbooks do not mention witch burnings in the case of Christianity etc. Some textbooks have a mere 1 page on Hinduism, or a few pages. Then what motivates these people to insist that Sati should be mentioned in these textbooks?
10.0 The Woman as a Woman: Of Panegyrics and Caricatures –
The texts of all religions are largely male oriented and so is the case with Hindu Dharma although our Dharma does have a very strong feminine component as a part of its very core. It is natural then that Hindu texts make some judgmental remarks concerning women. These remarks are sometimes blanket negative characterizations, or blanket positive characterizations, or they are balanced and nuanced statements that do not stereotype women.
Many of these negative statements are actually found in texts meant for celibate male renunciates or monks for whom sexual temptations are taboo and attraction towards women is considered a hindrance in their spiritual path. Conversely, the feminine spiritual traditions in Hindu Dharma tend to sublimate sexual desires by perceiving the entire 'mankind' as feminine. For instance, it is said that once Sant Meerabai went to visit Sant Tulasidas (who had become a celibate Hindu monk by then) but was stopped by his disciples with the plea that their Guru does not meet women. She replied – "How can that be so because I thought that all human beings are women, and God is the only Purusha (Male)." When Sant Tulasidas heard her response, he invited her himself with great respect, realizing that a great devotee of God was at his doorstep. Similar stories are narrated with regard to other lady Sants such as Lalleshvari and others as well. The Tantra texts often invert the patriarchal paradigm, and declare the woman to be superior to men.
Some of these negative statements actually yield a very different import when they are seen in their textual context. For instance, the following verse is often cited to say that Hinduism caricatures women –
"With women there can be no lasting friendship,
In reality, this statement was made by a woman herself, the celestial nymph Uruvashi, who wanted to spurn the advances of King Pururava. She tries all means to shoo him away, and it is in this context that she makes this statement about women, so as to dissuade him in his overtures towards her. The hymn in question is called an 'aakhyaana' hymn or a hymn that contains a story-line with some dialogs and which was probably enacted in theatres in ancient India. Obviously, one would see melodramatic and theatrical remarks in these aakhyaana hymns.
On the other extreme, Hindu scriptures contain numerous eulogistic remarks on women. A passage in a text argues that 'given the dependence of women on men for all deeds, they can never be blamed for any fault because it is men who force them to commit sin. It is men who seduce them and cause them to commit adultery. It is men who though married, commit adultery with other women. Women must not be blamed for adultery, only men should be blamed for this sin. A man who neither takes care of his wife nor provides for her does not deserve to be called her husband or her provider'. It is stated that unlike men, women never kill.
In his encyclopedia (of Hindu branches of learning) named Brihatsamhita, Varahamihira devotes the 72nd chapter to the praise of women. He says that women are superior to men because all men are born from women, because women are more faithful to their spouses than men, and because women are more faithful in following Dharma. On the whole, if we ignore passages that eulogize women in their roles of mother and wife, passages caricaturing women predominate over eulogistic passages. And many passages in the latter category actually deal with unchaste wives and do not pertain to women in general.
And finally, as stated above, many passages exhort us to take a balanced view and distinguish between different types of women. The chaste women are worthy or praise, while those who are not chaste are worthy of condemnation.
11.0 The Strength and Inspiration of Great Men:
It is said that the behind every successful man, there is a powerful woman. This seems to be quite well-exemplified in the Hindu tradition. Numerous texts within the Hindu tradition have been named by male authors lovingly after their women family members. For instance, Vachaspati Mishra, a celebrated Hindu philosopher, named his magnum opus on Hindu spirituality (Vedanta) after his wife 'Bhaamati'. Bhaskara, an ancient mathematician named his work on arithmetic and algebra after his daughter Lilavati. In this way, grateful Hindu scholars have perpetuated the memories of their loving wives, mothers, daughters and so on down the ages.
In the Mahabharata, Queen Kunti (she belongs to the pentad of 'panchakanyaa') narrates the soul-stirring ancient sermon of Queen Vidula to her son, in order to boost the morale of her sons, the distraught Pandava brothers who had been deprived of their kingdom and livelihood by their cousins. The sermon contains memorable passages exhorting men to shun self-pity and a sense of defeat and instead rise to take charge of their own destiny. The narration obviously had its effect because the Pandava brothers soon prepare for the war.
It is said that Goswami Tulsidas (16th-17th century CE), one of the most prominent saint poets of Hindi, was very infatuated with his newly wedded wife. One day, she reminded him that if he were infatuated with Lord Ram in the same way, he would have attained salvation. The words transformed Tulsidas into a great saint and a devotee and he went on to author 12 beautiful devotional works in Hindi.
Jijaamata, the mother of Shivaji, inspired her son from his childhood with stories of great Hindu heroes, and motivated him to become a noble Hindu king who liberated parts of India from the tyrannical rule of the bigoted Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb in the late 17th century. Today, she is revered as an inspirational figure in large parts of India along with her illustrious son.
A particularly touching instance in Hindu tradition is that of Haadi Rani. Newly married, her husband did not heed the call to arms against the enemies of his country. She had her head severed and sent to him on a platter, motivating him to forsake all fear of death and plunge headlong into battle.
Amongst some Hindu communities, notably the Rajputs, when the fall of their citadel or city to Islamic invaders became imminent, the Hindu women of the area committed suicide by mass immolation. This act of sacrifice was termed as Jauhar. As a result, shorn of all love ties to their families, the Hindu men-folk of area would rush out of their forts and attack the invaders with their full might and motivation without any fear of death. Such instances of Jauhar happened because the Muslim invaders would molest and rape captured Hindu women after victory and therefore Hindu women often preferred death to dishonor and indignity of concubinage. One such instance of Jauhar by Rani Padmini and 700 other maidens of the fort of Chittor before its imminent fall to the invading Muslim Emperor Allauddin Khilji is the subject of a Hindi epic named Padmaavat authored by a Muslim poet Malik Muhammad Jaayasi.
More than a thousand years ago, the Buddhist queen of a Hindu Pandyan Ruler of southern India was so disturbed by reports of massacres committed by the army of her husband in a neighboring enemy kingdom that she committed suicide as a way to protest and to impel her husband to shun the path of bloodshed.
It is said that it was the mother of the famous monk Yadavaprakash who motivated him to shun his pride and become a disciple of Ramanuja (who had been his own disciple but had become a renowned spiritual teacher).
Little wonder then that according to Hindu texts, the wife gets half the fruit of her husband's good karma.
12.0 ransforming Hindu Women into Shakti
It is clear from the overview on Hindu women above that in our Dharma, the woman is not merely an adjunct or an associate of men. She is not just that 'extra rib', or merely a 'field that is watered by her husband'. She and her male partner actually form a pair together, or rather, the husband and wife form one whole.
We would do well to remember the following words from out texts –
Fathers, brothers, husbands and brothers-in-law who desire their own good must honor and adorn their women. Gods are pleased only where women are venerated. And where women are not venerated, all the sacred rituals are futile.
A family whose women live in sorrow soon perishes. The family whose women are happy always prospers. A household whose unhappy women members curse soon perishes completely.
"Man takes birth from woman. Within woman does the creature's body grow.
To a woman does a man get engaged and married. Through her are established blood relations.
The cycle of births in this world is sustained by women.
When a wife dies, the desolate husband seeks another.
Indeed, through women alone are all social connections maintained.
Therefore, why call that woman inferior, from whom great emperors are born?
A woman is born only from another woman (and never from a man).
None in this Universe can take birth without a woman.
Nanak says – Only the Eternal Lord is never born from a woman."
These words above are of eternal relevance. Whenever given a chance, Hindu women have shown their mettle in all arenas of life, overcoming numerous social stigmas and religious prejudices by their internal and innate Divine Shakti.
We cannot make the Divine Mother into a Male God, because no man or woman can change the eternal nature of the Supreme Being. But we can surely be more truthful to the Divine Mother by taking steps to ensure that our women, who are Her earthly manifestations, become Her reflections in the true sense – in all Her Beauty, Power, Wisdom, Spirituality, Learning and Freedom. The beatific smile that graces the face of Devi, must adorn the faces of all our women. Otherwise our prayers to the Devi will remain mere lip-movement.
Brahman, the Supreme Being, has already shown us the way by manifesting as the Divine Mother on numerous occasions. 'He' has often bypassed men to honor his women devotees. Hindu revelations, theology, ritual and philosophy have by and large created and protected adequate 'feminine space'. All women and men are manifestations of God, and all are born from God. Not just men, but women as well were created in the image of Supreme Being. Ardhnaariishvara, our Lord or Lady is half feminine. Therefore, how can we Hindus venerate Her one half and bear contempt towards His other half? We pray to Devi that the social status of Hindu women will continue to improve in future through internal reforms in the Hindu society. May the Divine Mother guide us in the right direction!
Om katyaayaanaaya vidmahe kanyakumaari dhiimahi |
Inspirations: Numerous websites and books have been consulted for this brief compilation, but the following deserve a special mention:
1. A Tribute to Hinduism: A beautiful website set up by Sushama Londhe, a Hindu woman, as a labor of love. Visit http://www.atributetohinduism.com . Numerous pictures and a lot of material from this website has been used in this compilation.
2. The following website of Dakshina Kannada Philately and Numismatic Association provided several pictures of postage stamps used in this compilation: http://www.geocities.com/dakshina_kan_pa/art31/women1.htm
Professor Vasudha Narayanan provided information on illustrious Hindu Queens in South East Asia whereas Dasharath Lohar pointed out the role of Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal and also supplied a useful book.