Friday, November 18, 2011





In ancient India, Vedic people established a social system in which father, instead of mother became the head of the family. Throughout ancient history, women were obliged to abide by the laws made by men. However, it is also true that Vedic society had a number of women in key positions and that certain austerities could not be performed without their wives even in the early ritualistic period. In fact according to legends Lord Brahma was forced to take up a girl named Gayatri as his consort for Yajna (sacrifice), in the absence of his wife Saraswati who delayed her arrival after taking a bath to come as Savitri and marry him.

The ritualistic Vedic culture was indeed male dominated. Women folk only helped in the preparation of things for the rituals and fire sacrifices and did not conduct rituals themselves. Intellectual Revolution followed as the fire sacrifices of the Vedic culture was challenged by thinkers including women, who speculated on the nature of religion. In search of salvation, they confronted the profound mystery of death. Their quest predicted on two principles—Renunciation and Karma, the individual's position in samsara (worldly life) determined by one's past actions. During this period woman scholars took active part in spiritual discussions and were also much venerated as seen in Upanishads. Some of the women scholars were more knowledgeable, dominated the scene and were highly respected. Buddhism and Jainism which had limited but enduring appeal were the two major developments of this Intellectual Revolution. Many of its first converts were Vaisyas (merchant class), affluent urban group, upwardly mobile, and, women, both of whom wanted to overcome the low ritual status in the dominating ritualistic Hindu society.

During Vedic age, women gained a high place in the society through their own efforts. There was a period in which great many changes were taking place in Sanatana Dharma itself, which absorbed the alien spiritual practices and customs from pre-Vedic cultures. Sankara, founder of Advaita philosophy (non-dualism) noticing the danger of mass exodus from Sanatana Dharma to Jainism and Buddhism established six traditional forms of worship in which Devi (Goddess) worship was given equal importance along with Vedic and non-Vedic forms of worship like the worship of Ganesha and Kumara. He composed several hymns in praise of Devi—Soundarya Lahari, Kanakadhara stotra, Annapoorneshwari stotra etc.

Vedas are also full of prayers for the birth of son. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad elaborates ceremonies for the birth of a son. Some of the wedding blessings start with "Be the mother of the males". Side by side Vedic society encouraged Devi worship, recognized and acknowledged superior intelligence wherever existed as in Kenopanishad glorifying Uma. Vedic society then did not disturb that part of the society that gave prominence to female supremacy under its fold. Their policy had been live and let live within the fold of Sanatana Dharma.

The mention of Women sages like Vaac, Ambhrini, Romasa, Maitreyi and Gargi in Vedic lore confirms this view. Mythology talks only with high respect about the three consorts of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and countless ladies like Ahalya, Anusuya, Arundhati, Savitri, Lopamudra, Sakuntala, Damayanti etc. Hinduism had several mystics like Andal and Avvai of Tamilnadu, Mahadevi of Karnataka, Lalla of Kashmir, Chellachi of Srilanka, Janabai and Muktabai of Maharashtra and Mirabai of Rajasthan. At present Amritanadamayi of Kerala is well known in the USA.

Women could undergo the Upanayana samskara (ritual) and pursue Vedic studies. They were known as "Brahmavadins". Those who did not pursue the path of the brahmavadins were called "Sadyovadhoos". Co-education existed in the earlier period. Ladies of Kshatriya Dharma got training in the use of arms and other martial arts. Both Kanya-vivaha (marriage of pre-puberty girl arranged by parents) and "Praudha -vivaha" (marriage after puberty) were prevalent. Under certain circumstances the girl had the freedom to choose her husband. The wife known as "grihini" was considered as "half" of the husband and constituted the real "griha" or home. She was called "saamraajini", the queen or mistress of the home and had an equal share in the performance of religious rites. Saastras prescribed sacraments exclusive to woman to honor the coming of puberty and motherhood like Pumsavanam, Seemantonnayanam etc. Divorce and remarriage of woman were allowed under special conditions. Vesyas (prostitutes) were allowed to make a living in the society, but were regulated by a code of conduct specially made for them.

Mythology shows that women were allowed to have more than one husband. One of our much respected mythological women Paanchaali was married to five Pandava brothers. The Atharvaveda says that a woman can marry after having ten husbands. Another respected woman of India, the mythological Tara, who came out of the Ocean of Milk, married Vali, the monkey king and after his death married his brother Sugreeva. The fisher woman Satyavati had a son by Saint Parasara and later married King Santanu and had two more sons.

For a fairly long period women dominated the social scene and were the virtual head of the family while men were busy with their nomadic life and hunting pursuits. Due to constant threat from foreign invaders and also the draught situation of the Saraswati-Sindh belt the population moved to the East Gangetic plains where agriculture was vigorously followed to a large extent giving up nomadic life of early population. Some anthropologists think that rule by women preceded rule by men and that the patriarchal system developed only when men settled down to agricultural life so as to leave women free to bring up family. As the Great Goddess rules the heavens, her earthly counterpart, the woman, settled down to rule the home. It is no wonder, Manu, the law giver said, "The gods are satisfied wherever women are honored, but where they are not respected, rites and prayers are ineffectual" (Manusmriti 3.62).

Hinduism believes even today that a woman who devotes her entire life to the well-being of her husband is a "Pativrata" and is endowed with numerous powers usually attained by sages and it is said that even Gods can't match their power. In the Tantra philosophy the female aspirant is looked upon as an embodiment of Shakti and is worshipped through rituals like Kumari puja (virgin worship) and Shakti Upasana (Goddess worship). Among Shaktiates women are always treated with great respect. Kumari puja is mostly conducted in Bengal. In this ceremony, a twelve year old girl from a Brahmin family is installed on a pita (a stool), dressed up like the image of Shakti and worshipped accordingly.

Agricultural pursuit changed the society again in which the father, instead of the mother assumed the role of the head of the family. Western historians over emphasized this fact of the period and wrote that women were obliged to abide by the rules of men. This shift could have taken place when the population got settled giving up their nomadic pursuits, to work on farms and agricultural lands while the women managed the household with many children. In their previous nomadic life, families were small with limited number of children and women had sole control of the family.

Lot of research has gone into the status of ancient and medieval arts like temple sculptures, cave paintings, fine arts and ancient tradition, in which status of women indicates occupying a prestigious position. Hindu aesthetic tradition in the ancient and medieval times regarded women as an aspect of the Great Mother of all life, a vessel of fertility and life in full sap. The ideas of Indian art viewed every woman, a Goddess. This has a parallel to the Great Greek Goddess of Fertility Gaia, the Earth, with mountains, caves and earth's waters considered as a woman and a Mother. Ancient art in many forms and old traditions reveal the true history on the Status of Women in ancient and medieval India.

The ancient traditions of India have always identified the female of the species with all that is sacred in nature. It is not always the warrior woman who is identified with the Goddess, but also a woman as playful, lovable, and of course as the mother. A kick of a woman was sufficient and necessary for blossoms of spring time from the sacred Ashoka tree. An entire ceremony has developed around this theme. Women dance around this tree and gently kick to bring it to bloom. By her mere touch the fertilizing power of woman is supposed to be transferred to the tree, which then bursts into flowers. All things that arise from the earth in the form of vegetative life mirror the great generative function of the Goddess. The female figure is an obvious emblem of fertility because of its association with growth, abundance and prosperity. A tree that has come to flower or fruit will not be cut down; it is treated as mother, a woman who has given birth. The metaphoric connections between a tree and woman are many and varied. A relevant one here is that the word for flowering and menstruation is the same in Samskrit. In Samskrit a menstruating woman is called "Pushpavati", "a woman in flower". It is interesting to note that the decoctions made from the bark of the same Ashoka tree, are used to soothe menstrual cramps and excessive blood loss during menstruation as recommended in Ayurveda. The bark decoction relieves the pain and tension related to menopause.

Vedas consider river as the primordial womb. Any kind of creativity of bestowing of life seems to evoke a symbolism of motherhood. This explains the common practice of calling the rivers "mother" a custom which is most noticed in the case of river Ganges but common to many other rivers as well. This correlation explains the common practice of calling rivers as Mother Goddess. This shows the high respect given to motherhood and woman in Hindu practice.


Ancient art texts known as Silpa Shastras confirm that the potency of woman's fertility and its equation with growth, abundance and prosperity led to women becoming a sign of the auspicious. In fact, women served as apotropaic (a ritual to ward off evil) function whereby their auspiciousness was magically transferred to the monument upon which they were sculpted and painted. A royal palace, a Buddhist Stupa, Hindu shrine gained auspiciousness and fortune when adorned with the figure of a woman. A text of the tenth century, the Shilpa Prakasaha, that provides guidelines for practicing temple architects and sculptures categorically states that figures of women are a pre-requisite on the walls of temples. Its choice of phrase underscores the significance of the theme—"as a house without a wife, as a frolic without a woman the monument will be inferior quality will bear no fruit". Thus by the mere addition of feminine images it was believed that the whole complex could become sacred and auspicious. In fact the same text lists the different types who best sanctify a monument and instructs the sculptor on how to exactly carve the figures. The most important of these feminine images are: a) a woman dancing; b) a woman adjusting her anklets; c) a woman drummer; d) a mother with her infant in her arms; e) a woman smelling a lotus; f) a woman playing with a parrot.

In ancient times, a woman dancer was considered an inseparable part of any ritual worship in temples. Every temple of consequence had attached to it one or more dancers. Such women were known as Devadasis. The sacred dancers were symbolically married off to the presiding deity of the temple. Thus an "ordinary" woman was found holy enough to be married off to God, the lord of the temple. The transformation of the ordinary girl into Devadasi was marked by important rituals, after the completion of which the woman was considered "an ever auspicious woman" (nityasumangali). The traditional view holds that all women, by their very nature, share the power of the goddess. The devadasi initiation rites celebrate the merger of her individual female power with those of Goddess. It is this quality of 'eternal auspiciousness' in a woman that brought into existence this tradition since ancient times.

The importance of devadasis can be gauged from the fact that their presence was deemed necessary at the slightest event in the temple, for example bathing the deity in the morning or waving the sacred fire lamp in front of him. An important ritual was the participation in the twilight worship held at sunset. The junction of twilight, when the day slips into night, is considered extremely dangerous, and so the gods need all the support and attendance they can get. The ritual of waving the lighted lamp by a devadasi was considered the most effective method of warding off inauspicious state for the divine. Dance of course remained their most accomplished contribution; indeed the life of a devadasi required a strict adherence to dancing schedule and practice. Dance is potentially both sensual and hypnotic. Its passion performance helped to evoke the atmosphere of temple as a place removed from the mundane world, the temple as a celestial abode of the deity. Even mythology does not look down upon celestial dancing girls like Urvasi, Menaka and Rambha who got into all sorts of problems time and again.

The relationship of the body, senses, mind, intellect and soul is articulated in the Upanishads and is seminal to the world view where body is regarded as the abode of the divine and the divine descends in the body. Logically, the beautiful body, is the temple of God and dance is a medium of invoking the divine within. Each form of dance—the stance, the movement and the context—is imbued with deep spiritual and symbolic significance. Dance reflects a state of being at the highest order of spiritual discipline (saadhana) and is hence considered yoga. Its performance is a higher transcendental order. It is the medium which evokes the supreme state of bliss (aananda) and also the vehicle of release (Moksha). Through the medium of dance, a woman embodies the pro -genitive powers of cosmic energy, through which, according to ancient dance treatise (Natya sastra) 'the entire phenomenal world is kindled to life'.

The system in course of time degenerated to sex exploitation. The temple priest or someone in royalty would make devadasi lose her virginity. In the crudest terms she was forced to lose her virginity and was trained in erratic dancing. When a devadasi girl became a woman, she was allowed to wander around the country leading a life of prostitute. This abused system is therefore completely abolished in India today.

Wearing jewelry and adoring themselves with ornaments was natural to women in ancient days, as is today. Ancient texts identify sixteen different embellishments (solah singaar) which acknowledge and celebrate the beauty and divinity of the female form. Sixteen, a significant number, corresponds to the sixteen phases of the Moon, which in turn is connected with women's menstrual cycle. A woman of sixteen is considered to be at the peak of physical perfection in her life. The image of woman adjusting her anklets in temple sculpture was considered sacred enough to be carved out in temple walls, though the Indian tradition thinks of feet as impure. A woman has no associated impurity, anything and everything connected with her acquired a status over and above its material existence. The anklet is mentioned as the last of these sixteen ornaments.

As mother, woman is divine and is worshipped. A mother with her infant in arms is found in all temple sculptural displays. A lady playing a drum is another common representation. A drum represents thunder and cosmic energy. Hide is a symbol of regeneration. Wood of the drum is symbolic of tree itself which expresses material nourishment and support. The hollowness of the drum inside is a symbol of the womb and therefore birth. The oval shape of the drum is a symbol of fertility, the feminine creative power.

The lotus is the symbol of absolute purity; it grows from the dirty watery mire but it is untainted or unstained by it. Indian literature classifies women into four types of which the highest is Padmini, the Lotus Lady. An early medieval text describes the goddess as being: "Slender as the lotus fiber; lotus eyed; in the lotus posture; pollen dusting her lotus feet. She dwells in the pendant of the lotus of the heart" The parrot is the vehicle of the God of Desire-- Kama, the impeller of Creation. Kama is the God of Beauty and Youth. Creation is always preceded by desire; there can be no creation without desire.

In Nepal, A small Himalayan Hindu kingdom, a little girl is chosen to embody the Goddess for a few years (until the puberty), as the living image of Durga, as per the ancient tradition. Each year, the Kumari puts a Tika, i.e., a red auspicious mark on the forehead of the king, a gesture which signifies that she, goddess protects his legitimacy over the kingdom.

Believe it or not, there have been communities in India, throughout its long turbulent history, where women have played important roles, in the society. For example, within the Nair community in Kerala, all property rites are only for women in the family, and they still follow the matriarchal system. In that system, the mother is always the head of the house.

Shaving of the hair, wearing the red or white sari by the widows or their committing Sahagamana (dieing on the funeral pyre of their husbands) was never compulsory. The sati custom seems to have been confined to a small section of the Hindu Society. The idea of shaving hair, perhaps was that their lives should be similar to that of Sanyasins, grihastasrama dharma having been snatched away suddenly from them. Sati according to leading Hindu theologizers had its roots in ancient Greece. Pyre sacrifices similar to Sati were prevalent among the Germans, Slavs and other races beside Greeks. Sati was never practiced in Southern parts of India. Even in North India it was practiced mostly among the warrior tribes called Rajputs who were descendents of Kushans, Saks and Partihans, who were constantly attacked by Muslim invaders. The rare incident of Sahagamana from scripture's quote is the suicide of all the wives of Lord Krishna when this Avatar of Vishnu left Earth; it was voluntary and desperate out of extreme pains of perennial separation from their beloved husband. The other act in the Mahabharata parallel to Sati is the act of Madri, wife of Pandu, who killed herself on the funeral pyre, out of frustration and contempt for herself as she was the cause for Pandu's death. There is nothing in Vedas to show that Vedic culture had sanctioned Sati. Sati has absolutely no Hindu scriptural backing.

India had her own tradition of feminine culture and women's participation in spiritual and public affairs. From Sita and Draupadi of the Epics the tale ran through Rajput heroines to princesses like Rupmati of Malwa and Ahalyabai of Indore. But by 1800 A.D. there was very little trace of feminine culture or public life; the less attractive aspects of the Hindu conception of the place of women in society portrayed predominantly by the Western historians and Hindu reformists were dominant. The new observers of Indian Society therefore found little to praise in the condition of women save their resignation and patient acceptance of suffering and much to criticize. The targets of disapproval, though not all brought forward at the same time, were sati, infanticide, child marriage, the plight of Hindu widows, temple prostitution and forced dowry system. Ram Mohan Roy took up the fight against sati and infanticide in both of which the government intervened on general moral grounds. Swami Dayananda championed female education on vedic principles. The Ramakrishna Mission with its missionary techniques encouraged women teachers and preachers. Pandit Vidyasagar secured the First Act for raising the age of consent in 1860 and the legalization of widow marriage. Child marriages were stopped in 1929 by Sarada Act under which no male is allowed to marry under 18 and no female is allowed to marry under 14.

Bankim Chandra Chattarjee mobilized women into the freedom movement, creating the character of Bharat Mata, Mother India, in his novel published in 1882, Anandmath. Bharatmata has much in common with Goddess Durga and is a favorite theme in Indian Nationalism. Subhash Chandra Bose and Mahatma Gandhi were convinced that a New India could be born only with women's full contribution and both invented new political roles for them invoking the goddess as an example for Indian women. Bose also gave a prestigious position to woman in the army in the role of Captain Lakshmi Saigal, who he compared to 'Shakti' and Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. Gandhi often drew explicit parallels, in his address to women, between Sita's legendary fight against the demon Ravana and Indian women's fight against British.

The earlier invaders, who came to India, looted, plundered and destroyed temples and marauding soldiers abducted young girls and women. As life, property and the chastity of women were at peril, each community built a fortress of social norms around itself to protect women. Caste system became rigid starting with the raids of Mahmud of Ghazni and Goris. Many later day social evils of the Hindus such as rigid caste system, guarding the sanctum sanctorum in temples from entry except by the few (to prevent looting and plunder) child marriage (before a girl could be of an age attractive enough to be abducted) the forceful shaving of the head of the widows in higher castes (to make them less attractive to foreign soldiers), the wide spread practice of forceful Sati amongst martial race, became the norms during this unsettled period of Indian history. Hindu women lost their independence and became objects requiring male protection. In the process they also lost the opportunities they had earlier of acquiring knowledge and learning in spite of the emerging philosophic schools of thought and reforms safeguarding interests of women, like Brahmosamaj, Veerasaiva Movement and Shakta Schools of Thought that still find place in Hinduism today. Veerasaiva cult flourished nearly 1000 years ago in the Karnataka region, stood for a casteless society, opposed child marriage, approved widow marriage and disapproved Sati. The Sovereign Democratic Secular Government of India is constantly struggling with its enacted laws, rules and regulations to safeguard women's interests.

In the face of economic constraints and rigidity of traditional customs and attitudes, the limits of political reformism are all too clearly revealed. There has been abundance of reformation legislations enacted and awareness of sex inequality seems to have grown at least within elite circles. The benefit which women as a group derive from the prominence of few women in leadership positions is insubstantial. The plethora of population, occupational, property and other legislations, has clearly upgraded the quality of many individual women's lives. But these changes are not indicative of any significant improvement in the status of women as a whole, which stands progressively degenerated to a large extent since the time of early invaders, especially among  the low caste, illiterate and poor female population who are in a majority.

It is worth recalling here timely Upanishadic advice calling for the need of women's education.  o You all know the struggle of a Muslim girl  Malal Yousafzai  fighting  for the cause of girl education which was appreciated by the Nobel Prize Committee and she was awarded  a Nobel  peace Prize  in 2014 sharing with an Indian Kailash Satyarthi. Upanishad prescribes a ritual for ensuring the birth of a daughter endowed with learning.  The Mantra hints at the need for learning for woman. The greatest tribute to womanhood in Vedic Culture comes from the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On September 2,  2014 Prime Minister Modi  while addressing a gathering in Japan said: If the Hindu female   pantheon was likened with a Ministry, then Education was with Goddess Saraswati, Finance with Lakshmi, Security with Mahaakaali, Defense with Durga and Food Security with the Goddess Annapoorna!

The slow progress in the improvement of the status of women after Independence due to social, political and economic impacts is being felt by the working middle class of the Indian community of which Hindu community is a majority. Right now in India, compared to even countries like USA, one can see women have better respect in social and political life as well as in professional life. In India women have equal wages with men in all types of profession. A lady doctor gets the same salary a male doctor gets, and a lady engineer gets the same salary as a male engineer gets. In a society where woman have been progressively subordinated over a long period due to changing situations beyond control, this progress and presence of a woman Prime Minister or female chief ministers has not made significant land mark among illiterates, lower castes and the poor who are in majority. Much has been done and much more needs to be done to improve the literacy, economic and social conditions of Hindu women to bring back the past glory of Hindu woman of ancient and medieval periods.


This lecture has been prepared by N.R.Srinivasan by extracting, abridging and editing from the following publications for the Vedanta Class at Sri Ganesha Temple of Nashville:

  1. Swami Harshananda, An Introduction to Hindu Culture, Ramakrishna Math, Bangalore, India.
  2. Vincent A Smith, The Oxford History of India, Oxford University Press, Delhi, India.
  3. Sakunthala Jagannathan, Hinduism, Vakils Feffer and Simons Pvt. Ltd., Mumbai—400001, India.
  4. Exotic India Art, Exotic, Internet.
  5. Ed Viswanathan, Am I A Hindu? Rupa & Co., New Delhi, India.
  6. Mary Fainsod Katzenstein, Towards Equality……Political Prominence of Women in India, Asian Survey, Vol. 18, No.5, Internet.
  7. Viswam, Sanatana Dharma, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai—400007.
  8. Swami Nityananda, Symbolism in Hinduism, Central Chinmaya Trust Mission. Mumbai—400072.
Stephanie Tawa Lama, The Hindu Goddess and Women's Political Representation in South Asia, Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi.


(Through courtesy  P. Ramakrishna & Amit Kabra of L&T, India)
“O enlightening Mother! May you always shower your blessings in form of peace, happiness and success! May you always be pleased with us and may we never conduct any act that excludes us from your blessing gaze.”-- Atharvaveda 7.68.2
International Women’s Day in 2015 is the day to remember the importance and significance of the contribution of women to the humanity, the role they have played historically and are playing in the modern society, how they have preserve the family, the multiple roles they have played as reflected in the various scriptures, and how society will be enriched by their strength, patience, tolerance and endurance. The specific theme of the International Women's Day is "Inspiring Change". It aims to influence and strengthen the international community's commitment to put an end to violence against women. It intends to introduce a positive change to balance the status of women and men in an unequal world.
 The Indian philosophers have always argued that where women are respected, there Gods rejoiced. In that society, cultural values have blossomed to higher levels, the seeds of divinity sprouted, freedom blossomed and equal opportunities flourished. Recent days we witnessed, experienced, observed and read about the issues affecting women with respect to rape, violence, molestation, deterioration of morals, gender inequality, domestic violence, and so on.  Every Indian should look back at the history of their culture, learn from it, transmit them to the future generations, imbibe them, and enrich the lives of the humanity if we have to live in peace and harmony with clearly defined responsibilities for each individual.
If we have to restore the respect, reverence and regard women enjoyed over so many centuries, if we have to provide adequate safety and protection for women, and if we have to provide status and opportunity for women, every institution has to get involved to transmit the necessary values and morals in the society to instill the concept of dharma – the righteous principles. Societies are changing faster than anyone could have expected. Morals and responsibilities of the individuals are lagging unable to keep up with the changes. Traditionally respected values and morals are forgotten. Bharath is not practicing the very essence of the famous verse that declares, "may all be happy, may all be healthy, may all be noble, let nobody feel sad.”
 Education is the key for successfully instilling the abiding, enduring, and lasting values that preserve the noble and rewarding virtues that create harmony and peace in the society.

All the ills affecting the security of women have to be addressed by every institution, every organization and every concerned individual. There must be combined effort by all concerned agencies to impart the knowledge about the richness, beauty, and grandeur of the role of wife and mother played in various scriptures and how they were able to preserve the integrity, harmony, and peace of mind in the family, community and society. It is time for the family members, educational institutions, Hindu Temples, religious institutions and government to teach the relevance of the scriptures to the modern society and instill respect for both men and women.
The prosperity, well-being and success of any society depend on the respect women are accorded. Women are described to possess innate qualities that guide the society, unlimited patience to preserve the family, and endowed with compassion to shower blessings to the humanity.
 Let us remember the role women played over the centuries in various capacities across the globe, how they have preserved the indigenous cultures, how they maintained the family responsibilities, how they fought and protected their countries, how they are contributing to the economy and wellbeing of the societies, and how they can achieve the economic parity with men.
In Hindu religion, women have played significant role as wife and mother in preserving and protecting the family. Many scriptures have documented their unparalleled contribution in preserving the families. In fact she was so respected and revered in Hindu religion, she is equated with Goddess – Matru Devo Bhava.
 No country can come close to the status women have received in India. All the problems women are facing in India and all around today should be addressed by looking back at the roots that revered the position of women and chart out the future to provide the safety and security to women. All the families, educational institutions, religious institutions and political institutions must make every effort to instill, transmit and revitalize the traditional respect Hinduism has accorded to the women and inculcate the moral values found in ancient scriptures to redress the present day ills.