Women in Hinduism
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The stated role of women in Hinduism varies from one of equal status with men, to one of restriction in many aspects of life. Elements which determine the role of women in Hinduism include scriptural texts, historical era, location, context within the family and tradition. Some see Hinduism itself as the repressive force. Others argue that the lower status of Hindu women is the result of culture and custom rather than religion, citing the Vedic literature where women may be given the status of goddess, and noting their shakti (force) without which, the status of man would be nil. For example, in one legend, Ram must make a dummy of his wife, Seeta, in order to perform Yagiya (prayers of devotion) when Sita is away as her presence was essential to the act.
Hinduism is based on a large number of ancient texts which vary in authority, authenticity, content and theme. For example, among the most authoritative and oldest scripture is the Vedas. The role of women in Hinduism depends greatly on the specific text to which one refers and its context. For example, in the two grand Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, the role of women is seen in a positive light, while in other texts such as the Manu Smriti, the oldest "remembered" (rather than "given") text relating to religion and legal duty, women's rights are restricted.
In Ramayana, lord Ram advises not to trust a women while addressing his brother Bharata stating:
Do you keep your womenfolk pacified? Are they duly protected by you? I hope you do not repose excessive faith in them and do not confide your secrets to them.
Manu Smriti preaches more restricted rules for women considering women as a property.
Men must make their women dependent day and night, and keep under their own control those who are attached to sensory objects. Her father guards her in childhood, her husband guards her in youth, and her sons guard her in old age. A woman is not fit for independence. --Manusmriti 9.2-3
Manu Smriti took extreme position in describing lust of women.
It is the nature of women to seduce men in this (world); for that reason the wise are never unguarded in (the company of) females. For women are able to lead astray in (this) world not only a fool, but even a learned man, and (to make) him a slave of desire and anger. One should not sit in a lonely place with one's mother, sister, or daughter; for the senses are powerful, and master even a learned man. --Manusmriti 2.213-215
In modern times, the Hindu wife has been someone who must, at all costs, remain chaste or pure. This is in contrast with very different traditions of earlier times. For instance, in the Hindu kingdoms, the roles of women included the highly respected professional courtesans (for example, Amrapali the royal courtesan of Vaishali kingdom); the devadasis (girls whose life is devoted to worship); female mathematicians; and female magicians (the basavis, the tantric kulikas).
In the 1800s, Hindu women were described by European scholars as being "naturally chaste" and "more virtuous" than other women. However, being male and foreign, they would have been denied access to the most secret and sacred spaces of Hindu women of that time. The Mahabharata and Manu Smṛti assert that the gods are delighted when women are honoured, or else all spiritual actions are futile.
Gender of God
Hindu schools and sects vary widely in their teaching about the nature and gender (if applicable) of the supreme being. Some sects are skeptical about the existence of such a being. Followers of Shaktism, for example, worship the goddess Devi as the embodiment of shakti (feminine strength or power). Followers of Vaishnavism and Shaivism worship Lakshmi (and Vishnu) and Parvati (and Shiva), respectively, as equal beings (the male and female aspects of God). Followers of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, emphasise the worship of God's female aspect, Radharani over that of her paramour, Krishna. Followers of Hinduism believe their Gods have both male and female elements, that are integral to their origin. Male deities, such as Shiva and Indra are believed, in some traditions, to worship the goddess, Durga:
- "O Parameshwari, (supreme goddess) who is praised by the husband of the daughter of Himalayas (Shri Shiva)... O Parameshwari, who is worshipped with true feelings by the husband of Indrani (Indra) please give us the spiritual personality, the victory, the glory and destroy our enemies.
Shiva and Vishnu are sometimes described as possessing feminine qualities that are represented through their Ardhanarishvara and Mohini forms, respectively. Some male male devotees have claimed to be incarnations of goddesses. For example, Narayani Peedam and Bangaru Adigalar of Melmaruvathur, Tamil Nadu, claim to exist as forms or avatars of the goddess Narayani. Hindu feminists such as Phoolan Devi have used Durga as their icon. However, traditions which follow the advaita philosophy, believe that ultimately, the supreme being is formless without any particular gender, or is transcendental to such considerations.
Women in the scriptures
Several female sages and seers are mentioned in the Upanishads, the philosophical part of the Vedas. Among them are Gargi and Maitreyi. In Sanskrit, the word acharyā means a "female teacher" (versus acharya meaning "teacher") and an acharyini is a teacher's wife, indicating that some women were known as gurus.The Harita Dharmasutra (of the Maitrayaniya school of Yajurveda) states there are two kind of women: sadhyavadhu who marry, and the brahmavaadini who are religious, wear the sacred thread, perform rituals like the agnihotra and read the Vedas. Women may graduate from the schools for Vedic priests.
Female characters appear in plays and epic poems. The 8th century poet, Bhavabhuti describes in his play, Uttararamacharita (verse 2 - 3), how the character, Atreyi, travelled to southern India where she studied the Vedas and Indian philosophy. In Madhava's Shankaradigvijaya, Shankara debates with the female philosopher, Ubhaya Bharati and in verses 9 - 63 it is mentioned that she was well versed in the Vedas. Tirukkoneri Dasyai, a 15th-century scholar, wrote a commentary on Nammalvar's Tiruvaayamoli, with reference to Vedic texts such as the Taittiriya Yajurveda.
- "Out of compassion, the great sage thought it wise that this would enable men to achieve the ultimate goal of life. Thus he compiled the great historical narration called the Mahabharata for women, laborers and friends of the twice-born."
Arthashastra and Manusamhita provide written sources about a woman's right to property or stridhan, (literally, wife as property). It is of two types: maintenance (in money or land), and secondly, anything else such as ornaments given to her by her family, husband, in-laws, relatives and the friends. Stridhan becomes the wife's personal property and she has exclusive rights over it. Manu further subdivides this property into six types: the property given by parents at marriage; given by her husband's family when she is going to his house; given by her husband out of affection (not maintenance, which he is bound to give); and property given by a brother, or mother or father (Manu IX 194). Pre-nuptial contracts are mentioned where the groom would agree to give a set amount to both the bride and her parents. Such property belonged to the wife alone and was not to be touched by the groom or his family or her parents except in emergencies (in sickness, in famine, threatened by robbers, or for performing holy deeds).
Manu insists that a mother's property belongs solely to her daughters [Manu IX 131], in order of preference: unmarried daughters, married but poor daughters, married and rich daughters. When a father died, unmarried daughters were given a share in their father’s property, equal to one-fourth from every brother's share. It was assumed any married daughter had been given her share at marriage [Manu IX 118]. If the family had no sons, the appointed daughter was the sole inheritor of the property [Manu IX 127].
The most sacred part of the Hindu wedding ceremony involves walking in a circle around the sacred fire in seven steps to a Vedic mantra where the groom addresses his wife. In the Manu Smriti eight traditions of marriage are specified: Brahma, Daiva, Arsha, Prajapatya, Gandharva, Asura, Rakshasa and Paishacha. Two involve the bedecking of the bride with costly garments and ornaments by the bride's family and the groom's family; two involve the groom's family giving a gift to the family of the bride; and the other four do not involve an exchange of gifts. The last four were not defined in religious terms and were condemned.
In the Brahma marriage, the prospective groom must have attained his Brahmacharya Ashram (religious student hood). His parents approach the parents or guardian of a girl belonging to a good family and ask them for the hand of their daughter. The father of the girl also considers whether the groom is well versed in the Vedas and is of noble character. The bride comes with only two garments and few ornaments. According to Dharmashastras, the "Brahma Vivah" is the best marriage among them all.
- "The son born of the Brahma marriage sanctifies 21 generations, that of the Daiva marriage 14 generations, that of Arsha marriage and Kayah marriage six each."
The Manu Smriti emphasises,
- "Let mutual fidelity continue until death. This may be considered the summation of the highest law for husband and wife." (Manu Smriti IX 101)
Rigvedic verses suggest that women who married at a mature age were probably free to select their husband.
- "A woman can choose her own husband after attaining maturity. If her parents are unable to choose a deserving groom, she can herself choose her husband." (Manu Smriti IX 90 - 91)
The practice of providing a dowry is not endorsed by orthodox Hinduism and "may be a perversion of Sanskritic marriage prescriptions." Dowries are linked to caste: among higher castes a dowry is expected from the girl's family; among lower caste families the dowry is paid to the girl's family. As a result, the prevalence of dowry giving increases with the processes known as "Sanskritisation" and urbanization; abuse of the practice has thus increased. The modern Hindi word for dowry is dahej, which comes from the Arabic loanword jihayz (variously spelled jihāz, jihez, and so on), literally meaning furnishings or equipment, that is, chattels brought by a wife for her new family.
Widowhood and remarriage
In 2007, three percent of the population of India were widows. In traditional families, widows were, and in some cases still are, required to wear white sarees. The presence of widows at religious ceremonies is considered inauspicious. Widows are expected to devote their lives to an austere pursuit of religion. These restrictions are traditionally strongest in the highest castes, in which the head is frequently shaved as well. The highest castes also have restrictions on remarriage. Such restrictions are now strictly observed only by a small minority of widows, although some sense of inauspiciousness about remarriage lingers.
Narada Smriti (12.45-12.48) notes three types of remarried widow (punarbhu): the virgin widow; the woman who abandons her husband to take up with another man and then returns to her husband; and the woman who has no brothers-in-law who can give her offspring. The list indicates that the punarbhu had particular characteristics, for example, whether or not she had children and whether or not she was a widow at all. A punarbhu is not given the same rights as a woman who was married only once. The son of a punarbhu, the punarbhava, is regarded as unfit to invite to a sacrifice (as is the husband of a remarried woman) and does not inherit naturally.
sati as a verb, is the act of immolation of a woman on her husband's funeral pyre and as a noun, refers to one who either immolated herself willingly or did so through societal inducement and compulsion. Sati represents an act of immortal love, believed to purge the couple of all accumulated sin. Although no scripture mandates sati, the Puranas, part of the Hindu Smriti, mention sati as highly meritorious in several instances. Only a few examples of sati are recorded in the Hindu epics, which are, otherwise, replete with influential widows. Some examples from the Mahabharata include some of the wives of Vasudeva (Rohini, Devaki, Bhadraa and Madira) (M. Bh. Mausalaparvan 7.18); and Madri, the second wife of Pandu, who held herself responsible for his death (M.Bh. Adiparvan 95.65).
Female gurus and saints
- "What differentiates the Hindu brilliance in logic and rational thought from its Hellenistic parallel is that Hindus were very aware of the intellect's limitations. They understood that only the feminine intuitive mind was capable of grasping the deepest spiritual truths in powerful flashes on intuition."
- Gargi Vachaknavi - A female Rishi who challenged Yajnavalkya on questions relating to the human soul.
- Lopamudra - Wife of Sage Agastya
- Andal - A 8th century Tamil saint-poet and one of the twelve Alvars.
- Karaikkal Ammeiyar - A 6th century Tamil saint-poet, one of the sixty three Nayanmars
- Mangayarkkarasiyar - A Pandya Queen, wife of King Nedumaranan, one of the sixty three Nayanmars
- Isaignaniyaar - A Tamil saint-poet, one of sixty three Nayanmars
- Avvaiyar - A Sangam period Tamil saint-poet, ethicist, social reformer.
- Akka Mahadevi - A prominent figure and Kannada poet of the 12th century Veerashaiva Bhakti movement.
- Mirabai – Hindu mystical poet and a devotee of Krishna whose bhajans are sung all over India.
- Lalleshwari – Hindu saint-poetess, and a mystic of the Kashmiri Shaivites.
- Sarada Devi – Wife of the saint Ramakrishna and revered as an embodiment of the Divine Mother
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