Women in Hinduism
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The role of women in Hinduism is often disputed, and positions range from equal status with men to restrictive. Hinduism is based on numerous texts, some of which date back to 2000 BCE or earlier. They are varied in authority, authenticity, content and theme, with the most authoritative being the Vedas. The position of women in Hinduism is widely dependent on the specific text and the context. Positive references are made to the ideal woman in texts such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, while some texts such as the Manu Smriti advocate a restriction of women's rights. In modern times, the Hindu wife has traditionally been regarded as someone who must at all costs remain chaste or pure. This is in contrast with the very different traditions that have prevailed at earlier times in Hindu kingdoms, which included highly respected professional courtesans (such as Amrapali of Vesali), sacred devadasis, mathematicians and female magicians (the basavis, the Tantric kulikas). Some European scholars observed in the nineteenth-century Hindu women were "naturally chaste" and "more virtuous" than other women, although what exactly they meant by that is open to dispute. In any case, as male foreigners they would have been denied access to the secret and sacred spaces that women often inhabited. Mahabharata and Manusmriti asserts that gods are delighted only when women are worshiped or honoured, otherwise all spiritual actions become futile.
Gender of God
There is a wide variety of viewpoints within the different schools and sects of Hinduism concerning the exact nature and gender (where applicable) of the Supreme person or being; there are even sects that are skeptical about the existence of such a being. Shaktism, for example, focuses worship on the goddess Devi as the supreme embodiment of power, or Shakti (feminine strength; a female form of God). Vaishnavism and Shaivism both worship Lakshmi with Vishnu and Parvati with Shiva respectively as beings on an equal level of magnitude (the male and female aspects of God). In some instances such as with Gaudiya Vaishnavism, specific emphasis is placed on the worship of God's female aspect (Radharani) even above that of her paramour Krishna. Therefore, it could be said that Hinduism considers God to have both male and female aspects, as the original source of both.
"O Parameshwari, (The 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."
Elsewhere Shiva and Vishnu are also described as possessing feminine qualities represented through their Ardhanarishvara and Mohini forms respectively. There have also been male devotees who have claimed to be incarnations of goddesses, such as Narayani Peedam and Bangaru Adigalar of Melmaruvathur, Tamil Nadu who claim to be forms or avatars of the goddess Narayani.
Hindu feminists such as Phoolan Devi have also used the goddess Durga as their icon. Traditions which follow the advaita philosophy consider that ultimately the supreme being is formless without any particular gender, or is transcendental to such considerations.
Study of scriptures
Several female sages and seers are mentioned in the Upanishads, the philosophical part of the Vedas, notable among them being Gargi and Maitreyi. The Sanskrit word for female teachers as Acharyā (as opposed to Acharya for teacher and Acharyini for teacher's wife) reveal that women were also given a place as Gurus.
The Harita Dharmasutra (of the Maitrayaniya school of Yayurveda) declares that there are two kind of women: Sadhyavadhu who marry, and the Brahmavaadini who are inclined to religion, they can wear the sacred thread, perform rituals like the agnihotra and read the Vedas. Bhavabhuti's Uttararamacharita 2.3 says that Atreyi went to Southern India where she studied the Vedas and Indian philosophy. Shankara debated with the female philosopher Ubhaya Bharati, and Madhava's Shankaradigvijaya (9.63) mentions that she was well versed in the Vedas. Tirukkoneri Dasyai (15th century) wrote a commentary on Nammalvar's Tiruvaayamoli, with reference to Vedic texts like 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."
In several schools for Vedic priests, many graduates are women.
Arthashastra and Manusamhita are sources about the women's right to property or ‘Stridhan’, (literally meaning, property of wife). It is of two types: maintenance (in money or land), and anything else like ornaments given to her by her family, husband, in-laws, relatives and the friends of hers and her husband. This becomes the wife's personal property and she has exclusive rights over this property (money, land and personal property). Manu further subdivides this into six types - the property given by parents at marriage, given by husband's family when she is going to her husband’s house, given by her husband out of affection (not maintenance which he is bound to give), and property given separately by brother, mother and father [Manu IX 194]. Pre-nuptial contracts are also mentioned where the groom would agree to give a set amount of brideprice to both parents and the bride. 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).
Scriptures insist 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 had to be given a share in their father’s property, equal to one-fourth from every brother's share, since it is assumed that the married daughter had been given her share at marriage [Manu IX. 118]. If the family has no sons, the appointed daughter is the sole inheritor of the property [Manu IX 127].
In the Manu Smriti, on the other hand, 8 types of marriage are specified: two involve bedecking the bride with costly garments and ornaments by the bride's family and 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. According to Manusmriti there are eight different types of Hindu marriages. Among the eight types all didn't have religious sanction. The last four were not religiously defined and were condemned. These are: Brahma Marriage, Daiva Marriage, Arsha Marriage, Prajapatya Marriage, Gandharva Marriage, Asura Marriage, Rakshasa Marriage, Paishacha Marriage. In Brahma marriage, once the boy completes his Brahmacharya Ashram (religious student hood), he is eligible to get married. His parents then approach the parents or guardian of a girl belonging to a good family and ask them for the hand of their daughter for their son. The father of the girl also carefully chooses the groom who is well versed in Vedas and of a noble character, this is how a marriage was arranged. The bride came with only two garments and few ornaments. According to Dharmashastras "Brahma Vivah" is the best marriage among all.``The son born of the Brahma marriage sanctifies 21 GENERATION.-(that of the Daiva marriage 14 generations that of Arsha marriage and Kayah marriage six each.')
Rigvedic verses suggest that the women married at a mature age were probably free to select their husband, also after attaining maturity, if the family were unable to facilitate a good marriage the women can choose a suitable partner for herself. "9.90-91. 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."  The wedding hymn in the Rigveda (RV 10.85.37-38) speaks of "husbands" (plural) for a single wife, but this may have a mythological character.
The practice of dowry is the exchange of money or goods from the bride's family to a willing "groom or groom's family at the time of marriage.". Dowries are linked to caste status: 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 increases with the processes known as "Sanskritisation" and urbanization; abuse of the practice has thus increased in recent years. The practice of dowry is not endorsed by orthodox Hinduism and "may be a perversion of Sanskritic marriage prescriptions." Although dowry is not considered to be a true religious practice of Hinduism, gender relations surrounding marriage have played a significant role in Hindu religion. With that idea, The Ramayana helps bridge the gap between religious text and social example in order to demonstrate the roles of genders in Hindu society. Within the Ramayana there is mention of women being submissive in order to fulfill their religious role, but the practice of dowry is not specifically referred to. Today, dowry is still practiced in India and considered to be a basis of marriage in South Asia. The modern Hindi word for dowry is dahej, which comes from the Arabic loanword jihayz (variously spelled jihāz, jihez, etc.), which literally means furnishings or equipment (i.e. brought by the wife for her new family).
Widowhood and remarriage
In traditional families, widows were, and in some cases still are, required to wear white sarees. The presence of widows at religious rites in such families 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 severe restrictions on remarriage. Such restrictions are now strictly observed only by a small minority of widows, though some degree of ritual inauspiciousness lingers.
In NAsmR 12.45-48, there are three types of punarbhu, or a remarried widow: 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. Although this list is not exhaustive, it makes it clear that a punarbhu is not just any widow. Indeed, she may not have been a widow at all (as in the second case). In the other two cases, she is a childless widow, which is an important distinction. Although many texts do seem to address the remarriage of widows and sometimes permit it, it is not considered an ideal situation. A punarbhu is often not given the same rights as a woman who was married only once. The son of a punarbhu, a punarbhava, is often listed as one who is unfit to invite to a sacrifice, as is the husband of a remarried woman. The punarbhava also does not inherit as would a 'natural son'.
As of 2007, 3 per cent of the population of India consists of widows.
Sati was ideally performed as an act of immortal love, and was believed to purge the couple of all accumulated sin. (Sati was practiced by the ancient peoples of Scythia, Egypt, Scandinavia and China).
Though no scripture mandates sati, the Puranas, part of the Hindu Smriti, mention sati as highly meritorious in several instances. A few examples of sati are recorded in the Hindu epics, which are otherwise replete with influential widows. Some examples from the Mahabharata include:
- Several of Vasudeva's wives (Rohini, Devaki, Bhadraa and Madira) [M.Bh. Mausalaparvan 7.18].
- Madri, second wife of Pandu, who held herself responsible for his death, performed sati. His first wife Kunti did not. [M.Bh. Adiparvan 95.65]
Female gurus and saints
- 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-poet, and a mystic of the Kashmiri Shaivites.
- Bahinabai and Kanhopatra: Hindu poet-saints of the Varkari sect of Maharashtra. Kanhopatra was a courtesan and dancing-girl by profession
- Sarada Devi – Wife of the saint Ramakrishna and revered as an embodiment of the Divine Mother
- Sati Godavari Mataji
- Sudhira Basu
- Gauri Ma
- Sister Nivedita
- Jayapalan (2001). Indian society and social institutions. Atlantic Publishers & Distri. p. 145,146. ISBN 978-81-7156-925-0.
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- Abbe Jean Antoine Dubois, Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies, translated from the French by Henry King Beauchamp, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897)
- (ManuSmriti 3.56) (Mahabharata 13-45.5), Mācave, Prabhākara (1979). Hinduism, its contribution to science and civilisation. ISBN 978-0-7069-0805-3. "In Manu Smriti 3.56 and Mahabharata 13-45.5 it was said: Yatra ... Where women are worshipped, there the Gods are delighted. But where they are not worshipped, all religious ceremonies become futile"
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- Bhag-P 1.4.25
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- Bradley, Tamsin and Emma Tomalin, "The Contemporary Dowry Problematic: Exploring the Role of the Study of Religion in Bridging the Gap between Theory and Practice", Religions of South Asia (2009), 251-274.
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- Hinduism and the status of women
- Women in Hinduism
- Manu Smriti
- Manu Smriti and Women
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