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.[1] Elements which determine the role of women in Hinduism include scriptural texts, historical era, location, context within the family and tradition.

Ancient texts[edit]

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.

Ramayana[edit]

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.[2]

Manu Smriti[edit]

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[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[4]

Historical context[edit]

In modern times, the Hindu wife has been someone who must, at all costs, remain chaste or pure.[5] 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. [6] The Mahabharata and Manu Smṛti assert that the gods are delighted when women are honoured, or else all spiritual actions are futile.[7]

Gender of God[edit]

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.[8]

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.[citation needed] 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[edit]

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.[9]

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.

Another text, the Bhagavata Purana states that the Mahabharata was written specifically for women (and for men who were not in the priestly Brahmin caste):

"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."[10]

Property rights[edit]

Arthashastra and Manusamhita provide written sources about a woman's right to property or stridhan, (literally, wife's 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].

Marriage[edit]

A Hindu bride.

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[11] 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)[12]

The wedding hymn in the Rigveda (RV 10.85.37 - 10.85.38) speaks of "husbands" (plural) for a single wife, but this may have referred to a mythological character.[12]

Dowry[edit]

The practice of providing a dowry is not endorsed by orthodox Hinduism and "may be a perversion of Sanskritic marriage prescriptions."[13] 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.[14] As a result, the prevalence of dowry giving increases with the processes known as "Sanskritisation" and urbanization; abuse of the practice has thus increased.[13] 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[edit]

A Hindu widow in India (seen in this engraving from 1774–1781). The sari was required to be of coarse cloth, preferably white.

In 2007, three percent of the population of India were widows.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] Such restrictions are now strictly observed only by a small minority of widows, although some sense of inauspiciousness about remarriage lingers.[16]

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[edit]

Hindu sati where a Hindu women is burned alive with the corpse of his Husband.

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.[18] 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[edit]

An image of Akkamahadevi installed in a temple at her birthplace, Udathadi.
"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."

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Jayapalan "Indian society and social institutions." Atlantic Publishers & Distributors 2001 p145 - 146 ISBN 978-81-7156-925-0.
  2. ^ Valmiki Ramayana Ayodhya Kanda, 100.49
  3. ^ The Laws of Manu. Penguin UK. 1991. p. Chapter 9. ISBN 9780141966625. 
  4. ^ Domestic Violence Against Women: Legal Control and Judicial Response. p. 15. ISBN 9788176298964. 
  5. ^ Sarkar T. "Hindu wife, Hindu nation: community, religion and cultural nationalism." Permanent Black, New Delhi. 2001.
  6. ^ Jean A. and Dubois A. Beauchamp H. K. (trans.) Hindu manners, customs, and ceremonies.] Clarendon Press, Oxford 1897.
  7. ^ Mācave P. "Hinduism, its contribution to science and civilisation." 1979. ISBN 978-0-7069-0805-3. "Yatra ... Where women are worshipped, there the Gods are delighted. But where they are not worshipped, all religious ceremonies become futile." Mahabharata 13 - 45.5 and Manu Smriti]] 3 - 56.
  8. ^ Argola Sotrum. Valaya website.
  9. ^ Narayanan V. Women of power in the Hindu tradition.
  10. ^ Bhag-P 1.4.25 Srimadbhagavatam website.
  11. ^ "Manusmriti." Sanskrit documents website.
  12. ^ a b Majumdar R. C. and Pusalker A. D. (ed.) "The history and culture of the Indian people." Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay 1951. Volume 1 The Vedic age p394.
  13. ^ a b Miller B. S. "Sex and gender hierarchies." Cambridge University Press 1993 p383 - 384 ISBN 0-521-42368-6
  14. ^ Fowler J. "Beliefs and practices." Sussex Academic Press, The Sussex Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices, Brighton. p54 ISBN 1-898723-60-5.
  15. ^ "Aid plan for India's 33m widows." BBC News 22 December 2007.
  16. ^ a b Bowker J. H and Holm J. "Women in religion." Continuum, London 1994 p79 ISBN 0-8264-5304-X.
  17. ^ Fuller C. J. "The camphor flame: popular Hinduism and society in India." Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey 2004 p23 ISBN 0-691-12048-X
  18. ^ "Sati and Hinduism." Hindu Human Rights website.

Further reading[edit]

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