Women in Hinduism
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The role of women in Hinduism is disputed, with positions ranging from a status equal to men to restricted. Hinduism is based on a number of texts, some of which date back to before 2000 BCE. They vary in authority, authenticity, content and theme; the most authoritative texts are the Vedas. The portrayal of women is dependent on the specific text and context. References are made to the ideal woman in texts such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, while other texts (such as the Manusmṛti) advocate restricting women's rights. In modern times, the Hindu wife has been regarded as chaste or pure. This contrasts with earlier traditions in Hindu kingdoms, which included respected courtesans (such as Amrapali of Vesali), sacred devadasis, mathematicians and female magicians (the basavis and the Tantric kulikas). Some European scholars observed that nineteenth-century Hindu women were "naturally chaste" and "more virtuous" than other women, although it is unclear what that meant; as male foreigners, they would have been denied access to sacred spaces inhabited by women. The Mahabharata and Manusmṛti assert that the gods are delighted when women are honoured, or all spiritual actions are futile.
Gender of God
There is a wide variety of viewpoints in Hindu schools and sects about the nature and gender (if applicable) of the Supreme Being; some sects are skeptical about the existence of such a being. Shaktism, for example, worships the goddess Devi as the embodiment of power, or Shakti (feminine strength). Vaishnavism and Shaivism worship Lakshmi (and Vishnu) and Parvati (and Shiva), respectively, as equal beings (the male and female aspects of God). In Gaudiya Vaishnavism, emphasis is placed on the worship of God's female aspect (Radharani) over that of her paramour, Krishna. Hinduism considers God to have 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.
Shiva and Vishnu are described as possessing feminine qualities in their Ardhanarishvara and Mohini forms, respectively. Male devotees have claimed to be incarnations of goddesses; Narayani Peedam and Bangaru Adigalar of Melmaruvathur, Tamil Nadu claim to be avatars of the goddess Narayani.
Several female sages and seers are mentioned in the Upanishads (the philosophical portion of the Vedas), notably Gargi and Maitreyi. The Harita Dharmasutra (of the Maitrayaniya school of Yayurveda) describes two types of women: Sadhyavadhu (who marry) and Brahmavaadini (who study and perform rituals). 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 wrote a 15th-century commentary on Nammalvar's Tiruvaayamoli, referring 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.
In several schools for Vedic priests, many graduates are women.
The Arthashastra and the Manusmṛti are sources concerning women's right to property (stridhan, "wife's property"). There are two types: maintenance (in money or land) and objects given to her by family and friends. This becomes the wife's personal property, over which she has exclusive rights. Manu subdivides this into six types: property given by parents at marriage, given by her in-laws when she goes to her husband’s house, given by her husband out of affection (not maintenance, which he is obligated to give), and property given by her brother, mother or father [Manu IX 194]. Prenuptial contracts are mentioned, in which the groom agrees to give a bride price to the bride and her parents. Such property belonged to the wife, and was inaccessible to the groom, his family or her parents except in an emergency (sickness, famine, robbery or for performing holy deeds).
The scriptures say that a mother's property belongs to her daughters [Manu IX 131] in the following order of preference: unmarried daughters, married, poor daughters and married, rich daughters. When a father died, unmarried daughters receive a share in their father’s property equal to one-fourth of each brother's share (it was assumed that the married daughter had been given her share at marriage [Manu IX. 118]). If a family has no sons, a daughter is the sole inheritor of the property [Manu IX 127].
A sacred part of the Hindu wedding ceremony involves walking around a sacred fire seven times accompanied by a Vedic mantra in which the groom addresses his wife. In the Manusmṛti, eight types of marriages are specified: two involve bedecking the bride with costly garments and ornaments by the bride's 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. They are: Brahma marriage, Daiva marriage, Arsha marriage, Prajapatya marriage, Gandharva marriage, Asura marriage, Rakshasa marriage and Paishacha marriage. In a Brahma marriage, when a man completes the brahmacharya ashram (religious studies) he may marry. His parents then approach the parents (or guardian) of a girl from a good family, and ask them for the hand of their daughter for their son. The father of the girl carefully chooses the groom, who is well versed in the Vedas with a noble character.
The Manusmṛti says, "Let mutual fidelity continue until death." (IX 101) Rigvedic verses suggest that women married at an older age were probably free to select their husband; if the family could not facilitate a good marriage, the women could 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 be a literary device.
A 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 influenced by caste; in higher castes a dowry is expected from the girl's family, and in lower-caste families the dowry is paid to the girl's family. The number of dowries increases with Sanskritisation and urbanization, and abuse of the practice has increased in recent years. Dowry is not endorsed by orthodox Hinduism, and "may be a perversion of Sanskritic marriage prescriptions." Although dowry is not considered to be a truly Hindu practice, gender relations surrounding marriage have played a significant role in Hinduism. The Ramayana bridges the gap between religious text and social example to demonstrate gender roles in Hindu society. The Ramayana mentions women being submissive to fulfill their religious role, but dowry is not specifically mentioned. Dowry is still practiced in India, and considered a basis of South Asian marriage. The Hindi word for "dowry" is dahej, which derives from the Arabic loanword jihayz (also spelled jihāz and jihez) meaning "furnishings" or "equipment" (brought by the wife for her new family).
Widowhood and remarriage
In traditional families, widows were (and sometimes still are) required to wear white saris. The presence of widows at religious rites in such families is considered inauspicious. Widows are expected to devote their lives to the austere pursuit of religion. These restrictions are traditionally strongest in the highest castes, where the head is frequently shaved as well. The highest castes also have severe restrictions on remarriage. Such restrictions are now strictly observed by only a small number of widows, although a degree of ritual inauspiciousness lingers.
In NAsmR 12.45-48, there are three types of punarbhu (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 without brothers-in-law who can give her offspring. A punarbhu is often refused the same rights as a woman who 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. A punarbhava does not inherit. In 2007, three per cent of the population of India were widows.
Sati is the immolation of a woman on her husband's funeral pyre, willingly or through compulsion.. Sati was ideally performed as an act of love, and was believed to purge the couple of all accumulated sin. It was practiced in Scythia, Egypt, Scandinavia and China).
Although no scripture mandates sati, the Puranas (part of the Smriti) commend sati. Several 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 (the second wife of Pandu), who considered 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 about the human soul
- Lopamudra: Wife of Agastya
- Andal: Eighth-century Tamil poet, and one of the twelve Alvars
- Karaikkal Ammeiyar: Sixth-century Tamil poet, one of the sixty-three Nayanmars
- Mangayarkkarasiyar: Pandya Queen, wife of King Nedumaranan and one of the Nayanmars
- Isaignaniyaar: Tamil poet and one of the Nayanmars
- Avvaiyar: Sangam period Tamil poet, ethicist and social reformer
- Akka Mahadevi: Kannada poet of the 12th-century Veerashaiva Bhakti movement
- Mirabai: Mystical poet and devotee of Krishna
- Lalleshwari: Poet and mystic of the Kashmiri Shaivites
- Bahinabai and Kanhopatra: Poets of the Varkari sect of Maharashtra; Kanhopatra was a courtesan
- Sarada Devi: Wife of Ramakrishna, revered as an embodiment of the Divine Mother
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