In Vedic culture it is taught that every man should view and respect every woman as his mother, and every girl with the same concern and care as his own daughter.
The nature of motherhood of women was always stressed in Vedic India. After all, we often find them to be the foundation of family life and of raising the children properly.
They usually provide the love and understanding and nurturing for the development of our children in a way that is unlikely from most men.
Bhishma Pitamaha also said:
“The teacher who teaches true knowledge is more important than ten instructors. The father is more important than ten such teachers of true knowledge and the mother is more important than ten such fathers. There is no greater guru than mother.” (Mahabharata, Shantiparva, 30.9)
Our own life is a gift from our mother’s life. We were nourished by her, we spent nine months in her womb, and her love sustained us. Even now we are loved by our mother. This includes Mother Nature and Mother Earth, which is called Bhumi in the Vedic tradition.
The Earth planet is also like a mother because everything we need to live, all our resources, come from her. As we would protect our own mother, we must also protect Mother Earth.
Women are to be adorned:
“Women are worthy of worship. They are the fate of the household, the lamp of enlightenment for all in the household. They bring solace to the family and are an integral part of Dharmic life. Even heaven is under the control of women. The Gods reside in those households where women are worshipped and in households where women are slighted all efforts at improvement go in vain.” Manusmriti 3-56
“The wife should do Agnihotra (yagna), Sandhyavandana and all other daily religious rituals. If, for some reason, her husband is not present, the woman alone has full rights to do yagna.” Rigveda Samhita, part 1, sukta 79, sloka 872.
That women and men are equal in the eyes of dharma is made explicit in a beautiful sloka from the Rigveda: “O women! These mantras are given to you equally (as to men). May your thoughts, too, be harmonious. May your assemblies be open to all without discrimination. Your mind and consciousness should be harmonious. I (the rishi) give you these mantras equally as to men and give you all and equal powers to absorb (the full powers) of these mantras.” Rigveda 10-191-3.
Indeed the virtues of the loyal and virtuous (pativrata) wife are comparable to only those of agnideva (the fire god). “… This agnideva is pure and worthy of worship just as pativrata women.” Rigveda Samhita, Part -1, sukta 73, sloka 829.
During Hindu marriage ceremonies the following slokas are read out by the grooms but, these days, little understood. “O bride! I accept your hand to enhance our joint good fortune. I pray to you to accept me as your husband and live with me until our old age. …” Rigveda Samhita Part -4, sukta 85, sloka 9702
Male and Female, the two basic components of our human society, depend upon each other and each one of them constitutes about half of the population.
Over years sociologists and other scholars have tried to assess the problems faced by women and to study changes in their status around the globe in general and in Indian society in particular.
We find that man and woman have been established as the two wheels of a chariot.
The status of Hindu women in India has gone through several changes during various historical stages. Historically speaking, women in India have passed through two phases of their life – the period of subjugation and the period of liberation.
At times she has been suppressed and oppressed and at times she is regarded as the deity of the home. From the Vedic age till today, her status and position has been changing with the passing of time.
Therefore, it is necessary to analyse the status of Hindu women in the various ages to assess her real position today.
The Rig-Vedic society was a free society. The Aryans evidently preferred male child to female child. However, females were as free as their male counterparts.
Education was equally open for boys and girls. Girls studied the Veda and fine arts. Women never observed enjoyed freedom in selecting their mates. In the family, they enjoyed complete freedom and were treated as Ardhanginis.
In domestic life women were considered to be the supreme and enjoyed their freedom. Women helped their husbands in agricultural pursuits. Husband used to consult his wife on financial matters.
Unmarried daughters had share in their fathers’ property. Daughter had full legal rights in the property of her father in the absence of any son.
The woman was regarded as having an equally important share in the social and religious life because a man without woman was considered as an inadequate person.
She regularly participated in religious ceremonies with her husband. There were many scholars who composed hymns of Rig Veda. Lopamudra, Gargi and Maitreye were the pioneers among them. Lopamudra, the wife of Agasti rishi, composed two verses of Rig Veda.
It may be concluded that during vedic period the status of women was equal to that of men. Women got the same education as men and participated in the philosophical debates.
Prabhu has remarked,
“This shows that men and women were regarded as having equally important status in the social life of the early period’.
Status of Women in the Epics:
Epic age, in the history of female freedom, may be regarded as a golden age. Women had been accorded an honorable status in the society. Most of the female characters of Ramayana and Mahabharata were well educated.
The Ramayana illustrates the Hindu ideal women of India. In Mahabharata we find instances where women gave counsel and advice to men on social and religious issues. Women had an effective role in social and political life of the then society.
Status of Women in the Smritis:
While speaking about woman and her relation to man, Manu says “Women must always be honoured and respected by the father, brother, husband and brother-in-law who desire their own welfare, and where women are honoured, there the very Gods are pleased, but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite even could yield rewards”.
Manu observes that the family, in which women suffer, is bound to be ruined, while the family in which women are happy is bound to prosper.
He further enjoins that every person is to maintain peace with the female members of the household.
He also advises every householder to treat his daughter as the highest object of tenderness and honour mother as the most venerable person in the world.
Status of Women in the Buddhist Period:
In the Buddhist period women came to occupy a distinctly superior place. They had their own Sangha called Bhikshuni ‘Sangha’, which provided avenues of cultural activities and social services. They got ample opportunities in public life.
Status of Women in Medieval Period:
The first Muslim invasion took place in India in the eighth century. During this period the Hindu society was engaged in evolving, under the leadership of Sankaracharya, a technique to face the expanding Buddhism.
Sankaracharya re- emphasised the supremacy of Vedas to counter the spread of Buddhism, and the Vedas had given a status of equality to women.
India experienced a second Muslim invasion in the eleventh century when Mohammad Ghazni conquered India. From this period till the middle of the eighteenth century, when the British rule was established in the country the breakdown of social institutions, the vast migration of people and the economic depression in the country contributed to a general decline of social life, particularly among women.
The ‘Purdah’ system was followed which resulted in seclusion of women. Education of women in whatever form came to be stopped. Child marriage was started. During this period the inhuman practice of ‘Sati Pratha was in vogue. Purdah Pratha, Sati Pratha, child marriage, polygamy etc. were the main social evils of this period.
However, during the fifteenth century, the situation underwent some change. The Bhakti movement organised by Ramanujacharya during this period introduced new trends in the social and religious life of Indian women.
The saints like Chaitanya, Nanak, Kabir, Meera, Ramdas and Tulsi stood for the right of women to religious worship.
Hence, this movement, atleast, provided religious freedom to women.
As a result of this freedom, they secured certain social freedom also. The saints encouraged women to read religious books and to educate themselves.