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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: The Deterioration of the Position of Women

Published: 11.05.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

Deterioration is what B.WALKER called a "terrible degradation", viz. degradation of the Hindu women in later times (infra). It is (WALKER 603) the switch from a healthy social system ("healthy-minded Aryans") to a system which is marred by social evils ("The lot of women in the lawbooks was abject".)

We distinguish between actual changes in the course of history which must be studied carefully (the métier of the historian) and personal views of individuals scholars. These views (as quoted by us) concern single elements of early Indian culture (in one case non-Indian culture).

Child marriage: A.L.BASHAM writes (p.167): "The child marriage of both parties, which became common in later times among well-to-do families, has no basis at all in sacred literature, and it is very doubtful whether the child marriage of girls was at all common until the late medieval period." Subordination of women: B.WALKER observes (602-603): "The notorious subordination of the Hindu woman is believed by many authorities to be entirely due to the lawgivers. To some scholars it is inconceivable that the healthy-minded Aryans who entered the Indian peninsula would have subjected their women to the fate they later suffered under the legalistic dispensation, or indeed that Aryan women would have allowed themselves to suffer the general contumely in which they came to be held. It was inevitable that the patriarchal social system of the Vedic age should place certain restrictions upon the female sex, but these were nothing compared to the terrible degradation of their later estate." Widow burning: ZIMMER writes (ZIMMER Al 331): "Later Indian culture was moulded by the Brahmans, to a large extent in a disastrous manner. These Brahmans considered the sati, common among individual tribes, an established religious custom from long ago. With the Brahmans' consolidation of power the custom was propagated and generalized with all its horrific Indian consequences.”

The criticism of the later period is linked with the praise of the early period: WALKER observes (603): "The Vedic Age produced a score of eminent female scholars, poets and teachers; in fact a number of the hymns of the Rig-veda were composed by women. But by the time of the lawgivers the literate woman had become anathema." Furthermore: "Certain sacrifices could be performed only by women." But later on "A man could not eat with his wife since she had shudra status even if born of brahmin parents." (All women are Shudras, infra) 603. ALTEKAR thinks that in the Vedic age "Girls were educated like boys and had to pass through a period of Brahmacharya." And that many women "... used to become distinguished poetesses..." (338). "There was, however, a gradual decline in female education as the period advanced." (340) And "... the general deterioration of the position of women, that gradually and imperceptibly started at about 1,000 B.C.,... became quite marked in about 500 years." (ALTEKAR 345)

More moderate than the first-named authors -- and a bit more convincing in her language -- is K.K.YOUNG. In a long chain of parallel sentences she underscores (p.9) what WALKER had called a "terrible degradation": "Upper-caste women's decreasing status is apparent in these texts [the law-books] written by men. This can be detected not only by how their role changed in the Vedic rituals, but also by how their body was described. Whereas once their womb was understood as a fertile field, now it became but a vessel for male seed. Whereas once their fertility was emphasized, now their impurity was underscored. Whereas once they were married only when mature (after puberty), now they were married before puberty.... Whereas once they had real input into the choice of marriage partner, now they were marginal to the process of arranged marriage. Whereas once both daughters and sons were viewed as important..., now sons were not only highly preferred (A man could attain heaven only if his son performed his cremation.) but daughters came to be viewed as serious liabilities."

H.-P.SCHMIDT observes in connection with the reduction of the age of marriage: "the stricter rule will have been the later one." (p.79) This applies to all aspects of the gender problem.

Deterioration was the development in broad lines, but there were deviations. BASHAM says (p.154): "The Arthasastra, in many ways more liberal than the religious law-books, lays down regulations appreciably milder than those we have outlined."

Moreover, deterioration was not a single event, but a series of individual processes with little chronological connection. Of special social importance are niyoga (condemned by the law- books) and suttee (praised by the law-books). See also the Glossary for kalivarjya. We add tonsure of the widows (recommended), chastity of women (prescribed) and dowry (possibly encouraged). Deterioration (the switch over from normality to trouble) was hardly spread over a millennium; maybe it was spread over half a millennium, say 300-800 A.D. or 200-700. The Gupta period would be at the beginning of the 'switch over' (320-500). Witwenelend existed already in pre-Christian time. The result of deterioration remained unchanged up to the present day, Tantric 'reforms' being an exception.

The general development (broad trend towards deterioration) is unexplained. The same applies to the individual processes (niyoga etc.). There are as a rule traditional explanations, explanations which cannot convince the modern scholar. See BRUHN Ah for the problem of explanation ('Begründungsproblematik': 18-23) The modern discussion is not free from speculation. Referring to gradual ethnic interpenetration, ALTEKAR observes: "The introduction of the non-Aryan wife into the Aryan household is the key to the general deterioration of the position of women, that gradually and imperceptibly started at about 1,000 B.C., and became marked in about 500 years. The non-Aryan wife [called Shudra in the texts] with her ignorance of Sanskrit language and Hindu religion could obviously not enjoy the same religious privileges as the Aryan consort." (ALTEKAR 345) This development had a negative effect on the position of women, and other factors ("new forces") caused the lowering of the "marriageable age of girls" (ALTEKAR 346 foll.).

ALTEKAR construes a dark period between 200 B.C. and A.D. 300 when the Hindu population was reduced by a series of invasions (25 percent being killed, 25 percent being enslaved). A wave of "despondency," caused by the invasions, facilitated the spread of a comparatively new ideal, the ideal of renunciation. According to ALTEKAR this was of course not a final change but a transitional development (350-352, 54-55). The parents were now afraid that a fully developed girl might join a Jaina or Buddhist nunnery instead of being married. ALTEKAR: "We may therefore [because of the risk of renunciation] conclude that during the period 400 B.C. to A.D. 100 the marriageable age was being gradually lowered, and the tendency on the whole was to marry girls at about the time of puberty." (ALTEKAR 55) N.J.BARNES observes in fact (without drawing specific conclusions) on Buddhist nuns: "The opportunity to lead such a life of personal spiritual development, study and teaching, without time-consuming family obligations, offered possibilities to women that were unusual in the society of the Buddha's day." (42) There was thus indeed the possibility of a secular factor in renunciation: the general problems of the new family and the special problem of growing dharmic restrictions could have worked as a deterrent to matrimony. But this is only a theory and has by the way nothing to do with the fictitious wave of despondency.

As a second speculative theory we mention the derivation of early marriage of women from Islam.

BASHAM says "Some have suggested that the fear of marauding Muslims encouraged parents to marry their daughters in childhood and to confine their lives more strictly in their homes; but both these customs existed in pre-Muslim times, so this cannot be the only reason." (167-168) The 'Muslim argument' is probably more common than may appear at first sight since wide circles are not aware of the chronological relation between the events. The Sultanate of Delhi started in 1175, perhaps a millennium after the deterioration. It can nevertheless be argued that the Muslim invasion strengthened an old trend.

WEZLER Do observes in connection with dowry "From the point of view of Hindu apologetics, Moslems and the colonial power are responsible for everything bad." (305) This argument appears also in the present context. Refer to OJHA 393-395.

Refer for the general position of women in Jainism and Buddhism to BALBIR and BARNES.

The relation between Tantrism (§§ 12.2 and 13.4) and Hinduism was close. Tantrism became influential when the process of deterioration (§ 2) was already in full sway (A.D.350 foll.: GONDA II 31). The Tantric ideology no doubt contained unexpected liberal tendencies (position of women), but there were no conflicts between Hinduism and Tantrism, the latter being an offshoot of the former. 'Liberal' Tantrism had little if any influence on 'orthodox' Hinduism.

We are here not concerned with the discrimination of women in other religions. (Discrimination may be found everywhere.) We mention only deterioration in Judaism, Islam and Christianity (in contrast to a satisfactory position of women in early Judaism etc.). HEILER has collected the relevant data: "Women were not repressed with respect to religious services until later Judaism." (420) "Such repression of women regarding religious life was also not uncommon to the history of Islam."(421) "Originally, congregations recognized the Pauline rule: Here no-one is considered a mere man or woman for you are all one and the same in Christ... A counter-movement arose quite early, however, and the norm became mulier taceat in Ecclesia." (422) "An unnatural misogyny was particularly widespread among monks, even among great minds of the church such as Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas." (HEILER 423)

* * * * *

We use the context of deterioration to include a few words on the purely mythological yuga doctrine, the Hindu doctrine concerning the ages of the world. The yuga theory presupposes four yugas (cosmic periods): krita, treta, dvapara and kali, descending in scale from best to worst. The four terms are not derived from different metals as in the case of the analogous Greek concept (gold, silver, brass, iron) but from different throws of the Indian dice game. European authors call the kritayuga occasionally the 'golden age' (e.g. VIRKUS 35).

The four yugas have been described in the ancient texts with special emphasis on the first yuga and on the last. The kritayuga was also called the satyayuga, 'yuga of truth.' It was the age of righteousness, the 'Golden Age': the rules of caste and the precepts of the Vedas were strictly obeyed. By contrast, the kaliyuga was the age of depravity: There was a 'mixture of different varnas' (normally anathema), social groups no longer observed the prescribed activities, religious rites were ignored, the subjects were oppressed by the kings, famines and plagues tormented humanity (VIRKUS 35). The kaliyuga started according to the orthodox in 3102 B.C. (time of the mythical Mahabharata war). -- JACOBI 201a; WALKER 6-8; MICHAELS 300-303; GONZALEZ 6-8.

In changed form, the kaliyuga concept was at some point of time (infra) used in order to explain or justify certain changes in the social structure. The argument possibly started in the Gupta period when the influence of the Brahmans was increasing (VIRKUS 37). The prohibitions were introduced, thus runs the theory, as counterweight to the loose morals in the fourth yuga.

The logic of the matter was that in the virtuous early period, hoary past, a license or two did no harm, the righteous forefathers (or the world at large) could afford it. But later humanity was not the same. There was thus a trend (first millennium A.D.) to call the abolished customs and institutions 'kalivarjya', i.e. '(previously allowed, but) not allowed in the kaliyuga' (KANE Ka 213-232). It became habitual to justify changes with this tag; there was no other expedient of introducing and justifying new social rules.

KANE feels "that definite rules on kalivarjya began to be prescribed about the fourth century AD" (KANE Ka 218). The abolished customs were inter alia levirate for widows (niyoga: § 9.1, JOLLY 71) and the unorthodox types of “sonship” (§§ 4 and 6, JOLLY 73). The abrogation of the levirate must have had perceptible consequences for many women.

Inscriptions of the 5th through 8th centuries conjure up the image of a just king who lives in the kaliyuga, but overcomes it (VIRKUS passim). The just king of the present, representing by his very person a new kritayuga, is contrasted with the reckless contemporary rulers who stand for the kaliyuga. VIRKUS emphasises that in the relevant period (5th-8th C.) the influence of the Brahmans was increasing (VIRKUS 37). The new kritayuga (theoretically an advantage for the women) is a topic of court poets.

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Picture Credits: ASW - Aktionsgemeinschaft Solidarische Welt e.V., BERLIN.

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