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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: [06] Greatness of the son, greatness of the mother

Published: 22.05.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

The son is important for the mother because he stabilizes her status in the family, because he is a support in hard times (especially when the mother becomes a widow), because he loves, adores the mother, because he is a guarantee against supersession (§ 9.2, supersession often practiced if the wife is childless or without sons) and because a father with sons is, or should be, a happy and loving husband. By contrast, the wife without sons must suffer: She has a low status in the family.

The son is all-important. In a Vedic text we read: "O Agni [god of fire], this woman should find a mate, for Soma [here the personification of the famous divine beverage], the king, makes her a happy person; bearing sons, she should become the chief wife; gone to her spouse, this blessed wife shall rule." (SYED To 146) And the opposite case (also Vedic): "A wife without sons is an abandoned one... A wife without sons is in the clutches of the nirriti (calamity, destruction personified)." (SYED To 146) WINTERNITZ summarizes "O woe is the woman who does not carry out the provided role of a mother [birth of sons]. O woe the unmarried, woe the childless, woe the mother of daughters, the widow." (21).

The following verse is hyperbolic:

Manu 2.145. The teacher is ten times greater than the tutor, the father is a hundred times greater than the teacher, but the mother is a thousand times greater than the father. [Tutor is Sanskrit upadhyaya, teacher is Sanskrit acharya.]

KANE quotes: "A father who is an outcast may be abandoned, but a mother... [though an outcast] is never an outcast to the son." (580).

In a modern text (WINTERNITZ 21) we read: "The happiness of an Indian woman is inextricably linked with her being the mother of a son. Motherhood increases at the same time the respect she is accorded in the family."

WINTERNITZ cites two verses in praise of the mother from the Mahabharata (DEUSSEN 437-444, WINTERNITZ 20):

A man is old, a man is unhappy, a man's world is empty -- when he looses his mother.

There is no (refreshing) shadow like the mother, no refuge like the mother, no shelter like the mother, no loving being like the mother.

We have lists of faults which entitle the husband to marry another woman (supersession), and lack of sons is among the accepted faults. Typical is Manu Smriti 9.81 (§ 9.2) in: OLIVELLE: 9.77-9.84 'Repudiation of a Wife'):

9.81. A barren wife may be superseded in the eighth year; a wife whose children die, in the tenth; a wife who bears girls, in the eleventh; but a foul-mouthed wife at once.

WINTERNITZ furthermore says (21) that in a Vedic text a "repudiated woman" is defined as a "woman without sons." But he also mentions (22) a virtuous wife who will attain heaven even if she has no son (Dharma Shastra), a ray of hope in the depressing atmosphere.

The greatness of the wife is praised time and again: KANE 579-580. -- 579:

Oh! how great is the audacity of wicked men who heap abuse on women that are pure and blameless, like robbers who while themselves stealing raise a hue and cry 'stop O thief!' Man in privacy utters words of cajolry to woman, but there are no such words after the woman dies; while women, in gratitude, clasp the corpses of their husbands and enter the fire. -- Varahamihira, 6th c.

The mother is to be worshipped as a member of the sacred triad: mother, father, teacher, although she has no special place in the triad (Manu 2.225-237).

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

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Some texts contain  footnotes  and  glossary  entries. To distinguish between them, the links have different colors.
  1. Acharya
  2. Dharma
  3. Mahabharata
  4. Manu
  5. Sanskrit
  6. Shastra
  7. Smriti
  8. Upadhyaya
  9. Vedic
  10. Winternitz
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