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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: [01] General

Published: 05.06.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

The epics are a literary corpus in its own right. The extent and character of the material and the systematic study by J.BROCKINGTON recommend a careful treatment of the epics in our article. The recorded facts are almost always based on the life in the royal houses.

Mahabharata and Ramayana.

The Mahabharata is a combination of different genres: narratives, Dharma Shastra (close connection with the Manu Smriti and with other Dharma Shastras: JOLLY § 10) and philosophy (Bhagavadgita etc.). The Ramayana is much shorter than the Mahabharata and epic throughout (main story and interpolated stories); didactic matter is limited: BROCKINGTON 14.

We add a few general references (mainly chronological). J.BROCKINGTON: 1-40 (Introduction); 485-486 (Mahabharata and Manu Smriti); 148 (dating of the epics: partial results); 377-379 (dating of the Ramayana [and of the short Ramayana version in the Mahabharata]); 379 (formation of the two epics: according to one author: 400 B.C.-300 A.D.).

Dates of the Ramayana suggested by BAILEY xvi and BAILEY 353 (following J.BROCKINGTON): Ramayana Stage 1 500-300 B.C.; Stage 2 300 B.C. to 100 A.D.; Stage 3 zero to 300 A.D.; Stage 4 circa 4th to 12th centuries A.D. -- Stages 1-2 = Books 2-6, Stage 3 = Books 1 and 7, Stage 4 = later passages (with good manuscript support).

We do not know 'which of the two epics is the earlier one'. See below 'social aspects' and see 'Gupta period' in the glossary.

MEYER We: The author has a carefully organized Register, e.g. 'devara' (vicarious father), 'Brautpreis' (bride-price), 'Buhldirnen' (prostitutes), 'Ehebruch' (adultery), 'Gatte' (husband).

Mahabharata: Cultural and social aspects (204-231).

Below follow items (BROCKINGTON 217-231) which are connected with the position of women:

In the Mahabharata sati "was regarded as normal" (BROCKINGTON 217 / 217-218), and Witwenelend was not unusual (222-223). Female ascetics were rare (218-219). It was "a woman's duty to serve her husband faithfully" (219). But "women were not particularly secluded" (219-220). "... marriage did not normally take place till after puberty" (220), but marriage before puberty was prescribed in at least one book of the Mahabharata (220-221). Misogyny had started (221). A bride-price was condemned but dowry was discussed (221). “Perpetual tutelage” (women are never independent) had started (221). Niyoga was obviously not rare (221-222, 225). In the husband's family a wife is to be treated friendly (221). Food prepared by a menstruating woman was not to be eaten (223). A wife's period must be used by the husband (223; Savitri's father, see below). Preference for sons does not seem to be very pronounced (224).

Suttee was not infrequent, it was 'normal' (supra). No doubt, the widows of the innumerable slain warriors did not commit suttee. Remarriage in one form or another no doubt existed. But here as elsewhere the world of fiction need not be identical with the world of reality, i.e. there were perhaps more suttees in those days than admitted by the author(s) of the Mahabharata.

Regarding the subject of deterioration in the Mahabharata, BROCKINGTON observes "... the position of women in the Mahabharata tends to deteriorate over time. A degree of freedom implied by various incidents of the main narrative gradually gives way to an increasing emphasis on a woman's subordination to her husband..." (pp.224-225).

Ramayana, Cultural and social aspects (pp.425-440)

In the case of the Ramayana, the gradual deterioration of the position of women is visible in a chronological summary: BROCKINGTON employs in many cases his system of four stages (supra). There are, naturally, some events which do not fit in this picture.

The respect for the father (Dasharatha) and for the three mothers (Rama and his three brothers) is noteworthy: The four sons and one daughter-in-law show extreme loyalty to their parents (429). The mutual affection between Rama and Sita is proverbial. In a general way, female devotion towards the husband grows in the course of the epic. The rejection of the innocent Sita is, however, "totally out of character with the rest of the narrative" (431). There is no pressure to produce children (431); Rama's twin-sons are shadowy figures, born at the end of the epic when Sita is exiled. The age of marriage is no criterion of an earlier or later stage, but Rama and Sita probably married as adults (432). Polygyny was normal, inter alia in the family of Rama (432-433, supra). Rama's monogamy and his refusal to marry again, when he had banished Sita, are unusual (433). Adultery was possible in the first stage of the Ramayana (the monkey-chief: 433). Emphasis on chastity (guarding the wives) existed from the second stage onwards: 433. Seclusion of women of the royal family increased in the course of time: In the earliest period the royal women appeared openly in the city, but gradually an elaborate harem system was introduced (433-434). There is only one reference to menstrual impurity, whereas it is mentioned frequently in the Mahabharata (434). We hear of married women living in ashramas and of single female ascetics (434). Witwenelend is mentioned but once, and in a later stage of the epic (435: fourth stage; see § 12.3). Niyoga was still current (435), but not frequent (433), at any rate rarer than in the Mahabharata (433). Suttee does not start before the third stage (435) and does not figure in the main plot. "... widowhood is the greatest calamity that can befall a woman" (435, fourth stage).

Savitri (Mahabharata, infra) and Sita (Ramayana) are paragons of female devotion. It is worthy of note that LESLIE quotes on p.2 two critical feminists: "Sita, Savitri, Anusuya [sic] and various other mythological heroines are used as the archetypes of such a woman [the ideal Indian woman] and women themselves are deeply influenced by this cultural ideal..."... [But] "Now we must refuse to be Sitas..."

BROCKINGTON summarizes: "The growing strictness with regard to sexual morality is reflected in the steady trend away from women's participation in public life to their almost complete seclusion within the home and especially the inner apartment of the king's palace" (433, details above).

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

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  1. Bhagavadgita
  2. Dharma
  3. Mahabharata
  4. Manu
  5. Rama
  6. Ramayana
  7. Shastra
  8. Shastras
  9. Smriti
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