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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: [06] Two Attitudes

Published: 13.06.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

Pride and compassion are important subjects in Indian thought (largely left aside). We derive their significance in the present context from the connection with the issue of predicament. The negativa (lack of pride, lack of compassion) are also considered.

Our description of pride is based on its main objects -- suttee (i), marriage (ii), battle (iii): Glorious suttee versus shameful widowhood, successful marriage versus social fall, victorious battle versus dishonourable defeat. The relation between pride and related concepts (honour, shame, status, prestige, fame) has not been discussed.

Our first item is pride in connection with suttee: Pride i. OLDENBURG Ro says in connection with the Roop Kanwar case: "... as time went on, her [Roop Kanwar's] sexuality would pose problems and be perceived as a threat to the honor of both families; a suttee would convert impending shame into glory." (OLDENBURG Ro 118; cf. S.STEVENSON 207.) Shame is shame of the widow who is virtually imprisoned, wears a tonsure and remains largely invisible for foreigners. The widow is shame or misery embodied. To have a widow in the house is painful, but a family member who committed suttee instils respect. The widow is a picture of misery, the suttee transforms the “widow” into a quasi-goddess. The sati (goddess or at least person with elevated status) is glory. Modern Hindus have stressed the right of the widow to perform a suttee, but (as can be expected) they have not recommended it. See also OJHA 393-395.

Extension of suttee to lower castes is well-known (§ 12.2) and part of “Sanskritization”: status climbing through the adoption of Brahmanical customs and through the adoption of upper caste customs in general.

Our next subject in the area of pride will be marriage: Pride ii. Preserving the chastity of the bride and of the wives in general is the basic way of protecting the honour, Urdu izzat, of the family (SYED To 151). There are additional problems. Before the marriage (perhaps years before the marriage) the situation must be studied by the family: Which girl (in the same village/in another village?) is a suitable bride when local marriage restrictions: caste, exogamy, hypergamy (marrying up), are duly considered? (KAPADIA Ch.5, S.STEVENSON 46-47, ALTEKAR 72-79.)

Considerations of honour as understood in the respective communities have produced decisions (up to death penalty) against inter-caste marriages and (much worse) against Hindu-Muslim unions. "... actions that are inappropriate defile the 'honour' and 'purity' of the caste, family and lineage.... " "'The prestige of the family is in the hands of its daughter.' " (CAKRAVARTI Fa 310). Hindutva ideology emphasizes "women as the repositories of the 'honour' of the Hindu nation." (CHAKRAVARTI Fa 311).

The other problem connected with marriage is the dowry (§ 7.1), and to the immediate dowry expectations must be added additional demands of the in-laws after the marriage (e.g. on the occasion of a child birth in the family). Dowry murders are well-known. Dowry suicides were performed by the girls to spare the parents the dowry expenses (WEZLER Do 290-291: wave of suicides). Indologists know that for a marriage even middle class families invite hundreds of guests to a wedding. The father of the bride has to give according to a manual "clothing, gold chains... for the bridegroom; a sari, a gold chain... for the mother-in-law of the bride; a sari and a gold-chain for the sister-in-law; clothing and cash for the father-in-law... cash for all close relatives of the bride-groom (particularly paternal and maternal uncles)..." MICHAELS 119. SYED summarizes: to marry off one's daughter is a matter of 'pride and purse' (SYED To 113). The European visitor expects in many cases a financial disaster of the family of the bride. How the family can survive if there are two or three daughters and no son is in fact a mystery. No man in his senses would endure the economic problems (not to speak of the other endless inconveniences), were the marriage not a question of prestige. In other words: it is necessary to marry all daughters off in a correct and respectable manner. S.STEVENSON 58-111 and MICHAELS 115-119. The dowry is theoretically part of an exchange of gifts, but de facto the wealth moves largely from the family of the bride to the family of the bridegroom. The dowry (spending and receiving wealth) can also be seen as an instrument of status climbing.

An important demographic factor is the change of the sex ratio (number of women nowadays reduced by abortion in order to avoid dowry pressures). In some regions there are not enough brides.

Our third subject is the pride of the warrior: Pride iii. In contrast to the two preceding subjects we are now concerned with pride in its narrowest sense, pride of the warrior, pride of the dynasty, pride of the king.

Rajasthan, formerly "Rajputana", deserves a special reference. Rajput history is a unique chapter in Indian history. The Rajputs, ruling caste of Rajasthan (Indians, but not completely indigenous: WITZEL 117), split into numerous dynasties which were hostile to each other, and all Rajputs later became deadly enemies of the Muslim invaders. The Rajputs entered Indian history in post-Christian times. The Rajputs were fighters and they fought for their honour. They were not identical with the Kshatriyas of the old varna system.

The general traits of Rajput mentality are well-known: "A glorious death was to be welcomed -- for the men in battle, and for the women in a fiery end through the rites of jauhar or suttee." (NARASIMHAN 118)

Rajput history and Rajput pride are closely linked with the name of Lt. Col. James TOD: "political agent to the western Rajput states during the nineteenth century" (NARASIMHAN 56). About the infant Rajput, J. TOD observes, "'The shield is his cradle, the dagger his plaything'." (NARASIMHAN 128). "'It is because I love her [my wife] so much that I have to kill her'... Ergo, he 'raises the poniard to her rather than witness her captivity, and he gives the opiate to the infant whom, if he cannot portion and marry to her equal, he dare not see degraded'" (127). "Tod's volumes on Rajasthan are full of narratives illustrating how the Rajputs' impetuosity and recklessness born of an obsession with 'honour' often turned the slightest provocation, real or imaginary, into a fight to death..." (122). To sum up: we find with the Rajputs oversensibility in the question of honour, and thirst for revenge if honour is violated. King Yudhishthira (Mahabharata), timid and helpless witness of Draupadi's (his wife's) shocking humiliation, is the other extreme.

Jauhar (Glossary) is the equivalent of the male warriors' fight to death. When defeat was imminent, the soldiers found death in battle, while the women died in a jauhar. To this must be added individual homicide undertaken by the Rajput to save the honour of his wife and to avoid humiliating marriages of his daughters (NARASIMHAN 127). The killing of daughters for whom a mate of equal or higher rank could not be found (a husband of lower rank would be a disgrace for the family) is a Rajput variety of female infanticide. The problem of the bridegroom could apparently be seen in advance (when the daughter was still an infant).

The cult of voluntary death existed in Rajasthan also outside the Rajput community. A peculiar brand are the Charans (WEINBERGER 58-63 and foll.). These persons practice self-mutilation, voluntary death and "murder in the family" as means of exacting debts. Through some magical causality the crime, combined with adequate curses, was supposed to become a terrible threat to the debtor. -- Rajput women are not timid but resolute. NARASIMHAN mentions "illiterate women retorting and arguing with men and lambasting them, in buses and in shops" (130).

More recently, the collective pride of Rajasthan became the pride of Hindu India. "James Tod's (1782-1835) tales of Rajput chivalry and honour and his accounts of the valour with which they resisted Mughal invaders acquired new currency as they were recreated in stories, poems, plays and even children's books in nearly every Indian language."(THARU II 74)


The very concept of “the predicament of women" stimulates a consideration of the forms of possible compassion: Compassion with the child widow who is ill-treated, compassion with the girl who must leave the natal family and move to the family of the bridegroom, compassion with the sonless woman, c. with the superseded wife, c. with the widow who faces the funeral pyre, c. with the surviving widow, c. with the wife who is throughout her life afraid of being burned when the husband dies (or of surviving as an ill-treated widow). There are about a dozen Sanskrit-words for "compassion", but they are mostly synonymous. Cruelty (lack of compassion) is the frequent opposite.

We concentrate on the surviving widow. Satis were often burned in a hurry, and were inaccessible to relatives and friends. They could not discuss the matter with their parents or with anybody else (MANI Ey: 402). "... Marshman records that the son of the widow was asked: 'Why have you murdered your mother?' [setting the pile alight] and the son replied, 'What could I do. It is the custom'." (DATTA Sa 218) A 19th century author describes the mob sneering at the miserable widow on her way to the funeral pyre: "The agony of the expiring victim is made the subject of savage jokes and brutal merriment of the surrounding spectators who look on suttee as an enjoyable spectacle" (DATTA Sa 217). "On the death of her husband she [the sati) would not expect sympathy from any quarters. She was a target of abuse, fun and vilification." (218)

All this seems very unlikely. In other cases "'Standers-by look at the initiate with superstitious shudders, viewing her with dumbfounded curiosity, considering her some higher supernatural being'." (ZACHARIAE 596) There was thus occasional respect (and sympathy), but respect was perhaps not the rule. The European mob enjoyed executions, and we have further descriptions from India which support the above shocking quotations: "Amidst this scene of sorrow and misery it may not be amiss to glance a moment at the behaviour of the surrounding mob. Here nothing but merriment, laughter, noise, and obscenity abounded in all directions." (MAJOR 138-139). The mob (in India: in Great Britain) is a subject in its own right. In the case of the in-laws one would expect more understanding, but little is said about the in-laws. Satis who leave the funeral pyre at the last moment (some could try to run away) cannot expect understanding. They are guilty persons, most of them being killed by those present.

It must be mentioned that, apart from the Muslims, the discussion on suttee was started by Europeans (merchants, travellers, officials) and -- as far as we know -- not by Indians of the pre-colonial period. Exceptions have been mentioned (Bana, Tantrists).

The Jainas have repeatedly criticized animal sacrifice (Veda etc.), but they never criticized suttee. Widow burning (Rajasthan etc.) was no subject in the endless dogmatic discussions of Jaina mendicants in Rajasthan (often discussions on the protection of microscopic or submicroscopic living beings). May be the enormous Jaina literature ignored suttee completely.

To describe the life of the widow we give below several descriptions (supplement to § 12.3 and 12.5).

DATTA Sa describes the position of the widow in the family: "A widow seldom inspired any sympathy. She led a miserable life. She bore the brunt of insults and taunts hurled upon her by her near relations and acquaintances. She was held guilty for the death of her husband. A usual comment made in the family was 'well, she is the ill-stared one who has eaten up her husband'" (DATTA Sa 208). § 12.5 supra: khasam khani.

In the case of the widow one may speak of a reversal of compassion: "The terrible thing... is that the younger, and therefore the more unprotected and helpless the widow is, the more it proves how vile her sin must have been." (S.STEVENSON 204) According to this logic, a rich debauchee deserves sympathy because his prosperity should be the reward for virtue in previous existences. See also § 12.5 on sexual abuse of widows (S.STEVENSON 207).

Lack of compassion may be extreme as demonstrated by the autobiographical record of a Marathi lady (§ 12.5). The tenor of that essay is not considerably mitigated by the fact that the suffering of the widow is mainly connected with the first year of widowhood. "After one year, if [!] the widow is staying with her parents, she may be allowed to wear some ornaments." The anonymous authoress also admits the special cruelty in the case of her particular caste, but we do not know whether or not the treatment was much better in other castes. THARU I 358/362.

Life of widows in a north-Indian village has been described by S.WADLEY (1995). Grown-up sons of widows are of paramount importance; contacts with the native family are not rare and often indispensable, and the widow's efforts to develop for a nuclear family a "strategy for survival" are almost in the centre of the report. But we also read about a superseded wife (a young widow, but barren) that her husband "... mistreats her. Clothed in rags, she is often beaten." (WADLEY 112) Reports on beating of superseded women are unusual. WADLEY's article appeared 75 years after the book of S.STEVENSON, and this no doubt accounts for the relative improvement in the condition of widows (WADLEY). Probably the improvement was general.

M.A. CHEN has studied witches (widows treated as witches) in Northern India (Bihar etc.). There is belief in witches, and widows are harassed as such and/or harassed and murdered in order to secure land. This is a special form of criminality against women in rural areas. It seems that further studies are necessary to recognize the full extent of the machinations. CHEN Ru 279-284.

Different is general violence (rape, torture etc.) against women (Amnesty International May 2001), mainly against marginalised women (tribe women etc.) and committed mostly by upper-caste perpetrators.

It can be objected that compassion or lack of compassion, helpfulness or lack of helpfulness always depend on the case. It is nevertheless clear that institutions are powerful and thus largely responsible for the course of events.

Cruelty against animals is not unknown. Mahatma Gandhi was aware of the problem.

Refer for the two attitudes in Jainism to BRUHN Ma (pride) and BRUHN Ah 61-65 (compassion). Compassion is a difficult element in Jaina dogmatics as made clear by W.J.Johnson (see BRUHN Ah). Refer also to WILEY. -- In the Jaina community suttees were exceptional (SANGAVE 175).

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