The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: Glossary

Published: 22.06.2008
Updated: 04.07.2015

Chronological suggestions are underlined. See also WITZEL 125-126 (early history). -- The definitions of many terms (artha, chakra...) are adjusted to the exigences of the present study.

Artha Shastra

Knowledge of the practical arts (artha), in particular name of a specific work belonging to this field: Kautilya's Artha Shastra. Authorship disputed. Subjects: civil law, policy, warfare, administration etc. The A.S. is famous as the only existing work in its genre. It is related to the Dharma Shastra tradition and is now dated in the 3rd/4th centuries A.D. There is in the A.S. a special chapter on the duties of the Superintendent of Courtesans.


Particular mode of sitting/standing; yoga exercise. GONDA I 311, 339.


Different categories and forms: brahmacharins (§ 3: all to become twice-born), ashramas (stages 1-3-4, § 3), widows etc. (§ 12.3 [end], LESLIE 299), “forest hermits” (Manu 6.1-85). -- There is an antagonism between a Vedic or orthodox strand (marriage, family, asceticism-in-old-age) and a heterodox strand (no marriage, no son, life-long asceticism). -- ALTEKAR 350 etc. (orthodox opposition against asceticism).


Four stages of life. See § 3 (and § 12.1 for old age). -- Second meaning: abode of ascetics in a grove.


God Vishnu descends repeatedly in embodied form (human, animal) into the world. Main tradition: ten descents or avataras. In one way or another Vishnu restores order in the world. -- § 13.3: avatara of a goddess.


See Gupta Period.


"Good people", Sanskrit. "The urbanized upper middle class in Bengal" (HAWLEY 187). "Elite, 'respectable' class" (L.MANI Co: 43, 225).


Devotional emotion (theistic orientation), “Bhakti movement”.


A class of Vedic texts, explaining the sacrifice and interpreting the universe. -- § 4 quotes from the "Aitareya Brahmana."

Chakra etc.

The Tantric chakras (circles, centres of spiritual energy in the human body) and the Kundalini (metaphorical snake, spiritual power) are elements of the esoteric anatomy of Tantrism: "The Goddess [i.e. the supreme Tantric goddess] is also associated [is quasi-identical] with the 'coiled' goddess Kundalini, the power lying dormant at the base of the body until awakened by yoga to pierce the centres of subtle anatomy [the chakras] and unite with Shiva at the crown of the head." (FLOOD 186). -- Also FLOOD 98-100 (with diagram); GOUDRIAAN In (Goudriaan 1979: 7-8); GONDA II 38. The concept (Kundalini) is strange and we do not know its roots. There is no connection between the chakras of Tantrism amd the chakras of mythology / iconography.


Members of tribes (e.g. Bhils in Western India).


Dharma in our sense includes numerous themes as known from Manu: ancestors, animals, artisans, ascetics, bath, battle, bed, begging, bird, birth... (BROCKINGTON: Index). Other meanings of dharma (e.g. dharma in Jainism, dharma in Buddhism) are not relevant to our discussion. "Dharma" is often left untranslated (dictionary: “religion, law, virtue, duty, justice...”). -- Dharma Shastra or Dharma Smriti: "law-book, manual on law, legal treatise". -- Dharma Sutra: (i) short manual on law, (ii) short rule on law. -- Dharmic: pertaining to the dharma (cf. shastric, Tantric). -- We mention occasionally OLIVELLE's subtitles (related verses of the Manu Smriti), e.g. § 9.4 (Manu 8.352-385 = 'Sexual Crimes Against Married Women').

There is a vast literature on dharma, and the Manu Smriti (in short: 'Manu', the Smriti attributed to the legendary Manu) is the main although not the exclusive authority. -- Relative chronology of the law-books: JOLLY §§ 2-9: Dharma Sutras (§§ 2-4) are before, Dharma Shastras are after Manu, and Manu is discussed by JOLLY in § 5. The whole literature is later than the Veda. -- Extent of Manu: circa 2685 verses. Date of Manu: approximately 2nd century A.D.: BROCKINGTON 486. Refer for Manu and the Mahabharata to § 11.1. Manu does not know suttee.

Dharma-texts are not coherent. Examples of incoherence: pumsavana and further prenatal rites (§ 6.1), marriage (§§ 5, 6.1 and 7.2), menstrual pollution of rivers (§ 8.4), punishment for adultery (§ 9.4), remarriage of women (§ 9.5). Refer also to JAMISON 8-9. Consecutive dharma-verses on a given subject are often unconnected. See BROCKINGTON 29-33 on contradiction.

Offences of dharmic rules are to be punished in this world or in the next. But many threats (and promises) are absurd: When victuals "are served by hand, whoever eats them becomes impure and whoever serves them will not go to heaven." LESLIE 217. See BROCKINGTON 33-36 on hyperbole. -- See also § 12.3 (a widow “should not sit in a bullock cart” etc.): apparent absurdities.


Foucault: “... a system of statements within which the world can be known.” “... it is through discourse itself that the world is brought into being.” (ASHCROFT 70-71)


§§ 9.2 and 9.5.

Dowry murder

Modern crime. Killing a bride because after the marriage the family of the bridegroom is not able to extract sufficient additional money from the parents of the bride. One wonders why the culprits (never unknown?) are not regularly brought to justice. -- § 7.1; SUTHERLAND 86-87; WEZLER Do; VON HINÜBER 226; FORBES 246 (“grizly murders”)..

Epics (chronology)

Refer to BROCKINGTON pp.217-225 (→ Mahabharata) and pp.431-435 (→ Ramayana) for information relevant to the deteriorating position of women, and thereby to chronology. Refer also to § 11.1.

Great Goddess

§§ 13.2 and 13.4. Great Goddess or Great Mother stands for a goddess who is the supreme power of the universe, whatever the current name (Kali etc.). "Woman is the creator of the universe" (§ 13.4).


Punishment of the adulterer is less severe when the woman is unguarded (JOLLY 128).

Gupta period

320-500 A.D. The Gupta period saw an increased influence of the Brahmans (§ 2; VIRKUS 37). The period can be connected with new strictness in social regulations (see kalivarjya). It coincides -- chronologically -- also with the late epics, where greater strictness became unmistakeable (§ 11.1). See WHEELER/BASHAM 172-173: ”golden age”, “Hindu renaissance”.

The increase of suttees can be dated with the help of Gupta and post-Gupta sources. See § 12.1 for Kalidasa and for early inscriptions, and § 12.2 for Bana. All evidence taken together, it seems reasonable to ascribe a transition from rare to more frequent satis to pre-Gupta days or to "circa 300 A.D."


Jatakas are stories describing the previous existences of the Buddha, animal or human, and mostly found in a collection of 547 stories, forming part of the Buddhist canon (of the 'Pali canon'). The size of the Jatakas varies considerably, the Vessantara Jataka (story of the generous Prince Vessantara and his faithful wife Maddi) being the longest: circa 786 verses ('epic structure'). The Jataka collection was finalized circa 250 B.C. (OBERLIES 1996: 300-301). A reference to Vessantara and Maddi is found in § 12.3.


Collective self-immolation of Rajput women facing victorious invading armies (HAWLEY 189). From Sanskrit jatu-griha, a house (griha) made of lack (jatu) or other combustible material; probably originally a motif of folktales. TURNER, entry *jatughara-. -- Short references to jauhar in §§ 12.2 and 12.6. See NARASIMHAN 118-131.


Celebrated Sanskrit poet: § 12.1.


Kalivarjya: “to be avoided (varjya) in the present, the worst (kali-) era”. Kalivarjya rules are presented, in theory, as the inevitable consequence of an alleged moral deterioration. The rules begin in the fourth century A.D. (suggested in KANE Ka). Dangerous or potentially dangerous customs (customs no longer in agreement with the dharma) were abolished and new, safer customs introduced.

Abolished customs: § 2 (mixture of varnas); § 5 (delayed marriage of girls); § 6.2 (custom of putrikas); § 6.3 (most forms of adoption); § 9.1 (niyoga); § 9.5 (remarriage of widowed women including remarriage of widowed girls). → Gupta period..

The precise connection between socio-religious and political changes is not known. Increased widow burning was contemporary with the introduction of kalivarjya rules (remarriage condemned). Refer for the kalivarjya concept to § 2 (history); to JOLLY 44 (kalivarjya in general) and to KANE Ka: p.218, list of 43 kalivarjya cases. The bad situation before the abolition of the kalivarjya customs is postulated but not described.

Kama Sutra

Manual of erotics, based in a general manner on the earlier → Artha Shastra. The Kama Sutra was composed by Vatsyayana (who used earlier sources in the field of erotics) in the 4th/5th centuries or later. There exists a commentary by Yashodhara. -- The erotic milieu was dominated by nagarakas (“men-about-town”), ganikas (courtesans) and goshthis ("The goshthi with its well organized membership..."). -- M.CHANDRA's book on courtesans is an introduction into the erotic element of Indian literature.


Well-known site with numerous temples, Hindu and Jaina, in Madhya Pradesh; 11th/12th centuries (DEVA 29-31). Impressive architecture, Hindu temples with conspicuous erotic sculptures. §§ 10.2 and 13.4.


The wife is the field (kshetra), the husband is the owner of the wife (kshetrin). The son belongs to the person who owns the field (the legal father) or to the begetter. The status of the begetter is not clear. (Compare Latin: pater semper incertus.) Manu 9.32. But 9.52: “... the womb is mightier than the seed.” -- §§ 9.1 and 9.3; SUTHERLAND 82-83; KANE 599-601; OLIVELLE 324 (Manu 9.32: 'controversy').


§ 12.4.


See chakra.


The longer of the two great Sanskrit epics (“nearly 75.000 verses”). Apart from other subjects, the epic describes, with great prolixity, the war between the related Kaurava and Pandava families: King Duryodhana versus King Yudhishthira (Krishna is on the side of Y.). In a hypothetical earlier version sympathies of the author were probably with the Kauravas. § 11. See also → Epics (and → Ramayana).


Durga M. is the goddess who kills/crushes (mardini) the buffalo-demon (Mahisha-asura). The myth is first related in the Devi Mahatmya (7th c.?) which forms part of the Markandeya Purana. The goddess who kills the buffalo-demon has been represented in Indian sculptural art since early times (2nd century A.D. or earlier) and in different forms (north-Indian and south-Indian versions). STIETENCRON (Devi Mahatmya and later versions) et alii. § 13.3.


§ 13.4.


See dharma.


Misogyny is connected with the well-known concept of the wicked nature of women. § 8.7.


§ 13.4.


(Vague:) Naked (small) girl; girl shortly before menarche; girl who will soon be marriageable. A-nagnika: "not naked". § 5. THIEME 435-445.


"... a form of social organization in which a male (the patriarch) acts as head of the family/household, holding power over females and children (e.g. in Roman society)." COLLINS 457


Ancestors (inhabitants of the next world). §§ 4-5.


proshita-bhartrika. Wife whose husband has gone abroad. § 9.5.


In Hinduism puja is mainly worship of an anthropomorphic icon (of a murti), possibly combined with bathing, dressing and feeding of the deity (e.g. of Jagannath in Puri). There is also puja of aniconic objects. MICHAELS 241-244.


Remarried woman. Meaning of the term not uniform. See § 9.5.


The Puranas form a vast aggregate of religious compendia (mythology, ritual etc.). The P.-literature starts in the 4th century A.D., i.e. close to the late epics (MERTEN 110-111) and extends over 750-1000 years. There are extreme differences in the dating of individual Puranas (ROCHER 147-148). The Mahabhagavata Purana (with Sati-cycle) was written in the 10th to 11th centuries (ROCHER 190). The Mahatmyas (e.g. Devi Mahatmya) are related to the Puranas, but generally later. The sizes of the Puranas vary considerably: e.g. Vayu Purana circa 11 000 verses, Padma Purana circa 45-48 000 verses. The connection between title and content is loose (Brahma Purana not devoted to Brahma).


'Atmosphere, dust, impurity, menstrual discharge.' A rajasvala is a menstruating woman. Rajas is also a philosophical term (one of the three cosmic properties).


The R. is the shorter of the two great Sanskrit epics (“a little under 20.000 verses”). It is ascribed to the poet Valmiki, and it describes Rama's long search for his wife Sita who has been abducted by the demon Ravana and is a captive in Ravana's residence Lanka. After many incidents Ravana is killed and Sita liberated. The Ramayana is clearly the product of gradual growth. In the later stages Rama is identified with the God Vishnu (Rama as an Avataraof Vishnu). §§ 8.5 and 11. See also Epics (and Mahabharata).


Sanskrit/Hindi: whore and widow. Gujarati: randira: widow, whore. rand is often used for widow as an insult and with the connotation of whore. TURNER: entry *ratta-'defective.' S.NARASIMHAN mentions on p.40 derogatory words for widow with the second meaning "prostitute" (Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi). See also § 12.5 (“verbal abuses”).


§ 13.4.


See Veda.


In many cases there exists a reduced ritual side by side with the full ritual. In some cases we do not know whether there was a ritual at all.

Ritual or no ritual?

Second and further marriages by men (supersession etc.): any ritual? Ritual as supplement to Gandharva marriage (THIEME 463-464). Niyoga union has areduced marriage ritual or no ritual? § 9.1. WINTERNITZ 94: remarriage of a virgin widow with ritual, remarriage of other widows without ritual.

Traditional India (infra): S.STEVENSON 130 (rites of second marriage). CHEN Ru 121-123 (death ceremonies); CHEN Ru 97 (secondary marriage slightly inferior); CHEN Ru 14, footnote 3 (child marriage, two rituals, § 5).

Were there any provisions (law, ritual) for intercaste or inter-varna marriages, for hypergamous and hypogamous marriages? What happened when a king, or a Kulin Brahman (§ 12.4), married his second, third wife? What happened in all these cases to the first wife (to the previous wives)? What was the procedure when a new concubine was included into the (royal) harem?

Ritual for the appointment of a putrika (§ 6.2, description available?). Ritual for the adoption of a son (Jolly 74-75; S.STEVENSON 131-134). Death of a widow (THARU I 362, no ritual). Last rites for a woman who is not a widow?

When a suttee was organized, a clear decision of the widow to follow her husband was required (the "resolution"). But the resolution was obviously not formalized (no ritual).

Was the ritual of Shudras, of outcastes and of non-Aryan tribes partially preserved? Was the ritual of these groups influenced by Aryan institutions?


See § 8.3. There is a dichotomy of great (shrauta) and domestic (grihya) sacrifices -- without clear separation. HILLEBRANDT § 6, p.41, §§ 58, 62. GONDA I 107. The Horse Sacrifice is shrauta, looking after the domestic fire is grihya.


The language of our texts is Sanskrit (Old-Indian); there is only one reference to a Pali or Middle-Indian text: § 12.1 (Vessantara).


Emulating the upper castes, e.g. by "restricting the freedom of movement for women" (CHEN Ru 103 and 114, footnote 63) or by introducing suttee.


In Sanskrit, sati (the person) was used in the general sense of "virtuous, devoted wife"). We use sati for the widow entering the funeral pyre and English suttee for the act of widow burning; English suttee stands for both. Sati (large -s) is the name of a goddess.

Sati (goddess)

See Sati-cycle.


What we call "Sati-cycle" consists of two parts. The first part (including the death of the Goddess Sati) is found in different forms in different Puranas. Our short abstract (§ 13.3) is based on MERTENS 84-86 (etc.). -- Sati the widow, and suttee the act, cannot be derived from the magic death of the Goddess Sati (Durga), who is no (true) widow, as follows from the Brahma-Purana and from other sources. It was probably the other way round (myth derived from the custom). § 13.3. MERTENS 100-101.

The second part of the Sati-cycle (Shiva's dance with Sati), also our abstract, is based on another text (MERTENS 330-342). -- See DEHEJIA 51, Fig.6 (17th/18th century bronze), Shiva and Sati. -- § 13.3.


Stelae for women who have committed suttee (Tamil name mastikal). Besides, there are stelae for men who have been killed in battle or have committed ritualistic suicide or have followed their king in death (Tamil name virakkal, hero-stones). WEINBERGER, pp.13 et passim, figs.11-18; SONTHEIMER He 277-281. -- § 12.2.


Great goddess of Shaktism. -- Shakta: adherent of Shakti, follower of Shaktism. § 13.4.


One of the religious heads of the Hindu community.


See dharma.


See dharma.


According to a certain tradition women have prenatal contact with Gods: Soma, Gandharva and Agni. See § 8.4.


Forms of sonship: § 3.


WINTERNITZ 87 (widows in 1901); DATTA Sa 278 (suttees, “Statistical information”); NANDY (opinion poll 1987; § 12.4); FORBES 181 (prostitution in Calcutta and Bombay); FORBES 246 (dowry deaths); NARASIMHAN 49 (dowry deaths); CHEN In 19 (proportion of widows); CHEN In 28-29 (percentage of widows in rural India); CHEN In 30-31 (mortality of widows); CHEN In 32 (residence of widows); CHEN Ru 51 (suttees in Bengal; § 12.2); CHEN Ru 107 (remarriage; § 12.5); NARASIMHAN 54 (widows in Varanasi and Brindavan); SYED To 64-65 (abortion and female infanticide); SYED To 100-101 (rape and prostitution); NARASIMHAN 50 (rape and prostitution); NARASIMHAN 56 (illiteracy in Rajasthan); FISCH 483-495 (suttees, tabulation).


See dharma.


See Sati.


Tonsure of widows: § 12.3.

Traditional India

India as rooted in the undefined past, but continuing (more or less attenuated) to our days, especially in rural areas. § 1. The term “traditional India” is practical, hardly avoidable.


Author of the Stri-Dharma Paddhati (18th c.), a manual on stri-dharma, the dharma for women (stri = woman). The identity of the author (Tr.) is not absolutely certain. In contrast to other Dharma Shastras, the manual does not merely contain a section on stri-dharma but is devoted to stri-dharma alone. LESLIE: 3-4 (Tryambaka, the author), 10-13 (historical information about Tryambaka). Refer for stri-svabhava (wicked nature of women) and stri-dharma (role model of the wife) to LESLIE 320.


§ 3.


Hinduism with emphasis on Vishnu is called “Vaishnavism”. An adherent of Vishnu is a “Vaishnava”. -- See FLOOD 135-138, the Shri Vaishnava tradition, Tamilnadu, Ramanuja (11th/12th c.). FLOOD 138-141, Gaudiya Vaishnavism, Bengal, Chaitanya (1486-1533). SOGANI 14 (“eroticism of Vaishnava worship”). -- § 12.2 supra.


Three (four) stages of life: § 3.


Formerly translated by 'caste'. See § 3. There were four varnas, later on four varnas plus outcastes (as 'number five', but outside the quadruple system). "Caste" is now merely the modern designation for India's numerous groups, e.g. Karimpur: castes of Brahmans ('priests'), of Sunars (goldsmiths), of Dhobis (launderers), twenty-six groups in all (WADLEY 104-105). Brahmans alone still exist as a group (many subdivisions); they are partly descendants of the old Brahmans.


The earliest Indian literature. Vedic works are mostly religious (invocations, descriptions of sacrifices, mythology). GONDA I 106-109, 368-369. The earliest Vedic work is the Rigveda (1200-1000 B.C.), one out of four famous 'collections'. Further Vedic literature (middle Vedic, late Vedic) lasted roughly speaking from 1000 to 500 B.C. WITZEL 24-25.

The Veda literature is followed by the dharma literature. "The fundamental rules of law and their spiritual supports are available in texts which are usually dated between 500 B.C. and A.D. 200.” (SYED To 39, quoting DERRETT).


The bride must be a virgin: § 9.3. See also §§ 5 and 8.4, and THIEME 427-428 (terminology).


Misery of widowhood. As mentioned in § 1, the German term (used by us repeatedly) was coined by M.WINTERNITZ. Refer for W.'s detailed description to § 12.3. No Indian term for W. has come to stay (Marathi/Hindi neologism: Hindu vidhvanchi dukhit sthiti "The plight of Hindu widows", THARU I 358). Sarcasm: “cold sati” (MAJOR 229). -- "Previous initiatives aimed at improving their [the widows'] lives have achieved little and their continuing plight makes a government initiative sorely needed.... Many widows are dumped by their relatives in religious towns like Vrindavan in northern India." Renuka CHOWDHURI, Minister of State, Aid plan 2007.

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