Woman in The Early Hindu Society in India
Indian women once enjoyed considerable freedom and previledges in the spheres of family,religion and public life; but as centuries rolled on, the situation went on changing adversely. It is however difficult to access information about the condition of women in early Indian society since the data available are too scanty for this purpose.
The position of women in the vedic age was far from being analogous to what it usually is in early uncivilized societies. In communities that have not yet emerged from barbarism, there hardly exists any checks on the tyranny of man over woman. Women were divorced, abandoned, sold or killed at the whim of man. They had to carry about children, and also serve as beasts of burden, when the tribe moves from one place to another. It was obvious that men were stronger than women physically. They had not yet developed sufficient culture and sensibility to make him feel that women undergo these trials and tribulations for the sake of the race and therefore deserve to be treated with utmost sympathy and consideration.
The position which women occupies in Hindu society at the dawn of civilization is much better than what we ordinarily assume it to have been. There are, no doubt, a few cases which says that brides were sold in marriage or even carried away by force. But the ideal marriage of the vedic period was a religious sacrament, which made the couple joint owners of household. The wife used to participate in soma sacrifices with her husband. She was the property of her husband and sometimes gamblers would stake away their wives. But social conscience had already begun to disapprove this practice.
Ordinarily girls were less welcomed than boys, but we must add that there were also some parents who would perform special religious rites for getting learned and capable daughters. Girls were educated like the boys and had to pass through a period of “brahmacharya”. Upanayana or the thread ceremony was also performed for the girls. Many became distinguised poetess. The marriage of girls used to take place at a fairly advanced age, mostly around the age of 16-17. Educated brides of this age had naturally an effective voice in selection of their partners in life. Very often there were love marriages which were later blessed by parents. There was no seclusion of women; they used to move freely in society, often even in the company of their lovers. In social and religious gatherings they occupied prominent position.
In rich and royal families polygamy prevailed to some extent, but ordinarily monogamy was the rule. If a wife had the misfortune to be the widow, she had not to ascend her husband’s funeral pyre. The sati custom was not in vogue at all. The widow could, if she liked, contract another marriage. The main disabilities from which women suffered in this age as well as in the post vedic age were proprietary ones. They couldnot hold or inherit property.
During the age of the samhitas,brahmanas and upanishads the position of women changed gradually. There was a decline in female education. Girls were educated at home by father, uncles or brothers. This led to curtial her religious rights and previleges. Many sacrifices which formerly could be performed by the wife alone, now came to be assigned to male substitutes. In case of marriage the “svayamvara” was fairly common in the kshatriya circles. Sati was altogether unknown but women had ceased to attend public meetings.
The position of women deteriorated considerably in the age of the sutras, epics and early smritis. This was because during this time the Aryans settled completely in India and tried to bring the dasas under their domain. As time passed there was Aryan-non Aryan relation forming. In case of social and religious phenomenon the non-Aryan women naturally couldnot perform the rites and rituals since they were not accustomed to it. This later on termed the whole class of women ineligible for vefic studies and religious duties. In early times girls got married at the age if 16/17. But later on with the introduction of Brahmanas, Samhitas,Sutras etc. education became extensive and if she had to wait to complete it, she would be 22-24 years old. This was impracticle proposition for the average girl. The Aryans lowered the marriageable age of boys and girls. The theories of son birth purifying familes emerged. This led people to marry girls early, as soon as she attains maturity so that she can present a son to her husband. With this the practice of educating girls and upanayana wad discouraged. It was declared that marriage was the substitute of upanayana in case of girls around 200 A.D.
Child marriage with no education for girls became the order of the day. Love marriage became a thing of the past. Svayamvara continued among the Kshatriyas but condemned by the Brahmins. These child wives naturally couldnot earn respect from their husbands and this lowered her position in the family. Divorce and widow remarriage were no longer accepted in the society. The growing harems of the kings made men jealous and some saught to keep their wives in seclusion. Purdah system was confined to a very small section of the royal families. Sati custom began among the kshatriyas.
The only sphere in which the position of women improved in the age of the later smritis was the one of proprietary rights. The concept of stridhana emerged and it could be inherited. Other than this in all spheres, the position of women declined. Child marriage with no education at all was in vogue. Widow remarriage was prohibited and sati became famous among all.
It can be said that the role of women in early indian society was never stagnant. It cannot be termed to evolve and infact it deteorriated. This changes taken place in early indian society still continues and its high time we try to make changes.