The position of women in a society is an important aspect of study in history, because it not only reflective of the social stratification present at that time as well as inequalities of the present time. It also helps to fight those ideologies which promote gender discrimination as a part of social order established on the basis of biological traits and religious practices.
The main sources of information about the vedic period is the vedas, Upanishads and the two great epics written during that period, namely the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. While the rig veda is the main source of information about the early vedic period, the other sources mentioned provide information about the later vedic period. The vedic texts may be divided into two periods, the early vedic period (1500BC-1000BC) and the later vedic period(1000BC-600BC). The rig veda is one of the oldest text written approximately between 1700-1000 BC. The Mahabharata was a fratricidal war fought around the 950 BC. Its expanded version was compiled and written around the 4 AD.
In this period, the position of women in society is considered better than later periods. Some historians connect it to the practical and materialistic nature of the Aryan society. But this is clear that position of women in this period is better than other periods in the history of india. It is also noteworthy that the position of women in the vedic period was better than their Persian, roman and greek counterparts.
The early Aryan society was essentially tribal in nature; the family was patriarchal in social organization. But there is a dearth in the population of women in Aryan society.
In rig veda hymns could be found to be praying for praja, including both boys and girls. But desire could be traced for having brave sons (suvirah), which could indicate the need for brave sons to fight wars. However, there are references in vedic literature for rituals for having a scholarly daughter.
But even if it is supposed that overall orientation was patriarchial, there are examples of incestuous relationships. Like between brother and sister, mother and son and father and daughter. Evidences of matrilineal lineage are also present.
The most interesting part is the story of creation of women. Brahma, “seeing that the men fashioned on earth were lonely, further created that being who steals away a man’s reason, yet is half of his personality -woman “. Then followed the days when gods still walked with men and were invoked “with the tenderness which a husband has for his wife” or “the faith which a wife has in her husband “, and when such “prayers of mortals became the spouses of gods. ” Significant is the place given to female deities in this ancient worship. an honour equal to, if not exceeding, the importance given to male deities. From the very dawn of Indian vedic period, the worship of female goddesses as Shakti is popular.
But in texts of later vedic period, women are still portrayed as goddesses but the general commentary on women has become derogatory. Aitareya brahman compares women with wine and dice. He even comments that birth of a daughter in a family is a burden. There are even procedures to turn a female foetus into a male foetus. The presence of such a procedure in a prominent religious book of that time shows the excessive desire for birth of a son.
In early vedic period, there was no system of female seclusion. Even widows were not isolated from society. Women could attend events like horse and chariot races. They even publicly attended feasts and gatherings. There is even mention of women in military profession in rig veda. There are references of women warriors and it can be surmised that they must have received some sort of military training which enabled them to become soldiers. The mention of Mudgalini, Vispata and sasiyasi, who were either victorious or wounded on the battleground is an example to quote. There are several examples in the contemporary texts of that time which show that a woman could freely mix with young men. They could even have love affairs and friendships. The biggest example is the friendship between Draupadi and Lord Krishna in Mahabharata. Another less mentioned example is the friendship between Karna and one of Duryodhana’s wives.
The widows are allowed to lead a purposeful life. She has three options to choose from. Firstly, she would spend her entire life as a widow. But widowhood was neither considered something inauspicious nor she was secluded from society. The second path she can resort to is niyoga. The practice of niyoga is also prevalent, and accepted. In niyoga, a childless widow could stay with her brother-in-law until the birth of a son. But there are other examples of niyoga too. Like in Mahabharata, Kunti had done niyoga on four different occassions with four different gods to produce sons, which were namely Karna, Yudhishtir, Arjuna and Bheem. Which clearly shows that niyoga cannot be only performed with brother-in-law. But in the case of birth of pandu and his brother Dhrithrashtra, the process was performed by the brother-in-law. So a union with brother in law was most preferred. The child born from such union is more preferred than an adopted child. The third option is that she could remarry. The atharva veda designates her as punarbhu or rejuvenated. Usually, brother in law was preferred and the epithet Devkama or desirous of a union with her brother in law came in vogue. But it is also noteworthy that a widow could not inherit any share in her deceased husband’s wealth.
In the early vedic period the power of the king was circumscribed by assemblies like the sabha, and the samiti which had important judicial and political functions. These assemblies were even attended by women. The vicissitudes of the vedic assemblies present at the start of the vedic period also contributed to the degradation of the position of women in society. The vidatha disappeared completely while the sabha and samiti lost their prominence. These democratic assemblies were replaced by an assembly of ministers who now assisted the king in the decision making process. These ministerial councils were neither democratic nor there is any evidence of women being given the position of ministers. This reform had changed the political role of women in society.
Swayamvara ceremony was also an important practice of the vedic period. A maiden could choose her husband freely.
Examples of marriage after puberty are also an important indicator of the freedom enjoyed by women. In early vedic period there is almost no child marriage.
Dowry system in the present form is not known during the vedic period, though in some cases if the girl had some physical defects, dowry had to be given. Similarly, if the groom was less qualified, he had to pay bride price to the girl’s family.
It has been argued that in those days of dearth of free Aryan women, polygamy itself was a privilege and luxury and monogamy was apparently the rule but evidently polygamy was fairly practiced and socially sanctioned which made the position of women insecure and inferior. The Atharva Veda prescribes numerous charms to enable a co-wife to monopolise the love of the common husband. This shows that polygamy is an established practice of this period. But there are isolated cases of polygamy due to the previous mentioned reason, and even in cases I n which it practiced is due to dearth of sons in a family. But polygamy as a practice is more prevalent among the ruling Kshatriya class.
I have always been against Glorifying Over Work and therefore, in the year 2021, I have decided to launch this campaign “Balancing Life”and talk about this wrong practice, that we have been following since last few years. I will be talking to and interviewing around 1 lakh people in the coming 2021 and publish their interview regarding their opinion on glamourising Over Work.
If you are interested in participating in the same, do let me know.
The copyright of this Article belongs exclusively to Ms. Aishwarya Sandeep. Reproduction of the same, without permission will amount to Copyright Infringement. Appropriate Legal Action under the Indian Laws will be taken.
If you would also like to contribute to my website, then do share your articles or poems at firstname.lastname@example.org
We also have a Facebook Group Restarter Moms for Mothers or Women who would like to rejoin their careers post a career break or women who are enterpreneurs.
We are also running a series Inspirational Women from January 2021 to March 31,2021, featuring around 1000 stories about Indian Women, who changed the world. #choosetochallenge