Women in Hinduism

Women in Hinduism

The role of women in Hinduism is often disputed, and positions range from quite fair to intolerant. Hinduism is based on numerous texts, some of which date back to 2000 BCE or earlier. They are varied in authority, authenticity, content and theme, with the most authoritative being the Vedas. The position of women in Hinduism is widely dependent on the specific text and the context. Positive references are made to the ideal woman in texts such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, while some texts such as the Manu Smriti advocate a restriction of women's rights. In modern times the Hindu wife has traditionally been regarded as someone who must at all costs remain chaste or pure. [cite book|first=Tanika|last=Sarkar|title=Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion and Cultural Nationalism|location=New Delhi|publisher=Permanent Black|year=2001.page number] This is in contrast with the very different traditions that have prevailed at earlier times in 'Hindu' kingdoms, which included highly respected professional courtesans (such as Amrapali of Vesali) sacred devadasis, mathematicians and female magicians (the "basavis", the Tantric "kulikas"). Some European scholars observed in the nineteenth century Hindu women were "naturally chaste" and "more virtuous" than other women, although what exactly they meant by that is open to dispute. In any case, as male foreigners they would have been denied access to the secret and sacred spaces that women often inhabited. [ Abbe Jean Antoine Dubois, "Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies", translated from the French by Henry King Beauchamp, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897)]

Gender of God

There is a wide variety of viewpoints within the different schools and sects of Hinduism concerning the exact nature and gender (where applicable) of the Supreme person or being; there are even sects that are sceptical about the existence of such a being. The Shakti traditions, for example, focus their worship on the goddess Durga as the supreme embodiment of power and feminine strength (a female form of God). Vaishnavism and Shaivism both worship Lakshmi with Vishnu and Parvati with Shiva respectively as beings on an equal level of magnitude (the male and female aspects of God). In some instances such as with Gaudiya Vaishnavism, specific emphasis is placed on the worship of God's female aspect (Radharani) even above that of her paramour Krishna. Thus it could be said that Hinduism considers God to have both male and female aspects, as the original source of both.

Male deities (such as Shiva and Indra) are believed, in some traditions, to themselves offer worship to the Goddess, Durga:

"O Parameshwari, (The supreme Goddess) who is praised by the husband of the daughter of Himalayas (Shri Shiva)..." "O Parameshwari, who is worshipped with true feelings by the husband of Indrani (Indra) please give us the spiritual personality, the victory, the glory and destroy our enemies." [ [http://www.valaya.co.uk/IN-DEEP-NAVARATRI5.htm ARGALA STOTRUM] ]

Elsewhere Shiva and Vishnu are also described as possessing feminine qualities represented through their Ardhanarishvara and Mohini forms respectively. There have also been male devotees who have claimed to be incarnations of goddesses, such as Narayani Peedam and Bangaru Adigalar of Melmaruvathur, Tamilnadu who claim to be forms or avataras of the goddess Narayani.Fact|date=March 2007

Hindu feminists such as Phoolan Devi have also used the goddess Durga as their icon. Traditions which follow the advaita philosophy consider that ultimately the supreme being is formless without any particular gender, or is transcendental to such considerations.

Women in Rig Vedic hymns

In the marriage hymn (RV 10.85.26), the wife "should address the assembly as a commander." [R. C. Majumdar and A. D. Pusalker, editors, "The History and Culture of the Indian People". Volume I: The Vedic age, (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1951), p.424]

A Rig Veda hymn says: [cite web
title=Rig Veda, Book 10. HYMN CLIX. Saci Paulomi

These are probably the earliest references to the position of women in Hindu society.

Property rights

Arthashastra and Manusamhita are sources about the woman's right to property or ‘Stridhan’, (literally meaning, property of wife). It is of two types: maintenance (in money or land given by the husband), and anything else like ornaments given to her by her family, husband, in-laws and the friends of her husband. Manu further subdivides this into six types - the property given by parents at marriage, given by the parental family when she is going to her husband’s house, given by her husband out of affection (not maintenance which he is bound to give), and property given separately by brother, mother and father [Manu IX 194] . Pre-nuptial contracts are also mentioned where the groom would agree to give a set amount of brideprice to both parents and the bride. Such property belonged to the wife alone and was not to be touched by the groom or her parents except in emergencies (in sickness, in famine, threated by robbers, or for performing holy deeds). At the same time, the Manu Smriti contradicts itself by declaring that a wife has no property and the wealth earned is for the husband [Manu VIII.416] .

Daughters and sons equally inherited their mother's property; but some scriptures insist that a mother's property belongs solely to the daughters [Manu IX 131] , in order of preference: unmarried daughters, married but poor daughters, married and rich daughters. When a father died, unmarried daughters had to be given a share in their father’s property, equal to one-fourth from every brother's share [since it is assumed that the married daughter had been given her share at marriage] [Manu IX. 118] . If the family has no sons, the (appointed) daughter is the sole inheritor of the property [Manu IX 127] .

tudy of scriptures

Several women sages and seers are mentioned in the Upanishads, the philosophical part of the Vedas, notable among them being Gargi and Maitreyi. The Sanskrit word for female teachers as Acharyā (as opposed to Acharya for teacher and Acharyini for teacher's wife) reveal that women were also given a place as Gurus.

The Harita Dharmasutra (of the Maitrayaniya school of Yayurveda) declares that there are two kind of women: Sadhyavadhu who marry, and the Brahmavaadini who are inclined to religion, they can wear the sacred thread, perform rituals like the agnihotra and read the Vedas. Bhavabhuti's Uttararamacharita 2.3 says that Atreyi went to Southern India where she studied the Vedas and Indian philosophy. Shankara debated with the female philosopher Ubhaya Bharati, and Madhava's Shankaradigvijaya (9.63) mentions that she was well versed in the Vedas. Tirukkoneri Dasyai (15th century) wrote a commentary on Nammalvar's Tiruvaayamoli, with reference to Vedic texts like the Taittiriya Yajurveda.

The Bhagavata Purana states that the Mahabharata was written specifically for women and also men who were not in the priestly Brahmin caste :

"Out of compassion, the great sage thought it wise that this would enable men to achieve the ultimate goal of life. Thus he compiled the great historical narration called the Mahabharata for women, laborers and friends of the twice-born." [ [http://srimadbhagavatam.com/1/4/25/en1 Bhag-P 1.4.25] ]

In several schools for Vedic priests, many graduates are women. [Vasuda Narayanan, Women of Power in the Hindu tradition]


Katyayana's Varttika 125, 2477 mentions that there were female teachers of grammar. Patanjali wrote in his comments to Ashtadhyayi 3.3.21 and 4.1.14, that women undergo the thread ceremony before beginning their education, and says that women studied grammar.


The most sacred part of the wedding ceremony involves circumambulating the sacred fire in seven steps to a Vedic mantra where the groom addresses his wife.

In the Manu Smriti, on the other hand, 8 types of marriage are specified; two involve bedecking the bride with costly garments and ornaments before giving her away, two involve the groom's family giving a gift to the bride's and the other four do not involve an exchange of gifts.

The Manusmriti enjoins "'Let mutual fidelity continue until death,' this may be considered as the summary of the highest law for husband and wife." [Manu IX 101]

Rigvedic verses suggest that the women married at a mature age and were probably free to select their husband. [R. C. Majumdar and A. D. Pusalker (editors): The history and culture of the Indian people. Volume I, The Vedic age. Bombay : Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan 1951, p.394.] The wedding hymn in the Rigveda (RV 10.85.37-38) speaks of "husbands" (plural) for a single wife, but this may have a mythological character. [R. C. Majumdar and A. D. Pusalker (editors): The history and culture of the Indian people. Volume I, The Vedic age. Bombay : Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan 1951, p.394]


The practice of dowry are not endorsed by orthodox Hinduism and "may be a perversion of Sanskritic marriage prescriptions"cite book
author=Miller, Barbara Stoler
title=Sex and gender hierarchies
publisher=Cambridge University Press
location=Cambridge, UK
] . Dowry is linked to caste status: among higher castes a dowry is expected from the girl's family, among lower ones the dowry is paid to the girl's familycite book
author=Jeaneane Fowler
title=Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices (The Sussex Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices)
publisher=Sussex Academic Press
] . As a result the prevalence of dowry increases with the process known as "Sanskritisation" and urbanization; abuse of the system has thus increased in recent years.


Both Manusamhita and Arthashastra say that, if the husband is impotent, a traitor, evil-liver, has become an ascetic or an outcast or is missing for a prescribed number of years, then the wife can leave him without blame and marry again. Arthashastra also declares that in other circumstances, divorce can take place only by mutual consent. Manu discusses situations where the wife wishes to return to her first husband whether she has simply deserted him or had married another.

Widowhood and remarriage

In traditional families, widows were, and in some case are, required to wear white sarees, and give up her ornaments, including the bindi, which signified auspiciousness; their presence at religious rites was considered inauspicious, and they were supposed to devote their lives to an austere pursuit of religioncite book
author=Bowker, John H.; Holm, Jean
title=Women in religion
] . These restrictions were traditionally strongest in the highest castes, in which the head was frequently shaved as well, and which had the severest restrictions on remarriagecite book
author=C. J. Fuller
title=The Camphor Flame: popular Hinduism and society in India
publisher=Princeton University Press
location=Princeton, N.J
] . These restrictions are now strictly observed only by a small minority of widows, though some degree of ritual inauspiciousness remains.

In NAsmR 12.45-48, there are three types of "punarbhu", or remarried widow: The virgin widow, the woman who abandons her husband to take up with another man and then returns to her husband, and the woman who has no brothers-in-law who can give her offspring. Although this list is not exhaustive, it makes it clear that a punarbhu was not just any widow, she may not have been a widow at all (the second case). In the other two cases, she is a childless widow, which is an important distinction that should not be ignored. It is important to mention that although many texts do seem to admit to the existence of the remarriage of widows and sometimes allow it, it is not considered an ideal situation. A punarbhu would not be given the same rights as a woman who was married only once. āI think you must also mention that the son of a punarbhu, a punarbhava, is often listed as one who is unfit to invite to a sacrifice, as is the husband of a remarried woman. The punarbhava also did not inherit as would a 'natural son'.

As of 2007, 3 per cent of the population of India consist of widows. [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/7157979.stm] Most of the widows are left to survive on charity, many are reduced to begging on the streets. Some surveys show that steeped in their religious beliefs and fearful of violating social customs they were brought up to believe in, many widows themselves do not want to remarry.


Sati (as verb) is an act of immolation of a woman on her husband's funeral pyre. Sati (as noun) is one who immolated either self-willingly or by societal inducement and compulsion.

(Sati was practiced by the Scythians and also the ancient peoples of Scythia, Egypt, Scandinavia and China)Fact|date=February 2007. Sati was performed "ideally" as an act of immortal love and was believed to purge the couple of all accumulated sin.

Though no scripture mandates it, the Puranas, part of the Hindu Smriti, mention sati as highly meritorious in several instances. A few instances of sati are recorded in the Hindu epics, which are otherwise replete with influential widows. Some examples from the Mahabharata include:

* several of Vasudeva's wives (Rohini, Devaki, Bhadraa and Madira) [M.Bh. Mausalaparvan 7.18] .
* Madri, second wife of Pandu, who held herself responsible for his death, performed sati. His first wife Kunti did not commit sati. [M.Bh. Adiparvan 95.65]

Moreover, Kunti in the Mahabharata, even had a son before marriage (albeit by accident or through her naivete) but went on to become a queen by marrying another man (king Pandu). It shows that the society used to value women more for their overall qualities of intelligence, determination, loyalty and leadership etc. rather than some personal and private issue such as the pre-marital virginity. Needless to say, Kunti, in spite of her pre-marital indiscretion, not only married a king but also remained highly respected and loved by all (family and others) throughout her entire and long life and did not choose to commit sati at the time of her husband's death.

Female gurus and saints

*Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi) - She is from a backward caste of fishers, the Arayan. She is considered by many people, including many non-Hindus to be a divine saint. It is believed that a hug from her will help people deal with any pain and suffering they experience. She tours the world literally hugging many. In 1993 she was a representative at the Parliament of the World's Religions. She practices the Karma Yoga. She is called "Amma" meaning "Mother". She also provides for the poor. Her organization is the Mata Amritanandamayi Math.
*Mirabai - Hindu mystical poet whose works are known all over India. She was deeply objected to the sati practice.
*Sarada Devi - Wife of the Saint Ramakrishna
*Savata Mali - She was from a backward caste of Mali (gardener). However, she earned the status of a saint.
*Shree Maa - She was born in the Indian province of Asom, near the Shakta pimgrimage of Kamakhya. People who would see her in samadhi (or deep trance) would refer to her as "goddess of the mountain."
*Anandamoyi Ma
*Gurumayi Chidvilasananda – Leader of Siddha Yoga.
*Nirmala Srivastava – guru and self-proclaimed goddess of Sahaja Yoga.


ee also

*Women in India
*List of female Hindu mystics

Further reading

*Kane, Pandurang Vaman: History of Dharmasastra: (ancient and mediaeval, religious and civil law) -- Poona : Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1962-1975
*Vasuda Narayanan, Women of Power in the Hindu tradition, pp.25-77 in Arvind Sharma and Katherine K Young (eds.), Feminism and World Religions, SUNY Press: Albany (New York)

External links

* [http://womennewsnetwork.net/2007/11/05/nothing-to-go-back-to-the-fate-of-the-widows-of-vrindavan-india/"Nothing to Go Back To - The Fate of the Widows of Vrindavan, India"] WNN - Women News Network
* [http://hinduwebsite.com/hinduwomen.htm Hinduism and the status of women]

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