The Role of Women in Hinduism

Historically, the female life cycle in Hinduism has been different from that of males. In the classical, medieval and most of the modern periods, females have followed a three-stage pattern. Today, the roles of women in Hindu society are changing, as they are throughout the world. Increasingly, the life pattern of females resembles the stages of life for males.

The basic principles governing the roles of girls and women in Hindu history were set forth in the Laws of Manu. This ancient code specified that women must be honored and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands and brothers-in-law who desired their own welfare.

“Where women are honored, there the gods are pleased. Where they are not honored, no sacred rite yields rewards.”

In the Vedic world, women were required to be present for the rituals to work, even though they had no official role to play in them. Manu continues:

“Day and night, women must be kept dependent to the males of their families. If they attach themselves to sensual enjoyments, they must be kept under one’s control. Her father protects her in childhood. Her husband protects her in youth. Her sons protect her in old age. A woman is never fit for independence.”

These final sentences implicitly sets forth the three life stages for the female.

The Early Stage

As a girl, the female lives under the watchful protection of her parents, who are jealously concerned with protecting her virginity. She is considered pure but inauspicious, because she lacks a life-giving power. When she marries, she becomes impure but auspicious. The impurity is caused by sexual intercourse and menstruation.

For most of Hindu history, the girl was not allowed to have the same kind of education as her brother. Boys left home to receive their education from a guru. Girls always had to be under their fathers’ watchful eye. What education she got came from her parents. She spent most of her time learning domestic skills from her mother, as well as some ritual aspects of religion. She was not considered capable of studying the Veda.

The Arrangement of Marriage

In classical medieval and modern times, girls often married early in life, thereby entered the second stage, that of the householder. Today, young Hindu women do not usually marry until their twenties, but this has not always been the case. Frequently, the arrangement of marriage took place just after the girl was born, or some time later in her childhood. Occasionally, the marriage would be arranged to a boy who was relatively close in age, but it was not uncommon for a young girl to be matched to a much older man, perhaps twenty or thirty years her senior.

A girls’ parents had interest in arranging her marriage as early as possible because of the great concern with virginity. When girls’ marriage was arranged when they were young, their purity became the responsibility of the groom’s family.

Obviously, marriages meant something quite different in Hindu society that it does in the present day Western world. In India, marriages has been regarded as alliances between families for the purposes of reproduction and economic stability, not so much an avenue for personal enrichment as they are often considered in the West.

Accordingly, Hindu marriages had historically been arranged by the groom’s and bride’s older relatives. Bride and groom did not meet until shortly before the wedding, or at the wedding itself. In seeking a suitable spouse for one’s son or daughter, family members took more into account than simply personal compatibility between the man and the woman. Certainly, the prospective families’ wealth and social standing, caste and sub-caste, health, the prospective spouse’s occupation and the compatibility of the pairs’ astrological charts were issues of prominent concern.

It’s worth noting that marriages in India historically and to the present day rarely end in divorce. This is in due in part to Indians’ view of the purpose of marriage and in part to the social, economic and legal pressures impending on the marriage. Getting a divorce was extremely difficult and socially stigmatized. Yet, it is worth reflecting whether having marriages arranged by one’s elders might not also have contributed to its longevity. Having seen many happily married Hindus whose marriages have been arranged, I marvel at the success of this custom.

A New Life

Historically, the onset of menstruation was a girl’s right of passage. It marked her change in status from inauspicious to auspicious. Shortly afterward, her wedding would take place on a day and time determined by a reputable astrologer. Even if her marriage has been arranged much earlier, she would not actually move to her husband’s house until after the wedding.

Specific wedding rituals vary from region to region, but they are usually conducted by a priest and usually involve circumambulating a sacred fire. This is a practice probably dating back to Vedic times.

Following the wedding, the new bride goes to live with the husband’s family. The pattern in traditional India was for male children to continue to live with their parents until the parents’ death. As a result of this pattern, grandparents, parents, brothers and their wives and children all lived together under the same roof.

Entering the new home, the bride becomes subject to her mother-in-law. The young wife is expected to obey her mother-in-law and contribute to the well being of the family. The mother-in-law-daughter-in-law relationship still is a notoriously painful one in India. The transition to marriage could be terribly traumatic for the young woman. One day she was in the affectionate and protective atmosphere of her parents’ home, and the next day she finds herself in the home of strangers, where she is often treated no better than a servant.

The Duties of the Wife

As a wife, the Hindu woman was expected to live up to the ideals of the Stri Dharma, the duties of the good wife. According to Stri Dharma, a wife should regard her husband as a god. She should serve him, follow him, pray for his well being and eat after he eats. She shares his karma and his destiny, for this reason she sometimes should fast and go on pilgrimages to ensure her husbands’ long life and success. If he dies prematurely, it was often regarded as her responsibility, her bad karma.

The husband should provide for his wife’s material needs, her security, protection and social status. The husband should also revere his wife as a goddess. The Laws of Manu tell husbands that the happiness of the wife is the key to the stability of the family. According to Manu, where women are honored, there the gods are pleased.

Today, in many places throughout India, there are special public buses for women only. Women are allowed to avoid waiting in lines by going to the head of long queues to purchase such things as train tickets.

If a woman gave birth to a son her status was even further enhanced. Giving birth to sons vastly improves her standing with her mother-in-law and with the rest of her husband’s family. A proverbial blessing for a woman among Hindus is “may you be the mother of a hundred sons”.

Popular Hinduism has even produced “male producing rituals” to help a couple ensure the birth of a son. There are not corresponding female producing procedures. A recent study about abortions in Bombay showed that 999 out of 1000 abortions where performed on female fetuses. The economic liability of female is sighted as the rationale.

In the past, female infants were even abandoned. Today this is rarely the case. Even though it is clear that most couples want boys more than girls, once a child arrives it is loved for its own sake, whether male or female. Hindus have great affection for babies and there are even lullabies about infants as gifts from gods.

Following Her Husband to Death

The death of her husband is a crisis for every Hindu wife, and marks her entrance into the third stage of life. As a result of the sometimes great disparity in the ages of husband and wife he almost always is gone first. Up until the 19th century, this crisis often meant a choice between two undesirable realities: sati or widowhood.

Sati is the name for the ritual in which the wife burns alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. According to traditional belief of many Hindus, for a woman to immolate herself at her husband’s cremation guaranteed great rewards for the family and an opportunity to be with her husband in the next life. Even the place where the sati occurred was consecrated and often became a pilgrimage site.

The term sati is taken from an epic story of Sati, who was one of the wives of the great god Shiva. In the myth, Sati’s own father insulted Shiva. Sati burst in rage. In her anger, she burst into flames and dies. When Shiva returns he finds the corpse and in his grief, he picks it up and carries it aimlessly all over India. As he wandered, parts of the goddess’ remains fell to earth. At the locations where they fell temples were built to honor those body parts.

The story is often told to suggest that a good wife would follow her husband to death. Yet, there is great debate about the extent women actually chose this fate for themselves. There is a good deal of evidence that many women were thrown on to the burning pyre against their will by their sons or other family members. In other cases, they were drugged or intoxicated when they performed sati.

The British outlawed sati in the 20th century when they ruled India. Since that time the ritual is extremely rare. Some scholars have suggested that some women may have chosen sati when they considered the alternative, which was widowhood.

The Hard Life of the Widow

The life of the widow historically has been very difficult. Even a horrible death might seem preferable. Generally, widows could not remarry. This has been the case even in modern times. Forbidding marriage to widows has been an important issue of concern because many women were widows in their 30’s and even 20’s. Usually a widow was required to shave her head to be unattractive to other men. Often she was given the hardest household tasks to perform and was forbidden to eat with the rest of the family. The widow was viewed as unlucky, inauspicious and dangerous, the embodiment of all negative qualities in women.

Some families have even reportedly taken their widows on pilgrimages to the city of Vrindavan, a city known for its widows. Then, they abandoned them there. An estimate made in the year 2000 indicated that there are between 25 and 35 million widows in India. Their luck in life has been so rough that there are movements within Hinduism today seeking to make their lives better. There is evidence that these movements are having positive effects.

In fact, there are ongoing movements throughout India seeking to improve the situations of all areas of women’s lives. These changes could not be made simply through legislation. The vast majority of Hindus live in villages and laws made in New Delhi are often hard to enforce. Changes in lives of women and men therefore must be encouraged at the local level.

Women in Politics

Women’s access to political power has also had a positive effect on the general treatment of women. With models such as Indira Gandhi, females have had images of successful women working in what has traditionally been a man’s realm of responsibility. Interestingly, powerful women in politics are common throughout the Indian subcontinent. The countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have all had women Prime Ministers.

Although these movements indicate the roles of men and women are changing, perhaps more today than even before in India’s history, social changes in India evolve slowly. Patterns of behavior are deeply edged in the soul of Hindu India.

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