Thursday, November 24, 2005

Women in Indian History

The views below are expressed in my individual capacity in my efforts to re-examine Indian history for appropriate precedents that might be relevant to life today. I have been selective in my read of the past and would confine myself to my own tradition in the interest of brevity. I would argue that women played a key leadership role in Indic history be it intellectual endeavor, politics or religion, one that needs to be revived to reinvigorate contemporary Indian civilization.

For instance, women helped define the Vedic tradition. Lopamudra took on the sage Vishwamitra to argue the cause of the marginalized. Apala Atreyi is one rishi or sage who refused to marry, authored segments of the Rig Veda and participated in the fire ritual. Ghosha too preferred a life of spinsterhood and composed hymns to the gods. Vishvavara, Romasha and Vach stand out as other Vedic women rishis. The Rig Veda in 1,000 BCE celebrated women who distinguished themselves in battle. These include Vadhrimati, Vishpala, Mudgalani and Shashiyasi. The Upanishads in 700 BCE refer to independent-minded thinkers such as Gargi Vachaknavi and Maitreyi who challenged key philosophic points and helped elucidate the central tenets of Vedanta. This is the earliest known instance of women's participation in established intellectual discourse in the world.

Panini, the Sanskrit linguist of the 5th century BCE coined a specific term, Upadhyayi, for women teachers of religion. He also refers to women students of the different branches of the Veda, i.e the Katha school, the Rig Veda school, the Taittiriya school etc. The Mahabharata asserts that Arundhati, wife of the great sage Vashishta, matched her husband in scholarship. The ancient custom of swayamvara where a woman chose her man, attests to a more liberal age. These examples illustrate the role of women in defining the Vedas, the intellectual node in the Hindu world.

Likewise, the concept of Stri Rajya implies women administrators. Women participated in public life although sidelined more often in the past. Prabhavati Gupta, the daughter of Chandragupta Vikramaditya, ruled as regent for 13 years in the 5th century CE. She issued a charter describing herself as a devotee of Vishnu. History is witness to the energetic statespersonship of Queen Didda of Kashmir in the 10th century. Inscriptions describe Akkadevi, the Chalukyan provincial governor of the 11th century, as fierce in battle where she commissioned the construction of temples and promoted education.

Sembiyan Mahadevi, the aunt of Rajaraja Chola and devotee of Siva, renovated and built Saivite temples in her own right. She initiated works of charity and bestowed land to several temples. She made endowments to support artisans, craftsmen and musicians attached to such religious institutions. Kundavai, her niece and stalwart of Saivism, established a free hospital at Tanjore and set aside extensive lands for its maintenance. She dedicated temples and conferred costly gifts on each. Rudramba Kakatiya, an Andhra ruler of the 13th century, promoted the welfare of her subjects. She constructed irrigation tanks and canals, granted concessions to merchants to promote trade and industry, built hospitals, provided for their maintenance and patronized several villages. She belonged to the Pasupata sect and expressed a deep faith in Siva. One witnesses herein the role of women in administering the land and supporting religious institutions.

Women made extensive and direct contributions to the wave of personal religious devotion that swept the Hindu world in the late classical and medieval ages. Bhakti often entailed a rejection of marriage in the quest for religious communion. Karaikkal Ammaiyar of Tiruvalangadu sang in praise of Siva in the 6th century CE while Andal of Sri Villiputtur composed hymns of Vaishnavite devotion, a century later. Akkamahadevi is known for her simple and practical aphorisms in the Kannada language in the 12th century CE. These reflect an intense devotion to Siva and are conspicuous in the development of literature in Karnataka. Molla, a potter's daughter from Nellore, created a Telugu Ramayanam using a simple, chaste and vigorous style. Lal Ded, a Saivite mendicant ascetic, is significant to Kashmiri literature. She defined a true saint as one who helps others and embodies compassion. Mirabhai, the medieval Rajput princess, stated her preference for personal piety over lifelong wedlock, rejected suttee and was seminal to Hindi literature. Women joined the bhakti movement and contributed to the Hindu understanding of godhood. Such participation empowered them in a society otherwise male dominated.

Most civilizations have not had such a feminist inheritance. Indic civilization stands out in this regard. Yet, it has also had a fair share of a harsh patriarchy, be it suttee, the skewed legal texts and societal bias. It is now time to reclaim this earlier inheritance to replace the stilted and obsolete patriarchy that has come to dominate our religion, our economy and our politics. Unless and until we reinvigorate this dormant feminist capital, we would be fated to continue playing second fiddle to the West.


doubtinggaurav said...


Excellent post.

I think as a rule of thumb Societies during times of warfare or distress has a tendency towards patriarchal organization.

I do not take into account religious dogma (whether in Hinduism or Christianity), which tend to be biased against women, although it might be interesting excercise to investigate cause of those principles. (but less intriguing than "Da Vinci Code")

One query
What are the origins of Suttee ?
I ask this because Mahabharat mention this custom.

One request

Could you do a write up about Rise and Decline of Buddhism ?


Primary Red said...

Another important mention should go to Razia Sultan who ruled Delhi as part of the Ghulam dynasty. She too is part of our Indic civillization.

Best regards.

nukh said...

Once again, many thanks for an excellent write up.
btw, how do you come up with these compelling posts....whatever it is ....please keep them coming.

Jaffna said...

Gaurav, Primary Red, Nukh,

Thank you. Quick response to the points raised. Both Hinduism and Christianity have had positive features vis-a-vis women's rights and a negative record as well. I would not say that either tradition necessarily "tend to be biased against women".

I have highlighted the progressive Hindu inheritance in my post. I could allude to other positive examples as well. Likewise, Christianity was the only religion to institutionalize monogamy and forbid divorce to men. This safeguarded the position of women.

Suttee is one sad story. I can not fathom its origins though it needs to be mentioned that it was the exception and not the rule. It increased in intensity in medieval India amongst the "martial castes" and interestingly in early colonial Bengal with the spread of the cash economy.

One parallel that comes to mind is the Huns. When the king died, his entire retinue was buried with him - alive. There are examples in the Zulu tradition too. I am not sure about the Aztecs.

It was Razia Sultana, not Sultan. I am trying to read more about her impressive military career and the context in which she had been murdered. In a sense, she provides the prototype for Benazir Bhutto (in the days of General Zia-ul-Haq). Benazir took on a harsh military administration in Pakistan that had huge amounts of Sa'udi and American support despite her gender and her hailing from a minority ethnic group. Her father and brother had been murdered. Her mother had cancer. But, she kept on fighting. I solely refer to her earlier days when she single handedly led the opposition to General Zia in a country still noted for the worst forms of a harshly oppressive partriarchy. Pretty commendable of her.

Anonymous said...

Very lucid and informative. Learnt a lot.

Arundhati Rajasingham said...

Sati had nothing to do with the Hindu religion. The Vedic prayers urge the widow to live life. Sati was an aberration.

Mary Daly is a key feminist writer. She found out in her research that 15 million women had been burnt on the stake in Europe between 1300 and 1700 AD on grounds of witchcraft. Is that any different? And all those women stoned to death in the Islamic world for supposed adultery?

doubtinggaurav said...


I dont think pointing out other religion's past absolve Hinduism of its deficiencies, further this does nothing to correct them.


Arundhati Rajasingham said...


ok, let's leave out other religions. But sati has nothing to do with Hindu doctrine. It is a deviation. Rajasthan faced several invasions from abroad. When the men were killed in battle, the women immolated themselves to avoid capture and sex slavery. the reference to europe was to put things in context. remember joan of arc??

doubtinggaurav said...


I have heard this explaination given for satee before.
However satee is also mentioned in MahaBharat (Madri committed it), so I think there is more behind this.

Arundhati Rajasingham said...


there may have been one reference to sati in the long epic. but it was still an isolated rare practice until much much later.

Anonymous said...

heya Jaffna di (hpe can call u that)
excellent post yaar..

well em a history lover as mah username suggests n i totally agree wiv wiv each n every point..

well @ doutinggaurav...

well dear even if u don't consider the religious dogma..I'd jus say that not always hav women been treated properly..there r evidences in history..
like in india..i.e wiv hindu culture n at the rig vedic period women were highly respected...
buh then as the centuries passed..the society becam biased against women..n this happened as per as fact in almost all religions..
I don't take hindu, muslim, christian at instance buh then after the ancient period..the condition of women had started to deteriorate...n tis is a wrld known fact dear..

Sati pratha as it is rightly called..was the custom where the women burned along wiv their dead husbands on the this the women used to take sit cross legged wiv the husbands body..n burned along wiv the first this wasn't a was as per the woman's wish..if she wanted to go n burn wiv the husband..coz may a times the wife wud not lead normal life after her husband died..
buh later it becam a custom..a tradition that the widow had to burn wiv her husband wiv her wish or not..
n thats why its named as pratha..which means custom...

@ Primary red

Yess u r absolutely right dear..
a vry special mention goes to Razia Sultan..the first women ruler of delhi n even India...
she was the daughter of illtutmish who was the son in law of qutab-udin-aibak the starter of the slave dinesty..

@ arundhati di..

I totally agree wiv arundhati she's right.sati has notin to do wiv hinduism n hinduism as a religion doesn't hav faults ..
Its the people who cahnge the rules, the customs n the traditions oder wise I don't thibk n as per as i hav read in all the holy bookjs..may it be puranas,vedas, ramayan, mahabharata or bHagwat gita...or bible, koran or ny oder holy book at that instance which has faults..
every book gives the same message in a dif way...

n well yes..sati pratha did cum in india..n yes madri did do sati..buh why..??
their is a u might be knowing that pandu had a curse that if he copulated wiv any of his wifes (he had two)...then his head wud get broken in hundred pieces as per a curse given by a rishi (if u wanna know why the rishi gav the curse..feel free to ask)...
n thus on arjuns 13th B'day when everyone was celebrating..
King Pandu found Madri lukin exeptionally beautiful n thus he took her to a secluded area..
madri tried to remind him of the curse n made many attempts..buh he didn't listen n thus died...
madri felt as if she is the cause of his death...n so feeling extremly guilty n ashamed..n vry heartbroken n sad she sat on the pyre wiv her husband as she cudn't bear to live widout him..
even kunti wanted to burn wiv her husband..buh one of the wifes had to be there for the kids n thus madri said that em not responsible enuf n won't be able to take care of the kids like u can n thus did sati...

This was one instance n never in all the hindu religious holy books hav i read that a women has to do sati if her husband dies..never..

its jus how the people changed it to their accord...

n arundhati di the fact u pointed out like how women jumped in pyres or burned the palace or jumped in wells n died to save emselves from the foriegn save emselves of the humiliation..of being treated like slaves n *** objects...that was known as JAUHAR
n usually Rajput women used to do thjis to save emselves from the males...

SATI n JAUHAR r two diff things n hav notin to do wiv hinduism..
its true that it took place in India mre often buh that was becoz attacks on india were mre than on nyoder countries it was the golden bird

n lustful rulers like alla-udin-Khilji wanted the beauty of baeuties of those times..the beautiful women of india...n so it was practised mre in India..

I hpe to make myself clear....

btw thanks Jaffna di..yet again for the excellent post..

Love ya all loads.....t.ccccc

-Ur's Ever Madhu

Anonymous said...

n sati pratha was a SOCIAL EVIL not a defieciency in Hindu religion...

It was the socities fault..not the religions

4got to mention in above post..sowie...

Love ya all......t.ccccc

-Ur's Ever Madhu


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