THE STATUS OF WOMEN

THE STATUS OF WOMEN : In the early vedic period, caste development was apparently weak enough for marriage between groups to be common. Much in the Rigvedic corpus, too, suggests that the status of women was higher than it was to be in later centuries. For example, daughters as well as sons were given the education of the time; both memorized the hymns and were instructed in their meanings. One text says: ‘An unmarried young learned daughter should be married to a bride- groom who like her is learned.’8 In the hymns, female as well as male seers (rishis) appear, and are equal or better in ascetic exercises. The texts are often cast in the form of dialogues in which females as well as males have speaking roles, which has led to the speculation that some hymns were actually com- posed by women. Nor were women even barred from public speaking, as shown by the hymn that exhorts the newly married wife: ‘You should address the assembly [vidatha, a type of popular meeting] as a commander.’9

Girls were permitted to move about freely in public, attend the festive gatherings called samanas in search of husbands or lovers and sometimes spend the night abroad. Marriage, although expected to be universal (as occasionally it was not), took place when the bride was fully mature and usually to the man of her choice, although her father and, especially,  her mother had a veto. The presence and participation of the wife of the donor       at the sacrifice was a requirement of the ritual. Daughters could, at a pinch,  take the place of sons, women could inherit property and both sexes could  make up for marital undesirability by a suitable addition of wealth. Widows

were mentioned and even remarried; the contemporary evidence of the later custom of widow immolation is dubious at best.

Nevertheless, the purpose of marriage for women was the production of sons expected to perform funeral rites and sacrifices for their progenitors; wives were subordinate to their husbands, and women are often depicted as sexual temptresses, diverting men from their ascetic and moral duties. Nor was the standard litany of misogynist abuse entirely absent, even from the Rigveda: ‘There can be no friendship with women, as they have the hearts of wolves or jackals.’10 By the later vedic period, moreover, the rot had set in and the Brah- manas displayed both the curse of caste and the misogyny that was to increase, pervading and disfiguring Indian society up to the present. The Satapatha Brahmana identifies women with evil, and declares, ‘The woman, the shudra, the dog and the crow are falsehood.’11 The same text goes on to suggest that they should be excluded from meetings. The vilification of women had pro- ceeded to such a point that, in the Mahabharata epic, the puzzled philosopher- king Yudhisthira was moved to ask, ‘If women are wicked and vicious by their very nature, how could the dharmashastra [righteous conduct] writers enjoin that they should participate with their husbands in religious duties?’

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