The evolution of the status of women in India has been a continuous process of ups and downs throughout history. Considering the vast body of empirical research available on the topic, two approaches seem valid: one is classical text view; and the other, empirical view.
For the purpose of depicting a brief survey of the changing position and role of women in India throughout history, two broad periods are considered: (a) 2500 B.C-1500 B.C., and (b) 1500 B.C. – 1800 A.D.
These divisions are based on degree of freedom that women enjoyed and the role differentiation within the family. Throughout classic literature on the status of women there is almost consistent opinion among great scholars that during the age of Vedas (2500 – 1500 B. C.) a woman’s status was equivalent to that of a man.
Though it is difficult to specify the exact chronological time as to when the deterioration in woman’s status started, one can state that gradual changes appeared during the age of Brahamanas, 1500B.C. and by the age of Sutras and Epics, 500 B.C. to A.D. o 500 and the age of the later Srutis, A.D.500 to A.D. 1800 the status had deteriorated considerably.
Role of women in ancient India 2500 B.C. -1500 B.C
This period is usually referred to as the early Vedic period. During this age a woman had a great extend of freedom like man, and her sphere of role relationships was not circumscribed by too may restrictions. At home, generally the mother was the mistress of the house. She had her usual routine of cleaning the house, sweeping the house with cow dung, decorate the house with lime powder, washing vessels; cooking food, looking after children; serving food to others first ; welcoming and entertaining the. The Vedic Samhitas refer to women taking active part in agriculture and other crafts like leather work, making gur, drawing water, churning butter-milk, making wine, weaving mats and sewing. They were also in charge of household finances and farm laborers. The Vedic hymns inform that both husband and wife were joint owners of family property. In Rig-Veda, a daughter retained her right of inheritance and could substitute a son. Women were permitted to have separate property of their own which came to be designed in later Smritis as Stridhan. Some of the high class women were highly educated and actively participated in intellectual philosophical discussions. One comes across references to lady sages like Gosha, Apala, Lopamudra, Indranni, Gargi and Maitreyi. During the Vedic period girls and boys were initiated into the Vedic studies by performing a rite of passage called upanayan ceremony.
It is believed that according to “Sarvankuramanika” there were as many as twenty women being credited for composing the hymns of the rig Veda. It is believed that during Upanishad period there were Brahmanyadinis, life long students of Philosophy. One renowned scholar was Gargi who challenged Yagnavalkya and asked many subtle and intricate questions. Upanishad also includes a conversation between Yagnavilkya and one of his two wives Maitreyi over division of property at the decision by the sage to renounce the world. Maitreyi indicated her preference for initiation to the knowledge of Brahmavidya to property. Passages in the Vedas show that women apart from a mere literary career had other careers open to them. They entered fields of teaching, medicine, business, military and administration .The wife enjoyed with her husband full religious right and regularly participated in religious ceremonies. In fact, such ceremonies without the wife joining her husband were regarded as invalid. It is further ordained that the woman whose hand is accepted in marriage should be treated with respect and kindness and all that is agreeable to her shall be given to her. All these indicate that a woman held a status equal to man and there were considerably less restrictions on her activities outside the home.
The position of a daughter in the Hindu family during the Vedic period did not include much authoritative role. Her socialization from childhood involved a high degree of Modesty peculiar to Hindu culture .Her training installed in her tolerance, patience, submission and identification of her personality with her husband’s. Though marriage was of great social and religious significance, it was not mandatory as the extensive use of the word “Amajur”, which means a girl who grew at her father’s house, suggests this. The Vedas include references to unmarried female rishis like Apala and aitreya and some of them received co-education, though rare, which sometimes led to love marriage. Girls were regarded as objects of good women. Ramayana includes a detailed description of the reception of Rama after his long exile by the unmarried girls first and later a religious bath at their hands. The grown-up daughters during the temporary absence of the parents managed household and received the guests.
The daughter-in-law entered her husband’s family as a stranger, because the other members had already imbibed the traditions and customs of the family. The bride’s major duty was to make efforts to merge her personality with that of her husband’s in matter both mundane and spiritual, and also to adapt herself to the traditions and sentiments of the family of which she had become a full fledged member. Her position was one of honorable subordination. It was expected from her to show respect to and obey all the elder members of the family. She had to help the mother-in-law in household duties such as cleaning, washing, drawing water, cooking, rearing children, tending cattle, and nursing the sick and the aged.
The wife was always supposed to participate in religious ceremonies along with her husband. In fact, no religious rite was complete without her presence. She was called “ardhangini” or the other half. The Mahabharata declared that “in truth, a householder’s home, even if crowded with sons, grandsons, daughters-in-law, and servants is virtually a lonely place for his life, if there is no housewife. One’s home is not the house made of brick and mortar; it is the wife who makes the home. A home without the wife is like a wilderness”. A wife was considered as his friend, counsel, and companion. All this was related to the counterpart role in the husband’s role system.
Role of women in ancient India 1500 B.C. – A.D. 1800
Though it is difficult to say at which specific point of time deterioration in the status of women began, still there would be probably little disagreement among the experts if it is stated that women enjoyed a relatively -higher status in the early Vedic period.
From about 1500 B.C. started the change in women’s status due to various reasons, among which the most important was a denial of education. Traces of deterioration are found in all periods following 1500 B.C. But it became much more marked after the beginning of the Christian era and reached its peak after the Mughul invasion in sixteenth century. In short, the role of women conformed to the dictum laid down by Manu, the great law giver of second century that “a woman does not deserve freedom” and that her life should throughout be one of dependence on man. Another similar dictum laid down by Manu was that woman should be subservient in all stages of her life- “in childhood to the father, in youth to the husband and his elderly kins and to the son when widowed”.Among the traditional Hindu families the fate of a woman, especially of the daughter-in-law, was always of subordination to all other members.