Wives should be at home and take care of the family, that’s their sole responsibility
We have a family of very high moral values, bahus of our khandaan don’t go out to work…
These are some of the very common phrases that establish that Indian society is not for women. A girl cannot grow into her ambitions and will be subdued by the male members of the society or the family. India is a patriarchal society where married women are forced to live behind the ghoonghats for the entire life.
What I said just now is something that some of us might have experienced or seen or have heard of, maybe watched in films. The follow up to this is, due to influence of the West, the situation is changing and women, be it married or unmarried, are today out there, earning for themselves, breaking the shackles of patriarchy.
But, has Indian society always been like this? Does all that our civilisation teach is to pass jokes on wives on social messaging platforms? Has the Western influence really helped married women break the shackles and go out and work, and earn their independence? Or, does the transition story have some lesser-known layers to it?
The status of females in Vedic and pre-Vedic era
In contrast to the popularised theory of ‘patriarchal’ India, the position of Girls’/ Women/ Wives’ was always acknowledged in Sanatan Hindu society. They were always given the due respect they deserved. Young girls were educated. They gained knowledge on everything from arthashastra to shashtravidya.
They were also provided with military training, the reason why many Hindu wives went to wars with their husbands, and some even fought without them. These young women had exclusive right to select their own consorts, which was known as Swaayamvara, and the concept of dowry didn’t even exist.
These well-educated girls became wives and not only nurtured families but also governed states. And it was not limited to this. The wives held the responsibility of mentoring, they used to guide men on religious and social questions. The wives in ancient Indian societies also had a crucial role to play in the decision-making process.
Hindu Wives in Ancient India
नास्ति स्त्री समा छाया नास्ति स्त्री समा गति: नास्ति स्त्री समा त्राणम्।
Who is a wife? This quote credits woman as a shadow and woman as the shelter. Shelter that protects you and Shadow that guides you. One will go directionless, if they lose their shadow.
कार्येषु मन्त्री करणेषु दासी
भोज्येषु माता शयनेषु रम्भा।
धर्मानुकूला क्षमया धरित्री
भार्या च षाड्गुण्यवतीह दुर्लभा।।
What does the Sanskrit quote mean? The quote from Vedas depicts the 6 qualities that should be in a woman. A wife is someone who can advise like an intelligent minister, who is workaholic and takes care of the family, feeds like a mother and loves like apsaras or nymphs, is forgiving like mother Earth and is beautiful like Goddess Laxmi.
These were the ideal qualities that defined wives, establishing their high stature and significant role in shaping the society. The men were also directed to respect their wives, who held the position of ardhangini in Sanatan Dharma.
सन्तोषस्त्रिषु कर्तव्यः स्वदारे भोजने धने। त्रिषु चैव न कर्तव्योऽध्ययने जपदानयोः।।
The respect for Hindu wives and their stature in the family as well as the society was such that even Bhgawans waged wars to avenge the ill treatment of their wives.
Bhagwan Shiv, the strongest among Tridev, crossed all boundaries forgetting his duties, to bring justice to Sati, who had sacrificed her life. In anger, Bhagwan Shiv began his dance of destruction, Tandav and the universe could only be saved from his rage after the combined interference of Bhagwan Brahma and Bhagwan Vishnu.
Bhagwan Ram fought with Ravana in order to protect the dignity of his wife. In the Yudh Kand, Maharishi Valmiki elaborates how Bhagwan Ram, battling all the hardships he faced, waged a war against Raavan to ensure the safety and dignity of his wife Mata Sita.
The next epic is Maharbharat, where the Pandavs avenged the disrespect of their wife, Draupadi. The pratigya of Bheem stands in deposition for the same.
From Devis being worshipped to giving wives the utmost respect, the ancient Indian society is a case study for the world to learn gender equality. And the two prominent examples to be cited are that of Mata Sita and Draupadi.
The concept of Vamangini
Have you heard the chants in a Hindu mandir? We call for ‘Bolo Siya var Ram chandra ki jai’. This chant is enough to explain the stature of wives in the Sanatan Dharma.
Maharishi Valmiki says in Ramayan:
ततः स प्रयतो वृद्धो वसिष्ठो ब्राह्मणैः सह ||
रामन् रत्नमयो पीठे सहसीतं न्यवेशयत् |
This translates to, “The elderly Vasistha, with diligence, along with other brahmins on his side, prevailed upon Shri Ram duly to occupy along with Sita, on a seat made of precious stones.”
Through this he asks Maryada Purushottam Shri Ram to take the chair of Ayodhya along with Mata Sita. This clearly signifies that wives enjoyed equal say in governing the state. This is why the wives were called Vamangini or Ardhangini or Sahadharmini. Wives were not who followed the orders of the male members or husbands, rather in Sanatan Dharma, they were Sahayogini or Sahakarmini, who shared an equal part in all actions performed by her partner.
Vishpala, mentioned in Rigveda, is a well-known warrior. She is known for fighting with one natural and one artificial leg. Similarly, Kaikeyi, one of the mothers of the four celebrated brothers in Ramayana fought shoulder to shoulder with Raja Dashrath, her husband. There are several other such stories present in our culture. Recent history has witnessed warrior queens like Rani Laxmibai and Ahilyabai Holkar as the prominent ones.
The invasions changed everything
It was in the 800s when Abrahamic invasions began and first Afghans, then Mughals, then Britishers, a series of foreign invasions happened. The invaders came to India, looted the land known as the golden sparrow, raped and kidnapped women and turned men into slaves.
The Mughal rule impacted the lives of Hindu wives the most. While the other Islamic invaders came, looted and went back, Mughals stayed and ruled India for longer than 300 years. It was at that time that the stature and involvement of women in social affairs changed entirely. The Hindu wives, who were getting training of shastra and shaashtra, were confined within the four walls.
During the Mughal era, it was a common practice for senior officials or the emperors to lay eyes upon any woman and take her into his harem. During the wedding season, such actions turned into recurring nightmares. Bridal party raids became common at the time and something had to be done to overcome this.
So, to protect the daughters and wives, two major changes were implemented. First, marriages were now organised in wee hours instead of daytime. And second, the concept of purda or ghoonghat was adopted to seclude and veil women from the Mughals. With attire the treatment of women also changed.
The Mughals were defeated by the Britishers, but ghooghat and seclusion of women became a norm. This drastically diminished the stature of wives. This was the time when objectification of women became normal.
The liberation of Hindu wives along with Economic liberalisation
India is a country that was not only robbed of its wealth but also its culture. The advocates of Burqa, imposed Purdah on Hindu wives. Women belonging to the not to do well families started staying behind the four walls. They were deprived of education and were limited to baby-producing machines, as imposed by the Islamic invaders. Similar things continued in British India, as well as independent India till 1980s.
However, with independence, began the debate of regaining our lost glory. Girls were now being sent to school and wives slowly started participating in societal affairs. Their presence was slowly becoming visible in the Hindu homes as well.
Then came economic liberalisation, that paved the way for women to go out and work. The demand for workforce increased as our economy shifted from being static to dynamic. Majorly, only Hindu wives made foray into the labour market as women in other religions were still subdued by the patriarchal forces.
The generation of 1980s and 1990s is the most aspirational generation, who are currently sitting at directorial level ventures around the globe. The Hindu wives, who fought wars, were now part of the work forces, earning livelihood and complementing other earning members of the family. The stature of Hindu wives and mothers again grew with education and exposure and they were once again the part of the decision-making group.
It is true that a large number of people still need to be told about the rich civilisational history of India.
Women’s role in the Sanatan civilisation can be summed in one line. In Sanatan civilisation, Hindu wives from a larger perspective had the roles of Queens, Mothers, Teachers, Preachers, warriors, and Ministers. But they were not coerced into performing a specific role. And now, Hindu wives are once again gaining the position they had in the past and that they deserve.
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