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Archaeology Publication

Status of Women in Ancient India

InArchCenter ID: - IACBN0027


India is a vast and multi-cultural country. The Civilization of India is ancient in the world and with each era, a new social structure is born since the birth of our society. Indian Culture holds a plethora of concepts where women in society are shown as a divine force of nature. Women throughout have been worshipped as Goddesses like Durga, Kali, Saraswati, and Lakshmi. The status of women in the Vedic Civilization and the Indus Valley was supreme. they had the status of a Goddess. But nowadays it is very surprising, how the position of women as Goddess degrades itself to a mere object.

Chandragupta Maurya is the king and first emperor of India during the Maurya Period. He ruled the Magadha Empire from C. 320 BC to 297 BC. He is considered a contemporary of Alexander and won many battles and empires. Kautilya is also known as Chanakya who was the prime minister and chief political adviser to Chandragupta was considered as the mastermind behind Chandragupta’s victories The role of WOMEN in Mauryan society is of come significance. The Smiritis of this period repeats the anti-feminist doctrines and principles of the older law. Thus the ancient doctrine of perpetual dependence of a woman (her father, husband, and son protecting her in childhood, youth, and old age respective) is repeated and amplified by Manu and is paraphrased by Yajanvlkya. Over periods of time, women in different societies have had many different roles in their culture. As time changes, women evolve. Women have held many different positions in society from being a housewife to educated women with special skill. There is frequent mention of women of the commonalty moving about with minor roles in the empire but the larger priority role was marriages. Kautilya explains the different types of marriage in the period. One among them is Asura where a large amount of money is received by a man to marry the woman. These widow marriages were most prevalent among the slaves and Sudras. The divorce system is introduced. While child marriage still exists the concept of Swayamvara was introduced which means the woman can choose the man which she wants to marry. They were given the right to divorce under certain specific circumstances. Kautilya also treated the absence of a husband as a cause for his wife’s re-marriage. Economic security leads one to conclude towards a secure and healthy position of women.

Marriage system and Dowry: -

Marriages in ancient india

Magasthenes who came to India and stayed in the court of Chandragupta Maurya, mentions that India’s marriage is marked by a gift of “a yoke of oxen”. It is amazing to see that this kind of marriage is one of the forms of marriage which is mentioned in Dharmashastra and repeated by Manu. It is called “Arsha”, a form of marriage in which the bridegroom gives a cow and bull or both to the father of a daughter, and after that, the father gets his daughter married to the man. It’s the reverse of the present-day dowry system. Women again are entitled to win and bequeath their special property or stirdhana. In Manu, women's ineligibility for Vedic study and the worship of the sacred fire is masked by the declaration that after her marriage her service to her husband and her performance of household duties are their substitutes. The honourable treatment of women enjoined by Manu is inculcated almost in the same terms in the Mahabharata. In fine, the stories of Draupadi, Damayanti, Savitri in the Mahabharata, and of Sita in the Ramayana have preserved for us pictures of heroic women who are inspired by a high ideal of duty and often by supreme wisdom and goodness.

Eight types of marriage were prevalent in the Vedic age, of which four were more prominent.

The list consists of: -

1. Brahma form of marriage. (where the daughter was given as a gift to a good man learned in the Vedas;)

2. Daiva form of marriage. (where the daughter was given as a gift to the presiding priest of a Vedic sacrifice.)

3. Arsha form of marriage. (was the third kind where the groom had to pay to get the lady,)

4. Prajapatya form of marriage. (the fourth kind, where the father gave his daughter to a man who promised monogamy and faithfulness)

5. Asura form of marriage ( Marriage of purchase)

6. Gandharva form of marriage ( Marriage by mutual choice )

7. Rakshasa form of marriage (Marriage by capture- resembling the right of a victor to the person of the captive in war.)

8. Paishacha form of marriage ( Marriage by stealth)

During this time, widow remarriages are allowed. Usually, the husband’s brother will marry the widow in the warrior class. These widow marriages were most prevalent among the slaves and Sudras. If the women choose not to marry, she has to spend the rest of their lives in strict adherence to the rules. Among the upper classes, women are allowed to choose the groom and in the lower class parents will choose the groom for their daughters. Inter-caste marriages are not allowed during this time. The status of the widow in the Smriti Law of this period is relaxed by its strong emphasis upon the wife’s supreme duty of serving her husband. The Atharvaveda, however, shows that the funeral ritual of the Vedic age preserved some formalities to the archaic (old-fashioned or very old) custom of Sati. Though ancient Indian women did not have an inheritance (legacy ) right in their names, it was given to their male counterparts but “Sridhana “as an exclusive institution really strengthened the position of women. Girls were married at a fairly advanced age in the Vedic Period. The precise age is not stated, but from the Avesta, we learn that maidens were usually wedded at the age of 15 or 16 in Ancient Persia. Female ascetics of the Brahmanical order, and Buddhist and Jaina nuns were evidently numerous in these times.

On the other hand, the concept of Dowry goes back to many centuries. By definition does the concept of dowry goes back many centuries. By definition dowry means, “it is a parental property that passes to the daughter at the time of marriage”. It involves any kind of property, Money, Ornaments, etc... The practice of Dowry in India continues to be a controversial subject. Some scholars believe dowry was practised in the ancient Indian subcontinent, some do not. Historical reports suggest dowry in ancient India was significant and daughters also had inheritance rights, which by custom were exercised at the time of their marriage. The Code of Manu also sanctioned dowry and bridewealth in ancient India, but dowry was the more prestigious form and associated with the Brahmanic (priestly) caste and it is practically not known exactly when the concept of dowry came to India but the concept is known to have its roots in the ancient past. According to Megasthenas and Arrian, 3rd Century BC, the accorded has dowry or she has any handsome fortune but only look at her inner and outer beauty. The Code of Manu also mentioned Dowry and the bride's wealth. Manu explains the difference between Dowry and Bride's wealth. Dowry was more of a prestigious thing and it was associated with the Brahmanical Caste whereas the Brides wealth was typically restricted to the lower castes. This mainly prevailed in the earlier half of the 20th Century. In ancient texts, Dowry has been referred to as Yautraka which means a kind of material gift which confirms that two people have joined in matrimony. The girl in marriage was given away upon getting a price that was called ‘Sulka’. It means that the parents were compensated for the loss of their daughter after her marriage. In Indian marriages along with money, jewellery, and other items to be given to the groom as dowry the giving away of the bride ‘Kanyadana’ was also a part of it. Kanya means Daughter and Dana means Gift. It was also known as ‘Hunda’, it comes from the word Handa meaning pot. It was called so because in ancient times the dowry was given in a pot.

Education: -

Though the women were allowed to receive higher education, they were debarred (prohibit) from participating in the political activities of nations. There were many instances where even the princess was well educated. The role of women in Ancient India Literature is immense. Ancient India had many learned women. There were two types of scholarly women – the Brahmavadinis -the women who never married and cultured the Vedas throughout their lives; and the Sadyodvahas who studies the Vedas till they married. The Rig Veda contains hymns written by 27 women scholars. Of these, the prominent Brahmavadinis are Lopamudra, Ghosha, Gargi, and Maitreyi. Panini mentioned a female student studying Vedas. Katyana called female teachers Upadhyaya or Upadhyayi. Ashoka got his daughter, Sanghamitra inducted into preaching Buddhism. From the Jain text, we learn about the Kousambi princess, Jayanti who remained a spinster-to study religion and philosophy. Often, Buddhist nuns composed hymns. Women did write Sanskrit play and verses, excelled in music, painting, and other fine art.

Women were not denied education. Many educated women’s used to follow teaching careers either out of love or out of necessity. In the Vedic age, education was mostly centred in the family, brothers, sisters, and cousins properly studied together under the family elders. Subsequently, when specialization became the order of the day, the student had to leave their homes and often go to distant places to study under celebrated teachers. Our sources enable us to have only a glimpse of the recreations of girls during the Vedic and epic periods. Music and dancing the Vedic and epic principal indoor games. Santa and Kunti are, for instance, represented as spending their leisure hours in this game in the Mahabharata. The causes of Women’s Education suffered a good deal after about 300 B.C. on account of the new vogue. The aim of female education i.e. the number of women who will be thus going in purely for a career will, however, not be a large one. They should attain boy's colleges and follow a common curriculum. The education imparted in them should be such as will make the recipients efficient wives and mothers, and also enable them to become earning members of their families in their spare time, or in case of need and adversity. The decline of the Brahmavadinis came with the universal acceptance of the code of Manu.

Courtesan: -

No discussion of the position of women would be completed without reference to a class of Courtesans who enjoyed a social standing not in accordance to anywhere else in the world, except perhaps in ancient Greece. Courtesans were closely associated with occasions. During the Mauryan Period(3rd – 2nd Centuries BCE), the Indian state’s involvement in prostitution was at its height. Providing sexual entertainment to the public using Ganikas was both strictly controlled by the state and mostly conducted in the state-owned establishment. The Arthashastra a book on kingship and governance, has an entire section on the Board of Administration for Courtesans. The Arthashastra describes the courtesan as one who not only provides sexual pleasures but also entertains with singing and dancing. The stat’s involvement in training courtesans in the faculties of singing, dancing playing musical instruments, writing, painting, acting, and the art of making love indicates the significance that the Mauryan state-granted courtesans. The head of the courtesan house was generally an exceptionally beautiful woman and, if closely trusted, could become the personal attendant to the king or queen. Once promoted as the king's personal attendant, she could collect an annual salary ranging from 3000 to 1000 panas, depending on her beauty and qualifications. Remarkably, the king’s personal advisers and other attendants—such as the charioteer, physician, astrologer, and court poet—were paid 1000 panas as salary. The Arthasastra recommends that courtesans be employed as a diseased and disempowered body, studies from pre-colonial early modern India present a more nuanced picture.

Historian Leslie Orr, who undertook an expansive study of the devadasi system during the Chola period (9th -13th century A.D.) refutes that the system was a form of institutionalized and sacred prostitution. The class of female temple- attendants (Devadasi) so very common in the following centuries are as yet of minor importance: only one record refers to a Devadasi during this period. A fallen woman of good looks and proper conduct who has mastered the arts (Kala) says that the author acquires the tile of Ganika; as such she is honoured by kings, praised by the discerning, sought after by pupils, and accepted by pleasure-seekers. A Mathura inscription has preserved the life of the courtesan in the Tamil works of the Sangam Age amplifies the much shorter notice in Vatsyayana’s work. The custom of the seclusion of royal women was well established during this period.

This profession has existed in India for many ages. The ancient roots of it may be found in many historical accounts of Buddhist literature, Kautilya Arthashastra, Vedas, Puranas, Mahabharata, etc. The Purana states that the very sight of prostitutes brings good luck. The women prostitutes in those times were classified into three categories, namely, Kumbhadasis, Rupajivikas, and Ganikas. The act had religious and cultural sanctions and these women enjoyed considerable respect within the social hierarchy as the courtesans of the king. Shailendra Nath writes in Ancient Indian History “courtesans or prostitutes (in Mauryan period) enjoyed a social status not accorded to them anywhere in the world.”

Amrapali the famous courtesan, greet Gautam Buddha
Amrapali the famous courtesan, greet Gautam Buddha

Amrapali the famous courtesan, greet Gautam Buddha: Buddha while visiting Vaishali stayed at Amprapli’s mango grove. She invited Buddha for a meal which he accepted. She later donated the mangroves to his order. She accepted the Buddhist way and remained an active supporter of the Buddhist order.

In Other Sources: -

No doubt the status of women in the Mauryan era was comparatively good and they enjoyed a certain amount of freedom. Women from higher castes could escape to study or choose their husbands or own property. However, if they had sons, they usually had to endow the property in the name of their sons. Their freedom was limited to which they were allowed by the men in the family - fathers, husbands, fathers-in-law, and sons. The bane of child marriage was not prevalent in Mauryan society. The one custom that appals me is that of Sati. Doubtless over the centuries, there were instances of "voluntary" sati. Another point to be noted is that those who chose not to commit Sati had to lead a life of severe restrictions. Courtesans were another tragic lot - they had beauty, wealth, influence, learning, and talent, everything except the right to love and have a family of their own. No wonder the disillusioned ones often became Buddhist nuns. Life was a mixed bag then as now for women.

In addition to dance, music, painting, women received training in Military Warfare too. More clear evidence is given by the Greek ambassador Magasthenese, who tells us about, “The women soldiers who rode horses, commanded, ran the chariots, and were always armed as if ready to go into the war-field.”

The Bharhut stupa shows a woman riding a horse and carrying the royal standard, as shown below. Women rulers in ancient India are not unknown. According to Magasthenese, the country of Pandyan rulers was governed by women.

The Bharhut stupa shows a woman riding a horse and carrying the royal standard,
The Bharhut stupa shows a woman riding a horse and carrying the royal standard,

(A female horse rider holds the sacred standard in a precession. She is sitting on a fully caparisoned horse. She has covered her head and horse and nose, perhaps, wearing special armour. Sculpture from the Bharhut Stupa, 2nd Century BCE. Now at the Indian Museum, Kolkata. )

Bibliography: -

1. Nandas and Mauryan. Radha Kumar Mukherjee, pg. 475’, 483’, 493

2. The position of women in Hindu Civilisation, A.S. Altekar, The culture publication House, Benares Hindu University, Pg.46’, 79’.

3. Article of Discovering Mauryan History, Abhay, 6 November 2016.

4. Status of Indian women: Though Ages. Chapter II pg: 81’

5. Prostitution in the colonial period, Article of Mainstream June 19, 2010

6. Mrs Reshma M.A, Dr RamegoudaA., ―Dowry- the cancer of society‖; IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science, Vol-17, Issue-4 (2013).


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Keywords: status of women in India, ancient India, courtesan, education


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