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Women in Hinduism

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Women in Hinduism

Hindu texts present diverse and conflicting views on the position of women, ranging from feminine leadership as the highest goddess to limiting her role to an obedient daughter, housewife and mother. The Devi Sukta hymn of Rigveda, a scripture of Hinduism, declares the feminine energy as the essence of the universe, the one who creates all matter and consciousness, the eternal and infinite, the metaphysical and empirical reality (Brahman), the soul (supreme self) of everything.[1][2] The woman is celebrated as the most powerful and the empowering force in some Hindu Upanishads, Sastras and Puranas, particularly the Devi Upanishad, Devi Mahatmya and Devi-Bhagavata Purana.[3][4][5]

In Smritis, such as the Manusmriti, the position of women in Hinduism is mixed and contradictory. Manusmriti asserts that "as a girl, she should obey and seek protection of her father, as a young woman her husband, and as a widow her son".[6] In other sections, the same text asserts that "women must be honored and adorned", and "where women are revered, there the gods rejoice; but where they are not, no sacred rite bears any fruit".[7] However, scholars have questioned the authenticity and corruption of the text over time, given the numerous inconsistent version of the Smriti manuscripts that have been discovered.[8]

Ancient and medieval era Hindu texts present a diverse picture of duties and rights of women in Hinduism. The texts recognize eight kinds of marriage, ranging from father finding a marriage partner for his daughter and seeking her consent (Brahma marriage), to the bride and groom finding each other without parental participation (Gandharva marriage).[9][10] Scholars state that Vedic era Hindu texts, and records left by travelers to ancient and medieval India, suggest ancient and early medieval Hindu society did not practice Dowry or Sati.[11][12] These practices likely became widespread sometime in the 2nd millennium CE from socio-political developments in the Indian subcontinent.[13][14]

Hinduism, states Bryant, has the strongest presence of the divine feminine among major world religions, from ancient times to the present.[15] The goddess is viewed as central in Shakti and Saiva Hindu traditions.[16][17]


  • Ancient texts 1
    • Vedic literature 1.1
    • The Epics 1.2
    • Shastras and Smritis 1.3
    • Puranas 1.4
  • Gender of God 2
  • Practices 3
    • Marriage 3.1
    • Dowry 3.2
    • Widowhood and remarriage 3.3
    • Sati 3.4
    • Education 3.5
    • Dress 3.6
    • Arts: dance, drama, music 3.7
  • Context: historical and modern developments 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
    • Bibliography 6.1
  • External links 7

Ancient texts

Vedic literature

Ancient texts of Hinduism expound a reverence for the feminine. The 10th chapter of the Rigveda, for example, asserts the feminine to be the supreme principle behind all of cosmos, in the following hymn called as Devi Sukta,[1][2]

I am the Queen, the gatherer-up of treasures, most thoughtful, first of those who merit worship.
     Thus Gods have established me in many places with many homes to enter and abide in.
Through me alone all eat the food that feeds them,-each man who sees, breathes, hears the word outspoken
     They know it not, yet I reside in the essence of the Universe. Hear, one and all, the truth as I declare it.

I, verily, myself announce and utter the word that gods and men alike shall welcome.
     I make the man I love exceeding mighty, make him nourished, a sage, and one who knows Brahman.
I bend the bow for Rudra that his arrow may strike and slay the hater of devotion.
     I rouse and order battle for the people, I created Earth and Heaven and reside as their inner controller.

On the world's summit I bring forth the Father: my home is in the waters, in the ocean.
     Thence I prevade all existing creatures, as their Inner Supreme Self, and manifest them with my body.
I created all worlds at my will, without any higher being, and permeate and dwell within them.
     The eternal and infinite consciousness is I, it is my greatness dwelling in everything.

— Rigveda 10.125.3 - 10.125.8, [1][18]

There were instances in which vedic interpretation lead to issues of daughters not being as highly valued as sons (Altekar). This resulted in social ills such as female infanticide, however no such practice ever existed in the scriptures[19].


The Devi Sukta ideas of the Rigveda are further developed in the more modern Shakta Upanishads, states McDaniel, where the Devi asserts that she is Brahman, from her arise Prakṛti (matter) and Purusha (consciousness), she is bliss and non-bliss, the Vedas and what is different from it, the born and the unborn, and the feminine is thus all of the universe.[3] She is presented as all the five elements, as well as all that is different from these elements, what is above, what is below, what is around, and thus the universe in its entirety.[20] This philosophy is also found in the Tripura Tapani Upanishad, Bharicha Upanishad, and Guhyakalo Upanishad.[1]

The early Upanishads are, however, generally silent about women and men, and focus predominantly about gender-less Brahman and its relation to Atman (Soul, Self). There are occasional exceptions. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, composed about 800 BCE, for example, in the last chapter detailing the education of a student, include lessons for his Grihastha stage of life.[21] There, the student is taught, that as a husband, he should cook rice for the wife, and they together eat the food in certain way depending on whether they wish for the birth of a daughter or a son, as follows,[21]

And if a man wishes that a learned daughter should be born to him, and that she should live to her full age, then after having prepared boiled rice with sesamum and butter, they should both eat, being fit to have offspring.

And if a man wishes that a learned son should be born to him, and that he should live his full age, then after having prepared boiled rice with meat and butter, they should both eat, being fit to have offspring.

— Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 6.4.17 - 6.4.18, Translated by Max Muller[22]

Several female sages and seers are mentioned in the Upanishads, the philosophical part of the Vedas. Among them are Gargi and Maitreyi. In Sanskrit, the word acharyā means a "female teacher" (versus acharya meaning "teacher") and an acharyini is a teacher's wife, indicating that some women were known as gurus.

Female characters appear in plays and epic poems. The 8th century poet, Bhavabhuti describes in his play, Uttararamacharita (verse 2 - 3), how the character, Atreyi, travelled to southern India where she studied the Vedas and Indian philosophy. In Madhava's Shankaradigvijaya, Shankara debates with the female philosopher, Ubhaya Bharati and in verses 9 - 63 it is mentioned that she was well versed in the Vedas. Tirukkoneri Dasyai, a 15th-century scholar, wrote a commentary on Nammalvar's Tiruvaayamoli, with reference to Vedic texts such as the Taittiriya Yajurveda.

The Epics

In the two Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, the role of women is mixed. The main female character in the Mahabharata, Draupadi is married to all the five Pandavas, thus has five husbands. She is insulted by Duryodhana, one of the triggers for the great war. In the Ramayana composed in the second half of 1st millennium BCE, Sita is respected, honored and seen as inseparable beloved but presented as a homemaker, the ideal wife and partner to Rama. In the Hindu tradition, a majority of women's oral retellings of the Ramayana depict autonomy as the rule rather than the exception, but states Sugirtharajah , these versions are of recent origins.[23]

The Epics are stories, but carry precepts of dharma embedded them, suggesting perceived notions about women in Hinduism at the time the Epics were composed. The Mahabharata, in Book 1, for example, states,

No man, even in anger, should ever do anything that is disagreeable to his wife; for happiness, joy, virtue and everything depend on the wife. Wife is the sacred soil in which the husband is born again, even the Rishis cannot create men without women.
— Adi Parva, Mahabharata Book, 1.74.50-51[24]


  • "Nothing to go back to - the fate of the widows of Vrindavan, India." Women News Network (WNN).
  • "Manu Smriti." Sanskrit documents.

External links

  • McDaniel, June (9 July 2004). Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls : Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal. Oxford University Press, USA.  
  • Brown, Cheever Mackenzie (1998). The Devi Gita: The Song of the Goddess: A Translation, Annotation, and Commentary. SUNY Press.  
  • Coburn, Thomas B. (1991). Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi-Mahatmya and a Study of Its Interpretation. SUNY Press.  
  • Deussen, Paul; Bedekar, V.M. (tr.); Palsule (tr.), G.B. (1 January 1997). Sixty Upanishads of the Veda. Motilal Banarsidass Publ.  
  • Kane P. V. History of Dharmasastra: ancient and mediaeval, religious and civil law." Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona 1962 - 1975.
  • Russell R. R. "Gender and jewellery: a feminist analysis case study: Indian wife and widow jewellery.". Create Space, 2010. ISBN 1-4528-8253-3.
  • Sugirtharajah, Sharada (2002). "Hinduism and Feminism". Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 18 (2): 97–104. 
  • Vasuda N., Sharma A. and Young K. K. (eds.) "Feminism and world religions: power in the Hindu tradition." SUNY Press, Albany, New York, p25 - 77.


  1. ^ a b c d McDaniel 2004, p. 90.
  2. ^ a b Brown 1998, p. 26.
  3. ^ a b c McDaniel 2004, pp. 90-92.
  4. ^ a b C. Mackenzie Brown (1990), The Triumph of the Goddess, State University of New York Press, ISBN , page 77
  5. ^ a b Thomas Coburn (2002), Devī Māhātmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120805576, pages 138, 303-309
  6. ^ a b Patrick Olivelle (2005), Manu's Code of Law, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195171464, pages 98, 146-147
  7. ^ a b Patrick Olivelle (2005), Manu's Code of Law, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195171464, page 111
  8. ^ a b c Patrick Olivelle (2005), Manu's Code of Law, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195171464, pages 353-354, 356-382
  9. ^ Rajbali Pandey (1969), Hindu Saṁskāras: Socio-religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments, ISBN 978-8120803961, pages 158-170 and Chapter VIII
  10. ^ a b c d The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M, James G. Lochtefeld (2001), ISBN 978-0823931798, Page 427
  11. ^ a b c d e Michael Witzel (1996), "Little Dowry, No Sati: The Lot of Women in the Vedic Period." Journal of South Asia Women Studies 2, no. 4 (1996)
  12. ^ a b c d Brick, David (April–June 2010). "The Dharmasastric Debate on Widow Burning". Journal of the American Oriental Society 130 (2): 203–223. 
  13. ^ a b Yang, Anand A.; Sarkar, Sumit (ed.); Sarkar, Tanika (ed.) (2008). "Whose Sati?Widow-Burning in early Nineteenth Century India". Women and Social Reform in Modern India: A Reader. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. pp. 21–23.  
  14. ^ a b Sashi, S.S. (1996). Encyclopaedia Indica: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh 100. Anmol Publications. p. 115.  
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  16. ^ David Kinsley (2005), Hindu Goddesses: Vision of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Traditions, University of California Press, ISBN 978-8120803947, pages 6-17, 55-64
  17. ^ Flood, Gavin, ed. (2003), The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., ISBN 1-4051-3251-5, pages 200-203
  18. ^ The Rig Veda/Mandala 10/Hymn 125 Ralph T.H. Griffith (Translator); for Sanskrit original see: ऋग्वेद: सूक्तं १०.१२५
  19. ^ Sadashiv, Altekar (1956). The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization, from Prehistoric Times to the Present Day. Motilal Banarsidass Publication. 
  20. ^ McDaniel 2004, p. 91.
  21. ^ a b Paul Deussen, Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, Volume 1, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120814684, pages 534-539
  22. ^ Brihadaranyaka Upanishad VI Adhyaya 4 Brahmana 17 and 18 Max Muller (translator), Oxford University Press, pages 219-220
  23. ^ a b Sugirtharajah, Sharada (2002). "Hinduism and Feminism". Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 18 (2): 97–104. 
  24. ^ Adi Parva, Mahabharata, Translated by Manmatha Nath Dutt (Translator), page 108
  25. ^ a b Anushasana Parva The Mahabharata, Translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, Chapter XI, pages 41-43
  26. ^ Anushasana Parva The Mahabharata, Translated by KM Ganguli, page 264
  27. ^ a b c Anushasana Parva The Mahabharata, Translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, Chapter CXLVI, pages 667-672
  28. ^ Tryambakayajvan (trans. Julia Leslie 1989), The Perfect Wife - Strīdharmapaddhati, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195621075
  29. ^ Leslie, J. (1992), The significance of dress for the orthodox Hindu woman, in Dress and Gender: Making and Meaning (Editors: Ruth Barnes, Joanne B. Eicher), pages 198-213; Quote - "Strīdharmapaddhati represents a bizarre mixture of reality and utopia."
  30. ^ a b Patrick Olivelle (2005), Manu's Code of Law, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195171464, pages 31-32, 108-123, 138-147
  31. ^ Wadley, Susan (1977). "Women and the Hindu Tradition". Signs 3 (1): 113–125. 
  32. ^ Mācave P. "Hinduism, its contribution to science and civilisation." 1979. ISBN 978-0-7069-0805-3. "Yatra ... Where women are worshipped, there the Gods are delighted. But where they are not worshipped, all religious ceremonies become futile." Mahabharata 13 - 45.5 and Manu Smriti]] 3 - 56.
  33. ^ Patrick Olivelle (2005), Manu's Code of Law, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195171464, page 146
  34. ^ Robert Lingat (1973), The Classical Law of India, University of California Press, ISBN 978-0520018983, page 84
  35. ^ Patrick Olivelle (2005), Manu's Code of Law, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195171464, pages 190-207, 746-809
  36. ^ Patrick Olivelle (2005), Manu's Code of Law, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195171464, pages 31-32, 194-207, 755-809
  37. ^ Robert Lingat (1973), The Classical Law of India, University of California Press, ISBN 978-0520018983, pages 83-84
  38. ^ Patrick Olivelle (2005), Manu's Code of Law, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195171464, pages 182-193, 659-706
  39. ^ Patrick Olivelle (2005), Manu's Code of Law, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195171464, pages 200-201, 746-809
  40. ^ Alf Hiltebeitel and Kathleen Erndl (2000), Is the Goddess a Feminist?: The Politics of South Asian Goddesses, New York University Press, ISBN 978-0814736197, pages 133-134
  41. ^ a b Flavia Agnes (2001), Law and Gender Inequality: The Politics of Women's Rights in India, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195655247, pages 41-45
  42. ^ Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im (2010), Islam and the Secular State, Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0674034563, pages 149, 289
  43. ^ a b J Sinha (2014), Psycho-Social Analysis of the Indian Mindset, Springer Academic, ISBN 978-8132218036, page 5
  44. ^ Arun Kumbhare (2009), Women of India: Their Status Since the Vedic Times, ISBN 978-1440156007, page 56
  45. ^ Mahatma Gandhi, Hinduism According to Gandhi, Orient Paperbacks (2013 Reprint Edition), ISBN 978-8122205589, page 129
  46. ^ Narayanan V. Women of power in the Hindu tradition.
  47. ^ a b PV Kane, History of Dharmasastra Volume 2.1, 1st Edition, pages 293-295
  48. ^ Ram Chandra Prasad (1997), The Upanayana: The Hindu Ceremonies of the Sacred Thread, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120812406, pages 119-131
  49. ^ Grihya sutra of Gobhila Verse 2.1.19, Herman Oldenberg & Max Muller (Translator), The Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 30, Part 2, Oxford University Press, page 44
  50. ^ Nicholas Gier (1997), The yogī and the Goddess, International Journal of Hindu Studies, Volume 1, Issue 2, pages 265-287
  51. ^ a b c Lynn Foulston, Stuart Abbott (2009). Hindu goddesses: beliefs and practices. Sussex Academic Press. pp. 1–3, 40–41.  
  52. ^ Ellen Goldberg (2002), The Lord who is half woman: Ardhanārīśvara in Indian and feminist perspective, State University of New York Press, ISBN 0-791453251, pages 1-4
  53. ^ John Renard (1999), Responses to 101 Questions on Hinduism, Paulist, ISBn 978-0809138456, pages 74-76
  54. ^ What is Hinduism?, p. PR17, at Google Books, Hinduism Today, Hawaii
  55. ^ The Concept of Shakti: Hinduism as a Liberating Force for Women
  56. ^ Mukherjee, Prabhati (1983). "The Image of women in Hinduism". Women's Studies International Forum 6 (4). 
  57. ^ a b David Lawrence (2012), The Routledge Companion to Theism (Editors: Charles Taliaferro, Victoria S. Harrison and Stewart Goetz), Routledge, ISBN 978-0415881647, pages 78-79
  58. ^ a b Jeffrey Brodd (2003), World Religions: A Voyage of Discovery, Saint Mary's Press, ISBN 978-0884897255, page 43
  59. ^ Christopher John Fuller (2004), The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0691120485, pages 30-31, Quote: "Crucial in Hindu polytheism is the relationship between the deities and humanity. Unlike Jewish, Christian and Islamic monotheism, predicated on the otherness of God and either his total separation from man and his singular incarnation, Hinduism postulates no absolute distinction between deities and human beings. The idea that all deities are truly one is, moreover, easily extended to proclaim that all human beings are in reality also forms of one supreme deity - Brahman, the Absolute of philosophical Hinduism. In practice, this abstract monist doctrine rarely belongs to an ordinary Hindu's statements, but examples of permeability between the divine and human can be easily found in popular Hinduism in many unremarkable contexts".
  60. ^ a b c d e RM Gross (1978), Hindu Female Deities as a Resource for the Contemporary Rediscovery of the Goddess, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Sep., 1978), pages 269-291
  61. ^ David R. Kinsley (1986), Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition, University of California Press, ISBN 978-0520053939
  62. ^ a b c Hindu Saṁskāras: Socio-religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments, Rajbali Pandey (1969), see Chapter VIII, ISBN 978-8120803961, pages 158-170
  63. ^ Patrick Olivelle (2004), The Law Code of Manu, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0192802712, page 47
  64. ^ Majumdar R. C. and Pusalker A. D. (ed.) "The History and Culture of the Indian People." Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay 1951. Volume 1 The Vedic age p394.
  65. ^ a b Tambiah, Stanley; Goody, Jack (1973). Bridewealth and Dowry. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 68–9. 
  66. ^ James G. Lochtefeld, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M, Rosen Publishing, ISBN 9780823931798; 203 ページ出版
  67. ^ CV Vaidya, Epic India, Or, India as Described in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, ISBN 978-8120615649
  68. ^ John Watson McCrindle (Translator), The Invasion of India by Alexander the Great as described by Arrian, Archibald Constable & Co. (Westminster, UK): 280
  69. ^ JW McCrindle (Translator), Megasthenes and Arrian, Trubner & Co (London): 222
  70. ^ Edward Sachau (Translator), Bīrūnī, Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad, Alberuni's India (Vol. 2), Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. (London, 1910.) Chapter LXIX: 154
  71. ^ a b Bowker J. H and Holm J. "Women in religion." Continuum, London 1994 p79 ISBN 0-8264-5304-X.
  72. ^ a b Fuller C. J. "The camphor flame: popular Hinduism and society in India." Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey 2004 p.23 ISBN 0-691-12048-X
  73. ^ Carroll, Lucy (1983). "Law, Custom, and Statutory Social Reform: The Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act of 1856". Indian Economic and Social History Review 20 (4): 363–388. 
  74. ^ Lucy Carroll (2008), Women and Social Reform in Modern India: A Reader, Indiana University Press, ISBN 978-0253352699, pages 92-93
  75. ^ Lucy Carroll (2008), Women and Social Reform in Modern India: A Reader, Indiana University Press, ISBN 978-0253352699, pages 93-96
  76. ^ a b Wendy Doniger (2013), Suttee, Encyclopedia Britannica
  77. ^ Arvind Sharma (2001), Sati: Historical and Phenomenological Essays, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120804647, pages 19-21
  78. ^ On attested Rajput practice of sati during wars, see, for example Leslie, Julia; Arnold, David (ed.); Robb, Peter (ed.) (1993). "Suttee or Sati: Victim or Victor?". Institutions and Ideologies: A SOAS South Asia Reader 10. London: Routledge. p. 46.  
  79. ^ Brick, David (April–June 2010). "The Dharmasastric Debate on Widow Burning". Journal of the American Oriental Society 130 (2): 206–211. 
  80. ^ Sharma, Arvind (1988). Sati: Historical and Phenomenological Essays. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ. p. 102, footnote 206.  
  81. ^ Brick, David (April–June 2010). "The Dharmasastric Debate on Widow Burning". Journal of the American Oriental Society 130 (2): 212–213. 
  82. ^ Arvind Sharma (1988), Sati: Historical and Phenomenological Essays, Motilal Banarsidass Publ, ISBN 9788120804647, page xi, 86
  83. ^ Mandakranta Bose (2014), Faces of the Feminine in Ancient, Medieval, and Modern India, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195352771, page 26
  84. ^ Malise Ruthven (2007), Fundamentalism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0199212705, page 63
  85. ^ Kaushik Roy (2012), Hinduism and the Ethics of Warfare in South Asia: From Antiquity to the Present, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-1107017368, pages 182-184
  86. ^ John Stratton Hawley (1994), Sati, the Blessing and the Curse, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0195077742, pages 51-53
  87. ^ Andre Wink (1996), Early Medieval India and the Expansion of Islam: 7th-11th Centuries, Brill Academic Publishers, ISBN 978-9004092495
  88. ^ Daniel Grey (2013), Creating the ‘Problem Hindu’: Sati, Thuggee and Female Infanticide in India: 1800–60, Gender & History, 25(3), pages 498-510, doi:10.1111/1468-0424.12035
  89. ^ Altekar, Anant (1956). The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization from Prehistoric Times to the Present Day. Motilal Banarsidass Publishing. 
  90. ^ a b Pechilis, Karen (2013). Women in Hinduism. Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion (Springer). pp. 1922–1925.  
  91. ^ Jean A. and Dubois A. Beauchamp H. K. (trans.) Hindu manners, customs, and ceremonies.] Clarendon Press, Oxford 1897.
  92. ^ a b Fane, Hannah (1975). "The Female Element in Indian Culture". Asian Folklore Studies: 51–112. 
  93. ^ Fane, Hannah (1975). "The Female Element in Indian Culture". Asian Folklore Studies: 57–60. 
  94. ^ Fane, Hannah (1975). "The Female Element in Indian Culture". Asian Folklore Studies: 74–83. 
  95. ^ a b Young, Katherine (1994). Today's Women in World Religions (Editor: Arvind Sharma). State Univ of New York Press. pp. 77–92.  
  96. ^ Fane, Hannah (1975). "The Female Element in Indian Culture". Asian Folklore Studies: 60–73, 83–109. 
  97. ^ Young, Katherine (1994). Today's Women in World Religions (Editor: Arvind Sharma). State Univ of New York Press. pp. 83–86.  


See also

The women’s rights movement in India, states Sharma, have been driven by two foundational Hindu concepts – lokasangraha and satyagraha.[95] Lokasangraha is defined as “acting for the welfare of the world” and satyagraha “insisting on the truth”. These ideals were used to justify and spur movements among women for women's rights and social change through a political and legal process.[95] Fane remarks, in her article published in 1975, that it is the underlying Hindu beliefs of "women are honored, considered most capable of responsibility, strong" that made Indira Ghandi culturally acceptable as the prime minister of India,[92] yet the country has recent centuries of ideologies, both Hindu and non-Hindu, that impacts the position of women in India.[96] The women rights movement efforts however, states Young, have been impeded by the "growing intensity of Muslim separatist politics", the divergent positions of Indian Hindu women seeking separation of religion and women's rights and universal laws (uniform civil code) applicable irrespective of religion, while Indian Muslim community seeking to preserve Sharia law in personal, family and other domains.[97]

In 20th-century history context, the position of women in Hinduism and more generally India, has many contradictions.[92] Regional Hindu traditions are organized as matriarchal societies (such as in south India and northeast India), where the woman is the head of the household and inherits the wealth; yet, other Hindu traditions are patriarchal.[93] God as a woman, and mother goddess ideas are revered in Hinduism, yet there are rituals that treats the female in a subordinate role.[94]

In the colonial era 1800s, Hindu women were described by European scholars as being "naturally chaste" and "more virtuous" than other women.[91]

Although these ancient texts are the foundation upon which the position of women in Hinduism is founded, Hindu women participated in and were affected by cultural traditions and celebrations such as festivals, dance, arts, music and other aspects of daily life. Despite these liberating undercurrents emerging in its historical context, Sugirtharajah states that there is some reluctance to use the term "feminism" to describe historical developments in Hinduism.[23]

The role of women in Hinduism dates back to 3000 years of history, states Pechelis, incorporating ideas of Hindu philosophy, that is Prakrti (matter, femaleness) and Purusha (consciousness, maleness), coming together to interact and produce the current state of the universe.[90] Hinduism considers the connection, interdependence, and complementary nature of these two concepts – Prakriti and Purusha, female and male – as the basis of all existence, which is a starting point of the position of women in Hindu traditions.[90]

Context: historical and modern developments

Arts: dance, drama, music


Early Upanishads actually recommended rituals for a home-maker to ensure that a scholarly daughter was born. Hinduism defines the process of educating a child as one of the essential duties of parenting. Altekar explains that orthodox Hindu daughters were traditionally supposed to go through a series of Vedic education up until 300b.c. That date served as a turning point and downfall of women’s education due to the practice of child marriage. However, more well to do families were able to provide their daughters with a fine arts education in music, dancing, and literature. Some warrior classes also educated their daughters in military training. Altekar suggests that over the past 700 years, there have been several transitions in women’s education. There was such a strong stigma associated with education of women that literacy rates dramatically dropped in the Orthodox Hindu community (Altekar). Beginning in the early 1900s, initially under British rule, India’s female education system began to improve again. The number of women going through the education system and even attaining higher degrees has dramatically increased. Altekar's foresight suggests that there is still much progress to be made, but policies are headed in the right direction[89].


The Sati practice is considered to have originated within the warrior aristocracy in the Hindu society, gradually gaining in popularity from the 10th century AD and spreading to other groups from the 12th through 18th century AD.[86] The earliest Islamic invasions of South Asia, have been recorded from early 8th century CE such as with the raids of Muhammad bin Qasim, and major wars of Islamic expansion after the 10th century.[87] This chronology has led to the theory that the increase in sati practice in India may be related to the centuries of Islamic invasion and its expansion in South Asia.[13][14] Daniel Grey states that the understanding of origins and spread of sati were distorted in the colonial era because of a concerted effort to push "problem Hindu" theories in the 19th and early 20th centuries.[88]

Another historical practice observed among women in Hinduism, was the Rajput practice of Jauhar, particularly in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where they collectively committed suicide during war. They preferred death rather than being captured alive and dishonored by victorious Muslim soldiers in a war.[82] According to Bose, jauhar practice grew in the 14th and 15th century with Hindu-Muslim wars of northwest India, where the Hindu women preferred death than slavery or rape they faced if captured.[83][84] Sati-style jauhar custom among Hindu women was observed only during Hindu-Muslim wars in medieval India, but not during internecine Hindu-Hindu wars among the Rajputs.[85]

The earliest scholarly discussion of Sati, whether it is right or wrong, is found in the Sanskrit literature dated to 10th- to 12th-century.[79] The earliest known commentary on Sati by Medhatithi of Kashmir argues that Sati is a form of suicide, which is prohibited by the Vedic tradition.[12] Vijnanesvara, of the 12th-century Chalukya court, and the 13th century Madhvacharya, argue that sati should not to be considered suicide, which was otherwise variously banned or discouraged in the scriptures.[80] They offer a combination of reasons, both in favor and against sati.[81]

There is no mention of Sahagamana (Sati) whatsoever in either Vedic literature or any of the early Dharmasutras or Dharmasastras. By "early Dharmasutras or Dharmasastras", I refer specifically to both the early Dharmasutras of Apastamba, Hiranyakesin, Gautama, Baudhayana and Vasistha, and the later Dharmasastras of Manu, Narada, and Yajnavalkya.
— David Brick, Yale University[12]

David Brick, in his 2010 review of ancient Indian literature, states[12]

Sati is an obsolete Indian funeral custom where a widow immolated herself on her husband's pyre, or committed suicide in another fashion shortly after her husband's death.[76][77][78] Michael Witzel states there is no evidence of Sati practice in ancient Indian literature during the Vedic period.[11]

Sati where a Hindu woman committed suicide by burning herself with the corpse of her husband.[76]


During the debate before the passage of the Hindu Widow’s Remarriage act of 1856, some communities asserted that it was their ancient custom that prohibited widow remarriage. Hindu scholars and colonial British authorities rejected this argument, states Lucy Carroll, because the alleged custom prohibiting widow remarriage was "far from ancient", and was already is practice among the Hindu communities such as the Rajbansi whose members had petitioned for prohibition of widow remarriage. Thus, it failed the "customary law" protections under the British colonial era laws.[73][74] However, this issue lingered in colonial courts for decades, because of the related issue of property left by the deceased husband, and whether the widow keeps or forfeits all rights to deceased Hindu husband's estate and thereby transfers the property from the deceased husband to her new husband. While Hindu community did not object to widow remarriage, it contested the property rights and transfer of property from her earlier husband's family to the later husband's family, particularly after the death of the remarried widow, in the 20th-century.[75]

Widows were traditionally expected to pursue a spiritual, ascetic life, particularly the higher castes such as Brahmins.[71] There were restrictions on remarriage as well.[72] Such restrictions are now strictly observed only by a small minority of widows, yet the belief continues that "a good wife predeceases her husband".[71][72]

Widowhood and remarriage

The implements of the wedding rejoicings are brought forward. No gift (dower or dowry) is settled between them. The man gives only a present to the wife, as he thinks fit, and a marriage gift in advance, which he has no right to claim back, but the (proposed) wife may give it back to him of her own will (if she does not want to marry).
— Al-Biruni, Chapter on Matrimony in India, about 1035 AD[70]

About 1200 years after Arrian's visit, Al-Biruni a Persian scholar who went and lived in India for 16 years in 11th century CE, wrote,

They (Indians) marry without either giving or taking dowries, but the women as soon as they are marriageable are brought forward by their fathers in public, to be selected by the victor in wrestling or boxing or running or someone who excels in any other manly exercise.
— Arrian, Indika, Megasthenes and Arrian, 3rd Century BC[69]

Arrian's second book similarly notes,

They (these ancient Indian people) make their marriages accordance with this principle, for in selecting a bride they care nothing whether she has a dowry and a handsome fortune, but look only to her beauty and other advantages of the outward person.
— Arrian, The Invasion of India by Alexander the Great, 3rd Century BC[68]

Historical and epigraphical evidence from ancient India suggests dowry was not the standard practice in ancient Hindu society. Arrian of Alexander the Great's conquest era, in his first book mentions a lack of dowry, or infrequent enough to be noticed by Arrian.[67]

Michael Witzel, in contrast, states the ancient Indian literature suggests dowry practices were not significant during the Vedic period.[11] Witzel also notes that women in ancient India had property inheritance rights either by appointment or when they had no brothers.[11] Kane states ancient literature suggests bridewealth was paid only in the asura-type of marriage that was considered reprehensible and forbidden by Manu and other ancient Indian scribes. Lochtefeld suggests that religious duties listed by Manu and others, such as 'the bride be richly adorned to celebrate marriage' were ceremonial dress and jewelry along with gifts that were her property, not property demanded by or meant for the groom; Lochtefeld further notes that bridal adornment is not currently considered as dowry in most people's mind.[66]

Stanley J. Tambiah states the ancient Code of Manu sanctioned dowry and bridewealth in ancient India, but dowry was the more prestigious form and associated with the Brahmanic (priestly) caste. Bridewealth was restricted to the lower castes, who were not allowed to give dowry. He cites two studies from the early 20th century with data to suggest that this pattern of dowry in upper castes and bridewealth in lower castes has persisted through the first half of the 20th century.[65]

The concept and practice of dowry in ancient and medieval Hindu society is unclear. Some scholars believe dowry was practiced in historic Hindu society, but some do not.[11][65] Historical eyewitness reports (discussed below), suggest dowry in pre-11th century CE Hindu society was insignificant, and daughters had inheritance rights, which by custom were exercised at the time of her marriage.


"A woman can choose her own husband after attaining maturity. If her parents are unable to choose a deserving groom, she can herself choose her husband." (Manu Smriti IX 90 - 91)[64]

James Lochtefeld finds that the last two forms of marriage were forbidden yet recognized in ancient Hindu societies, not to encourage these acts, but to provide the woman and any children with legal protection in the society.[10]

  1. Brahma marriage - considered the religiously most appropriate marriage, where the father finds an educated man, proposes the marriage of his daughter to him. The groom, bride and families willingly concur with the proposal. The two families and relatives meet, the girl is ceremoniously decorated, the father gifts away his daughter in betrothal, and a vedic marriage ceremony is conducted. This type of wedding is now most prevalent among Hindus in modern India.[10]
  2. Daiva marriage - in this type of marriage, the father gives away his daughter along with ornaments to a priest.
  3. Arsha marriage - in this type of marriage, the groom gives a cow and a bull to the father of the bride and the father exchanges his daughter in marriage. The groom took a vow to fulfill his obligations to the bride and family life (Grihasthashram).
  4. Prajapatya marriage - in this type of marriage, a couple agree to get married by exchanging some Sanskrit mantras (vows to each other). This form of marriage was akin to a civil ceremony.
  5. Gandharva marriage - in this type of marriage, the couple simply live together out of love, by mutual consent, consensually consummating their relationship. This marriage is entered into without religious ceremonies, and was akin to the Western concept of Common-law marriage. Kama Sutra, as well as Rishi Kanva - the foster-father of Shakuntala - in the Mahabharata, claimed this kind of marriage to be an ideal one.[62]
  6. Asura marriage - in this type of marriage, the groom offered a dowry to the father of the bride and the bride, both accepted the dowry out of free will, and he received the bride in exchange. This was akin to marrying off a daughter for money. This marriage was considered inappropriate by Hindu Smriti-writers because greed, not what is best for the girl, can corrupt the selection process.[62] Manusmriti verses 3.51 and 3.52, for example, states that a father or relatives must never accept any brideprice because that amounts to trafficking of the daughter.[63]
  7. Rakshasa marriage - where the groom forcibly abducted the girl against her and her family's will. The word Rakshasa means devil.
  8. Paishacha marriage - where the man forces himself on a woman when she is insentient, that is drugged or drunken or unconscious.

The Asvalayana Grhyasutra text of Hinduism identifies eight forms of marriages. Of these first four – Brahma, Daiva, Arsha and Prajapatya – are declared appropriate and recommended by the text, next two – Gandharva and Asura – are declared inappropriate but acceptable, and the last two – Rakshasa and Paishacha – are declared evil and unacceptable (but any children resulting were granted legal rights).[10][62]

A wedding is one of the most significant personal ritual a Hindu woman undertakes in her life. The details and dress vary regionally among Hindu women, but share common ritual grammar. A Meitei Hindu bride in Manipur (left), an Amla Hindu bride in Madhya Pradesh (middle) and a Himalayan Hindu bride in Nepal (right).



Ancient and medieval Hindu literature, state scholars, is richly endowed with gods, goddesses and androgynous representations of God.[60] This, states Gross, is in contrast with several monotheistic religions, where God is often synonymous with "He" and theism is replete with male anthropomorphisms.[60] In Hinduism, goddess-imagery does not mean loss of male-god, rather the ancient literature presents the two genders as balancing each other and complementary. The Goddesses in Hinduism, states Gross,[60] are strong, beautiful and confident, symbolizing their vitality in cycle of life. While masculine Gods are symbolically represented as those who act, the feminine Goddesses are symbolically portrayed as those who inspire action.[60] Goddesses in Hinduism are envisioned as the patrons of arts, culture, nurture, learning, arts, joys, spirituality and liberation.[60][61]

There is a popular perception that there exist millions of Hindu deities.[57] However, most, by far, are goddesses, state Foulston and Abbott, suggesting "how important and popular goddesses are" in Hindu culture.[51] No one has a list of the millions of goddesses and gods, but all deities, state scholars, are typically viewed in Hinduism as "emanations or manifestation of gender-less principle called Brahman, representing the many facets of Ultimate Reality".[51][57][58] In Hinduism, "God, the universe, all beings [male, female] and all else is essentially one thing" and everything is connected oneness, the same god is in every being as Atman, the eternal Self.[58][59]

Bhakti traditions of Hinduism have both gods and goddesses. In ancient and medieval Indian mythology, each masculine deva of the Hindu pantheon is partnered with a feminine devi.[55] Followers of Shaktism, worship the goddess Devi as the embodiment of Shakti (feminine strength or power).[56]

In Hinduism, the impersonal Absolute (Brahman) is genderless. Both male gods (Deva) and female gods (Devi) are found in Hinduism. Some Hindu traditions conceive God as androgynous (both female and male), or as either male or female, while cherishing gender henotheism, that is without denying the existence of other Gods in either gender.[53][54]

Goddesses in Hinduism are very common.[51] Other ideas found include androgynous concept such as Ardhanarishvara (a composite god that is half Shiva-male and Parvati-female),[52] or as formless and genderless Brahman (Universal Absolute, Supreme Self as Oneness in everyone).

Gender of God

You should consider who you are, and who nature is.... how could you transcend nature? What you hear, what you eat, what you see – it is all Nature. How could you be beyond Nature? You are enveloped in Nature, even though you don't know it.
— Skanda Purana, Translated by Nicholas Gier[50]

The Puranas, particularly the Devi Mahatmya found in Markandeya Maha-Purana, and the Devi-Bhagavata Purana have some of most dedicated discussion of Devi and sacred feminine in late ancient and early medieval era of Hinduism.[3][4][5] However, the discussion is not limited to these two major Hindu Goddess religion-related texts. Women are found in philosophical discussions across numerous other Puranas and extant era texts. For example, Parvati in a discussion with her husband Shiva, remarks:


The Harita Dharmasutra states there are two kind of women: sadhyavadhu who marry, and the brahmavaadini who are religious, wear the sacred thread, perform rituals like the agnihotra and read the Vedas. Women may graduate from the schools for Vedic priests.[46] The Hindu Sastras and Smritis describe varying number of Sanskara (rite of passage). Upanayana rite of passage symbolized the start of education process, and the term Upanayana means the leading or drawing towards the self of a child, in a school, by a teacher. The ancient Sanskrit texts extended education right to women, and the girls who underwent this rite of passage then pursued studies were called Brahmavadini.[47][48] Those who didn't, performed upanayana ceremony at the time of their wedding. Instead of sacred thread, girls would wear their robe (now called sari or saree) in the manner of the sacred thread, that is over her left shoulder during this rite of passage.[47][49]

Scholars state that less than half, or only 1,214 of the 2,685 verses in Manusmriti, may be authentic.[43] Further, the verses are internally inconsistent.[44] Verses such as 3.55-3.62 of Manusmriti, for example, glorify the position of women, while verse such as 9.3 and 9.17 do the opposite.[43] Mahatma Gandhi, when asked about his view about the Smriti, stated, that "there are so many contradictions in the printed volume that, if you accept one part, you are bound to reject those parts that are wholly inconsistent with it. (...) Nobody is in possession of the original text [of Manusmriti].[45]

Flavia Agnes states that Manusmriti is a complex commentary from women's rights perspective, and the British colonial era codification of women's rights based on it for Hindus, and from Islamic texts for Muslims, picked and emphasized certain aspects while it ignored other sections.[41] This construction of personal law during the colonial era created a legal fiction around Manusmriti's historic role as a scripture in matters relating to women in South Asia.[41][42]

Devi Mahatmya, a Hindu Sanskrit manuscript from Nepal 11th-century (above), helped crystallize the goddess tradition where the creator God is a female, but neither feminine nor masculine, rather spiritual and a force of good.[40]

Manusmriti provides a woman with property rights to six types of property in verses 9.192-9.200. These include those she received at her marriage, or as gift when she eloped or when she was taken away, or as token of love before marriage, or as gifts from her biological family, or as received from her husband subsequent to marriage, and also from inheritance from deceased relatives.[39]

The text in one section opposes a woman marrying someone outside her own social class (varna) as in verses 3.13-3.14.[30] Simultaneously, states Olivelle, the text presupposes numerous practices such a marriages outside varna, such as between a Brahmin man and a Shudra woman in verses 9.149-9.157, a widow getting pregnant with a child of a man she is not married to in verses 9.57-9.62, marriage where a woman in love elopes with her man, and then grants legal rights in these cases such as property inheritance rights in verses 9.143-9.157, and the legal rights of the children so born.[36] The text also presumes that a married woman may get pregnant by a man other than her husband, and dedicates verses 8.31-8.56 to conclude that the child's custody belongs to the woman and her legal husband, and not to the man she got pregnant with.[37][38]

The text declares that a marriage cannot be dissolved by a woman or a man, in verse 8.101-8.102.[34] Yet, the text, in other sections, allows either to dissolve the marriage. For example, verses 9.72-9.81 allow the man or the woman to get out of a fraudulent marriage or an abusive marriage, and remarry; the text also provides legal means for a woman to remarry when her husband has been missing or has abandoned her.[35]

In other verses, Manusmriti respects and safeguards women rights. Manusmriti in verses 3.55-3.56, for example, declares that "women must be honored and adorned", and "where women are revered, there the gods rejoice; but where they are not, no sacred rite bears any fruit".[7][32] Elsewhere, in verses 5.147-5.148, states Olivelle, the text declares, "a woman must never seek to live independently".[33]

One of the most studied about the position of women in medieval Hindu society has been a now contested Calcutta manuscript of Manusmriti. The text preaches chastity to widows such as in verses 5.158-5.160.[30] In verses 2.67-2.69 and 5.148-5.155, Manusmriti preaches that as a girl, she should obey and seek protection of her father, as a young woman her husband, and as a widow her son; and that a woman should always worship her husband as a god.[6][31]

The MDh [Manusmriti] was the first Indian legal text introduced to the western world through the translation of Sir William Jones in 1794. (...) All the editions of the MDh, except for Jolly's, reproduce the text as found in the [Calcutta] manuscript containing the commentary of Kulluka. I have called this as the "vulgate version". It was Kulluka's version that has been translated repeatedly: Jones (1794), Burnell (1884), Buhler (1886) and Doniger (1991). (...) The belief in the authenticity of Kulluka's text was openly articulated by Burnell (1884, xxix): "There is then no doubt that the textus receptus, viz., that of Kulluka Bhatta, as adopted in India and by European scholars, is very near on the whole to the original text." This is far from the truth. Indeed, one of the great surprises of my editorial work has been to discover how few of the over fifty manuscripts that I collated actually follow the vulgate in key readings.
— Patrick Olivelle, Manu's Code of Law (2005)[8]

The characterization and treatment of women is mixed in Smriti texts of Hinduism. However, scholars have questioned the authenticity of the texts, as dozens of significantly different versions of the Smriti texts have been found. Patrick Olivelle for example, who is credited with a 2005 translation of Manusmriti published by the Oxford University Press, states the concerns in postmodern scholarship about the presumed authenticity and reliability of Manusmriti manuscripts.[8] He writes (abridged),

Shastras and Smritis

Anushasana Parva has served as a source for modern era texts on women in Hinduism. For example, Tryambakayajvan of Thanjavur, in the 18th-century CE, published Strīdharmapaddhati (sometimes referred to as Stri Dharma Paddhati, or "Guide for a Dharmic Woman"). Tryambaka, according to Julia Leslie,[28] selectively extracts verses from many chapters of Anushasana parva. He selectively extracts verses from other books of the Mahabharata as well, and other ancient Indian texts, for Strīdharmapaddhati, choosing those he preferred, omitting verses from the Mahabharata that represent it characteristic style of presenting many voices and counter-arguments.[29]

The duties of women are again recited in Chapter 146, as a conversation between god Shiva and his wife goddess Uma, where Shiva asks what are the duties of women. Uma (Parvati) proceeds to meet all the rivers, who are all goddesses that nourish and create fertile valleys.[27] Uma suggests that the duties of women include being of a good disposition, endued with sweet speech, sweet conduct, and sweet features. For a woman, claims Uma, her husband is her god, her husband is her friend, and her husband is her high refuge. A woman's duties include physical and emotional nourishment, reverence and fulfillment of her husband and her children. Their happiness is her happiness, she observes the same vows as those that are observed by her husband, her duty is to be cheerful even when her husband or her children are angry, be there for them in adversity or sickness, is regarded as truly righteous in her conduct.[27] Beyond her husband and family, her duty is to be cheerful of heart and humble with friends and relatives, do the best she can for friends and guests. Her family life and her home is her heaven, tells goddess Parvati to Shiva.[27]

The daughter, O king, has been ordained in the scriptures to be equal to the son.
— Bhisma, Anushasana Parva, Mahabharata 13.47.26[26]

In chapter 47, as Yudhishthira seeks guidance on Dharma from Bhisma, the Anushasana Parva compares the value of daughter to a son, as follows,

[25] The goddess asserts she does not reside in woman who is sinful, unclean, always disagreeing with her husband, has no patience or fortitude, is lazy, quarrelsome with her neighbors and relatives.[25]

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