Indian Women: Mother, Goddess, Life-Force

by Veronica J. Treanor
photos by Richard Walker

image Click for more images

Who is this walking silently in saffron sari, a child by her side, dark eyes and serene face veiling thousands of years of mystery, pain and spirituality?

She is the Indian woman. The recipient of a cultural heritage dating back to some 30 centuries before Christ.

She has always been held in high esteem in India. But how this has been manifest has varied over the millenia.

The ‘golden age’ of women in India was the Vedic Age (1500-550 B.C.). According to the Upanishads (Hindu treatises) women were created as equals of men, complementing them like “halves of a shell completing the whole shell.”

During these ancient times women were educated on a par with their husbands and brothers and contributed to cultural and religious life. The RigVeda, for example, the oldest of the Hindu sacred scriptures-has hymns composed by more than 20 women.

Marriage in the Vedic Age was more liberal for women than at any time since in India. The Rig-Veda did not require obedience of the wife. Her position was one of dignity which expressed itself in the fact that she could participate in religious practices and services. Many women distinguished themselves as Vedic scholars, as well as great philosophers, debaters and teachers, and those who did not marry could become brahmavadinis, allowed to discourse about the god Brahman, sacrific to fire, and study the Vedas.

During the age of Panini (5th c. B.C.) women remained scholars and teachers and continued to be involved in the social, intellectual, cultural and political life of India. A woman could study whatever her male counterparts did, including mathematics, logic, theology, military science, astrology, carpentry and the fine arts. Some women even became warriors, fighting on the battlefield alongside men. The Rig-Veda mentions two of them, Vadhrimati and Vishpala.

Change appeared on the horizon with the dawn of the Epic or Mauryan Age (320-185 B.C.) during which the great Sanskrit epics were written. Women shared some status in parity with men, but their rights gradually began to be equated with the ‘privilege’ of serving men.

Much of the reason for this has been attributed to various interpretations of the Rama story, which tells of the great Bull-Ram wars. Rama, a dissident Aryan – considered to be an incarnation of the god Vishnu – was allegedly unable to overthrow women in his native Anatolia, and brought his people to India where his resentment for the power of women continued to mount. According to tradition, he set up the ram as the symbol of masculine power and made it his rallying point. His success is said to have begun with his marriage to the hereditary princess Sita, whom he succeeded in dominating, mistreating, and overthrowing in her position as ruler, leaving as his legacy centuries of warfare between the matriarchal people of the Bull (the Hourava) and the patriarchal Ramites (the Pandavas). Later, with the appearance of Krishna – another incarnation of Vishnu – the Ramites won out and patriarchy took foothold.

Post a Comment | Comments(0)

1 | 2 |

Tags: India Cultural Identity Women (rights/issues) Women in India