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Indian Women: Mother, Goddess, Life-Force

The role of women in India has changed over the centuries.

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.

Under the male-dominated system the respect afforded to a woman was predominantly in her role as wife and mother, and not as teacher or religious scholar. Many of the former educational and political opportunities enjoyed by women of ancient India were rescinded, and a woman’s identity became tied to her relationship to men. The sanctity of motherhood became both the reason for honoring women and the primary mode of expressing piety in the Hindu system.

The worship of God as mother continues even today. Ramakrishna, one of the great modern Hindu saints, posed the question, “Why does the God lover find such pleasure in addressing the deity as Mother?” In answering himself, he said, “Because the child is more free with its mother and consequently she is dearer to the child than anyone else.”

The rapid changes the world has undergone in the past few decades have affected Indian women as they have all women. The female literacy rate remains extremely low (it is highest in the State of Kerala), but intensive programs are underway throughout the sub-continent to change this situation. Laws have been introduced which benefit women: child marriage and dowries are now forbidden, and widows are permitted to inherit and to remarry.

The Indian government and local and international agencies have stepped up projects aimed at involving rural women in educational, vocational, nutritional and health care training. Here, as in other traditional societies, the most successful programs have proven to be those in which women are reaching out to other women.

In rural areas, however, strangers still address every woman as mother, and it is said that a Hindu does not turn old when his hair turns gray, but when he loses his mother. These abiding traditions do not stem from male superiority, but from the esteem the average Indian feels for what he deems the qualities of woman as mother: devotion, love, loyalty, unselfishness.

Veronica J. Treanor is a doctoral student in anthropology and director of the Council on Development Education.

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