WOMEN OF INDIA—ANCIENT AND MODERN—By Hon. Sir C. V. Kumaraswami Sastri
"There are," observes Fielding Hall in his beautiful book, "One Immortality," "three loves that make and keep the world—the love that binds man and woman into one flesh and soul—the love that draws families into nations—the love that holds the world to God. Each is justified in its own immortality. All our life that is worth living is the expression of one or more of these loves, all our religion is an attempt to explain them, all our hope is in their immortality." The force of these loves is dynamic both in the life of individuals and in the history of nations and their proper appreciation is essential before one can understand a people correctly. The position which women occupy and the part which they play in the East, have been engaging the attention of historians and statesmen. In spite of wars, conquests and revolutions, religious and social, the history of India presents a continuity which strikes the most superficial observer, but it is a great mistake to suppose that social and political life in India has not changed during the progress of centuries. There can be no world without tradition nor any life without movement and in India where the effort of sages, philosophers and poets has been to find a concrete and perfect embodiment of the ideal system of values, we find types of men and women representing changing ideals, from Gargi and Maitreyi, learned in religion and philosophy, to Seeta, Savitri, Damayanti, and Draupadi representing chastity, tactfulness, modesty, devotion, patience, self-abnegation and all those virtues so prized in India.
"Women in Ancient India" aims at presenting a picture of the social and religious life of women and the part they played in Ancient India during the Vedic and the Heroic periods, i.e., women referred to in the Vedas and the Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The scope of the work is thus clearly set out in the preface:
"In discussing women under the different conditions of daughter, mother and widow we shall endeavor to trace the source of each type from the Vedic times and by following the successive development through the ages and commenting on the various episodes drawn from the hymns and poems. We shall avoid the dullness of merely studying the customs and laws taken by themselves. Her national character thus established, we shall further describe the part women was permitted to play in the legendary times which have come down to us, in the mysterious tales contained in the Puranas, in the heroic periods reflected in the Epics and in the Court of Malwa and it customs, revealed to us in drama and in story."
Position of Vedic Women
There can be little doubt that women occupied a high place in the social life of the Early Aryans. The milder and more beneficent forces of nature were addressed as female deities and invoked with prayers. Loving care and protection were accorded to women both in her parent’s and her husband’s home. In the marriage Mantras the husband welcomes the wife with tender affection and hopes of a happy future for her and she is asked not to be the submissive slave of her whims but the mistress of the house, shedding joy and comfort all round.
" ‘Come,’ exclaims the husband, ‘Oh deserved of the Gods, beautiful one, with the tender heart, with the charming look, good towards your husband, kind towards animals, destined to bring forth heroes. Let there be happiness in our home both for bipeds and quadrupeds. Oh Generous Indra, make her fortunate. May she have a beautiful family; May she give her husband ten children; May he himself be the eleventh. Reign with thy father-in-law, reign with thy mother-in-law; reign with the sisters of thy husband; reign with their brothers.’ "
The value of women in relieving suffering is recognized in the Vedas. "A woman," says a hymn, "is more firm and better than a man who is godless and not charitable. She discerns the distressed, needy and the thirsty; and is godly herself "(Rig Veda, 5, 61, 67). The great law-giver Manu places women on a high pinnacle and describes them as "the ornaments and the light of the house, the very receptacles of grace and glory" and he summarizes the duties of married life by saying "Let mutual fidelity continue till death, this is the law of paramount importance as regards husband and wife."
Vedic Women Learned
The author is mistaken in thinking that "Manu did not recognize woman’s right to lift up her soul to God, to strengthen herself by prayer for her duties, to purify herself by penance." The duty of obedience to her husband and to look upon him as almost divine in no way supports the view above quoted and both in the Vedic and Heroic periods we find women learned in the Shastras and seeking salvation by study and contemplation.
A great portion of the book is taken up with the women who figure in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and though to those who have read the original Sanskrit the descriptions and remarks may appear not to do full justice to the beauties of the originals, the author has given us a very fair description they played. What a wealth of contrast is there between Seeta and Draupadi and how nobly have all the heroines referred to in the book acted in all situations, whether in prosperity or adversity, whether old or young.
The title of the concluding chapter of the book "Women in the court of Malwa" is rather misleading. The heroines of Kalidasa are women of the heroic age and they can no more be said to be women of the Court of Malwa than Cleopatra can be said to be a woman of the Court of Elizabeth because Shakespeare wrote about her. The author, in ascribing the decadence of the high ideal as to women revealed in the primitive Sanskrit literature to Pantheism, the Krishna cult and the enervating influence of Islam, is theorizing on insufficient data and imperfect knowledge of the various currents of Indian religious thought. Pantheism can no more account for any decadence than monotheism. The early Christian fathers held women in no high regard and Saint Augustine called them the "gateways to hell." Even so late as the sixteenth century John Knox, the celebrated reformer, wrote: "To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion or empire above any realm, nation or city is repugnant to nature, contumely to God, a thing most contrarious to His revealed will and approved ordinance, and finally it is the subversion of good order of all equity and justice. ....Nature, I say, doth paint them forth to be weak, frail, impatient, feeble and foolish and experience hath declared them to be inconstant, variable, cruel and lacking in the spirit of counsel and regiment." Martin Luther advised persons to marry wives who would be good housewives and thought women "a frail vessel, the silliest of God’s creatures." Yet these divines can in no sense be said to be pantheists or devotees of Krishna.
Pantheism had developed and taken deep root in Hindu religious thought long before the Mahabharata took the shape it now does, and yet women described in it occupied a high niche in the ideals as to women’s status and function in the body social. In the Anusasana Parva it is said: "Respect, kind interest and everything agreeable should be given to the maiden whose hand is taken in marriage. * * * Women, Oh, King, should always be worshipped and treated with affection. There where women are treated with respect the very deities are said to be filled with joy. There where women are not worshipped all acts become fruitless. Women deserve to be honored. Do, ye men, show them honor. The righteousness of men depends on women."
The Ascetic Ideal
It is difficult to find any one cause for the changing values as to social relations between men and women which we find in every nation’s history and if any dominant reason for any decadence were to afford a workable hypothesis, the ascetic ideal which gradually found a large place in Indian religious thought would afford a sufficient explanation. The early Aryan conquerors of the Vedic and Heroic periods had little cause for being pessimistic or to regard life as an evil. Their prayers were for more power and dominion, for strength, joy and happiness in the enjoyment of their conquered lands. The period of introspection came long afterwards and the uselessness of material endeavor when sorrow, suffering and sin found so large a place in man’s life called for remedies. The chief remedy suggested by Buddhism and adopted by Hinduism on the Hindu revival after the decline of Buddhism was the attainment of bliss through cessation of attachment to material objects of joy—and as woman was, whether as wife, mother or daughter, the greatest obstacle to such detachment, she was gradually regarded as an enemy to emancipation and so to be avoided. This explanation accounts for the low place which women took both in the writings of the monotheistic Christian fathers and divines and the Pantheistic Hindu authors of the later Puranic period.
"Women of Bengal" is a study of the Hindu Pardanashins of Calcutta by Margaret M. Urqhart, who displays considerable knowledge of the inner life of Bengal Pardanashin ladies. It deals with the social and religious life of the women of Bengal and affords interesting reading. The Bengalees are a gifted and emotional race and as Western thought and culture gained root in Bengal earlier than in other parts of India and found a fruitful soil there, the Bengalee women are naturally more progressive than their sisters in other parts of India, and the study in contrast between the orthodox and the progressive types is much more interesting. Between the Pardanashin Gosha ladies bound down by tradition and mother-in-law rule and the "reformed" ladies emulating their Western sisters, the difference is wide and sometimes disconcerting. The book reveals several beautiful aspects of Bengalee orthodox life and manners and one almost wishes that the change that is sure to sweep away the pieties and graces of the old order will be gradual and discriminating.
A study of the two books, while affording interesting reading and useful knowledge, is sure to give room for much anxious thought. Women in the social economy of the East by no means "Fades from the view a cipher of man’s changeless sum of lust past present and to come" and the progress of India, social and political, must in a large measure depend on the direction which reforms take as regards the position of the sexes and the part woman plays in the social and domestic economy of the race. It is difficult to accept that the ancient ideals will remain unchanged by long and constant association with the modern progressive tendencies of the West, and the demand for independence and equality both social and political; and the only question is how the change is to be effected so as to retain all that is good in the past and avoid changes unsuited to the genius of the nation. A cynical friend of mine once remarked that if Seeta had been more "manly" and had stood out against the injustice and suffering undeservedly imposed on her, the lot of Indian women through the ages would have been better. Like all remarks of cynics there is no doubt a grain of truth in the remark, but who would wish Seeta, the concrete and perfect embodiment of all that is noble and true in Aryan womanhood, to be otherwise than she was. It is sad to think that in the conflict of the Eastern and Western ideals a great many of those mysteries and pieties of life which have been sanctioned by the reverence of ages will have to give place to the forces of noisy and aggressive ambitions. To such of those who clamor for immediate reversal of the ideals of the East, a study of these two books will supply much room for thought.
Let us hope that whatever changes may be in store for Indian women, they will be based on those ideals which have formed the glory and greatness of Indian women through countless generations.
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