Women in Hinduism

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The pre- and post-Vedic woman was as free as man; and no impure terrestrial thought was ever mixed with the religious symbology of the early Aryans. ~ Helena Blavatsky

Ancient and medieval era Hindu texts present a diverse picture of duties and rights of women in Hinduism.


  • Where women are honoured there the gods delight, where they are not honoured there all acts become fruitless.
    • Manusmriti, Chapter 4, translated by Wendy Doniger & Brian Smith; see The Religion of the Hindus; American literature and Indian English literature: studies in cultural contiguity p. 95; The Thousand Faces of Night, An outline of the cultural history and principles of Hinduism p. 194
  • This is proven by the fact that in the Vedic period their women were not placed apart from men in penetralia, or "Zenanas." Their seclusion began when the Mahomedans -- the next heirs to Hebrew symbolism after Christian ecclesiasticism -- had conquered the land and gradually enforced their ways and customs upon the Hindus. The pre- and post-Vedic woman was as free as man; and no impure terrestrial thought was ever mixed with the religious symbology of the early Aryans.
  • He took the rotundity of the moon, and the curves of creepers, and the clinging of tendrils, and the trembling of grass, and the slenderness of the reed, and the bloom of flowers, and the lightness of leaves, and the tapering of the elephant’s trunk, and the glances of deer, and the clustering of rows of bees, and the joyous gaiety of sunbeams, and the weeping of clouds, and the fickleness of the winds, and the timidity of the hare, and the vanity of the peacock, and the softness of the parrot’s bosom, and the hardness of adamant, and the sweetness of honey, and the cruelty of the tiger, and the warm glow of fire, and the coldness of snow, and the chattering of jays, and the cooing of the kokila, and the hypocrisy of the crane, and the fidelity of the chakravaka; and compounding all these together he made woman, and gave her to man.
    • Creation of woman in a Hindu legend. Havell, Ideals, 91. As quoted in Will Durant Our Oriental Heritage : India and Her Neighbors.
  • Nevertheless, despite all this equipment, woman fared poorly in India. Her high status in Vedic days was lost under priestly influence and Mohammedan example. The Code of Manu set the tone against her in phrases reminiscent of an early stage in Christian theology... Doubtless the influx of Islamic ideas had something to do with the decline in the status of woman in India after Vedic days. The custom of purdah (curtain)—the seclusion of married women—came into India with the Persians and the Mohammedans, and has therefore been stronger in the north than in the south. Partly to protect their wives from the Moslems, Hindu husbands developed a system of purdah so rigid that a respectable woman could show herself only to her husband and her sons, and could move in public only under a heavy veil; even the doctor who treated her and took her pulse had to do so through a curtain.
  • It will seem incredible to the provincial mind that the same people that tolerated such institutions as child marriage, temple prostitution and suttee was also pre-eminent in gentleness, decency and courtesy. Aside from a few devadasis, prostitutes were rare in India, and sexual propriety was exceptionally high. “It must be admitted,” says the unsympathetic Dubois, “that the laws of etiquette and social politeness are much more clearly laid down, and much better observed by all classes of Hindus, even by the lowest, than they are by people of corresponding social position in Europe.” ... A Hindu woman might go anywhere in public without fear of molestation or insult; indeed the risk, as the Oriental saw the matter, was all on the other side. Manu warns men: “Woman is by nature ever inclined to tempt man; hence a man should not sit in a secluded place even with his nearest female relative”; and he must never look higher than the ankles of a passing girl.
  • Marriage might be entered into by forcible abduction of the bride, by purchase of her, or by mutual consent. Marriage by consent, however, was considered slightly disreputable; women thought it more honorable to be bought and paid for, and a great compliment to be stolen. Polygamy was permitted, and was encouraged among the great; it was an act of merit to support several wives, and to transmit ability. The story of Draupadi, who married five brothers at once, indicates the occasional occurrence, in Epic days, of that strange polyandry the marriage of one woman to several men, usually brothers which survived in Ceylon till 1859, and still lingers in the mountain villages of Tibet. But polygamy was usually the privilege of the male, who ruled the Aryan household with patriarchal omnipotence. He held the right of ownership over his wives and his children, and might in certain cases sell them or cast them out.
  • Nevertheless, woman enjoyed far greater freedom in the Vedic period than in later India. She had more to say in the choice of her mate than the forms of marriage might suggest. She appeared freely at feasts and dances, and joined with men in religious sacrifice. She could study, and might, like Gargi, engage in philosophic disputation. If she was left a widow there were no restrictions upon her remarriage. In the Heroic Age woman seems to have lost something of this liberty. She was discouraged from mental pursuits, on the ground that "for a woman to study the Vedas indicates confusion in the realm;" the remarriage of widows became uncommon; purdah the seclusion of women began; and the practice of suttee, almost unknown in Vedic times, increased. The ideal woman was now typified in the heroine of the Ramayana that faithful Sita who follows and obeys her husband humbly, through every test of fidelity and courage, until her death.
  • ...in fact, some of the Vedic hymns were written and doubtlessly also chanted by women... In the Arya Samaj, girls get the complete Vedic initiation, as apparently they used to in the Vedic Age itself.
    • Decolonizing the Hindu Mind, p. 14-15, by Koenraad Elst 2001, Elst, Koenraad (2001). Decolonizing the Hindu mind: Ideological development of Hindu revivalism. New Delhi: Rupa.
  • Padmini Sengupta has written in her book, Everyday Life in Ancient India: "The position of women in ancient India was free and emancipated, and women were well educated and respected members of society. A wife shared all her husband's privileges and was his companion and help-mate in his activities." The position of women was far better than in other countries of ancient times. How else could it be in a culture which placed the Mother before the Father in priority for reverence? Matr devo bhava - was the first Upanisadic exhortation to the young. So far as we know, Hinduism is the only religion whose symbolism places the Feminine on a par with the Masculine in the profound concept of Siva-Sakti culminating in the image of Ardharnari-Isvara. The Hindu has honored his country as his Motherland - Bharat Mata and his nationalism has grown up from the seed Mantra - Vande Mataram.
    • Padmini Sengupta quoted in : The Saffron Swastika - By Koenraad Elst, p. 824
  • For about three thousand years, the women – and only the women – of Mithila have been making devotional paintings of the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. It is no exaggeration, then, to say that this art is the expression of the most genuine aspect of Indian civilization.
    • Vequaud, Ives, Women Painters of Mithila, Thames and Hudson, Ltd., London, 1977 p. 9
  • In Sanskrit more than in any other language women poets have at all times been held in high honour. Apart from quotations in well-known anthologies, many notable works by women poets of earlier time have come down to us.
  • Education for girls was regarded as quite important. While Brahmin girls were taught Vedic wisdom, girls of the Ksatriya community were taught the use of the bow and arrow. The Barhut sculptures represent skilful horsewomen in the army. Patanjali mentions the spearbearers (saktikis). Megasthenes speaks of Chandragupta's bodyguard of Amazonian women. Kautilya mentions women archers (striganaih dhanvibhih). In houses as well as in the forest Universities of India, boys and girls were educated together. Atreyi studied under Valmiki along with Lava and Kusa, the sons of Rama. Fine arts like music, dancing and painting was specially encouraged in the case of girls.
    • (source: Religion and Society - By S. Radhakrishnan p. 140-149).
  • And that cow which yielded the fast-milk for the (Sacrificer's) wife he gives to the chanters, for it is they, the Udgatris, that do, as it were ,the wife's work on this occasion: therefore he gives it to the chanters.
    • Shatapath Brahman (, (sometimes cited in support that women could do Vedic sacrifices) quoted in Elst, Koenraad (2012). The argumentative Hindu. New Delhi : Aditya Prakashan. 140
  • Hindu dharma reverenced women; therefore, it had no difficulty in conceiving Goddesses. Hindus also learnt to give their women the honour they gave to their deities. Hindu lawgivers taught that women must be honoured by their fathers, brothers, husbands and brothers-in-law, who desire their own welfare; that Gods are pleased where women are honoured, but where they are not honoured sacred rites yield no rewards.
    • Ram Swarup (2000). On Hinduism: Reviews and reflections. Ch. 1.
  • to the women of this country... I would say exactly what I say to the men. Believe in India and in our Indian faith. Be strong and hopeful and unashamed, and remember that with something to take, Hindus have immeasurably more to give than any other people in the world.
    • Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 5, Interviews/On Indian Women--Their Past, Present And Future
  • The next idea of the Aryans is the freedom of women. It is in the Aryan literature that we find women in ancient times taking the same share as men, and in no other literature of the world.
    • Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda
  • And it may be confidently asserted that in no nation of antiquity were women held in so much esteem as amongst the Hindus.
    • Professor H. H. Wilson, quoted in The collected works of Lala Lajpat Rai
  • "Where women are honored there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honored no sacred rite yields rewards," declares Manu Smriti (III.56) a text on social conduct. "Women must be honored and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands and brothers-in-law, who desire their own welfare." (Manu Smriti III, 55) " Where the female relations live in grief, the family soon wholly perishes; but that family where they are not unhappy ever prospers." (Manu Smriti III, 57). "The houses on which female relations, not being duly honored, pronounce a curse, perish completely as if destroyed by magic." (Manu Smriti III, 58) " Hence men who seek their own welfare, should always honor women on holidays and festivals with gifts of ornaments, clothes, and dainty food." (Manu Smriti III, 59) In an old Shakta hymn it is said - Striyah devah, Striyah pranah "Women are Devas, women are life itself."

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