The Position of Women in Ancient India: The evolution of the status of women in India has been a continuous process of ups and downs throughout history. Considering the vast body of empirical research available on the topic, two approaches seem valid: one is the classical text view; and the other, empirical view.
For the purpose of depicting a brief survey of the changing position and role of women in India throughout history, two broad periods are considered:
(a) 2500 B.C-1500 B.C., and
(b) 1500 B.C. – 1800 A.D.
The literature on Indian history abounds in contradictory and conflicting views on this subject. The term “woman” is used in a generic sense regardless of the internal differentiation present throughout India based on socio-cultural, demographic and ecological factors.
The Position of Women in Ancient India in two Broad Periods:
2500 BC – 1500 BC:
This period is usually referred to as the early Vedic period. During this age, a woman had a great extent of freedom like a man, and her sphere of role relationships was not circumscribed by too many restrictions. At home, generally, the mother was the mistress of the house. She had her usual routine of cleaning the house, sweeping the house with cow dung, decorate the house with lime powder, washing vessels; cooking food, looking after children; serving food to others first; welcoming and entertaining them.
The Vedic Samhitas refer to women taking an active part in agriculture and other crafts like leather work, making Gur, drawing water, churning buttermilk, making wine, weaving mats and sewing. They were also in charge of household finances and farm laborers.
The Vedic hymns inform that both husband and wife were joint owners of the family property. In Rig-Veda, a daughter retained her right of inheritance and could substitute a son. Women were permitted to have the separate property of their own which came to be designed in later Smritis as Stridhan.
Some of the high-class women were highly educated and actively participated in intellectual philosophical discussions. One comes across references to lady sages like Gosha, Apala, Lopamudra, Indrani, Gargi, and Maitreyi. During the Vedic period, girls and boys were initiated into the Vedic studies by performing a rite of passage called upanayana ceremony.
1500 BC – 1800 AD:
Though it is difficult to say at which specific point of time deterioration in the status of women began, still there would be probably little disagreement among the experts if it is stated that women enjoyed a relatively -higher status in the early Vedic period. From about 1500 B.C. started the change in women’s status due to various reasons, among which the most important was a denial of education.
Traces of deterioration are found in all periods following 1500 B.C. But it became much more marked after the beginning of the Christian era and reached its peak after the Mughul invasion in the sixteenth century.
Women’s Role in Ancient India
In short, the role of women conformed to the dictum laid down by Manu, the great lawgiver of the second century that “a woman does not deserve freedom” and that her life should throughout be one of dependence on man. Another similar dictum laid down by Manu was that woman should be subservient in all stages of her life- “in childhood to the father, in youth to the husband and his elderly kins and to the son when widowed”.
Among the traditional Hindu families the fate of a woman, especially of the daughter-in-law, was always of subordination to all other members.