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POWER OF INDIAN WOMAN
Documentary Film Series on The Power of Indian Woman

The good things in life always fascinated the people of India. Kama or the pursuit of pleasure has been one of the main objects of life for the Hindus. Some of the great sages have studied the subject with great scientific interest. Indian art is not solely spiritual. The decorative art of temples invariably depicts the rapture of the body as well as the soul.

Till date, no nation has escaped the matriarchal phase of social development wherein the woman is the head of the family and property is inherited through her. The man in the family, in the olden days, was basically a nomad and only the love of his mate restricted him to any particular abode. Studies by sociologists have also confirmed the fact that primitive man did not have the slightest idea as to how he is related to the child of his mate or that mating led to pregnancy. There have also been instances when such ignorance led to the brutal killing of children as they were considered an impediment to pleasure. Such was` the animal-like behaviour of our primitive ancestors!

Men started taking interest in children or indulged in paternal instincts only after the discovery that mating was related to child birth. But the rights of mothers however remained unaltered for quite some time after this discovery. Women continued to enjoy their rights and their status was also definitely high when compared to medieval times. Even Egyptians, Greeks, Hebrews and Persians have had a matriarchal ancestry. The same prevailed among the Indo-Aryans too and there is sufficient proof in literature to support this.

The Mahabharata, the repository of Hindu legend and tradition, contains enough proof to substantiate the fact that women enjoyed greater rights than men and that the society was matriarchal. It may sound unbelievable in this present age but the truth is that there was a period in the development of aryan society when married women were not legally and morally bound to confine sexual congress to their husbands.
Traces of matriarchate was found in religious literature and practices of the Hindus also. It is lso interesting to note that there is no civilised community in the modern world except the Hindus
who conceive Godhead as feminine. Even in Sanskrit literature when a goddess and her spouse are mentioned it is the female deity who is first mentioned and the same is the case when the blessings of deities are invoked.

For instance, Vishnu is worshipped as Laxmi-Narayan while Shiva as Gowri-Shankar. But, it is wrong to assume that matriarchy is a thing of the past in India. For, the Nayars of Kerala still observe it.

Traces of matriarchate was found in religious literature and practices of the Hindus also. It is lso interesting to note that there is no civilised community in the modern world except the Hindus who conceive Godhead as feminine. Even in Sanskrit literature when a goddess and her spouse are mentioned it is the female deity who is first mentioned and the same is the case when the blessings of deities are invoked. For instance, Vishnu is worshipped as Laxmi-Narayan while Shiva as Gowri-Shankar. But, it is wrong to assume that matriarchy is a thing of the past in India. For, the Nayars of Kerala still observe it.

In the early Vedic period marriage was not so very holy. It was only in the later Vedic period was marriage sanctified and idealized. In Ramayana and Mahabharata, the great epics of the Hindus, we come across the types of marriages prevalent during the period. The teachings of Mahabharata are in conformity with the moral precepts of the Grihya Sutras of the post-Vedic period and in certain respects even of the law-giver Manu. According to the epic, the marriage ceremony preferred during the time was Vedic, but with the development of the caste system, this form of marriage became popular only among the Brahmins. The Kshtriyas, however, preferred Swayamvara, wherein the maiden chose her husband from a number of suitors.

Here again, the right of choosing her husband rested with the woman, underlining the fact that women enjoyed greater rights than men. Numerous instances of swayamvara are found in both the epic poems. However, another form of marriage, which quite appealed to the Kshtriya's war-like nature was marriage by capture, wherein the bride was captured from the swayamvara hall. Here again, though the capture was permissible for Kshatriyas, the willingness of the lady to marry the captor or his ward had to be previously obtained to give it full moral authority.

The great epic of Mahabharata also gives instances of marriage by contract. A thorough reading of the epic highlights the fact that the origin and behaviour of most of the heroes of the epic was in direct contrast to the moral code of conduct practiced by the Brahmins. Draupadi, one of the most important characters of the epic, hared five husbands! What better instance could we have asked for? And, in spite of the lengthy sermons of learned sages that we get to read in the epic, the tales of heroes and heroines mentioned in the epic show that the people of the age were free from sexual constraints that later marred Hindu morality.

When a man is incapable of raising progeny because of some reason, the nearest of kin or a learned Brahmin was allowed to mate with his wife to beget children.

Illegitimacy was also not considered a crime in the epic times and a close examination reveals that most heroes of the epic were illegitimate children and the woman was neither excommunicated or abandoned. It was only in the medieval times that illegitimacy was looked down upon and the woman abandoned.

The Gandharva form of marriage was also quite popular when the man and woman married without a priest to officiate the marriage. Another popular form of marriage was by payment of a bride price.

The practice of Sati was quite uncommon in the epic times. But, there are some instances when wives have immolated themselves in their husbands' funeral pyre, not as a ritual but out of choice. Like Madri who decided to accompany her husband Pandu in the belief that his soul will be yearning for her company. But most noble ladies of the great epic outlived their husbands. It has to be admitted that the epic times permitted a lot many deviations from the moral conduct only because it laid a lot of stress on begetting sons.
The epic Ramayana, on the other hand, is very different in the code of conduct it preaches. Sita, the heroine of the great epic, is very different from Draupadi. In fact, to this day she is looked upon and is being regarded as the model of feminine virtue.

The epic has a devotional tone to it and is dominated by the highly spiritualized ideal of Brahminism. According to the epic, monogamy is the ideal though polygamy is permitted to kings and special sages only. Polyandrous practices are mentioned as existing only among demons and apes.

Foreign travellers who visited India in the medieval times found the status of Indian women very low and the practice of sati despicable. The reason behind this could have been the Dharma Shastras that enforced the patriarchal, priestly ideal on society. They even glorified the Ramayana. Women were considered no more than appendages of the men they married. It is in this age that men started restricting their wives to the confines of the four walls of their home, keeping a strict vigil on their movements. The Aryan conquest of India could have triggered this as inter-racial marriages between the Aryans and the native population became more and more common, alarming the moral police, who were concerned about the purity of their race. Another factor that could have contributed to the imposition of new restrictions on women was the desire for male children of their own blood who, according to general belief, would ensure their parents' bliss in the kingdom to come.

The age was also witness to the sudden subordination of women in the name of guarding them. Manu, the law giver says that women should always be guarded -

in childhood by the father, in youth by the husband and in old age by her sons - and that she loses her individuality after her marriage. The subordination was such that her status was no better than that of a slave. But, according to some passages in the code of Manu gods are pleased and the family prospers only when women are honoured. Women were not allowed to even study as education was considered disreputable for respectable women.

In the name of guarding women started the practice of child marriage and any unmarried girl beyond the age of 12 was considered a burden on her parents. The eight forms of marriage that prevailed in those times are - Bhahma, Daiva, Prajapatya, Arsha, Gandharva, Paisacha, Rakshasa and Asura. Of these, the first four are approved forms of marriage while the fifth is considered undesirable and the last three positively objectionable though valid when performed.

The position of widows in such times deserves a mention. While the widow usually married her husband's brother, the codes prohibited this custom and expected her to spend the rest of her life in the memories of her dead husband. To stretch this absurd belief further, men started expecting their wives to perish with them and it is the kings who took this absurd practice to its worst heights.

While there were some voices against this practice, they were hardly audible. While the Muslim rulers in India tried abolishing Sati, they failed. It was Lord William Bentinck in 1829 who, on the insistence of Hindu reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, became successful in abolishing it. The abolition did not ensure a better position for widows. On the other hand, widows were being regarded as ill-omen in the family and so their heads were shaved and were force to lead the live of ascetics. The arrival of the British on the scene not only abolished Sati, but ensured a better life for the women too as more and more of them started getting a decent education. The status of widows too improved. And so was the cycle of women's emancipation set in motion.

Many legislations passed during the period too had a great role to play in changing the status of women for the better. Gradually, women's interest in arts - like dance and music - found expression and they were no longer considered to be indulged only by the courtesans.

This is not all, today women are found in all walks of life and in every profession worth its name. There is not a single field that women have not explored. Women have forayed into fields as varied as sports and politics and the defence forces.