WOMEN IN ANCIENT INDIA
The sub-continent of India is both diverse in its history and geography. It was not until the Mauryan Empire in the third century b.c.e. when most of India was brought together under one ruling dynasty. Before the Mauryans there was the ancient era known as the Indus Valley or Harappan civilization, and then the invasion and settlement of the Aryans along the Ganges River plain. The Ganges and Indus Rivers are known as the mother and father of India. Other rivers traverse the land, which has a lot of desert regions, the mighty Himalayan Mountains, and the torrid and humid south where spices lured traders. Yearly monsoons interrupt the dry weather with its hot humidity. Today the countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh are separated from the state of India, but in the past there were an integral part of the culture. Many languages have served to separate the Indians, but Hinduism has been an uniting religious and cultural force in additional to the impact of Buddhism, Janism, and later Islam. Just recently India surpassed China as the most populated country in the world.
Ancient India spans a vast period 2500 b.c.e.-250 b.c.e. Archaeology, ancient texts, and artifacts are being used to reconstruct the lives of women. “The earliest materials found by archaeological excavations suggest the worship of goddesses. The earliest recorded religious texts (ca. 1500 b.c.e.) call on the life-giving power of goddesses to give life and to nurture and sustain it.” p. 36 from Vivante. After the Aryan invasion and the development of Hinduism and then Buddhism, India’s extant written texts add greatly to our knowledge.
Centered on the Indus River valley, the oldest known civilization in India ranged from ca. 2500-1500 b.c.e. Today most of these cities of archaeological interest are now in Pakistan due to Indian independence and partition in 1947, although the ancient city-state of Lothal is in the Indian state of Gujarat. Extensive remains at Mohenjo Daro, Harrapa, and Lothal show a well organized, prosperous agriculture and commercial society, that traded with other civilizations in the Near East. The most famous ancient artifact is that of a young slender girl posing confidently. Numerous toys found convey a society that valued family life. While their inscribed ancient seals have not been deciphered to determine the actual meanings, extensive female images have been found that suggest goddesses played a central role. “Often called fertility goddesses, very few depict pregnant women, women giving birth or women nursing children. Several of the seals suggest a goddess associated with vegetation and fertility.”
Apparently this civilization succumbed to major natural disasters that changed the course of the Indus River. Hitherto it was thought that the invading Aryans conquered these indigenous people, but the Indus Civilization was already in a state of decline when these nomads came in from the Hindu Kush. These Aryans were light skinned compared to the natives and over time enslaved them, resulting in the caste system. Aryan’s highly hierarchical society was led by the Brahmin priests, who imposed political and religious power over the rest. The Brahmins composed sacred literature, the Vedas, that postulated the beliefs that continue to be revered today by the Hindus. The Rig Veda, oldest of these texts, composed mostly by priests, but a few women too, give us the first ancient Indian writing with decipherable information about their various gods and goddesses. There is a creation story, where the goddess Aditi gives birth to the earth, also personified as a goddess, Prthivi. Mother Earth’s role was to be tender to the dead and Aditi was to be prayed to for release from sin.
Much of the ideal role of women can be ascertained from the images of a maiden and bride in the Rig Veda. A daughter and maiden were praised for the characteristics of beauty, radiance, appealing adornment, sweet odors, ample hips, and...
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