The Role of Women in Hinduism
Historically, the female life cycle in Hinduism has been different from that of males. In the classical, medieval and most of the modern periods, females have followed a three-stage pattern. Today, the roles of women in Hindu society are changing, as they are throughout the world. Increasingly, the life pattern of females resembles the stages of life for males.
The basic principles governing the roles of girls and women in Hindu history were set forth in the Laws of Manu. This ancient code specified that women must be honored and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands and brothers-in-law who desired their own welfare.
“Where women are honored, there the gods are pleased. Where they are not honored, no sacred rite yields rewards.”
In the Vedic world, women were required to be present for the rituals to work, even though they had no official role to play in them. Manu continues:
“Day and night, women must be kept dependent to the males of their families. If they attach themselves to sensual enjoyments, they must be kept under one’s control. Her father protects her in childhood. Her husband protects her in youth. Her sons protect her in old age. A woman is never fit for independence.”
These final sentences implicitly sets forth the three life stages for the female. The Early Stage
As a girl, the female lives under the watchful protection of her parents, who are jealously concerned with protecting her virginity. She is considered pure but inauspicious, because she lacks a life-giving power. When she marries, she becomes impure but auspicious. The impurity is caused by sexual intercourse and menstruation.
For most of Hindu history, the girl was not allowed to have the same kind of education as her brother. Boys left home to receive their education from a guru. Girls always had to be under their fathers’ watchful eye. What education she got came from her parents. She spent most of her time learning domestic skills from her mother, as well as some ritual aspects of religion. She was not considered capable of studying the Veda.
The Arrangement of Marriage
In classical medieval and modern times, girls often married early in life, thereby entered the second stage, that of the householder. Today, young Hindu women do not usually marry until their twenties, but this has not always been the case. Frequently, the arrangement of marriage took place just after the girl was born, or some time later in her childhood. Occasionally, the marriage would be arranged to a boy who was relatively close in age, but it was not uncommon for a young girl to be matched to a much older man, perhaps twenty or thirty years her senior.
A girls’ parents had interest in arranging her marriage as early as possible because of the great concern with virginity. When girls’ marriage was arranged when they were young, their purity became the responsibility of the groom’s family.
Obviously, marriages meant something quite different in Hindu society that it does in the present day Western world. In India, marriages has been regarded as alliances between families for the purposes of reproduction and economic stability, not so much an avenue for personal enrichment as they are often considered in the West.
Accordingly, Hindu marriages had historically been arranged by the groom’s and bride’s older relatives. Bride and groom did not meet until shortly before the wedding, or at the wedding itself. In seeking a suitable spouse for one’s son or daughter, family members took more into account than simply personal compatibility between the man and the woman. Certainly, the prospective families’ wealth and social standing, caste and sub-caste, health, the prospective spouse’s occupation and the compatibility of the pairs’ astrological charts were issues of prominent concern.
It’s worth noting that marriages in India historically and to the present day rarely end in divorce. This is in due in part...
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