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The role of women in Hinduism is often disputed, and positions range from quite fair to intolerant. Hinduism is based on numerous texts, some of which date back to 2000 BCE or earlier. They are varied in authority, authenticity, content and theme, with the most authoritative being the Vedas. The position of women in Hinduism is widely dependent on the specific text and the context. Positive references are made to the ideal woman in texts such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, while some texts such as the Manu Smriti advocate a restriction of women's rights. In modern times the Hindu wife has traditionally been regarded as someone who must at all costs remain chaste or pure.[1] This is in contrast with the very different traditions that have prevailed at earlier times in 'Hindu' kingdoms, which included highly respected professional courtesans (such as Amrapali of Vesali), sacred devadasis, mathematicians and female magicians (the basavis, the Tantric kulikas). Some European scholars observed in the nineteenth century Hindu women were "naturally chaste" and "more virtuous" than other women, although what exactly they meant by that is open to dispute. In any case, as male foreigners they would have been denied access to the secret and sacred spaces that women often inhabited.[2]


Gender of God

There is a wide variety of viewpoints within the different schools and sects of Hinduism concerning the exact nature and gender (where applicable) of the Supreme person or being; there are even sects that are sceptical about the existence of such a being. Shaktism, for example, focuses worship on the goddess Devi as the supreme embodiment of power, or Shakti (feminine strength; a female form of God). Vaishnavism and Shaivism both worship Lakshmi with Vishnu and Parvati with Shiva respectively as beings on an equal level of magnitude (the male and female aspects of God). In some instances such as with Gaudiya Vaishnavism, specific emphasis is placed on the worship of God's female aspect (Radharani) even above that of her paramour Krishna. Thus it could be said that Hinduism considers God to have both male and female aspects, as the original source of both.

Male deities (such as Shiva and Indra) are believed, in some traditions, to themselves offer worship to the Goddess, Durga:

"O Parameshwari, (The supreme Goddess) who is praised by the husband of the daughter of Himalayas (Shri Shiva)..." "O Parameshwari, who is worshipped with true feelings by the husband of Indrani (Indra) please give us the spiritual personality, the victory, the glory and destroy our enemies."[3]

Elsewhere Shiva and Vishnu are also described as possessing feminine qualities represented through their Ardhanarishvara and Mohini forms respectively. There have also been male devotees who have claimed to be incarnations of goddesses, such as Narayani Peedam and Bangaru Adigalar of Melmaruvathur, Tamilnadu who claim to be forms or avataras of the goddess Narayani.

Hindu feminists such as Phoolan Devi have also used the goddess Durga as their icon. Traditions which follow the advaita philosophy consider that ultimately the supreme being is formless without any particular gender, or is transcendental to such considerations.

Women in Rig Vedic hymns

In the marriage hymn (RV 10.85.26), the wife "should address the assembly as a commander."[4]

A Rig Veda hymn says:[5]

Rig Veda, Book 10. HYMN CLIX. Saci Paulomi.
I am the banner and the head, a mighty arbitress am I: I am victorious, and my Lord shall be submissive to my will.

These are probably the earliest references to the position of women in Hindu society.

Status of Mothers in Hindu Scripture

"A son must always serve his mother even if she has been an outcast."

"The professor is equivalent of ten teachers, the father is equal to hundred professors, the mother exceeds a thousand fathers in honour."

"All other sins are expiable but he who is cursed the mother never liberated."

"An outcast father may be forsaken, but not the mother, she is never an outcast to the son".

"One conquers this world through respect for the mother, the middle religion (the firmament) through respect for the father, and through service to the preceptor one gains the region of Brahman."

Property rights

Arthashastra and Manusamhita are sources about the woman's right to property or ‘Stridhan’, (literally meaning, property of wife). It is of two types: maintenance (in money or land given by the husband), and anything else like ornaments given to her by her family, husband, in-laws and the friends of her husband. Manu further subdivides this into six types - the property given by parents at marriage, given by the parental family when she is going to her husband’s house, given by her husband out of affection (not maintenance which he is bound to give), and property given separately by brother, mother and father [Manu IX 194]. Pre-nuptial contracts are also mentioned where the groom would agree to give a set amount of brideprice to both parents and the bride. Such property belonged to the wife alone and was not to be touched by the groom or her parents except in emergencies (in sickness, in famine, threatened by robbers, or for performing holy deeds). At the same time, the Manu Smriti contradicts itself by declaring that a wife has no property and the wealth earned is for the husband [Manu VIII.416].

Daughters and sons equally inherited their mother's property; but some scriptures insist that a mother's property belongs solely to the daughters [Manu IX 131], in order of preference: unmarried daughters, married but poor daughters, married and rich daughters. When a father died, unmarried daughters had to be given a share in their father’s property, equal to one-fourth from every brother's share [since it is assumed that the married daughter had been given her share at marriage] [Manu IX. 118]. If the family has no sons, the (appointed) daughter is the sole inheritor of the property [Manu IX 127].

Study of scriptures

Several women sages and seers are mentioned in the Upanishads, the philosophical part of the Vedas, notable among them being Gargi and Maitreyi. The Sanskrit word for female teachers as Acharyā (as opposed to Acharya for teacher and Acharyini for teacher's wife) reveal that women were also given a place as Gurus.

The Harita Dharmasutra (of the Maitrayaniya school of Yayurveda) declares that there are two kind of women: Sadhyavadhu who marry, and the Brahmavaadini who are inclined to religion, they can wear the sacred thread, perform rituals like the agnihotra and read the Vedas. Bhavabhuti's Uttararamacharita 2.3 says that Atreyi went to Southern India where she studied the Vedas and Indian philosophy. Shankara debated with the female philosopher Ubhaya Bharati, and Madhava's Shankaradigvijaya (9.63) mentions that she was well versed in the Vedas. Tirukkoneri Dasyai (15th century) wrote a commentary on Nammalvar's Tiruvaayamoli, with reference to Vedic texts like the Taittiriya Yajurveda.

The Bhagavata Purana states that the Mahabharata was written specifically for women and also men who were not in the priestly Brahmin caste :

"Out of compassion, the great sage thought it wise that this would enable men to achieve the ultimate goal of life. Thus he compiled the great historical narration called the Mahabharata for women, laborers and friends of the twice-born."[6]

In several schools for Vedic priests, many graduates are women.[7]


Katyayana's Varttika 125, 2477 mentions that there were female teachers of grammar. Patanjali wrote in his comments to Ashtadhyayi 3.3.21 and 4.1.14, that women undergo the thread ceremony before beginning their education, and says that women studied grammar.


The most sacred part of the wedding ceremony involves circumambulating the sacred fire in seven steps to a Vedic mantra where the groom addresses his wife.

In the Manu Smriti, on the other hand, 8 types of marriage are specified: two involve bedecking the bride with costly garments and ornaments before giving her away, two involve the groom's family giving a gift to the family of the bride, and the other four do not involve an exchange of gifts. According to Manusmriti there are eight different types of Hindu marriages. Among the eight types all didn't have religious sanction. The last four were not religiously defined and were condemned. These are: Brahma Marriage, Daiva Marriage, Arsha Marriage, Prajapatya Marriage, Gandharva Marriage, Asura Marriage, Rakshasa Marriage, Paishacha Marriage.but the best marriage IS BRAHMA MARRIAGE-In Brahma marriage once the boy completes his Brahmacharya Ashram (religious student hood), he is eligible to get married. His parents then approaches the parents or guardian of a girl belonging to a good family and ask them for the hand of their daughter for their son. The father of the girl also carefully chooses the bridegroom who is well versed in Vedas and of a noble character. This is how a Brahma marriage was arranged. girl came with two garments and few ornaments only. According to Dharmashastras "Brahma Vivah" is the best marriage among all.``The son born of the Brahma marriage sanctifies 21 GENERATION.-(that of the Daiva marriage 14 generations that of Arsha marriage and Kayah marriage six each.')

The Manusmriti enjoins, "'Let mutual fidelity continue until death.' This may be considered the summation of the highest law for husband and wife. (Manu Smriti IX 101)

Rigvedic verses suggest that the women married at a mature age and were probably free to select their husband.[8] The wedding hymn in the Rigveda (RV 10.85.37-38) speaks of "husbands" (plural) for a single wife, but this may have a mythological character.[8]



The practice of dowry is not endorsed by orthodox Hinduism and "may be a perversion of Sanskritic marriage prescriptions."[9] Dowry is linked to caste status: among higher castes a dowry is expected from the girl's family; among lower caste families the dowry is paid to the girl's family.[10] As a result, the prevalence of dowry increases with the processes known as "Sanskritisation" and urbanization; abuse of the practice has thus increased in recent years.[9]


Thus certain mantras in Vedas describe demerits of Polygamy.

- Rig Veda 10.105.8 compares existence of multiple wives with multiple worldly miseries.

- Rig Veda 10.101.11 states that a man with two wives is pressed from both sides and weeps like a horse that neighs when pressed from both sides by spokes while driving a chariot.

- Rig Veda 10.101.11 state that two wives make life aimless.

- Atharva Veda 3.18.2 prays that may a woman never face threat of another co-wife.


Hinduism in general disapproves of divorce. A divorced woman is generally forced to live as a widow. However in theological terms, both the Manusamhita and the Arthashastra state that, if a husband is impotent, a traitor, has become an ascetic or an outcast, or is missing for a prescribed number of years, then the wife can leave him without blame and marry again. The Arthashastra also declares that in other circumstances, divorce can take place only by mutual consent. Manu discusses situations where the wife wishes to return to her first husband, whether she has simply deserted him or married another.

Widowhood and remarriage

In traditional families, widows were, and in some cases still are, required to wear white sarees, and to give up their ornaments, including the bindi, which signifies auspiciousness. The presence of widows at religious rites in such families is considered inauspicious. Widows are expected to devote their lives to an austere pursuit of religion.[11] These restrictions are traditionally strongest in the highest castes, in which the head is frequently shaved as well. The highest castes also have severe restrictions on remarriage.[12] Such restrictions are now strictly observed only by a small minority of widows, though some degree of ritual inauspiciousness lingers.[11]

In NAsmR 12.45-48, there are three types of punarbhu, or a remarried widow: The virgin widow, the woman who abandons her husband to take up with another man and then returns to her husband, and the woman who has no brothers-in-law whom can give her offspring. Although this list is not exhaustive, it makes it clear that a punarbhu is not just any widow. Indeed, she may not have been a widow at all (as in the second case). In the other two cases, she is a childless widow, which is an important distinction. Although many texts do seem to address the remarriage of widows and sometimes permit it, it is not considered an ideal situation. A punarbhu is often not given the same rights as a woman who was married only once. The son of a punarbhu, a punarbhava, is often listed as one who is unfit to invite to a sacrifice, as is the husband of a remarried woman. The punarbhava also does not inherit as would a 'natural son'.

As of 2007, 3 per cent of the population of India consists of widows.[13] Most widows are abandoned to survive on charity, and many are reduced to begging on the streets. Some surveys show that as they are steeped in their religious beliefs and fearful of violating social customs, many widows do not wish to remarry.


"A Hindu Suttee"

Sati (as verb) is the act of immolation of a woman on her husband's funeral pyre. Sati (as noun) refers to one who either immolated herself willingly or through societal inducement and compulsion.

Sati was ideally performed as an act of immortal love, and was believed to purge the couple of all accumulated sin. (Sati was practiced by the ancient peoples of Scythia, Egypt, Scandinavia and China).

Though no scripture mandates sati, the Puranas, part of the Hindu Smriti, mention sati as highly meritorious in several instances. A few examples of sati are recorded in the Hindu epics, which are otherwise replete with influential widows. Some examples from the Mahabharata include:

  • Several of Vasudeva's wives (Rohini, Devaki, Bhadraa and Madira) [M.Bh. Mausalaparvan 7.18].
  • Madri, second wife of Pandu, who held herself responsible for his death, performed sati. His first wife Kunti did not. [M.Bh. Adiparvan 95.65]

Moreover, Kunti in the Mahabharata even had a son before marriage (albeit by accident or through her naivete), but went on to become a queen by marrying another man (king Pandu). This tale shows that society valued women more for their qualities of intelligence, determination, loyalty and leadership over personal and private issues like pre-marital virginity. Needless to say, Kunti, in spite of her pre-marital indiscretion, not only married a king, but also remained highly respected and loved by all (family and others) throughout her entire long life, and did not choose to commit sati at the time of her husband's death.

Female gurus and saints


  1. ^ Sarkar, Tanika (2001). Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion and Cultural Nationalism. New Delhi: Permanent Black.  .
  2. ^ Abbe Jean Antoine Dubois, Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies, translated from the French by Henry King Beauchamp, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897)
  4. ^ R. C. Majumdar and A. D. Pusalker, editors, The History and Culture of the Indian People. Volume I: The Vedic age, (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1951), p.424
  5. ^ "Rig Veda, Book 10. HYMN CLIX. Saci Paulomi". Retrieved 2006-12-24.  
  6. ^ Bhag-P 1.4.25
  7. ^ Vasuda Narayanan, Women of Power in the Hindu tradition
  8. ^ a b R. C. Majumdar and A. D. Pusalker (editors): The history and culture of the Indian people. Volume I, The Vedic age. Bombay : Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan 1951, p.394.
  9. ^ a b Miller, Barbara Stoler (1993). Sex and gender hierarchies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 383–4. ISBN 0-521-42368-6.  
  10. ^ Jeaneane Fowler. Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices (The Sussex Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices). Brighton: Sussex Academic Press. p. 54. ISBN 1-898723-60-5.  
  11. ^ a b Bowker, John H.; Holm, Jean (1994). Women in religion. London: Continuum. p. 79. ISBN 0-8264-5304-X.  
  12. ^ C. J. Fuller (2004). The Camphor Flame: popular Hinduism and society in India. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. p. 23. ISBN 0-691-12048-X.  
  13. ^ [1]

See also

Further reading

  • Kane, Pandurang Vaman, History of Dharmasastra: (ancient and mediaeval, religious and civil law) -- Poona : Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1962-1975.
  • Vasuda Narayanan, "Women of Power in the Hindu Tradition," pp.25-77 in Arvind Sharma and Katherine K Young (eds.), Feminism and World Religions, SUNY Press: Albany (New York).

External links


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