Woman Glorified and Thrashed

 

Someone well said that, “The family is the shock absorber for society. It is the place to which the bruised and battered individual returns after doing battle with the world.” This is acknowledged by Indian scriptures:

Rig Veda 10.85.36. Again at 3.53.4 the RV states: “Wife is the true home”—jaayed astam. The Mahabharata (12.144.66) echoes the same thought: “The home is not the house, they say, but the housewife”—na grham grham ity aahu grhii grham ucyate.1

If the home is the shock absorber for society, the woman is the shock absorber for every home. A wife is the pivot of the home. She is called ‘dharmapatni’ as dharma is entrusted to her. A husband is never called ‘dahrmapati’.

When a husband, for various reasons, lives away from his wife in a different place, he will say that his family is in that city, “My family is in Nagpur.” But if a wife, living with her children away from her husband, will never say “My family is living in Delhi,” but only “My husband stays in Delhi.” In other words, a husband can live in a rented house but without his wife it won’t be a home. The exception could be the modern trend of a ‘single parent’ or a widower who can claim his house with his children as his home without a wife.

 

The Exalted Status of Women

However, as I have repeatedly pointed out, in the Indian context, the exalted status given to woman is for her USEFULNESS to a man as his wife and not for her own sake as an individual. Though Tantrism2 raises womanhood to a higher standard by calling her a ‘Brahman’, yet again it is only because of her relationship as a man’s wife.

This exalted status, that too given by men, naturally made them show respect to women and also have responsibility to protect them. As the woman is his better half she is called the ‘haven of rest’3 and considered the auspicious4 one. She has multiple roles in her husband’s life: mother, servant, advisor, etc.5 Only a woman makes a man complete as he can continue his linage only through begetting children6.

This crucial role of a woman naturally gave her certain privileges over a man. For example, strihatya (killing of a woman) is considered very serious offence.7 Though a husband cannot perform most of his religious duties without his wife, there are less demands on women regarding religious duties.8 Even to do her ritual, she needs to get permission from her husband. Regarding privileges they enjoyed, Kane says:

If there were many and heavy disabilities on women in certain matters, they enjoyed in certain directions more privileges than men…They also enjoyed the right of precedence on the road. The daughter of a patita was not regarded as patita, though the son of a patita was regarded as patita [vide Vasisthadharmasutra 13.51-53, Apastamba-dharmasutra. II.6.13.4, Yajnavalkyasmrti. III.261]. Women had to undergo only half of the prayascitta that men had to undergo for the same lapse [Visnudharmasutra.54.33, Devala 30. etc.] Women received honour according to the ages of their husbands, whatever their own ages may be [Apastamba-dharmasutra I. 4.14.18]. Just as brahmanas learned in the Vedas were to be free from taxes, the women of all varnas [except those of pratiloma castes] had to pay no taxes….9

No matter how many rights and privileges the scriptures and shastras sanction to them, the hard fact even in this modern time is that their privileges and rights still remain a male prerogative, even though many women become financially independent:

…Hindu women have always had a number of definite rights to maintenance, but these have depended on male cooperation and willingness to share resources. While Hindu women had defined rights and entitlements in principle, men (and often other women) would, in social reality, try and restrict, or even deny the claims of individual women. Hindu tradition definitely did not divest women of rights in this respect; rather it placed definite obligations on men to take responsibility and to look after women.10

 

A Woman’s Main Role

The common saying is that a woman is always under care and protection from her birth to the death to her father, brother, husband and children.11 Though a woman is born as a daughter, grows as a sister, and becomes a mother, the only broad picture one gets from the Indian scripture about her is her role as a WIFE. In other words, a woman is never complete unless she becomes a wife, nay a mother. And once her husband dies, she becomes almost a non-entity in a home, though she will continue to do her thankless service to all through her life.

By becoming a ‘sati’ she can become a hero or even a deity, yet it was imposed on her and not sanctioned by scripture.12 She is beget and brought up only to give to another man as a wife. That is why it is with realism that the birth of a female is not welcomed by many because of the burden of finding and arranging her marriage with a person:

Though women held high position, the place of a son could not be replaced, even by adoption. The birth of a daughter in nowhere distinctly desired, but is even plainly asked to be averted. “The birth of a girl, grant it elsewhere here grant a boy”-Atharvana Veda. , 6,11,3.13

That is the demand of her obedience and service to him is highlighted as the true virtue for a woman (only as wife!):

…That woman, may be the best of her kind who is devoted to vows and fasting, but is not amenable to her husband, will only reap the fruit of sin. But the woman who serves her husband obtains the highest worlds of bliss, though she might not make her reverence to those to whom reverence is due, or might abstain from the worship of the gods. A woman must give herself solely to her husband’s service, being intent on doing what is pleasing to him and what is good…[Rama].14

This being the Indian reality, there is no surprise the way Siva Purana demands that

A chaste lady shall take food only after her husband has taken it. O Sivaa {Parvati}, if he stands, the woman too shall remain standing.(16) When he sleeps she can also sleep. But she must intelligently wake up before him. She shall do what is beneficial to him. She shall love him without any sort of deception. (17)…. A chaste lady shall never mention her husband’s name. If the husband scolds or rebukes her she shall not abuse him in return. Even when beaten by him she shall remain glad and say, “I may even by killed, O lord. Be kind to me.”(19) When called by him she shall leave the work she is engaged in and approach him immediately. With palms joined in reverence and love she shall bow to him and say as follows.(20) “O lord, be pleased to say what I have been called for.” Whenever ordered by him to do any job she shall do it gladly.(21).(Siva to Parvati)15

She is almost expected to be his slave,16 serving and pleasing him every sense, and should not subject him to undue strain demanding provisions to run the family17. Thus serving her husband is the only dharma for a woman.18

 

The Chaste Wife

There is a story about Vasuki, the wife of Valluvar. One day she was drawing the water from the well. When she pulled the pot with full of water, her husband called.

Immediately she left the coir and went to attend her husband, but the water pot remained supernaturally suspended above the well. This shows that the law of nature will obey a chaste wife when she remains obedient to her husband. No doubt it was Valluvar who wrote that, ‘If a wife worships no other god but her husband; it will rain at her command’. (Kural 55)19 There are stories in which a husband happily gives his wife to sleep with a guest if he demands her.20 Since a wife is a property of her husband, she has no personal choice in this.

Such an attitude towards woman, that too as a wife is not a Hindu phenomenon. For example,

…Mirza Aziz Koka (governor of Malwa, Akbar’s foster brother) wrote a poem comparing the members of the multiethnic harem: “Every man should have four wives: a Persian, with whom he can converse; a woman from Khurusan for the housework; a Hindu woman to raise the children, and one from Transoxiana, whom he can beat as a warning to the others.” [Anne Marie. Schimmel, The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art, and Culture. London: Reaktion Books, 2004.155] ….21

But the worst scenario is one in which a women deserves more punishment when she refuse conjugal rights to her husband. Because, “The woman ‘owes’ her husband more services and because of that she is penalized more if she walks out. She works harder so she must be penalized more! He also suffers more when intimacies are withheld than she does.’22

 

Conculsion

After analysing all the ways a woman is glorified and then thrashed, it is good to end this article with one positive note that at least in theory suggests there is something demanded of a man that is equal to the virtue of a woman:

It is often said that reverence for womenfolk and the position they occupy in the society are the true tests of civilization. Hindu thinkers go a step further and tell us that modesty, purity of character and loyalty to husband are the true tests of a civilization. It is not true to say that in the Aryan patriarchal society the pride of masculinity enforced chastity on the weaker sex, but it was the religious and moral demand which was required of the chaste men and women. Thus, we find Rama and Sita have been called Brahmacaari and Brahmacaarini, meaning not celebate but chaste.23

 

Endnotes

  1. Patrick Olivelle, The Asrama system The History and Hermeneutics of a Religious Institution New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993, Fn. 32, p. 41.
  2. “The main feature of the Tantras is the higher standard to which they have raised womanhood … women, as manifestations of the great world cause, are entitled to respect and even to veneration … a woman is Sakti incarnate, and there is no doubt that she is Brahman …”{N. N. Bhattacharyya, History of the Tantric Religion: A historical, Ritualistic and Philosophical Study (New Delhi: Manohar, 1992), p. 116}….— Thomas McEvilley, Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, (2002), First Indian Edition, 2008. p. 591
  3. Society expected a very high moral rectitude from women and treated lapses of men with leniency. This is finely expressed in the Ramayana [Uttara-kanda 9.10-11]. Ancient literature did not everywhere treat women with scorn and contempt. It has already been shown how highly the wife was regarded even in the most ancient days as a man’s half. Rg.III.53.4 speaks of the wife as a haven of rest [jaayed-astam]. The Chan.Up. looks upon the sight of a woman in a dream as very auspicious and as prognosticating success in religious rites already undertaken. Manu [III.56=Anusasana 46.5], though he had said some very hard things about women, was not unmindful of the honour due to them and says in a chivalrous spirit ‘where women are honoured, there the gods love to reside; where they are not honoured, there all religious acts come to nought’….—P. V. Kane, (Ancient and Mediæval Religious and Civil Law in India). 5 vols. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1968, Vol. II. Part. I Marriage-Infanticide. p. 511
  4. Even the sun, moon and wind touch the chaste woman to sanctify themselves and not otherwise.(62) Waters desire the touch of the chaste lady thinking—“Now our sluggishness is gone. Now we are able to purify others”.(63) Wife is the root of the household, and of its happiness; she is the source of the fruit of virtue and for the flourishing of the family.(64)— Shastri.J. L., ed. (1982). The Siva Purana. Ancient Indian Tradition & Mythology. Four vols. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. Vol. 2, Parvatikhanda, 54:62-64, p.704
  5. “The wife is half the man,

the best of friends,

the root of the three ends of life,

and of all that will help him in the other world.

With a wife a man does might deeds…

With a wife a man finds courage.

A wife is the safest refuge ….

A man aflame with sorrow in his soul,

or sick with disease, finds comfort in his wife,

as a man parched with heat

finds relief in water.

Even a man in the grip of rage

will not be harsh to a woman,

remembering that on her depend

the joys of love, happiness, and virtue.

For woman is the everlasting field.

In which the Self is born.”—[Mahabharata. (Bombay ed.), i, 74, 40ff.]— A. L. Basham, The Wonder that was India, Delhi, Rupa & Co., (1954) 1990, p.183.

The following Tamil poems echoes the same thought:

  1. மனைவியின் சிறப்பியல்புகள்

அன்னை தயையு மடியாள் பணியுமலர்ப்

பொன்னி னழகும் புவிப்பொறையும்-வன்னமுறும்

வேசி துயிலும் விறன்மந் திரிமதியும்

பேசி லிவையுடையாள் பெண்.- தனிப்பாடல் திரட்டு, உரை கா. சுப்பிரமணிய பிள்ளை, சென்னை, நல்லறப் பதிப்பகம், 2007, ப. ப. 437

உரை: கணவனைப் பேணுவதில் தாய் போன்ற கருணையும், ஏவல் கேட்பதில் அடிமை போன்ற தாழ்மையும், தாமரைப் பூவிலுறையும் இலக்குமியின் வனப்பும், பூமா தேவி போன்ற பொறுமையும், நயங்கள் பொருந்திய விலைமகளிர் போல இன்பம் விளைத்துத் தூங்கு மியல்பும், தைரியமான அமைச்சர்க்குள்ள அறிவும், சிறப்பாகக் கூறுமிடத்து ஆகிய இத்தன்மைகளை யுடையவள் உத்தமமான மனைவியாவாள்.-ப. 437

…The Padma-purana [Srsti-khanda, chap.47, v.55] says that that wife is pativrata who in doing work is like a slave, like a hetaira in affording sexual pleasure, like a mother in offering food and like a counsellor in adversity.—Kane, op. cit. Vol. II. Part. I. Rights and Duties on Marriage. p.565.

  1. The wife is one half of the husband (TS 6.1.8.5), because so long as a man is without a wife he remains childless and incomplete:

A full half of one’s self is one’s wife. As long as one does not obtain a wife, therefore, for so long one is not reborn and remains incomplete. As soon as he obtains a wife, however, he is reborn and becomes complete. (SB 5.2.1.10; Cf. SB 8.7.2.3)— Olivelle, op. cit. p. 42

  1. From very ancient times, it appears the idea was that women should not be killed on any account. The Satapatha Brahmana[XI.4.3.2, Sacred Books of the East Series. vol.44, p.62] says ‘people do not kill a woman, but rather take [anything] from her [leaving her] alive…Manu XI.190 ordains that one who killed a woman was not to be associated with, even after he performed the requisite penance…[p.593] The Mahabharata frequently refers to this chivalrous rule. Adiparva 158.31 says ‘those who know dharma declare that women are not to be killed’…[p594]—Kane, op. cit. Vol. II. Part. I. Ch. XII. Women. pp. 593-94.
  2. ‘A wife can engage in vratas, fasts, observances and worship [of gods etc.] with the permission of her husband’ say Sankha-Likhita… –ibid. Vol. II. Part. I. Ch. XI. Rights and Duties on Marriage. p.565.

The dispensation of gender differentiation in the context of tiirthas, appears to be a most significant religious concession made to women during Gupta and post-Gupta times….— Vijay Nath, Puraanas and Acculturation: A Historico-Anthropological Perspective, Munshirma Manoharlal, New Delhi, 2001, 131

  1. Kane, op. cit. Vol. II. Part. I. Ch. XII. Women and sudras equated. p.595.
  2. Werner F. Menski, Hindu Law, Beyond Tradition and Modernity, Oxford, (2003), Second impression, 2005, p. 484
  3. “She should do nothing independently

even in her own house.

In childhood subject to her father,

in youth to her husband,

and when her husband is dead to her sons,

she should never enjoy independence….

She should always be cheerful,

and skilful in her domestic duties,

with her household vessels well cleansed,

and her hand tight on the purse-strings….

In season and out of season

her lord, who wed her with sacred rites,

ever gives happiness to his wife,

both here and in the other world.

Though he be uncouth and prone to pleasure,

though he have no good points at all,

the virtuous wife should ever

worship her lord as a god.”[Manu, v,147ff.]—A. L. Basham, op. cit. p.182

  1. Though there are so many points to share and discuss on this topic, yet the fact is that, ‘…Satee has no sanction, but twisting the text in [Rig. Veda} 10,18,7d-it get vedic sanction:- “Approach the resting-place of the departed”—from “a rohantu yonim agre”-“let them first approach the place”, the forgery “a rohantu yonim agneh”-“let them enter the place of fire”. – Maurice Phillips, The Teaching of the Vedas, London Mission, Madras, Longmans, Green And Co, 1895.
  2. ibid.
  3. N. Raghunathan (tr.), Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, Vighneswara Publishing House, Three Volumes Madras, 1981, Vol. I, Canto XXIV, P. 223.
  4. Shastri. Op. cit. Parvatikhanda, 54:16,17, 19-21, p.701
  5. If a women wants holy water she shall drink the same with which her husband’s feet have been washed. All holy rivers are present in that water.(25) She shall partake of the leavings of her husband’s food or whatever is given by him saying “This is the great grace.”(26)….Without being permitted by her husband she shall not observe fast and other rites. Should it be so, she will derive no benefit. She may fall into hell in other worlds.(29)….Whether he is impotent, distressed, sick or senile, happy or unhappy, the husband shall never be transgressed.(31) During the three days of her monthly course she shall neither show her face nor speak to him. She shall not speak within his hearing till she becomes pure after her bath.(32)….If a chaste lady wishes for the longevity of her husband she shall not forsake turmeric, vermilion, saffron, collyrium, a blouse, the betel, the necklace, ornaments, brushing and plaiting the hair bangles and earrings.(34-5)—ibid. Parvatikhanda, 54: 25,26,29,31,32, 34,35, p.702
  6. Even when ghee, salt, oil or other things are exhausted she shall not tell her husband openly about it lest he should be subjected to undue strain.—ibid. Parvatikhanda, 54:42, p.703
  7. The duty prescribed for women is service to their own husbands. Nothing else is an eternal Dharma for them. O good woman, if the husband directs her she can worship me.—ibid. VAAYAVIIYASAMHITAA, Volume, 4, Section II, 11:19, pp.1947-8
  8. Thirukkural, Trn. M. Rajaram, New Delhi, Rupa & Co. 2009, p.12.
  9. In this episode Sudarsana, Agni’s son, has taken a vow of unquestioning hospitality, about which he instructs his wife Oghavati: MBh {The Mahabharata. 19 vols. Ed. V.S. Sukthankar, S. K. Belvalkar, and P. L. Vaidya, et al. Poona 1933-66. [Partial trans. Van Buitenen 1973, 1975, 1978.]} XIII.2.41-45

41. It is wrong for you not to do everything possible for a guest. 42. By whatever way you might satisfy a guest,\even by the gift of yourself, you should not hesitate to do it. {etad vratam mama sada hrdi samparivartate/ grhasthaanaam ni susroni naatither vidyate param.} 43. This vow exists always in my heart, for, o well-hipped one, there is nothing higher than a guest for householders

44.O fair-thighed one, if my speech is an authority for you, o lovely one, Without confusion you should hold this statement in your heart always. 45. When I am away, just as when I am present, o lovely and faultless one, No guest is to be scorned by you, if I am your authority.—p. 153

MBh {The Mahabharata. 19 vols. Ed. V.S. Sukthankar, S. K. Belvalkar, and P. L. Vaidya, et al. Poona 1933-66. [Partial trans. Van Buitenen 1973, 1975, 1978.]} XIII.2.67-71:

Without jealousy, without anger, smiling he {Sudarsana to the Brahmana who came as a guest} said this:

“Let your sexual pleasure be my greatest enjoyment, o first of seers.\For the first law of the householder is to honor a guest who has come. 70 ‘My breath, my wife, and what other goods I posses Are to be given by me to guests’—such is my established vow….— Stephanie W. Jamison, Sacrificed Wife; Sacrificer’s Wife: Women, Ritual, and Hospitality in Ancient India. Delhi, Oxford, 1996—p. 153 & 155

[I know that the Right wing Hindu groups will give a call to withdraw such quotes or statements by me that too from religious scripture. But space is not allowing me to give the reference about this reality even came as stories in Tamil magazines. In a Tamil film by late K. Balachandar, Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu, the wife was used by her husband to get the crucial signature from some higher authorities for some permit. In the Weekly Sunday supplement to Tamil Newspaper Dinakaran (in 2014 I think), when a police woman officer was asked by her husband to do the same to stop his transfer, interestingly a prostitute arrested by the police officer advise her not to do it, as the same husband will later humiliate her, as she overhear the telephonic conversion of that officer with her husband about the demand by the higher authority to stop his transfer.

  1. Wendy Doniger, The Hindus An Alternative History, New Delhi, Penguin/Viking. 2009,p. 568
  2. The ten-volume Midrash Rabbah is a collection of interpretations of the Torah from the known saying of the great rabbis of the first to the third centuries and beyond. Volume 1 on Genesis, while interpreting Genesis 20:8-18, discusses what to do when either spouse in a marriage refuses conjugal rights to the other. The text (with its notes) reads,

If a woman revolts against her husband [Note: by refusing conjugal rights] seven denarii are deducted from her settlement [Note: at death or in case of divorce] weekly. And why seven denarii? Because of the seven labors which a woman owes to her husband: grinding corn, baking, laundering, cooking, suckling her child, preparing his bed, and working in wool: hence seven. Conversely, if a man revolts against his wife [Note: By refusing conjugal rights], her settlement is increased by three denarii per week. Why three? Because he owes her food, raiment, and martial privilege: hence three. (p.202)

The text goes on to explain why the penalty for withholding conjugal rights is higher for women than for men. A reason is found in Delilah’s deception of Samson in Judges 16:16 which is quoted as saying, “That his soul was vexed unto death, but her soul was not vexed.” The notes explain that the man suffers more than the woman from sexual privations, and so the woman’s fine is greater. The logic of this text is revealing. The woman “owes” her husband more services and because of that she is penalized more if she walks out. She works harder so she must be penalized more! He also suffers more when intimacies are withheld than she does. Of course, men wrote the text. In a patriarchal society, it is not surprising to find this kind of bias in favor of the male…..— Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural studies in ! Corinthians, Downers Grove, Illinois, IVP Academic, 2011pp. 202-03

  1. Benjamin Khan, The Concept of Dharma in Valmiki Ramayana, Delhi, Munshi Ram Manoharlal, 1965, p. 167.