The reasons explaining the status of women in ancient Indian history and society are not easy to extract from the history of India, as the Indians traditionally were not as interested in the writing of history as they were in many other fields. Much of the information we have on this topic comes from the sacred and popular literature of ancient India: the great epics, the Code of Many, the Kama Sutra, the Vedic and Upanishadic texts, drama, poetry and songs. This discussion introduces some of the most important elements to be examined in order to determine women's status in ancient India.
Women and Religion in Ancient India
To speak of the life of any woman of ancient India is to speak of her relationship with religion; they are absolutely inseparable in a society which made no distinction between religious and secular life. There is no secular enunciation for the role of women in ancient Indian society; their roles and status are ordained by religion and ultimately determined by nearly inflexible and very durable codes of conduct. Unless she is a social outcast, it is extraordinarily rare to find a woman represented as anything other than a dutiful daughter, wife or mother in the literature of ancient Hindu India. The models for the expected and appropriate behaviour of women were set up in the Smriti literature which developed over the last two millennia before the Common Era.
The lives of all Hindus, men and women are determined by dharma - a word that has a multiplicity of meanings but for the purposes of this discussion means "right" or "duty". Dharma is a Sanskrit term (Sanskrit being the sacred language of Hinduism) and all were bound by it. To reject one's dharma was to reject one's religion, and in India to reject Hinduism was to reject society and become an outcast. Such a rebellion against religiously defined functions was, virtually, exclusion from life and exclusion from spiritual progress - religious salvation. Neither a man nor a woman in India could remain untouched by religion, as Hinduism was - and remains - a complete way of life. Except under extraordinary circumstances, it is the dharma of women according to Hindu practice to serve their fathers, husbands and sons.
The history of the status of women in Hinduism in India is notoriously hard to pin down when it comes to dates. For the purposes of this discussion, the dates are not that important, but the sequence of events is. During this sequence, the indications are that the status of women varied according to ...