Principle of Duality
The status, treatment and role of woman in any society come from the worldview of its philosophy/civilization. Shastra states that the phenomenal world is dualistic. There are two principles in the creation of universe itself. There are male and female principles underlying our entire philosophy, seen as the essence and the manifestation, root and the spreading. These two principles are inseparable and complementary. Essentially both are same, but they are two aspects of the reality. Thus if principle of existence is seen as male, then principle of creation, pervasion is the female principle (the Siva-Sakti symbolism). They are inseparable like seed and the tree, word and its meaning, energy and its potential to work. These two qualities are represented by two colors, white and black. The former symbolizes pure existence, the latter pervasiveness. In fact the entire universe is a play of the duals - consciousness and energy. And at different levels duality governs the entire creation - eternal-phenomenal, manifest-un manifest, mass-energy, life-non life, male-female.
Man and Woman
The male and female principles in the human society too, i.e., man and woman, are complementary aspects. The underlying principle is not equality; it is essential oneness and natural diversity consequent of manifestation.
Nature is two-fold: spiritually, psychologically and biologically. And the understanding of this fact underlies the design of individual, family and social functions of man and woman.
Man being the representative of the essential principle of existence, his spiritual realization/fulfillment comes through detaching from the apparent and realizing the deeper reality. Woman being the representative of manifestation, her fulfillment comes through fulfillment of natural functions.
Thus man is prescribed four ashramas, where he learns and celibates first, then stabilizes and fulfills his family and social responsibilities, and then through penance and renunciation he realizes the spiritual root. If there is any lapse in this, he should identify and correct himself - for this he has explicit expiation rites. There is no self-correcting mechanism.
A woman's roles go by her natural tendencies - her family role etc. She being nature herself, her ways are the natural. She has a self-correcting mechanism in the form of her natural cycle. And what she does, is natural/dharmic. If what she does is abnormal, it is seen consequent of an abnormality in the surroundings (say behavior of people around her or things like that) to which her abnormal action is an indicator/reaction/correction. This is the reason Smritis do not specific prescriptions or expiation rites for women. This is the status accorded to women.
Thus it is not because woman is not considered important that the smritis mention less about her. It is because she does not need a lot of prescription to get salvation. She is given very few instructions, such as regarding her husband prior to anything else. That guarantees her salvation. It is not the case with man; he needs specific conditioning of his mind, and needs to follow specific paths to salvation. And errors can detract him, so there are explicit corrective actions for him.
However, woman does all that the man does, say following ashrama Dharma or doing yajnas, in a different way.
According to Manusmriti, marriage is the Upanayana for the woman, serving her husband is like serving guru and learning at gurukula, household work is like the two yajnas done in the morning and the evening.
It is also because of the temperament that it is often said woman does not have freedom and man has. Freewill in action and consequent responsibility of the action, both are in man's natural way - not in a woman's natural way. Also, man is said to be responsible and pay for the actions of his wife. Thus if seen properly, all those things that apparently cause discomfort for a woman or are seen as her limitations, such as natural surrender, physical weakness and biological limitations, are her strengths in her spiritual path. And all the apparent strengths of a man are his weaknesses/things that bring him down in his spiritual path.
Eliminating the ego is important. This is done either through surrender to the divine or in terms of respecting and obeying elders, humility and attributing one's success to what caused the success, such as guidance from elders or disowning the credit calling the success as god given. The arrangement also ensures that many natural tendencies of mind that affect one's downward movements, such as jealousy, hatred, anger are kept in check.
Because the spiritual cause is more important than material attainment, priority is attached to practices that result in spiritual elevation. Thus the goal of human life is the same for man and woman, but the methods prescribed suit their natural tendencies.
Spiritual practices like Yoga are said to be easier for woman than for man. One reason for this is that unlike man who dwells into the philosophy of things than things in themselves, woman by nature is more oriented towards "things in themselves". It is often said that man has more aptitude in the theory of things (sastra vishaya) and woman has more aptitude in worldly knowledge and experiential things. As a result woman is by default tuned to first hand experience, whether it is spiritual or otherwise. And naturally spiritual experience too, is an easier bet for the woman.
Another reason is the natural sense of surrender, which allows her to a total surrender to the divine. Man has a bigger obstacle of ego. This does not mean a woman does not have any ego - but it is easier for her in the wake of the fact that she is more oriented towards surrender than man. And since ego is one of the biggest obstacles in spiritual realization, the path and the goal are comparatively easier for woman than man.
Functions of a woman
The functions specified for a woman, follow from the above philosophy. The following are prescribed for a woman, through which she is deriving the fruit of having done every noble action, and ultimately salvation.
- Single point devotion to husband
- Efficiency and capability in managing the house and finance. In the house, she is in the center stage.
A woman can get salvation even if she does not have children, if she leads her life in a proper way.
However, the biggest role of a woman is that of a mother. In every relation that she has wife, mother, sister, daughter., at some stage she naturally assumes the role of a mother.
Woman is called jaaya, because her husband is taking birth in her womb in the form of offspring.
Certain qualities/habits are discouraged for a woman. These include
- Of cruel nature.
- Going against her husband's interests. Because he is her primary relation always.
- Hurting or being rude to servants. Because she is the one managing and instructing them all.
- Being spendthrift. Because she is the one controlling the entire finance of house.
It can be noted that these directly go against what is prescribed for her.
Woman and her husband
Husband is the primary and most intimate relative of a woman. In theory and for all practical purposes they are one after marriage. Any person dealing with either of them is as good as dealing with "the one".
Woman is divine helpmate of the man, in all his rituals. It should be understood that every activity in life is a Yajna in the Vedic sense, and thus man and woman partner each other in all that they do. It actually suffices if it is said that one is the other's partner, since partnership is always mutual. A man is not permitted to do a homa alone. The wife gives the fire with which a homa should start. Any ritual at the household level and higher, should be done by the couple together. In all the yajnas other than individual japa/devatarcana, wife and husband both have complementary roles. The wife should offer bali to the bhutas (primordial elements) in the evening, and man in the morning, this way Vaisvadeva should be done by the couple everyday. In case one is absent, the daily rituals should be done by the one who is home, and special rituals cannot be done.
Keeping his wife happy is the primary responsibility of a man. The house where husband and wife keep each other happy will prosper. And a devoted woman will acquire all the good qualities of her husband.
Single pointed devotion is mandatory between man and woman. And unless there is a good reason they are supposed to be together, and there is expiation if they separate even for a small duration, when the reason is not good enough.
There is no separation between wife and husband, and it is not allowed to treat them as separate. All the property they own belongs to the couple, and there is no distribution between husband and wife. The wife and husband, have the right to spend/lend/give the wealth, but only with each other's consent. In the absence of either, the other has entire responsibility and right over the wealth.
Remarriage is not recommended for a woman, while it is for a man. This should be understood in the light of two points:
- This rule applies more in a patriarchy. In case of matriarchy, kshetra is primary and beeja is secondary (man is called the beeja and woman, kshetra). However Manusmriti holds that both are equally important.
- Grhastha ashrama one of four stages of one's life, and remarriage is specifically for begetting children. In case of a woman widowed without children, she is permitted to beget children, though without marrying again.
A woman is not indebted to anyone except her husband. Her husband and son are indebted to her. Her father is responsible to raise her well and get her married. Her husband is responsible to keep her happy then on. Her son is responsible after his father's vanaprastha.
Treatment of Woman
A woman's safety and happiness are given high importance. Women are the source of happiness, in the sense that a happy woman keeps her surroundings always happy and prosperous. Manusmriti insists on this in many ways.
- where women are respected devatas will be happy. Where women are not respected, no the ritual or worship will be of any use.
- If women are unhappy, the clan of those who cause it will be destroyed. If women are happy, the house and clan will prosper.
- If a woman is insulted, the entire clan (of those causing the insult to her) will be destroyed.
- Those who want to be happy, should keep women happy, respect her and treat her well.
- If woman is happy, the entire clan will be happy. If she is not, the entire clan will suffer.
Woman is not recommended to live alone; she should live with her parents in childhood, with her husband after marriage and with her children in case she is widowed. And she is to be treated well, by her father, husband children and protected in all situations. Ideally, she should never need to do many things like supporting the family. However if she happens to live alone because not proper arrangements are not made for her (by husband etc.) she should make her earning/living through some specified ways that keep her safe.
However it is worth noting that a man is alone in three ashramas - brahmacarya, sanyasa and vanaprastha (this is optional though). Grhastha and in some cases vanaprastha are the only ashramas where wife and husband are together. Before and after that they are not. Still, woman is not left alone while man is. This is because woman is the primary sustainer of society. The fulfillment and detachment/renunciation approaches that are mentioned earlier, explain this. Most of the times man does his duty detached. As a reason, he is not a sustaining element of society in all phases of his life. He is not the one who keeps people intact. It is the woman who keeps people intact, in the form of a family. This is the reason it is said that there is no beauty in a house that does not have a woman. For this reason, woman is to be given importance. But for the same reason she should not be alone - in fact she will not be alone by her nature. And for the same reason her freedom is also constrained. And if it should said that woman is not given freedom, it is because she is precious rather than anything else. You tend to protect what is precious to you, though it means discomfort to who you are protecting.
However, it should be noted that this does not mean dependency or lack of freedom in the sense it is normally understood. Dependency, if it should be called, is two-way, as man depends on woman and vice versa. In a more positive sense this is the complementariness - mutual reinforcement through diversity of functions. What is sometimes ignored in understanding of this arrangement is the element of trust, that each one satisfies his/her responsibility and the other has to take care of his/hers. It becomes a dependency, when the sense of mutual reinforcement goes and one becomes atomic.
The Hindu system that does not aim at atomizing individuals puts diverse responsibilities on each individual, and the entire system functions well if each individual performs his/her functions. These functions will be defined according to the natural tendencies of persons in each position. However, there will always be exceptions - but a society will not be designed for exceptions. And saying that design should not be there because of exceptions, is defeating the entire purpose of society. However, exceptions should have a way out of the system. They always have.
Smriti is a guideline, which only recommends. And having said what is not to be done, smriti also treats that people exist in the society who do not go by the practices, and includes them. In fact society has all kinds of practices - what is best is recommended by smriti, and ideal cases are always small in number. Therefore smriti covers all cases while highlighting what is best. This is the spirit in which smriti should be read. Thus, for instance, having said what kind of marriage is ideal (between same Varna), it covers all combinations of varnas. Having said woman should not be left to live alone, it says what she should do if she is alone. Having said one should not have extramarital relation, it says what should be legally done in cases of such relation and offspring of such relations (such as property, inheritance). In fact this is the purpose of smriti, showing what is good and in what way.
While the professions ordained by the Varna dharma do not apply to woman because her functions are otherwise, knowledge in any form is not denied. Of late with social changes women are kept outside the fold of Vedic study, but study of Veda was not denied for women. Rishikas like Apala are among Vedic seers, not just scholars. But then it was not a prescribed profession for women - it is optional. Knowledge of sastras on the other hand has always been available to women. However, this was not done by gurukula system. A woman is supposed to do the learning from her father/elders at home, or any other learned person visiting her place. She can also author/ engage in technical debates. But all this is more optional than to be done as a necessity, unlike for man whether there is a minimal prescribed study based on Varna.
- Manusmriti 2.67
- Manusmriti 2.118-139
- Manusmriti 5.147-168
- Manusmriti 9.80-83
- Apastamba Dharma Sutras 2.15.18
- Manusmriti 3.121
- Manusmriti 3.45
- Manusmriti 3.60
- Manusmriti 9.1-103
- Manusmriti 4.134, 5.151
- Apastamba Dharma Sutras 1.28.19, 20
- Apastamba Dharma Sutras 2.14.16-20
- Apastamba Dharma Sutras 2.29.3
- Apastamba Dharma Sutras 2.28.9
- Manusmriti 3.56
- Manusmriti 3.57
- Manusmriti 3.58
- Manusmriti 3.59
- Manusmriti 3.62
- Manusmriti 5.147-168, 9.1-103