Although women may be classified according to varna, they are also considered a section of society in their own right. They do not pass through the four stages available to men. Rather the Manu Smriti talks of three stages for a woman:
- As a child protected by her father: Traditionally, girls did not receive a formal academic education. A woman’s role, considered essential in preserving social and cultural values, was learned in the home.
- As a married lady, protected by her husband: Hinduism places great value on pre-marital chastity and this has significantly influenced practices. Girls were betrothed and married at a very young age. In married life, the wife’s roles were centred on the home and she was not burdened with contributing towards the family income. Fulfilling one’s responsibility as a loving and available parent was considered paramount.
- As a widow, protected by the eldest son: If the husband died or took sannyasa, then the widow would be looked after by the eldest living son. Elder ladies were always treated with great respect.
According to tradition, women, more delicate than men, require and deserve protection. Hindu texts extol the virtues of womanhood and of the essential role women have in nurturing future generations. Though Hindus are themselves re-examining and restructuring the roles of women, there still remain powerful ideals, exemplified by ladies such as Sita, Gandhari, Draupadi, Mandodari, and Savitri. Such idealism is often at odds with many prevalent attitudes in the West, and those now emerging in contemporary India.
Traditional female values and duties are listed below (please note that many similar practices such as the first one below also apply to males):
- As a child, to be obedient and respectful to her parents and elders.
- In household life, to serve a worthy husband and treat his friends and relatives with affection. To avoid mixing intimately with other men.
- To be fully conversant in religious principles.
- To be expert in household affairs, and to keep the home clean and well-decorated.
- To dress and decorate herself to please her husband. A wife should avoid dressing up if her husband is away from home.
- To control her greed and passions and to speak truthfully and pleasingly.
- To follow certain vratas (vows) such as fasting on days like Ekadasi (the 11th day of the moon).
- To love, protect and nurture children.
- In later life, to dedicate time to spiritual practices and to give counsel to younger family members.
Many related practices have been misused, and fossilised as part of the hereditary caste system. The bhakti traditions, which opposed casteism, have featured many women saints who broke away from stereotypical roles. Others remained faithful to their dharma and simultaneously developed their spirituality. Many Hindus acknowledge the need to reassess the practical role of women in society today, but strive to maintain the spiritual principles underpinning traditional practice.
The basic foundation of equality lies in the notion of atman, the self beyond bodily designation. However, Hindus also acknowledge the need to recognise psychological and physiological differences as a practical reality. Equality is manifest through the concept of sanatana-dharma and conditional differences through varnasrama-dharma. Failing to recognise the spiritual equality of all and denying our external differences are both considered signs of ignorance and contrary to dharma. Spiritual equality is affirmed by discerning material differences, and recognising them for what they are — ultimately superficial but practically relevant.
Related Values and Issues
- Women’s issues
- Gender roles
- Equal opportunities
The Story of Draupadi (STO-204; see also The Mahabharata)
An example of a powerfully assertive woman.
A wife’s devotion saves her husband from death.
Chastity, faithfulness, and other traditional Hindu values mean that a woman will inevitably be exploited
The scriptures feature stories of women who accepted the female dharma but remained influential and assertive. The above misconception may be based on the notion that social justice is achieved only through one means – complete equality. Hinduism holds that masculinity and femininity are intrinsic and complementary qualities, not merely products of social influence. The value of womanhood is expressed in many features of Hinduism, such as the respect it gives to motherhood, the many goddesses, and the practice of calling India “the Motherland.” Some Hindu scholars consider much feminism to be, ironically, an asymmetric endorsement of male values.
The Hindu notion of specific roles for men and women is sexist
Dr. Werner Menski, a senior lecturer at the University of London, has written (1996) “It’s too superficial to dismiss the Hindu approach to women merely as sexist.” Hindu texts do not support the exploitation of any section of society, but they often differ with many currently popular solutions to such abuse.
“It is not that a chaste woman should be a slave while her husband is naradhama, the lowest of men. Although the duties of a woman are different from those of a man, a chaste woman is not meant to serve a fallen [irresponsible] husband.”
A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami