There are numerous hymns in the Vedas that deal with the social customs than prevalent and from them one can form a broad idea as to how girls and women were looked upon, treated, and the status were accorded upon them by society.
We begin with the field of education. Several hymns in the Vedic canon are composed by female saints, amongst whom are Maitrayi, Gargi, Ghosa and Vak. Evidently, they were highly learned as otherwise it would have been impossible for them to compose complex Vedic stanzas. And needless to say they must have held much respect for their work to be included in the major sacred literature of the time. Several verses throughout the Vedas make it clear that girls with learning were regarded highly.
An unmarried learned daughter should be married to a bridegroom who like her is learned. Never think of giving in marriage a daughter of very young age. (Rig Veda III 55:16)
One finds a similar stanza in the Yajur-Veda which says:
A young daughter who has observed Brahmacharya (i.e. finished her studies) should be married to a bridegroom who like her is learned. (Yajur-Veda VIII. 1)
We find a similar emphasis on female education in the Atharva Veda also. It can therefore be concluded that young girls during Vedic times were given education after undergoing an initiation ceremony just like the boys.
Having thus seen that it was customary during those ancient times for a young maiden to receive education, let us now review the institution of marriage then in vogue. The first marriage that comes to mind is regarding chid marriages. Scholars agree that in the Rig-Vedic period, it was unheard of that a girl should be married before the age of 16. The fact that a young marriage was not recommended can be seen from the Rig-Vedic verse quoted above. (Rig Veda III 55:16). Many marriages like today involved the intercession of the families of those involved, but a maiden was consulted and her wishes taken into account when the matrimonial alliance was agreed upon by the families concerned. Vedic society went out of its way to enable young men and women to intermingle. Carnivals called “Samsanas” used to be organised from time to time when young people of both sexes would assemble and engage in merry making. Young women often married a man whom they met in these gatherings. Given below is a description of a “samana” from the Rig-Veda.
Wives and maidens attire themselves in gay robes and set forth to the joyous feast; youths and maidens hasten to the meadow when forest and field are clothed in fresh verdure to take part in dance. Cymbals sound and seizing each other lads and damsels whirl about until the ground vibrates and clouds of dust envelop the gaily moving throng.
This implies that in Vedic times there was considerable freedom in choosing one’s matrimonial partner. There is no reference in the entire Rig-Veda to child marriage. On the other hand, one finds many allusions to older ladies desirous of finding husbands; such ladies went to the “Samanas” referred to previously in quest of matrimony. One finds some instances of the marriage of women well past the child-bearing age, for instance Ghosa, a well-well known female sage, married only at a late age to the renowned seer Kakasivan.
We now turn to the institution of marriage itself as it existed during Vedic times. It is believed by many, especially in the West, that the concept of genuine love and partnership between husband and wife is alien to Hindu life, attributed to the so-called “arranged marriage system”, that was prevalent in India over the last few centuries, and that women were always routinely maltreated in the homes. From the description of the Vedas, this is not the case. The bride was to assume a position of reverence and even dominance in the household, there was certainly no question of sanctioning oppression either by her husband or in-laws. This would become clear from the following verses:
“Come, O desired of the gods, beautiful one with tender heart, with the charming look, good towards your husband, kind towards animals, destined to bring forth heroes. May you bring happiness for both our quadrupeds and bipeds.” (Rig Veda X.85.44)
“Over thy husband’s father and thy husbands mother bear full sway. Over the sister of thy lord, over his brothers rule supreme.” (Rig VedaX.85.46)
Happy be thou and prosper with thy children here; be vigilant to rule thy household, in this home. (Rig-Veda X.85.27)
To sum up therefore, one can say that the bride in the Vedic ideal of a household was far from unimportant and contemptible. Even a blind maiden was not considered a taboo, and was treated with sympathy.
Before we close our discussion on the prevailing marriage system in Vedic society, a word or two about the custom of dowry would be in order. It was appeared that the bride was given large amounts of wealth, which they carried with them to their new home, but that the woman had an unfettered right to do with it as she pleased. Yet the idea that women who are wealthy (and hence would bring increased wealth into the family) are more attractive to suitors is present:
How much a maiden is pleasing to the suitor who would marry for her splendid riches. (Rig-Veda X 27.12)
The woman whose husband had met an untimely death was told to come back to the world of the living and remarriage was a possibility if she so willed. One verse describes this:
Rise up woman thou art lying by one whose life is gone, come to the world of the living, away from thy husband, and become the wife of him who holds thy hand and is willing to marry thee. Rig Veda (X, 18.8)
As a wife a woman was given affection and respect in Vedic times. As a mother she became a figure of profound reverence. “Treat your mother as a Deva” is a common dictum in Hinduism. Indeed God is described as “mother” in many verses, which is different to the exclusive male references to God in most religious systems. The Divine cannot be limited to simply masculine. As an expression of universal spirituality that reflects an intimate and experiential connection with the Divine, the Vedas recognises that the Divine contains both masculine and feminine attributes. Without giving proper honour to the feminine qualities, a religion must be incomplete and one-sided. If the feminine qualities of the divine were recognised some of the evils which have occurred in the name of God would not have happened. The world must once again honour the feminine aspects of the Divine to restore wholeness, completeness and universality. The Vedas have a part to play in the restoration of spiritual completeness in the human outlook and worship.
The purpose of this article is not to excuse the degraded status that Hindus have sometimes afforded to women, particularly in the medieval period, including references to women as irresponsible creatures needing of constant protection and supervision from males, which appeared in several later Hindu law treatises. Customs like the self-immolation of women on the pyres of their husbands (which was always rare, and usually happened in a certain context only) and the most grotesque phenomenon of sex-selective abortion (a more serious and prevalent problem in North India are features of our society which every responsible Hindu should attempt to fight. The purpose is rather to counter the very negative propaganda amassed against Hinduism, that it is intrinsically oppressive against women, which is used to attempt to turn people against Hinduism itself. Indeed there is plenty of evidence against this view, including in the oldest living record of Hinduism and Hindu life, the Vedas. It is also reflected by the fact that Hindu history, art and literature have not portrayed women only in a docile and submissive role. Women have been eulogised as being rulers, brave, mighty, capable of supreme sacrifices, and super-human righteous wrath which can destroy the world. These virtues were also considered aspects of the feminine character. Is their any more direct evidence for this than the awe-inspiring image of the great goddess Durga?
Indeed those who have bothered to research the history of ancient Hindu society have supported the idea of a dignified and reverenced position of women in ancient Vedic society. The following are some comments in this regard:
“Women were held in higher respect in India than in other ancient countries, and the Epics and old literature of India assign a higher position to them than the epics and literature of ancient Greece. Hindu women enjoyed some rights of property from the Vedic Age, took a share in social and religious rites, and were sometimes distinguished by their learning. The absolute seclusion of women in India was unknown in ancient times.” R. C. Dutt – The Civilisation of India
“Women enjoyed far greater freedom in the Vedic period than in later India. She had more to say in the choice of her mate than the forms of marriage might suggest. She appeared freely at feasts and dances, and joined with men in religious sacrifice. She could study, and like Gargi, engage in philosophical disputation. If she was left a widow there were no restrictions upon her remarriage.” Will Durant – Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage
“And it may be confidently asserted that in no nation of antiquity were women held in so much esteem as amongst the Hindus.” Professor H. H. Wilson
“It may be noted too that in law and theory at least women in ancient India, contrary to the sentiments of other ancient peoples, were not denied civic rights, although in practice this equality was rendered all but nugatory for all but a few by their social subordination to the male and their domestic preoccupation; instances have yet survived in the existing records of women figuring not only as queens and administrators and even in the battlefield, a common enough incidence in Indian history, but as elected representatives on civic bodies.” Sri Aurobindo – Foundations of Indian Culture