Status of women in the past

(digest@indnet.org) The India Net Digest
Thu, 11 Sep 1997 14:47:54 -0400 (EDT)

Part 1

This is to express my appreciation for the postings by Indrani and VP Nandakumar regarding Mr. Rajiv Verma’s quotations about Koran’s mention of women. The postings by Minu Garg and Devparna Roy on this topic are very illuminating in that they offer the women’s viewpoint. Please understand that I am not trying to patronize anyone. I do not have that right. Religious texts are very much subject to interpretation. Hence stray out of context English translations, as quoted by Mr. Verma, are often misleading.

I believe that any religious text in any religion should be properly interpreted in context of time. Personally, I choose to be guided by ethical and moral principles instead of religious dogma and do not try to justify anything that has been mentioned in religious texts by bringing in far fetched interpretation. I recognize that the label “far fetched” is quite subjective. I personally believe that women were treated as second class citizens and as property of men in the past, as recently as the 19th century and perhaps even later.

This is independent of any religion. Hinduism at least recognizes the Supreme Being as manifested through both the Father and the Mother images, while most of the other religions do not. In that sense I do regard Hinduism as ahead of other religions in treatment of women, although there are many instances of women being mentioned in a derogatory manner. Confinement of women inside homes was not prevalent during the Hindu India times, say until about 1000 A.D. or so. Rabindra Nath indeed wrote in his novel Ghare Baire that the restriction on women movement (“abarodh pratha”) among the Hindus started only during the Muslim rule in India and continued since then. If my impression is wrong, I stand ready to be corrected based on solid references.

Upper caste Hindus could have many wives and indeed many of them had. In his efforts to abolish polygamy during the 1860s and later Vidyasagar published a long list (many pages) of names of Hindus by districts in Bengal who had many wives and also included the number of the wives for each of them. Numbers like 80 and above were common. When Madhu Sudan Datta (1824 – 1873) converted to Christianity at the age of 18 and became Michael Madhu Sudan Datta, his father Raj Narayan Datta, a lawyer and an aristocrat, married three more times with his first wife still alive in retaliation (against whom?) and in hope that he would get another son by one of them.

His first wife Jahnabi Datta (Madhu Sudan’s mother) cursed him that if she had indeed led a chaste life, Raj Narayan would never get any more offspring by the other wives. Call it chance coincidence, or ascribe it to any medical reasons, he never got any more children. Hindu social customs text like Manu Sanhita clearly states “Women do not deserve independence”. An inhuman ritual like widow burning (Satidaho) was approved by Hindu religious texts with the reasoning that husbands and wives are but one soul and should remain so in life and after death.

Even Rabindra Nath and Vivekananda at times tried to glorify the ritual of Satidaho in that light. What I fail to understand is: if a husband and his wife (wives?) should remain united even after death, then why was never a husband burnt alive when his wife died?

Part 2

I strongly believe that there are contradictions in religious texts. That’s why Ram Mohon used Hindu scriptures to abolish Satidaho and his opponents also used the same scriptures to justify Satidaho. It was all a matter of interpretation! Vidyasagar cited verses from Chapter 4 of Parashara Sanhita to support widow marriage.

Three verses immediately preceding the one cited by Vidyasagar supported Satidaho and advised against widow marriage. Vidyasagar offered a sound logical reasoning to argue why the earlier verses were not applicable anymore in the 1850s and why, therefore, widows should be allowed to remarry. I am a mathematician turned computer scientist by profession.

I am really amazed to read Vidyasagar’s reasoning, which very much resembles the logical reasoning process used in a formal mathematical proof. Vidyasagar disliked mathematics to his heart. Religion is a very personal issue. Consequently, discussions about religion often degenerates into mud slinging, as we have seen many times in the IDD. My posting here is not an attempt to revive that latter process. I respect all religions and believe that they all preach the same ethical and moral principles.

In this respect I love the example by Sri Ramkrisna – the Supreme Being is like a body of water that can be reached via a variety of paths/stairways leading to the water; each religion represents but one such path and all of them reach the same body of water. I regard all of us as knowledgeable and open minded persons. What I have written here is my very personal opinion. I respect all other viewpoints so long as they indicate an honest difference of opinion and are based on reasoning instead of emotion or hearsay and folklore. Thanks for your understanding.