Status of Women in India - Early Historical Period (Indus / Vedic / Renaissance)


The role and status of women throughout ancient and medieval period has been far from static ranging from one of authority to freedom to one of subservience. Most of the historical sources by and large refer to the elite sections of society concentrating on the court and the aristocracy and hence when they talk of women they generally refer to women of this class because women from other classes and tribal backgrounds had different norms.

Tribal Women - Less discussed in Literature

Tribal women and women from the labouring castes and classes are rarely visible as they represent those groups which did not have a literary culture and therefore did not leave behind much evidence. However, there are references to them in literature and historians also use archaeological evidence to try and reconstruct the lives of the pre-literate societies.

Indus Saraswati Civilization

It is generally accepted that one of the basis of the stratification in society is the economic surplus that is appropriated by a ruling class and in the context of the hunter gatherers we see that such a surplus is not there and there the question of private property does not assume much significance as these societies were relatively egalitarian. It is with the rise of sedentary settlements that we see the emergence of stratification as the existence of a class of non-food producers who lived on the labour of others is seen. In the Indian context a large number of Neolithic settlements are noticed. In the north-western parts of India, the rise of the Indus Valley Civilisation based on urban settlements and long distance trade was excavated a century ago. However, in the absence of any written record and the un-deciphered nature of the Indus seals we are unable to proceed any further and therefore unable to reconstruct the position of women.

position of women in India

Contrast between Elite & Artisan class Women

Most of the historical sources of the earlier period generally refer to elite groups, the king, the court and the rich merchants. We have to infer about other sections of society from indirect references. The women of aristocracy were regarded as gentle creatures, the mothers of future rulers. Marriage was frequently a disguise for a political alliance and for those of lesser standing a means of mobility for the family. The aristocratic woman led a well protected and isolated life. Reference to women from respectable homes moving about veiled goes back to early centuries A.D. and the purdah of Islam intensified the seclusion of women (Thapar, 1975, 8). The women of the artisan families and those of the peasants had a less relaxed life. Here the pressure was not so much from social mores as from the needs of economic survival, where leisure was limited and women participated in the professional works of men. Perhaps the most independent among the peasant women were those who had distinct economic roles, where they had individual access to local markets. There are ample references to such women in the Smriti literature like the Manusmriti, the Smritis of Apastamba and Gautama.

In light of Buddhist Literature

The Jataka stories also offer us many glimpses from the lives of these women drawn from royalty, aristocracy, trading, artisanal, hunting, fisher folk and labourers. What clearly emerges from reading these sources and the Sanskrit literature and dramas and inscriptions is a distinction between different classes of women, where royal women needed protection and the subaltern women were more unfettered. This distinction can be seen in the realm of religion also, with Lakshmi and Parvathi being demure while Kali and Durga being ferocious.

According to ancient and later Brahmanical law books, for a woman her dharma was stridharma, and her notion of dharma was not a self definition but a world view thrust on her with predominantly male interests. Due to their supposedly fickle nature and the inherent pollution in the female body women were seen as being subordinate to the voice of authority in the family and had to engage in frequent acts of ritual purifications. They had to visit temples with great regularity, perform sacred rites with higher faith and submit to religious fasts.

Some Notable Women in Ancient India

At the same time, we have examples of women who composed many hymns of the Rigveda. Apala, Lopamudra, Gargi, Maitreyi, Ghosha were few of the women philosophers. There were groups of women who studied throughout their lives and were known as Brahmavadinis. Women also attended political assemblies and offered sacrifices along with their husbands.