The “Modern” Women of Ancient India

‘Thank God I was born in the 20th century! What a horrible life women in the past had; discriminated against, given an inferior position in society, uneducated, cloistered at home, forced to marry young and bear children, unable to think of anything beyond the four walls of the home!’
This sentiment will be a familiar one to many of us reading this article; is it in fact justified? How about exploring the lives of women from our ancient past in India to see if our received opinions are based on facts?
Let us go back a few thousand years, to the Vedic age and explore the life of a baby girl born, say, in 800 BCE. What could she expect from her life? What choices did she have? How did society treat her? Was she at par with her brother, born maybe a year or two before her?
To start with, on her birth, the “sanskaras” or the rites and rituals around the birth of a baby,would be exactly the same as those around her brother’s. This would start right from the moment after her birth when her father would be the first one to hold her and whisper her secret name, known only to her parents and guru, into her ears.
As she grew up, the jatidharma, the namakarana, the upanayanasanskaraswould follow for her as for her brother.
Between the ages of five and eight she would undergothe upanayana ceremony and would be sent to a gurukulto study as would her brother. Boys only, girls only and co-educational gurukuls existed to impart education. Formal education lasted up to 12 years.
Both our baby girl and her brother would finish their education; after this they could elect to return and join grihasta ashram or continue their studies to specialize in one or many branches of Vedic study. The girls who elected to study further were called brahmavadinis.
Society, however, did call on women to become wives and mothers and most of them did elect this path in the normal course of their lives. They were enjoined to select a man equal to them in learning and disposition and marry to set up a household or a grihasti as equal partners. The husband and the wife were called upon to take care of each other and of their children in order to foster a healthy and happy society.
Ritually speaking women had the right to perform Vedic sacrifices and maintain the household fire. Many of them were called mantravids or those who are learned in chanting mantras and conducting sacrifices.
Within the household they not only imparted teaching to their young children but were also trained in Ayurved to be able to take care of the health of their families. They had the right to own property, divorce and remarry under certain circumstances. They were nobody’s chattels.
They also contributed to economic activity in the areas of agriculture, animal husbandry, weaving and weapon making. They were warriors, spies and political players.
Astonished? Think I am making this all up?
So was I astonished when I encountered these details during my research for my book “URNABHIH”. The book is set in ancient India with a female spy of Chanakya as the protagonist during the Mauryan period and I have been researching ancient India for the best part of a decade now. The more I read the more astonishing were the details that emerged. We need to review and revise our views on women in ancient India and perhaps draw a lesson or two from them.
For those of you who would like to explore this topic further I recommend a seminal book by A.S. Altekar called ‘Education in Ancient India’. For detailed information I would also recommend a course of reading the Vedas and Upanishads especially the Yajurveda; the Arthashastra, the Kamasutra the Valmiki Ramayan, the Manusmriti, even; and a selection of Sanskrit and Prakrit prose and plays that reflect the life of women during the Vedic period.
Read them and see whether you change your mind and would have liked to be born as a “modern” woman of Vedic India!

Author at KumaonLitfest

Interested in more from me on this subject? Check out the following from the author


  • Written bySumedhaVermaOjha

    Born in Patna, ancient Pataliputra and has gone back to her roots to write books set in ancient India, during the Mauryan period. Educated in Delhi University and a civil servant for 20 years she now lives in Geneva, Switzerland and writes historical fiction, mythology and popular history. Her first book Urnabhih set during the time of Chandragupta and Chanakya with a woman spy as the heroine released last year. She is working on the sequel as well as a Valmiki Ramayan in English and a book on women in ancient India.


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