Dharma and Women’s Rights

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Ancient Bharatiya intellectual seers with due regard to the special attributes of womanhood, considered that women require special protection all through their life for it is indisputable that women are the most vulnerable to attack by men with evil propensities. It is a matter of common knowledge that offences against women by men have been a problem throughout human history and consequently, it is the woman who suffers irreparable physical, mental and socio-economic damage.  In particular, sexual assault is the most heinous crime which ruins the whole life of a woman.

Hence, ancient Bharatiya intellectuals considered that the right to protection is important especially of women who were seen in Vedic times as ‘sustainers of our society’.

Right to Protection

Undoubtedly, the right to equality and all other human rights are applicable to men and women, equally.  However, protection for women being recognized by ancient seers as matter of great importance, they proclaimed that the best method to enforce Right to Protection of women is by ingraining the ideal of ‘Respect for womanhood’ in every individual and in particular in men through adhyatmik education right from inception and at all levels of education. Thus, right to protection of women was a cherished value of life from time immemorial in Bharatavarsha. The much maligned Manu in modern, secular India has this to say about women’s rights in Vedic Bharat

यत्र नार्यास्तु पूज्यन्ते, रमन्ते तत्र देवताः ।

यत्रैतास्तु न पूज्यन्ते सर्वास्तत्राफलाः क्रियाः ।। (Manusmriti 3.56)

Where the woman is worshiped, there the celestial gods take delight while where they are not respected all activities are unfruitful.  

प्रजनार्थं महाभागाः पूजार्हा गृहदीप्तयः ।  

स्त्रियः श्रियश्च गेहेषु न विशेषोऽस्ति कश्चन ।। (Manusmriti 9.26)

A woman is respected for her ability to procreate, and are the shining lamps of the house. They are the very treasure of the family.

Other ancient texts also extoll the necessity of women's rights

पूज्यनीया महाभागाः पुण्यश्च गृहदीप्तयः ।

स्त्रियः श्रियः गृहस्योक्तास्तस्माद् रक्ष्या विशेषतः ।। (Viduraneeti 6.11)

Women are respectable, fortunate, pure, as a shining light of the house, and bring dignity to family. Hence they need to be protected specially.

मातृवत्परदारेषु यः परद्रव्येषु लोष्टवत् ।

आत्मवत्सर्वभूतेषु यः पश्यति स पण्डितः ।। (Hitopadesa 14)

A person who regards, every woman other than his wife as equal to his own mother, who regards wealth which belongs to another as equal to a clod of earth and who regards every other individual, as his own self, is an educated man in the real sense of the term.

पुत्राधिकाश्च दौहित्रा भागिनेयाश्च भ्रातरः ।

कन्याधिकाः पालनीया भ्रातृभार्य्यास्नुषास्वसा ।। (Shukraneeti 3.166)

Daughter’s sons, sister’s sons and brothers are to be treated more importantly than own sons. Brother’s wives, daughter-in-laws of the house and sisters are to be given more importance than own daughter in a family. This shloka emphasizes the importance of different roles of  woman in a family and the lofty position she is to be given.

These civilizational values of Bharat that have been distorted and misinterpreted by self-styled Indologists of the East India Company are the most valuable contribution to humanity.  Apart from creating the value of respect for womanhood there have been special provisions for protecting several human rights of women.  Rules of Dharma created an obligation on the part of the male members of a family to afford protection to every woman at every age and stage of life (Manusmriti 9.3).  Further under Rajadharma it was the duty of the State to provide protection to women.  

पिता रक्षति कौमरे भर्ता रक्षति यौवने ।

रक्षन्ति स्थविरे पुत्रा न स्त्री स्वातन्त्रयमर्हति ।। (Manusmriti 9.3)

Father protects the girl during her childhood, the husband protects her after marriage and her sons protect her in old age.  At no stage a woman should be left free. (without protection)

Indology Myths to ‘Break India’

The East India Company Indologists who strived for Bharat’s economic destruction, the destruction of its social fabric have used Manu’s verse on protection of women at every stage of her life to say that Vedas stifle women’s freedom as they order women to remain enslaved to men throughout their lives. The verses of Manusmriti that endorse the significance of women’s pivotal role in societal well-being, honoring women and the responsibility of society to ensure their well-being (Ch. 3 Verses 56, 57, 58, 62 and 114) have been totally ignored.  An intelligent and honest reader of the verse understands very clear its import, i.e. to declare the responsibility of men (the father, husband and sons) to maintain and protect the daughter, wife and mother respectively. clearly, as stated by Western historians and their Bharat's disciples, it is not a directive to subjugate or dominate women, which interestingly was and continues to be the way of the Anglo-Saxons & Arab colonizers.  To interpret the verse to the effect that it is a directive to treat a woman as a slave and that she should be deprived of freedom throughout her life is not only erroneous but should be put down as cultural genocide.

Purport of the Verse

Kerry Brown, in her book The Essential Teachings of Hinduism (Arrow Books, London, 1990) ascertains the real meaning of the controversial verse in Manusmriti thus:

In Hinduism, a woman is looked after not because she is inferior or incapable but, on the contrary, because she is treasured.  She is the pride and power of the society. Just as the crown jewels should not be left unguarded, neither should a woman be left unprotected.  No extra burden of earning a living should be placed on women who already bear huge responsibilities in society; childbirth, child-care, domestic well-being and adhyatmik growth. She is the transmitter of culture to her children.

Laws to Ensure Right to Protection of Women

It is indisputable that by nature womanhood is tender and requires protection.  Many activities of the day-to-day life put a woman or girl into situations where her security is threatened.  

Supreme Court of India in the case of Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan, 1997 (6) SCC241, issued a directive to the Government and the employers to protect working women from sexual harassment in the workplace.  

International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has laid down the general recommendations in Article 11, in the context of Violence and equality in employment.

In view of the modern civilization where many women work outside the home, laws which define the obligation of the employer to provide protection to working women against harassment have to be clearly laid in place.  If such obligation were to be added to the aforesaid verse of Manusmriti, it would read as follows:

पिता रक्षति कौमरे भर्ता रक्षति यौवने ।

रक्षन्ति स्थविरे पुत्रा कार्यक्षेत्रे च स्वामिनः ।।

It is the obligation of:

The father to protect the girl till marriage; the husband to protect his wife after marriage;

the son to protect his mother during old age; the employer to protect women at work place

This is the real spirit of the verse and it is not a directive to treat women as slaves.

Special Provisions of Ancient Laws:

  1. Women’s Property:  The provision of ancient Bharat's law regarding perfecting title to an immovable property by adverse possession was made inapplicable in respect of property belonging to women, state and temple. न भोगं कल्पयेत्स्त्रीषु देवराजधनेषु च ।The spirit of or object behind modern laws  ensuring women’s rights have been enshrined in our Vedas as is seen in the verse of Manusmriti- women require protection against the onslaughts of males with evil propensities.
  2. Death sentence for rape of women in custody : संरुध्दस्य वा तत्रैव घातः । तदेवाध्यक्षेण गृहीतायामार्यायां विद्यात् ।। Capital sentence should be imposed for offence of rape committed against a woman arrested by an officer of the State.  (Kautilya Arthasastra, p. 256)
  3. बलाच्चेत्पहृता कन्या मन्त्रैर्यदि न संस्कृता । अन्यस्मै विधिवद्देया यथा कन्या तथैव सा ।। If a damsel has been abducted and not given in marriage in accordance with lase, she may lawfully be given to another man. She is as chaste as a maiden. (Vasishta, p. 72-73, Dharmakosha, p. 1021) This specific provision she  is as chaste as a maiden is most humane for women who are the unfortunate victims of sexual assault, thus restoring their social status in the society.

Why and how did March 8th come to be celebrated as International Women’s Day?

Women’s day is celebrated with much gusto on March 8th every year in different parts of the world. The trend has caught on in India too since the last decade or two. It was on this date March 8th 1885, that Susan Anthony of USA, addressed the House of Representatives in USA for equal rights for women, to vote in the US elections. Until then, the women in USA did not have the right to vote in elections. This day, thus represents a fight for equality from a position of inequality. While this is a red letter day for the march of women in USA, there have been many brave women in other parts of the world too who have fought the prevailing social conditions to bring about equality for women.

Such a secondary position for women in society comes from the fundamental thought and premise that, behind every successful man there is a woman. This phrase by its implication means that the woman is always behind a man, supporting him, pushing him forward and allowing him to set the pace.

Ardhangini

In contrast to this phrase, which denotes a secondary role for women, the Bharat's thought, expressed the relationship between man and woman through the word Ardhangini. Ardha means half or equal and angini comes from anga meaning part (of body). Thus women were considered literally as one who has an equal part or role in an effort and life of grihastha.

Sama vs Saha

This equality was not limited by the word equal but went beyond that into the realms of bringing out the best of the innate capability of each gender. In a couple, the woman is even today known as Sahadharmacharini, meaning one who is not just equal but complementary in carrying out their role of Dharma. There is a subtle essence conveyed in the usage of the words here. The word used for equal is Sama, whereas in the relationship between husband and wife it has been referred to as Saha, implying together, complement. This is because, the ancients, both the women and the men realised that by nature and by biological capacity, each gender has an innate strength and hence role to play in the sustenance of Nature and mankind, called Dharma. In this role play, one gender is not superior or inferior to another, causing the other gender to fight or claim for equality. Each gender is complementary to the other, based on their natural capability, capacity and role.

The Bharat's thought went one step further and also depicted the divine couple Shiva and Parvati, in a human form of a man and woman complementing each other in the form of Ardhanari, ie. half woman. This would reemphasize and reiterate to common man on a daily basis the essence of the role of the man and woman as they hold the society together. This knowledge of this land through the ages, kept reinforcing the focus on saha, to be complementary and not just sama, equal.

The Fertility Chain

The description of feminity tends to focus on the sexuality of women today. Womanhood, the qualities of women, the capabilities of women, the role of a women is a lot more that sexuality. Women are regarded as the epitome of fertility. This is not just for the purpose of child bearing, but has more practical applications. In a predominantly agrarian civilization, the four aspects that control the fertility chain were in the control of women. These four were the lands, the water resources, the seeds and the cattle. Not only in India, but in many parts of the world too, women’s complementary, key role in agriculture and farming, the key activities associated with the fertility of a land, kingdom, nation, was well recognized and accorded the place of honour.

Celebrating Womanhood

During the colonial rule in India and many other places, the control of these four (lands, the water resources, the seeds and the cattle) were plucked from the women and given to men. This created not just inequality but disturbed the complementary balance from the Bharat's society. The concept of Saha was soon forgotten and equality became the need and the cry of the women, rightly so, in the 20th century. March 8th, soon became a day of rallying around, for some women organisations, as Women’s Day, in the 20th Century, to espouse the cry and need for equality by women.

This concept of equality as espoused in Woman’s Day celebrations, is actually alien to the nature of Nature itself and to those who are more in tune with this Nature.

For them, celebrating womanhood is synonymous with understanding the fertility chain right from the elements of nature to the well being of mankind, as well as the nurturing role that could only be played by women. Such celebrations took various forms such as Varalakshmi Puja in South India.

Vara stands for boon and Lakshmi for all the wealth, not just material but also Lakshya, a single minded goal. It is a bonding of women with Nature and their reaffirmation to provide for their family, society and civilisation, which is celebrated through the land as Varalakshmi Puja. It is a celebration of all things positive in womanhood.

Such festivals of our soil, bring back focus on Nature and the complementary nature of everything in Nature, including that between men and women.

In this 21st century, as India moves forward in the comity of nations, we need to recognise the importance of International Women’s Day in reminding us of the balance needed between genders. At the same time, we also have to bring about the awareness world over, of the concept of Saha or complementing nature of genders, that is at the root of Bharat's tradition. It is only this commitment to complement one another, that can usher in an era of togetherness and cooperation between the two genders, to make this world a truly happy place. A place, where everything in Nature is in its right place, eventually doing the right thing for Nature, which they are a part of.  An act of maintaining Dharma with one’s Sahadharmini. We need a Women’s Day today to celebrate and compliment this complementing nature in Nature.

Complementary Nature in Nature

One often hears in the English language, the remark, Behind every successful man is a woman. This phrase conjures up an image of the woman being lesser than the male gender and playing only a supportive role, while the man is the achiever. In stark contrast to the above statement and view, in India and the Bharat's languages, the wife is called Saha Dharmini, meaning one who is along with the man. This term implies that the wife and the husband are to go along in life together, performing their deeds together, towards leading a righteous life, pursuing the 4 goals of life namely, Dharma – which may be translated in a limited way, as righteousness, Artha – wealth, Kama – desires and pleasures and Moksha – liberation, salvation. Many commonly understand Saha to mean equal. But there is a different word for equal, namely Sama, meaning same level. So the term Saha Dharmini must have a deeper connotation. In many languages brothers and sisters are called Sahodara and Sahodari respectively, meaning the ones who was born of the same mother as you, who bears and sharer the joys and burdens of a joint family.

Saha seems to be more than just equal. Saha denotes a form of parternship, co- as in cooperative, togetherness. And for a  partnership, togetherness and a cooperative effort to be successful, it calls for a sense of complementing one another to complete the task on hand effectively. The word Saha therefore denotes complementary, helping. If the two partners are just equals and have equal of everything, there definitely would be times when their strengths would add up and double the gains. But there would also be times when both would be found lacking and there would be great gaps and falls. While in the case of complementing, what one lacks, the other can provide, thus leaving no room for a gap in the collective unit. If every such, complete family unit were to complement each other in a collective living community, then there would be no gaps in the society, civilization as a whole too. Amongst equals, each tries to score over the other. Equals lead to competition, infights and separation.

In a complement, since each one is aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each other, they do not see any competition from the other. So complements lead to dependency, togetherness and partnership. This philosophy formed the basis for the framing of the various family models and the structure of the Bharat's society, in the days of the past. By referring to a wife as a Saha Dharmacharini, Bharat's thought and ethos, thus stressed on the fact that men and women are complementary in nature to one another and can only collectively perform their righteous duties at 3 levels, namely for their, home and family society and community culture and civilization We can see such a complementing nature at work in the whole of Nature. Even the lion, the symbol of masculinity, relents to this driving force of Nature. It is the females in a pride of lions, who typically hunt and bring back food for the pride. However, it is the male, the lion who gets to eat first and the most, before the others get their share. This is in return for his role of keeping the pride together and safe. This is where, the term lion’s share originated from. Amongst the birds, it is the male emperor penguin who takes over the baton from his female partner to hatch the egg and look after the young for months on end in the harsh, freezing Antarctic winter, while the female partner goes back to the sea, to replenish her store of energy and bring back food for the penguin chick. In the insect kingdom, all the bees, males included, work to the tunes of the Queen Bee.

In each species, the male and female, evolve roles and responsibilities, suited to their innate, individual capability. A representation of such a complementing concept is the depiction of Shiva, a popular divinity of the land as ArdhaNaari, meaning half woman, where the figure of half man and half woman sharing every part of the body shows the complementary nature of roles they are supposed to play in all activities of life.

Ardhanaari This is further exemplified and elaborated in the concept of the three feminine divinities, the wives of the three primary divinities, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, in the Bharat's pantheon of Gods. If we pause and observe intently, the wife of Brahma the creator, is Saraswathi, the embodiment of knowledge, for, in order to create, knowledge is a requisite and Saraswathi brings in this knowledge. The wife of Vishnu, the preserver, is Lakshmi, the embodiment of wealth, for, in order to sustain and operate, wealth is a requisite and Lakshmi brings in this wealth. the wife of Shiva, the regenerator, recycler, is Shakthi, the embodiment of energy, for, in order to recycle i.e. destroy and recreate, energy is a requisite and Shakthi brings in that energy. The masculine aspect in these concepts, denote a function in the cycle of the Universe, while the feminine aspect denotes the substance or resource required for this functioning. These feminine divinities were perhaps the earliest Women of Substance.

This symbolism denotes the higher understanding in the civilization, that the functioning and the resources needed to function, coming together with a purpose, is what ensures successful completion of any activity. It is the understanding of this complementary nature of Nature, all the way from the divine forces at work throughout the Universe, to the various living forms in this Universe, including man and woman on earth, that formed the ethos of the land of India. These ethos through the ages has given the due position and respect, in all spheres of life, to men and women. It is this realization that was put in practice in various facets of life concerning men and women and their roles in society, in India, through the ages. To an extent, these ethos also found reflection in other fields also, namely Astronomy and social customs. In many marriage customs of India, after the couple is wed, one of the wedding ritual is, the gazing of Arundhati-Vasishta. The husband and wife are taken outside by the priest and asked to gaze at Arundhati-Vasishta in the sky. Ever wondered what this ritual is all about and who are Arundhati-Vasishta and that too, in the sky? One of the spectacular constellations in the northern hemisphere, is the Ursa Major constellation, also called the Great Bear, the Big Dipper. This constellation can be identified by seven prominent stars.

The significance of this constellation is that when we join the two stars in the belly of the bear, they always point to the Pole Star in the North. This constellation is called Sapta Rishi mandalam in Bharat's astronomy and each of the seven prominent stars has been named after some of the prominent Rishi of India. One such star, at the tail, is called Mizar-Alcor in modern Astronomy. Since thousands of years, in Bharat's astronomy, this star has been known as Arundhati-Vasishta. Vasishta was one of the most accomplished Rishi and together with Arundhati, his wife, they were regarded as the most knowledgeable, much respected, ideal couple in Bharat's legends. Why a double name for this star? After the invention of telescope, modern astronomers identified this star to be a double star. They also found that this system of double star is such that, it is not one star going around the other, which is the usual form of double star system. Instead, in Arundhati-Vasishta, the 2 stars go around each other, much as to how 2 people rotate and go around a common fixed spot in Phugadi, a game in India.

It is very interesting to note that these stars were given the name of an ideal couple. It is further interesting to note that gazing at this ideal couple in the sky has infiltrated as a marriage custom of the land, where after the couple is wed, the husband and wife are taken out by the priest and shown this Arundhati-Vasishta star system. Today, neither the priest nor those around are able to explain this ritual. It is even ironic that this ritual is held during midday under the blazing sun, when no stars are seen and with no clue as to even where this star lies. But maintaining the ritual helps the young couple to be reminded of Arundhati and Vasishta and their inseparable nature which is greatly the need, of the present day marriages.

Our ancients were not only well advanced in Astronomy to have discovered this uncommon system of double stars but were also foresighted enough to include it as a marriage ritual to relate to and reinforce to common man, that in a marriage it is not the wife going around the husband or the other way around. Their message to society was that, both husband and wife together, as partners, have to complement each other and go around, the central point – the family and society, fulfilling their duties to the best of their innate, individual nature and capability. It is time for all of us in this world, to focus on Saha, the complementing factor too, rather than on Sama, the equalizing factor alone. Understanding our ancients’ way of living and picking a leaf or two of wisdom from them, can help us in understanding ourselves better and handling our relationships and business in harmony with each other and with Nature.

References

  1. DHARMA The Global Ethic, Justice M. RAMA JOIS
  2. Trivarga, M  Rama Jois