Women in Sanatana Dharma Hinduism
How are women portrayed in Vedic scriptures? Contrary to some of the current understanding and practices in society, women were treated fairly and equally in our vedic teachings. Scholars of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) have identified enough proof of a society in ancient South Asia which lived practicing what they preached. Gender differences were recognized, as a biological fact, but the true essence of any human being whether male or female was essentially acknowledged as the same - that of a God (Ishvara) who cannot be differentiated based on gender.
For the sake of our personal preference and worship, our scriptures have given us enough choice in terms of male and female deities: Durga, Lakshmi, Sarasvati and Parvati are some of the female deities worshipped in many temples today. Hindus worship and respect the feminine gender and its functions. In Vedic times, women along with men, studied our scriptures after their Upanayana (initiation ceremony) and continued their education until they got married at the age of 17 or 18. Interestingly, Child marriages, Sati (widow immolating the funeral pyre) and dowry did not exist. Widows had the choice of remarriage and they pursued professions for self sustenance. The society was patriarchal and a husband who was usually more experienced than the wife (due to age and his occupation) resolved conflicts in the family and guided the rest. There was no mention of forceful compliance or punishment in families.
Many societal forces including some external ones, slowly influenced South Asian life in the following hundreds of years. Insecurity and anxiety in the minds of parents (due to changes in society and invasions amongst others) caused the marriageable age to be reduced, resulting in reduced educational opportunities for girls. Attraction to renunciation and pursuit of a monastic life for youth (due to non-Vedic teachings), caused them to stay away from the fair sex, leading to the general perception that women could be the cause of misery for men. Women seem to have adapted to these circumstances and started behaving in a way that confirms these false notions, due to their lack of education and the feeble of voice of social thinkers who could not stop the erosion in the coming centuries. Their debate in the later scriptures continued, with some of the authors strongly cautioning the trend, while others softening their stand based on the evolving social realities. In the meantime, womenfolk continued to be the flag bearers of our tradition, though illiterate and discriminated in many ways. This was highly unfortunate for a society that had started with so much respect for women. We had to wait many more centuries for the collective consciousness to recognize this grave breakdown and adopt some corrective measures in mindsets and daily life.
A way of life and religion which practices non-injury (Ahimsa) in thoughts, words and deeds, cannot advocate or tolerate any sort of discrimination or unfair treatment of any being, because of their birth or looks or gender. Sanatana Dharma is for our spiritual growth and development as beings. It is time that we as a society, get actively involved in critically analyzing and discussing the past and present practices, rather than blindly following them in the name of traditions. Sanatana Dharma which has a sustainable unchanging core built on values and principles, also has a dynamic adaptable exterior, which we need to create and sustain for our own well being. Let us get grounded in values and let us accept those practices that are founded on the values that we care.