Woman as Life Partner
regards man and woman as the two halves of the eternal Being,
each constituting a vibrant, existential part, quite incomplete
in itself. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Prajapati,
the primordial God, divides himself into two - man and woman,
the symbols of cosmic polarity deriving sustenance from the
same source. (1) In the cosmic scheme man represents Purusha
(the Person, Spirit) and woman Prakriti (Nature, primal Matter),
both of whom unite to keep the world going. So goes the Vedic
verse: ‘I am He, you are She; I am song, you are verse; I
am heaven, you are earth. We two shall here together dwell
becoming parents of children.’ (2)
is the coalescence of complementary opposites for pleasure,
progeny and self-fulfilment. The cosmic model of the marriage
of Surya, the daughter of the Sun, with the Ashvina twins
(who defeated the prime suitor, Soma, in a racing contest)
determines the praxis of the Hindu concept in this respect.
(3) Being equal halves of one essence, husband and wife are
partners in joy and sorrow and in the fulfilment of the fourfold
aims of life - dharma (ethical perfection), artha (material
advancement), kama (pleasure) and moksha (liberation). Neither
is superior to the other as each has different natural functions
to perform and social obligations to fulfil. Hinduism expects
the partners to shed their individual identities to become
one at the physical, mental and psychical levels before transmuting
the material relationship into a spiritual one. Says the Rig
Veda in the context of ‘Surya Vivaha’: ‘Bless now this bride,
O bounteous Lord, cheering her heart with the gift of brave
sons. Grant her ten sons; her husband make the eleventh’ (10.85.45).
do the Vedas say that woman is man’s property, as she came
to be considered in certain periods of history. Nor is it
enjoined that her role shall be subordinated to that of her
husband. This is evident from the sukta of Surya’s bridal
in the Rig Veda: ‘Enter your house as the household’s mistress.
May authority in speech ever be yours!’ (10.85.26). ‘Watch
over this house as mistress of the home. Unite yourself wholly
with your husband’ (10.85.27). ‘Here dwell ye, be not parted;
enjoy full age, play and rejoice with sons and grandsons in
your own house’ (10.85.42). ‘Act like a queen over your husband’s
father, over your husband’s mother likewise, and his sister.
Over all your husband’s brothers be queen’ (10.85.46).
the Hindu rite of marriage, when the bridegroom holds the
hand of the bride, he in a way promises his companionship
on equal terms. When he asks her to tread on the stone, he
wants her to be strong like it and not show weakness of any
kind in any situation. ‘Resist the enemies; overcome those
who attack you.’ (4) Subsequent rites of marriage like the
oblation of parched grain, circumambulation of fire and the
taking of seven steps by the bride are equally dignifying
for the girl. After the seventh step is taken the bridegroom
tells her that they have come closer to each other. ‘With
seven steps we become friends. Let me reach your friendship.
Let me not be severed from your friendship. Let not your friendship
be severed from me.’ (5) Obviously ‘friendship implies equality,
not submission’. Before the departure of the bride from her
parental home, the bridegroom touches her heart and reiterates
the same feelings, adding that the Lord God has brought them
together: ‘I hold your heart in serving fellowship. … You
are joined to me by the Lord of all creatures.’ (6) After
reaching her husband’s home, the bridegroom makes her look
at the polar star after sunset and exhorts her to ‘be firm
with me’, ‘bear children’ and stay together ‘a hundred years’
(1.8.19). All this shows that in an ideal Hindu marriage the
girl is not a commodity but a respectable human being. Although
monogamy is preferred and divorce discouraged, as the couple
is believed to be united for ever in this and the next world,
the smritikaras and others like Kautilya allow the
dissolution of some forms of marriage such as the brahma,
daiva, arsha and prajapatya with the
consent of both parties in certain circumstances.
Hindu woman as life partner has a fourfold character: she
is ardhanggini, one half of her husband, metaphorically
speaking; sahadharmini, an associate in the fulfilment
of human and divine goals; sahakarmini, a part to all
her husband’s actions; and sahayogini, a veritable
cooperator in all his ventures. Husband and wife together
are called dampati, joint owners of the household,
sharing work in terms of their biological, psychological and
individual dharma. The former provides the seed (bija)
and the latter the field (kshetra) for its fructification,
so that humans could be perpetuated in the cosmic process
of evolution. Both have the joint responsibility of helping
their children grow in all respects, but the contribution
of the wife is always immense.
life partner the Hindu woman has equal right to participate
in religious rites and ceremonies; in fact, certain sacrifices
like the Sita harvest sacrifice, the Rudrayaga for suitable
sons-in-law or the Rudrabali sacrifice for material prosperity
are performed by women alone. Hindu lawgivers like Gobhila
and Ashvalayana ordain that no ritual or sacrifice can be
complete (sampurna) without the presence of the wife.
Even Rama had to order for Sita’s statue in gold to make up
for her absence during his Ashvamedha sacrifice. In the Ramayana,
Rama’s mother Kausalya offers oblations to the fire god Agni
and Tara performs the Svastyayana ritual for the success of
her husband Vali against Sugriva. Women of those days were
quite learned in the Vedic lore. Draupadi was a brahmavadini
and Tara an adept at reciting mystic syllables. Oghavati,
Arundhati and Sulabha possessed a thorough knowledge of the
Vedas and imparted religious knowledge even to rishis. The
spiritual attainments of Savitri and Anusuya have become legendary.
In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad one meets women of
wisdom such as Maitreyi and Gargi. The former abandoned wealth
for wisdom and the latter entered into a debate with the sage
Yajnavalkya at the court of King Janaka. Much later, Bharati,
the wife of Mandana Mishra, carried forward the tradition
by acting as judge in the philosophic debate between her husband
and Shankaracharya. When she found her husband losing the
debate, she emphatically told Shankaracharya that his victory
would be complete only if he could defeat her, since she constituted
her husband’s better half.
Vedas give a married woman the right to talk and debate independently.
The wife is the home (jayedastam), says the Rig Veda.
(7) Besides, she is the treasure house of happiness, (8) a
point elaborated by Manu in a much more explicit way: ‘Women
must be honoured and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands
and brothers-in-law who desire (their own) welfare.’ (9) ‘Where
women are honoured, there the gods are pleased; but where
they are not honoured, no sacred rites yield rewards’ (3.56).
‘Offspring, (due performance of) religious rites, faithful
service, the highest conjugal happiness and heavenly bliss
for the ancestors and oneself depend on one’s wife alone’
declares that the perfect man is one who constitutes a trinity
made up of his wife, himself and their offspring (9.45). The
wife being a gift from the gods (9.95), she ought to be supported
to the end of her life. If Manu points out the seductive nature
of women (2.213-4), he is equally unsure of the unbridled
passion of men. He advises that wise men must not be in the
company of even their own mothers, sisters or daughters in
a lonely place, for they may deviate from the right path (2.215)!
Manu regards woman as a precious unit of the family and of
society but denies them absolute freedom due to their physical
vulnerability. He, however, distinguishes between the noble
and virtuous and the degenerate women, and, like other smritikaras,
criticizes those who are faithless, fickle, sensuous, immodest,
quarrelsome and loose. ‘Day and night women must be kept in
dependence upon males and if they attach themselves to sensual
enjoyments they must be kept under one’s control’ (9.2). Manu
prescribes capital punishment for killers of women, exempts
pregnant and old women from paying fines and suggests that
as a matter of courtesy, they should be given precedence when
crossing the road.
is the protection given to the Hindu wife in the Dharmashastras
that she cannot be abandoned by her husband even if she indulges
in sexual congress outside marriage or is raped. Both Devala
and Yajnavalkya opine that a raped woman cannot be divorced
as she becomes pure after menstruation. The latter adds that
the wife can be abandoned if she conceives a baby from another
person, kills a brahmin or insinuates against her husband;
if she is a habitual drinker, suffers from prolonged illness,
is cunning, treacherous, sterile, exceptionally extravagant,
or uncouth. But even in these cases she should be fed and
clad well and properly looked after. (10) An abandoned woman
without an issue or a male protector becomes a social responsibility,
says Manu. (11) If anyone grabs her property during her lifetime,
that person deserves to be punished like a thief (8.29, 352).
Kalidasa wrote that women go the way of their husbands as
moonlight follows the moon or lightning the cloud, (12) he
meant thereby that they were not different from each other.
The Hindu scriptures lay emphasis on harmony between husband
and wife that is so essential for family peace and prosperity.
Harmony requires understanding, which can only be among equals.
In the Rig Veda, the couple jointly pray: ‘May all Devas and
Apas unite our hearts. May Matarishva, Dhata, Deshtri all
bind us close.’ (13) The highest duty of man and wife, says
Manu, is to be faithful to each other. While the supreme duty
of the husband is to safeguard his wife, to care for her needs
and necessities, and to keep her happy with gifts and presents,
the wife is expected to be pious and chaste, sincere and faithful
to her partner, gentle, suave, skilled and sweet-tongued.
observance of the pativratya dharma by a woman is not
tantamount to servility and subordination. Marital fidelity
is greatly valued in the Hindu tradition as it leads to family
harmony and bestows occult powers. A woman who sees the Lord
in her husband and makes him her very life cannot deviate
from the path of virtue; and virtue is power itself. There
are many examples of Hindu women who as life partners made
great sacrifices, underwent trials and tribulations, and some
times showed their thaumaturgic powers born of chastity (satitva).
Gandhari covered her eyes with a strip of cloth as her husband
Dhritarashtra, the king of Hastinapura, was blind. Madri,
one of Pandu’s wives, burnt herself on the funeral pyre of
her husband, a practice which remained current in some Indian
communities and regions down to the British period, when it
was banned in 1829. Sita accompanied Rama to the forest during
the days of his exile, kept her chastity intact while in the
custody of Ravana, the king of Lanka, and went through the
agni pariksha so that her husband could fulfil his
raja dharma. Savitri confronted Yama, the god of death,
and saved the life of her husband. Sati Anusuya turned the
Hindu trinity of gods into children. Litterateurs like Kalidasa
and Tulsidas became men of learning because of their wives.
During the Muslim invasions, many women committed jauhar
(the custom of entering a bonfire when the defeat of their
menfolk was certain) in order to preserve their chastity.
The resistance put up by Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi (widow
of Gangadhar Rao) and the Rani of Ramgarh (widow of Raja Lachman
Singh) against the British during the rising of 1857 has few
parallels in history. Countless Hindu women participated along
with their husbands in India’s struggle for independence.
the concept of pati-parameshvara (regarding one’s husband
as God) has suffered an erosion in the wake of women’s empowerment,
respect for the husband continues, as is evident from the
observance by Hindu women of such traditional vows as Vata
Savitri, Haritalika and Karka Caturthi - all aimed at a long
and happy conjugal life.
do the accredited Hindu scriptures ordain that women should
be abused, disgraced, chastised without reason or divorced
in ordinary circumstances. Yet expectations from women as
life partners have been many and varied. The best female partner,
according to a popular Sanskrit adage, is one who renders
advice like a minister, obeys like a maidservant, feeds like
a mother, pleases like the nymph Rambha, acts as a veritable
companion, and has the forbearance of Mother Earth.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.4.3.
Atharva Veda, 14.2.71.
Rig Veda, 10.85.20-47.
Sankhyayana Grihya Sutras, 1.13.12.
Hiranyakeshi Grihya Sutras, 220.127.116.11.
Paraskara Grihya Sutras, 1.8.8.
Rig Veda, 3.53.4.
Atharva Veda, 18.104.22.168.
Manu Smriti, 3.55.
Yajnavalkya Smriti, 1.72-4.
Manu Smriti, 8.28.
Kalidasa, Kumarasambhava, 4.33.
Rig Veda, 10.85.47.
G Buhler, The Laws of Manu (New York: Dover, 1969).
P V Kane, The History of Dharmashastra (Poona: Bhandarkar
Oriental Research Institute, 1941).
Usha Kapoor, Women and Welfare: A Study of Voluntary Agencies
(New Delhi: Indus, 1995).
Raimundo Panikkar, The Vedic Experience: Mantramanjari
(London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1977).
Herman Oldenberg, Grihya Sutras (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass,