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The status of women also in early Hindu society was an enviable one. Women so inclined could avail of the highest learning and there were many seers and philosophers like Maitreyi, Gargi, Vishavara, Ghosha and Apala. Adi Shankara, in a theological debate with Mandanamishra, appointed as judge the latter's wife Sarasavani, in view of her superior erudition and spiritual attainments. Warrior queens like Kaikeyi helped their husbands on the battlefield.
In princely families, the custom of swayamvara or selection of the groom by the princess garlanding the one of her choice amongst all the princes present, was the accepted norm. Inter-marriages were common and women often chose their own husbands. Shakuntala, the daughter of a Brahmin sage, chose Dushyanta, a Kshatriya prince, and married him. Santanu, a Kshatriya king, married Satyavati, a fisher-woman, who was crowned queen. Even after her husband's death she was revered as the Queen Mother, and decided many matters of state and problems of family successions.
Polygamy existed in some societies but mostly amongst princes who contracted several marriages with daughters of neighbouring rulers for political reasons. Polyandry was also practised in some areas. The classic example is Draupadi, who married the five Pandava brothers.
Girls were normally not married till they were in their late teens, sometimes even later. Hindu society as established by the Indo-Aryans was patriarchal, but many matriarchal societies of the Dravidian and the pre-Dravidian south continued to exist until quite late in history even after the adoption of Vedic Hinduism. (Today only Kerala in the south is matriarchal though even here changes are creeping in.)
The upper castes even earlier had tried to prevent (though unsuccessfully) inter-caste marriages as also the upward movement of the lower castes. Towards this end the Brahmins, for example, tried to make knowledge of the scriptures their monopoly and the rituals more and more elaborate so that they alone could interpret them. The Kshatriyas similarly tried to make rulership their birth-right and the Vaishyas attempted to become the only custodians of the wealth of the land.
However, it was only with the foreign invasions of the 11th century A.D. and later, starting with the raids of Mahmud of Ghazni and the Goris, that the caste system became rigid.
Unlike the Moghul rulers of a later period who were more tolerant in their treatment of the local people, the earlier invaders looted, plundered and destroyed temples, and marauding soldiers abducted young girls and women. As life, property and the chastity of women were of little value to the invaders, each community built a fortress of social norms around itself to protect its women. Many later-day social evils of the Hindus such as the rigid caste system, guarding the sanctum sanctorum in temples from entry except by the few (to prevent looting and plunder), child marriages (before a girl could be of an age attractive enough to be abducted), the shaving of widows' heads (to make them unattractive to the foreign soldier), the widespread practice of Sati (the burning of a widow with her dead husband), became the norms during this unsettled period of Indian history.
Hindu women lost their independence and became objects requiring male protection. In the process they also lost the opportunities they had earlier of acquiring knowledge and learning.
With the coming of British rule in India and the introduction of Western thought, there arose in India a new upsurge of intellectual searching and a re-evaluation of our ancient past. Hindu thinkers reassessed their weaknesses and traced them to the evils of the rigid caste system and to the social evils that had befallen women and the so-called untouchable castes. Starting from the early 19th century, several Indian reformers sprang up all over India and spread their message for purifying Hinduism of its excessive rites, rituals and orthodoxy and for abolishing the inequalities heaped on women in the name of the religion. To mention a few whose work led to reforms on a national scale, the earliest was Raja Rammohan Roy of Bengal. He preached against rituals and worked for the abolition of Sati. Although Sati means pure and chaste, the word had (in the last few centuries) been used to connote the immolation of a widow with her husband.
Another illustrious son of Bengal, lshwar Chandra Vidyasagar popularised Sanskrit teaching amongst all castes and fought for widow remarriage.
The Prarthana Samaj was set up in Bombay for fighting the caste
system and its great leaders were R. G. Bhandarkar, the famous Sanskrit scholar, and M. G. Ranade.
The greatest of them all, Swami Vivekananda, set up the Ramakrishna Mission, an organisation of service and social reform, and spread the message of true Hinduism throughout India and the Western world. He fought hard against orthodoxy and preached spiritual freedom, fearlessness and the universalism of all religions, all of which were basic to Hindu spiritual beliefs.
Swami Dayanand Saraswati, a Gujarati Brahmin, fought against Hindu priesthood and wanted Hinduism to go back to its Vedic glory. He founded the Arya Samaj in 1875, a movement which was reformist, and attempted to unify the Hindus under the umbrella of Vedic Hinduism, shorn of later-day superstitions.
Annie Besant, Irish by birth, came to India in 1895 as a theosophist and worked for Hindu religious revival. Her admiration for Hindu thought gave great self-respect to Hindus at a time when they were looked down upon by their British rulers. She set up the Central Hindu College at Banaras which later became the nucleus of the Banaras Hindu University.
Mahatma Gandhi, the father of Independent India, made women take part in the freedom movement, and by this great act of vision, got rid of many of the social inequalities heaped on women. He also made the abolition of untouchability an integral part of the freedom movement. By not permitting untouchable Hindus in places of worship, Hindu society had been weakened, as the scriptures reiterated the equality of all men in the eyes of God. Many aspects of Gandhiji's national movement simultaneously also worked towards Hindu religious reform.
A great religious reformer who worked against untouchability was Narayana Guru of Kerala who not only fought against casteism but was also responsible for the high level of education and religious instruction of the lowest castes in that region.
Dr. C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar had fought all his life against orthodoxy and untouchability. In 1936, when he was Dewan of Travancore, the Maharaja's proclamation opened the temples of the state to all Hindus. For the first time in India, untouchables were allowed to enter places of worship. Mahatma Gandhi called this step 'the glory of a miracle,' especially as some of the worst aspects of casteism were practised in Kerala. Even Swami Vivekananda had bitterly spoken earlier of the "don't touchism" that prevailed there in the name of religion. From then on, several temples in other parts of India followed suit.
Each region in India threw up religious reformers, poets and saints, all of whom taught that social and religious reform had to go hand in hand. As a result, in 1950, Independent India laid down in the Constitution that untouchability could not be practised in any form. Also, the Constitution guaranteed full equality to all men and women. The Hindu Succession Act of 1956 made daughters equal heirs with sons.
Old habits however die hard and laws by themselves are not enough. The hearts of the people must change which will only happen when the upper castes understand the origin of the caste system, the fact of the fluidity of castes in ancient times, the inter-mixing of castes within each one of us, and the reasons for the later-day rigidity of the caste system.
Writer – Shakunthala Jagannathan