To understand the social and cultural life of the Hindus and their view on women, one must understand Hinduism. Hinduism is for the world and there is no 'unworldiness' in it.In Hindu society, every worldly activity is under the control of religion. It orders ceremonies throughout his life and gives instructions to his descendants, which they must follow in order that his happiness may be secured. So to find out the Hindu view on women, one has to have a look at the life of the Hindus, the position, the importance and the working area of the women in their everyday life.
The status of women in early Hindu society was an enviable one. They could avail of the highest learning and there were many seers and philosophers among them. Ghosha, Apala, Lopamudra, Vishwvara, Surya, Indrani, Yami, Romasha all these names highlight the position and the esteem which Hindu women enjoyed in the Vedic period. Devi-Sukta'of the Rgveda is courtesy 'vac'( daughter of sage Ambhrna). In a theosophical debate between Shankaracharya and Mandana Mishra, the latter's wife was appointed to be the judge obviously because of her superior knowledge and spiritual attainments. Vrihadaranyakopanishad(2.34)1gives the evidence of Maitreyi opting for Brhamvidya rather than wealth and worldly pleasures. Women were also allowed to observe celibacy1 (Atharvaveda 12.3.17). and study Vedas. Not only this, the Ashvalayana and Gobhil Grihyasutras and Harit-Dharmasutra show even the sacred thread ceremony (the Upanayana Samskara) being performed for women. Women used to teach also.2 Paninikalin Bharat by Dr. Vasudeo Sharan Aggarwal, page 281).Additionally, queens like Kaikeyi helped their husbands in the battlefield. It would thus be seen that at that time there was not a single area where women did not take part or excel their counterpart's men.
As far as the history of ordinary womenfolk goes, their position on the whole was free. Girls were normally not married till they were in their late teens and sometimes even later. They had a fair amount of choice in the selection of a mate, which is evidenced by the then prevalence of the "swayamvara-system". The cases of Sita, Damayanti, Draupadi, Shakuntala (the adopted daughter of sage Kanva) are the instances of the choice women enjoyed in choosing their husbands. From birth till death a Hindu had (and even today has) to perform hundreds of ceremonies and not even one of them could be performed without the presence of the wife(Rgveda 5.102).
During the 7th to the 9th century A. D. also we find that the general level of the culture and position of women was high. Women, including those not belonging to the higher classes, had some opportunities for liberal education, as well as training in fine arts (especially those of painting, music and versification). Rajyashree(sister of the renowned king Harshvardhana)was a disciple of Lord Buddha and her advice was sought on various important matters. Rajshekhar(Kavya-Mimamsa) quotes examples of princesses, daughters of high officials, of courtesans, and of concubines who were poetesses as well as adepts in sciences. Avantisundari, the wife of the poet Rajshekhar, was an exceptionally accomplished woman. Rajshekhar's Karpurmanjari was produced at her request and Hemachandra quotes three of her stanzas. The dramas and prose romances of this age also illustrate the contemporary state of learning among women. Here we find that court ladies and even the queens' maid-in-waiting are capable of composing excellent Sanskrit and Prakrit verses. Shila-Mahadevi, wife of Rashtrakuta emperor Dhruva, probably ruled jointly with her husband and enjoyed the privilege of granting large gifts. Several queens of the Kara dynasty ruled in Orissa. Sugandha and Didda of Kashmir administered extensive kingdoms as dowager queens.
It was only with the invasion of foreigners on our country that changes occurred which affected the position of women. As the life, property and the chastity of women were of little value to the invaders, each community built a fortress of social norms to protect their women resulting in the rigid systems, child marriages( before a girl could be of an age attractive enough to be abducted),the shaving of widows heads(to make them look unattractive),the widespread practice of Sati (though Alberuni has written that 'Sati-system was prevalent, yet a widow was not compelled to immolate herself. She had the option see Alberuni's India, Vol 2, P.151-52). Rigveda has evidence where a widow was allowed to marry her late husband's brother (10.40.2). (Medieval Indian Culture by A. L. Srivastava on page 23). These then became the norms during this unsettled period of Indian history, and Hindu women could not enjoy the same sort of liberty and equality, which they had enjoyed during the early periods. Yet there is evidence that shows them taking part in the battlefield and outdoor games with the men. Though the Hindu society is a patriarchal society where male is the head of the family, yet the mother enjoys a very high status. The sculptures always say that in order of preference worship your mother first (Mahabharata,Shantiparva 267.31 ,348.18;Vanparva313.60,Apastamba Dharmsutra i.10.28.9,Manusmriti2.145 etc.)
However, there is no denying the fact that during the period when the country was under the rule of foreigners, the position of women in Hindu society did decline, particularly in the economic context. With the advent of independence, attempts were made to secure the economic independence of women and to give her back her right place in society. The Constitution of India guarantees equality of status to Indian women with that of men. The Hindu woman has improved her social status considerably during the post independence period. Her legal disabilities with regard to the marriage, inheritance, guardianship and adoption have been removed. She inherits, by right, the property of her father on the basis of equality with her brothers. With regard to her economic rights, she can hold and acquire property and can enter public services and can take to any profession.
In conclusion, once can say that due of certain circumstances, the position of women may have changed from time to time, yet a Hindu has always maintained his view that a woman should be respected and get her due as a mother, sister and wife (Shatapatha Brahman 22.214.171.124, 126.96.36.199 Taittiriya Samhita 188.8.131.52, Aitereya Brahman 1.2.5 Manusmriti 3.56 etc). As before, he still believes in Manu's saying that "Yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra Devata, yatraitaastu na pujyante sarvaastatrafalaah kriyaah" Manusmriti 3.56 which translated reads : "whenever women are given their due respect, even the deities like to reside there and where they are not respected, all action remains unfruitful."
(published in Dharma-marg a quarterly Journal of The Vedic Research and Cultural Foundation, New Delhi, India),July,43-45).
1 Atharvaveda 12.3.17
2 Paninikalin Bharat by Dr. Vasudeo Sharan Aggarwal, page 281