Feminism in India – The Indic approach – Part 1

Part 3 – Where did things go wrong?

Unfortunately, most of the Dharmic scriptures, originally in Sanskrit, have been translated first into Arabic, Persian, Turkish, etc. by travelers who visited India during the Islamic invasions and later into English and other colonial languages by authors, researchers and explorers who 

  • Did not have a firm grip on the Sanskrit language itself to translate them in the correct contextual background and the ground reality of the Hindu society
  • Had a clear agenda – to break the backbone of the Hindu society by twisting the narrative to gain control over it. (Over spilling post-independence too)

It was these shortcomings which have led to the gross misinterpretation and misrepresentation of what our Sanatan Dharma talks about women resulting in modern day Hindus conditioned to blindly hate their own heritage. Certain verses here and there may have a contextual background which may sound regressive and not apply in current times. However, that certainly does not warrant burning Manusmruti and blind Hindu and Brahmanical bashing. And again, were all the scriptures and practices followed blankly all across the country by each and every community, is also something to ponder upon.

Feminism – The Indic Approach

A very common example of the above two points is the sati pratha – colonial misinterpretation as well as malicious narrative. The term “sati” means “a chaste wife” in Sanskrit. However there is no word in Sanskrit for a widow immolating herself as understood today. The closest words are “Sahagamana” (Going with), “Sahamarna” (dying with) and “Anumarna” (dying after).

Mandala 10, Sukta 18, Shloka 7 of the Rig Veda, with respect to widows says 

उदीर्ष्व नार्यभि जीवलोकं गतासुमेतमुप शेष एहि | हस्तग्राभस्य दिधिषोस्तवेदं पत्युर्जनित्वमभि सम्बभूथ || 

This interprets to

“Let these women, noble wives living with their husbands, enter and live in their homes, and let them, decked with jewels with beauty aids, creams and unguents, free from sorrow and ill health and blest with noble children, move forward high in life.”

However, the same has been misconstrued (“Hastagrabhasya” became “Hastagnabhasya”) to mean that a widow must compulsorily sit on her deceased husband’s pyre and end her life and join her husband in his afterlife. 


Further, Mandala 10, Sukta 18, Shloka 8 also talks about widow re-marriage: 

धनुर्हस्तादाददानो मर्तस्यास्मे कषत्राय वर्चसेबलाय | अत्रैव तवमिह वयं सुवीरा विश्वा सप्र्धोभिमातीर्जयेम ||

That is,

“Rise, O woman, to a new phase of life, your husband is now dead and gone. Come take the hand of this man from among the living who offers to take your hand and maintain you, and live in consort with this other and new husband of yours for a life time.”

Several other Dharmic and literature texts too such as Ramayan, Mahabharat, Vishnu Smriti, Vyas Smriti, Kadambari, etc. do not propagate widow immolation – at most living an ascetic’s life or specific widow rights.

Epigraphically, evidences suggest that the first recorded case of sati was in 3rd Century BCE wherein two wives quarreled over who shall immolate herself! And who was the husband? A soldier called Shashigupta from the Indian contingent of Alexander’s army! “Indica” – the accounts of Megasthenes – the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandagupta Maurya, does not find mention of the sati practice either. Further, up till the 10th Century CE, only a handful of sati instances are found once in every 100-200 years with most of them being voluntary.

Several travellers and foreigners, such as Al Beruni, Jean-Baptiste Traveniere, Ibn Battuta, Warren Hastings and Alexander Dow have reported that they have witnessed only a few sati cases during their travels across India and in most cases, the widow would be dissuaded by the husband’s family, priests and other members of the society. Yet they would go on and sit in the pyre out of their own choice. 

Thus, widow self-immolation was not a compulsion and through the ages had been a rare practice voluntarily followed by widows in certain communities and regions of India (almost nil in Bengal and southern India). But things changed during the British East India Company Raj.

During the early Company Raj, the evangelical missionaries could not make in-roads in India since the Company was interested in business only and did not want to interfere in social and Dharmic matters of India. Consequently, evangelists such as William Ward, Robert R. Pearce, T.S. Grimshaw and James Peggs, through there literature, propagated extremely inflated figures of sati cases (claiming almost ten thousand in Bengal alone) and swayed a public opinion in Britain that the Hindus are savages, Hinduism is regressive and people of India need to be civilized (in other words, baptized). 

Subsequently, William Bentinck, the then Governor – General of India, having evangelical leanings himself, passed the Bengal Sati Regulation 1829, thereby banning an almost non-existent practice, which was revived on paper, only to establish a narrative that the British and Catholics missionaries were the saviors of a regressive Hindu society. Had the sati pratha actually been prevalent, such a regulation would have been heavily opposed by the Indians. But nowhere do we find records of any protests / agitations seeking removal of such a regulation either.

Part 4 – The way ahead

Somebody may wonder as to what to believe – the partial truth which has been tossed around by media outlets and “social activists” or to find out the complete truth by exploring what approach towards women has been propounded in our Dharmic scriptures and historical evidences. Or even worse, dismiss it with indifference by terming it as “living in the past” and talk about idealism without realizing that most of the ideas sought, are already available in our own backyard. And do we not rely on past experiences and reviews even in our day to day lives like online shopping, restaurants, etc. or do we say “living in the past” for them too?

Patriarchy is prevalent in today’s times in the Indian society – there is no denial. But the reason for its existence is largely internal ignorance and external influences (e.g. child marriage, dowry, ghunghat system) as compared to religious normalization as seen historically across the globe – where it is fortunately easier to rectify the former.

The solution too, lie with us – our own Bharatiyata, our Hindu way of life – not just in scriptures and practices, but also in mindset, which has been the guiding light for thousands of years and still is – to make our society a better place for women irrespective of their religion (The verses in Part 1 do not demarcate Hindu or Muslim or Catholic women). All we need to do is look within, clear out the noise and listen to the sound. 

A complete and correct study of our country – how things were, how things are, what did they imply, why they existed and how relevant are they in the present times – is the way forward. In other words, “Bharat ko jaano, Bharat ko maano, Bharat ke bano, Bharat ko banao”

And this can definitely not come only from casually glancing at “neutral” media reports and blindly relying on the history or even the day to day information served to us especially when it’s an open secret that information in our country is rarely bias free. Find it out for yourself, do not stop at a single source, and ponder over the ‘WH-questions, especially the “WHY”, have a scientific temper

The approach needs to be reformative rather than revolutionary (wherein an entire system is uprooted) as that will only lead to blind bashing of our own Hindu heritage under the blind application of the Marxist principle “Religion is the opium of the people” despite of the Hindu Dharma continuously gaining acceptance in the West and us, Bharatiyas, ending up as a civilizational embarrassment.

There may be certain instances here and there which may apparently seem regressive for today’s times. However, instead of uprooting the entire plant, only such leaves need to be clipped off. A society which cannot change, cannot survive – even that is a reality (but not blind, radical changes inspired from scenario specific ideologies of the West – that judgment sets in once we are done with the “jaano, maano and bano” part).

It’ll eventually dawn that the Indic approach towards women rights is different from the feminism seen in the West which had a very different context. With time even the feminist movement is gradually receiving criticism from women for breaking the institution of marriage thereby affecting the emotional nurturing of families and children.

Of course, generations of ignorant patriarchy will not disappear overnight – it will definitely take time, maybe generations more, till we achieve the kind of society envisioned by our ancestors. Till then, we can always work in our circle of influence. Hope this article works in mine.


Bibliography and research credit:

  1. Manu Smriti
  2. Rig Veda
  3. Neeraj Atri – President, National Centre for Historical Research and Comparative Studies, Chandigarh
  4. Dr. Meenakshi Jain – noted historian and political scientist, Gargi College, Delhi
  5. The Hindu Café


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