Women and Power During the Vedic Age of Ancient India
Understanding the role and position of women in Ancient Indian society is a complex topic. Ancient India is the birthplace of many religious ideologies that today merge to form Hinduism. The most prominent and authoritative texts that survive to date are the Vedas which are a compilation of hymns that were passed down through oral tradition since around 2000 BCE. In Ancient India, the Vedic texts offered a fairly liberal stance on the status of women and their role in society. However, the expansion of territories and the privatization of land created a shift towards a more authoritarian society resulting in conservative law codes that limited economic and ideological liberties offered to women and created an oppressive patriarchal hierarchy.
In this blog, I will first provide context for the topic by explaining the liberties extended to women during the pre-Vedic period. Then, I will describe the sources of power that benefited women during the early Vedic period and contrast them with the diminishing status of women during the late-Vedic period. Next, I will explain how socioeconomic factors like the privatization of land and reduction in democratic rule contribute to the shift in a woman’s status towards the end of the Vedic period. Lastly, I will tie the topic to a broader scope of lessons to take away from these historical events.
The Pre-Vedic Time Period
To understand the influence of the Vedic religion it is important to evaluate the ideologies of the pre-Vedic society. The pre-Vedic society is seen as more ideologically liberal than the 2 following time periods. This time period is dominated by practices of tantra (mysticism) and yoga, and the population largely practiced Shaivism (Daniélou). Shaivism is largely characterized by tantric practices. Aspects of Shaivism are later integrated into the Vedic religion. The cult of the female goddess is also prominent during this time period (Daniélou). Shaivism/Tantric ideology deals with empowering an individual and consists of the worship of the divine feminine.
The shift from the pre-Vedic to the Vedic society is visible in an ideological shift from individualism to collectivism. The individualist tantric/yogic society develops into a collective Vedic society. During this time period, a group of Aryans composed predominantly of a group of males migrates into India. Some people argue that the Vedic religion was brought to India by the Aryans, but excavations from the Indus Valley Civilization show the existence of both Vedic ritual pits and tantric symbols. The Aryans assimilate into the collectivist Vedic society and slowly begin to seize political control of the Northern region of India. Within the Vedic ideology, the role of the goddess is that of a complementary half to a god. The roles of the goddesses aren’t as prominent as the pre-Vedic times. Over here we see a shift in ideology shaped by migration and the development of a new societal structure.
Tantric ideology is concerned with the self and emphasizes on individual power, so there is a lack of a power structure. Within the individualist tantric society power is diffused. The Vedic ideology, on the other hand, focuses on collective power. Let’s dig deeper into the Vedic ideology and evaluate its influence on the position of women in society.
The Vedic Time Period
The Vedas offer a fairly liberal stance on the role of a woman. The access to power for women during the Vedic time period is evaluated by the perception of women, education freedom, marriage rituals, and economic freedom, as depicted by the Rig Veda, the first scripture of the Vedic religion.
The Vedas present a positive perception of women. To evaluate the portrayal of women in the Vedic scriptures, it is important to contrast it with the portrayal of men. “O man, the woman deserves your respect and reverence and love because she remains a generous and graceful accomplisher in the home in spite of the man’s want of piety and success” (Rig Veda 5.61.6). In this verse, men are told to respect women. Men are shown in a materialistic light whereas women are shown as generous and graceful. Let’s look at another verse: “O Agni, fire of home yajna, gracious lady of the house, honey sweet is your tongue like the beautiful flame of light which radiates intelligence and wisdom far and wide and wins admiration among the noblest people. With this sweetness and light of speech and grace of manner, bring in on the vedi of home yajna all the sagely souls worthy of reverence and let them drink of the nectar sweets of a blessed home” (Rig Veda 3.58.5). The word-choice of this verse associates women with light and intelligence. Moreover, throughout the Rig Veda words such as independent, loving, happy, tolerant, preserver of truth, scholar, learned, and glorious are used to describe women (Kumar). From a spirituality lens, measuring a woman’s portrayal to its proximity to that of an enlightened person, it is evident that the Vedic scripture places respect for women higher than for men. During this time period, the spiritual essence of the preceding tantric individualist society is still preserved, while there are hints towards men indulging in materialistic behaviors.
This idea of an enlightened woman exists beyond the ideological realm, and also bears fruit in the physical realm. To start off, there are prayers for a scholarly daughter in the Vedas (Kumar). Young girls were given the choice to be initiated into Vedic studies (Altekar 4). Overall, during the Vedic period, women had two paths they could follow: that of a Brahmavadini or that of a Sadyovaha. Brahmavadinis studied philosophy and theology for their whole lives. Whereas, Sadyovahas were students until they married. Many women specialized in Mimamsa the study of epistemology and metaphysics. Women scholars who picked up this field were referred to as kasakritsnas (Altekar 5). The coining of a special word suggests that a large number of women received an education. Stories from the scriptures speak of co-education. The Rig Veda states “give the fortunate woman that superior knowledge which showers the joys of life with golden hands of generosity.” (Rig Veda 1.116.13) providing us with more evidence that women were able to acquire education.
But, how were women treated in the educational spheres? Were they allowed to exercise power? These questions are answered by looking at the case of Priestess Gargi Vachaknavi. Priestess Gargi participates in a philosophical debate challenging a learned man. The descriptions of the nature of her conversation do not draw any gender-oriented criticism. In fact, the king watching the debate, taken aback by her discourse honours her. Rishika Gargi also contributes to the composition of the Rig Veda. Along with her, nineteen other women contribute to the composition of the Rig Veda (Altekar 10). The freedom of education illustrates a woman’s access to ideological power within the Vedic society. Their power extends beyond just sitting on the receiving end of education. Women actively exercise their power and contribute to the development of the Vedic ideology. Michael Mann describes ideological power as the most influential form of power as it can not be proved or disproved (Mann 3). Allowing women to exert influence over this sphere reveals a non-discriminatory outlook towards women during the early Vedic time period.
Of course, the next logical question to ask is how did a woman’s access to ideological power influence the way women were treated in mainstream society? Let’s answer this question by taking the topic of marriage as an example. In the Vedas, there is a reference to unmarried women “Amajuh, one who grows old in (one’s parents’) house” (Altekar 38). This reference suggests that unmarried women weren’t ostracized from society, but rather found a home in their parent’s house, similar to how unmarried men found a home in their parents’ house. A woman’s place wasn’t completely defined by marriage. Moreover, men and women both took the same marriage vows ( Altekar 93). A marriage hymn from the Rig Veda shares “Both the enlightened woman and the noble husband, the people, and the noble ruler, conjoined in unison grow together for the sake of this Rashtra, the great social order of humanity, augmenting through yajna the showers of rain from heaven. Both live together and move forward, winning victories in the battles of life. Both are indispensable for the social order, complementing each other like two halves of a sphere in the interest of progress and prosperity for the sake of the family and the nation.” (Rig Veda 2.27.15). This quote is evidence of a collective mentality that states men and women are both essential parts of the social order. Women are seen as enlightened whereas men are seen as noble. Mann states that rituals hold the power to uphold ideologies (Mann 3). Marriage rituals that promote equality uphold the liberal ideology of this time period.
In terms of solving issues within a marriage, men were required to listen to their wives. The Rig Veda shares “O man, O woman: Keep your eyes down on the earth, not upon the sky. Walk on with both the feet together (as the two wheels and the two horses draw the chariot together), Let your lower feet be not bare and exposed (cover them). Let the woman be the high priest of the home yajna.” (RV 8.33.19). This is a verse from a hymn about dis-harmony in between a married couple. If a man were to say that his wife can not be reasoned with, then he is wrong and the man must align with his wife’s decisions. Women are politically empowered within their households.
On the topic of the types of marriages that were allowed, there wasn’t any asymmetry regarding men and women. Both Polyandry and Polygyny existed during this time period. In the great epic Mahabharata, Queen Draupadi has five husbands, and each of her husbands have multiple wives. Furthermore, in some passages of the Vedas the “wife is mentioned in connection with husbands in plural” (Altekar 132). These relationships reveal the role of women as more than that of procreation.
Regarding economic freedom, women had the opportunity to take up roles such as that of a teacher or earn money through weaving clothes and agriculture. However, in terms of inheritance married women were not allowed to inherit their father’s property. Only unmarried women were allowed to inherit 1/4th of their father’s property. (Pal). The Rig Veda also provides evidence of agriculturist women, “provide the expert of farming on the land, and for the herdswoman growing old provide a caretaker” (Rig Veda 1.117.7). This verse depicts a normalized attitude towards working women. Moreover, in the epic of Ramayana, Queen Kaikeyi frequently goes to war along with the King and saves his life during one of the wars by steering his chariot. Queen Kaikeyi’s story is evidence that some women exercised military power.
Later and Post-Vedic Period
The status of women in the late Vedic time period immensely declines. In the later Vedic period around 100CE King Manu authors the Manusmriti a law code for society. During this time period, women lose their rights, and their power in the ideological and economic spheres is significantly reduced. The law code outlines punishments and enforces a binary world view of “right” and “wrong” on society. Within such a binary world view every position in society began to be categorized as “sin” or “good deed.” Since, the book was authored by a man, it is fairly obvious that the position of women in a binary world view would be less than that of a man’s.
Tantric practices and Vedic ideology were concerned more with understanding human nature. The Manusmriti is concerned more with dictating practices and limiting the number of people who may access ideological power. The Manusmriti exploits teachings from the two previous ideologies and institutes a structural lifestyle for each member of society based on their gender and occupation. The scripture in itself is authored by one man in contrast to the Vedas, which have multiple contributors. The way the scripture is written, by one man, in contrast to the Vedas, written by men and women, gives us a good insight of who will benefit from this new ideology.
During the age of the Manusmriti, there is a rise in pre-puberty marriage, motherhood is imposed on women, widows aren’t allowed to remarry, and the practice of sati (widow burning) grows in society (Pal). In simpler terms this system basically required girls to get married, produce children, and if their husband dies then their time on Earth would be over as well. Women lost their individual identity. Their identity is determined solely by men. The practice of sati reinforced the idea that men were in control, as no such practice existed for men. Some people argue that sati was “voluntary,” but that still should make us question the hostility society held towards women.
Up to 500BC in Vedic literature marriage wasn’t obligatory, but rather desirable. (Altekar 32) Around 300BC marriage became mandatory for girls (Altekar 32). As the marriage age for girls was lowered, women slowly lost their rights to education. (Altekar 16). Women are no longer allowed to exercise ideological power. They are objectified and their only role in society is reduced to that of procreation. By removing them from the most powerful spaces they could occupy, a misogynistic patriarchal society is created.
Women also lost their property rights and even within the household, they lost their independence. There is also a growth in monogamous families during the post-Vedic period and an emphasis on female chastity (Pal). These restrictions on women create a preference for sons elevating the position of men over the position of women. In this new structured society for men to retain their power, there is rise of a caste and gender hierarchy (Pal) All of these practices severely lower the status of women in society. Michael Mann mentions that power exists in either a diffused or an authoritative form (Mann, 8). Observing the ideologies of the pre-Vedic, Vedic, and late Vedic period, we can see a shift from diffused power towards an authoritarian power system. Diffused power exists because the ideology is concerned with individuals and enlightenment. Authoritarian power, on the other hand is a product of an ideology that was concerned with the material organization of society, to accomplish a certain broader goal that prompts this shift.
What causes these shifts? Contrasting the early Vedic and later Vedic society we can see the economic and military factors that cause the reduction of power (Kanika). The organization of society in the early Vedic period was self-sufficient and villages existed in a state of economic independence. The self-sufficient society, however, did not last long. People began to barter goods and a culture of trade evolved (Kanika). The trade culture led to the development of new roles in this society such as treasury officers, tax collectors, etc. With trade, the kingdoms grow bigger as well leading to an increase in authoritarian rule. Scholars argue that the rule was still democratic as the king recognized the authority of other tribes.
To further understand the economic and ideological power shifts let’s look at the political transformations that take place between the early and later Vedic period.
In the Early Vedic age the king could come into power through election or through hereditary succession, and the power was kept in check by a council of elders (Reddy). The council of elders and election represent diffused power.
Wars were not fought for land, but rather for cows. The king lacked an army and did not collect taxes. In the later Vedic age the king’s position acquired more power and the king began to associate himself with the concept of divinity (Reddy). The power of assemblies made of common people began to fade away. The urge to increase military power would also explain the rise in monogamy and decline in polyandry.
There is a growth in territorial administration (Reddy). The rush to own and privatize land leads to a firm hierarchical system. Within such a system, military power is championed and women are quickly marginalized as they fail to exercise any such power, leading to a decrease in economic power, and a rise in misogynistic ideologies.
Despite the authoritarian ideology there are also some unique cases, evidence of which is found in inscriptions, that reveal how some women reclaimed their position in society. Inscriptions on a cave in central India, commissioned by a royal family speak of how Queen Naganika came into power by forming an alliance with a king through marriage (Satavahan). She is able to use her “required” marriage to gain political power by strategically marrying a king from a weaker kingdom. Through her marriage, she provides a strong military alliance. Her ability to have inscriptions engraved in her praise is also a depiction of her power. After her reign, the kings of her empire began to add their mother’s name to their formal name (Satavahan).
While an authoritarian collectivist ideology dominates society, Shaktism grows as an opposition to the hierarchical patriarchal system. This opposing ideology is a form of metaphysical feminism that “accepts the goddess principle as the ultimate reality that binds together different and separate elements of reality”(Patel 76). It is built off of the liberal values from the Vedas and parts of the Shaivism ideology that is preserved from the pre-Vedic period. This ideology does not quite make it into mainstream society until the medieval period.
During the early Vedic age women were able to access ideological and economic power by authoring religious texts, participating in education, and engaging in society through jobs. However, expansionism and privatization of land take away these rights from them and lowers their position in society. Throughout the course of the Vedic period, there is a shift in power from diffused to authoritarian and individual to collective. Within these shifts, as the society turns into a collective authoritarian state, women lose their access to power. Overall, these historical events teach us that it is important to protect liberal values that allow for the freedom of expression; allowing everyone to contribute to the development of a society’s ideology. The socio-economic arrangement of society is not guaranteed to operate in a linear fashion where the past is always regressive and the future is guaranteed to be progressive. Our present socio-political systems left unchecked could result in a regressive future. We must actively participate in democratic processes to ensure marginalized groups are uplifted and the larger patriarchal systems of society are rechecked to avoid slipping into a dystopian world that marginalizes women.
Daniélou Alain, and Kenneth Hurry. A Brief History of India. Inner Traditions, 2003.
Kanika.“Trade and Commerce during the Vedic Period: India: History.” History Discussion, 9 Oct. 2017
Mann, Michael. The Sources of Social Power. Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Altekar, Anant Sadashiv. The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization, from Prehistoric Times to the Present Day. India, Motilal Banarsidass, 1956.
Kumar, Shashi Prabha . Indian Feminism in Vedic Perspective.” Journal of Studies on Ancient India. Vol.1, Nos.2–4, pp.141–152, USA, 1998.
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Satavahan Family, “Naneghat Cave Inscription of Satavahan Queen Naganika,” Naneghat, Maharashtra, 1828
Pal, Bhaswati. “ The saga of women’s status in ancient Indian civilization”. Miscellanea Geographica 23.3 (2019): 180–184. https://doi.org/10.2478/mgrsd-2019-0012 Web.
Patel, Kartikeya C. “Women, Earth, and the Goddess: A Shākta-Hindu Interpretation of Embodied Religion.” Hypatia, vol. 9, no. 4, 1994, pp. 69–87. JSTOR,
Reddy, Venkata. “Vedic Culture, Society & Rituals.” Vedic, Epic and Puranic Culture of India, MHRD.
The Rig Veda. Trans. by Dr. Tulsi Ram, Vijaykumar Govindram Hasanand, 2013