Kautilya is known for Arthashastra, a book written by him which is part political philosophy and part manual of statecraft in 4th century B.C. We can consider the Arthashastra as the first written constitution of the world. Not only that, it was also a civil code and administrative guidebook as well.

In this article we would discuss the status of Indian women during Chanakya/Chandragupta era.

Will consider the following aspects:

  1. Education
  2. Personal laws (Marriage, Divorce etc.)
  3. Women in professional field like military, King’s court and business.
  4. Mobility of women and Dressing
  5. Practice of widow burning (Sati)

First, Education:

Ancient India during Mauryan era gave a lot of importance to education of women. Then society very well understood the importance of women being literate.

There are mentions of two classes of women.

  1. Brahmavadini: These were highly educated and talented women scholars who remained unmarried through out their life. They continued advanced studies and went on to become Upadhyais (female teachers). Patanjali mentions of women scholars who made detailed studies of the Mimansa Philosophy. Buddhist and Jaina texts also speak about female professors and teachers.
  2. Sadyovaha: These were women who studied till their marriage. Arthashastra fixed the marriageable age to a minimum of 12 years for girls and 16 years for boys. Going by life expectancy during that time, it can well be inferred that women received good education. The girls received education for nearly 7-10 years. Also, it can be said that Child Marriage was absent.

Women not only get educated but also took part in instructing children. One example was Princess Basavadatta, who was not only portrayed as romantic, but also as well educated and cultured girl. They were also allowed to participate in philosophical debates along with men. 

Second, Personal laws (Marriage, Divorce, widowhood and right to property):

The great achievement of the Mauryan period is that the Indian personal laws were codified like in modern era.

Arthashastra fixed the marriageable age was fixed to a minimum of 12 years for girls and 16 years for boys.

As per Greek writer Nearchus (who was also Alexender’s Naval Commander), once a girl reaches a marriageable age, she was exposed to public. She could choose her groom which was typically the victor of a wresting match or some kind of race. “Arranged Marriages” became prevalent due to the lowering of marriageable age which can be attributed to Islamic invasions. Remaining unmarried was not considered good except for the Sanyasins and Brahmavadinis.

Girls were expected to remain virgins till marriage. Women could not inherit fathers’ property but they received dowry from her father, and the ownership of the dowry wealth remained exclusively with the woman. Women had full property rights (unlike limited estate till 1956) and could inherit the wealth of her husband. Polygamy was practiced, but in practice remained limited to the rulers.

Arthashastra permitted women to re-marry if her husband:

  1. Dies
  2. Becomes a sanyasi
  3. Absconding

Arthashastra further states that if the Husband is of bad character or has become a traitor to King, his wife can abandon him. Divorce due to ill-feeling was permitted but it has to be mutually agreed. One party could not unilaterally divorce the other(The Arthashastra, Book III, Chapter 3). This places man and woman on equal footing.

Widows could re-marry. Her husband’s brother was preferred, but she could remarry elsewhere. But in case she re-married, she had to give back her husband’s wealth to her husband’s families.

Joint families were present, but the Joint families which demean women came to practice during the Islamic rule. Especially the areas which bore the brunt of Mughal rule endorsed the Arabic tribal joint family system which reduces the status of women. We see such kind of joint families mainly in Northern India.

Third, women in professional field:

Women formed part of Military. Patanjali mentions of women spear bearers. Megasthenes, the Greek Ambassador, writes about women soldiers who rode elephants and horses, also bore bow-arrows. Arthashastra also stated, after getting up from Bed, the King should be greeted with a regiment of women troops bearing bow-arrows.

Women also participated in philosophical debates, become teachers, helped their husbands in business. Men and Women had to do religious ceremonies together. Woman were allowed to participate in sports and allowed to watch the sports played by men.

Female rulers in North India are rare. If a King has no son, the princess inherited the Kingdom, but once she marries, her husband became the King. But there are mentions of many female rulers in South India (where the society was more matrilineal).

Fourth, Mobility of women and dress:

Megasthenes who visited India during the Chandragupta era, was impressed to see the safety of women in Indian society. Women could move out in night without fear. Women in India were safer than in Greece and west.

But, one point to note is: women wore very less clothes. The clothing consisted of a cloth from waist to be ankles and a breast band (like modern day bra). The veiling of women was not present anywhere in the sub-continent (even in today’s Afghanistan and Pakistan).

The safety and mobility of women reduced after the Islamic invasions, whereas the clothing of women increased. In nutshell, women wearing less clothes is an Indian tradition. Women fully dressing themselves was forced upon due to the concept of Islamic Hijab.

Fifth, Practice of Sati:

Yes, the sati was prevalent. But it became very widespread again after the Islamic invasions.

However, the widows who had children did not become sati. They could get away with just lamenting and donating away the jewelry they wore. The wives who did not have children did become sati. But during the Maurya age, as per many Greek writers, this was voluntary. A woman could choose not to become Sati.

In nutshell, we can see that women that the status was very high in Ancient India even comparable with modern standards. The status continued till the Gupta era and gradually started falling thereafter. This can be attributed to foreign invasions and the lack of strong Hindu rulers. And when Islam came, the status of women greatly reduced till the British era where we see many social reformers rise among Hindus.

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