What was the position of women in ancient India?

There is equality and mutual respect between men and women and the women are seen expressing themselves with freedom, warmth and confidence.

By Benoy K. Behl

In Hindu thought, the personification of courage and the energy within us with which we would combat the demons of our ignorance, is a female deity Durga. In Buddhist thought, while compassion finds a male personification, wisdom is represented in female form.

The theme of Goddess Durga vanquishing the demon Mahisha is one of the most popular representations of Indian art. She represents the vigour and power, the determination and courage within us, with which we must battle the evil of our ignorance of the truth. Today we may find it remarkable that, in early Indian thought, these qualities were personified in a female figure. The most beautiful depiction of Mahishasurmardini is in a 7th century cave at Mamallapuram. Another exquisite depiction is in the Virupaksha Temple at Pattadakal.

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The two principal qualities of Buddhahood are seen to be Wisdom and Compassion. While compassion is personified in a male deity Avalokitesvara, wisdom and knowledge are represented in female form Prajnaparamita. Thus, we see that the important quality of wisdom and knowledge is visualized in feminine form. Tara, another important female personification in Buddhism, came also to be largely worshipped by the 5th-6th century CE, as is seen in the Buddhist caves of Western India.  

Half the patrons of monuments were women

Is it also not wonderful that about half the patrons of monuments of ancient India were women? It is housewives, nuns, tailors and others who were responsible for the glorious architectural and artistic heritage which we have from early times!

631 donation inscriptions survive at the Great Stupa at Sanchi. These show that the magnificent art of the toranas (or gateways) of the Sanchi Stupa was patronized by the common people. It was fishermen, tailors, housewives, nuns and others who paid for the making of the grand monument.

Great Stupa, Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh – The greatest surviving Buddhist stupa of the BC period is on top of the hill at Sanchi. The stupa was originally made in the 3rd century BC. In the middle of the 2nd century BC, it was doubled in size.  Four gloriously carved stone gates or toranas, each 34 feet high, were added to the railings in the 1st century AD. (Image Source:Benoy K Behl)

An individual states that he is the patron of a sculpted pillar. Another states that she is paying for the making of an architrave of the torana. About half the donation inscriptions are of women.

The same holds true of the other great monuments of ancient India. Thousands of inscriptions survive in the early monuments all across India, which testify to this. This wondrous heritage was created by the people and very largely by women. Obviously, in ancient times, women in India had the financial independence to patronize places of worship of their own choice.   

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Karle Buddhist Caves, 1st Century CE, Maharashtra – A remarkable freedom and ease of interaction is seen between women and men in ancient India, as depicted in the art. A woman is seen here with an arm around another woman and her other arm around a man. This is surely how human beings were meant to be, comfortable, warm and affectionate with each other. (Image Source: Benoy K Behl)

If we look at the Buddhist caves at Nasik, we find an inscription of around 150 CE of Gautami Balashree. It is a donation inscription and I take your attention to this because while she is making the inscription for making a donation for a Buddhist cave, she is also mentioning that her son (in fact the Satavahana King Gautamiputra) is in fact a worshipper of Hindu deities.

So there you see that not only do women have the capacity, the right, the freedom to make donations for establishments on their own, but in fact there can be donations for a faith other than that of for instance in this case her son who happens to be the king. You might also note that the king’s name Gautamiputra also gives an idea of the respect for the lady in question here.

While we are on the caves of Western India, we realize that we are talking about approximately a thousand caves that were carved deep out of the heart of the rock, the hard basalt rock of the hills. This is a great heritage!

Please remember that the numerous caves that you see in China and in Central Asia are, most of them, all carved out of gravel conglomerate, whereas here you are looking at caves which are hewn out of the heart of the mountain, the hard rock. Besides, they are beautifully, absolutely beautifully sculpted and gloriously painted.

We may also note that, at the site of the Ajanta caves, there is a donation inscription of the wife of the ruler Harisena, for one of the later Buddhist caves of Ajanta, around the end of the 5th century. You may note that the king himself is a worshipper of Hindu deities but here we see that his wife has the complete freedom to donate and to worship Buddhist deities. The same holds true for inscriptions that we find of the wives of people in Andhra Pradesh and other locations of Buddhist sites.

Naturalness and grace in interactions between men and women

There is a sense of natural ease in the depiction of interactions between men and women in ancient sculpture, which opens a beautiful window to how warm and easy such relations can be. This is so unlike the constrained, tense and artificial interactions of modern times.

In the BCE period and the early CE period, we find art from which there is much that we can learn. At the early Buddhist caves of Karle and Kondavane, we find depictions of men and women interacting with each other in a way which is easy and joyous.

Kondavane Buddhist Caves, 1st century BCE, Maharashtra – On the facade of the grand chaitya-griha, are made these playful scenes of interaction between men and women. It is wonderful to see the easy interaction in which a woman is playfully pulling the dhoti of the man. Affection is also being expressed warmly. (Image source: Benoy K Behl)

There is a naturalness and grace in these interactions, which shows us how life is meant to be. There is equality and mutual respect between men and women and the women are seen expressing themselves with freedom, warmth and confidence. This is so different from modern life, in which men and women play defined roles and are much more constrained and artificial in their behaviour with each other. There is a grace and ease seen in the art of early times which is extremely inspiring and could help us to shape a modern world with much more peace, equality between the genders, harmony and joy.    

Art brings to us attitudes and norms of society, frozen in stone and in colour. These are often a wonderful record of the vision of life in ancient times. Amidst all the noise and clamour of the materialistic world around us, there is so much that we can gain by looking at the simplicity and grace of ancient times.

Contributing Author: Benoy K. Behl is a filmmaker, art historian, and photographer who is known for his prolific output of work over the past 44 years. He has taken over 53,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage and made 145 documentaries which are regularly screened at major cultural institutions worldwide. His photographic exhibitions have been warmly received in 74 countries around the world. He holds the Limca Book Record for being the most travelled Indian photographer and art historian.  

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