Mahabharata‎ > ‎The Society‎ > ‎

Status of Women

Every woman in Mahabharat, makes an entry as some man's mother, wife, daughter or sister. She does not enjoy the individual identity of a kind Queen / brave warrior / great disciple / wise teacher.

Long before MB, men and women were free to have sex relationships with anybody they pleased. Sage Shwetaketu stopped this practice. Still later women had no right to divorce. And by MB times she had lost her last freedom, the right to remain unmarried.

Birth: We see Drupad, Pandu, Satyavati, Hidimba, Madhavi etc. all awaiting the birth of a son. No yadnya was performed, for the birth of a daughter in the family. Yet, a female child was welcome. And female infanticide was not practised.

Those who did'nt have son had options like adopting daughter's son, adopting any male child, niyog or even buying a son. These options provided by the society were practised very regularly.

MB does not mention the number of daughters born to any charater. Dhruturashtra for example has only 1 daughter Dushila and 100 sons. (Dushilla is mentioned as she is Jayadrath's wife.) Ganga had 8 sons, Madri had 2, Kunti had 3, Hidimba had 1, Subhadra had 1 son etc. None of them had daughters? Draupadi gave birth to 5 sons from 5 Pandavas. Madhavi bore 4 sons to 3 kings and sage Viswhamitra. I believe, Draupadi & Madhavi had daughters too, but having a son was a religious matter, and they had to give at least one son to each father.

Education: Women from the Kshatriya class did not receive any formal education. They did receive education in arts such as dancing and singing (Uttara). We do see Kshatriya warrior women like Satyabhama and Shikhandi. The girls from Brahmin class did get to learn along with the other students. Like Krupi and Devayani. (Krupi is mentioned by MB as a very intelligent woman.)

Marriage: Kshatriya women had the right to choose her husband in a Swayamvar. This practise had limitaions like - father decided whom to invite or she had to mary the one who passed a test.

Dushyant and Bheeshma mention 8 types of marriages. Kidnapping the bride (Amba, Ambika, Ambalika), paying bride fee (Gandhari), mutual consent (Shakuntala), etc. Though the Asuri vivah (kidnapping, bridal fee etc.) were condemmed by the texts, those were practiced commonly.

It was the father's duty to see to it that his daughter gets married at the right age. We see the fathers of Seeta and Savitri worried as they had'nt found a suitable boy. If this was the case with the Kings, I wonder what was the condition of the common man?

Wife: As a wife, woman enjoyed a religious status equal to that of a man. He could not perform any religious activity without her. Wives generally managed the finance and inventory at home. She owned her jwellery and had the right to dispose it as she wished. Her long list of duties as a wife, are narrated by Draupadi to Satyabhama.

Remarriage: During MB times the Brahmin & Kshatriya women did not marry after the death of their husbands. They did continue to live with their in-laws, in a respectful & dignified manner. In the earlier Ramayan times, a widow married her brother-in-law. (Tara, Mandodari) But this practice had stopped by MB times. The pratice of 'Sati' came into being in quite recent times. Mahabharat does not mention 'Sati'. Upanishidic texts encourage a widow to stop grieving and to look after children.

In MB times, a childless widow had the right to have 3 sons by Niyog. They were mostly fathered by a brother-in-law, generally choosen by the elders of the house. This pratice is still followed in some tribes.

Divorce and remarriage seemed to be common among the other two classes. [in MB times]

Vanaprastha: Women generally accompanied their husbands to retire to the forests (like Gandhari, Draupadi). But they had the option to stay with their children (like Subhadra). We also see widows like Satyavati, Ambika, Ambalika, Satyabhama retiering to spend the rest of their lives in forest.


Note: Every civilization all over the world, from all times has treated women as a secondary citizen. In the Europe and America, women got the right to vote in 1970's. Christanity, a modern religion, has debated "if women were humans at all". Neither does Islam treat its women at par with men. Jainism believes that only men can attain Nirvana. etc. Mahabharat times were no different. And this should be no reason to conclude that the ancient Hindus were barbarians.