‘Sati was a virtue’

The authors of Indian textbooks retain an extremely ambivalent position when it comes to  describing the status of women in ancient India Gujarat state social studies’ texts have no critical comment on the Manusmruti. “The Manusmruti or Manava Dharma Shastra has helped in the forming of the Hindu code while the Puranas besides being religious books are a treasure of Indian history.” How equitous or inequitous was, or is, the Hindu code? What was the status accorded to women under it? There is a suspicious silence in the text on the issue.

There is, however, clear- cut statement on the ‘low’ position of women in the Ancient civilisations of Greece in the same Std. IX social studies text in Gujarat.  “Women occupied a very low position in Athens and other city-states of Greece. They were denied the right to participate in public life or to get education. Home was considered to be the best place for them. They hardly ever appeared in public places. They were denied the right even to vote. The references to women in the literature of that period can be regarded as derogatory.” 

Students studying the ICSE course are given a novel understanding of how Rajputs translated into practice “their respect for women’’. The text starts by telling us how Rajputs had a deep respect for their women. But a few paras later we are told: “The birth of a female was considered as a bad omen in the family. Very often, such a child was killed immediately after its birth. (Emphasis added). 

In a chapter titled, “Rajput Contribution”, the New ICSE History and Civics, edited by Hart and Barrow, Part 1, accords special place to the Rajput period. The authors state that this period has a special importance in India. Why? “It is noteworthy that the Rajputs were the last Hindu kings in Indian history,” state the authors going on to extol the uniqueness of the period under the heading of “Rajput Custom.” Here we are told of the Rajputs’ “Respect for Women”:

“The Rajputs respected their women. The women too had their self-respect. They would burn themselves in the fire of jauhar rather than fall victims in the hands of their enemies”.

“Position of Women. The Rajput women enjoyed freedom in society. They could choose their husbands in swayamvara. They were educated, they could read and write Sanskrit. They took part in public life. Re-marriage of widows was not allowed. Rajput women were deeply religious. They spent most of their time listening to pious stories from religious books like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata”.

“Polygamy and Female Infanticide: The rich and the ruling class practised polygamy, though one of the wives was treated as the chief wife. The birth of a female was considered as a bad omen in the family. Very often, such a child was killed immediately after its birth”. 

“Child marriage: The daughters of the family were married of at an early age in order to safeguard their honour. Once married, the Rajput women were very devoted to their husbands. They would sacrifice their lives to safeguard their honour.

The same Rajputs we are also told, with no critical comment, abhorred untouchables.
“Caste System: While the Rajputs held the Brahmins in high regard, they despised the untouchables who were even forbidden to live within the town or the village. The Rajputs considered that it was their exclusive right to fight battles and no other person could raise arms in the battlefield. The rigidity of the caste system led to the narrow-minded attitude among the Indians during this period. 

“Sati and Jauhar: It was considered a virtue to perform sati, that is, to immolate oneself at the funeral pyre of one’s husband. The jauhar was performed when the Rajput women burnt themselves to death to escape dishonour at the hands of the Muslim invaders. It is said that Rani Padmini, with 16,000 Rajput women did jauhar in Chittorgarh by walking into fire when their men marched into the battlefield to fight to the finish instead of surrendering themselves to their enemy”.  

Archived from Communalism Combat, October 1999, Anniversary Issue (6th) Year 7  No. 52, Cover Story 4



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