“The greatness of the ideals of the past is a promise of greater ideals for the future.”
(Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 85)
Indian cultural vision of human life and existence is the deepest, highest and greatest ever conceived by the human mind. Its attempt to mould the collective life of the community according to its ideals is the noblest attempt ever made in the history of human civilisation. The spiritual vision of our sages and seers has still a living relevance for the future evolution of humanity. But it is important to rediscover this vision and give it a new form suited to the conditions of the modern age.
Most scholars of India agree that women in ancient Indian society enjoyed much higher place of respect and reverence than what is generally seen today. Various historical, cultural, social factors led to a degeneration over time. This essay presents some selected pieces of evidence which speak of the high and revered status given to women in the earlier times of Indian civilisational march. The focus here is limited to the place of woman as a daughter.
A big part of the essay is devoted to the value our ancients gave to the education of girls and women; this not only helps us learn about the upbringing of daughters but also presents a good picture of the overall acceptance by the society of women’s participation in various spheres of activity. While most of the evidence included here is from scriptural and literary sources, some examples are also taken from epigraphic, stories, legends and other such evidence available from the collective memory of the Indian people – none of which can be ignored because this is how living realities have generally been documented among all ancient people.
The evidence included here primarily highlights the positive and inspiring aspects of the prevalent cultural and social ideals, norms and practices. Plenty of negative instances can also be just as easily compiled to show the exact opposite of the points presented here, because given the diversity of texts and even larger number of textual interpretations available there is bound to be much intra-textual or inter-textual contradiction. But the present compilation is guided by the ideal that “a culture must be judged, ﬁrst by its essential spirit, then by its best accomplishment and, lastly, by its power of survival, renovation and adaptation to new phases of the permanent needs of the race” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 120).
By including selected examples from a few of the ancient Indian texts which speak of the ideal rightful status of women that the ancient Indian visionaries and thinkers set before us, this compilation does not suggest that such high ideal was always perfectly translated into practice, or that the contemporary lived realities perfectly reflected the highest vision of our sages and thinkers. No ideal is ever fully realised in the ground reality, which is inherently dynamic and highly complex. Also, the purpose is not to merely glorify the past and somehow suggest that the past needs to be revived in some way, which is not even possible or desirable.
This essay, however, definitely aspires to encourage an honest student of Indian society and culture to explore if the spirit of the highest ideals given by our ancient visionaries still carries some value and significance for our times, and whether these ideals can show us a way to address some of the challenges and problems in our contemporary society with regard to the status of girls and women. By including several shining examples of India’s daughters from the times past, the essay also aims to inspire the readers, especially girls and women, so that they would not only become familiar with this glorious ancestry which they have inherited but would also be moved to grow in the likeness of these remarkable women.
The need of the times is to sincerely contemplate on the highest ideals which must be pursued for our future growth as individuals and societies in the light of the Indian view of gradual and progressive evolution of consciousness. Because as Sri Aurobindo reminds us, “the ideal creates the means of attaining the ideal, if it is itself true and rooted in the destiny of the race.” (CWSA, Vol. 7, pp. 1086-7). Finally, the real intent behind presenting such a compilation can be best expressed with these words of Sri Aurobindo: “Our sense of the greatness of our past must not be made a fatally hypnotising lure to inertia; it should be rather an inspiration to renewed and greater achievement.” (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 87)