In This Article Women in Hinduism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textual Traditions
  • Expressive Traditions
  • Historical Overviews
  • Rites and Rituals
  • Temple Performing Artists
  • Saint-Poets
  • Ascetics
  • Gurus
  • Women in Politics
  • Women in Media
  • Social Reform
  • Converting from Hinduism
  • Female Sexuality
  • Woman as Śakti

Hinduism Women in Hinduism
by
Perundevi Srinivasan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 January 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0104

Introduction

This article attempts to map scholarly resources on the status, roles, and representations of women in Hinduism. The history of women’s sociocultural location in Hindu traditions from early Vedic times (1200–800 BCE) until the early 21st century is marked by several shifts. While the early Vedic conceptual paradigm of the “divine couple” includes women on par with men in the public sacrificial sphere, late Vedic practices appear to have domesticated women to some extent, with the public and domestic ritual spheres becoming segregated. Similarly, although we encounter a few women thinkers in the Upanishads, the renunciatory ideal set for men increasingly undermined the importance of women. In the classical period (400 BCE–400 CE), with the composition of the Dharmaśāstras, such as the Mānavadharmaśāstra (Codes of Manu), which discriminated against women, their position further deteriorated. However, the medieval bhakti traditions (600 CE–1700 CE) brought many female poet-singers to the fore. The increasing popularity of goddesses, as suggested by the Devī-Māhātmya (500–600 CE) and informed by tantric traditions, also provided alternate options and models for subjugated women. The modern period has been characterized by fervent critiques of the position of Hindu women from both colonizers and indigenous Indians. A consequence has been redemptive legal reforms and feminist movements that attempt to rework the status of women in the societal and familial realms. This article introduces a body of scholarship that explores and interrogates Hindu womanhood from ancient days to late-20th- and early 21st-century times. It excludes Hindu goddesses and their relationship with Hindu women, since these topics are dealt with separately in the article "Goddess."

General Overviews

Among general overviews on the topic of women in Hinduism, two works are notable. Young 1987 surveys the roles and representations of women in Hinduism from the early Vedic texts to modern times. Narayanan 1999 provides an idea of different female models available in Hinduism to demonstrate how late-20th- and early 21st-century women relate to these models in empowering themselves. Van Woerkens 2010 provides “portraits” of a range of women in India who have fought against the established male hegemony and patriarchy.

  • Narayanan, Vasudha. “Brimming with Bhakti, Embodiments of Shakti: Devotees, Deities, Performers, Reformers, and Other Women of Power in the Hindu Tradition.” In Feminism and World Religions. Edited by Arvind Sharma and Katherine Young, 25–77. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    Argues for a feminist praxis stemming from Indian cultural traditions, rather than borrowing it from the West. Uses figures of powerful Hindu women, such as the female saints-poets Āṇṭāḷ and Mahādēviyakka (Akka Mahadevi), from the past and present in support of this argument.

  • van Woerkens, Martine. Nous ne sommes pas des fleurs: Deux siècles de combats feminists en Inde. Paris: Albin Michel, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the lives of and challenges faced by “elite” women, such as Tarabai Shinde and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, and “plebeian” women, including Phoolan Devi. Provides a detailed account of twelve such powerful women of the 19th and 20th centuries who have “fought for liberty” of women in India.

  • Young, Katherine. “Hinduism.” In Women in World Religions. Edited by Arvind Sharma, 59–103. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

    E-mail Citation »

    Analyzes the cultural location of women in three phases of Hindu history: ancient, classical and medieval, and modern. Uses scriptural and textual sources as well as anthropological studies in the analysis.

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