Goddess Saraswati, the Hindu deity of knowledge, arts and wisdom, is a part of the Hindu Trinity (Tridevi) of Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati. She shares the honour of being the supreme Lord of all knowledge with only a handful of other women across the world – Goddesses Athena (Greek), Anahita (Old Persian), and Minerva (Roman). The Rigveda mentions the Goddess as the ‘possessor of all knowledge, that purifies” and her worship transcends the Indian Subcontinent to many different parts of Asia.
She is Thurathadi in Myanmar, Benzaiten in Japan, Suratsawadi in Thailand.
It is a conundrum that the land populated mostly by Hindus, the religion that deifies a woman for her absolute dominion over knowledge, would need an incentive program to educate her daughters, in this post-liberal world. So, what exactly went wrong in India?
Woman in Ancient India
It would be simplistic to imagine that patriarchy was imported to India somehow. The Atharvaveda has mention of rituals that promise the birth of a son. However, while a son was a preferred offspring since he was considered the heir of the family line, the birth of a daughter was not unwelcome. Unmarried girl children were believed to be the embodiment of the Goddess of Fortune, a belief that is still at large among many Hindu communities in India. Parents were dutiful in imparting education to children of both genders.
Upanayana, the ceremonial initiation into Vedic studies, that is celebrated only for male children today, were held for both sexes back then.
There are at least twenty women among the composers of the Rig Veda – Lopamudra, Visvavara, Sikata Nivavari and Ghosha being the most notable among them. Vedic history is replete with numerous scholarly women who were striving for excellence – Maitreyee was in pursuit of the philosophy of immortality, Gargi was the spokesperson of philosophers in King Janak’s court, Atreyi was a dedicated student of sages Valmiki and Agastya.
The Malady of Child Marriage
It was not until 300BC, that the ritual of child marriage reared its ugly head. Until such times, it was not customary for women to marry before 16. Gradually, marrying off pre-puberty girls became such an obligation, that their education was silently dropped off the priority list. This led to a vicious circle – the girls received lesser inputs, their general intellect suffered and soon, they were labeled unfit for education. The only exceptions were the Kshatriyas, who continued to educate their girl children under royal tutelage.
Influence of Historical Milestones
The Muslim invasion of India changed the fate of Indian women more drastically. Moral policing and Purdah system found easy takers among concerned parents, who were already struggling to marry off their infantile daughters. Soon, education came to be considered a vice for a woman – a sure fire way to become a widow! Before the advent of the British rule in the country, education for women had died a complete and abysmal death in India.
Since 1850, which was the lowest point for women in the country, India has seen remarkable progress in making female education mainstream.
Some of the key leaders who pioneered the movement were Raja Rammohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. The two are best remembered for abolishing Sati (widow burning) and introducing widow remarriage, respectively.
The legislation to abolish child marriage, in 1929, has had a significant impact in enabling the education cause for women in our country.
Since India’s independence in 1947, women’s literacy has grown more than male literacy (of course, the base was not big). The female literacy rate in 1971 was 22%. In 2011, it grew up to 65.46%
India’s movement towards an equal opportunity society is painstakingly slow. There is hope that with awareness programs and the right thrust, India would be able to reinstate its forgotten glory of incredible woman power in the near future. Glory be to the Goddess of Knowledge!
- The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization (Book) by Anand Sadashiv Altekar
- The History of Women’s Education in India (Article) by Puja Mandal
- Census India 2011 ( www.censusindia.gov.in )
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