The position of women was not identical throughout ancient period. But mostly the woman could not lead a free life and she lived under the tutelage of her parents, her husband or her sons. The early law books treated the women as equivalent to the Sutra.
However this did not effect the position of the women in the family. Manu, who was not advocate of the right of women, also said that gods live in joy where women are revered and if a husband abandoned the wife without sufficient reason, he should be expelled from the caste by the ruler. The high esteem in which the wife was held during the Vedic age is evidence from the fact that she was considered the half that completed the husband.
The wife assisted the husband not only in his secular duties. The husband and wife together were supposed to keep the household fire burning so that the daily offering of the angophora could be carried on. If a person lost his wife he was either expected to bring another wife to keep the sacred fire burning or else to retire and take to Vanaprastha Ashram.
No religious rites and rituals could be performed without the wife. The Rig-Veda relates us a story of a grihapati who left his wife because of her impertinence and went away for practicing penance but the God explained to him that he could not perform the penance without his wife.
In addition to an important position in the family the women actively participated in the various social activities. This is confirmed by the ancient Indian sculptures in which women was shown with their husbands in a number of religious and secular functions.
The women also took active part in the religious activities, though they could not officiate as priests. In the literary sphere also the women made valuable contribution. Some of the Vedic hymns and a number of Buddhist hymns are ascribed to the Buddhist nuns. In Brhudaranyaka Upanishad we are told about the learned lady Gargi Vaca Knavi, who held discussions with Yajnavalkya and nonplussed him with her searching questions. Another scholar Mastery, wife of Yajnavalkya, also participated in the learned discourses. Around the beginning of the Christian era, the women were denied access to the Vedas and Vedic literature.
Unlike, the medieval and modern times women were-encouraged to learn singing, dancing and other arts like painting and garland- making. Dancing was not merely the profession of the low-caste women and prostitutes, but ladies from respectable families also took keen interest in it.
The Rig-Veda tells us that young men and unmarried girls mixed freely and we do not find any instances of unnecessary restrictions on the married women. However, Arthashastra says that the kings kept their womenfolk in seclusion. It gives details regarding the antashpura or royal harem and the measures taken to guard it effectively. But it can certainly be said that the women were not secluded to the extent as in Muslim communities.
In the Tamil literature also we get a number of references to show that girls of good class and marriageable age visited temples and took part in the festivals without guardians. The early sculptures also confirm this impression. The sculptures at Baht and Sanchi show, wealthy ladies, necked to the waist, leaning from their balconies and watching the processions. Similarly we find .scantily dressed women in the company of men worshipping the Bodni Tree. In short we can. Say that though the freedom of the women was considerably restricted, it was not completely denied to them.
One of the chief duties of the women was to bear children and to rear them up. In view of the odious duties the women were exempted from duties concerning moral purification or spiritual advancement. It was believed that a women attained purification and reached the goal by associating herself with her husband in the religious exercises, in the worship through sacrifices and vows etc.
Manu says, "The women, destined to bear children as they are, are possessed of the highest excellence, are worthy of worship and brighten up the household with their radiance in the homes the wives are veritable goddesses of fortune, with no difference whatsoever. The begetting of offspring, the nurture of those born and ice carrying out of the daily duties are possible because of the wife as we see before our eyes.
Offspring, the due discharge of religious duties, faithful service, highest conjugal happiness, and besides, heavenly bliss for the fathers and for one's own self, all these things are .absolutely dependent on the wife". However, the women were too much dependent on men for protection and were not supposed to take any initiative.
Standard of Morality:
The women observed high standard of morality. The wives were expected to follow the path adopted by her husband, even if it meant the path of death. Even after the death of her husband a widow did not remarry and led a very pure and chaste life.
Manu says "A faithful wife, who desires to dwell after death with her husband, must never do anything that might displease him who took her hand, whether he is alive or dead. At her pleasure let her emaciate her body by living on pure flowers, roots and fry its, but she must never even mention the name of another man after her husband has died.
Until death let her be patient of hardships, self controlled and chaste and strive to fulfill that most excellent duty which belongs to yes who know but one husband only." Widow Remarriage was not favored and it was considered a sacrilege and adultery.
The Sati system was probably also in vogue. The Greek writers have recorded the incident of widow's burning themselves alive along with the dead pyre of her husband. It was considered to be a matter of great honor and the various wives weighed with each other for this privilege. We get a number of historical examples of the widows burning themselves with their dead husband viz. The queens of Kshemagupta and his predecessor Yashkar on Kashmir. Most probably during the rule of the choler king Purantaki, the practice of Sati was in vogue.
The women were permitted to have personal property in the form of jeweler and clothing. The Arthashastra permits women to have money up to 2000 silver panas. The amounts in excess of this limit were held by the husband as a trust on behalf of the wife. The property of women could be used by the husband only in case of dire necessity. He could also exercise check on his wife if she want only to give away her property. After the death of a woman the property passed to the daughters (not to the husband or the sons). When there were no sons, the widow inherited the property of the husband.
Thus we find that the position of women in ancient India was not that bad as it depicted in the smritis. She was at once a goddess and a slave. The women were to be well fed and cared for and provided with all possible luxuries according to the means of the husband. The wives were not to be beaten or maltreated for the God did not accept the sacrifice of a man who beats his wife.