Women hold a central yet ambiguous role in Hindu religion. According to the Laws of Manu, women are essential to the dharma of men and find fulfillment in this subsidiary role. Upper-class men are born with three debts that must be fulfilled, most with the aid of a wife. Men pass through four stages of life: celibate student, householder, Forest Dweller, and Renouncer. Women are dependent upon men, and daughters join as members of their husband’s family. Even so, epic stories depict heroines in dharma.

I.         Dharma in the Dharmashastras

A.      Dharma as “religion”

B.       Women and dharma

1.        The Gita teaches that simple offerings are efficacious and pleasing to God, even when offered by women

2.        Stri Dharma (the dharma of women) is articulated in the Dharmashastras, of which the best known is the Marvadharmashastra (the “Laws of Manu”. The Laws of Manu both praise women as essential in the household and denigrate them as fickle, unreliable, corrupt, and licentious; they cannot be granted independence from men.

II.       The Laws of Manu: women are essential to the dharma of men and find fulfillment in this subsidiary role.

A.      Every man of the three upper varnas is born with three debts

1.        He repays his debt to the sages by learning the Vedas. Only twice-born men are permitted to learn the Vedas.

2.        He repays his debt to the gods by performing sacrifice. A wife is essential since only a householder (i.e., a married man) can perform sacrifice.

3.        His debt to the ancestors is repaid for him by his son, who performs for him the rites at and after death. Again, a wife is indirectly necessary to repay this debt.

B.       Men of the upper three varnas pass through four ashramas or stages of life.

1.        The first stage is that of the celibate student – the brahmacari – who undergoes the ceremony of upanayana, representing ritual rebirth. He receives the sacred mantra and is invested with the sacred thread (yajnopavita), becomes “twice-born,” and commences study of sacred lore with a guru. Thus the boy’s natural birth from his mother is superseded by a second birth from a man.

2.        A man takes a wife and becomes a full householder – grihastha.

a)       Manu describes the ideal female marriage candidate.

b)       Indian culture includes a very wide sense of family, both in the present and across time.

3.        The stage of the Forest Dweller – vanaprastha – is one of  retirement” in which a man withdraws to the forest, usually with his wife, and leaves household responsibilities to his son.

4.        The final stage is that of RenouncerSannyasi- and involves “casting off” or renouncing worldly life, including one’s wife. One breaks all bonds with family and wanders in search of freedom from everything, including dharma.

C.       Women’s experience is defined in relation to men, upon whom women must remain dependent.

1.        Daughter: “Daughters are raised for someone else’s family.”

2.        Wife: The wife is the pativrata, she shoes religious obligation (vrata) is to her husband (pati).

a)       Marriage is the ritual equivalent of the upanayana.

b)       The Indian marriage ceremony is called the mungula (“the auspicious”). It is very complicated and lengthy, involving numerous binding ceremonies between husband and wife. The bride gains membership in her husband’s family and becomes subject to her mother-in-law.

3.        Mother: “May you be the mother of a hundred sons.” A woman’s status is dependent on bearing a son.

4.        Widow: “May I die wearing red”; i.e., before her husband dies.

a)       The widow loses her status in the household and becomes dependent on her sons.

b)       Remarriage after widowhood is impossible. In the rite of suti, the widow is immolated along with her husband’s corpse.

III.     Heroines in dharma

A.      Dharma is learned in epic and storytelling

B.       Depictions of pativratas in the epics:

1.        The story of the independent woman Savitri, who chose her husband Satyavan and later saved him from the hands of Death.

2.        The story of Kannaki (South India epic, Shilappadikaram), who destroyed a kingdom whose ruler unjustly killed her husband. This story portrays pativratas in a positive, powerful light.