Ancient India’s liberated women: In classical times India was more egalitarian than the West – at least in women’s education

Bristhi Guha
Two young women, Atreyi and Vasanti, meet by chance during a trip and
start chatting. Atreyi tells Vasanti that she is travelling to the
south in search of better education; though she is a student at an
extremely famous university in the north, her professor’s
preoccupation with his ongoing novel means he has little time to teach
her anything of use. Vasanti agrees that this move makes perfect
These young women are not contemporary urban Indians. They were
characters in an 8th century Sanskrit play, Uttararamacharita, penned
by the dramatist Bhavabhuti. Atreyi’s original professor was Valmiki,
who had recently become immersed in writing the Ramayana, being firmly
convinced that he was the adi kavi (first poet). A ‘trip’ to the south
meant an arduous walk through hundreds of miles of forested land,
braving constant threats from robbers, mysterious illnesses, and wild
animals. However, this was a trip that Atreyi was very willing to
make, hoping to learn more from southern Vedanta scholars like
Though Bhavabhuti’s story is fictional, plays were intended for the
masses. The fact that an 8th century dramatist casually introduces
female characters who travel far from home, alone, in search of
education, suggests that audiences during his time would not be overly
surprised or disturbed by such incidents. In another play of his, the
Malatimadhava, a Buddhist nun, Kamandaki, is close friends with the
fathers of the male and the female protagonists, because all three had
been classmates in their youth. If girls wanted to be admitted to
gurukulas, there was nothing stopping them from doing so.
Earlier, the Upanishads (written about the 7th century BC) contain
accounts of very learned women. No one in scholarly circles seems to
have had any trouble accepting Gargi, an eminent woman philosopher, as
one of them. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad contains a lengthy account
of Gargi’s debate with the leading scholar of the age, Yajnyavalkya.
The debate was arranged by King Janaka of Mithila, at whose court
Gargi was said to be one of the navaratnas (nine gems).
She asked Yajnyavalkya such penetrating questions that eventually he
was unable to answer, and had to resort to telling her that her head
might fall off if she kept questioning the unknowable. This, however,
seemed to be quite a common threat among Upanishadic debaters; men who
disagreed with other men would employ it frequently. So, contrary to
first impressions, there was nothing sexist about Yajnyavalkya’s
reaction. The fact that Gargi, an unmarried woman, was invited to
conferences all over the country without exciting comment, seems to
point to a liberal intellectual atmosphere.
Going back even earlier, the composers of the Rig Vedic hymns included
a number of women. Each hymn in the Rig Veda is attributed to a
particular author, and the lineage of the author is mentioned. More
than 20 women number among the authors credited with the composition
of these hymns.
The Therigatha, written in 600 BC, is the earliest known collection
composed solely of women’s writing. These verses, written by early
practitioners of Buddhism, were penned by women from a wide array of
backgrounds. The contributors included a mother whose child had died,
a former prostitute, a wealthy heiress who had renounced her life of
pleasure, and the Buddha’s own stepmother. Though women from royal
families had access to informal education in most countries, the
Therigatha shows that many ordinary women were also well educated in
ancient Indian society.
In contrast to ancient India, the ancient Greeks and Romans had a
different attitude towards female education. Though they had excellent
public schools and gymnasiums for formal education, these were open
only to boys, unlike the ashramas of ancient India where girls and
young women could learn along with their male counterparts. Eminent
Greek philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates thought poorly of the
intellectual capabilities of women. Plato maintained that women had no
souls, while the Socratic dialogue ‘The Symposium’ concludes that
women were incapable of providing men with intellectual companionship.
In later times, Khana, who is sometimes rumoured to have become a
victim of domestic violence, was a noted poetess and astrologer of
near legendary abilities. Though details of her life are hazy, she
appears to have lived in southern Bengal, where many of her writings
are still household sayings.
Much later, in 1150, Bhaskara II, the most renowned Indian
mathematician of his age, composed the Lilavati – perhaps the only
math book in the world whose problems were mostly addressed to young
girls. An example of such a problem: “Beautiful and dear Lilavati,
whose eyes are like a fawn’s! Tell me what are the numbers resulting
from one hundred and thirty five, taken into twelve? If thou be
skilled in multiplication by whole or by parts, whether by subdivision
of form or separation of digits, tell me, auspicious woman, what is
the quotient of the product divided by the same multiplier?” This was
to be the prime math textbook in Indian schools for the next 700
It is interesting that as far as gender discrimination goes, ancient
Indian society seemed to be much more egalitarian and balanced than
other ancient societies, at least in the field of education.
Hopefully, this balance is something that could be sustained and
enhanced in modern times.
The writer is Associate Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru
University. Today is International Women’s Education Day.


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