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Back to Expert Articles - Insights on status of Women in ancient India by Swati Shah

Insights on status of Women in ancient India by Swati Shah

Fundamental Human Rights and Shakuntala: A contemporary Perspective

Dr. Swati Shah


Department of Sanskrit-Samhita and Siddhant,

State Model Ayurved College, SMAIS, Kolavada, Gandhinagar.

In present time we enlighten for thinking about the higher position of women in ancient Indian society. In this paper we try to see the reality behind the myth and resent status in our society.

Fundamental Human Rights and Sakuntala: A cotemporary Perspective

‘One is certainly one's own friend, and one certainly may depend upon one's own self. Therefore, according to the ordinance, thou canst certainly bestow thyself.’* We can see the concept of the freedom of each and every human being – either man or woman - in this verse of Mahabharata. Is it suggests reality of sovereignty regarding the status of women in that society?

The condition and the rights of women are a tribulation since early time. In the Vedas, the earliest texts in Sanskrit, we get a picture of the life and times; and even there, the Rusis always pray for the birth of the son.1 We can hear about intellectual women but their number is very less i.e. in the Upanisads we find women like Maitreyee2 and Gargee3: who discuss with the man in intricate philosophical matters but apart from such few examples, question will be still there, how far does it indicate the liberated status of the common women?

If we go through some laws of the society yore we can feel the disgusting and repulsive reality. Bhagavana Manu in the Manusmruti - Women are not the subject to liberty.4 Let alone the issue of independence; did the women even have the right to a good life?

Bhagawana Kautilya makes some statements to educate woman,5 He even declares a fine of six panas if the woman ventured outside during the day.6 Thus, the dharmashastras had always used such prohibitions as bondages to women.

Classical literature too reflects the condition of women portrayed in the shastras. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the famous epics of ancient India, have becomes very influential as core literature which has provided the base to other subsidiary works. These epics also have a great influence on the Indian culture itself.

The storehouse of stories found in the Mahabharata becomes the mirror that reflects the socio-familial situation of the times. We can feel the real situation of the society from such abbreviations. Some of such stories show the gender injustice and crimes against women seem as old as our civilization. Here this small paper endeavors to probe where do women in ancient India stand in relation to the issues of gender rights and fundamental human rights. It is a myth, of repeated that in ancient India, women enjoyed a very high status. But the reality behind this myth comes out as soon as one ventures to analyze the ancient texts not only dharmashastras but also the literatures like: the epics, the Puranas, folklores, legends, the myths, etc. They are occupied with stories of women suffering, gender injustice, crimes, offences, abuse and violence against women and violations of fundamental human rights like the right to a life of dignity. These innumerable and securing incessant instances of violations of gender right force us to reconsider our notions of the status of women in ancient India. With the help of the character of Shakuntala, this paper critiques the ideal of love that Kalidasa’s Shakuntala projects and juxtaposes it with the character of Shakuntala in the Mahabharata so as to bring out the truth behind the ideal. In the Sambhavaparva in the Adiparva of the Mahabharata (1/62-70) we find the tale of Dusyanta – Shakuntala and Kalidasa has based his famous play on this episode. We would like to discuss both these texts in context to the concept of fundamental human rights. The tale of Dusyanta – Shakuntala is too famous to be recounted again but the position that the both tales are concerned with the condition of women in society of that time.

First of all we try to examine Mahabharata in this context. Here, we can see at the preliminary stage that women are used by men as a gadget to satisfy their selfish desires. For an example, Indra orders Menaka (She became mother of Shakuntala) to go to Vishvamitra and frenzy him. For this she has to attract Vishvamitra to her and that way she has to generate the obstacle in his 4 religious austerity; and the success in this work will be willing to Indra. For soiled selfishness Menaka is used by Indra to sully the purity of Vishvamitra.

When someone uses woman as an object, how justifiable is it? If we take into account the main characters of the story, then, Dusyanta is so eager to marry Shakuntala. And so, he cannot wait for her father Kanva’s arrival, who has gone just to collect fruits from the forest. He convinces Shakuntala with

the argument of permissibility of the Gandharva-vivaha.

'O beautiful and faultless one, I desire that thou shouldst be my life's companion. Know thou that I exist for thee, and my heart is in thee.”* He also tells her, ‘There are, in all, eight kinds of marriages. These are Brahma, Daiva, Arsha, Prajapatya, Asura, Gandharva, Rakshasa, and Paishacha, the eighth. Manu, the son of the self-create, hath spoken of the appropriateness of all these forms according to their order.. The Gandharva and the Rakshasa form are consistent with the practices of Kshatriyas. Thou needst not entertain the least fear. There is not the least doubt that either according to any one of these last-mentioned forms, or according to a union of both of them, our wedding may take place.’* And he adds:

‘O thou of the fairest complexion, full of desire I am, thou also in a similar mood mayst become my wife according to the Gandharva form.'*

The king was from the race of Puru, only because of that Shakuntala relies on him. Though she makes a condition against the king that if she will give the birth to a son because of their married life and physical relationship, he will be the crown prince of his kingdom. The king is so blind in love that he agrees to this condition at once.7

Mahabharatakara says, "Shakuntala, having listened to all this, answered, 'If this be the course sanctioned by religion, if, indeed, I am my own disposer, hear, O thou foremost one of Puru's race, what my terms are. Promise truly to give me what I ask thee. The son that shall be begotten on me shall become thy heir-apparent. This, O king, is my fixed resolve. O Dushmanta, if thou grant this, then let our union take place.'

"Vaisampayana continued, 'The monarch, without taking time to consider at once told her, 'Let it be so. I will even take thee, O thou of agreeable smiles, with me to my capital. I tell thee truly. O beautiful one, thou deservest all this.' And so saying, that first of kings wedded the handsome Sakuntala of graceful gait, and knew her as a husband. And assuring her duly, he went away, telling her repeatedly, 'I shall send thee, for thy escort, my troops of four classes. Indeed, it is even thus that I shall take thee to my capital, O thou of sweet smiles!"*

The same Raja (king) who talked about ‘Dharmakamarthah’ to Shakuntala before marriage, not only rejects her when she goes to his palace but also humiliates and disgraces her in unspeakable terms.8 He questions her moral character as,

"…. 'I do not remember anything. Who art thou, O wicked woman in ascetic guise? I do not remember having any connection with thee in respect of Dharma, Kama and Arthas.'*

And even heaps slander on the whole female race.9 He says, ‘Women generally speak untruths.’

He questions the parentage of her son, ‘O Sakuntala, I do not know having begot upon thee this son.’* ‘Who shall believe in thy words? Thou sayest he is a boy, but he is very strong. How hath he soon grown like a Sala sprout?’* He degrades her birth and her own parentage as lowly, ‘Thy birth is low.

Thou speakest like a lewd woman.’ 10 ‘Lustfully hast thou been begotten by Menaka.’*

The king gives comments about her parents as, your mother is a prostitute, your father is a libidinous person and they both are cruel.

‘Destitute of all affection, the lewd Menaka is thy mother, and she cast thee off on the surface of the Himavat as one throws away, after the worship is over, the flowery offering made to his gods. Thy father too of the Kshatriya race, the lustful Viswamitra, who was tempted to become a Brahmana, is destitute of all affection. However, Menaka is the first of Apsaras, and thy father also is the first of Rishis. Being their daughter, why dost thou speak like a lewd woman? Thy words deserve no credit. Art thou not ashamed to speak them, especially before me? Go hence, O wicked woman in ascetic guise. Where that is foremost of great Rishis, where also is that Apsara Menaka? And why art thou, low as thou art, in the guise of an ascetic? Thy child too is grown up.’*

All kind of these painstaking and meticulous humiliation and rigorous dishonour and even her each and every genuine effort to prove herself unadulterated or pure, she does not become able to realize her spotlessness or purity and her son’s parentage to the monarch. Finally the graceful superb lady concludes the whole shameful, humiliating and embarrassing episode with challenging the eminent great emperor that she is capable enough to nurture and nurture her child single handedly, without any type of his facilitation. After all, her son will be capable to rule all over the earth, which is bordered by the seas and the king of the mountain by four-sides.

“…If thou placest no credit in my words, I shall of my own accord go hence. Indeed, thy companionship should be avoided. But thou, O Dushmanta, that when thou art gone, this son of mine shall rule the whole Earth surrounded by the four seas and adorned with the king of the mountains.”*

As noted critics like Rabindranath Tagore and Umashankar Joshi point out, Kalidasa’s Shakuntala is so lost in love. That the question of any condition, before or after marriage does not even arise.11-12 Even though Kalidasa shows that Dusyanta lies to Madhavya: ‘Friend Madhavya, my reverence for the hermits draws me the hermitage. Do not think that I am really in love with the hermit-girl. Just think:

A king and a girl of the calm hermit-grove, Bred with fawns, and a stranger to love! Then do not imagine a serious quest; The light words I uttered were spoken in jest.’

It is Maharsi Kanva-father of Shakuntala, who is so anxious for Shakuntala’s fate considering her as some one else’s treasure. He says, ‘A girl is held in trust, another’s treasure.’*

Kanva gives her a blessing to be as happy as SHarmistha with Yayati. ‘Like Sharmishtha,Yayati’s wife, win favour measured by your worth:’* (Act 4-9).

Sharangarava, a disciple of Maharsi Kanva, comes with Shakuntala at Dusyanta’s capital to leave her. After the rejection of Shakuntala by the king he gives his comment as, if any lady is holy but living in her  father’s house after marriage is blameworthy for society.

‘Because the world suspects a wife,

Who does not share her husband’s lot,

Her kinsmen wish her to abide

With him although he love her not.’* (Act 5-17)

Gautamee tells Shakuntala to recall the king’s memory. At that time Shakuntala tries to recollect his memory about their relations by showing his ring which is gifted by him but she did not find that ring on her finger. And she utters, ‘oh, oh! the ring is lost.’* As in response Gautamee says, ‘My child, you

worshipped the holy Ganges at spot where Indra descended. The ring must have fallen there.’* And the king says, ‘Ladies are with ready wit.’*

Shakuntala tries to recall the memory of the king with some anecdotes of kind love, which had taken place between them, the great Paurava monarch replies, ‘It is just such women, selfish, sweet, false, that entice fools.’*

The king says to Gautamee that female in beasts like cuckoo is sly and lefts her eggs in the nest of craw, the female in human race are naturally more cunning.

‘The female’s untaught cunning may be seen

In beasts, far more in women selfish-wise;

The cackoo’s eggs are left to hatch and rear

By foster-parents, and away she flies.’* (Act 5-22)

Here, he does not insult and degrade only Shakuntala but the whole women race. A well-known feminist and historian Romila Thapar remarks in her ‘Shakuntala’ as, ‘This contrasts with epic version, where Dusyanta is abusive towards Shakuntala and her parentage, but not about woman in general.’15

But, the reality is different. We can see in Mahabharata also that Dusyanta gives negative remarks for women-in-general: like, women are liars. The apparent and reputed personality like ruler or emperor gives such disgusting and sickening comments for the whole women race and upbraids it, then what else positive behavior will we expect from a common man? Perhaps it is a mock-up or reflection of the whole society of that age.

Another frightful and unpleasant incidence takes place and suggests the real position and situation of the women in that society. After the complete rejection from the king, frightened, startled, weeping and dejected Shakuntala wants to go back to her father’s protection. But the disciples of Maharsi Kanva and Gautamee do not agree to take Shakuntala back to her father’s asylum. Sharangarava rebuked her very rudely and points out the proper position of married women in these ruthless and unsympathetic words,

‘If you deserve such scorn and blame,

What will your father with your shame?

But if you know your vows are pure,

Obey your husband and endure.’* (Act 5-27)

The status of a pure woman in that society resides in living as the servant of her husband, who says that the husband has all the rights over his wife.

When Shakuntala chides by the king because of Durvasa’s shapa (curse)16 (Act 5-12, 22), Rabindranath Tagore puts the situation as, ‘… it is as if the forest has been kindled unable to accept the cruel rejection of the king’,17 it is a condition or situation of nature i.e. prak?ti; but what about the human beings? The cruel rebuttal of the king, Kalidasa’s Shakuntala seeks refuge in the lap of mother earth.

Where the daughter is taken as another’s property, where the birth of the only male child is a thing to aspiration, where the wife is considered as the slave of her husband and husband’s unlimited authority over wife is approved by whole society and where the woman is disgusted for her parentage in front of a chock-a-blocked assembly and even a king gives sickening comments for the whole women race: then, how can one even talk about self dignity or independence or equality of all human creatures in reference of woman?

Romila Thapar remarks in her ‘Shakuntala’ as, ‘The image of Shakuntala as the child of the ashrama is hemmed in by the way in which a woman is viewed in a wider context, which view is apparent from other comments in the play. It is a view that reinforces submission and inferiority. It is said that a woman can be virtually a goddess but remains emotionally vulnerable, therefore weak.’18

Both the stories, related with ancient Indian time, show the injustice with women in society and contravention of the fundamental human rights.

On 10th December 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.19

The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

We find the contraventions of some fundamental Human Rights, which are declared by UN, in these tales, are as follows:

* Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

* Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

* Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

* Article 4. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

* Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

* Article 9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

* Article 13. (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country

* Article 25. (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

We find the contraventions of some fundamental Human Rights, which are declared by Indian Pinal Code, in these tales, are as follows:

* Section 406. Whoever commits criminal breach of trust shell be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.

* Section 493. Every man who deceit causes any women who is not lawfully married to him and so cohabit or have sexual intercourse with him in that belief, shell be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years.

* Section 494. Wherever, having a husband or wife living, marries in any case in which such marriage is void by reason of its taking place during the life of such husband or wife, shell be punished with

imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to seven years, and shell liable to fine.


1. Rigveda : 7-1-24

2. BrihadaraNyakopanisad : 3-6 & 8

3. BrihadaraNyakopanisad : 2 & 5

4. Manusmriti : 3-9

5. Kautileeya Arthashastra : 3-3-59

6. Kautileeya Arthashastra : 3-3-59

7. Sukthankar,V.S., Mahabharata, Vol.-1, Adiparva: 1933, BORI, 1933-66

8. Sukthankar,V.S., Mahabharata, Vol.-1, Adiparva: 1933, BORI, 1933-66

9. 1-68-24,Sukthankar,V.S., Mahabharata, Vol.-1, Adiparva: 1933, BORI, 1933-66

10. 1-69-1, Sukthankar,V.S., Mahabharata, Vol.-1, Adiparva: 1933, BORI, 1933-66

11. Tagore, Ravindranath, Prachin Kavita, , Guj. Tr. Desai, Mahadevbhai H., Parikh, Narahari D., Gujarat Vidyapith, Ahmedabad. Reprint-1976, p.-32

12. Umashankar, Gurjar Granth-ratn Karyalaya, Ahmedabad. 4th Edi., 2006

13. Joshi, Umashankar, Abhijnanashakuntalam, ACT-1, Gurjar Granth-ratn Karyalaya, Ahmedabad. 4th Edi., 2006, Prastavana, p.-49

14. Joshi, Umashankar, Abhijnanashakuntalam, Act-4-24, Gurjar Granth-ratn Karyalaya, Ahmedabad. 4th Edi., 2006

15. Thapar, Romila, Shakuntala, Columbia University Press,1984, First India,1999, P.73

16.  Joshi, Umashankar, Abhijnanashakuntalam, Act-5, Gurjar Granth-ratn Karyalaya, Ahmedabad. 4th Edi., 2006

17. Tagore, Ravindranath, Prachin Kavita, Guj. Tr. Desai, Mahadevbhai H., Parikh, Narahari D., Gujarat Vidyapith, Ahmedabad. Reprint-1976, P.-45

18. Thapar, Romila, Shakuntala, Columbia University Press,1984, First India,1999, Pp.72,73

19. www.The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.mht

Publised On: Jan 28, 2017

Swati shah

Author: Swati shah


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