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Education of Women in Ancient and Medieval India

Dr. Jyotsna K Kamat

Paper published in "Perspectives in Education" 
Dharwad 1980 
(Sadashiva Wodeyar's 50th Birthday Felicitation Volume) 

"The skill of a teacher imparted to a worthy student attains greater excellence as the water of a cloud is turned into a pearl in a sea-shell", exclaims teacher Ganadasa, a creation of Kalidasa in Malavikagnimitram [1]. This remark was the result of observing for quite some time that whatever graceful movement was taught to Malavika, was so well received by her that it seemed she taught him back by improving on it! In ancient India as in any other country of all times, it was the dream of a teacher to get good students and see the fulfilment of his attainment in them. How far they could fulfill this eternal dream with the help of the society, is a worthwhile study. This article deals with only a few examples on certain facets of female education of the period.

In Vedic times, there was no discrimination of sex in the field of studies. A particular mantra was prescribed to beget a learned daughter in Brihadaranyaka upanishad [2]. In the same upanishad, we find Gargi and Maitreyi distinguishing themselves in Brahmavidya, the highest knowledge. In the grihyasutras are found several mantras to be recited by women and the commentary on Gobhilagrihyasutras, states that the female-folk should be taught, for without such studies they cannot perform agnihotra sacrifice [3]. Both Panini and Patanjali refer to women admitted to Vedic study. Thus a woman-student of the Katha school was called a Kathi, and the Rigvedic Bahvricha school, Bahvrichi. Female students were also admitted to the study of mimamsa and the one who studied mimamsa-sutra of the sage Kasakritsna is called Kasakritsna. There were chhatri (lady students) and Upadhyayi (Lady teachers)[4].

This trend of liberal female education declined in the period that followed. The right of women for initiation to Vedic studies by way of upanayana seems to have receded slowly, though we find mention of learned women in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. By the time of the smritis, their education came to be limited to domestic and vocational studies only, by which they could become good housewives. Santoshkumar Das feels that it is probably the early foreign invasions of India which may account for the exclusion of women from Vedic studies. "In almost every nation of the world, in the primitive stages of its development, the early ideas about the inferiority of the female sex prevailed - When the people of Hindustan who had already attained to a high degree of civilization came in contact with their first foreign rulers, far less civilized than they, they might have adopted those rules concerning the position of women, which belonged peculiarly to an imperfect civilization [5]". Our country is known for assimilating outer influences and giving coloring of its own. It is not unlikely that this alien custom become slowly part of the Indian society.

However, the study of the fine arts like dance, music, painting and practice of innumerable crafts continued. Vatsyayana enumerates duties of a housewife which included planting in her garden, rows of trees, flower and fruit plants and medicinal herbs, cooking, spinning, pounding, grinding, knowledge of wages of servants and their disbursement, the care and welfare of cattle, knowledge of constructing conveyances, looking after domestic pets, reckoning of daily income and expenditure and careful supervision of purchases and sales [6]. Vatsyayana also lists sixty-four arts which were to be mastered by women which included besides those given above, reading of books (pustaka-vachanam), preparing medicines, recitation of difficult slokas (durvachakayoga), knowledge of dramas and stories (natakakhyanaka - darsanam), knowledge of languages of different countries (desabhasha-vijnanam) and knowledge of science of physical exercise and development of body (vyayamikanam vidyanam jnanam)[7].

Vatsyayana makes it clear that these accomplishments could also be vocational. "A woman gifted with these arts will by these means maintain herself well when her husband is in exile, when she is suffering from some great trouble or has become widowed or even when living in a foreign country [8]".

From Vatsyayana again, we learn about the degree of independence enjoyed by a punarbhu or remarried widow. Though she lost religious status, she had more leisure and cultivated a greater knowledge of the arts, took part in sports, excursions, and festivities, which usually the wife in the house missed [9].

It may be noted that all available material regarding education of women pertains to more or less three classes viz., women of royalty or nobility, the courtezans and the nuns. Hence Vatsyayana can be taken as an important source for our knowledge about the accomplishments of women of the middle class.

The courtezans occupied a special status in the society and cultivated various types of arts and crafts to distinguish themselves in their profession. In Dasakumaracharita, we get glimpses of education, the members of this class received. At a very young age, they were carefully instructed in the arts of dancing, acting, playing musical instruments, singing, painting, preparing perfumes and flowers, in reading, writing and expressing themselves with elegance and wit, even in outlines of grammar, logic and astrology. They were also taught to play various games with skill and dexterity, how to dress well and show themselves off [10].

This curriculum of studies is common with the one Vatsyayana prescribes for housewives in the 64 arts and does honour to the country which evolved a system including all the elements for a course of 'Home Science' which any modern women's university would have appreciated.

In the following centuries also, the courtesan class tried to keep up the tradition of accomplishments. In Damodara Gupta's Kuttanimatam (9th century A.D.), we find a refined vesya besides specializing in the books on science of sex, studied natyasastra of Bharata, treatises on art, music, vrikshayurveda (treatment of plants) painting, needlework, woodwork, metalwork, clay-modeling, cookery, playing instrumental music, singing and dancing [11]".

This age did not lag behind in learned women. Vijjhika, Vikatanitamba, and Avantisundari contributed their mite in enriching Sanskrit poetry. Poet Rajasekhara, who met accomplished princesses, poetesses, daughters of the nobility and the courtezans, exclaimed that culture is connected with the soul and not with the sex [12]. He quotes his wife Avantisundari's opinion thrice in his Kavya-mimamsa giving rise to the assumption that she herself was the author of some work on poetics [13].

Women of Buddistic and Jaina faiths had comparatively more freedom to pursue the path of knowledge because womanhood was no bar to salvation as per their respective precepts. From Asokan times we find women becoming preceptors and nuns and even going outside India for teaching Buddhism. Among the women authors of the Therigatha (stories of nuns) 32 were unmarried women and 18 were married ones. When so large a number of women were leading a life of celibacy, in pursuit of religion and philosophy, it is but natural that the average level of intelligence and education among them must have been fairly high according to Dr. Altekar [14]. Hiuen Tsang has observed that Rajyasri, the sister of Harshavardhana was of great intelligence and distinguished for her knowledge of Sammatiya school of Buddhism. She sat along with the king and seemed to appreciate the learned discourse of Hiuen Tsang on the Mahayana doctrine [15].

We hear of a large number of women in Jaina texts who distinguished themselves as teachers and preachers [16]. We also come across women who dressed in men's attire, putting on armour, equipped with weapons, arms, shields etc. [17]. It is interesting to know that in the 14th century, in Gujarat, the university of Tapogaccha conferred various degrees on women like, Ganini, Pravartini, Mahattara etc. These titles or degrees mean a leader of a Gana, a worker, and a great lady respectively. The names of the women on whom the above degrees were conferred are also mentioned in the work [18].

In Karnataka, we have illustrious examples of queens and princesses who distinguished themselves not only in various fine arts but also in the field of administration. There were great patrons of learning like Attimabbe [19] and Sovaladevi [20]. In the days when sword reigned supreme, these women philanthrophists tried to spread education by giving numerous grants. Attimabbe patronised poet Ranna and popularised Ponna, by getting one thousand copies of his Santi-purana copied and distributed free. Her great gift which later generations should remember with gratitude, is this gift of books, which led to diffusion of learning and raised our cultural level. The heroes, fighters, administrators and builders who strode that world of her time are not remembered; but she is remembered and will be remembered as long as Kannada language lives, because of the writings of her protégés Ponna and Ranna.

Women connoisseurs of art and literature were quite common. There used to be learned (vidagdha), skilful in the use of words (vakya-chature), witty and humorous (parihasavinodi), who could appreciate the import of, and sentiment of literature (sahityarasabhavajna), and expert reconteurs (kathana-kovida) women in the palace according to Manasollasa [21].

The Virasaiva movement set in motion liberating influences among which emancipation of women was one. The women apostles like Akkamahadevi, Moligeya Mahadevi, Viradevi, the reciter (uggadisuva kanne), Sivamayidevi, the reconteur of moral stories, and other Siva-saranes (saints), helped in the spread of education by imparting the spiritual message. They reached the poor, the humble and the illiterate. Their aim was to make the people aware of the highest products of the human mind, rather than make them read, write and cipher. Indeed culture, not literacy, was the highest aim of education in ancient India.

Basava Purana of Bhima mentions various instruments played by women, like maddale, kahale, flute, tala etc [22]. A detailed survey of different temples of Karnataka reveal that, the educated and accomplished women are very well represented in the sculptures of different periods. In a sculpture of Vijayanagara times, a lady student (Fig. 1) is engrossed in learning a string-instrument from her teacher. In another sculpture of the same period an elderly village lady doctor is busy examining the pulse of her young patient (Fig. 2). A writing lady (Fig. 3) has been well depicted in a Hoysala sculpture of Belur. Similar instance is also found in Jalasangavi, in Bidar district. In a Chalukyan sculpture of Gadag, a lady student practicing archery (Fig. 4) is well represented. In a Lakkundi figure of the same period, a young lady is busy in exhibiting her gymnastic skills (Fig. 5). Wrestling ladies (Fig. 6) are carved on a pillar of a Hampi temple. In Pattadkal, a women dancer is shown practising to the tune of accompanied music (Fig. 7). Similar sculptures could be observed in almost all the temples of Karnataka.

Domingo Paes who visited Vijayanagara in the 16th century attests the evidence of these sculptures by stating that there were women who could wrestle, blow trumpets and horns, and handle sword [23]. He also describes how women were taught to dance inside the palace. There was a big hall with pillars, which had panels that showed positions at the end of a dance. If the students forgot the various poses, they were reminded of them by simply looking at the panels. There was a painted recess where women clung on with their bodies and legs to make their bodies supple [24].

Nuniz who came to Vijayanagara slightly later than Paes, observed that there were women in royal service who could wrestle and others who were astrologers and soothsayers, women who could write all the account of expenses that were incurred inside the gates and there were still others whose duty it was to record all the affairs of the kingdom, and compare their books with those of the writers outside. He further writes that there were judges, bailiffs and watchmen who guarded the palace and these were all women [25].

Doubtless, there existed an organised system of education which trained all these women for various occupations. We do not have evidence of public schools except the ones mentioned by Ibn Battuta (14th century A.D.), who had noticed 13 schools for girls along with 23 for boys in Honavar, like of which he "had not seen any where" [26]. He was a great traveller and had toured through much of the then known world and his observation carries great weight, that too, when he refers to Muslim girls who attended Public Schools without observing purda. The mode of educating women in ancient and medieval Karnataka was mainly domestic. We come across expressions like Oduva Honnamma and Oduva Tirumalamba signifying that there used to be staff to teach through reading classics, and other books [27]. The existence of such teachers and halls in the palaces provided instruction for the nobility and education on similar but modest lines must have existed for women of other classes.

This brief survey shows that women took in their stride the changing circumstances and adjusted themselves. In the Vedic age, they were equals of men. In middle ages their education became circumscribed; still those in the higher strata took advantage of education available. Now in modern times with facilities of co-education in all fields they have been doing as well as, if not better than men, provided they get equal opportunity to learn.

References and Notes:

  1. Malvikagnimitram, I. Vv. 5 and 6. 
  2. Brihadaranyakopanishad, 6, IV, 17. 
  3. S. K. Das; The Educational System of the Ancient Hindus, Calcutta, 1933, pp 224-225 (DAS). 
  4. V.S.Agrawala; India as known to Panini, Lucknow, 1953, p. 287. 
  5. DAS, p. 234-235. 
  6. Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, (Banares, 1929) I, iii, Sutra 15. 
  7. Ibid. verse 16. 
  8. Ibid. verse 23. 
  9. Ibid. sutra. 51 and 59. 
  10. M. R. Kale (Ed.), The Dasakumaracharita of Dandin, Bombay, 1926, pp. 66-67. 
  11. Dr. Suni Chandra Ray' Damodara Gupt's Kuttanimatam; its value as a source of Indian History. Indian History Congress Proceedings, 1957, p. 332.
  12. C. D. Dalal and R.A. Pandit (Ed.), Kavyamimamsa of Rajasekhara, Baroda, 1934. p. 53
  13. Ibid. p. 46. 
  14. A. S. Altekar; Education in Ancient India, Banares 1958, (Reprint) p. 210. 
  15. Samuel Beal; Life of Hiuen Tsang, London, 1914, p. 176. 
  16. Jagdishchandra Jain; Life in Ancient India as depicted in the Jain canons, Bombay, 1947, p. 154-155. 
  17. Ibid. p. 163. 
  18. Mysore Archaeological Reports, 1924, p. 14. 
  19. Ajitatirthankarapurana of Ranna, I, p. 46-75. 
  20. Epigraphia Carnatica, V, (ii) Ak. 123. She founded an educational centre compared to the academy of Valabhi. 
  21. G. K. Shrigondekar (Ed.), Manasollasa of Somesvara, Baroda, 1939, pt. II, Vv. 918-919. 
  22. R. C. Hiremath (Ed.); Basava Purana of Bhimakavi, Dharwar, 1971, I, ii. 42. 
  23. Robert Sewell; A Forgotten Empire (Reprint), New Delhi, 1970, p. 248-49. 
  24. Ibid. p. 276-277. 25. Ibid. p. 362-63. 
  25. Mahdi Hussain (Ed.); The Rehla of Ibn Battuta, Baroda, 1953, p. 170. 
  26. Epigraphia Indica XXIV, pp. 289; South Indian Inscriptions IX, ii, No. 458.

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