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The High Caste Hindu Woman: Where Women Are Chattel

Posted: May 8, 2012

The Early Indian Women Writers series reviews a few remarkable books by Indian women from the 1900 – 1950 period. 

Written over a hundred years ago, Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati’s The High Caste Hindu Woman feels relevant even today.

Review by Anjana Basu

What is right is that the ‘silence of a thousand years’ was broken with the writing of this book, The High-Caste Hindu Woman in 1888. Originally written in Marathi, it was translated into  English and sold in America. Profits from it were used to help destitute women in India. Before the book was published very few in America were aware of what conditions for women were like in India – though the knowledge was of course available in England.

Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati who lived a remarkable life for a woman in her time – wandering with her parents through India educated solely by her Brahmin father who believed that women deserved education, married in Calcutta after losing her entire family, widowed with a daughter and forced to fend for herself – set out to explain the laws of Manu and Hindu tradition and their effects on women.

In the course of her life, she had converted to Christianity feeling that it allowed for more freedom and been awarded scholarships to study in England. This added emancipation and scholarship gave her greater freedom to comment on the condition of women in India, though she confined herself to high caste women since she was familiar with their problems.

The book covers every stage of a high caste woman’s life, beginning with childhood, stating a woman’s place in religion and society so that Ramabai’s comments can be given a clear context and ending with an appeal for the betterment of women’s lives through the creation of an institution where high caste widows could be educated and cared for and taught to be independent – this she points out in an earlier chapter is against Manu’s laws, since women ‘are never fit for independence’.

Women, Ramabai writes, are chattels, as much part of the household as livestock. They are forbidden access to any kind of learning and are kept happy with ornaments and ‘dainty food together with an occasional bow’. Girl children are happy to get married young because they mistake their wedding finery and food for sudden welcome ‘cosseting’. And then of course there is ‘the worst and most dreaded period of a high caste woman’s life. Throughout India, widowhood is regarded as the punishment for a horrible crime or crimes committed by the woman in her former existence upon earth.’ And Sati, according to Ramabai, was introduced by a callous changing of a Vedic verse by the Brahmins.

Ramabai does not launch into any kind of rant against society. Very logically she points out that women by being unwilling to learn and giving in to slavery will in no way be capable of producing children who will do the nation proud. The sons of such mothers will only learn ‘fault-finding with neighbors, bitter feelings towards tyrant relatives expressed in words and actions, selfish interest in personal and family affairs’ since that is the only thing that high caste women confined to purdah are allowed to dabble in.

If society is to progress, women must be allowed to progress since pre natal influences on a unborn child are strong and a mother deprived of fresh air by being confined to purdah will not be able to produce a strong healthy child, whether male or female. ‘Moreover the Hindu woman’s ignorance prevents liberal-minded and progressive men from making necessary and important changes in the manners and habits of the household’.

Her solution to the problems she had enumerated is education, self reliance and ‘native women teachers’ – because American and English missionaries, while dedicated, are only capable of communicating in English.

All in all, given the age in which it was written, this is an admirable treatise and many of the things that Ramabai writes still hold good today. Child marriage, women’s education and the rights of widows, not to mention female foeticide, which she also touches upon, continue to be burning issues. Perhaps the book, which has been reissued, should be more widely circulated.

Publishers: BiblioLife

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  1. A very good review! I have learnt about her in the history classes but didn’t know she had written this book. And I do agree that the book should be in wide circulation esp because it deals with so many relevant issues.

  2. hi
    very interesting book it is. but still today our indian society is not allowing us to leave such rude caste-barriers..and making us to believe on that as a necessary condition to live, to marry anybody or to perform any ritual.

  3. We always talk about religion and castesim but in reality there is no any caste and religion. We all are same our blood are same.then why we believe in discrimination. God never created any caste they made simple human being.. Mentally sick people take the path of fundamentalism and spread casteism and communism. They suffer from inferiority complex and divide the society into “we” and “they”. They (belonging either to higher or lower ranked caste) have a fear in their heart that if they do not get a higher place for themselves in society, “other” people are going to exploit them and going to put them down.They don’t have believe on themselves and their own work. They have doubt own their capability. People with negative mindset suffer from inferiority complex and divide society into compartments like higher castes or lower castes.and can’t tolerate “others” progress or well-being. They cannot work hard and cannot tolerate anybody else’s achievements. These are the people with negative mindset who believe in ranking some belonging to higher castes and/or some to lower castes. They are coward and they are unable to protect themselves…

  4. All stupid people living in India that’s why this country cant be develop anymore as the other countries are well developed. Bcoz indian people live in caste-ism and egoist by nature especially who belong to upper class which is created by themselves not created by God.God only created human being..He didnt put any human in high and low category..This cheap things only created by some mad people itself who live in India..and they be proud by called themselves hindu..I am also hindu but I feel bad when every person who proudly said they are hindu but their thinking is so narrow minded..now its depend on human what they want to become Devil or Angel..Nobody is lower and higher by caste or religion..they become high and low by their behavior..Reservation should be stop itself when you all leave this stupid casteism..Say no caste and no community..All are hindu who live in hindustaan understood..

  5. sheetal chaudhary -

    Having different castes is not a problem but treating castes differently is a point where the problem arises. Caste is something which divide our nation into groups and not let them get interact. Other big issue after caste is women’s education. If you educate a woman you educate a family. So for the progress of our country we have to come ahead and try every means to solve these issues.

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