Category Archives: Gender Issues

Women and Fertility

The Maiden
Ideals about women have not changed drastically throughout the centuries. For example, information about women’s rituals wasn’t much valued as a high priority for scribes to write down, although interest in this subject is growing little is still known. One of the most widely known texts that have sections dedicated to women, was written of, and looked to as an enforcing factor on norm stability are The Laws Of Manu. What was suitable for women and what was not is still looked up to today for what is suitable and is not. A good example would be to quote Manu (Manu 76-77) on the strict specifications oh how to choose a suitable bride;

Let him not marry a maiden (with) reddish (hair), nor one who has a redundant member, nor one who is sickly, nor one either with too little hair (on body) or too much, nor one who is garrulous or has red (eyes), nor one named after a constellation, a tree, or a river, nor one named of a low caste, or a mountain, nor one named after a bird, a snake, or a slave, nor one whose name inspires terror. Let him wed a female free of bodily defects, who has an agreeable name, the (graceful) gait of an elephant, a moderate (quantity of) hair on the body and on the head, small teeth, and soft limbs. But a prudent man should not marry (a maiden) who has no brother, nor one whose father is not known, through fear lest (in the former case she be made) an appointed daughter (and in the latter) lest (he commit) to sin.

In the first part of this passage Manu is very specific about how high the importance of beauty is among choosing a bride. A “homely” woman would have a hard time finding a husband without an arranged marriage. It is said that the bride must be beautiful in order to invoke her husband’s desire for her. If she were not desirable to him, he would have a hard time finding the will to produce a child with her (Fruzzetti 46). With the latter part, it is assumed that a young Hindu man would not want to marry a woman with no brother because if he did then responsibility would fall upon him to take care of her mother (if she is still around). To marry a women to whom the father is unknown, the young man would not know who or of what caste her father was, or even if she was a legitimate child, either of these could lead to very bad things, even as severe as being disowned/disgracing his family.

Coming Of Age
Menstrual blood is considered to be especially polluting, although there is ambiguity here since some classical texts treat menstrual blood as the female seed which joins with the male semen to produce a child. Some tantric practices take the approach of using female discharges, such as menstrual blood, as a ritual drink- the idea being to use the most powerful female pollution to overcome all other pollutions (Coward 3) .

It is felt that the coming of a girl’s menstruation is a sure sign of her readiness for marriage.
(Fruzzetti 69-67) Even though this is a welcoming sign of the daughter’s fertility it also becomes a fear. The fear blooms from the idea that now the young girl is fertile [viewed as being fully grown] she will now be a temptation to the other men of the house. Marriage is the only way of removing the potential occurrence of impure acts. (Fruzzetti 96-97)

As hinted above, a girl’s chastity is viewed as very important; this stress on keeping your daughter chaste also goes into marrying her off to a suitable son of an equal, or possibly higher, caste as soon as possible to limit the time in between that she could tempt other males (Coward 18).

A Male Heir

Not in all cases is menstruation viewed as impure or polluting. It is sometimes viewed as the female creative power, paralleling that of the male semen. In Post-Vedic mythology, menstrual blood sometimes appears as a symbol of the passion of women. In primitive physiology, menstrual blood, rather than the ovum was viewed as the female component which combined with the male seed to produce conception (Coward 29). The most common reference is viewed as the cultivation of a field. The women being the field, men being the farmers which plough, seed, and farm [like Sita- who is born of the earth and goes back into the earth. Women regard themselves as mother earth] (Coward 36).

Conceptualization of a child is a very important goal among the Hindus’ householder stage, marriage. Even though the birth of the first child is a splendid occasion, it tends to be even more splendid if it is a baby boy. There is a type of equation that Manu (83-87) had figured out. In which he had come to the conclusion that there were certain days a women was in season, 16 days and nights – including four days which are censured by the virtuous, among these days he believed that the numerology of the days also contribute to determining the sex of the child. If the child was conceived in an even day it would end up being a boy; if the child was conceived on an odd day it would come out being a girl. Manu also believed that a son is produced by a larger amount of male seed- leading to the unwritten conclusion that a male with a low sperm count will only be able to produce females, if any children at all.

The importance of birthing a son is captured wholly in the idea that the male blood line is continued through the sons using the wife’s body as a vessel. Blood transmission is made possible by the wife’s body being a receptacle and a transmitter. Women then are thought of as being the only means in which a man can continue his line and transmit his ancestral blood. This immortality of the line is made possible by the birth of male children through the wife (Fruzzetti 24).

Bibliography and Other Recommended Readings

Fruzzetti, Lina (1989) The gift of a virgin: women, marriage, and ritual in a Bengali Society. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Coward, Harold G (1989) Hindu ethics: purity, abortion, and euthanasia. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Chitgopekar, Nilima (2002) Invoking goddesses: gender politics in Indian religion. New Delhi: Shakti Books.

Buhler, G.[translated by Buhler from Manu’s original work] (1964) Laws of Manu. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Everett, Jana Matson (1979) Women and social change in India. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Desai, Neera (1987) Women and society in India. Delhi: Ajanta Publications.

Dhruvarajan, Vanaja (1989) Hindu women and the power of ideology. Granby, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey.

Related Topics for further investigation

Anandamayi Ma
Sita as Mother Earth
Caste system
Vedic Numerology

Related websites

Written by Phelicia Hamilton (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.