In Hinduism, a man and a woman form a whole. They are two halves of the eternal Being, and each is incomplete in itself. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Prajapati, who is the primordial God, has 2 parts-man and woman. Man represents Purusha (the Person, Spirit), while woman represents Prakriti (Nature, Primal Matter). The two unite, and their union keeps the world going.
Marriage as an Ideal Marriage brings together complementary opposites for pleasure, children, and self-fulfillment. As equal halves, husband and wife are partners in joy and sorrow and in the task of fulfilling the four aims of life - dharma (ethical perfection), artha (material advancement), kama (pleasure), and moksha (liberation). As each has different natural functions and social obligations, neither is superior to the other. The partners have to abandon their individual identities to become one at all levels - physical, mental, and psychical - before the material relationship turns into a spiritual one.
The Vedas do not claim that a woman is a man’s property. Neither does it say that her role is subordinate to that of her husband.
This is evident from the Rig Veda Sukta related to the marriage of the Sun’s daughter, Surya, with the Asvina twins: Enter your house as the household’s mistress. May authority in speech ever be yours!’ 10.85.26).’Watch over this house as mistress of the home. Unite yourself wholly with your husband’ (10.85.27). ‘Here dwell ye, be not parted; enjoy full age, play and rejoice with sons and grandsons in your own house’ (10.85.42). ‘Act like a queen over your husband’s father, over your husband’s mother likewise, and his sister. Over all your husband’s brothers be queen’ (10.85.46).
During a Hindu marriage, the bridegroom promises his companionship on a footing of equality to the bride when he holds her hand. When he tells her to step on the stone, he desires that she will be strong like it. Other marriage rites - the oblation of parched grain, circumambulation around the fire, and the taking of seven steps by the bride - are also meant to dignify the bride. Once she takes the seventh step, the bridegroom tells the bride that they have become friends. Friendship suggests equality, not submission. Before the bride leaves her parental home, the bridegroom reiterates the same feelings.
Thus, even the ancient Hindu scriptures have decreed that in an ideal Hindu marriage, the girl is a valued human being and not a mere commodity or slave.
The Wife as an Equal Half
The Hindu woman as life partner has 4 dimensions. She is Ardhangini, meaning ‘one half of the husband’, Sahadharmini, meaning ‘a partner in the fulfillment of human and divine goals’, Sahakarmini which means ‘a part of all her husband’s actions’ and lastly, Sahayogini, meaning ‘one who cooperates with him in all his endeavors.’. Together, a husband and wife are referred to as Dampati, meaning ‘joint owners of the household’, who share work and responsibilities in terms of their biological, psychological, and individual dharma.
As a wife, a Hindu woman can also take part in religious rites and ceremonies. Some sacrifices like the Sita harvest sacrifice, Rudrayaga (for suitable sons-in-law), or Rudrabali for material prosperity are performed by women only. Gobhila and Asvalayana (Hindu lawgivers) have stated that no ritual or sacrifice is complete (sampurna) without the wife’s presence.
Rama, for instance, had a golden statue of Sita to make up for her absence during his Ashwamedha sacrifice. In the Ramayana, Queen Kausalya (mother of Rama) offers oblations to Agni, while Tara, wife of Vali, performs the Svastyayana ritual for Vali’s success against Sugriva.
Women of those days were well-versed in the Vedas. Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas, was a Brahmavadini (a woman who strives for greater universal consciousness), and Tara was an expert in reciting mystic syllables. Others like Oghavati, Arundhati, and Sulabha had a good knowledge of the Vedas. They even imparted religious knowledge to Rishis. The spiritual attainments of Savitri and Anusuya are well known. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad talks of wise women like Maitreyi and Gargi. While the former renounced wealth for wisdom, the latter had a debate with Sage Yajnavalkya at King Janaka’s court. Bharati, the wife of Mandana Misra, was the judge in the philosophic debate between her husband and Shankaracharya. As her husband was losing the debate, she told Shankaracharya that for his victory to be complete, he had to defeat her, as she was her husband’s better half.
Married women could talk and debate independently, as the Vedas gave them such rights. The Rig Veda says that the wife is the home (jayedastam). Manu says that fathers, brothers, husbands, and brothers-in-law should honor women. “Where women are honored, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honored, no sacred rites yield rewards.”
According to Manu, the perfect man is the one who forms a trinity that includes his wife, himself, and their progeny, The wife is a gift from the Gods, and the husband should support her till the end of her life. Manu also recommended capital punishment for killers of women and exempted pregnant and old women from paying fines.
The Dharmashastras declare that a man cannot abandon his wife even if she commits adultery or is raped. Even when she did wrong things, he had to feed her and look after her well.
Kalidasa wrote that women follow their husband as moonlight follows the moon or lightning the cloud. His implication was that they were not different from each other. The Hindu scriptures stress the need for harmony between husband and wife for preserving family peace and prosperity. Harmony is based on understanding, which is possible only among equals.
In Hinduism, Shakti, or the Mother Goddess, is no less powerful than her consort Shiva, the Destroyer, or other major Hindu gods. Shakti had to intervene in various forms when the male gods proved incapable of killing ferocious demons. Parvati taught Shiva that food was not an illusion, as it implied that she herself was an illusion. When she vanished, Nature itself came to a standstill. This made Shiva realize that he was incomplete without Shakti. He appeared before her with a begging bowl and apologized for saying that food was Maya.
Nothing else exemplifies the concept of Ardhangini more than the form of Ardhanarishwara, where Shiva and Parvati form 2 halves of a whole, signifying that male and female principles cannot be separated. Together, they represent cosmic energy and the unity of opposites in the universe, which creates the true rhythm of life.