Hindu society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was characterised by
conflicting trends of liberalism and catholicity on the one hand and
exclusiveness and conservatism on the other.
Some of the Vaishnava and Tantric teachers recognized, to some extent,
the religious and social rights of women as also of the Sudras. Some non
Brahmin followers of Chaitanya became spiritual preceptors (gurus) not only
of the three lower castes but also of Brahmins. In Maharashtra Tukaram, a
Sudra, and in the Brahmaputra valley Sankardev and Madhavdev, who were
Kayasthas, had Brahmin disciples.
But the Brahmin authors of the nibandhas tried to maintain the integrity of
the ancient socio-religious system (varnasrama dharma) by regulating the
life and conduct of all classes of Hindus in the minutest details in conformity
with traditional caste rules. Some writers of’ the Smriti nibandhas had royal
patrons and their injunctions carried political sanction. One of them, Keshava
Pandit, was a judge under the Maratha King Sambhaji.
But there were eminent authors like Raghunandan and Ramnath of
Bengal, Pitambar of Kamarup and Kamalakar Bhatta of Maharashtra whose
authority was accepted by the Hindu society even though it was not backed
by royal patronage. Their influence effectively counteracted the liberal
trends. They raised their voice against the usurping of the privileges of the
Brahmins by the lower castes.
Position of Women
Purdah System With the advent of Islam, new forces appeared on the
Indian horizon. Strict veiling of women was the common practice among the
Muslims in their native land. Naturally in a foreign country like India, greater
stress was laid upon it. The Hindus adopted purdah as a protective measure.
The tendency to imitate the ruling class was another factor which operated in
favour of introducing purdah among the Hindu families. Seclusion thus
became a sign of respect and was strictly observed among the high-class
families of both communities. Barbosa has referred to the strict observation
of purdah by the women of Bengal. Barring some notable Muslim families,
the south Indians did not adopt purdah. In the Vijayanagar Empire, purdah
was confined only to the members of the royal household. No such coercive
purdah system was observed among the Hindu middle classes and certainly