past according to most social reformers, was
Rammohun Roy wrote of women who were “forced upon the pyre,” “bound”
with ropes so they would perish with their husbands. Vidyasagar wrote of
customs which had “hampered the evolution of her [woman’s] faculties,” and
D. K. Karve wrote of a caste widow who “fell victim to the passion of some
brute.” According to reformers, these customs were perverted, twisted,
distorted practices born of ignorance and fear and followed without recourse
to common sense.
The first generation of Western-educated young men had evoked reason as
the touchstone for both ideas and action. These later advocates of social
reform combined rationalism with their appeal to revive the golden age.
According to Vivekananda, there should be no hesitation in applying the full
panoply of Western analytical methods to the “science of religion.” Similarly,
Swami Dayanand made it clear that he would not defend “the falsehoods” of
the Hindu religion but would unveil them just as he had exposed the errors of
other religions. The tests of reason, of course, supported the social system
these reformers claimed had existed during the golden age.
Changing the Lives of Women
Condition of Women before Reform What do we know about women’s
lives on the eve of this transformation? There are, of course, the records of
the reformers (mentioned earlier), but these are tainted by polemics.
Constructing a clear picture of the lives of women before colonial rule is
difficult, although recent feminist scholarship has added a great deal to our
view of the past. The pre-British records include an abundance of prescriptive
texts, but few documents that shed light on the actual lives of women.
Tryambakayajvan’s Stridharmapaddhati (“Guide to the Religious Status and
Duties of Women”) is the only extant work totally devoted to women’s
duties. Written in the eighteenth century, before the reformist programs, this
text describes the lives of women from the highest ranking, land-holding
Unfortunately, “there are no references to women agricultural labourers,
market women, or any of the vast army of women who must have been living
and working outside the context of the court.”
Among the higher castes, the female child spent her youth preparing for