Treatment of Hindu Women in Ancient India

Hindu Women

H.H. Sir Bhagvat Singh Jee

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Editor's Note: The information is provided here for its historical and academic value, not for any treatment or diagnosis. The practices, code of conduct, rites and rituals which are mentioned by the author with regard to the treatment of women during their pregnancy, etc., are for information purposes only and should not be taken literally. Some people may find the content outdated, regressive and distasteful according to their worldviews and present-day standards.

A WOMAN is considered nubile (grown up or fit for marriage and motherhood) during the menstrual epoch, which lasts generally from the twelfth to about the fiftieth year. During the menstrual flow she is strictly prohibited from intercourse with her husband. She is enjoined to sleep on a grass bed, to shed no tears, and to take no bath. She is not to pare her nails, and should neither run nor speak aloud. She should not apply oil or sandal to her body; and she should take care not to expose herself to inclement weather.

Any disregard of these rules is regarded as being injurious to the offspring. If she cries during the monthly period, the child will contract an eye disease. The smearing of the body with oil will make the child leprous. If she sleeps during the day it will become dull and sluggish. It will become deaf if she hears a very great noise, and insane if she speaks too loudly.

Time for conception

The period for impregnation is the first sixteen days after the appearance of the menses; of these, however, the first four days are not recommended. The best ​period for conception is from the fifth to the sixteenth day. Conception takes place by the union of the fecundating Retas (sperm) of the male with the Rajas (germ) of the female. It is believed that should the conception be on even days, — that is to say, on the sixth, eighth, tenth, or twelfth day, — the sex of the infant will be male if on an odd day the sex will be female.

Sex determination

Some are of opinion that a male child is formed when the mixture has a stronger element of retas (male fluid) and that when "Rajas" or the germ predominates a female child is formed. If the male fluid is divided into two by the "local wind," twins result. The sex of the infant in the womb can be determined by certain signs.

In the case of a male foetus the form of the uterus is round the right eye appears larger than the left the right breast begins to secrete milk before the left the right thigh becomes more plump the countenance looks bright and cheerful the woman desires food of a "masculine" *[1] kind, and dreams of mangoes and water lilies.

In the case of a ​female foetus, the opposite are the signs, and the form of the uterus is ovoid.

Twins are diagnosed by a median depression along the abdomen.

When the sides of the woman become full, and the belly protuberant, and when the form of the uterus is hemispherical, the womb is supposed to contain an impotent. Impotents are of five kinds, namely, Asekya, Sugandhi, Kumbhika, Irshyaka and Shanda. The last is absolutely impotent, possessing no virile power whatever. The rest are relatively so, more or less.

Barren women

Barren women are divided into five classes, and are known by the names of Kaka vandhya (crow-barren), who bears only once in a lifetime like the crows, which are supposed to lay eggs only once Anapatya, who is incapable of conceiving at all Garbha sravi, who can conceive but always miscarries Mrita vatsa, whose offspring do not survive their birth and Balakshaya, who is sterile on account of physical weakness. All these, except the first, are capable of being cured by appropriate medical treatment.

Treatment of women during pregnancy

It is particularly desirable to gratify a woman during pregnancy with everything she may conceive a wish for. For in case her wishes are not granted there is a probability of the child ​becoming deformed and defective. She should be kept happy and contented, should wear white clothes and ornaments, and avoid disagreeable sights and smells, and sexual and other excitements should take easily digestible food should neither remain hungry nor eat too much. She is enjoined not to touch a dirty, ugly, or defective woman, and is advised not to live in a lonely house or to have her bed very high.

Delivery time

Parturition generally takes place after nine calendar months, when the foetus is fully developed. Sometimes the period of gestation extends to the tenth, eleventh, or even the twelfth month in exceptional cases. It is laid down that the lying-in room should be clean, and not less than eight cubits long, and four cubits broad, with ventilators in the north or the east wall. Four old and experienced midwives should be at hand to render necessary assistance. They should be trustworthy, skilled in their work, obliging, and have their nails cut close.

When the time of delivery draws near, they should lubricate the genital tract with sweet oil, and one of the four should thus advise the woman in labour : "O Lady, do bear down when you are inclined to do so, but not otherwise strain gradually, and to the utmost of your power when the child reaches ​the orifice, until it is expelled with the after-birth." Untimely straining makes the child deaf, dumb, hunchbacked, asthmatic, consumptive, or weak. In cases of complicated labour obstetric operations are recommended.

If the child dies in utero, the woman feels thirsty, suffers from hard breathing, languishes, and becomes insensible. Prompt measures should then be taken to save the life of the patient. Harita recommends, among other measures, the use of a surgical instrument called Ardha-chandra, with which the arms of the child should be amputated and taken out and then the body. In cases of tedious labour a paste of a drug called Langali (Gloriosa superba) is to be applied over the hypogastrium to hasten delivery.

Those who are given to supernatural beliefs draw a double triangle interlaced, one triangle pointing upward, the other downward, with certain mystic letters written within.

Double Triangle

This figure, drawn on a metal plate, is shown to the woman in birth-throe and placed under her bed to hasten delivery. In cases of tedious labour the medical works of the Hindus mention certain charms and incantations which are supposed to render the delivery easy. It is curious to note that the use ​of charms, talismans, and incantations as remedial measures in sickness can be traced to almost all the nations on our globe.

Post delivery and nursing the child

A woman in her confinement should be most particular about her regimen. She should take no 'cooling food,' and should abstain from all bodily exertion, from sexual intercourse, and from anger. She should eat moderately and continue the necessary fomentation. Dhanvantari says that the woman's period of confinement is over after a month and a half; though she should be allowed rest for full three months. No matter requires greater attention than the quality of the mother's milk. Good milk mixes readily with water without changing colour, contains no fila- ments, and is white, cool, and not too thick. Milk which when mixed with water floats on the surface or sinks down, or which forms yellow spherules and is sticky and astringent in taste, is bad.

Selection of wet nurse

A woman can improve her milk by taking green gram gruel for food and a decoction of Patol (Trichosanthes dioica), Nimba (Melia azadirachta), Asana (Bridelia tomentosa), Daru (Pinus deodara), Patha (Cissampelos glabra), Murvya (Sanseviera zeylanica), Gaduchi (Tinospora cordifolia), Katurohini (Picorrhiza kurroo) and dry ginger. If the employment of a wet​nurse be indispensable, she should be selected from the caste to which the mother belongs, should be of middle age, secreting good and sufficient milk, and having a male child. She should be of good disposition, always cheerful, exceedingly kind, obedient, contented, well-behaved, of good parentage, truthful, and willing to treat the child as her own. It is prejudicial to the child's health to be suckled by a nurse who has pendulous mammae, or is tall, short, corpulent, thin, pregnant, feverish, fatigued, hungry, careless about food, gluttonous, sulky, mean, immoral, diseased, or suffering from pain of any kind.

Rites associated with suckling

The medical works of the Hindus refer to certain rites which are observed by some even now on the occasion of suckling the child for the first time. The mother has to be clean, well-clad, and to sit facing the east. She then washes her right breast and squeezes out some milk from it. The father or the priest then sprinkles a little water over the infant, reciting an incantation, the mother or the nurse keeping her hand on the right breast all the time. The incantation is to this effect :— "O Child, let the Sea of Milk *[2] fill the Mammae with milk for thee, and be thou strong and happy for ever. lovely-faced lady, ​let thy child live long by drinking the nectar-like milk, just as the gods are able to live for very many years by drinking the beverage of immortality." The infant is then taken by the mother on her lap, its head being kept towards the north, and nursed gently. Sushruta says that if some milk be not thrown away, as recommended above, the baby suffers from puking, cough and asthma.

When the mother has no milk, and it is difficult to procure a wet-nurse, the child should be fed on cow's or goat's milk. It should always be handled gently, and never disturbed in sleep nor made to sleep against its inclination. Anointing, bathing, Anjan (a certain application to the eyes), and soft clothing, are always good for infants. The mother's milk may be thick, hot, acid, scant, salt, or 'soft.' The last kind is the best, and makes the child strong, healthy, and handsome. The other kinds of milk are injurious to the child and cause various diseases.

A mother having scant milk may take with advantage milk mixed with black pepper and long pepper, which will promote the secretion. Similarly, powdered long pepper, dry ginger, and Haritaki (Terminalia Chebula) mixed with clarified butter and treacle, if taken in the form of an electuary, will assist the secernment considerably. Harita says that a preparation of dry ginger, long pepper, black pepper, the ​three myrobalans, Dhana (Coriandrum sativum), Yavani, Shatavari (Asparagus tomentosus), Vacha (Acorus Calamus), Brahmi (Hydrocotyle asiatica) and Bhargi, given with honey to the infant, will accelerate the power of speech and improve the voice. The memory and intelligence of the child can be greatly improved by giving it an electuary of Gaduchi (Tinospora cordifolia), Apamarga (Achyranthes aspera), Vidanga (Embelia ribes), Shankhapushpi (Clitoria Ternatea), Vacha (Acorus Calamus), Haritaki (Terminalia Chebula), dry ginger, and Shatavari, with clarified butter.

Sanskaras from conception to death

A passing reference should now be made to the several rites performed by the Hindus from conception to delivery, and from the time of birth even until after death. These rites are twenty-five in number, but the principal ones are sixteen, called the sixteen Sanskaras. These are as stated below.

  1. Garbhadhana, a ceremony performed previous to conception, that is, when the husband meets his wife for the first time on her attaining maturity.
  2. Punsavana, a festival held on the wife's perceiving the first signs of pregnancy it- is generally performed in the third month.
  3. Anavalobhana, a rite performed to avert miscarriage.
  4. Simantonnayana, the ceremony of parting the hair of a woman on her entering the fourth, sixth, or eighth month of gestation.
  5. Jatakarma, rites at birth, among others putting ghee into the child's mouth with a golden spoon, before cutting the cord.
  6. Namakarana, naming the little one on the eleventh, twelfth, or any other auspicious day.
  7. Nishkramana, taking the infant out of the house when three months old to see the moon in the third light fortnight.
  8. Suryanilokana, the ceremony of showing the sun to the child when four months old.
  9. Annaprashana, feeding the baby with its first dish of rice in the sixth or eighth month.
  10. Karnavedha, the ceremony of boring the child's ears, generally performed in odd months after birth.
  11. Chudakarana, the rite of shaving the head save one lock, called "Chuda" or crest, in the first or third year, and not later than the fifth year.
  12. Upanayana, the investiture with the sacrificial thread, which falls from the left shoulder to the right hip, for a Brahman in the eighth and not later than the sixteenth year for a Kshatriya in the eleventh and not later than the twenty-second year and for a Vaishya in the twelfth and not later than the twenty-fourth : this ceremony marks the commencement of student-life.
  13. Mahanamya, an initiatory rite generally four days after the last, when the Gaetree*[3] is taught and repeated.
  14. Samavartana, a ceremony on the student's completion of his studies and return home after having passed thirty-six, eighteen, or at least nine years in statu pupillari:*[4].
  15. Vivaha, marriage.
  16. Svargarohana, or the funeral rite.

Besides the above there are other ceremonies which are performed either daily, monthly, yearly, or occasionally, the object of all of them being more or less the preservation of health both of body and mind. Any discomfort in the body is called a disease. Diseases are classed under four heads, viz., Agantuka (accidental), such as a fall or a cut Sharira (physical), such as headache, fever, dysentery, cough, etc, Manasa (mental), as insanity, fear, grief; Svabhavika (natural), as thirst, hunger, sleep. Entire freedom from these, by the application of proper remedies, is the avowed object of medical science.

The prevention of disease is considered by the Hindus to be of greater importance than its cure. Accordingly, their medical works lay great stress on certain rules of conduct to be observed all the year round. As these precepts enable us to peep into the principles of Hygiene as understood by the ancients, it will be well now to devote some space to a short summary of them.

Suggestions for Further Reading

* In Sanskrit as well as in all the Vernacular dialects of India the gender of nouns is determined not by the distinction of sex only. Animate and inanimate objects are alike either masculine, feminine, or neuter. It is difficult to reduce the usage of the language on this point to fixed rules. Broadly speaking, things that convey the idea of largeness, strength, coarseness and firmness are masculine, and those that are smaller, weaker, finer and more delicate are said to be feminine.

* The ancient Hindu cosmography divided the world into seven Dvipas or continents, each surrounded by a Sagara or sea, and the Ksheera-Sagara or the Sea of Milk was one of them.

* "The most sacred and most universally used of all Vedic prayers."

* This shows that the Hindu Scriptures do not enjoin child-marriage.

Source: Chapter 4, A Short History Of Aryan Medical Science By H.H. Sir Bhagvat Singh Jee, K.C.I.E. M.D., D.C.L., Ll.D., F.R.C.P.E. Thakore Saheb Of Gondal With Ten Plates, London Macmillan And Co., Ltd. New York : The Macmillan Company 1896. This was previously edited by Rajasekhar, 1961, and was reformatted and reorganized for the web edition by Jayaram V in 2019. The title of the work has also been changed to A Short History Of Indian Medical Science to reflect the current theories of the early history of India and adjoining areas.

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