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Spinster In Ancient Hindu Scriptures

Spinster, an unmarried woman, was known Amajuh in ancient Hindu scriptures. It is a word often found in the Vedic literature. Amajuh means one who grows old in one’s parental home. The goddess of fortune was regarded as residing in the person of the unmarried daughter, so she was regarded as on object of good omen. Unmarried girls were among the person selected to receive Rama on this return to Ayodhya from his long exile and to offer him the coronation ablution (abhisheka). Rama received his important religious bath at the hands of unmarried girls and then of his trusted generals and ministers (Ramayana VI, 131, 38, and 61).

Women students referred to as brahamvadinis, were lifelong students of theology and philosophy. They used to aim at excellence in scholarship. They specialized in Vedic and philosophical studies. Inclination towards studies made women remain unmarried in some instances.

The usual cause that compelled maidens to remain unmarried was some serious physical defect or disease; for example, in the case of Ghosha, she could not marry until she was cured of her skin disease by the favor of Ashwins. In the Upanishadic period, maidens like Sulabha entered monasteries to achieve spiritual salvation (Mahabharata XII 325, 103). Women used to join the Buddhist sanghas also.

Due to socio-political upheavals in the epic period and later periods, marriage became obligatory for girls, since they had to face more pitfalls in their path and were less equipped to deal with them than men, due to lack of education. Maidens joining the Buddhist and Jaina orders sometimes lapsed in their conduct, and this was criticized by society. The marriage of girls came to be equated with the upanayana of boys. There was a reduction of age for marriage for girls, which prevented them from having a choice in the matter.

The Mahabharata informs us that it was the sage Dirghatamas who said that women were to be married without fail, quoting the story of Subhru, the daughter of Sage Kuni. Subaru remained unmarried all her life, practicing severe penance. At the time of her death, she found she could not go to heaven, as her body was not consecrated by the sacrament of marriage. She had to marry Sage Sringavat and be with him for a night. This enabled her to go to heaven (IX.33). A later sutra declared that the corpse of a maiden could be burnt only after a formal marriage, even after death (Baudhayana Smarta Sutra V.IX).

Spinsterhood, though rare, continued to be the choice of a few highly motivated women or was inevitable due to economic disabilities. The modern period gave options and opportunities for women other than marriage, but the society stamped the unmarried woman with the stigma of the unfortunate in contrast to earlier times.