From Matriarchy to Patriarchy

P.R. Sarkar
(1986, Calcutta) – The status of women in prehistoric human society was the same as that of independent females of any living species. The women, just like the men, spent their days in the lap of nature singing, dancing, laughing and playing. These conditions continued throughout the period when there was no human society as such and continued into the matriarchal age. But when the patriarchal social system came into being, the rights of women began gradually to be curtailed.

Initially, it was decided that a woman would be granted certain freedoms that she could enjoy in her in-laws’ house after her marriage or in her father’s house before her marriage. Later, her rights were curtailed even more and it was decided that a woman would be entitled to enjoy such rights until fifteen years of age; that is, as soon as she entered her sixteenth year she must forfeit those rights. Still later, it came about that a woman would enjoy her rights only to the age of five years. That is, after five years of age, she must forfeit her rights. The predominant psychology behind this restriction of her rights was: Let her realize her dependence at every step; let her realize that at home, in the society at large and within the state, she is dependent on the menfolk in every sphere of life.

In Puranic society (around 500-1300 CE), it was further declared that women were not entitled to mukti or moks’a. Only if and when they attained male bodies by dint of their penance for many lives together could they attain liberation or salvation. As long as they were in female bodies, their supreme duty would be to serve their husbands. Perhaps you have seen in the Kashi market (near Varanasi), prominently displayed on vermilion-daubed wooden boxes, these lines:

Pati param guru,
Pati seva’i param seva’.
The husband is the highest guru,
Service to the husband is the highest service.


Pati ya’r dhya’n-jina’n,
Pati hena devata’;
Svarga hate shres’t’a pati,
Pati bha’gya vidha’ta’.

The husband is the be-all and end-all of life,
Verily, the husband is god;
The husband is greater than heaven,
The husband is the ruler of destiny.

A handful of unprincipled, power-hungry men propagated these doctrines in order to paralyze women’s reasoning, and to inflate men’s vanity. This doctrine is against nature and we have only to look out into this wide world to find numerous proofs against it. Can anybody drape a burka over a tigress? Is there anyone with enough courage to do it? Can anyone dictate to a tigress, “You cannot cross this boundary,” or “You cannot take part in games and sports, for this is prohibited to women”?

Those who propagated these doctrines were not only unprincipled, they were also well aware of the inherent loopholes in their arguments. That is why they did not propagate their ideas directly in their own name. On the contrary, they propagated all those ideas in the name of God. They proclaimed them as the gospels of God; no one shall dispute it; one has to accept it without a murmur.

When women will develop a sense of self-respect and be like other spirited beings, they will cast aside the burkas and veils of servitude. They will then be enabled to expand their role in serving society in a balanced and consolidated way.

From “Kaoma’ra”, Shabda Cayanika’ Part 9

(22 December 1985, Calcutta) – In very ancient days, when society was purely matriarchal, women enjoyed full freedom and respect. A distinguished woman would be the matriarch. The members of the clan would introduce themselves using her name. The males would act according to the dictates of the clan matriarch.

Those days passed. The dominance of women ended in most regions of the world and male dominance came to the fore. Society became patriarchal. People began to use their father’s name to introduce themselves. A new system of clans and sub-clans under male dominance became the accepted norm.

Women then became treated as commodities. Their lives were absolutely dependent on the men. The rule of men was introduced in different parts of the world in various ways. Different arguments were put forward in support of the rule of men. The idea of a woman having more than one husband was laughable, yet if a man had more than one wife, that would be considered normal; because a woman was no better than a commodity.

Social disparity reached its climax when the independent identity of a woman became denied in the marriage ceremony. The custom of her father, elder brother or any other male guardian literally “giving her away” in marriage began.

Under the wedding canopy, the roles of bride and bridegroom are just opposite. The groom chants the wedding mantras during the ceremony and the bride sits lifeless as a statue, as though she is some saleable commodity such as rice, pulse, salt or oil. She is not allowed to chant mantras like her male counterpart. Her guardian offers her to her husband just as a householder offers rice and pulses to a beggar. Manu1 was representative of the exploitative psychology of that age. Of course, I do not mean to say that everything that Manu thought or said was bad, but undoubtedly the custom of giving the daughter away in marriage is bad. By this custom the independent identity of the girl remains unrecognized.

Unfortunately, as a woman was no better than chattel, she had no right to inherit her ancestral property. Women were not considered heirs to the ancestral property. A widow became a burden to her own relatives in her father’s house or to her in-laws in her husband’s house.

Manu did many bad things, but he did at least one good thing. He recommended that the daughter be given away dressed in ornaments and finery. These ornaments were given to her as her personal property, they were considered her personal wealth.

When the society was semi-matriarchal, a woman had the right to inherit her maternal property. Even the court dancers were entitled to the property of their mothers.

From “Aodva’hika”, Shabda Cayanika’ Part 3

(16 February 1986, Calcutta) – When human beings reached the initial stage of building the society in ancient times, the society was matriarchal. There was, of course, the system of maternal lineage and there was also the system of maternal heritage. That is, lineage descended from mother to daughter. When people were asked their names, they also were asked what their mothers’, grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ names were, and so on. This applied to both men and women.

After marriage, a man changed his gotra (clan, lineage) to that of his in-laws, that is, the husband would adopt the gotra of his wife, who lived on a particular hill or under the rule of a particular matriarch. (Even today, this custom lingers on in a few communities of the world.) The right of inheritance was matrilineal, that is, sons and daughters would inherit property from their mothers. This system continued in the world for a long period. One of the great disadvantages that followed from this was that it was difficult to determine a child’s father, although it was easy to identify its mother. And as it was not easy to identify the father, it was difficult to know what excellent personal traits that person might have inherited.

Both the matrilineal and patrilineal social orders have their bright and dark sides. The dominance of the men was established because they were physically stronger. The social order became patriarchal. Although the patriarchal system had numerous defects, it had two benefits. First, in the matriarchal social system, a woman had to bear all the responsibilities, as a result of which her life became miserable. In the patriarchal social order the men, that is, the fathers, were compelled to bear a big part of the social responsibility of the family. Secondly, the system of marriage was introduced in order to divide responsibilities and to determine the paternity of the children. Long after the society became patriarchal, many men still did not like to come under the institution of marriage; that is, they were keen to become the masters, but they were not so willing to bear the responsibility. Shiva was the first to bear this great family responsibility. It was He who compelled the conscienceless men to come under the system of marriage.

Along with the influence of the matriarchal system in Bengal, there is also the influence of the matrilineal system to some extent. A sister’s son is entitled to the property of his heirless mother’s brother. In the absence of any offspring, a sister’s son is to perform the last rites of his maternal uncle, and he must observe the mourning rites for three days. After the death of a woman’s father, she is required, even if married, to observe the mourning rites for three days, and on the fourth day she performs a shra’ddha ceremony.2

The influence of the matriarchal social system is slightly greater in Kerala than it is in Bengal. In Kerala, sons do not use the surnames of their fathers, but they use the surnames of their mothers. As in Bengal, they are entitled to inherit the property of their maternal uncles. Besides that, the children of inter-caste marriages receive the mother’s caste. The matriarchal social system is still fully prevalent in certain communities in Meghalaya. In the days when the society was totally matriarchal, the members of society would take the gotra of their mothers, grandmothers or great-grandmothers.

From”Ka’ran'”, Shabda Cayanika’ Part 4

(1988, Calcutta) – Since the dawn of human evolution several social problems have confronted humanity. The first and foremost problem was the conflict between rival clans and groups living on different hills and in different villages. At the initial stage of human evolution, before the discovery of fire, people used to live in caves for safety. Out of fear of the dark, they would close the entrance to the cave with a large boulder at night. At that time human beings were very helpless, and less physically powerful than many other animals. Although primitive humans had more intelligence than other animals, they had very little intelligence in comparison to the people of today. Moreover, they had less power in their nails and teeth than most other animals. They tried living near mountain springs to satisfy their need for water, but caves were not always available there. And there was no shortage of water in the rivers, but riverbanks provided no safety during the darkness of the night. Gradually primitive people settled between large rocks or in small valleys between hills, and after some time they started building houses in the branches of trees out of sticks and tall grass. Perhaps this marked the very first step of human civilization.

There were frequent fights among different groups for possession of caves, valleys and trees. Their weapons in those fights were their teeth and nails. A treaty between Britain and Iberia several centuries ago stated that they would help each other “tooth and nail”. Even today people still use the expression “to fight tooth and nail”.

In those days people felt the need to increase their numbers, thus they always tried to increase the number of women in their group. Powerful women became known as group mothers , and activity centred around them as it does around queen ants or queen bees. If one man had ten wives, the wives could give birth to ten children simultaneously, but if one woman had ten husbands, she could only give birth to one child. So during their frequent battles primitive people always tried to abduct the women of the opposing group. As a result women lived as the slaves of men. At that time people began to practise phallic worship in the belief that this would help increase their numbers.

In the next phase although women were still considered the property of victorious males, they were not allowed to remain as group mothers. Instead, people accepted the leadership of valorous, strong and capable men. These heroic leaders were assisted by a group of advisers, and this was the first stage in the evolution of the monarchy.

From “Gan’atantra”, Shabda Cayanika’ Part 16

Also found in “Democracy and Group Governed States”, Prout in a Nutshell Part 14


1 Manu was the author of the Manusmrti, an authoritative collection of social rules, customs and etiquette for Hindus. He lived about two thousand years ago.
2 The performance of the shra’ddha ceremony honouring her dead father indicates that the woman is still considered to have some relation to her parents. In some parts of India, after marriage, this would not be the case.

Copyright Ananda Marga Publications 2011

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