Feminists are likely to view as psychopathic the Manu-smṛti’s injunction against the independence of women. And it might be presumed that, accordingly, the lot of women in India is or was simply hellish – but this is incorrect.
Undeniably, women in India, as in other traditional cultures, were restricted and controlled (both being required for protection) and were expected to be reserved and submissive. Nevertheless, in Indian culture, dignified womanhood has always been revered as a manifestation of the divine feminine nature:
According to the varṇāśrama system, generally the śūdras (laboring class) and ladies are not allowed direct participation in the higher religious functions. Only indirect participation is allowed for them, and they also do not get the sacred thread. Yet a brāhmaṇa boy can be found touching the feet of his mother! The mother will not touch the Deity of Nārāyaṇa, but her son who is worshiping Nārāyaṇa is touching her feet and taking her feet-dust.
This paradox escapes those who suffer from typical Western linear thought and adjudge that the respect accorded to women is merely superficial, to trick them into subordination. Nonetheless, pristine Vedic society recognized that genuine civilization can exist only where chaste, dutiful women are protected, respected, and well cared for. Women are to be especially honored for their irreplaceable contribution as mothers.
In Indian culture the most oft-quoted saying about women is mātṛ-devo bhava: “Be one for whom the mother is a god.” And almost every woman should be treated as one’s mother. As Śrīla Prabhupāda often quoted (from Cāṇakya Paṇḍita), mātṛvat para-dāreṣu: “One should consider another’s wife to be one’s mother.” Another famous maxim is:
yatra nāryas tu pūjyante ramante tatra devatāḥ
yatraitās tu na pūjyante sarvās tatrāphalāḥ kriyāḥ
Where women are honored, the gods rejoice, and where women are not revered, all undertakings become fruitless. (Manu-smṛti 3.56)
Reproduced with permission from the book Women: Mothers and Masters by Bhakti Vikasa Swami.