Page:The early history of the property of married women.djvu/17

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religion, to limit the privileges of women which they seem to have found recognised by older authorities.

The attention of English and European students of the Hindoo law books was first attracted to this subject by a natural desire to scrutinise the sacred texts upon which the Brahmin learned were in the habit of insisting in defence of the abominable practice of Suttee or widow-burning. The discovery was soon made that the oldest monuments of law and religion gave no countenance to the rite, and the conclusion was at once drawn that, even on Hindoo principles, it was an unlawful innovation. This mode of reasoning undoubtedly gave comfort to many devout Hindoos, whom no secular argument could have reconciled to the abandonment of a custom of proved antiquity; but still, in itself it was unsound. The disuse of all practices which a scholar could show to be relatively modern would dissolve the whole Hindoo system. These inquiries, pushed much further, have shown that the Hindoo laws, religious and civil, have for centuries been undergoing transmutation, development, and, in some points, depravation at the hands of successive Brahminical expositors, and that no rules have been so uniformly changed—as we should say, for the worse—as those which affect the legal position of women. It is extremely likely, then, that what the Romans would call the dos was at one time a much more important institution among the Hindoos than it is now, and, indeed, that the married woman's authority over it was a great deal more extensive than was that of a Roman wife. In itself the fact that women, married and unmarried, are placed, on the whole, by Hindoo institutions in a position of great degradation would not, unfortunately, be exceptional or remarkable. What really has interest for the student of historical jurisprudence is the comparative recency of this degradation. The family despotism is proved by overwhelming evidence to have been so stringent among the Hindoos that there would be nothing astonishing in the weakest of the classes subject to it not having been yet emancipated from it. But that women should have become partially enfranchised, and should then have fallen back into a condition yet worse than the first, is really a surprising passage in legal history. There would be great temerity in pretending to advance anything like a complete explanation of it, and the best account that can be given does not, perhaps, amount to more than a plausible conjecture. Still we are not wholly unable to assign reasons why it was that the Hindoo