Brahmanical Patriarchy has been in the news, with an endorsement from a coterie of women journalists and no less than the ignorant Jack Dorsey of Twitter.
The supporters of this concept have referred repetitively and profusely to a 1993 article in the Economic and Political Weekly by Uma Chakravarti, the former Delhi University historian, to prove the existence of this pernicious and exploitative religio-cultural system of ancient India.
The doyens of morality and liberalism in India have quoted this approvingly as the last and final word on the chains of “Brahmanism” and “Patriarchy” which bound ancient Indian women, indeed all of society.
A simple academic reading and analysis of this article will prove that it fails to establish the concept of Brahmanical Patriarchy or links between caste hierarchy and gender hierarchy for both methodological and evidentiary reasons. Neither caste nor gender have been robustly understood by this Marxian analysis.
Uma Chakravarti is one of the central academic figures ‘establishing’ the subordinate and humiliating position of women in early India and this rebuttal will also therefore be making statements on the situation of gender studies as they pertain to early India.
The problems which cripple Chakravarti’s article can be grouped as follows:
- The origins and meaning of both ‘Brahmanical’ and ‘patriarchy’ as concepts are not explained or established but taken as assumptions which defeats the very purpose of the paper. Taking as assumptions that which the article is to conceptualise belongs to no social science methodology but is regrettably a common ploy among many academics of the Marxist persuasion. These two concepts shall be critiqued.
- The critique will include the tendency of Feminists and Marxists to use imported concepts and illustrations uncritically in the Indian context with no thought to its actual applicability. There is a readiness to use theories with specific cultural and historical roots to understand Indian society. For instance, Brahmins are not Whites and other castes are not Blacks and many theories developed in the context of the United States are simply not applicable to India.
- The concept of ‘status’ likewise has been understood in a limited way and then abandoned as not leading to the desired conclusion. The many sources of status in the ancient world and how access to these influenced the position of women have been ignored but should have been taken into account.
- The evidence is drawn from Early India but the author betrays her lack of familiarity with the texts (possibly due to her lack of knowledge of Sanskrit?) at every step. Cherry picking of the texts and examples drawn from them can only lead a dispassionate reader to assume that she has made up her mind about the hypothesis she has to prove and throws in a few examples merely to mislead the readers.
- To anyone familiar with the contours of extensive literary Indic sources of the past in Sanskrit, Prakrit bhashas, Tamil and its cognate languages the tiny number of texts cited to reach such sweeping conclusions about early India is baffling and suspicious.
- To understand the situation in early India her article is full of examples from a translation of a 17th -18th century Sanskrit work by Trayambakarayamakhin of Thanjavur (1665 to 1750), Trayambaka Stridharmapaddhati. This is definitely not from early India by any stretch of academic credulity.
- To ‘prove’ Brahmanical exploitation the examples are overwhelmingly from the Buddhist Jataka tales.
- A few examples have been picked up from the Arthashastra to prove her point ignoring all the contrary evidences available in that text.
A new framework for understanding women in India will in conclusion be proposed using both emic and etic tools.
Part 1 of the article will deal with methodological issues and Part 2 with evidence. A new framework will also be proposed at the end of the second article.
Problems of Methodology
No establishment of the concepts of “Brahmanical” and “Patriarchy”; Uncritical application of Marxist and Feminist Methodologies
These two concepts have been taken as given. As they have no existence in the actual early Indian texts, let us examine them.
The word Brahmanical has no existence in any indigenous tradition. It is the invention of the European especially German Indologists whose introduction to and digestion of, Indic culture proceeded apace in the Eurocentric centuries of colonisation and beyond.
The invention out of whole cloth of a religion called “Brahmanism” purportedly different from Hinduism with an exploitative “Brahmanical” caste which had for its “Bible” the vile Manusmriti was done with a purpose. The purpose was to attack and dispossess those who held the intellectual heritage and tradition of the Indics in their hands. They had to be attacked, vilified and discredited if a new elite were to replace them as upholders of the knowledge of millennia. Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchi have written at length on this.
The project was to wrest the power to understand and interpret the Indic body of knowledge from the indigenous tools of knowledge and those who knew them, and pass them to the new emerging Indologists with their “superior” understanding in the background of the European Enlightenment. The natives were to be banished to the sidelines of their own body of knowledge and heritage. Evangelical aims of harvesting souls were also served by discrediting the intellectual inheritors of Hindu knowledge and thus proving native traditions to be inferior.
The success of this tactic is clear today when Indic epistemological tools have no place in our education. Use of Indic parameters to understand modern society are completely absent. The article being analysed exhibits the same characteristics; shastric methods of understanding are completely beneath its notice and it does not interrogate categories which need to be established for Early India but takes them as given from the Indological masters.
A throwaway and disastrous remark on Mimansa has been made which merely serves to exhibit ignorance on the different Indic epistemological schools.
Then we come to the word Patriarchy, another concept arising and emerging from western philosophy and history, from Aristotle to the Bible. Its roots in Christianity have been written about by many commentators and feminism’s critique of it is itself rooted in Judaism, Christianity and Marxism. Patriarchy considers gender in black and white, dual and antagonistic terms. Gender in ancient India was not as black and white a concept as Chakravarti would have us believe. One has only, for instance to read Sulabha’s dialogue with Raja Janaka (in the Mahabharata) and her masterly exposition on the meaning of ‘woman’ and the ‘gender’ of the ‘self’ to realise that.
Feminists swear by Gerda Lerner’s “The Creation of Patriarchy” or Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” and tend to accept these treatises uncritically as applicable to Indian reality without appreciating the cultural specificity of much of the worldview. This is the monotheistic idea of one truth, one God reflecting the origins of this ideology whereas plurality of thinking is essential to the Indic tradition.
Chakravarti uses the works of Gerda Lerner and Nur Yalman to further her hypothesis of patriarchy and Yalman in turn relies on Kathleen E Gough. Apart from her Abrahamic moorings Lerner is steeped in the politics of race in the United States and it is folly to import such notions to fit the Indian context. Yalman and Gough rely on the discredited theories of Sigmund Freud to arrive at their conclusions. The Marxist blunder of using one framework to fit all realities detracts from the utility of the approach.
If there had been attempts to consider the applicability of these frameworks to Early India the merits or otherwise could have been debated. This has not been done. Within the very limited scope of this article some problems have been mentioned. A slightly more detailed exposition shall be made at the end of this article when explaining a new proposed framework.
With the provenance of both these concepts shown to detract from their usefulness it behooves us to consider what then is Brahmanical patriarchy? Control of women’s sexuality in a closed system of caste striation and rigidity through the exploitative power of Brahmins, of course. In a fine example of what Stephen Colbert has called ‘truthiness’, ‘everybody knows’ that Hindu society was exploitative, upper caste men routinely kept all others in a state of servitude and humiliation and all that can be done is to study this and point out further examples of this exploitation.
Right at the beginning of her paper Chakravarti makes it clear that these are the assumptions with which her exposition will move forward.
In the field of caste studies refuting this is akin to the labors of Sisyphus, that rock is never going to reach the mountain top.
A Post-Graduate and M.Phil Sociology course in the august Delhi School of Economics being taught by the likes of luminaries like André Betéille and Veena Das taught me at least this much. Class and caste were taken to be ineluctably fixed concepts and the thrust of the 2 year course made us go round and round within these. There were no original readings of the so called basic texts which would prove the existence of these. It would have been comic to suggest Sanskrit readings, of course.
It was only after learning Sanskrit and reading texts for myself that a realisation of the hollow understanding of the basics of caste, how it changed after its Portuguese classification and nomenclature as well as the successful British attempts to set it in stone came to me.
This subject is worth many books and it can only be recommended that current literature on it be perused by the interested reader.
It must be noted briefly that caste before the British census was not a closed structure. Neither were the occupations associated with jaatis. There is basic misunderstanding of the concepts of jaati and varna, insistence on lack of mobility and on birth being the necessary condition for belonging to a caste or its related occupations. This opinion can be critiqued even by a nuanced reading of the Manusmriti or the Arthashastra apart from many other texts.
To then predicate this discussion of the caste and gender hierarchies on the rigidity of caste structure without any nuance makes the exercise near futile.
Female seclusion is another hoary old chestnut tossed into the mixture. There is ample textual, archaeological and inscriptional evidence against the prevalence of seclusion before the Islamic invasion and even after it. It is taken as a truth, of course.
Status of Women
The beginning of Chakravarti’s article dismisses the study of the status of women in ancient India as being limited without explaining why it has left a lacuna in the understanding of social processes. Apparently through a study of the status of women in early India it is not possible to arrive at the conclusion that a ‘particularly severe form’ of ‘general subordination of women’ existed in India ‘through the powerful instrument of religious traditions’. Much convoluted theorising without appropriate evidence has to be gone through to reach this desired conclusion it seems.
Chakravarti mentions only marriage law, property rights and religious rights of women.
The main sources of status, power and prestige in the past were multiple in actuality.
There was physical strength and fighting prowess, education, property and money, and in the Vedic Age, the right to conduct Yajnas and other rituals. Women had access, in varying degrees, to all these sources. For women, children were another source of prestige. Any methodology which ignores the issue of status with respect to the position of women as it does not lead to the preconceived conclusions is bound to be flawed.
There were a variety of roles, economic, social, ritual, cultural, political, educational etc. related to these sources performed by women in ancient India.
In the economic sphere, life centred around agriculture, crafts, commerce and trade.
Since the Yajna-s and the right to conduct it was a very important source of prestige, it may be noted that women also had the right to conduct sacrifices. Kaushalya, Tara and Seeta are all mentioned in the Valmiki Ramayan as mantravids with the right to perform sacrifices. In any case the ordinary woman also conducted the daily sacrifices within the household with her husband.
There is the question of access to education for girls. Education was a basic fact for a child born in the Vedic or Upanishadic age be it a girl or a boy. There was also a tradition of Brahmavadinis. The upanayana ceremony, a marker for the beginning of education was uniform for both boys and girls even up to medieval times.
Women as spies, soldiers, royal guards, queens and counsellors to kings, courtesans as royal emissaries and quasi diplomats were holders of political power and played a political role in society.
Then, what about agency? Was it a fact that whatever women did was dictated to them by the men who made the rules of society and they were deemed to be second-class citizens under the ‘control’ of men?
A perusal of the Grihyasutras and scriptures which examine the roles of women (such as the Rigveda and the Yajurveda and some of the Upanishads and Aranyakas) reveals a much more nuanced picture. In a society based on dharma, which was believed to uphold the world, all members of the society were expected to follow rules. Women, and men, too, were subject to the rules of organising society although these were flexible and different in different regions. There were also enough people who broke these rules and succeeded.
Rules were a basic concomitant of life in ancient India, both for men and women but a look at the different roles available to women makes it clear that they were valued members of society and made significant and appreciated contributions to it.
What about sexual freedom? This is the land of the Kamasutra and of Shringara rasa. Sexual love was to be celebrated not reviled or hidden.
All these questions reflect an exploration of the status of women and a detailed discussion will be made in the next part of the article. They have been completely ignored in Chakravarti’s article.
It must be remembered that ‘women’ are not a monolithic category and a nuanced discussion will be made in Part 2 of this article including pointing out lacuna in the evidence offered by Chakravarti and adducing relevant evidences regarding the position of women in early India.
Note: A list of references will be attached at the end of Part 2 of the article. Interested readers may ask for specific references for any of the assertions made; these will be provided.
 The author has a forthcoming book The Modern Women of Ancient India (Roli Books 2019) which will set out this format and use the many stories of ancient Indian women to illustrate it
 The Nay Science: A History of German Indology
 Read the review of Wendy Doniger’s The Ring of Truth to get a brief overview of the critque. By this author in Swarajya Magazine.
 Para 3
 A suggestion: Western Foundations Of The Caste System. Edited by Prakash Shah, Dunkin Jalki, Sufiya Pathan, and Martin Farek. Springer International Publishing
 This author’s article on Kama on IndiaFacts is on this subject
Featured Image: Void Network