Evidence for Brahmanical Patriarchy
Evidence for Brahmanical Patriarchy; Cherry-Picked, Force-fitted; Missing?- II

It can be accepted that both emic and etic methods of analysis yield a good understanding of the society being studied. In the case of Indic society, however all possible methods have always been etic. Internal methods and frameworks of understanding are conspicuous by their absence.

In Part I of this article the methodological lacunae in the application of Marxist Feminist theories were set out very briefly. Given the extensive nature of the task, sustained scholarly efforts are needed for years to provide a balance with emic methods of analysis and these two articles can provide only a glimpse of the problems which have to be dealt with.

I will now turn to the gaps in the evidence, in the illustrations used to bolster the claims of Uma Chakravarti about the existence of Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India.

The shortcomings in the evidence offered for the existence of brahmanical patriarchy are as follows.

  • Gender analysis of rock art and the ‘Harappa’ civilisation has not been made with any depth so there is not much to rely on. Of course, for Chakravarti everything that came before Brahmanism was generally positive so she has given a positive slant to it with little to rely on.
  • She relies on the discredited Aryan Invasion Theory and racist theories of the differences between Aryans and Dravidians. These have been extensively disproved by state-of-the-art genetic analysis as well as fresh discoveries on the banks of the dried up Saraswati River and elsewhere.
  • The analysis is exclusively textual; other archaeological, numismatic and inscriptional sources have been ignored.
  • To anyone familiar with the contours of the extensive literary Indic sources of the past in Sanskrit, Prakrit languages, Tamil and its cognates, the tiny number of texts cited to reach such sweeping conclusions about Early India is baffling and suspicious
  • The evidence is drawn from Early India but there is a pernicious lack of familiarity with the texts at every step. Cherry picking of the texts and examples drawn from them can only lead a dispassionate reader to assume that the article assumed its conclusions ab initio and then mentioned a few examples merely to mislead the readers.
  • A few examples have been picked up from the Arthashastra to prove her point ignoring all the contrary evidence in that text
  • To ‘prove’ Brahmanical exploitation the examples are overwhelmingly from the Buddhist Jataka tales.
  • To understand the situation in early India the 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.

Each of these problems shall be dealt with separately except the first two. The AIT is worth many books on its own and is out of the scope of this rebuttal. Gender analysis of rock art and the Saraswati Sindhu civilisation remains to be done and may be attempted in subsequent papers by this author with special reference to current archaeological discoveries for instance, in Sanauli.

Exclusive Text Only Analysis; Other Evidences Ignored

The paper under consideration sets out to conceptualise early India and proceeds to do so exclusively on the basis of certain texts. The selection and analysis of these texts lacks logic, consistency and representational value.

The fact of ignoring archaeological, numismatic inscriptional and other sources is inexplicable. Interdisciplinary tools are increasingly being used in gender studies and Chakravarti’s analysis would have benefited from this.

An extended survey of such sources is beyond the scope of the article[1] but a few pointers can be given.

Temples and proto temples built to female shaktis, devis and mother goddesses dot the land. The earliest Shakti temples are dated to the last millennium[2]. There are small shrines and votive tanks, women worshipped by women.

Grand temples built by queens and commoners are also scattered across the country. Be it Sembiyan Mahadevi or Nangai Bhuti of the Cholas, Lokamahadevi of the Chalukyas, Prabhavati Gupta of the Gupta/Vakatakas or the Bhaumkara queens [3] they had the resources, vision and wherewithal to execute and manage the temple complexes. Temple complexes, moreover were the epicenters of social, cultural, commercial and economic life.

Inscriptions of the Satavahanas, of their queens Gautami and Nayanika, of common women in the Barabar Caves, of Dhruvadevi of the Guptas, coins of Kumaradevi and Didda of Kashmir…the list is very long but has been completely ignored.

How can the conclusions then be justified?

Cherry-Picking of tiny number of translated texts

From the thousands of texts available in Sanskrit and other languages, Chakravarti picks just a handful and all of them translations.

Quite a number of dead white men are the final arbiters of the meanings contained in the Rig Veda, the Dharma Shastras and the Buddhist canon. G. Bühler, H Oldenburg et al, the Abramaic Indologists of the 19th century with the racist worldview explained in the previous article are the sources of choice. Not only have translations moved on as Stephanie Jamison or Laurie Patton could have been referred to but the citations could have had a ring of authenticity had there been evidence of study of primary sources.

Then again, from the vast vangmay of Sanskrit or the Sangam literature of Tamil or Prakrit poetry such as the Gaha Sattasai etc. (there is not a word or a reference to these last two), a handful of texts have been chosen; only 25 references are listed of which most are articles by Chakravarti herself or her cohorts( including a certain notorious Wendy O’Flaherty) and the same books by Bühler from the volumes of the The Sacred Books of the East are mentioned more than once.

Of the four Samhitas, only the Rigveda is mentioned although the Yajurveda has very interesting details on the expectations from women which are not convenient for the establishment of Brahmanical patriarchy in early India.

The Brahmanas, Upanishads and Aranyakas are completely ignored. The seminal dialogues between Gargi and Yagyavalkya or between Maitreyi and her husband the same rishi Yagyavalkya may as well never have taken place even though enshrined in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

There is the wearying emphasis on the Manu Smriti as some kind of ‘Bible’ of the Hindus when it is far from that. Apart from the fact that the references from this text have also been carefully selected to bolster “Brahmanical Patriarchy” and inconvenient quotes have been left out, any researcher would wonder why other Dharma Shastras have not been included in the analysis.

One has only to refer to the lists of available dharma shastras and grihya sutras apart from those which are now lost to realise that Manu was only one law giver and there were many others with varying shades of opinion on different aspects of a woman’s life.

Take divorce, or moksha as the shastras call it. In general a dharma vivaha is not to be sundered; “amokshohi dharmavivaham”. However, as the schools of Parashar, Narada and Chanakya have it, moksha is possible under certain circumstances. If Chanakya sets down the right of men to marry again, so does he set down the conditions where women can remarry with their husbands dead or alive. These are worthy of analysis in the context of women’s rights but have been completely ignored.

There are innumerable writings on philosophy, dharma, society as well as works of fiction to parse but a handful are fine for the “establishment” of the concepts desired. This is an easy task as the existence of these concepts as a principle with which to understand all writings is one of the underlying assumptions.

It is difficult to take this article seriously as establishing anything at all about early India given the scant knowledge and references.

Selection Bias in Evidence, e.g. Arthashastra

Whatever few translated and misrepresented texts Chakravarti manages to refer to then yield exclusively anti women examples to further her conclusions.

From the Rigveda which has at least a score of women rishis who have composed the suktas and richas all she can gather is demoniac women and apsaras. Not a word on Lopamudra or Shachi or Apala or Ghosha or the fact that women could be brahmavadinis and pursue knowledge all their lives or pursued knowledge till marriage as Sadyovadhus, not a word on the open society, women as warriors ( Vishpala, Danu, Vadhrimati) as makers of war weapons, weavers musicians, dancers etc.

Since there is evidence of women in the economic sphere she has recourse to the AIT again and insists that it was only ‘daasis’ and not ‘Aryan’ women who could be so involved. Given the flawed basis, the analysis is far from sound.

From the Manusmriti she ignores the verses which enjoin education of the girl child and the special privileges of women in the household and repeats the same old litany of mistranslation and misinterpretation which articles on this website have often sought to expose.

On the question of sexuality the emphasis is on control by men and use of sexuality merely for the purposes of procreation. Again a full rebuttal of all these will need a book but I have written on this subject elsewhere, also on Indiafacts.[4] I quote from one of them, “… for the Indic philosopher pondering on the mechanics of living a full life, the deep desire for pleasure existed inside each and every person, what needed to be set down and codified was the harnessing of this energy. The sophisticated, complex focusing of this energy to provide the most intense pleasure to the men and women who were playing in the world of Kama as articulated by sexual union.”

The agency for women in terms of sex and choice of partner is completely ignored; the institution of the Swayamvara did not exist and the descriptions of the social events at which women and men mixed have never been seen by Chakravarti.

From the Mahabharata, that ocean of stories, all she has got is that it says that women are devious and cannot be controlled. One wonders if it has actually been read; otherwise Sulabha who says that the self is not gendered or Madhavi whose strange story and role in the redemption of her father Yayati would perhaps have remained with her. Madhavi’s story is in fact one of exploitation and how she successfully transcends it.

It is not possible in the limited scope of the article to point out each and every error, but some representation is being attempted.

The mangling of the Arthashastra must, however, be mentioned before moving on. Chakravarti sees this ancient encyclopedia as ‘proving’ that state power was used to coerce women to buckle down to men. It is a surprise that any person who has read this treatise can think so. From the exposition of the role of the Queen in the functioning of the King’s council, to the special ring of female bodyguards who are the last line of defence for the King or the network of female spies who were a bulwark to maintaining empire, the many facets of the political power enjoyed by women seem to have flown by her without making an impression.[5]

Again a full treatise is needed for a complete exposition of this subject but this author has written a series of articles on the Arthashastra which the interested reader may peruse[6] and perhaps glean some pertinent information.

Buddhist Examples to Prove “Brahmanical Patriarchy”; Buddha on Women

What is most interesting is the fact that the bulk of the examples to prove the ‘misogyny’ of Brahmanical ideology come from the Buddhist Jataka Tales.

It is the received Marxist Feminist view that Buddhism was a Reformation of the Hindu religion; something like the Protestant reformation of Catholicism. For women and lower castes it was a breath of fresh air saving them from the inequities of the yoke of Hinduism. For anyone who has read Buddhist and Hindu scriptures this notion is laughable but if we take it to be true how can these examples of misogyny come from a ‘reformed’ religion without the ‘taints’ of Hinduism?

An understanding better supported by evidence especially Gautama Buddha’s own words on women, his refusal to let them join the Buddhist order (till his pupil Ananda intervened; he agreed but said that Buddhism would be wiped out in 500 years because of this) and the subservient condition of Buddhist nuns, is that Buddhism is indeed a deeply misogynistic religion with a shuddering fear of sex and the sexual power that women wield. To reach enlightenment Gautama Siddhartha has to win over Devaputra Mara and his visions of seduction through beautiful dangerously attractive and nubile young women. There is no comparative story in the Hindu family of Gods. On a lighter note, like Vishwamitra, they give in to temptation and have children which does not seem to interfere with their life goals.

Jataka stories are religious propaganda with the transformation of old stories which were already popular in the sub-continent to fit Buddhist ideology. Something seen again and again in all Indic religious canons.[7] The focus, teachings and conclusions have been changed to suit the principles of Buddhism including its attitude to women.

The above proposition is open to debate. However, what is clear is that it is dishonest, disingenuous and incorrect to use these stories to “establish Brahmanical Patriarchy” no matter how slyly a comment about the porous borders between the non-existent Brahmanism and Buddhism is inserted into the essay.

Trayambaka Stridharmapaddhati; 17th/18th Century CE Text used for Early India

Trayambakarayamakhin( (1665 to 1750) of the Thanjavur Maratha court wrote a treatise called Stridharmapaddhati which can loosely be translated as the dharmic way of life for women.

This is the text of choice for the establishment of Brahmanical patriarchy regardless of the fact that this was composed at least a millennium or more after what we may call Early India (which would be the first millennium CE and BCE.)

The choice, for Chakravarti’s purpose, is excellent, Trayambaka has rigid and reactionary views on women and their lot in life. Reading Julia Leslie’s 1989 OUP translation makes it difficult to accept his views as offering any kind of balanced life to women apart from their marital bond.

However, the larger question remains; what relevance does an 18th century text have for Early India? Not only are there hundreds of years between the period being analysed and this treatise but social reality has changed in the intervening period.

It is a fact that Indic society has suffered two basic, vicious and cruel upheavals in the 2nd millennium CE, Islamic invasion and Christian colonisation. The effects of these two ripped apart the social and cultural fabric of the Indics. The interface with Islam and Christianity was a violent and losing one, the former involving the genocide of millions of people and the latter a complete takeover of the intellectual capital of the Indics. Attitudes changed drastically and I have argued elsewhere that what goes for Hindu attitudes today is a peculiar result of these two disturbances changing the attitudes prevalent in Early India. We should call ourselves Victorians rather than Hindus given much of what goes by Hindu positions on women and their lives.

The events, stories and sutras referred to in this book are definitely from the Vedic corpus and the Itihaasa-Puraana tradition which definitely belong to Early India. However, the understanding of these changed as attitudes towards women and society changed.

For instance, from Savitri and Satyavan in the Mahabharata being an example of free choice on the part of Savitri to her deification as Sati Savitri and an object of hatred to feminists is a long and complex path. From a Shakuntala who had fought back proudly against injustice from Shantanu to a weak and exploited example of a victimised woman is a similarly long path. A perusal of the Mahabharata in the original would help feminists refocus.

It is unconscionable academic chicanery to use an 18th century texts to establish anything at all in early India and should be summarily rejected.

Proposal for a new Framework to understand Indic Women

In the two parts of this article, I have pointed out the problems with this exclusive etic analysis of gender and caste in India.

It can be accepted that both emic and etic methods of analysis yield a good understanding of the society being studied. In the case of Indic society, however all possible methods have always been etic. Internal methods and frameworks of understanding are conspicuous by their absence.

I propose an interdisciplinary approach put in the framework of varnashram dharma and the four purusharhas. Classification of people can be done according to the varnas they belong to i.e. Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra; according to the stage of life they are in i.e. brahmacharya, grihastha, vanaprastha and sannyasa and also according to the purushartha they pursue. Dharma or the ethical and moral path to follow in life, artha or material wealth, kama or enjoyment and moksha or the liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth are the four purusharthas, the goals of life.

In the four stages of life, dharma was to be the focus during brahmacharya or the life of a student as well as during vanaprastha or the withdrawal from active life, artha and kama during grihastha-ashram and moksha during sanyaas or the renunciate last phase of life.

This was the emic understanding of life and it is worth exploring the position of women in this framework; where did women figure in this matrix and how did they see themselves and the goals of their lives?

As mentioned this framework shall be developed in the forthcoming book on women of ancient India through their stories.


Chakravarti started out to prove the subordination of upper caste women (in itself a limiting hypothesis) to control their sexuality and maintain caste purity, the system of Brahmanical Patriarchy, an institution unique to Hindu society.

An attempt has been made to point out the manifold methodological and evidence related shortcomings in this exposition. Allowances must be made for the brevity with which this has been done in the context of the space provided by the article format.

It needs consistent and rigorous rebuttal of a mountain of work done in the past decades and this is no more than a glimpse of the task before Indic theorists.

The thrust of my rebuttal is not that early India was a paradise of feminist perfection but that the Marxist-Feminist vilification of Brahmins and Hinduism is without basis.

A balanced gender analysis of Early India using appropriate tools is a task which faces all scholars who look for a fresh and in-depth understanding of the period.


[1] Forthcoming book on Women of Ancient India will have more on this

[2] Read Goddesses of the Mauryans in Swarajya Magazine

[3] Books by Cathleen Cummings, Vidya Dehejia,Padma Pillai, Lesli Orr, Hans Bakker

[4] See for instance http://indiafacts.org/kama-and-indic-society/ and the series on Kama run by IndiaFacts

[5] Read Urnabhih by this author to understand the role of spies and ganikas ( Urnabhih Roli Books 2014)

[6] Swarajya Magazine 2016. https://swarajyamag.com/author/17699/sumedha-verma-ojha#read-india-right

[7] The author’s paper for the IGNCA on this subject, “Trading in Stories” is available on the website

Featured Image: Void Network

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness,suitability,or validity of any information in this article.