Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State
This article by Prof. Uma Chakravarti was published in the Economic and Political Weekly on April 3, 1993. Prof. Uma Chakravarti is a well-known veteran feminist historian who taught at Miranda House College for Women, University of Delhi.
The article notes that studies on women in early
Indian history have tended to focus on the ‘status of women’, and this has led
to a limited understanding of the processes that have shaped social
institutions in the country. Instead, Prof. Chakravarti examines the ‘structural
framework of gender relations’ and the specific forms of the subordination of
women in ‘early Indian society’.
She states that a marked feature of Hindu
society is its legal sanction for subjecting women and the lower castes to
“humiliating conditions of existence” – an “extreme expression” of social
stratification. She argues that women were represented as ‘gateways’ or points
of entrance into the caste system due to their reproductive role. Ancient
brahmanical codes of law institutionalised the subordination of women’s
sexuality to maintain the practices of ‘patrilineal succession’ and ‘caste
purity’. This, in turn, preserved the established property and status order.
This article refers to archaeological evidence,
ancient Indian literary texts, and anthropological studies to study the
subordination of women in early Indian society.
Caste and gender hierarchies – notes Prof. Chakravarti – are the organising principles of the brahmanical social order and they are closely interconnected.
She cites several publications in this article to present her argument. Citing the book The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner (an Austrian-born writer and scholar), published in 1986, Prof. Chakravarti notes that Lerner pioneered “The task of exploring the connections between patriarchy and other structures within a historical context.” In outlining the historical context in which patriarchy was formed in ancient Mesopotamia, Lerner noted that despite their high positions and economic independence, women’s sexuality was wholly controlled by men. Following from this Lerner recognised that it was necessary to look for the causes and effects of such sexual control.
The formation of ‘brahmanical patriarchy' was not a single chronological development. This article refers to evidence from different regions related to different groups of people located in specific cultures.
Caste, class and gender – the three main elements of the social order in ‘early India’, which shaped the formation of brahmanical patriarchy – evolved into a complex structure of stratification over millennia.
The main reason for subordinating upper caste women in ‘early Indian society’ was the need for effective sexual control over them. Such control was necessary to maintain ‘patrilineal succession’, a requirement in all patriarchal societies; and ‘caste purity’, an institution unique to Hindu society.
The ‘purity of women’ is central to brahmanical patriarchy because the ‘purity of caste’ is contingent upon it, notes Prof. Chakravarti. Restricting the movement of women safeguards the caste structure of Hindu society. She argues that “…the detailing of norms for women in the brahmanical texts are a powerful admission of the power of non-conformist women, or all women who have the power to non-conform, to break the entire structure of Hindu orthodoxy. For, when women are corrupted all is lost.”
Prof. Chakravarti writes that the shift to an agricultural economy in the post-Vedic period – between 800 BC and 600 BC – was marked by the emergence of caste and class divisions. This shift also brought patrilineal succession to kingship and the preservation of caste purity, which meant closely guarding the sexual behaviour of certain categories of women. A sharp distinction was made between motherhood and female sexuality, and female sexuality was “… channelised only into legitimate motherhood within a tightly controlled structure of reproduction which ensured caste purity (by mating only with prescribed partners) and patrilineal succession (by restricting mating only with one man)."
At this stage, the subordination of women was essential to control their sexuality. They were represented as innately sinful in ancient literary and religious texts. Prof. Chakravarti also notes that notions of the ‘excessive sexuality of women’ were widely prevalent in brahmanical as well as Buddhist texts.
Chastity and ‘wifely fidelity’ were idealised as the highest duty of women. This was reinforced through customs and rituals, and most women internalised and conformed to these norms. Male kinsmen had the authority to coerce and chastise women who violated these norms. The king articulated the “coercive power of the patriarchal state” by chastising wives who flouted the ideological norms for women. “Patriarchy could thus be established firmly as an actuality and not merely as an ideology.”
Focus and Factoids by Ananya Redkar.
Economic and Political Weekly
03 Apr, 1993