Brahmanism and the reins on women's sexuality

October 8, 2015 Written By Gorki Bora

Archaeological studies of cave paintings from early India indicate that during the hunting-gathering stage, the role of women was equal to that of men. The dichotomy between women as gatherers and men as hunters did not exist. There are paintings showing women engaged in hunting animals. Women also had complete control over their sexuality. Even till this date, the hunting gathering tribes are the most egalitarian societies.

Our early pre-Aryan female ancestors enjoyed the licence that would shock the avante garde of today. (Khushwant Singh) They wore nothing above the waist and barest minimum below it. They drank strong liquor and danced till early hours of the morning. They were not inhibited in their sexual relations. It was common for a woman to have 4-5 husbands than for a man to have a harem of women. They owned property because the society was matriarchal.

 

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With the coming of the Aryans and the Brahmanical religious tradition, subordination of women came into being. This reduced the lower varna and the Panchamas (outcastes) along with women to disposable entities that lacked any form of agency. A particularly intriguing relationship between caste and gender has been the subject of analysis for many scholars.

Women are regarded as gateways into the caste system. For the maintainence of the caste system and to avoid varnasamskara (that is, the mixing of castes), women’s sexual subordination was legitimized. The control over female sexuality was firmly established. This meant that utilization of reproductive rights of women came under rules laid down by men to further the caste norms.

Feminists hold Manu Smriti, the Hindu law book responsible for the degradation of women in India. However there is nothing new or startling in the laws of Manu about women. They are the views of Brahmans ever since the start of Brahmanic tradition. There are references in the Rig Vedic literature to suggest that women must not gain strength and stay obedient to men. The Satapatha Brahmana expresses the fear that the woman might go to other men. However before Manu they only existed as a matter of social theory. What Manu did was to convert the social theory into the law of the state. According to Manu, the innate nature of woman was sinful. They were adulterous by nature and permanently on the lookout for an opportunity to seduce men. Manu tells us that after conception by his wife, the husband becomes an embryo and is born again of her; that is the wifehood of a wife. In order to keep his offspring ‘pure’ Manu enjoins the husband to carefully guard his wife lest his future is denied to him.

The concept of pativrata and the notion of Stree-dharma were ideological mechanism for socially controlling the biological aspects of women. Women who epitomised wifely fidelity like Sita, Savitri, Anasuya et al were exalted. True womanhood lay in the devotion to husband alone. In Ramayana, the Rama legend provides a model of male valour and honour and the Sita story that of female chastity, fidelity and self sacrifice.

There were provisions for corporal punishment for women who failed in their duty towards their husband. The power to use violence is vested in the husband and can be used to punish women so that they conform to the requirements of wifely fidelity. In case the husband did not succeed, the king could use the powers of the patriarchal state to chastise those women who dared to challenge the established norms of chastity.

The motive behind establishing such stringent measures of control was to preserve the caste system and as a consequence to ensure legitimacy in terms of succession for kings and landholding groups and also to preserve the customs. Thus Manu provided a graded understanding of the outcomes of unions between different castes. Manu considered the hypogamous unions between women of higher caste and men of lower caste as the most reprehensible. Such pratiloma (hypogamous) marriages solicited condemnation and severest punishment and were termed Raksahsa or Paisacha marriages.

The Hindu tradition is guided by the pitra-savarnya system, that is the son inherits the father’s varna and the Kshetra-Kshetraja rule (Man the Seed – Woman the Earth). However in defending the caste system, Manu reverses the established rules in favour of a matra-savarnya system. This is recognised as an unusual flexibility in the otherwise rigid Brahmanical system and an inherent contradiction in Manu’s desire to create a closed structure based on anuloma (hypergamous) unions.

Caste formation stemmed from a complex of caste violence and subjugation of women; and Manu Smriti being the most authoritative of the books of the Hindu Dharmasastra, played a crucial role in ensuring this. Gendered violence became common and naturalised. These are the very reasons for which Manu Smriti drew the ire of feminists in India.

Brahmanism and the reins on women's sexuality

October 8, 2015 Written By Gorki Bora

Archaeological studies of cave paintings from early India indicate that during the hunting-gathering stage, the role of women was equal to that of men. The dichotomy between women as gatherers and men as hunters did not exist. There are paintings showing women engaged in hunting animals. Women also had complete control over their sexuality. Even till this date, the hunting gathering tribes are the most egalitarian societies.

Our early pre-Aryan female ancestors enjoyed the licence that would shock the avante garde of today. (Khushwant Singh) They wore nothing above the waist and barest minimum below it. They drank strong liquor and danced till early hours of the morning. They were not inhibited in their sexual relations. It was common for a woman to have 4-5 husbands than for a man to have a harem of women. They owned property because the society was matriarchal.

 

Image Source

With the coming of the Aryans and the Brahmanical religious tradition, subordination of women came into being. This reduced the lower varna and the Panchamas (outcastes) along with women to disposable entities that lacked any form of agency. A particularly intriguing relationship between caste and gender has been the subject of analysis for many scholars.

Women are regarded as gateways into the caste system. For the maintainence of the caste system and to avoid varnasamskara (that is, the mixing of castes), women’s sexual subordination was legitimized. The control over female sexuality was firmly established. This meant that utilization of reproductive rights of women came under rules laid down by men to further the caste norms.

Feminists hold Manu Smriti, the Hindu law book responsible for the degradation of women in India. However there is nothing new or startling in the laws of Manu about women. They are the views of Brahmans ever since the start of Brahmanic tradition. There are references in the Rig Vedic literature to suggest that women must not gain strength and stay obedient to men. The Satapatha Brahmana expresses the fear that the woman might go to other men. However before Manu they only existed as a matter of social theory. What Manu did was to convert the social theory into the law of the state. According to Manu, the innate nature of woman was sinful. They were adulterous by nature and permanently on the lookout for an opportunity to seduce men. Manu tells us that after conception by his wife, the husband becomes an embryo and is born again of her; that is the wifehood of a wife. In order to keep his offspring ‘pure’ Manu enjoins the husband to carefully guard his wife lest his future is denied to him.

The concept of pativrata and the notion of Stree-dharma were ideological mechanism for socially controlling the biological aspects of women. Women who epitomised wifely fidelity like Sita, Savitri, Anasuya et al were exalted. True womanhood lay in the devotion to husband alone. In Ramayana, the Rama legend provides a model of male valour and honour and the Sita story that of female chastity, fidelity and self sacrifice.

There were provisions for corporal punishment for women who failed in their duty towards their husband. The power to use violence is vested in the husband and can be used to punish women so that they conform to the requirements of wifely fidelity. In case the husband did not succeed, the king could use the powers of the patriarchal state to chastise those women who dared to challenge the established norms of chastity.

The motive behind establishing such stringent measures of control was to preserve the caste system and as a consequence to ensure legitimacy in terms of succession for kings and landholding groups and also to preserve the customs. Thus Manu provided a graded understanding of the outcomes of unions between different castes. Manu considered the hypogamous unions between women of higher caste and men of lower caste as the most reprehensible. Such pratiloma (hypogamous) marriages solicited condemnation and severest punishment and were termed Raksahsa or Paisacha marriages.

The Hindu tradition is guided by the pitra-savarnya system, that is the son inherits the father’s varna and the Kshetra-Kshetraja rule (Man the Seed – Woman the Earth). However in defending the caste system, Manu reverses the established rules in favour of a matra-savarnya system. This is recognised as an unusual flexibility in the otherwise rigid Brahmanical system and an inherent contradiction in Manu’s desire to create a closed structure based on anuloma (hypergamous) unions.

Caste formation stemmed from a complex of caste violence and subjugation of women; and Manu Smriti being the most authoritative of the books of the Hindu Dharmasastra, played a crucial role in ensuring this. Gendered violence became common and naturalised. These are the very reasons for which Manu Smriti drew the ire of feminists in India.

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