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Beyond the Altekarian Paradigm: Towards a New Understanding of Gender Relations in Early Indian History Author(s): Uma Chakravarti Source: Social Scientist, Vol. 16, No. 8 (Aug., 1988), pp. 44-52

Published by: Social Scientist

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NOTE

Beyond the Altekarian Paradigm:

New

Early Indian History

Towardsa

Understandingof

Gender Relations in

Discussion on the status of women has a unique position in the writing,

teaching,

conclusions

syllabi of school and undergraduate courses.

there is some information on women in almost every text book on ancient

India. This kind of information does not occur in any other course of

history since there has been no tradition of a separate discussion on the status of women. The uniqueness of the situation made its point while I

on the

main features of later Vedic civilization resulted in a spate of answers

dealing with the position of women. It was clear that to most students one of the important indices of a civilization was the position that

on an

informal debate that took over 150 years to crystallize

down to a large number of people among the upper

a

seriously limiting dimension to it especially when we consider the

of

women in history. It might therefore be worthwhile to explain why the first historians undertook studies of the status of women, why they remained confined essentially to Ancient India, and also review the state of the existing literature so that one may be able to evaluate the

negative effect that such work has had on a real

was correcting examination

and learning

of early Indian history.

Further, some

of the

of this discussion

have actually found

their way into the

it is worth

For whatever

papers some time ago.

A question

women occupied in it. This

The

existing

material

on

general

women

understanding

in early

is based

and percolate

has

classes in India.

India

however

understanding

worth of the available studies. This will, in turn, help us outline the kind of work that needs to be done in the future.

in the early stages of the

national movement. The socio-religious reform movements of the nineteenth century advocated a reform of Hindu society whose twin evils were seen as the existence of caste and the low status of women. All the major reformers of the time attacked the practice of Sati, child

widowhood, and this was a common platform

whether

to the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal, the

marriage and enforced

The women's

question

took a central place

the reformers

belonged

Prarthana Samaj in Maharashtra or the Arya Samaj in northern India. The pre-occupation with these questions was derived, at least in part,

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BEYONDTHEALTEKARIANPARADIGM 45

from the dominance of Sanskritic models in the nineteenth century, since the major thrust in the debate came from within the upper sections of the Hindu community. The above-mentioned characteristic has survived in the women's question even in contemporary times where the study of the identity of women is based almost entirely on Sanskritic models and the myths conditioning women.

Another feature which has significant

consequences

for the general

debate on the status of women is that both the proponents of the reform

as well as the opponents of the reform looked back to the ancient texts

as the source from which both groups

putting forward their arguments. This

naturally necessitated a study

the liberals or

of history.

progressives, and the conservatives was the relative antiquity of the

source from which they were quoting. The older the source the more authentic and authoritative it was considered. Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and R.G. Bhandarkar, all quoted

copiously from the Sanskrit sources in order to attack the conservatives. There is thus a direct correlation between the concerns of the Brahmo

on the

the sanctions of the Shastras in

took their positions and invoked

position

of women over the course

of the

The deciding

factor in the debate between

Samaj, Arya Samaj, and the Prarthana Samaj and the writings of women in Hindu civilization.

position Since the traditional

entirely within the context of Hinduism it is heavily pre-occupied

re-

of Niyoga, the right to

of the institution of

On the

to

perform religious

also with

the

inclusion or exclusion of women in public assemblies and their right to

education. On the whole the perspective on women is confined to seeing

family. the family, and primarily in the relationship of wives to husbands with which the traditional writers were concerned.

It is the status of women within

goals.

religious front there is an obsession with the right of a woman

sacrifices either by herself or with her husband, as

Stridhana, the right of the childless

property for women,

marriage, the existence

with

work on the status of women

questions

such

as the right

of

the

institution

in India exists

to widow

religious

and

legal

the origin and development

widow

to adopt and so on.

with

the pursuit

is usually

her interest and involvement

position

of women

of religious

with

The social

concerned

them within the context of the

Another feature of the traditional

writing

on the position of women

Even if these

sources are considered to be reasonably authentic, which I have reason to doubt, they carry the problem of (a) an inherent bias of the brahmanas, (b) reflecting the precepts of the brahmanas rather than the actual practice of the people, and (c) confining themselves to the upper castes. At best the existing work can be termed as a partial view

is that they were based entirely on brahmanical sources.

from above. How unsatisfactory such unconditional reliance upon brahmanical sources has been will be clear further on in this paper.

The analysis of the position of women in ancient India has also been coloured by the fact that almost all the works have been written by

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46

SOCIALSCIENTIST

scholars who would fall within the nationalist school

Writing at a time when Hindu social institutions were being subjected

western education

scholars worked hard to show that the

position of women had been

evils

Hindu sense of

inferiority reaction Hindu scholars

aberration and could

work has thereforebeen to demonstrate that the status of women was

very high

thrust of the

temporary

to fierce criticism

and western values, these

of history.

by a generation that was imbibing

high in the ancient

past. The contemporary

responsible

for the

reflecting the low position

of women were

in relation to their ruling masters. As a

argued that the evils were only a

easily be eliminated. The general

period; according

in the Vedic

to this view there was a

the development

in

general decline afterwards,

the invaders, especially the Muslims,

violated them, and these circumstancesresulted in

reaching rock bottom with the coming of

who abducted Hindu women and

of

This view has

popular that it is

only

such evils as Purdah, Sati and female infanticide.

become

literatureand vernacular journals but we

an extension of traditionalacademic research.

widely

prevalent

since it appears regularly

must point out

Here

scholar:

is a fairly representative example from the pen of a woman

The tenth and the eleventh centuries saw the advent, and later,

When

country. Hindu culture came into clash with a culture far different from its own the leaders of society began to frame rules and laws to

safeguard

stage

child

Rigorous restrictionswere placed on them

the firm establishment of Muhammadans in this

their

interest-specially

marriage firmly

enforced.

enjoinedby

the

position We find at this

of

women.

was into evil hands. Hence self-immolationof a

the unfortunatevictim

giving bliss. Such and several other customs were

very large

and

The death of a widow

preferred to her falling widow was

the hope of heavenly

introduced which curbed the freedom of women to a

the law codes

perhaps

to

extent. This was done

to preserve the purity of

save her from the foreigners

the race.1

Similarly, R.C. Dutt, the well-known nationalist historian and the

a coherent account of ancient Indian civilization and of

first

to present

women, writes:

Absoluteseclusionand restraint(of women) were not Hindu customs.

They

were

unknown

in India till Mohammedan

times.

.

.

.

No

ancient nation held their women

in higher honour than the

Hindus.2

without

Even if one were to confine oneself

to Brahmanicalsources thereis enough evidence to show that women of

the tinted

Such a sweeping view is untenable if one looks at the

spectacles

of the

present.

past

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BEYONDTHEALTEKARIANPARADIGM 47

the

centuries of the Christian era, and that Manu and other law

recommended early marriage for

century

early ensured the subordinationof women was complete in all essentials long

The

Muslim bogey was a convenient

oppressive practices.

not wish to see the structuralframeworkof institutions that

gender

The

term

occasional historian's

divested of the power factor

import. The cultural encounterbetween England and India in the nineteenth

century,

historiography,shaped the focus and the thrustof writing on women in

early the unfavourable

women, which was marked that it led Vincent

syndrome.

everything Indian. If he was

proof

immediately

position

trying

held

specially

passage

the

They

to point out that nowhere else in the ancient world were women

castes did not have access to the

girls.

ruling classes,

upper

public

domain

by the early

that

of all

givers

Sati itself was associated with

women of the

as is evident from the seventh

account of Harsha's

career.

The structure of institutions

had come

into being.

the

origin

before the Muslims as a

religious community

It was

peg

to

particularly

early India mainly

explain

convenient for those who did

governed because it was the

same

contemporary society.

stray

into an

relations in

framework that governed women even in

'patriarchy'

was hardly used and even when it did

writing

it was a neutral term,

for

the

emergence

completely

inherent in it; successfully depoliticized

thus it lost its real

which was the context

injury

of nationalist

from

and western

India. The

to the Hindu sense of

superiorityresulting

women

comparison between Hindu

common throughout

frequently to an Smith's

the culturalencounter, was so

inversion of the Vincent Smith

was a

general

contempt

for

and incontrovertible

culture

he

would

position faced with visual

in

Indian

of

something attributeit to Greek influence. Historians writing on the

argumentby invariably

years

ago.

Rome as in

worthwhile

of women in ancientIndia reversed the

high

regard

in

in such

as in the India of 3000

revelled

below:

comparisons with Greece and

The historian of India who has studied the literature of the

asserting of Greece and Rome were women held in

in those countriesas in India three thousand years

the most

ancient Hindus will have no hesitation in

that never in

polished days

such high regard

ago.3

the condition of women in ancient Greece,

Rome, and Palestine, and then reiterates that the position which

women occupied at the dawn of civilization during the Vedic

much better.4 The need of the nationalist historians to resurrect

of the

lost glory

aspects interpretation of events, best illustrated by the nationalist rendering of

This has often resulted in a sanitized

examples of Indian womanhood has led to a selective focus on certain

Similarly Altekar surveys

age was

of the ancient texts.

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48

SOCIALSCIENTIST

the Gargi-Yajnavalkya debate,

women's

Shastri'sbook is

Yajnavalkya have by this time become more subtle and pointed.

Yajnavalkya however clearly

the most

of

example of the account in Shakuntala Rao

celebrated

learning.

The

highlight the debate concludes.

has no intention of

the way

Gargi's questions to

allowing Gargi to

win

arbitrarily

questioning

Despite this Shakuntala

the

prize

threatens

threatens

of a thousand cows. At this stage of the debate he

Gargi

with dire

consequences

if

she persists

in

him and so eliminates her from the contest.

Rao Shastri sums up the episode without pointing to the unfairness of

philosophers, one a

this clearly

man and the other a woman. Instead she blithely states:

memorable confrontationbetween two

The

finest

enquiry

mine] about the natureof Brahman.5

persistent

and obstinate enquiry of a woman

Reality.

brought

of

forth the

Gargi's

definition of the Supreme

was not to test

The motive

Yajnavalkya but

to learn from him [italics

mind, and her ability to take

on a well established

glossed over

pursuit of

philosophical The best known and most internally coherent nationalist work on

in Hindu

women is Altekar's

primarily outlines the position of women from earliest times

to the mid- was under

century consideration. Altekar's work represents the best that is available to

fifties

position on Brahmanicalsources and

in order to present a

account; more importantly

Thus Gargi'sfearlessness, independent

philosopher, the unfairness of the contest is

picture of blissful, harmonious

on the

the

Hindu

of women

right up

Bill

Code

is watered down in Rao Shastri's

truth.

study civilization. His work is based

of

this

when

but it also shows up very the

us by way of women's studies in history

sharply work unravels in detail the

such areas as the education of

position of the widow, women in public life,

women, and the general position of women in society, it is steeped in

Further his

and

one almost

overwhelming concern is with women in the context of the

the nationalist understanding of the women's question.

the feeling that the status of women needs to be raised

in order to ensure the

of nationalist writers from the

In this he was reflecting the opinion

proprietary rights of

and divorce, the

of the law makerson

the limitations of the traditional

approach. Although

entire body of opinion

women, marriage

family

gets

healthy development

nineteenth

century

of the future race of India.

who

placed

tremendous

second half of the

importance on the physical regeneration

of the Hindus.

A

of Altekar'swork will indicate the limitations inherent in

His theoretical framework is spelt out in the very first

work. According to him:

survey

of his

his approach.

page

One of the best ways to understand the spirit

to appreciate its

of a civilization and

limitations is to study

excellence and realize its

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BEYONDTHEALTEKARIANPARADIGM 49

. The

men

marriage regarded women as market commodities or war prizes or whether they realized that the wife is after all her husband's valued

for happiness and

success

partner whose

the history of the position and status of women

laws

and

customs

Fo-operation

enable

us

to realize

was indispensable

in family life [italics mine].6

in

it

.

.

whether

Altekar's own genuine him to sometimes

positive and progressive. Thus he suggests

commitment

quaint

to reforming women's

which

status led

as

making

statements

he intended

that although

Women have low fighting value they have potential military value. By giving birth to sons they contribute indirectly to the

fighting strength and efficiency of their community.7

Further,

Altekar's

programme

despite

as

This view is particularly noticeable in

of

but in doing so one had to

for

women,

his

apparent

liberality and sympathy

stock-breeders of a

his suggestions

reform women were to be educated enough

ensure that no undue strain was placed fears thus:

for them, was to view

education.

women

primarily

strong race.

about women's

In Altekar's programme

He expressed

upon them.

his

as

boys and to learn house-keeping at

having less physical strength than their brothers. This certainly puts too much strain upon them and is injurious to the future well- being of the race [italics mine].8

As things stand today girls have to pass

the same examinations

as well,

home

all the while

Establishing

the high

status

be

of women

was

the means

by which

vindicated.

This

was

the

finished

'Hindu'

version of the nationalist answer to James Mill's denigration of Hindu

civilization published a century ago; the locus of the barbarity of Hindu civilization in James Mill's work (A History of British India) had lain in the abject condition of Hindu women. By reversing the

picture Altekar was attempting easier to

customs oppressing

century.

biases against women.

preference

argument

But it was of

civilization

could

to lay Mill's ghost than to deal

aside.

with

provide

a general

women

picture that still obtained

a variety in the early twentieth

for existing

Altekar was thus forced to provide

for a son over a daughter as in the passage below:

explanations

For example he attempts to

by advancing

explain the Hindu

a psychological

If a cruel fate inflicted widowhood upon the daughter, the

break

calamity

longer possible parents

their daughter

no

would

the parent's

had to see herself

heart.

Remarriage

being

the heart-rending pain of seeing

in interminable

widowhood

.

.

.

wasting

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50

SOCIALSCIENTIST

parents had often to pass through the terrible ordeal of seeing

their daughters

their husbands. To become a daughter's parent thus became a source

of endless

passages

more numerous.9

burning

themselves

alive on the funeral pyre of

worry and misery.

about the undesirability

As a natural consequence of the birth of daughter become

Altekar is particularly weak in his attempts at relating the status of

women at a given point of time with social organization as a whole.

Thus early Vedic society

concentration of power,

the context for Altekar's unnecessary

queens. Since Altekar is convinced

the Vedic period he feels he has to account for why we do not hear of

in

of

is

which

did

not

as

yet

have

noticeable

or a well developed

institution

of kingship,

for the absence

about the high status of women

explanation

women as queens. Thus he is constrained to suggest that,

Aryans were gradually

surrounded

considerably outnumbered them.

ruling in their own [italics mine].10

establishing

their rule in a foreign country

hostile

population

that

on all

sides by an indigenous

rights or as regents

Under such circumstances queens

were

naturally unknown

Similarly

Altekar has a facile explanation

own property. According to him,

for why

women

did not

Landed property could be owned only by one who had the power to defend it against actual or potential rivals and enemies. Women were obviously unable to do this and so could hold no property.l1

In his inability

to see women

within

a specific

social organization

Altekar was not

subordination

and recognizing patriarchal Like others he

unique.

biological determinism and therefore in the physical inferiority of

belief in

of women

was reflecting

a deeply

internalized

women.

Altekar shows flashes of insight into the

socio-economic

of the causes for the 'fall' of the

achieved.

status of the Aryan

subjugation of the Sudras as a whole. He argues that the Aryan

conquest

members

the

Very occasionally

however

context

within

which

women's

subordination

with

was

For example in his analysis

women

Altekar

of the indigenous

population

varna had

such

a situation

to

the

crucial

distinction

suggests

a connection

and its loose incorporation as

given rise to a huge population of

Aryan and thus lost the esteem of society.

broadly contextual explanation Altekar is

of

But

of a separate

semi-servile status. In

producing members of society

even as he makes this

insensitive

women as producers and participation

production. Thereafter Altekar's

women

the

terms

ceased to be

between

in

participation

of

controlling

insight

is

semi-historical

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BEYONDTHEALTEKARIANPARADIGM 51

unfortunately lost and popular prejudice

givers as in this passage:

Brahmanicallaw

takes over. Like the ancient

he appears to

have a horrorof Sudra women,

The introduction of the non-Aryan wife into the

is the

of

key

key

[italics mine] to the The

non-Aryan

gradual

wife

Aryan

household

the position

deteriorationof

with her ignorance of

Sanskrit

the same

language and Hindu

as the Aryan consort[italics mine]. Association

with her must have tended

Aryan co-wife as well. Very often the non-Aryan wife may have

of her husband, who may have often

in

co-wife.

Aryan mistakes and anomalies in

preference

attempted

This must

the

been the favourite one

to affect the purity of speech of the

religiousprivileges

religion could obviously not enjoy

to

associate

her

with

his

religious

sacrifices

to her

better educated but less loved

have naturally led to grave

of the ritual

performance

which must have shocked the

orthodox priests

gained by declaring

Vedic studies and

Eventually it was felt that the object could be

ineligible for

the whole class of women to be

religious duties.12

This facile

regards

argument

was, in Altekar's

The

Altekar is

possibility

view, the key

factor in the

decline of the status of women.

historical explanations.

he

active kind of womanhood for Hindu

Altekar because of the

and in his racist

caste women of Hindu

progenitors

view Sudrawomen countedfor nothing. Themost

of

explanations

between

explanations offered

trivial to us

nationalist historians were content to restrict historical

in

writing contrast to their focus on economic and social factors while discussing British rule in India.

to cultural factors while

large,

explanations

completely that the Sudra woman, whom

and

dynamic would not even occur to

then as the

importantconsequence

and

psychological

social relations

biological

the

distorted

obscured. The kind of to be

astoundingly

by

and

This

was

obtuse to other

as a threat,

could have contributed to a more

society

his focus is on Aryan women (regarded

upper

of

of

society)

Altekar's limited was that

repertoire

the

logic

is

men and women

today

by

completely

Altekar

might appear

but it is

important

to remember that,

about ancient India.

early India we

paradigm, and biased, continues to nevertheless influence and

In essence what

of the

which now

pervades the collective consciousness of the upper castes in India and

idyllic

mass of detail he accumulated is the construction of

even dominate historical

though limiting

might

In summing up

draw

nationalist

historiography on women

in

attention

to the fact that

writing.

the Altekarian

emerges from the

a picture

picture

analytically rigorous

need

justice to

urgent

condition of women in the Vedic

of

gender

the

emergence

It is a

age.

has virtually crippled

study

to move

of a more

relations in ancient India. Thereis thus an

forward and rewrite history, a history that does

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52

SOCIALSCIENTIST

women by examining social processes, and the structures they create,

the relations between men and

we

realized that despite Altekar's substantial contribution we must lay

women. Just as Altekar displaced

thus crucially shaping and conditioning

Mill in his

work,

it

is

time

his ghost aside and begin afresh.

NOTESAND REFERENCES

1. ShakuntalaRao Shastri, Womenin the

2. R.C.

3. Ibid.,

Sacred Laws,1959, pp.

172-73,

189.

Dutt,

A

p.

p. 171.

171.

Historyof Civilizationin AncientIndia, 1972

(Reprint),pp. 168-169.

4. A.S.

5. Ibid., p.

6. Ibid.,

7. Ibid., p. 3.
8.

1.

Altekar, ThePosition of Womenin Hindu Civilization, 1987 (Reprint), p. 337.

95.

p.

28.

Ibid., p.
9.

Ibid., p. 5.

Ibid.

10. Ibid., p. 339.
11.

345.

12. Ibid., p.

UMA CHAKRAVARTI

Department of History

Miranda House,

Delhi University

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