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Thirteenth National Workshop

A Report


One of the most resilient stereotypes about early India is the perceived continuity of the caste system, from remote antiquity to the present. Another stereotype that one encounters is that the caste system became more rigid with the passage of time. Both of these can and have been called into question. Consequently, a linear history of caste has proved to be inadequate and has been replaced by more complex formulations. The Thirteenth National Workshop on “Perspectives on Caste and Gender in Early India” held at the Centre for Contemporary Theory and General Semantics, Baroda from 2nd to 5th February, 2009 explored some of these, as developed by historians of early India, to the fact that there were and are regions within the subcontinent where caste formations have been distinctive, and, in some instances, absent. It is also apparent that as with caste, so also gender hierarchies have varied through the ages and from region to region. The resource persons for the workshop were Kumkum Roy, Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Dr Jaya Tyagi, Reader, Department of History, Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi.

Excerpts and essays from different primary and secondary texts were discussed during the workshop. The essays covered are: B. D. Chattpodaya’s “One Blind Man’s View of an Elephant: Understanding Early Indian Social History”; Shareen Ratnagar’s “Our Tribal Past”; Romila Thapar’s “The Historiography of the Concept of ‘Aryan’”; Aloka Parasher-Sen’s “Naming and Social Exclusion: The Outcaste and the Outsider”; Vivekananda Jha’s “Candida and the Origin of Untouchability”; Uma Chakravarti’s “Women, Men and Beast: The Jatakas as Popular Tradition”; Thomas R. Trautmann’s “Marriage in the Dharmasastra”; Allan Sponborg’s “Attitudes toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism” and Leonard Zwilling’s “Homosexuality as Seen in Indian Buddhist Texts.”

Prof. Roy and Dr. Tyagi gave a detailed account of historical texts with close reading giving different perspectives of the ancient Vedic texts. The workshop focused on the contending relationship between the sources of the text and ideological formulations of these sources pertaining to Vedic Sanskrit textual traditions and their normative status. In the introductory session, Prof. Roy gave some preliminary reflections: 1. Historians face the challenge of interdisciplinary approach. 2. The back and forth movement from social history to the history of societies. 3. Recognition of proper genealogy. 4. Gradually marginalization of the Gender aspect in ancient Indian historical accounts; even by the feminist historians. 5. Vedic tradition is not necessarily Indian tradition. 6. Vedic age is more or less an illusion of the popular mythology through various Hymns and 7. There are several contradictions regarding Vedic history and the issue of controlling Vedic literature by a few sects.

Though we may suppose that Harappan Civilization gave way to varna system, it is not possible to determine whether status was assigned on the basis of birth, one of the hallmarks of caste society. The other commonly acknowledged markers of caste society are- endogamy, purity and pollution taboos related to connubial and commensalities, hierarchy, and hereditary occupations. The first textual reference to the fourfold order occurs in a late section of the Rigveda, and probably dates to the end of the first millennium BCE. This suggests that the order was represented as being located within a cosmic framework. This myth continued to be reiterated in later textual traditions.

The resource persons reflected upon the aspect that sufficient caution needs to be taken while understanding several textual traditions in the historical context and how to read them in the contemporary context with respect to caste and gender. They also stated that traditions that deal with caste and gender perspectives, nevertheless, also have to acknowledge that Buddhist traditions could not internalize Hindu caste system. As early as the mid-first millennium BCE Buddhist and Jaina traditions insisted that the category of khattiya/kshatriya, the warriors, was superior to the priesthood, and suggested that social identities based on birth were irrelevant for those who renounced the world. Yet there are those who maintain that one of the reasons that Buddhism declined was its ideological inability to come to terms with the caste system which was so deeply entrenched in the Indian milieu, whereas Jainism survived because it was able to incorporate caste within its fold.

Prof. Roy explained the geographical relevance of the texts that provides enough precaution in comprehending the relevance and categories of several terms. The hymns themselves were written using occupational similes rather than using divine intuition. The hymns would be composed for a royal patron or nobleman. Historians also deal with the anxiety of the Vedas not being transmitted in the proper way. The leanness of women’s contribution to the Rigveda is also a telling statement, where out of a 1000 hymns, only 10 are composed by women. Many hymns raise the issue of sexuality and fertility. Prof. Roy stated there are a very few places in those hymns that talk about the rights of women. Her reading of the ritual hymn for the Ashwamedha sacrifice in the Shathpath Brahman texts gave participants insight into an explanation/justification of the performance of rituals, wherein one found speculation on social status, the use of women only as a tool toward the perpetuation of male superiority. The Fertility rite to be performed after the Ashwamedh sacrifice was an attempt to order the relation between kshatriya and rajanya, brahmana and ‘Shathpath Brahman’ was a bulky and native text composed by and for Brahmanas, not at all meant to be read by any other than a select caste. The text threw up the complexity that had gone into the composing of the texts to discuss and deliberate, through description of ritual, the origin and at that point, the tension between the hierarchy of the Kshatriya vis- a- vis that of the Brahman.

In her public lecture on “The Politics of Reproduction in India: Controlling and Connecting Perspectives,” Prof. Roy very elaborately showed the meaning and nature of ‘son preference’ in ancient India through the Manusmruti, the Arthashastra and the KamaSutra. She dealt with how procreation was conceptualized in Early India , taking up the Shastras, the courtly literature and the Therigathas-Buddhist Women’s writing. The Rigveda had specific hymns for the valorous son. The Arthshastra has specific rules of patriliny and property rights. Dr Roy concluded that there was an absence of uniformity in Early India in its attitude toward reproduction, but that the importance of a male progeny was universal. Prof. Roy also focused on the Therigathas highlighting the creative and descriptive writing by Buddhist women, where original reading provide a stark contrast to the various silences of the women of the Early Vedic period. Women’s voices were quite clear in terms of what kinds of societal pressures they chose to free themselves from and lead the lives of Bhikkunis.

Dr Jaya Tyagi dealt with some of the excerpts from GrhyaSutras and the Manusmriti. The Grhyasutras can be treated as texts written for a shakhas or different schools within the Varna of Brahmins, within the notion of ‘sacred geography’. Contextualising and placing the texts within a very broad chronological framework, Dr. Tyagi repeatedly warned the participants from assigning fixed dates to any ancient texts as they were the works of compilations over centuries. Doing a close reading of the GrhyaSutras, she elaborated rules of customs, rituals and of conduct of the householder, his status and position in the family and then thereby in the society. While the GrhyaSutras ignored women completely even as they were supposed to ensure complete obedience by women to the householder and enlisting their support in the carrying out all normative patriarchal rituals, there is a distinct misogynist anxiety evident throughout the texts of the Manusmriti. Dr Tyagi also engaged the participants with passages that highlighted rules governing marriage, varnasamkara, ie flouting strict laws of upwardly mobile marriages, the right and proper conduct of brides and then wives, while also pointing out numerous passages devoted to the normative descriptions of procedures regulating the behaviour, moral conduct, economic dependence, inaccessibility to knowledge and the perpetuation to the varna- jati system through the anuloma form of marriage. The Ashwalayana texts mentioned the importance of the nuptial fires, the household fires and the stark anomaly that though women were to be confined to the home and hearth, they were forbidden any knowledge of hymns and rituals, with no household authority whatsoever. Varnasamkara, the intermixture of jatis through inter varna marriages were strictly frowned upon, strictures passed in various texts of the Manusmriti and the Grihya Sutras which bring to the fore Brahmanical anxieties of loss of purity, and pollution taboos. The GrhyaSutras and the Manusmriti primarily engaged in forming normative patriarchal hierarchies. Dr Tyagi showed textual references in the Manusmriti to laws guarding the wife, to retain the property within the family, anxiety over the paternity of children. Dr Tyagi foregrounded the caste and gender anxiety as understood in the texts that she chose for analysis and discussion. The continuity of the caste structure as being dependent on the severe control and regulation of the freedom of women, (especially regarding savarna marriages) in ancient India became abundantly clear.

In her public lecture on “Text and Context: Projection of Patriarchal Ideologies in the Textual Traditions,” Dr Tyagi recapitulated many significant concepts regarding patriarchal fears and issues pertaining women. She emphasized, noting from Sheldon Pollock, that sutras are cultural grammars compiled to identify and serve particular purposes. Citing Umberto Eco, Dr. Tyagi asked the participants to understand the intention of the text. In particular, she argued that the Early Indian Texts are written by males and for males, which further are problematic for codification. These texts totally ignore the contributions of women. That there was a consistently negative image of women as represented and documented in texts meant for close circulation within the Early Vedic and also the Epic traditions is evident. This makes, for Dr. Tyagi, ideology central to these texts, where questions like Who was a ‘good’ woman; what was the fate of widows; what were the male anxieties concerning the ‘malevolence’ of women were some facts which were brought out in the form of stree dharma.

The participants made presentations on the basis of the reading material and some of the topics of the presentations include ‘Tracing the Origin and Development of the concept of the ‘Aryan’; ‘Chandala and the Origin of Untouchability ’; ‘Theory of Gift : Analysis of Trautmann’s “Marriage in the Dharmashastras”;‘Representation of Women in the Jatakas’; “Casteizing Gender : A Study of Attitudes toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism’ by Alan Sponberg”; ‘Anuloma , Pratiloma, and Kanyadan as seen in Thomas Trautmann’; ‘Homosexuality as seen in the Indian Buddhist Tradition’ and ‘Ideological Existence of Tribes’; and ‘Reflections on Thomas Trautmann’s ‘Marriage in the Dharmashastras.’ The presentations showed critical observations of the participants who had also at various junctures made critical and inquisitive interventions.

There was also the screening of the critically acclaimed film “Water” directed by Deppa Mehta.

Prof. Roy summed up the reading material keeping in mind the queries raised by the participants during the four-day sessions. She opined that one has to be take note of how people outside history often appropriate history. The insider/outsider attitude toward caste and gender can be again dangerous as there can be as many histories as there are historians. For instance, there is no exact reference to an Aryan invasion. The term Aryan appears only 35 times in the 1000 hymns of the Rgveda, there needs be no reason to valorize it indefinitely. There is also no evidence that the Aryan were any race of indigenous people. The Aryan –Daasa divide was rarely identified by skin color, and there was no inferiority about any skin other than fair. The search for a pristine and indigenous origin is totally misleading, as we have always lived along with a multitude of people. The urge to find the origin of any idea, concept, or term was again very dangerous as there as yet is no definitive evidence of anything specific in history. She thus emphasized that there is no one past but there are many pasts of our subcontinent. The study of history is thus relevant to reconstruct ancient knowledge for a better engagement with the present. Prof. Roy urged the participants to recognize that at any given one time there can be a multitude of simultaneous histories, contrasting yet in a way authenticated because of being contextualized in various ways. She also informed the participants of the vastness of the work undergone and still underway in terms of codifying, documenting history through the multiple types of sources.

In an open session, the participants were also given a session to voice their impressions of the workshop and their views toward history. While some were very grateful to have had direct access to original texts and in depth analysis of historical data, many were disappointed that the approach had in a way not provided any concrete answers.  Many gained insights into closer reading methods with particularly with reference to historical literature.. A general agreement was that history cannot be appropriated, nor essentialized nor categorized into watertight compartments.

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