It is intriguing that often when referring to the past, there is a certainty with which assertions are sometimes made—the more distant the past, the more assertive the claims (particularly so in recent times in the context of Ancient India). In reality, one can only be tentative and hesitant about ancient constructs, historians can merely venture to make suggestions related to what particular sources indicate and underline the problems and constraints while working with those sources while drawing attention to contrary opinions within individual sources and how they may allow for varied interpretations. The book under review attempts this by exploring diverse sources, ‘inscriptional and visual as well as normative and narrative texts’ and showing that ‘gender identities were not monolithic’. The book reinforces the relevance of gender studies by probing different ways in which various social categories can be identified and the manner in which they are presented in epigraphs and texts. Tracing such representations helps in opening up questions related to the discursive nature of power and control over resources and throws light on the resultant social complexities prevalent in these early societies.
The work is a welcome addition to the extremely relevant and varied historiography that is emerging in social histories relating to ancient India. However, not all of it has the same engagement with the sources. Taking the bull by its horns, Kumkum Roy, in her incisive and illuminating Introduction shows us how gender studies is moving forward but also how some notions relating to women in ancient India are still perpetuated amongst certain groups of scholars. While drawing attention to this, she brings the reader up to date with historiography on gender studies in Ancient India in the past two decades, taking up where she left off in her edited volume, Women in Early Indian Societies (1999), which brought together disparate historians who had written on women related issues—AS Altekar, DD Kosambi, Sukumari Bhattacharji, NN Bhattacharya were included along with Uma Chakravarti, who in a brilliantly argued article showed why one should move ‘Beyond the Altekerian paradigm’.
In the book under review, Roy cautions against the prevalence and perpetuation of Altekerian notions, not only in the ‘middle-class and upper-caste perceptions’ but also ‘in a variety of ways in the Western academia’ and exasperatingly even in recently published works like Women in Ancient and Medieval India edited by Bhuvan Chandel and Subhadra Joshi, Kamalakar Mishra and AV Suganesvaran. Roy correctly points out that women have never been a homogenous category and that such writings show an inability to engage with the evidence of ‘diversity, change and disruption’ in ancient India. The study of gender related issues in the context of ancient India has always been challenging as researchers have to constantly deal with modern interpretations of what happened in the ancient past, and given the complex social circumstances in our contemporary society, there is a tendency to look for the ‘root’ or origins or even solutions of these problems historically. One can only emphasize the need to be cautious about linking modern notions with ancient ones as even successive generations do not think alike, let alone finding similarities in thought processes and social attitudes over centuries and in the case of ancient history, millennia. Roy makes a plea for looking for the complexities and inconsistencies of the past and present, rather than obliterating it, which is what works which do not engage with the sources in an analytical and critical manner seek to do.
It is with this cautionary note that Roy attempts to sift through different kinds of work on women in early India and traces how scholarship on ancient Indian social constructs has been taken forward with a discussion of my work as well as that of Shonaleeka Kaul, Devika Rangachari and Shalini Shah. Her incisive comments reveal Roy’s own versatility. She has actively engaged with the very sources that these scholars have worked on, whether it be the G¸hya or Kåvya texts, or Råjatara¶gini, or the Kåmasøtra. It is Roy’s discerning ability to pinpoint the areas which need to be fleshed out and highlighted in order to understand the complexities of ancient Indian societies which allows her to initiate and gently point towards the path(s) which gender studies need/s to take, nudging scholars and researchers towards raising relevant questions. The collection of articles in this book reflects Roy’s commitment and her personal investment towards teaching and writing of history and towards her students.
The first section of the book is called ‘Engraved Identities’ and has two articles, the first of which is on ‘Exploring the Question of Gender at an Early Stûpa: Inscriptions and Images’ by Snigdha Singh. Singh explores the manner in which donor identities are manifested in cryptic, brief (yet revealing) votive and nonvotive inscriptions commemorating donations from persons from different societal categories and varied occupational groups, including women. Singh demonstrates that while women are fairly visible as donors, the markers of identity are gendered as the titles used by men show that they held various positions of responsibility and power, women are not associated with such officious and status revealing titles. She infers that women ‘did not find space in these important functions of the sangha’, neither did ‘they have access to specialized learning’ which is indicated by multiple epithets in the case of men. Likewise, kinship ties were more important for women than men as women were more likely to identify themselves with their husbands, fathers or sons. The study reveals that while women did perform varied and different activities, the manner in which they were represented shows that women were more visible in religious activities, but here too there seem to be restrictions which women have to constantly negotiate with and challenge, and one of the ways in which this was done was by gaining access to resources by giving religious patronage through the mechanism of dåna.
The question of access to resources is taken up by by Shatarupa Bhattacharya in her chapter on ‘Gender, Dåna and Epigraphs: Access to Resources in Early Medieval Central India’ wherein she starts with the premise that those who have access to resources have power, and thus the relevance of exploring through epigraphical records, ‘what women could own’ and the politics of giving dåna. She traces differences in donating patterns from Våkataka (late 3rd c. C.E.) times to Kalacuris (8th c. C.E onwards) and Candellas of Jejåkabhukti (11TH to14th c. C.E.) and states that by the time of the latter, elite women along with queens were also making donations. However, even in the Kalacuri donations, she shows how access to resources was gendered as both royal and elite men donated liberally while elite women seem to have been constrained in their donations. Bhattacharya correlates the epigraphical information with textual references in the Dharma›åstras and the Puråµas.
The epigraphs show patterns of land ownership and proprietary rights, land usage, temple building and the reference to rituals and vratas corroborate to the practices that are mentioned in texts. The fact that women are donating land, temples and such seem to indicate that elite women had ‘access to property and the right to alienate it as well’, according to Bhattacharya. The important question that emerges from the studies of Singh and Bhattacharya on donative epigraphs is whether women had rights to buy, sell, alienate property in scenarios which were not related to religious patronage, since the evidence that we have is related primarily to religious donations.
It would seem that women were given access to resources in limited spheres, primarily as religious benefactors and one cannot presume that access to resources for religious purposes would lead to a spillover to access to resources and decision making in other arenas. I have discussed elsewhere that having control over resources mainly for religious purposes, while giving limited ‘agency’ to women, can be a constraining factor too as women are given certain privileges only for religious activities, for the purpose of bringing good fortune to their families. This can become a factor in further controlling women’s activities by ideologically confining them to devout familial (or monastic) roles. Thus, social distinctions were being made between categories of women on the basis of religious benefaction and elite ‘devout’ women who complied were to be given more access to resources. In that sense one can only be cautious about ‘matronage’ as a concept and also whether dåna reflected actual ownership. Of course, women have also contested and negotiated with such boundaries but it is also a fact that such constraining ideologies not only restrict women to perform in familial and ritual spaces but also unleash a sense of competition amongst categories of women. Women compete, not with men, but amongst themselves for giving patronage and being more pious, devout, devoted to the family and/or the religious cult which they espouse, particularly in polygynous, elite families.
The second part of the book, entitled ‘Norms and Narratives’ explores textual traditions, and has Shwetanshu Bhushan’s, ‘Ensuring the Arrival of Sons: Birth sa³skåras in the G¸hyasøtras’. Bhushan refers to the rites of passage enlisted in the G¸hyasøtras which focus on childbirth, and she shows how ‘women were most visible during pregnancy and childbirth’, but ‘they were simultaneously present and absent in these rituals’. The G¸hya texts reveal the manner in which childbirth rituals reflect the inherent gendered hierarchies in social attitudes towards boys and girls. The penchant for praying for a male child in the prenatal rituals, the symbolism associated with fecundity represented with food items and animals associated with the same ‘male’ characteristics reflect the anxieties related to the birth of a child, especially a male child. While the child is in the womb, the rituals performed on the woman make her ‘at once central and subordinate’ according to Bhushan. The rituals focus on the child and the head of the family, the conspicuous absence of references to women in the birth chamber, women like the midwife, shows the androcentric focus of such texts which are not reflecting the actual activities in the birth chamber but projecting an elaborate tableau of the birth process which highlights purificatory rituals that connect the child to family head (and in doing so obfuscates the feminine element). The study makes one wonder at the intention of the authors in representing birth as a polluted event which needs purifying rituals for the child and the postnatal sa³skåras create a scenario wherein the father, in his exalted position is introduced as the one who, through rituals, produces intelligence and sustenance, longevity and links the child to the cosmic forces, to the principal deities and the ¸œis and his sacral role in life.
Tara Sheemar’s ‘Re-viewing Elite Sexuality: Erotic Love, Adultery and Chastity in the Kathåsaritasågara’ shows how narratives and oral literature are ‘subtler means of spreading ideology that encompasses power relations’ and also reveal how ‘boundaries between the high/courtly/elite and low/common/popular were thin and porous with osmotic effect’. Sheemar shows how the narrative focusses on elite behaviour—kings, queens, court personas, rich occupational groups and their relationships, attitudes, anxieties, aspirations. In doing so, gender, caste (particularly in the case of Brahmanas), class, masculine, feminine identities are shown to be fairly complex and fluid. In these tales, love is often associated with youthfulness and beauty, irrespective of gender, even while the descriptions related to a woman’s beauty are stylized and Sheemar points out that misogynous language is not used when such love is being described as compared to descriptions of adulterous unions which are more harsh towards women. The use of signs as communication by elite women to get across to her lover, the role of intermediaries all point to the seclusion of elite women, as Sheemar rightly points out, but they also indicate the male centric nature of the texts, how the overpowering personality of the male protagonist is so compelling that secluded women seek to reach out, to him. These are classic tales of authorial interventions when women’s speech and her desires are projected to subvert authority selectively, for the purpose of fulfilment of heteronormative desires and as such perpetuate the existence of gender polarized societies. The ideal construct of romantic love and eros in textual traditions not only ‘reflects’ societal attitudes, but also seeks to ‘regulate’ it (using Sheldon Pollock’s phrase)—it is one way to socialize the readers into accepting the entitled, extravagant (occasionally hedonistic) and also essentially heteronormative lifestyles of the rich and the powerful. It raises the question of the intent of the author/s in compiling such stories as very often love fantasies set in urban utopic landscapes can hide scars of urban inequalities, social and sexual repression.
The comprehensive Introduction by Kumkum Roy and the well researched papers of the four scholars (who are also teachers) of ancient history make a significant contribution towards our understanding of the different processes of ancient history. The fluidity of overlapping gender, caste and class identities, and also notions, emotions and attitudes pertaining to social categories explored in this work helps us unravel historical processes and linkages between societies and cultures. Societal constructs have always been changing and shifting, there is no one approach that can be identified in a particular period as there is multiplicity in thought processes, and though there are those who bear the vanguard of formulating societal, religious and ethical norms through rituals, laws and institutions like the state, these were constantly being challenged and interrogated.
Jaya Tyagi is Professor in the Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi.