In the brahmanical patriarchal scheme, the husband is the harbinger of brahmanical patriarchal ideology; an ally; one who puts into practice the patriarchal formulations of the texts in the actual laboratory of human experience—the grha. This sentence from Jaya Tyagi’s book (p. 154) provides a clear pointer to the focus of her monograph. Her study covers the period from the eighth century bc to the fifth century bc which is the time of the early Grhyasutras. She perceives this period as marking a social transition. According to the author, Sutra literature represents the crucial period of transition from the earlier phase when rituals were projected as the responsibility of the community and elite brahmanas, to a stage which began with the later Samhitas and Brahmanas, and culminated in the Grahyasutras, where the performance of rituals was shifted to the micro level of society, that of individual households (p. 12).
The emergence of the household is linked to the larger ideology of the new state systems which felt threatened by the potentially powerful kin units that could act as rival centres of power. Instead, the grha would both reflect royal authority and serve as its microcosm, replicating the patriarchal rationalization of power at the level of the household. More, important, the household would also generate resource for the state and serve the interests of the brahmins through the network of ‘dana’ and ‘dakshina’. In her understanding of the place of women within the household, Jaya draws upon the nature versus culture debate. State formation, technology and production represented material culture and the grha was seen as a model for state and society. Woman who was principally perceived as the means of reproduction, was associated with nature while man who was termed as the grhapati, was projected as the carrier of culture.
The purpose of ritual was to project the man as the head of the household. Control over the domestic space would set the tone in society for acceptance of and conformity to the control over the rajya by the king. Accordingly the householder is portrayed in the Grhyasutras as the performer of rituals in the grha. What was the role of women in the performance of these rituals? The author has painstakingly put together evidence and arguments to show that women were marginalized within the grhyasutra rituals. She argues that beginning with the Brahmana and continuing with the multiple grhyasutra texts, women’s role in rituals were sought to be diminished not only in common household rituals but even within these ritual performances associated specifically with women such as those associated with their reproductive functions such as the pumsavana ritual. This is directed by the male head to ask for male heirs. The author’s statement that this ritual was performed in the third month of conception comes as a surprise because according to Shastraic injunctions, no conception related ritual is to be performed before the fifth month and the pumsavana is usually performed in the sixth or the eighth month. I would suggest that the author should recheck the veracity of this statement because many of her subsequent arguments take off from this point.
Are women’s roles in these rituals appropriated or incorporated in what is essentially a male enterprise directed towards the patriarchal modeling of the grha? On the basis of her textual readings, Jaya Tyagi argues for this position. Even the fact that the grahaagni taken from the wife’s home is seen by her as a male conspiracy aimed at appropriating the wealth and prosperity of her natal home.
The male conspiracy against women is seen to continue in the rites and rituals relating to the child. She argues that once the child is born, the mother is totally ignored and all rites concentrate on the new-born and the father. To quote her, ‘This shows that the Grhyasutras focus only on men and ignore rites related to women. The mother is consciously and deliberately marginalized in the patriarchal birth rites in an attempt to negate the significance of natural birth.’ Attention is drawn to the mother’s state of impurity soon after the birthing process, ‘a condition in which she has to be avoided by persons in a state of “purity”’.
To this reviewer at least, without denying the hold of patriarchy over the daily household and its rituals, it seems that there is an ‘over reading’ of male oppression and women’s invisibility by Jaya Tyagi. Inclusion of women in rituals is perceived as appropriation by the males at all times. In her feminist anxiety to look for ‘oppression’, the author seems at times to overlook alternative interpretations. To give just one example, the pollution marked by the birthing process and during the post-partum care, usually includes both mother and baby in a protective ring. Pollution prevents either being contaminated by outside touch which could very likely cause infection to both the infant and the mother who are extremely vulnerable. Jaya also seems to ignore the tremendous care (one could even call it pampering) the woman receives as a part of post-partum care, from the women of the household. It is of course possible to view this care as a further patriarchal conspiracy to keep the woman in good health so that she could continue to serve the household with equal or great efficiency.
While stating that women were marginalized in the birth-related rituals, the author says that her supportive role is resurrected in rites like the ‘Annaprasna’ indicating the introduction of solid foods into the child’s diet and ‘Caula’ meaning the first tonsuring of the hair (pp. 179–182). Jaya Tyagi spends much time on detailing the upanayana ceremony which is usually performed in the eighth year of the boy child. By his initiation into the thread ceremony, the boy moves away from the protection of the mother’s domain to the acharya’s. To quote Jaya, ‘in the Upanayana, the brahmacarin takes the first alms from the mother, signifying his break with her’ (pp. 59, 190–191). Without disagreeing with the author about the entry of the young boy into the second stage of schooling, one would like to point out that the mother giving the first alms to the young scholarly aspirant should be seen as symbolic of her blessing and permission to enter and shine in the world of scholarship rather than a ritual aimed at surgically severing the connection between mother and son. One should not forget that in some of the Hindu canonical conventions, even an ascetic has to continue to bow down before his mother while his natural father has to prostrate before him. It also comes to mind that the youthful renouncer Shankara came back to Kalady to perform his mother’s last rites suggesting that a son’s duties towards his mother continue even after he has given up all other worldly obligations.
Did women have right to the sacred thread? Jaya engages with this question briefly through her reading of the Grhyasutras. Her detailed note on women’s right to upanayana, figures in a footnote on p. 180 in the context of ‘Gender Segregation in the Household’(fn. 7). Kane suggests that while the Brahmavadinis went through the upanayana, maintained the agni, studied the shastras and followed the practice of begging or madhukari, other women went through the upanayana ceremony before marriage. Kane’s statement and evidence pertaining to this issue in some other texts is of a significant nature and this reviewer feels that to locate this discussion in a footnote and only cursorily in the text (p. 187, p. 201), would suggest a feminist over-anxiety to locate male dominance at the cost of sidelining some important slippages in the overarching patriarchal register. Those canonical texts which indicate the prevalence of upanayana for women (one should here note the reference in Valmiki’s Ramayana to Sita doing sandhyavandanam, a daily ritual that follows upanayana) needed to have been highlighted by the author in the context of the grihyasutra literature.
The author has acknowledged and quoted authoritative sources on women’s agency in the grha and in household rituals. She quotes the Gobhila Grhyasutra stating that in the absence of her husband, the wife could perform most rituals relating to fire such as the darshapurnamasa rite (p. 109). The same text interestingly also refers to the sacred thread being visible on the wife’s left shoulder while she was performing a rite (p. 201). Jaya further points to the fact that according to the Paraskara Grhyasutra, women were allowed to offer bali outside the home. More such instances evidencing women’s agency in the household would have reflected women’s real presence in early Indian society between eighth century bc and fifth century bc, providing some redemptive quality to a pre-dominantly male discourse.
Both chapters four and five of Jaya Tyagi’s book—‘Grha as a Viable Unit’ and ‘Social Hierarchies and Linkeages’—are extremely important for understanding the nature of household economy and the social location of brahmins. Of special significance is the extensive reference to meat eating and beef eating by the brahmins (pp. 268–269 and 272–276 ff). The author’s research work on grhyasutra texts and her incontrovertible evidence on this issue interlaces and connects with her guide D.N. Jha’s well known book on The Myth of the Holy Cow (Verso books, 2002). Jaya’s intensive study must have provided valuable inputs into the broader thesis of D.N. Jha. These two books therefore need to be read in conjunction.
The conclusion that the author draws from the multiple Grhyasutra texts is unequivocal: ‘The emphasis on the householder’s ritual life projects his enhanced social role at the cost of the other members of the household, especially his wife, who is no more than a ritual accompanist in the grand cosmic plan that the householder orchestrates from within the precincts of his grha’ (p. 347). Gendering in such a situation involves only one gender since it is only the presence of the male which is ubiquitous in the grahyasutras. In the last page the author writes, ‘The cruicial question of women’s participation in a system that seeks to subjugate them, though relevant, is not possible to address as the texts are completely male-centric’ (p. 354). While commending Jaya Tyagi’s book strongly for its solid research, sound analytical premises and valid conclusions, I would like to have seen in her book a greater exploration of the sub-texts of the Grhyasutra literature. For instance she writes at the end, ‘Women who did not comply with the norms must have existed as the texts make anxious statements about such women’. If the author could have looked (a difficult task, no doubt) for the slippages and ‘excesses’ in these texts, she might have been able to provide a more holistic picture which includes women’s agency. In other words, I would have liked her to read all these texts ‘against the grain’ to the extent possible. It seems to me that women’s active agency within the household is hinted at in the Grhyasutra texts and borne out by evidence from other sources.
Vijaya Ramaswamy is at the Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.