The Construction of Female Identities in Ancient texts

By Dr Geeta Oberoi

Women’s Day

On International Women’s Day, I was digging some ancient era texts that afforded dignity, freedom, fair treatment and equality to women, as often these texts are criticized as well as relied upon for subordinating female gender and denying them equal and meaningful participation in every walk of the public life.

The most ancient texts are Samhita of the four Vedas: Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva, followed by Vedic literature to explain these Samhita in the form of (i) Bhahmanams attached to different recensions (shakhas); (ii) Aranyakas flowing from Brahmanams but related to these four Vedas; (iii) Upanishads giving philosophical interpretation to Vedic Samhitas; and (iv) Upveda from which technical works like Ayurveda, Dhanurvidya, Gandharvasastra, Arthasastra originate.

Women in Rgvedic age enjoyed freedom as they could participate in chariot races, take an active part in the proceedings of the assembly, and engaged in various economic pursuits… Pic – Scroll.in

After Vedic literature, starts the period of Puranas to explain the Vedas by medium of stories. Puranas were followed by period of Itihas (Mahabharat and Ramayana). Then came the period of Sautras (of Apastamba, Gautama, Vasistha, Baudhayana and many others) followed by Sastra period that saw emergence of numerous Smritis (Manu, Yajnavalkya, Katyayana, Narada, and many others). Both Sutra and Sastras laid down normative framework rather than giving any historical account.

Women in Rgvedic age enjoyed freedom as they could participate in chariot races (RV X.59.10), take an active part in the proceedings of the assembly called sabha and vidhatha (RV I.167.3). They were also engaged in various economic pursuits as indicated by the occurrence of terms such as siri (female weaver – RV X. 71.9), pesaskari (female embroider – Vajasaneyi Samhita XXX.9), bidalkari (female splitter of bamboos – Vajasaneyi Samhita XXX.8), and upalapraksini (women corn-grinder – RV IX.112.2). In such a socio-economic order, women naturally enjoyed some degree of social status.

Women in the Rgvedic period were also free to attend samana or social gatherings. Indologists William Jones, H.T. Colebrooke, Max Muller, Spier and Larisse Bader note that women occupied a dignified place in the Vedas.

Indologists believed that these women even played a part in warfare, social decision-making, and had access to education as well. Further, RigVeda Mandala VIII, Sukta 31, hymns 5 to 9 confirms that Vedic ritual from the beginning had always had a slot for the sacrificer’s wife.

The Puranas contrary to prevailing notion strengthened the position of women. The Devi Purana (102.10-11) asked to consider young women as fit to receive gifts dedicated to her. At (91.50), Devi Purana asks to imagine ordinary women as female deities. Further, Balram Das’s Lakshmi Purana is a feminist narrative centred on actions of a strong goddess who challenges male Brahminical authority and advocates both feminism and caste equality. This work shows that quintessentially modern values like human equality, critical and self-reflexive individual were articulated centuries ago in ancient texts.

One similarity between Puranas and Sahnameh written during the Islamic period is that female characters in both works are very strong minded and behave with a self-determination that might even seem inappropriate in the patriarchal context. A number of female characters are highly romantic and even assume the role of mighty warrior and at the same time highly obedient to their father and husband. Saadi-nejad like all of us is left to wonder how the boldness and obedience is achieved by the same characters at same time.

A recent study of ancient texts spread over several centuries and of varied genres such as Vedas, Puranas, Upaniṣads, the great epics, etc., has retrieved several female voices of dissent, sarcasm and satire against the entrenched patriarchal social structure. The Mahābhārata narratives recalling legends of Suvarchalā [Śānti-parva, App. 1, No. 19] and Sulabhā [Śāntiparva, ch.308; Shah 2012: 87,167-68] not only bring out the loud and bold voices of women but also reveal their potential to challenge even the celebrated intellectuals of the day.

Vaidehī (Sītā) of Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa, a docile woman in popular imagery, disapproves Rāma going to the Daṇḍaka forest to protect seers from rākṣasas and admonishes him on ‘unprovoked violence’. [Rāmāyaṇa, Ᾱraṇyakāṇḍa, 8.3,23-24,29 – SheldonPollock’s translation, Vol. III: 100-102]

At brahmodya (debating conclave) convened by king Janaka, intense philosophical śāstrārtha took place between brahmavādinī Gārgī Vāchaknavī and the sage Yājñavalkya in which brahmavādinī GārgīVāchaknavī persisted with so many terse questions that the irritated sage asked her to shut up lest her head be chopped off (BṛhadāraṇyakaUpaniṣad, III.6.1).

Same was repeated by Draupadi in the great sabhā of Kauravas where she was brought after her husband Yudhiṣṭhira had lost her in the famous Game of Dice. Draupadi questioned the elders present, including Bhīṣmapitāmaha, ‘whether her husband was authorized to put her on stake in the Game of Dice when after putting himself on stake, he had lost and become a slave himself ’(Mahābhārata II.60-61). Thus were brought to the fore serious questions.

In Dharmasutra of Apastmba a man is not allowed to abandon his wife (A 1.28.19), daughters are to inherit property of their parents (A 2.14.4), there is no division of property between a husband and a wife, as they have joint custody of the property (A 2.29.3), a wife is allowed to make gifts and use the family wealth on her own when her husband is away (A 2.12.16-20).

Further, Apastamba and Baudhayana refer to a period when little or no value was placed on the conjugal faith of a woman. The Ramayana too refers to Uttara-Kuru as a land of lovely women who still practice promiscuity with impunity. Even Buddhist literature speaks of this land as a place where women are nobody’s chattel or private property. Further, there is no contradiction to practise of polyandry in the period of the Mahabharata.

Katyayanasmrti analogous to the codes of Manu, Narada and Brhaspati, dated between 300 and 600 AD by Kane was the first to define carefully several kinds of stridhana, to lay down woman’s power of disposal over her property and to prescribe lines of devolution to stridhana. Further, it is remarkable that smritis of Vasistha, Yajnavalkya, Visnu, Narada assigned the first six places in order of precedence to the actual children of the mother, whosoever the biological father may be. Even illegitimate children were allowed to inherit property of their mother and her husbands.

There is no dearth of literature that can be located in ancient texts that attribute agency to women. The limitation of the space does not allow me to present it over here. However, the purpose of the inquiry was only to show that there is no truth in notion that the position of women was worth of pity only and is improving as the time passes by. On the other hand, it seems to me that women’s position more or less have been static and not progressive with the passage of time.


* Published in print edition on 11 March 2022

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