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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: Introduction

Published: 10.05.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

The present paper has a complex background. For the interested reader we present here (§ 1) a preview which is mainly methodological: sections I-III et alia.

(I) Systematic research.

The root of the article is the drive towards completeness; the drive to study 'a subject in toto and from all aspects,' as we would say. This is a question of theory.

We have impressive literature on our subject (women), but we have no survey of all its constituent parts. Starting from our title ("Predicament...") two movements are possible and necessary. On the one hand internal systematization: the relevant items -- our table of contents -- are to be listed and studied from all aspects. On the other hand gradual extension of the subject is desirable. This second movement would proceed from "predicament of women in ancient India" to ancient Indian women in general or to ancient Indian culture in general. Subjects would be varna and caste, life-cycle rituals (rites of passage), magical practices, festivals, dresses and ornaments, arts and crafts, architecture and town-planning, food and drink, entertainments, prostitution. This list (in this case all subjects of limited extent) is an excerpt from Indological research programmes often designated as 'cultural studies,' and always concentrating on a single text (BRUHN Cu). Intended is by us extreme itemization (all items to be considered). This is an explication according to certain principles. The watchword is ultimately 'in defence of the handbook.' See BRUHN Gr II 278 (2000); BRUHN Ea 7 (2003) and Bruhn Ah 65 (2007).

An absolutely different subject (different from the women subject) is an element of the study of the arts. Here we suggest to study ornate poetry, drama (as a part of ornate poetry), architecture and iconography independently from the rich theoretical Sanskrit literature. Our aim is again itemization, but in the case of literature-and-art itemization is based on the difference between theory and practice. Literature: BRUHN Co. Iconography: BRUHN An; BRUHN Gr II; BAUTZE-PICRON St, BAUTZE-Picron Cl. Our present article (Predicament) is less complicated and more current than the art subject. We admit that our leap from culture (woman) into art (literature-and-art) is unexpected in the present context. We also admit that the examples (four titles) are not helpful for the reader without a discussion of the theory/practice issue.

Itemization is probably an antidote against Orientalism.

(II) Orientalism.

The second consideration concerns the issue of orientalism. Recent studies (called 'post-colonial') have emphasized the alleged harmful influence of colonial attitudes ('colonialism,' 'imperialism,' Christian mission) on oriental studies. The systematization of this (now widespread) critical attitude stems from E.W.Said who feels that the West has for its own purposes construed a distorted, derogatory image of the East. The 'distortion' is as it were a fight against "wrong consciousness", an expression known from other debates. The very word 'Orientalism' has been redefined. It now describes primarily a line of research, an attitude, not a subject of research. The new orientalism has its own language. Those who study the old orientalism must make themselves familiar with this language, if they want to take part in the discussion.

To make the reader familiar with technical language we quote ASHCROFT:... "... Said [E.W.Said] discusses Orientalism as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient 'dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient'." (167-168)

See also SYED To: 10-13 (10-18) and MacKENZIE (208-209). We shall explain in § 12.8 how far our article is opposed to post-colonial studies.

(III) Human rights.

As can be expected, the article has something to do with the issue of human rights, to be precise with the rights of women. It is sufficient to refer in this connection to the plight of the Indian widow (as a dark example). We have very old Sanskrit texts which describe the lamentable situation of the widow already existing in ancient India (Witwenelend). Widow burning likewise occurred. It is possible that the plight of widows spread along with widow burning, but it is more likely that the plight of the widow was already wide-spread when widow burning was still an exception. We consider both, widow burning and Witwenelend. The term Witwenelend was coined by WINTERNITZ in a path-breaking monograph written in 1920. Refer for modern India and ancient India also M.A.CHEN (CHEN Ru: 2000).

* * * * *

Widowhood (Witwenelend) is both, hard times in the past and hard times at present, and a consideration of the predicament issue includes automatically essential elements which are contemporary but go back to the past (§ 12.3, 12.5): “traditional India”. Without the inclusion of the second level of evidence (present time) a satisfactory treatment of the past (ancient India) is not possible.

What is true of widowhood is even more true of widow burning. We have only very little evidence of the situation before circa 300 A.D., and comprehensive information is merely found in the colonial period before 1829 (year of abolition). The study of suttee is therefore automatically a study of suttee before 1829 (or before 1987). As far as ancient India is concerned the recent situation (19th/20th c,) must be projected back, at least in broad outline.

* * * * *

(1) The subject of the status of women is complex. We therefore introduce the instrument of questions, already employed on previous occasions. We imagine as questioner an 'interested layman'. He may ask: "Why is the position of women so humble, while numerous female deities are objects of intense worship?" "what is the origin of the fierce goddess Kali and of Kali worship?" "what is behind the sexual motifs in temple architecture and how was (is) the reaction of temporary society?" "why did the Hindus burn widows?" "could widows marry again?" "were widows allowed to return to their natal families?" "why did the Hindus not feel sympathy for widows?" "did suttee please the gods?" "was suttee connected with a leaning toward self-sacrifice?" "what is the meaning of the suttee-iconography?” (sati-stones) "why are Indian women (a) idealized, (b) treated with contempt?" "why do husbands not enter the funeral pyre of their wives?" There are also more precise questions: "Were there female manes (souls of the dead)?” "could a family include wives of different varna?" "was the karma ideology ignored in the sati ideology?” “did the suttee also lead directly to salvation?" Our exposition is largely an answer to such questions ('frequently asked questions'), although questions do not form the skeleton of our article. See BRUHN Gr II: § 9 (iconography).

(2) A study of Indian women (historical details below) is to a large extent -- not of course exclusively -- a study of female suffering and thus closely linked with the issue of human rights (supra). The majority of Indian women could -- perhaps -- always lead a fairly normal life. But this did not solve the problems of a sizeable minority: the sufferers -- widows and wives without sons. It must be borne in mind that normality in the life of Hindu women was dependent on a number of conditions (not being a widow etc.), and that these conditions were in many cases not in existence.

We ask: what is 'suffering' in the context of religion? Erlösungsreligionen (religions of redemption) have been of unparalleled consequence in the past and are of great consequence today (Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism in India). But all these creeds are not primarily concerned with multifarious earthly suffering (poverty, disease, death...). They want to raise the spiritual status of the individual, e.g. overcoming sin in Christianity, reaching nirvana in Buddhism, attaining moksha (final release) in Jainism, unio mystica in philosophical Hinduism. Enlightenment, and similar exploits, are the escape from spiritual imperfection. Earthly suffering is not considered..

The faithful are helpless when confronted with evils of religious or quasi-religious origin (witch burning, widow burning etc.) in their own fold. Women (women rather than men) were thus not 'safe' in their own religions. They were directly or indirectly the victims of their own creeds.

(3) A few references to early history are likewise necessary. Indian sources do not even refer to Alexander's campaigns (Western India, 327-325 B.C.). This reflects the lack of historical sources in ancient Indian history. As a consequence we have not a single clear date before Emperor Ashoka (accessit 268 B.C.) and almost no dates (literary, political etc.) before the Gupta dynasty (320 to circa 535 A.D. or '500' A.D.). -- Refer for dates to SYED To 39-40, to WITZEL 125-126 and to chronological accents in our Glossary (especially Epics and Gupta period).

(4) Our knowledge of the position of women is largely based on the Dharma Shastras. But the reader is warned that the Dharma Shastras are not uniform in form and contents. We have earlier and later Dharma Shastras, let us say pre-Manu, Manu and post-Manu (JOLLY §§ 2-8). The Manu Smriti does not represent the whole of dharmic thought and it is not coherent in all its parts. Conflicting views are normal (Glossary: dharma).

(5) We concentrate in the present study on Hinduism and mention Jainism and Hinayana Buddhism only occasionally. Narrative literature in Buddhism and Jainism supply information on the predicament issue but have normally not been considered. We do not include Mahayana Buddhism, Indian Islam, Indian Christianity and Sikhism. Tribal religion is likewise excluded.

We have relied almost everywhere on quotations. A different form of the text is conceivable, but would require a fresh attempt.

The author (*1928), a student of L.ALSDORF (1904-1978), was Professor of Sanskrit at the Free University Berlin (1965-1991) and for a number of years chairman of the Deutsch-Indische Gesellschaft Berlin. His field of specialization is Jainism. In 1999 he published in the present magazine an article on early Jainism: Five Vows and Six Avashyakas. The Fundamentals of Jaina Ethics (14.05.1999). The paper version of the Avashyaka article will be published in India in 2008. The author is grateful to R.RADZINSKI (Berlin) for his efforts to improve the English style of the present study. Furthermore the technical support provided on several occasions by his daughter Nandini BRUHN is highly appreciated.

The author would finally like to thank Carla GEERDES and Christian GEERDES for encouragement and for including this text into the programme of HereNow4U.

Title Photo Background:
Picture Credits: ASW - Aktionsgemeinschaft Solidarische Welt e.V., BERLIN.

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