ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India

Gender, Caste, Class and State

Caste hierarchy and gender hierarchy are the organising principles of the brahmanical social order and are closely interconnected. This article explores the relationship between caste and gender, focusing on what is possibly the central factor for the subordination of the upper caste woman: the need for effective sexual control over such women to maintain not only patrilineal succession but also caste purity the institution unique to Hindu society. 

1. The attempt made in this paper to trace the workings of brahmanical patriarchy should not be seen as a single chronological development. The evidence relates to different regions and different groups of people located in specific material cultures. I am therefore not arguing for a monolithic development of patriarchy given the range of social formations.

2. Notions of the excessive sexuality of women were not unique to brahmanical literature and were widely prevalent in the Buddhist texts too, indicating the permeable boundaries of the two textual traditions. 

STUDIES of women in early Indian history have tended to focus on what is broadly termed as the 'status of women', which in turn has led to a concentration of attention on a limited set of questions such as marriage law, property rights, and rights relating to religious practices, normally viewed as indices of status. The limited focus has left a major lacuna in our understanding of social processes which have shaped men, women, and social institutions in early India. It is now time to move away from questions of 'status' whether high or low, and to look instead at the structural framework of gender relations, i e, to the nature and basis of the subordination of women and its extent and specific form in early Indian society. In this context we may point out that although the subordination of women is a common feature of almost all stages of history, and s prevalent in large parts of the world, the extent and form of that subordination has been conditioned by the social and cultural environment in which women have been placed.  

The general subordination of women assumed a particularly severe form in India through the powerful instrument of religious traditions which have shaped social practices. A marked feature of Hindu society is its legal sanction for an extreme expression of social stratification in which women and the lower castes have been subjected to humiliating conditions of existence. Caste hierarchy and gender hierarchy are the organising principles of the brahmanical social order and despite their close interconnections neither scholars of the caste system nor feminist scholars have attempted to analyse the relationship between the two. 1 will explore here (very tentatively) the relationship between caste and gender, focusing on what is possibly the central factor for the subordination of the upper caste women: the need for effective sexual control over such women to maintain not only patrilineal succession (a requirement of all patriarchal societies) but also caste purity, the institution unique to Hindu society. The purity of women has a centrality in brahmanical patriarchy, as we shall see, because the purity of caste is contingent upon it.  

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