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

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Towards a Theory of 'Brahmanic Patriarchy'

Towards a Theory of 'Brahmanic Patriarchy'

Rewriting History: The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai by Uma Chakravarty. After initial studies of the social history of the Buddhist period, historian Uma Chakravarty has turned to larger scale investigations of gender, caste and class in ancient Indian history.

There were contradictory statements about almost everything...but there were two things on which all those books the Dharmasastras, the sacred epics, the Puranas and modern poets, the popular preachers of the present day and orthodox high caste men were agreed, that women of the high and low caste, as a class were all bad, very bad, worse than demons, as unholy as untruth and that they could not get moksha like men. The only hope of their getting this much desired liberation from karma and its results, that is countless millions of births and deaths and untold suffering, was the worship of their husbands [Pandita Ramabai, quoted in Chakravarty 1998: 308-09].
'Brahmanic patriarchy’ is a concept that has been used for the first time in Indian scholarly literature by the historian Uma Chakravarty. After initial studies of the social history of the Buddhist period,1 she turned to larger scale investigations of gender, caste and class in ancient Indian history. It was in her 1993 article analysing the articulation between restrictions against women and the caste hierarchy in the period of formation of brahmanism in the first millennium BC that she originally used the term.2 Her most recent book focuses on Pandita Ramabai but ranges over the social history of 19th century Maharashtra to deal with the reconstruction of brahmanic patriarchy in the colonial period. Pandita Ramabai was the most highly educated of the feminist rebels of the time, the only one who really could read the sacred texts used to justify their subordination – and Chakravarty shows clearly why full scale rebellion and not simply upper caste ‘reform’ was necessary.

The importance of Chakravarty’s work needs to be emphasised. The Indian scholarly tradition in general, especially the part of it influenced by Marxism, has been adept at using the concept of ‘class’ as a structure of exploitation and seeing this exploitation and the struggles around it as a major driving force in society. But both caste and the ‘oppression’ of women have been viewed, from their perspective, simply as part of the ‘superstructure’, something influenced by but not causally influencing and shaping other social institutions. Feminists for some time have been insisting on treating ‘patriarchy’ as an autonomous structure of exploitation and analysing gender conflicts – but they have not looked much at caste and have not been ready, in turn, to see the caste system as an autonomous social institution in the way that the use of the term ‘brahmanism’ signals. In turn, the dalit-bahujan intellectual tradition begun by Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar which insists on the central significance of ‘brahmanism’ (whatever term is used for it) in Indian society is still itself nearly untouchable in the scholarly world – and it itself has not taken patriarchy very seriously.3 Chakravarty is thus the first scholar to analyse Indian history in a way that takes both ‘brahmanism’ and ‘patriarchy’ seriously.

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