Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 36, September 2014

Preeti Singh

Relocating Gender in Dharmasastras

Delhi: Kalpaz Publications, 2013
ISBN: 978-81-7835-955-7; 322 pp.

reviewed by Sanchayita Paul Chakraborty and Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha

    Lineages of Patriarchy and Gender Consciousness in the Indian Dharmasastras

  1. The Indian religious pantheon, consisting of canonical texts such as the Dharmasastras, have usually been treated as sacrosanct, something that transcends new interpretive optics or hermeneutic. For nearly three thousand years these theologico-ethical texts have governed as disciplinary discursive tools to hold Indian society in the path of dharma or righteousness. The absolutist hegemony of these theological texts over Indian society has for centuries induced an unquestioning subservience to their discursive content and the present book under review is an exception in that trend as it revisits the Dharmasastras from the perspective of gender. Relocating Gender in Dharmasastras, therefore, is a significant work that reexamines the status of women in Dharmasastras which were foundational texts that prescribed norms on everything in Indian life including the rights, positions and duties of women. Existing research on the condition of women as enshrined in the Dharmasastras can be divided in two perspectival categories—the Utilitarian and Evangelical schools of western scholars and the Nationalist Indian perspective. The former shares a negative reading of the representation of women in the Dharmasastras and arrives at a gloomy conclusion about women's condition at that time. This view is shared by western Indologists or Orientalists, such as James Mill, Robert Orme, Mark Wilks and Grant Duff.[1] On the other hand, a completely different approach is maintained by the nationalist Indian scholars like Rajnarayan Bose, Bhudev Mukherji, Bankim Chandra Chatterji, R.C. Dutt, K.P. Jayaswal and Gobindra Chandra Sen,[2] who believe that women were actually accorded a dignified status in the Dharmasastras. Given this divergence of opinions on women vis-à-vis the Dharmasastras, this book acquires a greater importance as it focuses on the agency of women in the era of Dharmasastras through the evaluation of rights given to women at that time.
  2. The immaculately written introduction to the book gives us an overview of the thematic architectonic of the project developed through eight comprehensively researched chapters that constitute the book. Having analysed existing literatures on the Dharmasastras in the introduction, the author moved to the first chapter to define Dharmasastras as 'social codes prescribed by the law givers for regulation of the society at a particular time according to prevailing conditions and needs of the given society' (p. 14). This chapter also dwells on brief commentaries or the Smritis on the shashtras or theological texts as part of the Dharmasastras. This signifies the tradition of hetero-glossic interpretations of the Dharmasastras and what emerges through such a culture of pluri-signification is the textual expansiveness and deconstructive potential of the Dharmasastras that evolved through multiple interpretations of the Smritikars and the Commentators for thousands of years. Preeti Singh demonstrates how the Dharmasastras have accommodated constant re-interpretations to cater to the changing situations, and the contingent ethical codes enshrined in these canonical texts have therefore been subject to consistent changes. But the transformation of the dynamics and hetero-glossic signification of Dharma from a notion of social and moral codes to doctrinaire rituals and orthodoxies gradually led to the narrow rigidification of Dharma. The enumeration of the Dharmasutras, Smritis and Commentaries gives this chapter a vast realm of socio-religious epistemes.
  3. The subsequent chapter focuses on the idea of rights in both Indian and western paradigms. Western liberal theories of natural rights are refuted by the communitarians who criticised it on the ground of asocial individualism and the lack of communitarian good. This comparative study of the western and Indian concepts of rights broadens our understanding of rights and the writer succeeds in analysing the varied understandings of rights and argues for a potent alternative to the western idea of rights (pp. 71–74). The controversy over the position of women in Dharmasastras in the nineteenth century is addressed in the third segment of the book and it engages with the agonism of the Utilitarian, Evangelical, Orientalist and Nationalist schools on this question from historical as well as socio-political optics. The fact that women were denigrated in the Dharmasastras is endorsed by the Utilitarian and Evangelical schools. Orientalists like Speier and Clarisse Bader on the other hand read a glorious picture of women in Dharmasastras.[3] In a similar vein, Nationalist reformers in India traced the origin of women`s predicament as generated through brutal practices of Sati or bride burning, widow torture and the ban on widow remarriage, etc. to a misreading of the scriptures and therefore they critiqued the logic of scriptural endorsement of the refutation of women's empowerment. Later the British imperial policy-level sanction of the Sashtras as sacrosanct was part of their colonial retentionist policy and that thwarted the deconstruction or re-evaluation of the Dharmasastras. The colonial emphasis on the Brahminical scriptures as the authoritative texts led to a misinterpretation of the Dharmasastras. The British rulers chose a double-sided strategy—on the one hand they relied on the legacy of Brahmin court pundits for the interpretation of the scriptures and manipulated it to maintain their non-interventionist perspective to inversely justify their civilizing mission, on the other hand, through the Orientalist and Indologist scholars, they undertook the task of a monological reading of the Dharmasastras.
  4. The book therefore, seeks to unfurl the reality of women's agency at that time through a deep study of various rights sanctioned to women in the Dharmasastras. As discussed earlier, the cosmological nature of the Indian social system never allowed complete individual self-centredness. An act motivated by individual self-satisfaction does not conform to the Indian idea of dharma. The individuals through their acts are attuned with each and every part of society and thus they have necessary obligations to this cosmic world as part of their dharma. The idea of rights in India was closely related with the performance of duties towards others and this also applied to women. Therefore, the book claims that accusing the Dharmasastras for the legitimisation of anti-women practices is the fall out of biased commentators and such claims led to the detailed investigation of the reality of scriptural sanction and the socio-religious rights of women provided in the Dharmasastras. In reality, the Dharmasastras provide an admixture of rights to women coupled with numerous restrictions on them and this lack of unbridled gender rights also testifies to the patriarchal embedding of the Dharmasastras. So it was neither completely anti-women as it is made out to be by various critical opinions and nor is it totally free from the patriarchal discursive practices. The book therefore charts the middle path, balancing our approaches to the Dharmasastras by unearthing various protective measures accorded to women in the Dharmasastras. The economic rights of women is the focal point of the fifth chapter. The exclusive rights of women over the stridhana (exclusive women`s property) and women's rights to inheritance (pp. 168–84) and right to maintenance (pp. 193–98) are discussed in this chapter. The idea of modern citizenship was absent in the Dharmasastric times as ancient Indian political ideologies were predominantly monarchical but women did enjoy some rights against the state as the state was bound to ensure its duties to women through the rights to protection from sexual violence and domestic violence, rights to maintenance and inheritance etc. (pp. 226–228). In this aspect, the legal rights of women also came to the fore. In this chapter the author raises significant points on the legal position of women in the legislative ideologies of the Dharmasastras.
  5. Talking about rights, the author demonstrates how the idea of the individual was given importance in its relation to the community in the Dharmasastras. Dharma means performing one's duty to the community and a cultivation of ethical values and therefore, the modern idea of exclusive individual rights was not in tandem with the Dharmasastric idea of rights. Women were no exception in this system. Their rights were acknowledged in relation to their performance in the service of the community. Any attempt to deny the community was severely criticized. In the concluding chapter the writer sums up her arguments scattered throughout the earlier chapters that establish the existence of multiple rights of women during the time of the Dharmashastras but in the same breath she concedes the overarching patriarchal hold that foregrounded values of chastity, marital status and procreating ability as the determinants for women attaining the rights (pp. 292–93). The writer seems more interested in accumulating the various threads strewn across earlier research to give a comprehensive picture of the multiple rights of women and that focus comprises the mainstay of the book. The penultimate chapter brings the western and eastern feminist critique together and this chapter, true to the title of the book, relocates the position of women in the Dharmasastras from a feminist perspective.
  6. To some extent, the book seems to legitimise the position of women in the Dharmasastras in the logic that rights were not freely ascribed either to men or to women as the Indian concept of rights is deeply bound with the notion of the performance of duties towards others and with the idea of social morality. The writer appears divided in her position in relocating the position of women in the Dharmasastras. On the one hand she does recognise the patriarchal embedding of the Sastras, which put the onus of maintaining social morality more on women than on men,

      However, the condemnatory remarks made about women and denial of several important rights to them cannot be justified on the ground that they are aimed at establishing social morality. We have to accept that it was a patriarchal social order where women did not enjoy an equal position (p. 296).

  7. But in the concluding lines of the book, the writer argues for the need for a contextual analysis of the Sastras to understand the rights of women,

      Thus we will not be able to do justice with the study of Sastras as long as we will apply the modern notions of liberty, absolute right and equality to evaluate these texts (p. 296).

    Thus, in spite of conceding the patriarchal leanings of the Dharmasastras, the author argues for a holistic, contextual and unbiased understanding of the Sastras and the position of women in the Dharmasastras is reexamined within this parallax view.


    [1] James Mill, The History of British India, with notes by H.H. Wilson, 5th edition, London: Madden, 1840. Preeti Singh borrows the commentaries on the historical writings of the western scholars like Robert Orme, Mark Wilks, Grant Duff from these two books: B. Shiek Ali, History: Its Theory and Method, Madras: Macmillan, 1981; Sumit Sarkar, Writing Social History, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    [2] Preeti Singh refers to the discourse on Dharmasastra by the Indian scholars by engaging with the following texts: Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986; K.P. Jayaswal, Hindu Polity: A Constitutional History of India in Hindu Times, Calcutta: Butterworth, 1924; Jogish Chandra Bagal (ed.), Krsnacarita in Bankim Rachanabali, volume. 2, Sahitya Sansad, 1965; R.C. Majumdar, H.C. Roychaudhuri, K. Datta (eds), An Advanced History of India, Delhi: Macmillan, 1967.

    [3] Mrs. Speier, Life in Ancient India, 1856, reprinted as Indian Civilization, Delhi: Cosmo 1973, pp. 167–68; Clarisse Bader, Women in Ancient India, London: Longmans Green, 1925, p. viii.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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