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.
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 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.
First, will explore here the relationship between caste and gender, focusing on what is possibly the central factor for the subordination of the upper caste women: The purity of women has a centrality in brahmanical patriarchy, as we shall see, because the purity of caste is contingent upon it.
The task of exploring the connections between patriarchy and other structures within a historical context was pioneered by Gerda Lerner (1986) and her work is both theoretically and methodologically useful for historians. In outlining the historical process of the creation of patriarchy in the Mesopotamian region Lerner describes her growing awareness of the fact that crucial to the organisation of early Mesopotamian society was the total control of women’s sexuality by men of the dominant class.
A possible starting point for an exploration of the historical evidence on the crucial place of control over women’s sexuality within the larger structure in which brahmanical patriarchy was located thus
could be the practices and beliefs prevalent among the upper castes as studied by anthropologists. An insightful essay by Nur Yalman (1962) on the castes of Ceylon and Malabar shows that the sexuality of women, more than that of men, is the subject of social concern. Yalman argues that a fundamental principle of Hindu social organisation is to construct a closed structure to preserve land,
women, and ritual quality within it.
The case of a maiden violating the caste rules for sanctioned unions between men and women is considered less reprehensible. In Manu’s view the king may overlook the offence of a ‘maiden’ who makes advances to a man of a high caste (this was obviously a permitted lapse) but in the case of a
maiden who courts a man of a lower caste the king should force her to remain confined in the house. The maiden’s crime is of less gravity than the wife’s, since there is no pativratadharma that she has violated, but Manu reserves the highest punishment for the wife who though aware of the ‘greatness of her relatives’ (i e, of their high status) violates the duty that she owes to her lord, i e, her stridharma or her pativratadharma. In such a situation Manu like Gautama rules that the king should cause her to be devoured by dogs in a place
frequented by many . In punishing such ‘deviant’ women the king was upholding the existing structure of relations itself pertaining to land and the caste order. The purity ot women ensured the purity of caste and thus of the social order itself.
To sum up, a preliminary analysis of Brahmanical patriarchy in early India reveals that the structure of social relations which shaped gender was reproduced by achieving the compliance of women. The compliance itself was produced through a combination of consent and coercion as we have tried to outline above. While the elaborate rules of normative literature and descriptions in the
narrative literature indicates the failure of brahmanic ideology to produce the real consent of women to brahmanical patriarchy the values of the caste system were apparently accepted by both men and women of the upper castes.
1. Conseptualising patriarchy in India by Uma Chakravarti
2. Greda Lerner on Patriarchy