To a modern person, ‘gender’ is the big challenge when sorting through Hindu culture, in terms of what to keep and what to throw out. ‘Caste’ is obviously one. But gender, in my view, is the deeper issue.
Caste is ‘men against men’. But gender is ‘all men against all women’. This is because caste itself is founded on women’s bodies.
For centuries, caste as a male hierarchy has been based on birth. This necessitates controlling the mind and body of women as a service sector to the patriarchy.
This truth is the foundational premise of my book A Madrasi Memoir (Limited Editions, October 2016). The book is a social history through a personal history of four generations of my family of ‘Tam-Brahms’ of the old Madras Presidency. At the same time, it’s also an non-amused look by a woman at Tamil brahmin patriarchy. My concern with ‘patriarchy vs women’ found further expression in some of the moving parables that I have retold in Hindu Fables, which is the history of Hinduism through stories.
For a history of Hindu patriarchy’s view of women, here’s a relevant bit from A Madrasi Memoir:
“As a girl born to a Tamil brahmin family, I too discovered the marrow-deep misogyny in the traditional patriarchal Indian mindset. At a theoretical level, the Tam-Brahms, like other Hindu communities, set the Devi or prime goddess of Hindu mythology, up on a pedestal to be worshipped as the sacred feminine. But in reality, it discounts women unless they deliver the goods in their prescribed role as a service sector.”
Take, for example, the traditional wifely virtues that went out as advice to Sita by Rishi Atri’s wife Anasuya in the Sri Ramcharitmanas (Aranya Kand, verse four) by the influential 16th century poet Tulsidas of Varanasi:
“Devotion of body, speech and mind to the feet of her lord, the husband, is the only duty, sacred vow and penance of a woman.”
This job description had been detailed in the sub-universe of south India since the 13th century in a hugely popular verse written by the Telugu poet ‘Baddena’ or Bhadra Bhupala. In Neeti Saara, his treatise on morals, he wrote:
“Karyeshu dasi, karaneshu mantri,
bhojeshu mata, shayaneshu Rambha,
roopeshu Lakshmi, kshamayeshu Dharitri,
shat dharmayukta kuladharma patni”.
“Like a servant in doing the household chores;
like a minister in giving her husband intelligent advice;
serving him food as lovingly as a mother feeds her son;
as seductive and pleasing in bed as the celestial nymph Rambha;
as beautiful as Mahalakshmi;
and as forbearing as Mother Earth —
the woman who has these six qualities is the ideal married lady of the house.”
This verse is very much around in many south Indian families even today.
Intriguingly, I do not know of even one verse in the entire corpus of classical Indian literature that details the virtues and qualities required of a husband. The only possible exception is in the story ‘Husbands and Wives‘ in Hindu Fables.
Nor could the well-known Sanskrit scholar Sundararama Dikshitar, in that ancient seat of learning — Kumbakonam in the Kaveri Delta — tell me when I asked him in 2008. To his credit, he admitted with unsparing honesty that he couldn’t find one after spending a sleepless night over it.
However, the Constitution is our ultimate Upanishad today, and we are bound to update our attitudes accordingly.