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Volume: I, Issue: I, July - December 2010


GENDER RELATIONS IN THE DHARMAŚĀSTRA: DEFINING WOMANHOOD AND MANHOOD WITHIN THE DOMESTIC REALM







Abstract

The paper seeks to establish that gender relations, as sought to be defined by the Dharmaśāstra within the domestic realm, were aimed at making procreation and protection of male progeny the central concern. The duties of both the husband and the wife were aimed at ensuring the subjection of women so as to ensure the purity of the lineage. The woman had no role in the sustenance of the social order but to procreate men who were the wielders of the responsibility of being the upholders and sustainers of the order. Moreover, the women had no agency ever as far as procreation is concerned, as it was considered to be the duty of the husband to procreate progeny on ‘the wife’s person’. The wife was thus reduced to the state of being a mere ‘receptacle’ and a vehicle for carrying out the important process of procreation. The husband also had to guard this vehicle to ensure purity of lineage. Thus, keeping guard over the wife was one of the most important duties of the husband. Also, accordingly, the birth of a male was to be sanctified with mantras, while a female’s not. The only ceremony which needed to be sanctified in a woman’s life was marriage since it was solely aimed at procreation, considered to be the sole important objective of a woman’s life. Also, while the male had to undergo initiation to ensure his second birth as a dvija, a woman needed no such ceremony and even not any education. Womanhood was thus subordinated to manhood in the dharmaśastric discourse.



Keywords Content

The Dharmaśāstra constitute a vast body of literature, comprising mainly of the Smrti texts expounding the codes of conduct for various constituent sections of the society, based on two broad categories- varna and gender. Though the exact dates of the composition of dharmaśāstras is debated, scholars agree that the composition or compilation of these texts started around 3rd century B.C., and continued till at least 6th century A.D. Numerous commentaries on these continued to be written till the colonial period. Scholars are divided in their opinions regarding the extent of influence of these texts on the society in India through the centuries. One group of scholars have charged these texts for having sown the seeds of gender and caste discrimination in Indian society. Feminists, particularly, have been criticizing these texts for tightening the noose around women’s lives, being the foundational documents of Hindu way of life that codified both social relations and personal belief as religious imperatives. According to them, these texts have exerted a deep impact on women’s lives and conduct through history, and their teachings have not yet entirely lost force. There is yet another group of scholars who are zealous disciples of the authors of these texts. They consider the dharmaśāstras as the representative texts of Indian tradition, and seek to justify all that is laid down by the authors of these texts. What is common to both the groups is that they consider these texts to be deeply influential in shaping the ethos of society in India since their inception. While this may be questioned in a separate study, the aforementioned provides sufficient ground for interest in the operation of ‘gender’ in these texts. One dimension can be explored by understanding the definition or ‘making’ of ‘womanhood’ and ‘manhood’ within the domestic realm in the dharmaśāstras, as also studying the role expectations from the two.

In the dharmasastric discourse, after passing through the stage of the brahmacārīi, a man is ascribed the role of grhapati (the householder), and thus perceived to be the upholder of the entire cosmos. The dharmaśāstras give an overarching importance to grha (household) as an institution [Manu.III.77,78, Manu.VI.89, Manu.VI.87, Manu.VI.90, Vasistha.VIII.14-16, Visnu.LIX.27-29, Śankha.V.6]. Certain functions are ascribed to grha, the due performance of which is deemed necessary to the sustenance of the social organization envisaged by the authors of such texts. The order of the grhastha is therefore considered to be the most important of all the four orders. Manhood assumes enormous importance in such a perception. As the grhapati, he becomes the pivot and upholder of the cosmic order. Definition of manhood in the role of the husband is a part of his definition as the grhapati. Hence, as a husband all his duties are aimed at aiding towards the upholding and sustenance of the social order as conceived by the dharmaśāstrakaras. Among the most important duties of the husband were to give ‘seed’ to and procreate progeny on the wife’s person, who is the ‘field’, and also to guard this ‘field’ by exercising strict control over the wife’s sexuality. However, the sole definition and idealization of womanhood is in the role of the wife. Even where motherhood is ascribed some importance it is only in terms of her reproductive potential, and specially with respect to her procreating sons for the continuation of lineage. Wifehood also gains legitimate significance only when stamped with procreation of sons.

 

Procreation of sons: The Central Concern


While Manu only mentions guarding the wife as the duty of the husband, Yājñavalkya goes a step ahead and directs him to take care of the desires of his wife. Religious sanction is drawn for such a dictum by telling that Lord Indra had once blessed the woman that the man not taking care of her passion in menstrual period will fall in hell [Yāj.I.3.81]. The dictum of Yājñavalkya seems to have emanated out of a sense of indispensability for the procreation of progeny. It is reiterated number of times at other places that it is the duty of the husband to unite with his wife in her season, otherwise he shall incur guilt [Vyāsa.II.46]. In some of the verses it is said that the wife should be cared for and nurtured because she is the one to give birth to the sons. It is declared by Manu that there is no difference between the wife and the goddess of fortune who reside in the house of women [Manu.IX.26]. While in the earlier verses, a control over woman is said to be necessary, here it is said that the wife is worthy of worship. Perhaps because, as is expressed in verse 28, offspring, the due performance of religious rites, faithful service, highest conjugal happiness and heavenly bliss for the ancestors and for oneself depend on the wife only. It is clear that it is for the function of producing children, (and thus help in the securing of bliss for the men) that women are accorded a high position as that of a goddess. Yājñavalkya also lays down that the wife should be served and well-maintained and protected as it is the wife only who provides the man with a son and the son, grandson and great grandson maintain a perpetual tradition of the family and the man attains the heaven as a result of great deeds performed by them [Yāj.I.3.78]. Giving birth to progeny, more specifically, the sons, was considered to be one of the most important duties of the wife also. Āpastamba laid down that on the advent of the fourth night of her flow, a woman should ask her lord to procreate progeny on her person [Āpas.Dh.S.VII.6]. Pārāśara also laid down that a wife who does not approach her husband in proper season goes to hell and is subsequently born as a widow again and again [Pārāśara.IV.14].

Further, fertility was one of the most essential qualifications for a wife in patriarchy. The barren wife was considered to be worthless [Nārada.XII.94, Āpas.Dh.S.IX.24, Angiras.I.70, Atri.299, Dakśa.I.24, Yama.24,25]. Nārada says that a wife who procures abortion shall be banished from the town by the husband [Nārada.XII.92]. Pārāśara also laid down the desertion of a wife who procures abortion [Pārāśara.V.20]. Even the impotent husband was not spared. Though other lawgivers maintain a sinister silence on this aspect of childlessness, as pointed out by Bhattacharji [1990:WS-51], Nārada and Pārāśara present a strong exception to this. Nārada says that another husband must be procured for the wife of one who spills his semen, or whose semen is devoid of strength, after she has waited for half a year [Nārada.XII.16]. He further says that women have been created for the sake of propagation, the wife being the field, and the husband the giver of the seed. The field must be given to him who has seed. He who has no seed is unworthy to possess the field [Nārada.XII.19]. Pārāśara mentions impotence of the husband as one of the conditions when the wife is permitted to remarry [Pārāśara.IV.30].

The eagerness to beget a male child becomes evident from the prescription of days when the husband should approach the wife so as to obtain a son. Manu lays down rules giving details of days when the husband should approach the wife and when he should not with reference to her monthly courses [Manu. III.45-47]. In the following two verses, an attempt has been made to explain the birth of a daughter or a son. Yājñavalkya says that women have sixteen nights during menstruation cycle and one should enjoy coition with them on even nights. A person observing this rule is considered a brahmacārī [Yāj.I.3.79]. He should, however, abandon the first four nights and days like Amāvasyā, Purnimā, Astamī and Caturdaśī. According to Manu, he who avoids women on the six forbidden nights and on eight others, is equal in chastity to a student (brahmacārī), in whichever order he may live [Manu.III.50]. Also, according to him, by knowing the wife on the even nights sons are conceived and daughters are conceived by doing so on the uneven ones; hence a man who desires to have sons should approach his wife in due season on the even nights [Manu.III.48]. Also, delivering girl children continuously is considered to be one of the many inadequacies of the wife, giving the husband the option to resort to polygamy [Manu.IX.81 and Yāj.I.3.73]. Nārada also says that let not a husband show love to a barren woman, or to one who gives birth to female children only, and if he does have conjugal intercourse with her, he becomes liable to be censured [Nārada.XII.94]. It is said that the wife should be served and well-maintained and protected because she is the one who provides the man with a son [Yāj.I.3.78].

Though procreation was considered the central duty of both the husband and the wife, inequality emanates form the way their respective roles are defined in procreation. As discussed earlier, while the man is defined as possessor of the ‘seed’, the woman is defined as the ‘field’, a mere receptacle. Also, procreation of sons is considered to be of mighty importance while silence is maintained on the birth of daughters. This is also pronounced in the injunction wherein the sacred rites to be performed upon the birth of the child were to be performed without the recitation of mantras in the case of the birth of a girl child [Yāj.I.2.13 and Visnu.XXVII.13].

 

Control over Women’s Sexuality


A constant fear of transgression of boundaries set by the lawgivers for women is evident throughout the texts. This apprehension is so deep rooted in the psyche of the authors of dharmaśāstras that keeping the wife under control is laid down as one of the foremost duties of the husband. While declaring the eternal laws for the husband and wife who keep to the path of duty, Manu says that even the weak husbands must strive to guard their wives, considering it their highest duty [Manu.IX.6]. He further says that a woman should be guarded by her father during adolescence/ childhood, by her husband in married life and by her son in old age. The women are therefore, never independent [Manu.IX.3]. Similar intention was expressed previously, where Manu laid down that nothing must be done independently by a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one even in her own house, and that she must remain subject to her father, husband and son respectively during different stages of her life [Manu.V.147, 148].

Other lawgivers reiterate the view of Manu [Yāj.I.3.85, Nārada.XIII.31, Visnu.XXIV.13, Vyāsa.II.54]. To this Yājñavalkya adds, that in case, all these are absent, it is the duty of the siblings to protect her. Again he says that a woman should not live without her father, mother, children, brother-in-laws or maternal uncle, if her husband is absent. If she lives alone, it is certain that the society will criticize her [Yāj.I.3.86]. Nārada also says that it is through independence that women go to ruin, therefore, the Lord of creatures has assigned a dependent condition to them [Nārada.XIII.30]. Brhaspati declares that a woman must be restrained from slightest transgressions by her relations and that day and night she must be watched by her mother in law and other wives belonging to the family [Brhas.XXIV.2]. Notable here is the employment of women for keeping guard over women. Sowing the seeds of differences among the women and preventing any kind of solidarity amongst the women was one of the means adopted for the sustenance of patriarchy. Visnu mentions the following among the duties of a woman; not to act by herself in any manner, and to remain subject to her father in infancy, to her husband in youth and to her sons in old age [Visnu.XXV.12-13]. Similarly, Vasistha also says that a woman is not independent, the males are her masters. Their fathers protect them in youth, and their sons protect them in age; a woman is never fit for independence [Vasistha.V.1-2]. Angiras declares that the food of a woman, who, disregarding the command of her husband, acts at her will, should never be taken [Angiras.I.69]. Dakśa says that if a wife is under the control of her husband, there is no other mode of life better than the domestic mode of life [Dakśa.IV.1,7]. This world is like a celestial region for such a husband [Dakśa.IV.5] and such a wife is goddess personified [Dakśa.IV.4, 12]. But, if she follows her own will and is not curbed by her husband out of love, then later she becomes uncontrollable like a neglected disease [Dakśa.IV.3].

The eagerness to control women has to be seen in the light of several misogynist statements found in the texts regarding what is considered to be the natural disposition of women- strīsvabhāva. Manu says that women give themselves to the handsome and to the ugly, and without any consideration for age or beauty; for them it is enough that he is a man [Manu.IX.14]. Again, he says that however carefully women are guarded by their husbands; they become disloyal to their husbands because of their passion for men, their mutable temper and their natural heartlessness [Manu.IX.15]. Similarly, later he says that that knowing their disposition, man should most strenuously exert himself to guard her [Manu.IX.16]. It further says, that when creating them, Manuii allotted to them a love of their bed, seat and ornament, impure desires, wrath, dishonesty, malice and bad conduct [Manu.IX.17]. An attempt is made to derive authority for these statements by citing from the Veda in the next two verses. Pārāśara also refers to the onset of kaliyuga which is characterized by women dominating over men and conception by unmarried females [Pārāśara.I.30-31].

What gave rise to the need for control of women’s sexuality? This is made clear by a statement of Manu himself, where he says that it was necessary to preserve the purity of his offspring (prasūti), virtuous conduct, his family (kula), himself (ātman) and his means of acquiring merit (dharma) [Manu.IX.7]. That women needed to be controlled in order to maintain the purity of offspring and thus lineage, also becomes clear from similar verses by other dharmaśāstra writers. Again, preserving the purity of the offspring was central to the successful perpetuation of patriarchy. Roy gives a deeper explanation of the control that was sought to be exercised over women. She says, “The need to control the wife was intrinsically related to the definition of procreation which was sought to be established, a definition in which the woman was viewed as the field or passive recipient of the male seed [Manu.IX.33-44]. However, male control over the produce of the field, progeny, rested not only on claims to contribute and sow the seed, but also, and more basically, on the ownership of the field, i.e., his role as kśetrasvāmin [Manu.IX.43].”[Roy:1994:5].

That in spite of all the efforts made by the husband, it would not have been possible to guard the women completely, is attested to by some other verses by Manu. At one place, he says that however carefully women are guarded by their husbands, they become disloyal to their husbands because of their passion for men, their mutable temper and their natural heartlessness [Manu.IX.15]. Later, one finds one finds Dakśa saying dejectedly that in childhood, she always remains afraid, in youth, she becomes disobedient; and afterwards in old age, she considers her own husband as a servant [Dakśa.IV.11].

Manu also admits that no man can completely guard women by force [Manu.IX.10]. So to be able to exercise a control over women, he suggests that the husband should employ his wife in the collection and expenditure of his wealth, in keeping everything clean, in the fulfillment of religious duties, in the preparation of his food, and in looking after the household utensils [Manu.IX.11]. Verse twelve goes further to say that women confined in the house under trustworthy and obedient servants are not well guarded, but those who of their own accord keep guard over themselves, are well guarded. Same as Manu, Brhaspati also says that employing a woman in the receipt and expenditure of wealth, preparation of food, preservation of domestic utensils, purification, and the care of the sacred household fire, is the best way of guarding women [Brhas.XXIV.4].

It may be argued that adultery was considered a crime both in case of men and women, and hence sexual abstinence was advocated by the dharmaśāstra for both men and women. However, men were permitted polygamy. Again, it may be argued that gradually the lawgivers went in disfavour of polygamy. But again, even if it is agreed that sexual control was advocated for both men and women, the distinction lies in the fact that while for women, it was control by the husband and other agnatic relations, for the men it implied self control of the impulse. There is a difference between sexual control and sexual abstinence. While abstinence implies self-control, sexual control by others implies the use of force and suppression by them. While men were expected to exhibit self-control as a measure to guard against adultery, females were to be guarded by the male members, and even at times, other female members of the household. This is evident from a number of verses which emphasize upon the need to keep women guarded. To quote Shalini Shah in this regard- “What was affirmed through this conception of ‘mastery’ (over one’s self) as ensuring freedom was the virile character of this mastery. Just as in the household it was man, who ruled, it was only right that he alone should exercise self-restraint. Self-mastery was a way of being a man with respect to oneself. This does not mean that women were not expected to be moderate. But moderation in this case was imposed on them by their condition of dependence, in relation to their families, their husbands. For what was symbolized in woman’s chastity was not her own self control as in the male celibacy but the control of her kinsmen over her behaviour (emphasis added)” [1995:57]. It is here that the inequality in gender relations as sought to be established by the dharmaśāstrakāras lies. The sexuality of a woman was not a matter of self-control by her, but the possession of the husband and agnates. This control over her sexuality becomes further pronounced in control over her procreative power by the agnates, undeniably expressed in the practice of niyoga.

In the aforementioned scheme of things, the wife was already put at a lower footing. Further, there were other important functions ascribed to the grhapati like performing the pañcamahāyajña [Manu.III.69-71, Visnu.LIX.20, Śankha.V.2-4, Gautama.V, Vasistha.VIII.11-17] and extending hospitality, in which the wife was merely the assistant. Also, the wife is being defined as the one of the pośya (dependents), while the husband is the bhartā (provider) [Dakśa.I.29].

 

The Ideology of the Pativratā


 Various means were devised to keep women within the confines of this scheme. The most powerful tool in the hands of the dharmaśāstrakāras was the ideology of pativratā, in which women were thoroughly schooled, throwing water on all the possibilities of attempts at inversion of the social order sought to be perpetuated by them. Accordingly, this is one of the most pervasive concepts associated with womanhood in the dharmaśāstras. Quite successfully, it attempted at subsuming the critical faculty of women and muted them outwardly as well as inwardly. This ideology was used to elicit conformity (from women) with the oppressive norms on a psychological plane [Shah:1995:82-83].


Even before going deep into the understanding of this ideology, it is significant to find how man and woman as husband and wife were perceived within the conjugal bond. Not a few number of times, the husband and the wife were considered to be two parts of one organic whole, each one incomplete without the other. Brhaspati cites the testimony of all the three sources of dharma (the revealed texts i.e. the Veda, the traditional law i.e. the Smrtis and popular usage), and says that the wife is declared by all these to be half the body of the husband, equally sharing the outcome of good and evil acts [Brhas.XXV.46]. Vyāsa also said that according to Śruti (revealed texts), the god Brahmā cleft his body in two parts, out of which the husbands and the wives sprang respectively [Vyāsa.II.13]. A man is half incomplete being till he doesn’t take a wife, since he cannot beget (children) without her [Vyāsa.II.15]. Atri similarly says that a woman is the left limb and the husband the right one [Atri.138]. Though believed to be two parts of one whole, the husband and wife were not placed on an equal footing. Often it is said that they were considered to be complementary beings, and so there is no place for question of competing equality between them. However, a closer analysis reveals to the contrary. They definitely were perceived to be two parts of one whole, but there was a deep hierarchy involved in the ascription of status to them. 


What pativratā symbolizes so well is actually the ‘service role’ of women. While describing the duties of women, Manu writes that she should obey her husband as long as he lives, and should not insult his memory when he is dead [Manu.V.151]. Again, it is told that the betrothal by the father or guardian is the cause of husband’s dominion over his wife [Manu.V.152]. Yājñavalkya also says that the best religion of the wives is to observe the suggestions given by their husbands [Yāj.I.3.77], and that she reaps glory in this world and incomparable bliss in heaven, if she is always devoted to her husband, thinks good for him, is sociable and has a good control on her senses [Yāj.I.3.87]. Nārada says that a husband, though feeble, must be constantly worshipped by his wives, in the same way as a ruler though worthless must be constantly worshipped by his subjects [Nārada.XVIII.22]. Brhaspati laid down that the wife who is afflicted when he is afflicted, pleased when he is happy, squalid and languid when he is absent and who dies when he dies, is declared to be devoted to her husband [Brhas.XXIV.8]. Visnu considers it the duty of the wife to live in harmony with her husband [Visnu.XV.2], not to act by herself in any matter, to remain subject to her husband during his lifetime and to preserve her chastity, or to ascend the pile after his death [Visnu.XV.12-14]. To pay obedience to her lord (husband) is considered to be the only means for a woman to obtain bliss in heaven [Visnu.XV.15]. Vyāsa says that a woman has no separate existence from her lord in matters of piety, gain and desire. The śāstras have laid down this dependency of love [Vyāsa.II.19]. Pure in her thought, speech and action and obedient to the dictates of her lord, she should follow him in life like his own shadow, seek his good like a trusted friend, and minister to his desires like a servant [Vyāsa.II.26-27]. She should not speak too loudly, nor harshly, or unpleasantly to her lord and thus avoid all quarrels and confrontation [Vyāsa.II.33]. According to Śankha, a true wife is one who bears the sacred fire, is faithful to her lord, is one in spirit with her husband and has borne children [Śankha.IV.15].

 

Moreover, what was demanded was an unquestioning and unconditional service, that brook no dissatisfaction or doubt. Manu further says that a faithful wife should worship the husband as a god, even though he may be destitute of virtue, or is seeking pleasure elsewhere, or is devoid of qualities [Manu.V.154]. So a faithful wife, who desires to dwell in heaven, should never do anything that might displease her husband, whether he is alive or dead [Manu.V.156]. Pārāśara also says that a wife who insults a husband who is poor, diseased or cunning, attains to the life of a bitch in the next birth [Pārāśara.V.20]. Vyāsa says that she should not speak too loudly, nor harshly, or unpleasantly to her lord and thus avoid all quarrels and confrontation [Vyāsa.II.33]. Dakśa says that a wife who is obedient, unsullied by harsh speech, chaste and devoted to her husband is a goddess personified [Dakśa.IV.4, 12], and this world is like a heaven for one who has such a wife [Dakśa.IV.5]. Otherwise he becomes miserable and disappointed, as if the wife always goes against him, disagreement of the mind takes place between the two [Dakśa.IV.8]. He further says that the domestic mode of life is for happiness, and happiness is dependent on the wife in the house. She who is humble and under the control of her husband is the real wife [Dakśa.IV.7]. It is ironical that if a wife is disliked by the husband even though she may bend low with humility, then also the blame is rested with her only. Kātyāyana says that it must be the punishment for the woman for having disregarded her husband, Umā and the sacred fire in the previous birth [Kātyāyana.XVIV.8].The ideology of pativratā negated the very identity of a woman, as well as her choice even in the matters completely personal to her. Brhaspati further lays down that a woman must avoid decorating herself, dancing, singing, attending public festivities, eating meat and drinking intoxicating drinks when the husband is absent [Brhas.XXIV.9]. Even her religious obligations were subordinated to her husband. According to Manu, no sacrifice, vow, or fast must be performed by women apart from their husbands, and if a woman obeys her husband, she will be exalted in heaven for that reason alone [Manu.V.157-162]. Visnu laid down the same and further said that a woman who keeps a fast or performs a penance in the lifetime of her lord, deprives her husband of his life, and will go to hell [Visnu.XV.15-16]. Since the husband was considered to be the object of a woman’s worship, no other mode of worship was deemed necessary for her. Śankha writes that a woman can ascend to heaven only by worshipping her husband and not by fasting or bearing penances [Śankha.V.8], Atri goes a step ahead and says that a woman, who desires of bathing in sacred water, should drink the water washing the feet of her husband and she would thereby attain to the most excellent station [Atri.137]. Gautama says that a wife is subservient to the husband even with respect to the performance of religious acts, and should never try to supersede him in these matters [Gautama.XVIII ]. Since the woman was constantly required for her services, she could never be allowed to have the choice of renunciation for acquiring religious merit.

 

In order to facilitate unquestioned and complete internalization of this ideology, rewards were said to have accrued to the conformist women, and punishments to those who were deviant or non-conformist. Great rewards were promised to the women in the form of gaining supernatural powers. What was expected out of this was that the women would behave according to the set ideal not only for the sake of dharma, but also for the fruits that they were made to believe to attain for practicing it. Manu says that if she does not violate the duty towards her lord, she dwells with him in heaven after death and is called faithful in this world by the virtuous [Manu.IX.29]. Further, it is told that for disloyalty to her husband, a wife is censured among men, and is punished for her sin in next birth [Manu.IX.30]. In a similar nerve, Vasistha opines that faithful wives who are constantly pure and truthful reside in the same abodes with their husbands after death, while those who are unfaithful are born as jackals [Vasistha.XXI.14]. A chaste wife, who worships her lord, acquires fame and blessings in this life, and lives in the same region with him, after death [Vyāsa.II.36]. Kātyāyana finds the woman who follows the commands of her husband comparable to Umā [Kātyāyana.XVIV.7]. Like others, Kātyāyana also believes that a woman attains to hell on death and sorrows upon rebirth if she disregards her husband [Kātyāyana.XVIV.11-12].

 

When the temptation to attain heaven as well as fear of sinking into hell also failed to make the woman remain conformist, coercion was used. Visnu says that let the king put to death a woman who violates the duty which she owes to her lord, the latter being unable to restrain her [Visnu.V.18]. This was not the only form of violence done to women. Manu lays down that a wife, a son, a slave, a pupil and a younger brother of full blood can be beaten by with a rope or a split bamboo on committing faults, though on the back part of the body only and never on the noble part [Manu.VIII.299, 300].

 

All that has been said about pativratā is in fact symbolic of a society in which patriarchy has taken roots. In such a society, women started to find themselves as dependents of men. Lerner says, “What we see here is the emergence of a set of power relationships in which some men acquired power over other men and over all women. Women, even the most secure, high born and self-confident, thought of themselves as persons depending on the protection of a man. This is the female world of the social contract” [Lerner:1986:75].

 

The pativratā was thus, a woman stripped of her individuality and reduced to a mere glorified appendage of the husband, who could not even dare to think of any existence without or away from him.

 

Settlement of Domestic Chores


Whereas pātivratya was an ideological tool aiding in the subjection of women, there was another practical measure adopted to lull women into the slumber of ignorant subjection. Among the duties of the wife, one of the most important was to settle the domestic chores in the most efficient manner. Manu considers fulfillment of household duties by women as equivalent to the worship of daily fire by the men [Manu.II.67]. Further, he says that she must always be cheerful, clever in the management of household affairs, careful in cleaning utensils, and economical in expenditure [Manu.V.150]. Later in the text he indicates the reason for limiting the sphere of women’s activities to the household. It is admitted that no man can completely guard women by force [Manu.IX.10]. So to be able to exercise control over women, in the following verse some ways are suggested. It says that let the husband employ his wife in the collection and expenditure of his wealth, in keeping everything clean, in the fulfillment of religious duties, in the preparation of his food, and in looking after the household utensils. Brhaspati also expresses similar views and says that employing a woman in the receipt and expenditure of wealth, in the preparation of food, in the preservation of domestic utensils, in purification, and in the care of the sacred household fire, is declared to be the best way of guarding women [Brhas.XXIV.4]. He further says that the duties of women have been declared as rising before the others, paying reverence to the elders of the family, preparing food, and using a low seat and bed [Brhas.XXIV.6]. Yājñavalkya also says that a woman should be efficient in carrying out the domestic chores, humorous, economical and obedient to her husband. Also, she should touch the feet of her in-laws with keen obeisance [Yāj.I.3.83]. Visnu declares keeping household articles in good array, maintaining saving habits and being careful with the domestic utensils to be among the general duties of women [Visnu.XXV.4-6]. Vyāsa lays down the household duties of the wife in minute details [Vyāsa.II.20-25, 28-32]. These include quitting the bed before her husband, bathing, folding up the beds, cleaning the house, washing and plastering the floor and the yard, washing the vessels of oil and butter with warm water, keeping the vessels at proper places, cleaning and refilling them, repairing and plastering of the oven, lighting the fire, allotment of work to different workers, looking after the daily expenditure of the household, making obeisance to the elders of the family etc. Among the other qualities of a true wife, Dakśa mentions one who is acquainted with the position and number of household articles [Dakśa.IV.13].


Gender relations within the domestic realm were aimed at making procreation and protection of male progeny the central concern. The duties of both the husband and the wife were aimed at ensuring the subjection of women so as to ensure the purity of the lineage. The woman had no role in the sustenance of the social order but to procreate men who were the wielders of the responsibility of being the upholders and sustainers of the order. Moreover, the women had no agency ever as far as procreation is concerned, as it was considered to be the duty of the husband to procreate progeny on ‘the wife’s person’. The wife was thus reduced to the state of being a mere ‘receptacle’ and a vehicle for carrying out the important process of procreation. The husband also had to guard this vehicle to ensure purity of lineage. Thus, keeping guard over the wife was one of the most important duties of the husband. Also, accordingly, the birth of a male was to be sanctified with mantras, while a female’s not. The only ceremony which needed to be sanctified in a woman’s life was marriage since it was solely aimed at procreation, considered to be the sole important objective of a woman’s life. Also, while the male had to undergo initiation to ensure his second birth as a dvija, a woman needed no such ceremony and even not any education. Womanhood was thus subordinated to manhood in the dharmasastric discourse. Also, there is a visible scheme of things, in which both manhood and womanhood are being defined in terms of procreation (of male progeny) and sustenance of the ritual order. Within this scheme, however, man was given the reigns and woman was reduced to the role of a prop.

 

NOTES


i This was the first stage or order (āśrama) out of the four orders in which the life of an individual was divided. During this stage, he remained and studied with the preceptor while practicing absolute celibacy.

ii Perhaps the reference here is to Svayambhu Manu, who is said to have instilled such qualities in women at the time of creation itself.

 

REFERENCES

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