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Re-reading Inclusive Puranic Tradition

K.M. Shrimali

By Jaya Tyagi
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014, pp. xx 284, Rs. 950.00


People perform various auspicious ceremonies on the occasions of illness, the weddings of sons and daughters, the births of children and the setting out on journeys. On these and similar occasions, people perform many auspicious ceremonies. And on such occasions, the womenfolk in particular perform many and diverse ceremonies which are trivial (chhudam) and meaningless (nirartham)... The said kinds of rites in fact produce meagre results’ (emphases added). Thus said Piyadassi (Asoka), Beloved of the Gods in his Rock Edict IX at Mansehra. This is probably the earliest epigraphic allusion (circa 3rd century BCE) to performance of religious rites and rituals, specially by women. In the 1930s when A.S. Altekar was defining parameters of the ‘woman question’ through his The Position of Women in Hindu Civilisation (first published in 1938), Jatindra Bimal Chaudhuri was working on his Doctoral Thesis entitled The Position of Women in the Vedic Ritual, which was approved by the University of London in 1934. It could, however, be published only in 1945 (Pracyavani, Calcutta). Both these pioneering works, though extremely rich in marshalling empirical evidence, are couched in the ‘Glorious Hindu India’ mould, which was the hallmark of what has more recently been designated as the ‘Altekarian paradigm’ by ‘feminist’ historians. Almost half a century ago, the publication of several perceptive and critical essays on promiscuity in ancient India, proprietary rights of women, linkages between women and shudras by R.S. Sharma ( in Light on Early Indian Society and Economy, 1966) highlighted some major concerns about women in ancient Indian society. These, and his subsequent lament (General President’s Address, Indian History Congress,1975) that the role of women in the process of production had not received the attention of scholars brought the real ‘gender issue’ into focus long before the exponents of the so-called ‘feminist’ writings on early India questioned the ‘Altekarian paradigm’ in the late 1980s. Yes, since then ‘gender studies’ have taken long and constructive strides in the last three decades. Shorn of their hallowed and autonomous status, D.D. Kosambi and some historians of his ilk saw people’s religiosities as an integral part of the larger and dynamic cultural process involving an interaction between historical contexts and the development and influence of ideas and institutions of social, political and economic orders of the day. One can see the impact of such an approach in the utterly contrasting constructions of Vedic rituals, and specially women’s ...

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