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The Missing Indic Women of India

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I teach an undergraduate course on Women’s Studies in an Indian University. The course requires an assessment of a female Indic role model.

Now, given that India is a diverse country it is expected that women from all regions and religions will be thrown up in a diverse class during this course work. Interestingly, though, more than 80% of the class come up with non-Indic, Muslim or Christian women as role models. The reasons for this are many and diverse and the “backwardness” of Indic women is not one of these.

It set up a train of thought in me, however, which received a resounding impetus when I heard Justice Rohinton Nariman’s lecture, the 26th in the Justice Sunanda Bhandare Memorial Lecture series last month. It led to a sense of disbelief and a dropped jaw.

He was talking of the Great Women of History to honour an outstanding woman of India’s judiciary. He had to undertake quite a journey; 5000 kilometres to Egypt, more than 6500 kilometres to Rome and then back to a dynasty which invaded and despoiled India. Perhaps he could have just taken a look around himself? To the women who live in the collective memory of the country he purports to represent the judiciary of.

This is not a rejoinder to Justice Nariman per se but a statement on the narrative about women in general as it exists in India. A narrative I am doing my best to correct with a book on the women of India but more of that later.

For Justice Nariman, perhaps, no great women in Indian history exist, except a woman of the Slave Dynasty of Iltutmish (whose major claim to fame is the controversial “Qutub Minar”), Razia Sultan.

It was clear from his talk that he prides himself on his knowledge of the history of Western Civilisation starting from Rome and moving on to Britain. He was fluent and enthusiastic on Cleopatra, the (corrupt) Popes of the Roman Catholic Church, Elizabeth the 1st of Britain, Catherine of Russia; facts and figures, anecdotes flew out of him in a torrent, and he did not in the least realise the irony, or maybe, irrelevance of what he was saying. There was no response from the fidgeting audience either; but what could they do?

Let us go over his speech. He started with Cleopatra, a sure sign that he has watched too many Hollywood films and read too much of Shakespeare, buying into the historical build up of an Egyptian queen. Perhaps the fascination was with a woman who was the mistress of that other lionised figure of the Roman, Julius Caesar; as also of the tragic and defeated Mark Antony? A woman who married two of her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and XIV, nominally ruling with them but actually conspiring against them in a pernicious political mix with the Romans and their internal politics, entered into affairs with powerful men for political expediency and in the end destroyed the Ptolemaic dynasty does not seem to be too much of a role model.

Although the exercise of power and cunning is not restricted to the Ptolemaic queens. Has the Justice heard of Didda, the Queen of Kashmir, born into the Lohara Dynasty and married into the Utpala? She effectively ruled from 958 CE to 1003 CE and her reign is replete with instances of royal ruthlessness.

The other examples chosen by the Justice are equally, if not more baffling and inappropriate. A fictional character called Pope Joan with only conspiracy theory writers testifying to her existence who was supposed to have been Pope at Rome for two years. Since she was impregnated by an unknown lover and stoned to death even in the story after giving birth on the roadside the “greatness” escapes me.

He was enthused about the fact that “Pope” Joan had pretended to be a man; rather unsuccessfully, though. If he wanted a success story he should have read about the life of the Kakatiya Queen Rudramma Devi. There is even a film on her if that is where he wants to get his inspiration from.

Catherine of Russia and Elizabeth the First of Britain were female monarchs with the former enjoying a very questionable reputation as a sexual predator. The Justice was in his element recounting historical anecdotes about these far-off characters and peppering his talk with the names of the mistresses of different Popes of Rome. To what end? To exhibit his erudition on the subject of Western history, perhaps?

I can here mention a few names from the sea of inspiring women this land has seen, who have been rulers, rishis, gruhapatnis, warriors running the gamut of leadership roles in society. Prabhavati Gupta, the Vakataka Queen, who emphasised her matrilineal lineage and honored her Naga mother Kuberanaga;  with her brother Kumaragupta of the Guptas she could influence most of Bharat. The Bhaumkara Queens of Odisha, Sembiyan Mahadevi and Nangai Bhutai Pidariyar of the Cholas, glorious patrons of the arts whose legacy can still be seen across India. How did the names of Rani Laxmibai and Ahilyabai Holkar escape his notice?

If we want to think of thought leaders and intellectuals how about Apala who was accomplished enough to compose Vedic Shlokas in her teens, Gargi who electrified and stunned the shastrarth sabha of Raja Janaka, Avaiyar, poet extraordinaire and the confidant of Kings, the famous Vedic Rishikas, the Prakrit poetesses of the Gatha Saptasai; the list is too long to be completed here.

Indeed, as per Jain tradition, the name of the original script, the mother of all scripts in South and east Asia, Brahmi, derives from the name of a daughter of Tirthankar Adishwara Rishabhnath. She was the first to know the alphabets of the Brahmi script and it is named after her. His other daughter Sundari was the first to be taught Ganita or mathematics. Maybe the Justice could have thought of the Therigatha, a collection of verses written by Buddhist nuns? Or, perchance, the great vidushi, Bharati who judged the epic shastrartha between Mimansa and Vedanta, her husband Mandana Mishra and Adi Shankaracharya. This can be said to have influenced the course of Indian philosophy for the following millennia and more. After all, this speech was in tribute to a woman judge and Bharati would have been a natural choice.

The above is by no means any attempt at an exhaustive delineation of inspiring women in all fields from the Indic past; it is just a tiny reminder that the field of choice was large and was completely ignored.

It is on the causes of this turning away from Indian women that I wish to focus. These need to be brought out into the pitiless light of reason and examined; to expose the ignorance and bias behind such thinking.

A clue to the thought process behind such fixed ideas was given right at the beginning of the speech when the Justice mis-quoted the Rig-Veda to make his point that women have always been the victims of misogyny across religions and countries. (He has already been corrected at length about his mistake by many scholars so I will not go into that here).

In common with most Indians, he believes that Indic ideas, especially those of Sanatan Dharma are immutably anti women no matter how you try to dress them up. Thus, the example of the categorisation of menstruation as evil and dirty by Hindus. He has grafted Abramaic ideas onto Hinduism and believes himself to be correct.

The root cause of this kind of attitude is ignorance, he knows nothing of actual Indic ideas, systems of knowledge, philosophy etc beyond what he has read in passing in translation by (preferably) Dead White Males of the Sacred Books of the East infamy. Cut off as he, and indeed, almost all of us, are, from Sanskrit, Tamil, our mother tongues how are we to know ourselves? We are the victims of colonisation, wiping out of indigenous systems of education and knowledge and imposition of a “universalised” western system of education and understanding. The problem may be compounded for Justice Nariman, a Parsi, and intensely anglophone in his outlook.

Actual knowledge is therefore substituted by European, Colonial, Christian Missionary views of all that is Indian. Indians inhabit not the swarg of Trishanku but more a narak of ignorance, thrown out from a European epistemological “heaven” ( imagined and created by them) they aspire to and eschewing the vidyasthanas of the earth that they belong to, India. So, they hang in a meaningless vacuum which can be filled only by the canards against India, Indians and all their practices. They always turn upon themselves the gaze of the colonial masters, having thoroughly internalised it and unaware, or uncaring, of this modern intellectual and mental enslavement.

In this view the idea of women in India is and has always been exploitative, unequal, patriarchal, irredeemable in a modern context, in fact. It can only be rejected wholesale and substituted with western Christian, Marxist, Progressive, Feminist ideas; take your pick.

Which is why a critique of this dangerous and wrong idea of Indian women is the need of the hour. The land of the Sri Suktam, a land which visualises prithvi as a woman and the country, too, unified as the body of Goddess Sati , which has always given women their due is slandered , maligned and denigrated with the twin weapons of falsehood and ignorance.

Indic Academy has taken the initiative with kick-starting research on Indic women with a seminal webinar and granting Short Term Research Fellowships which will bring out the true position of women in India.

Perhaps, when a woman Chief Justice of India takes oath for the first time a more fitting and factual speech can welcome her into office?

(Sumedha Verma Ojha’s book on the women of India “The Modern Women of Ancient India” will be published shortly by Roli Books)

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