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Ray, Ujjayini (1999) 'Idealizing Motherhood' : The Brahmanical discourse on women in Ancient India (circa 500 BCE - 300 CE). PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

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This is a study of the Brahmanical discourse on women in ancient India between 500 BCE and 300 CE. It specifically addresses the question of the representation of women in certain Brahmanical texts which were composed, compiled and written down during this period. The thesis attempts to move away from a previous focus on the 'status of women' in ancient 'Hindu' India and from an uncritical acceptance of Brahmanical texts as reflective of social reality. Instead, it argues that under certain historical circumstances Brahmanism evolved a particular discourse on women. This discourse, subsequently expressed in its texts, saw women in essentialist terms, as sexually insatiable and, therefore, sinful. At the same time, however, Brahmanism recognized that women had a vital role to play in the reproduction of its envisioned social order, particularly in the maintenance of caste and lineage purity and the family (all three being important pillars of the Brahmanical social order). Therefore, women had to be controlled. My reading of the Brahmanical texts suggests that the method of control evolved by Brahmanism to deal with this apparent dilemma was the classification of women according to their reproductive abilities, a classification which served to distinguish the normative from the 'deviant' woman. In this scheme, the mother was the procreatrix and as such was accorded the highest status. Woman as the mother thus became the primary normative category. Furthermore, with motherhood came qualitative changes in a woman's kin and sexual status. Woman as wife or daughter formed the secondary normative category. She enjoyed the status of a potential procreatrix, being yet to fulfil her primary biological function. As a wife and daughter, therefore, a woman held an ambiguous kin position. She was regarded as sexually dangerous, which led to an emphasis on the wife's chastity and the daughter's virginity. This thesis argues that since, according to Brahmanism, a woman was defined by her reproductive abilities, one who was not (or could not be) a mother was by definition 'deviant'. This category included the widow, the woman ascetic and the vesya, women whose potential for procreation was not recognized socially. It has often been argued that Brahmanical texts objectify women and that a study of such texts perpetuates both the objectification of women and their portrayal as the 'other'. Therefore, after discussing the Brahmanical discourse on women, the thesis addresses the question of the agency of women in ancient India. While not totally agreeing with the current ethnographic studies on the 'subversive' activities of women within the patriarchal order, in its concluding section, this thesis examines questions relating to women's complicity with and resistance against Brahmanical norms and categorizations in ancient India.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses > Proquest
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 16 Oct 2018 14:58

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