Hindu Feminist Discourses (Part-2)
Bathrakali has spent most of her life enclosed within walls. Even after the crumbling of the centuries old kottai or fort, which she calls her residence, she chooses to live a life of seclusion, refraining from stepping outside the 15 acre plot unless absolutely necessary, conforming to the customs of the Kottai Pillaimar.
The Kottai Pillaimar are a small, yet high ranking subcaste that belong to the Vellalas, a major agricultural caste in Tamil Nadu, living in the town of Srivaikuntam, Tirunelveli district. Oral traditions reveal that the Kottai Pillaimar were ministers to Pandyan kings, who fell out with them over the issue of succession. Following this, they moved to a different region, where the local king provided them with land. This piece of land served as their home till very recently.
The Kottai or fort connotes the entrenched casteism that has dictated the customs in this region for several centuries. The fort was exclusively meant for the people of the sub-caste, and access was restricted to most people, barring a few select castes. Women were prohibited from leaving the fort at any point in their lives. The stringent casteist makeover of the fort meant that even civic and state authorities were not granted access into the residence for a very long period of time. The fort, built around a 17th century Vishnu temple, has no access to running water or electricity, as this would involve outcastes to enter the premises. And like most castes and subcastes in the country, the Kottai Pillaimar are strictly endogamous.
As recorded by Kamala Ganesh, The Kottai Pillaimar are ardent followers of the Jajmani - a system of mutual obligations and rights governed by inter-caste relations at a village level, typically between a land-owning upper caste people and the lower caste labourers and artisans. The system ensures that the jajman (high-caste person or landowner) is freed from the ‘polluting’ presence of the lower-caste labourers, ensuring his ritualistic purity.
Over the last few years, Bathrakali has had no choice but to leave the fort. Her daughters married men from outside the fort, obligating her to leave the fort, and with that, drew the curtains on centuries of patriarchy Bathrakali’s story highlights that feminist histories in India are not an independent subject, often subject to casteist intersectionality.
Uma Chakravarti lays focus into this subject in her book - Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens, when she highlights the importance that upper caste women played in maintaining caste boundaries. Brahmanical texts reveal that women were often the cause for ‘moral panic’ among the Brahmin elite in society, as they held the fate of the structure’s survival in the palm of their hands. The structure relied on the prevention of inter-caste mingling, which was effectively prevented by institutionalising a system of female sexual subordinance. Chakravarti notes that the necessity for maintaining casteist purity has been doctrined in the Dharmashastras, including the famed Manusmriti, which advocates severe punishment for anyone indulging in Varnasamkara, or the inter-mingling of castes, which typically involved an upper-caste woman and a lower-caste man. This practice came to be known as Pratiloma and the punishments for this crime usually involved mutilation, or even death in certain circumstances. The women involved in these societal ‘crimes’ were usually condemned to live a life of excommunication.
Chakravarti argues that the caste-based patriarchal codes that came into existence after Manu’s Varnasamkara theory made sense to the elites of the social and economic spheres of society. These codes were linked to the production mechanisms of an agrarian society, with the state directly benefiting from it.
The intersection of casteist, as well as patriarchal oppression gave rise to what came to be known as the devadasi system in many parts of South India and Odisha. The devadasi, otherwise known as a temple dancer was dedicated to worship and serve the deity of a temple. It is important to note that the devadasi never belonged to a Brahmin family, nor a caste that was deemed ‘untouchable’. She occupied high ritual status, and was effectively married to the deity of the temple, in which she performed. This, however, did not mean that she would lead a life of celibacy. Very often, her availability for sexual liaisons with a patron would be openly advertised. However, as one might expect, the choice of sexual partners for the devadasi was chosen by ‘arrangement’, which obviously did not require the devadasi’s consent. Sexual relations with lower caste men or non-Hindus were strictly forbidden. The ‘dedication’ aspect of the devadasi ensured that she had a higher status in society compared to other women of her caste. The ‘dedication’ aspect of this practice and also ensured that a system of ‘sacred prostitution’ was glorified for centuries.
Periyar launched a scathing attack on this system, attacking it from both, a casteist as well as feminist angle. His argument focused on the fact that the ‘tradition’ of ‘sexual slavery’ was quintessentially a Brahminical practice and yet, devadasis never belonged to upper-castes.
He also argued that a ‘woman’ forced to essentially serve as ‘public property’ in the name of religion was ‘insulting’ to all women. The prime individual involved in the movement to abolish the devadasi system was Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi, the first woman to be a member of any legislature in the country, who happened to belong to a devadasi family herself. Despite the consistent efforts of social reformers, the system would not be formally outlawed in all of India until 1988. The devadasi system represents the pinnacle of Brahminical oppression in Hindu society. It created the illusion of empowering women from the non-Brahman castes, but simultaneously used this as a means to bolster their position in the social hierarchy. The system relied on these women, but the women themselves were almost always voiceless.
The ability to speak or converse is often taken for granted by people who remain oblivious to the privileges that come from their birth. The notion that the mere ability to speak, openly, in front of masses of people can be emancipatory is not something that is easily understood by the privileged. The liberty to speak up was exclusively an upper-caste male privilege for over a millenia. Suppression of dissent was customary. A Dalit consuming knowledge or getting a education would have served as a direct threat to ‘Brahminical Superiority’. It was important to the ruling class that his ‘subordinates’ depended on him, financially and socially. This system made it almost impossible for for the voices of the Dalit woman to be heard. This also makes it pertinent that modern understandings of caste-Hindu society include the rare voices of the subaltern.
While accounts of misogynistic practices in upper-caste Hindu societies are limited, early accounts from female Dalit writers are even more scarce. After all, the Dalit woman’s sufferings are seldom matched by other people in Hindu society, as they are forced to deal with a different form of brutality within and outside their homes. Political scientist Gopal Guru says that even the early Dalit liberation movements before the rise of Ambedkar were a ‘male-dominated landscape’. Dalit women at the time were usually employed as performers in erotic plays and dances, the audiences for which were usually upper-caste men. Ambedkar appealed to his fellow-person to give up such professions, citing that they were sexually exploitative and humiliating. Guru argues that this did, however, prohibit women from gaining the only form of visibility they had access to. But, post-Ambedkar women did find cultural methods to garner public visibility.
In 1956, a few months before his demise, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, making a statement regarding the plight of the Dalits in caste-Hindu society. He urged people belonging to his caste, as well as others to publicly denounce Hinduism. But even though a large number of Dalits converted to Buddhism, and a lot of the traditional customs boycotted, this did not prevent Dalit families from reinforcing rituals which sought to constrain and restrict women’s freedom. Urmila Pawar’s Weave of my Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs provides details on several such instances. Upper-caste patriarchy percolated through the social hierarchy so effectively that even boycotting the religion could not rid women of the horrors they faced. However, on the whole though, one would argue that Dalit women were not treated with the same level of exclusion that Brahman women were.
All of these stories give rise to a fundamental question. Did anyone actually oppose these discriminatory practices? Definitely, everyone did not just accept the state of oppression as their reality. Right?
The rise of Lingayatism in Karnataka during the Bhakti movement is important in this discussion. Basava, otherwise known as Basavanna was a Lingayat saint who rejected temple worship, and Brahmanical rituals. His philosophy advocated against gender, caste or class based discrimination. However, over time, Sanskritization of Lingayatism has meant that a lot of the original ideas advocated by Basavanna have been replaced by Brahmanism. The idea that Lingayatism rejects the caste system and other forms of social discrimination has often been used as a justification by several prominent Lingayats to lobby for the cause of identifying Lingayatism as a separate religion.
But despite attempts made by several saints and philosophers from within the Hindu fold, the social structure instituted by the Hindu upper caste made dissent or opposition almost impossible. The rigid set of rules enabled and legalised a form of despotism that would not face large scale retaliation until well into the 20th century. The efficiency of this system has ensured that the impact is explicitly visible even today, with instances of motivated violence against women and Dalits still a common occurrence. Perhaps, we will live to see the day when the atrocities of the system are widely acknowledged by people who still ensure its existence. Perhaps not.
(Authored by Harish Sridharan)