A reader of the blog, Satyanarayana, sent in the following question. Could any of our learned śāstrīs provide any insight?
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The asatī : Strīsvabhāva, Kāvya, Śāstra
A dominant theme of Brahminical patriarchy as reflected in the Sanskrit social imaginary is the characterization of women as uncontrollably insatiable, incorrigibly serial adulterous wanton hypersexed strumpets compulsively preying on anything remotely male, even if that male happens to be father, brother or son. The asatī topos (a sub-topos of the parakīyā nāyikā) is a pervasive presence in many genres across the Brahminical archive: the major Gāthā/Subhāṣita anthologies (from the Gāthāsaptaśatī to the Āryāsaptaśatī), Veda, kathā/nīti texts (Pañcatantra, Hitopadeśa, Śukasaptati, Vikramacarita, Kathāsaritsāgara), Itihāsa (Mahābhārata, Anuśāsanaparva), Purāṇas (Bhāgvata, Brahmavaivarta, Śiva, Garuḍa) and Dharmaśāstra texts (Manu, the Strīdharmapaddhati, the Gṛhyasūtras). The Gauḍīya Vaiṣnava theorists (15th Century CE) theologize and analogize the parakīya, whereas Jayadeva (Gīta Goviṅda 12th Century CE), Vidyāpati Ṭhākura (Padāvalī, 14th Century CE?) and Keśavadāsa Miśra (Rasikapriyā, 16th Century CE) divinize the asatī and the upapatī/jāra in the form of the archetypally adulterous Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa pair.
Scholarly response to the asatī has been mixed: “poetic antinomianism and freedom” (Hardy 1994,225); a “counter-system” of “women-centred tales” and a “creation of women’s fantasy that deny in imagination the restrictions of reality” (Ramanujan 1999, 446; cf. Doniger 1994,187); satire evocative of the comic rasa (Siegel 1989, 127, 129, 131-133); theft and “claim jumping” (Doniger 1994, 179); a proto-feminist celebration of female sexual agency and autonomy in subversive defiance of patriarchy (Shah 2009, 169; 184-185).
Bhoja posits in the Śṛṅgāraprakāśa that the aim of kāvya is akin to śāstra, i.e., vidhiniṣedha (providing injunctions and prohibitions for proper behavior) and ethico-moral instruction (vidhiniṣedhavyutpattiphalatvāt prabandhānām), whether or not the utterance is in the optative case (Mahimabhaṭṭa in the Vyaktiviveka posits a similar vidhiniṣedha function to kāvya). He twice cites the exemplum of the Rāmayaṇa as demonstrating the pre-eminence of a virtuous man and the destruction of a flawed man, inferring that the addressee is being taught to act like Rāma and not like Rāvaṇa. He also states that if Rāvaṇa, capable of conquering the three worlds was destroyed because he lusted after another man’s wife, so will it be for others who behave like him and maintains that this text and other literary works, courtly epics and the like are composed in the same spirit. Bhoja thus conceives kāvya as having a function similar to śāstra. The Sanskrit theorists conceive of all śāstra as being beneficial to society and in furtherance of one of the puruṣārthas (goals of life). The Dharmaśāstra texts severely censure the allegedly wanton “female nature” (strīsvabhāva) and recommend “guarding” women (Manu 8.317, 9.3, 9.5-7, 9.9; Mahābhārata, Anuśāsanaparva 13.21.19, 13.46.13; Hitopadeśa 1.118, Baudhāyana Dharmasūtra 2.3.44-45; Vasiṣṭha Dharmasūtra, 5.1; 5.2-3;Yājñāvalkyasmṛiti 1.85, Nāradasmṛiti 13.30-31, Viṣṇusmṛiti 25.12-14). Despite the śāstric censure of (strīsvabhāva), many śāstra/kathā/nīti/kāvya texts delineate subversive themes (Pañcatantra, books 1, 3 and 4, Kāmasūtra, pāradārādhikaraṇa 5.6.46-48, Kuṭṭanīmata 1059, Rājaśekhara, Kāvyamīmāṁsā 6). Bhoja too, despite positing kāvya as having the same ethico-moral didactic function of śāstra, profusely cites Prakrit/Sanskrit kāvya texts on the asatī genre in the Śṛṅgāraprakāśa as well as in the Sarasvatīkaṇṭhābharaṇa, where “wanton” women (asatī) merrily deceive, mislead and cheat their husbands (and other relatives) to have illicit sex with their paramours. The śāstric profiling of female sexuality is thus starkly discordant compared to its delineation in kāvya. Doniger (1994, 187) frames this dissonance succinctly:
With one hand (presumably the right), our educated Brahmin wrote the dharma texts; with the other (presumably the left), he wrote stories in praise of adultery. It would be interesting to speculate as to why the man who took such a rigid stance when he wrote a dharma text sang such a different song in the other genres. Perhaps, like his wife, he sought the solace of fantasy, or expressed in the narratives the limits (or flip side) of his official point of view. Or is this just another way of saying that adharma is the flip side of dharma?
My query to the esteemed contributors of this blog is this: in what manner can this dissonance be resolved?