A reader’s query

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 Govida 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 (vidhiniedhavyutpattiphalatvāt prabandhānām), whether or not the utterance is in the optative case (Mahimabhaṭṭa in the Vyaktiviveka posits a similar vidhiniedha function to kāvya). He twice cites the exemplum of the Rāmayaa 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 puruārthas (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, pāradārādhikaraa 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?


About Matthew Dasti

Matthew R. Dasti is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.

8 Replies to “A reader’s query”

  1. Wendy Doniger’s paragraph (which you have quoted) invents a non-existent dissonance. There is no such dissonance (unless you can show me otherwise) of the same author writing texts that were perceived to be fundamentally opposed to each other.

    • She’s probably not suggesting it was literally the same person that wrote Dharma- and Kāma-śāstra-s, but the same class of people, i.e. the Brahmins, well educated and well placed men of power with the ability to read and write in Sanskrit.

      Whatever the case, it isn’t clear to me what kind of an answer is being sought.

      There is, of course, the answer provided in śāstra-s themselves. The Bhāgavatapurāṇa, for example, says just before the mid-night love affairs of Kṛṣṇa and the Gopīs that the affairs were nothing like human love and the effect of hearing about them would not generate human desire as would regular kāvya about normal human beings. Kṛṣṇa’s body is guṇātita (non-material) and the Gopīs love is too, so hearing about them dance, embrace, etc. does not create normal human sexual desire, at least in theory.

      But I don’t think that’s the sort of answer Doniger is seeking; I think she’s probably asking what it is about the psychology of Sanskrit power-brokers, so to speak. Why did they have this dual literary identity? Where they aware of the duality in their own consciousness? I’m not too familiar with her work, so I’m just pondering.

      • Again there is this sweeping assumption that those who wrote Sanskrit could only be brahmins. No one has been able to convincingly explain yet why there is no orderly transition apparent from Old Indic (Sanskrits) to middle Indic prakrits in the available literature and inscriptions. I dont think there was any middle indic to start with in the BC era. So every one must have spoken different varieties of sanskrit and virtually no prakrit.
        Therefore your (and probably her) a priori assumption that if it was sanskrit it must have brahmin authorship really is just sweeping generalization.

  2. Why resolve it? The case is simply that different sages have different perspectives on the matter. On this topic, as well as many other topics. This is not only the case in Hinduism, but in every religion/philosophy. What is the problem? You will also find, on closer examination of your sources, that several of your texts themselves contain more than one viewpoint. The Mahabharata is a case in point. For while there are sages depicted within the text who do represent the “Brahmanical patriarchal” perspective that you discuss, there are clearly numerous stories that depict virtuous women who are set upon by rapacious men (many of whom are voracious brahmans). So, I would be very careful about generalizing about the perspective of any text, to say nothing about an entire genre of literature or philosophy. Even within a single lifetime, a particular sage has been known to change his mind about the topic of women (among other things), given both time and experience—and it can be eye opening to note when and where in his life a particular statement is made, following which events, etc (the death of his mother, the rejection of a marriage proposal, etc.).

  3. To be somewhat uncharitable to Doniger, one could take her formula, treat any group of thinkers monolithically, and turn out foolish allegations of inconsistency.

    “With one hand the PhD holder in America composed papers in support of capital punishment; with the other, he wrote stories that illustrate that it is unjust.”

    “With one hand the professor at Princeton composed papers in support of euthanizing the severely disabled; with the other, he wrote stories that evoke the natural rights and dignity of all human beings.”

    And so on.

    To be more charitable, she may think it fair to assume that the Brahmanical thinkers in question share a cluster of values that would lead them to be more consistent in their collective views than any old group of thinkers bound by location, history, or language.

    Whether one wants to be charitable to her or not may depend on various considerations beyond this particular essay!

  4. I would say that the celebration of antinomic behaviour (which is, by the way, not a specificity of India) can only exist *insofar as* there is a norm to be transgressed. The force of the metaphor of the gopīs lies exactly in the fact that their behaviour clashes with what one would imagine as appropriate to their modesty. They would never in their lives think of leaving their houses, and yet, when Kṛṣṇa plays his flute, they cannot but leave everything and reach him in the forest. Think of paradoxes like the emphasis on family life in Judaism and Christianity and Jesus’ words that in order to be his, you have to *hate* your father and your mother. These beahaviours make sense insofar as they hint at the possibility of a supreme level in which all is abandoned and sacrificed, included morality —which had been one’s guide throughout one’s life so far.

    For normal human beings, however, these remain examples not to be followed (bhāktavat pravartitavvyam, na tu kṛṣṇavat).
    Apart from the religious level, I think the same applies to parakīya love: It would be the supreme love, since it is love without possession, without expectations, selfless —but since we know that this can rarely if ever happens, we should rather stick at morality and modesty.

  5. Pingback: Unchaste literature and the “social aesthetic”The Indian Philosophy Blog | The Indian Philosophy Blog

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