13/12/2014 7:54 AM IST | Updated 14/07/2017 12:05 PM IST

What Sanskrit Taught Me About Being an Indian Woman

As I began to dig through India's centuries old literary archives, I was astonished by how women's cultural and sexual identities and their social position, even today, made perfect sense in context of the past.

Rita banerji

I'll say upfront, that in the debate that's rocking India, about the imposition of the near dead and defunct Sanskrit language on students, I stand with the Yes camp. Though probably, not for the same reasons.

Sanskrit was compulsory for me through school, but frankly I never really took to it. I found the learning by rote, dull and tedious.

However, much later, I found it was the key to many of my questions about Indian womanhood. That moment came when I began researching for my book Sex and Power. As I began to dig through India's centuries old literary archives, I was astonished by how women's cultural and sexual identities and their social position, even today, made perfect sense in context of the past. It was quite shocking, because it was as if the basic logic of their (indeed, my!) existence had not changed in three thousand years!

The customary sex-trafficking of women by families in India prevalent in communities like the Bedia, or in the Devdasi tradition, or in 'bride-trafficking,' has its logic in the Vedic cataloging of life and things. Men are life and women are 'things'(or cheeze as the colloquial phrase goes). Women, along with land, cattle etc. were classified as men's property and the equivalent means for material transactions. They could be traded as placatory 'gifts' to invading enemies, or pawned as need be, like Draupadi was.

Indeed the pathological hankering for sons, and the irrational aversion to daughters, that drive India's ongoing female genocide, are irrefutably embedded in our ancestors' ideologies. Vedic texts are obsessively fixated on the production of sons as a man's "highest goal" in life, because sons certify his "masculinity" and "immortality." Likewise, they hold women guilty of cheating men of this much coveted goal, and indeed being a serious threat to their existence. Vedic texts speak frenziedly of women as "greedy" and "devious," like "wolves" and "jackals," who rob men of semen without giving them sons. Indeed daughters are seen as a woman's way of getting vicious with men. The texts regard menstrual blood as evil personified that can harm or kill a man. And so three thousand years on, menstruating women continue to be treated as pariah, or hauled to court like criminals. And many women who give to birth to daughters are battered or killed.

Women in fact are seen as such imminent threats to men's existence that the Vedas actually sanctified the killing of infant girls and widows in the form of hymns and religious rituals. Clearly this thinking lives on even today. While female feticide is rampant, the 2011 census shows that more than 90% of girls were in fact killed after birth; 7 million in the 1-6 years age group. And while thousands of women are murdered for dowry, there are also "witch lynchings" and "honor killings." The fact this blood-bath is a continued expression of India's Vedic legacy is evident in its chilling normalization, in its casual acceptance by the Indian public. The female genocide evokes no palpable shock or shame. And that's possible only because what are otherwise "evil" acts, have been deemed "sacred" in the nation's collective conscience by its religion.

Probably, the most worrying aspect of this mirroring of life and ideas, between India's past and present, is in how oblivious its citizenry is to it. Most Indians follow customs, rituals and beliefs in a mechanical way, blind to the ideologies they stem from. Ideologies, which are buried in the past, obscured by a language unfamiliar to most.

A simple, perhaps amusing example of this double-blind is a reaction I often get from young Indians who've read my book. The Lingam-Yoni is a leitmotif in my book, and I track its social evolution through the ages. A majority of Indian youth tell me that they had no idea that the Lingam and Yoni, that millions worship, are not just the iconic representations of the penis and vagina respectively, but that these are the actual words for these organs. Actually, when I studied Sanskrit, we were taught the words for eyes, hand, feet, etc. but not for the penis and vagina. How odd is that, a language isolates you from your knowledge of your own self?

Sanskrit was always the language of the upper castes, its access limited to the masses. Its zealous guardians assumed the privilege of selective transmission and control over the minds of the masses. Half-truths are thus floated to give convenient interpretations, such as to the roots of historical misogyny. For instance select lines from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (6.4.3) which describes sex with a woman as a sacred ritual equating her "lap" to an "altar" and her "vulva" to "fire" etc., is often presented as evidence of the high regard for female sexuality. However, when you read the hymn in full, you find out that it is a clinical prescription given to men for the procurement of sons, with a warning, that if they don't follow the instructions to a T, the women will again outwit them and steal their semen without giving them sons!

Making Sanskrit universal will at least provide the majority with a direct vision of their past, and the choice of challenging or changing that which they find unacceptable. I, for my part, have gleeful visions of a mutinous, in-your-face feminist revolution. Perhaps Sanskrit will yet prove to be India's Pandora's box.

Image taken and provided by Rita Banerji.