Beyond the Altekarian Paradigm: Towards a New Understanding of Gender Relations in Early Indian History
Discussion on the status of women has a unique position in the writing, teaching, and learning of early Indian history. Further, some of the conclusions of this discussion have actually found their way into the syllabi of school and undergraduate courses. For whatever it is worth there is some information on women in almost every text book on ancient India. This kind of information does not occur in any other course of history since there has been no tradition of a separate discussion on the status of women. The uniqueness of the situation made its point while I was correcting examination papers some time ago. A question on the main features of later Vedic civilization resulted in a spate of answers dealing with the position of women. It was clear that to most students one of the important indices of a civilization was the position that women occupied in it. This general understanding is based on an informal debate that took over 150 years to crystallize and percolate down to a large number of people among the upper classes in India.
The existing material on women in early India however has a seriously limiting dimension to it especially when we consider the negative effect that such work has had on a real understanding of women in history. It might therefore be worthwhile to explain why the first historians undertook studies of the status of women, why they remained confined essentially to Ancient India, and also review the state of the existing literature so that one may be able to evaluate the worth of the available studies. This will, in turn, help us outline the kind of work that needs to be done in the future.
The women's question took a central place in the early stages of the national movement. The socio-religious reform movements of the nineteenth century advocated a reform of Hindu society whose twin evils were seen as the existence of caste and the low status of women. All the major reformers of the time attacked the practice of Sati, child marriage and enforced widowhood, and this was a common platform whether the reformers belonged to the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal, the Prarthana Samaj in Maharashtra or the Arya Samaj in northern India. The pre-occupation with these questions was derived, at least in part,