Defining the Household: Some Aspects of Prescription and Practice in Early India1
The significance of the household as a crucial unit within which production, distribution, and consumption are organised, and within which individuals are differentially socialised, has acquired recognition and acceptance over the last few decades. This has been accompanied by attempts to focus on relations within the household and on how these develop and change over time. As a result, there has been an increasing awareness of the specificities of the household in different situations, an awareness which has enriched our understanding of the complexities involved.
Analyses of the nature of the household(s) in early India have been few and far between. This has been partly owing to a certain reluctance to recognise the need for such investigations as well as owing to the problems posed by the sources commonly used to reconstruct early Indian history. Much of the textual material available at present consists of didactic or prescriptive literature, and the extent to which these were followed remains problematic. Nevertheless, prescriptions were modified, abandoned, or even tacitly reversed on occasion, and as such, the fortunes of prescriptive literature provide us with at least some indications of social change.
The Manusmriti is perhaps the most well-known amongst early Indian prescriptive texts. Most sections of the text were probably composed between the second century B.C. and the second century A.D.2 The text represents one of the earliest attempts to popularise prescriptions by presenting them in couplets using the anustubh metre.3 Its importance is also evident from the fact that it was commented on extensively, at different points of time and in different areas.
One of the earliest commentaries on the Manusmrti is that ascribed to Medhatithi and assigned to the 9th century A.D.4 Apart from the chronological gap between the text and the commentary, there is also a shift in the geographical focus. While the Manusmrti relates to India north of the Vindhyas in general, and the Ganga-Yamuna Doab in
Department of History, Satyawati College, Delhi University, Delhi.
Social Scientist, Vol. 22, Nos. 1-2, January-February 1994