Male Guardians of Women's Virtue: A Dharmasastric Theme and Its Jain Variations

Article excerpt

If there is one dharmasastric passage that finds its way into even the most cursory overviews on the subject of women in ancient India, it is quite probably this one:

  pita raksati kaumare bharta raksati yauvane | raksanti
  sthavire putra na stri svatantryam arhati II MDh 9.3
  Her father guards her in childhood, her husband guards
  her in her youth, and her sons guard her in her old age;
  a woman is not qualified to act independently. (1)

This verse from the Manava-dharmathstra (MDh), like its numerous parallels elsewhere in the corpus of dharma literature, declares women to be categorically unfit for independent action, and assigns them to the care of a triad of guardian males--father, husband, and son. Even before MDh, the "doctrine" of women's lack of independence is asserted in the dharmasutras (VaDh 5.3; GauDh 18.1; BauDh 2.3.44-46). It is put in the mouth of Bhisma in the Mahabharata (13.46.13), and makes its way into other major dharmasastras, such as Yajnavalkya, Narada, and visnu. In their curtailment of women's independent agency and their assertion of men's prerogative to act as agents on their behalf, such passages have made the dharmasastras a convenient site for mining textual examples about patriarchal oppression of women in ancient South Asia. As a result, the Brahmanical communities that produced these texts have tended to be singled out as the bastion of such oppression, as more restrictive of women than any other community.

What has sharpened such a characterization is the contrasting portrayal of Indian Buddhism and Jainism as offering greater freedom for women. Pioneering scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries set the tone with their rather romanticized portrayals of Buddhism, in particular, as a haven for women who broke free from the constraints of patriarchy. (2) Even though more recent scholarship generally acknowledges the degree to which Jain and Buddhist texts and institutions, too, have been systematically shaped by androcentric assumptions and patriarchal interests, the motif of the independent Jain or Buddhist woman--contrasted with the Brahmanical woman guarded by her male relatives--still persists and slips into the prose of even the most careful scholar. We see this when, for example. Katherine Young argues that Buddhist and Jain nuns were "an example of independent women in the society" that caused Brahmanical families to guard their women even more strictly (1987: 71). Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar state that nuns, along with courtesans, "were the only women in ancient India who could move freely throughout the entire social system" (2002: xiv). Susan Murcott makes the same equation between these two groups of women who possessed an "unimaginable" degree of independence: "Neither had active male guardians; both moved relatively freely in the public sphere" (1991: 123). Patrick Olivelle, in turn, counterposes MDh's famous guarding verse to what he perceives to be a different kind of ethos in Buddhism and Jainism: "Here are Buddhist and Jain nuns exercising a daring freedom of choice, living lives in female communities outside direct male control, and taking control of their own sexuality" (1997: 442).

Yet, if we examine what is said about nuns and their way of life in the monastic texts of the Buddhist and Jain traditions themselves, a very different picture emerges. In fact, we find little evidence that supports the above characterizations of a life of radical independence. Both in the canonical monastic codes, and in the later commentaries, nuns' movement outside of their lodging is strictly regulated. Although they do live in communities of women, these communities are by no means independent of the supervision and control of male authorities. Nor is it the case that monastic authors trust nuns to be fully in charge of their own sexuality.

It is true that these monastic texts are normative, prescriptive texts composed or compiled by male authors, not transparent descriptions of how the women in the authors' communities in fact lived. …