The caste system in India is a fourfold division of people based on their birth, and is largely followed by people who follow the Hindu way of life. The four distinct groups of caste are Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. The Shudras are further divided into Ati-Shudra. Those who exist outside this fourfold division are known as Dalits.
The Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas are categorized under the ‘pure caste’ group and are regarded as ‘upper caste’ whereas the Shudras and the Ati Shudras are considered to be a ‘low caste’ group and thus are deemed ‘polluted’. According to ancient scriptures, the low caste people have to serve the high caste people. Those existing outside of caste are commonly referred to as the ‘untouchables’.
When we read about Caste System, we assume that all upper caste people enjoyed the superior status and all lower caste men and women were severely victimized. Though the latter is true, the fact is, not all upper caste people enjoyed equality and superiority. It won’t be unjust if we simply mention that upper caste ‘men’ enjoyed all liberties.
The caste distinction doesn’t give any special privileges to the upper caste women. Though she has a somewhat higher authority over men and women of the lower caste groups, within her community and household she is dominated and discriminated against by men of her own caste. This article will focus on the upper caste woman and the discrimination that she faces.
When we talk of upper caste women, we cannot help but mention Sita and Panchali, the heroines of the Hindu epics ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’ respectively. Both the epics show fierce wars fought in the name of the injustice meted out to these two women. The Ramayana was Lord Rama’s fight against the Lanka King Ravana who had abducted his wife Sita. The entire theme seems so engrossing that we tend to ignore the fact that the same Lord Rama disowned Sita after winning her back, because her ‘purity’ was in question. Also, Rama and Lakshmana conveniently insulted Shurpnakha who was the sister of Ravana and cut her nose off, because she evidently showed her interest in courting Lakshmana, who was the brother of Rama. Thus, portraying that a woman who vocalizes her desires is witchy.
In Mahabharata, the kings could perform polygamy ‘legally’, but polyandry was a sin. So when Draupadi was married off to five men, the men were not regarded as being polluted, but she was considered sinful and unholy. The Mahabharata war was fought to provide justice to Draupadi (also known as Panchali) the wife of the Pandavas, who was insulted by the Kauravas when an attempt was conducted by the Kaurava Prince Dushashana to disrobe her in a public gathering. The Mahabharata War was to win back her ‘lost’ status and more so the ‘lost’ status of her husbands. But what one must also consider is that she would not have been insulted in a public gathering in the first place if her husband, Yudhisthira, didn’t trade her off in a game of dice, as if she were some object.
Objectification of women is quite common. The most common example of a woman being considered as an object is the practice of ‘kanyadaan’ in Hindu marriages. Fathers ‘donate’ their daughter away, as if she is just an object that he owns. Be it during the Mahabharata or now, women were and still are looked at as a man’s ‘property’ that could be taken or given away according to the man’s whims and fancies. The main theme of both the epics is to depict how good wins over evil and how women are to be respected, but the respect that they talk about is very patriarchal in nature.
The Hindu way of life is governed by the norms mentioned in the four Vedas (Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva), the Dharmasastras, the Arthasastra, and the Manusmriti. These are ancient Sanskrit texts that lay down rules for people and how should they behave within their defined caste group. Hence, the discrimination of the upper caste woman within her household wasn’t necessarily because her gender was regarded as inferior by the male members. It was mostly men acting according to the writings sanctioned by these ancient scriptures and texts.
The discrimination starts with the fact that only Brahmin men could read the Vedas and nobody else. Very often people criticize and say that men of other castes should be allowed to read the Vedas too, and that the Brahmins are privileged. But the truth is only the Brahmin men are privileged, not even the Brahmin woman, as even she is not allowed to read the ancient texts. Even today we don’t even have a single woman priestess in any of the Shakti Peeths in India, even though all these temples are dedicated to Goddess Durga.
The privileges that an upper caste woman enjoys are also the ones that would at the end benefit her husband or the male members of her family. For instance, she being regarded as the ideal mother or ideal wife and thus gaining respect for it, is society’s way of letting her remain within the house and perform her duties as a mother or a wife or a daughter-in-law, saving the men the economic costs of keeping a nanny, a cleaner, a washerwoman, etc. or from doing those tasks themselves.
Brahmins are regarded as the ‘twice-born caste’, which is seen as a fortunate birth. But the ‘twice-born’ system is only applicable to the Brahmin men, who are given an even higher status by a ceremony known as the ‘Upanayan’ ceremony, wherein they are regarded almost next to God. The Brahmin women don’t enjoy a high status even though they’re born in the same ‘twice-born caste’. Their decisions hardly matter to the family.
One characteristic that was common in olden times is that they were regarded inferior to their husbands, who on the other hand, are termed as ‘Parmeshwaras’ or ‘Gods’. The women have to touch their feet and perform all activities that please the husband. Touching the feet of the husband during the marriage ceremony is still prevalent among many upper caste families. These rules are preached by Brahmin saints and sages and are considered the woman’s ‘Dharma’ or ‘Duty’!
When we talk about ancient Hindu scriptures, we cannot do away with the existence of the Manusmriti which is said to have been written by Manu (the first man on earth or progenitor of humanity). As mentioned above, the men did what was sanctioned by religious texts and most of their doings were prescribed in the Manusmriti (a text burnt down in several feminist movements). The Manusmriti describes several rules for women. For instance, it forces women to be dependent on their fathers, husbands, or sons, forever. Moreover, the norms for upper caste widows are very stringent. They can either perform Sati (burn themselves at the pyre of their husband) or marry the husband’s younger brother or live a life of austerity. Anything beyond this is not acceptable.
An instance could be my own house where my grandmother lives a life of austerity ever since my grandfather expired. Women are expected to stay at home and serve the husband and his family. When a girl is born, she is regarded as ‘Paraaya Dhan’(someone else’s property) by her own parents. This is because she is married off and then has to live with the husband and his family forever. ‘Property’ is the word used for her. Such is the status attributed to an upper caste woman but it’s the same with women across all caste groups.
Then there are highly austere rules for menstruating women as well. Brahmin women who menstruate are kept away from the kitchen and are made to sleep on the ground and aren’t allowed to enter the temple. Some argue that these rules exist so that the woman could rest, but the rules are highly biased and strict in nature. Even I am not allowed to visit temples or enter my grandmother’s kitchen during the first three days of menstruation. An even more embarrassing moment was when I hit puberty for the first time and guests were invited, and it was publicly announced that I had become a ‘woman’ irrespective of the fact that I was only 13.
The Manusmriti, commonly termed as Manav Dharam Shastra, is the earliest metrical work on Brahminical Dharma in Hinduism. According to Hindu mythology, the Manusmriti is the word of Brahma, and it is classified as the most authoritative statement on Dharma. The scripture consists of 2690 verses, divided into 12 chapters. Hindu apologists consider the Manusmriti as the divine code of conduct and, accordingly, the status of women as depicted in the text has been interpreted as Hindu divine law. fWhile defending Manusmriti as divine code of conduct for all including women, apologists often quote the verse: “yatr naryasto pojyantay, ramantay tatr devta (where women are provided place of honor, gods are pleased and reside there in that household)”, but they deliberately forget all those verses that are full of prejudice, hatred and discriminating against women and the lower caste people. Some of the most celebrated derogatory comments about women in the Manusmriti are-
These are just a few of the norms mentioned about women in the Manusmriti. These itself show how a woman belonging to the upper caste group is also subjected to discrimination just like the lower caste men or women. Though such strict rules are not followed anymore in most parts of the country yet they are still present in some parts. It is known how a few temples do not allow the entry of lower caste people. But there are temples, for example, the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, where women are protesting against the temple’s order that states women cannot enter the temple.
Rama Lakshmi writes in the book ‘Caste in Life’, how she was expected to behave properly and not speak against men and perform rituals because she was born into a Tamil Brahmin family. Different authors in the book write about their relationship with caste and how it has been a part of their lives especially their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. Because it is up to the woman to keep the family honour, because she is regarded as the family’s priced property that nobody should touch or make impure.
Belonging to a high or low caste has no significant difference for women, because overall women are mostly discriminated against. In reality, lower caste people and women, irrespective of their caste, are similar in the eyes of most high-caste men.
The birth of a girl child is still considered sinful. A very close friend of mine belongs to a Brahmin family from Darbangha, Bihar. On the birth of her younger sister, her grandmother refused to accept the child because she was considered to be the second unlucky birth in the family, after my friend. It is among the higher caste groups that dowry killing, female feticide, and infanticide are common norms. Inter-caste marriage is still a crime for women and in some states, she is killed in the name of honour killing if she dares to love or marry a lower caste man.
It is also seen that rules became stringent for women mostly during the nineteenth century, when India was colonized. Partha Chatterjee’s essay on ‘The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question’ talks about how the concept of ‘Bhadramahila’ (respectable women) emerged. Women who attained cultural refinement through formal education were considered respectable. Otherwise, they were deemed westernized and seen as uncultured. Though being educated was a milestone step for women, not all women enjoyed the right to education, especially the ones belonging to the lower classes.
In her essay ‘Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi?’ Uma Chakravarti writes about Kailashbhashini Devi, an educated woman, who had written about how most pitiable conditions of women caused by ‘purdah’ (female seclusion), child marriage, kulin polygamy, enforced widowhood were “unknown in ancient times”. According to her, women in those times acquired learning before marriage, and continued learning even afterwards without the superstitious fear of widowhood.
Independence for women belonging to the higher castes was very limited. Sarala Debi, who was born in the ‘privileged’ Tagore family, took up an appointment in a girl’s school in Mysore to earn her own living independently. A young man stole into her room one night and she had to return back to her home only to be taunted and told that there was no need for a woman belonging to a family like hers to go off to distant lands to seek employment. After the incident, Sarala said, “The whim to work is satisfied, but not the whim for independence.” Sarala Debi went ahead to become a ‘hero’ in the nationalist movement and her contribution is immense, yet not much was known about her life post marriage and she is said to have lived up to the conventional role of a wife.
It wouldn’t be wrong to state that since ancient times a woman is seen as a ‘child-bearing and rearing machine’. During the epics, or the ancient Vedic period, or the nationalist movement and even today, women have faced severe discrimination and upper caste women are not behind in suffering these injustices and inequality. She might be considered above Dalit men, but, as shown by Nivedita Menon in her book, “Seeing Like A Feminist”, she would experience her relative powerlessness as a woman if faced by a man in a position to attack her sexually, regardless of his caste or class; or when she compares her life choices and autonomy with those of a man of her class.