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Contestation and Compliance: Retrieving Women's Agency from Puranic Traditions

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Item Code: NAL904
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Author: Jaya Tyagi
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9780199451821
Pages: 304
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 460 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

The early Puranic textual traditional of ancient India seem to indicate considerable involvement of women in the religious and ritualistic realms. The can be perceived as women exercising an ‘agency’ which had been denied to them in early Dharmasastric tradition. Ironically, the very socio-political system that permitted the inclusion of women in religious rites also ensured that it reinforced the prevailing structures of authority, limiting their participation in the lager world.

While women negotiated spaces for themselves, the images of the devout and dutiful wife bolstered and became an important supporter of varna and theistic loyalties. It is in this context that contestation and compliance‘re-reads’ the Matsyamahapurana.

Through a detailed analysis of vratas and myths of the Puranic traditions, Jaya Tyagi throws light on the two spaces where the domination of women was most visible: their bodies and the domestic sphere. She contextualizes the Puranic tradition and locates them in a dialogic relationship with other earlier and contemporary beliefs and practices. The work reaffirms how patriarchal traditions constantly reinvent themselves to deal with the negotiations and contestation that women make.


About the Author

Jaya Tyagi is professor in the Department of History, University of Delhi. A social historian, she has been teaching history for several years and has worked on gender, household rituals, and religious conceptualizations in ancient India. Her areas of interest include studing the interface between religion and society and how religious ideologies impact women and social-cultural attitudes in societies. Her publications include Engendering the Early Household: Perceptions in the Grhyasutras, Middle of the First MillenniumB.C.E. (2008) and several articles in reputed journals.



Sacral practices are typically evocative in nature. In being so, they create an influential imagery of piety and propriety. However, the complex ritualistic enactments accompanying such practices invariably bear a diversity of meanings. Some inferences are evidently drawn from the solemnity and gravity of procedures that attract the devotion and attention of enactors and observers alike. Other connotations, however, are deeply embedded. In constituting the essence of the practices, these meanings enable rituals to belief and behavior far beyond the time space in which they were conceived. Like all social phenomena, both practices and belief are transformed through historical time, albeit in a manner that is usually difficult to perceive. To be able to go further than the form of rituals and follow the entangled threads that lead to their effectual meaning is a challenge that confronts the historian of social and religious traditions.

For scholars seeking to arrive at a diachronic understanding of the role of long-established ritual performances in early Indian society, the scrutiny of textual traditions offers fascinating possibilities. The texts were created over an extended period of time by a diversity of cults for different purposes. They represent a shifting historical context and reveal the dynamic relationship between society, ritual practice, and text. Because of their ability to influence this relationship, rituals sometimes open a window of opportunity even for socially marginalized practitioners. To women, in particular, increased engagement with religious and ritualistic work of ancient India offered the prospect of acquiring an ‘agency’ in their life-world that might otherwise have been quite impossible to possess.

Jaya Tyagi’s Contestation and Compliance is a story of how women in ancient India became increasingly important in Puranic tradition, and also within several other religious order and cults that opposed or ambivalent towards it. This ‘inclusion’, as it were, was not a near narrative of success resulting in conspicuous freedom for women. A greater degree of participation did indeed occur, but within the visibly dominant and deep structures of patriarchy, women adopted enhanced forms of religiosity through which they sought to circumvent their marginalization. The author points towards two important spaces where domination over women was most visible, and from the constrictions of which they deliberately sought to distance themselves: ‘their bodies and domestic space’. Patronage and promotion of religious institutions and the practice vratas along with associated rituals made women crucial actors in society as conceived by the Puranas. This did not, however, provide to them the escape they might have sought.

The socio-political system that permitted the inclusion of women in certain crucial ways ensured equally that instead of questioning prevailing structures of authority, this inclusion actually reinforced them. The image of the devout and dutiful wife engaged in religious observances for the well-being of husband and household, the author argues, bolstered patriarchy and became an important supporter of varna and theistic loyalties. Simultaneously, however, the norms of propriety within Puranic ideology served the position of women. For the dominant classes, especially, control over land and property was a source of power. It was the obligation of women to conduct rituals and religious ceremonies in a manner that ensured the prosperity and integrity of the household and the inheritances of property by succeeding generations. This gave to them a sacral status through with they sought to obtain some degree of influence. Greater religiosity made for enhanced influence.

In this book, Jaya Tyagi has looked at two other issues closely interwoven with the position of women in the Puranic tradition. One is the question of how myths (and rituals-in-myth) brought the ideology of kingship and the image in which deities came to came to be represented. Religious patronage by women appears to coincide with the emergence of goddesses as independent and powerful factors in socio-political life. The in turn crested a different understanding of feminine power. It is to this that the second is relater. Even as the feminine power of sakti was inevitably linked to the power of fertility and reproduction, its growing significance as a source of the power of the monarchy and in the battlefield was explicit. The goddess seems to represent an energy that was both feminine and masculine, and in the ultimate analysis an essential factor in strengthening and perpetuating patriarchy.

Contestation and Compliance is the result of work that was carried out by Jaya Tyagi as a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. The Institute has always endeavoured to create an atmosphere that is conducive for researchers, and to provide to them all possible support. When a monograph-after being researched, discussed, and intensely debated-appears in print as a book, it is invariably an occasion of immense satisfaction for the author. For Institute, as a public-funded body, it is a comforting reassurance of having got things right.



Agency implies instrumentality. Is it possible to identify instances in ancient Indian history when women were instrumental in changing or influencing social processes? When we discuss social histories, although we that women’s agency is implicit in production and reproduction activities, they are not easy to retrieve. Women cope and strategize in varied ways, depending on differing pressures of multiple patriarchal systems; however, the manner in which women have been able to negotiate and influence events related to them- selves has not always been recorded. It is in this context that this book attempts to ‘re-read’ the Matsymahapurana, and through the study of return observances, vratas, myths, and goddess tradition, reconstruct the anxieties and expectations that theological traditions have with regard to women. The work also attempts to retrieve women’s responses to these anxieties. Patriarchal traditions have never remained frozen; they constantly reinvent themselves to deal with the negotiations and contestations that women make. It is these very tradition then, which, when read carefully, tell us about women and the challenges that they constantly put to theological traditions.

There is a remarkable preoccupation with women, their ability to achieve emancipation and their role ritual observances in diverse theological tradition, from the beginning to the middle of the first millennium CE in the Indian subcontinent. We delve deeper to unravel why such debates regarding women and their participation start taking place at this particular juncture. Women themselves seem to have crested the circumstances and used their agency for being included within the Puranic canons-their espousal of Buddhism and other sects, the patronage they offered, and the manner in which they performed ritual observances seem to indicate that (even though the rituals were couched with male-centredness and reinforced women’s domestic roles). This meant that women’s inclusion became rather than their exclusion-it is these ‘strategic’ inclusion and exclusion in theological traditions which this work attempts to retrieve.

I am grateful to the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla, for their Fellowship; the salubrious surroundings, the majestic building and the research-friendly environment for scholar provided the backdrop in which this work was completed. The IIAS Director, Professor Ronald de Souza’s encouragement, his expansive vision for the Institute, and the active support he gave to the Fellows allowed one to work in an intellectually stimulating environment. I am grateful to him as well as all my friends at IIAS, particularly Vijaya, Shashi, Anita, Ranjeeta, Kavida for their valuable inputs. I also want to thank the IIAS staff, our academic officers, Dr Sen and Mr Sharma, and Mr Premchand, the librarian, the for the courtesy that was extended to me throughout my stay in Shimla. I would also like to thank my college Principal, Dr Hemalatha Reddy, and my colleagues in the college for their encouragement. The library staff at the Indian International Centre, New Delhi, were as always very helpful.

The OUP team was very efficient and helpful, and along with them, I want to thank reviewer who went through the work with utmost care. This work takes from the MMP, and although I have depended mostly on H.H. Wilson’s edited and translated version, the passages have been edited and interpreted to allow for more clarity and greater accuracy. My mother has constantly supported me all these, anticipating moments when she thought I needed help. The work would not have been possible without her and support of Ajay and Akshay, my spouse and my son, the sounding board for the ideas in this work, who listened to me with patience. I want to thank my brother Jeyant as well as Poonam, Madhav, and Jayati for their love and encouragement and Mummyji, Harish, Anju, and Alok for their support. Kamlesh provided valuable support that gave me extra time to work. Czarz and Snoopy, with their boundless energy and enthusiasm, kept my spirits alive.



Ritual observances involve the performance of sacral acts. Performance of sacral rites represents the need for expressing one’s religiosity, sometimes in public, with a series of symbolic and repetitive acts. These observances bring moments and actions alive with liturgy, chanting, repetitive acts, and movements. They involve elaborate preparations like the gathering of resources for oblations and offering, preparation, declaration of intent, followed with the formalities involved in actual observance. Rites performers and spaces with sacrality as a spatial demarcation of a ritual arena, and sometimes, transient or permanent bonds are crated between the audience and participants with whom the rites are conducted. The observances are usually followed with gift-giving, or at least expectations of copious gift-giving, leaving social relations elevated or bruised (or somewhere in between). In the aftermath of the performance, there can be a sense of elation which may lead to social bonding or alternatively, may unleash envy and competitive one-upmanship in individuals, families, kinship groups, and the larger community, changing the dynamics of each in relation to the other, keeping social relations and hierarchies in a constant state of flux.

The study of ritual observances in the historical context is significant as the record of rites in textual traditions seems to offer a vivid imagery o acts that were carried out (or at least intended to be carried out). The focus in this work will be on Puranic ritual tradition which move beyond the Vedic and post-Vedic yajna and rituals, enabling us to explore the transition that are reflected in texts like the Puranas. We will see how there is a marked change in the approach towards religious observances in the Puranas as compared to the early Dharmasastras, although there are considerable continuities too.

This study will focus on the observances involving women in the Puranas, but this has to be done in the backdrop of developments in diverse cultic traditions as these observances cannot be viewed in isolation. Similar attitudes with regard to representations of women get incorporated in different traditions-Buddhist and Jaina, Puranas, and subsequently, the These are projected in the form of ritual observances and myths by the middle of the fist millennium CE. Different discursive traditions thus seem to have needed to incorporate ritual and, more specifically, women in rituals, to underline their ideologies. There is need to re-read these traditions and investigate the reason for this inclusion.

Thus, it is increasingly becoming clear that in order hat in focus on ritual observances in early Indian societies, one has to move beyond the notions of having clearly demarcated spatial boundaries in religious ideologies. In fact, even classifying rites merely as religious practices will not be entirely correct as in the context of early societies, the delineation the religious and the social is not there and one permeates the other in every possible way. In this context, we find that such demarcation between Vedic-Brahmanism (it can be termed as Hinduism only later, in the Puranic stage), Jainism, Buddhism, Tantrism were quite blurred, especially with respect to ritual practices and the representations of women in these practices. There were several levels of commonalities in the actual performances of ritual observances and although there were divergences too, one has to analyse the social context of ritual observances with a broader perspective, rather than just focus on one type of ‘religious’ ideology, whatever it may be. This can be confusing but scholars can also use it to their advantage as what we identify as socio-religious issues have been recorded, deliberated upon, and debated in an elaborate manner and help in the social reconstruction of the past. Even while dwelling on similarities in these diverse traditions, it is the difference in ritual observances and their approach towards women that demarcate one from the other-giving us an Insight into how religious identities and traditions get formulated in relation to each other. This work, while focusing on the Puranas, aims at bringing out these synchronic and diachronic trends within diverse religious traditions in the first millennium CE.

The study of religious traditions is complicated. Religious ideologues attempt to reason, to put their views forward rationally and in their world view, even logically. The conceptualizations of early Indian texts, what we now put under the category of religious, were attempts to make sense of, explore, and rationalize the world and natural phenomena that they experienced.




  Forewoed by Chetan singh ix
  Preface xiii
  Note on Transliteration xvii
  Abbreviations xix
1 Introduction: Representation, Re-presentations, snd Retrieval 1
2 The Puranas as Repositories of Ritual Observances 59
3 Redefining Domesticity through Ritual Observances 89
4 Contestation and Negotiatin in Myths and Ritual-in-Myths and 137
5 Channlizing Feminine Energy through Rpresentations of Goddess(es) 182
6 Conclusion: The Social Consequences of 'Sacralizing' Women's Familial Roles 232
  Appendix 245
  Glossary 260
  Bibliography 264
  Index 271
  About the Author 284
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