Gawande Lecture Series delves into ancient Indian texts

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Gawande Lecture Series delves into ancient Indian texts

Nov 19, 2015

By McKenzie Powell

O n Nov. 12, Stephanie Jamison presented “Adulterous Woman to Be Eaten by Dogs: Women and Law in Ancient India,” a lecture about ancient Indian sources pertaining to women and law. The event took place in Ellis Hall as a part of the biannual Ohio University Gawande Lecture Series.

“I was very pleased with the large turnout of students, faculty, and community members, and with the questions the audience asked at the end of the lecture,” said Brian Collins, Drs. Ram and Sushila Gawande Chair in Indian Religion and Philosophy and creator of the Gawande Lecture Series.

Jamison, professor in the department of Asian languages and cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles, used the lecture to dissect specific quotes from historic texts to examine their implications for and about women in ancient India.

During her presentation Jamison referenced particular sources such as the Mahābhārata, a popular Sanskrit epic, the Rigveda, a religious scripture compiling Vedic Sanskrit hymns, and the Dharmasūtras, which contain some of the earliest rules of Hindu law.

After explaining the significance of her chosen material, Jamison highlighted individual lines from the many works, including Gautama Dharma Sūtra: XXIII.14, which states, “In the case of a (sexual) encounter with (a man) of lower varna the king should have the woman eaten by dogs in public.”

Jamison also referenced chapter IX.3 of “The Laws of Manu” which says, “Her father guards (her) in childhood; her husband guards (her) in youth; and her son in old age. A woman does not deserve independence.”

These passages were used to demonstrate the norms of religious life and the control that was held over women of ancient India, as seen in non-legal, legal and political texts.

“There’s this assertion that women don’t have independence and that women don’t deserve independence,” Jamison said in regards to the texts. “This notion that women are constantly looking for men to have sex with and that, because of this, they need to be constantly guarded.”

Although Jamison mentioned that it is nearly impossible to tell whether or not these laws were actually enforced, she did argue that these sources prove women’s growing agency over time in ancient India. Gautama Dharma Sūtra: XXIII.14 is just one example, as this law displayed the transition from internal family punishments to external, legally recognized punishments, such as women being eaten by dogs in public.

“We’re basically stuck with these texts. They are very limiting if you are trying to get a [broader] picture,” Jamison said, noting that there aren’t many additional resources, archaeological materials or pictures from this time period to further examine the real lives of women in ancient India.

Jamison just recently completed the first scholarly English translation of all 1,028 hymns of the Rigveda, India’s oldest religious text. Trained as an Indo-European linguist, her work focuses on Indo-Iranian and Middle Indo-Aryan languages and texts, as well as mythology and gender.

The Gawande Lecture Series was created by Collins and is supported by a gift from OHIO friends Sushila and the late Ram Gawande. The Series invites renowned scholars of Indian philosophy and religion to OHIO, featuring a lecture every fall and spring semester.

The next Gawande lecture is scheduled to take place on March 31, 2016, and will feature Francis Clooney, professor and director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at the Harvard Divinity School.

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