Sainaz Farzana Kazi
All About Ambedkar: A Journal on Theory and Praxis, Volume 1, Number 3, October-December 2020
“The Woman and the Counter-Revolution” was published in the form of a chapter in the third volume of the collected series: “Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches” by the Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India in 2003. It is a short text of only eight pages which is originally a part of a larger work by Ambedkar, named “Revolution and Counter-Revolution.” In it, he calls the rise of Buddhism a ‘revolution’ as it rose as a challenge to the Brahminical hegemony in India, and the way Brahminism retaliated is what Ambedkar calls the ‘counter-revolution’. He analyzes in this text how Manu had dealt with the existence of women in archaic India, the practices of which have persisted even to the contemporary India that Ambedkar lived in.
At the very beginning of the text, Ambedkar lets out to the reader that, in his treatment with women, Manu was never at all gentle. His viewpoints on women were as unpleasant as they were on the Shudras. He looked down upon a woman’s composition in many unreasonable aspects. In his foundational text of Hindu dogmatism and patriarchy named Manusmriti, Manu asserts that a female is never a safe creature for a male to be around him. She is capable of making a man lascivious as she is a seducer by nature. Due to her impure desires, a woman comes to be unfaithful to her husband easily. While speaking about the liberties for women, he contends that “a woman is never fit for independence.” She has to be restrained under the ‘protection’ of her father, brother, husband, or her son; in other words, women are always to be kept under the sway of men. Manu even deprives women of their right to divorce. He states that a woman cannot obtain separation from her husband as she has sworn to be with him at the time of their marriage. It is not that Manu was against this separation because he contemplated marriage as a sacred ceremony, rather he simply wanted to make the women the slave to patriarchy.
(In pic: Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar with women delegates of the Scheduled Caste Federation during the Conference of the Federation on July 8, 1942 at Nagpur. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons) Ambedkar then provides an account of the social situation of a woman as it is known from the writings of Kautilya. During the Buddhist regime, a woman suffered no restriction in her use of freedom. She could marry or claim separation according to her preferences. But when she tied the knot with a Shudra and created a breakage on the Varna System, the Brahminical disposition viewed it negatively and counter-dealt with it. It also snatched the right of divorce and re-marriage(s) from women. From this time onwards, women had to relinquish their privileges in those mentioned domains. In Kautilya’s time, a woman was free to declare divorce if there is the “mutual enmity and hatred” and also if the husband is proved to be crooked towards her. She even had the right to remarry. She also had the right to forsake her deceitful husband at her own will. However, in Manu’s time, there was no luxury of choice for a woman even if her husband was of an unacceptable character: she had to live with him under any circumstance. However, Manu, being a boastful patriarchalist, gave the freedom to the husband to leave, vend, or reject his wife as per his wants. A man could have innumerable affairs and he could marry multiple times whereas a wife, once driven away by her former husband, could never be the legitimate wife of another and would be isolated by the society. A woman, when found to be in any illegitimate relationship, would be awarded harsh corporal punishments.
Where Manu allows a man to have as many wives as he wants, Kautilya prescribed that a man could remarry only under specific circumstances; for example, in case the wife had any issues with having offspring. Nonetheless, the husband had to wait for a certain number of years and, yet if the wife failed to give birth to the descendent of the family, the husband could opt for additional marriage(s). If proven unfaithful to her husband, the wife would have to suffer economic orphanage. Whatever she had been given to by her in-laws, like the Shulka or the Stridhana, would be taken away. Besides, the punishments for women became more brutal with the counter-revolution steered by the Brahmins. Now she had to accede even to physical assaults from her husband.
Ambedkar compares the situation of the widows in these two periods. A woman in the pre-Manu days, after her husband’s demise, could inherit his possession. If she wished to remarry after his death, she could do that with her father-in-law’s approval. Also, she would have to marry the bridegroom selected by him. If the woman hoped to marry someone who had not been selected by her father-in-law, she would have to relinquish the property obtained from her in-laws and her husband. If she claimed the money or property for the upbringing of the children by her former husband, she would have to endow that in their name. A woman who continued to stay loyal to her husband even after his passing away and preferred not to remarry would be given the social security and financial support from her father-in-law and she could make free use of her husband’s property. A woman could make use of her ornaments under an unavoidable time of crisis, especially if the husband failed to provide her with the basic economic support.
There have been vast modifications in the matter of a woman's importance in both the antithetical eras. While a man could beat his wife according to his will and the wife was incompetent to stand against it in any way in Manu’s time; in Kautilya’s time, a woman could bring her complaint against any cruel action of her husband to the court and often she used to get justice. This is an acknowledged fact that in pre-Manu days, women used to get from society the appreciation they truly were entitled to. In the time of the coronation, the king used to make offerings to the ‘Ratnis’ among whom the queen was one too. He worshipped his other wives as well, even if they belong to lower castes.
When it was the Buddhistic period, Women were free to read, think, and analyze; to gain knowledge or to utilize their wisdom in various fields. They were in fact highly appreciated for that in the society at the time. Examples of such competent women include Gargi, Maitreyee, Vidyadhari, Sulbha, and others who were well-read and even took part in the Mimansa. But situations changed soon when the Brahmins were back in power. With their counter-revolution, women gradually lost all such rights and freedom they possessed during the Buddhistic period. They were even prohibited from reading the Vedas, performing any ritual, or offering any religious sacrifice. They did not have any possibility to atone for their sins by any holy means. Manu says that a Brahmin must not aid a woman in making a prayer or performing any sacraments to God. The Brahmin cannot consume the food given at a sacrifice performed by a woman. A prayer made by a woman was never considered to be pure and hence they would never reach God. But even after knowing this, if she still attempts to do that, she will go straight to hell after her mortal life would be over.
While discussing the wedding ceremony, Ambedkar again points out some lesser-known facts prevalent in the pre-Manu days that distinguish the two dominating periods of the Buddhists and the Brahmins respectively. In Kautilya's time, before marriage, both the bride and the bridegroom were bound to reveal their guilt of having any sexual relationships in the past. If found later that they were in such relationships and that they hid these facts at the time of the wedding, they would have to pay a fine for that. The bridegroom was to give double the fine given by the bride. Furthermore, there used to be a special ceremony if the marriage was taking place during the monthlies of the bride.
After finishing his comparisons between the ideals of the women in the times of Kautilya and Manu respectively, when he has been able to make the readers realize how women were in a far better state before the Brahminical counter-revolution, Ambedkar terminates his text with a concern “why did Manu degrade her?”. Manu attempted to counter-deal the Buddhistic regime, but the reason why he made the women suffer this much can hardly be answered simply. Not only the women but Manu also wrought and codified injustice to the Shudras. In Ambedkar’s “Shudra and the Counter-Revolution”, we see how Manu dragged them to the point of slavery. According to Manu, a Shudra cannot be a ruler. Even if learned, a Shudra cannot act as the judge in a court of law. Ambedkar states that Manu didn't even allow the teachers to teach Shudra students and thus, a Shudra could never get the opportunity to gain knowledge. Shudras were not allowed to read the Vedas just like the women who were also not allowed to do the same. In the case of the Shudras, Manu said that they would have the only occupation of serving the three other ‘higher’ castes just like a woman also was to follow the strict guidelines given by the male member of his family under whom she is supposed to be preserved (?). Both the Shudras and the women were allowed to be beaten by their masters if needed.
Manu emphasizes four things in his “laws concerning women”: she has to be dependent always, she must worship and obey her husband, she has to be devoted to her deceased husband, and any kind of ‘non-virtuous’ behaviour done by a woman will not be tolerated. Manu’s treatment of Shudras and women clearly shows how severely the Brahmins were troubled with the Shudras and women attaining adequate social status solely based on their knowledge, courage, and capability in the Buddhistic regime.
Thus, the text briefly examines how the situation for women altered upside down with the power shifting to the Brahminists from the Buddhists. A woman's social position, her sovereignty, her freedom to gain knowledge, and the opportunity to prove her wisdom and courage- all these were subverted into becoming the servant to her husband, father, or brother; being the object to satisfy the male ego of her husband, not possessing any free will, not having any opportunity to perform the religious sacrifices, and being helpless to fight for her position. A woman had to sacrifice her everything (sometimes ever herself) to "preserve the reputation" of her and her husband's family. In effect, the existence of women in the Manuvadi society was reduced to that of an inanimate pleasure-giving object.
It is not that things are still the same for a woman but there’s a long way to go. The situation has somewhat changed for women. Reading this text today is important to understand the well-thought procedure of undermining of the identity of women under the reins of the Brahminist rulers- from a position of respect to becoming an object of drawing pleasure and manhandling, from independence to slavery, and from being able to fight for herself to losing her social and political power, ultimately resulting in the loss of her free will. Ambedkar's text "The Woman and The Counter-Revolution" thus represents the patriarchal project of the Brahminists- how they utilized their hegemony to enslave the woman and the Shudras simultaneously with similar impositions, tweaked for each end. It is important for reviewing the gradual construction, deconstruction, and consequent reconstruction of the cultural identity of women in the socio-political history of India, to which religion, as is evident, played an instrumental part.
Ambedkar, Bhimrao Ramji. "The Woman and the Counter-Revolution". Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol. 3, edited by Vasant Moon and Hari Narake, Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 2014, pp. 429-437.
Sainaz Farzana Kazi studies English literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her research interests include Romanticism and Feminism.