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UCLA 9A: Brahui, Vedic Women - varnamvarnam
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UCLA 9A: Brahui, Vedic Women

In the lectures as part of the  Introduction to Asian Civilizations: History of India course at UCLA, the instructor makes few points about the Vedic period  which has to be fact checked.

But before critiquing the lectures let us visit one point where there was a balance. In Baluchistan, there is a region where a language called Brahui is spoken: This language is Dravidian. The fact that an island of Dravidian speakers remains in the midst of Indo-European speakers has been cited as evidence of Indo-Aryans displacing Dravidians — the original Harappans — during their invasion/migration to India.

To his credit, the instructor mentions that there is another theory about the origins of Brahui. It turns out that Brahui was not present in the region during the arrival of Aryans, but arrived later, probably after the Islamic invasion of India.

Then there is the case of Brahui, a Dravidian language still spoken in parts of Baluchistan, which has often been brandished as the ultimate proof of a Dravidian presence in the Indus region. But in the 1920s, French linguist Jules Bloch demonstrated, through an analysis of the Brahui vocabulary, that the language reached Baluchistan recently, perhaps at the time of the Islamic invasions and probably from central India. This thesis was more recently endorsed by Murray Emeneau, and still more recently by H. H. Hock. Finally, the linguist and mathematician Josef Elfenbein confirmed it using a different approach.

According to the French Indo-Europeanist Bernard Sergent, “the conclusion is radical … Brahui reached Baluchistan late, and can therefore no longer provide proof or even a clue of the Dravidian-speaking character of the people who lived along the Indus.”Clearly, the Brahui trump card has failed, although a number of our Indian scholars remain unaware of the above linguistic studies.[A DRAVIDO-HARAPPAN CONNECTION? THE ISSUE OF METHODOLOGY]

Unfortunately you don’t see many examples of balanced coverage in this lecture series. Getting into the Vedic text, he talks about the purusha sukta or hymn of man and attributes this to the origin of the caste system. He also tells one questioner that Hindus were perfectly capable of coming up with exploitative systems like anyone else in the world and there is no need to get defensive about it. Few minutes later he talks about Manusmriti and states that women and shudras were not allowed to listen to the Vedas; molten lead was to be poured into their ears.

So in less than 20 minutes he jumps about 1500 years, the same way he jumps to Ayodhya of 1992 while talking about the epic Ramayana. By this time travel he successfully avoids talking about the role of women in the Vedic period. It is a neat trick.

To understand the role of women in Vedic society, we need to go back to a Vedic ceremony which Frits Staal, Michael Wood and me attended (in various years) called the Athirathram. This Vedic ceremony, which is about 3000 years old, is still performed in Kerala. It is probably the oldest surviving ritual of mankind. 

The ceremony is conducted on behalf of a male yajamanan, but he cannot conduct it without his wife beside him. This means that the woman hears all the Vedic chanting and no one pours molten lead into her ears. It is not surprising since some of the Vedic hymns were written by women themselves; there were women sages, they took part in chariot races, they attended social gatherings. A woman could remarry if her husband died or disappeared; the Vedic seer Ghosha remained a spinster in her father’s house[1]. There is even mention in later texts of women learning the Vedas[2].

This of course does not imply that all women were allowed to attend the Vedic sacrifice; only certain women qualified. The number of hymns by women are just a few; the number of goddesses are also few. The society was clearly patriarchal.

Why is it so hard to mention all these?

References:

  1. Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, 1st ed. (Prentice Hall, 2009). 
  2. A.L. Basham, The wonder that was India;: A survey of the culture of the Indian sub-continent before the coming of the Muslims, 21st ed. (Evergreen, 1977).

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