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CHAPTER FOUR Brahmins and Women Subjectivity and Gender Construction in the Upaniƒads INTRODUCTION In the previous chapters we have looked at dialogues where brahmins teach students, debate with other brahmins, and discuss philosophy with kings. In these situations we have seen that the participants in the dialogues and how they interact with each other are essential aspects of the texts. As such, the Upani∑ads do not merely articulate philosophical claims, but also address how ideas are generated and circulated in the social world. In this chapter we will examine gender issues in the Upani∑ads, with particular attention to the dialogues that feature brahmins and women. It is not my aim to impose any particular theory of gender onto the Upani∑ads, but rather to investigate how issues of gender impact the teachings put forth by the texts. This chapter will demonstrate that gender is an essential aspect of philosophy in the Upani∑ads both because of the explicitly male soteriology represented by a number of the teachings and because the genders of the literary characters have an impact on what they say and how they interact with each other. First we will examine the gender implications of the Upanishadic notions of self, especially as represented through metaphors, creations myths, and procreation rituals. Although on some occasions the Upani∑ads make appeals to a universal knowledge available to everyone , a number of teachings present an explicitly male construction of åtman and offer a soteriology that links a man’s ability to achieve immortality to securing male children. The gender dimensions of Upanishadic ideas remain ambiguous and unresolved, but nevertheless teachings about åtman are targeted at a predominantly male audience and achieving selfhood is associated with a number of practices 133 134 The Character of the Self in Ancient India and social situations that are primarily the domain of men and that restrict the participation of women. As we will see, the gender dimensions of Upanishadic teachings have important implications concerning the construction of brahmin male subjectivity. Satyakåma is portrayed as a householder who supports himself as a teacher by taking on students. Although it is not clear whether or not Satyakåma has any children himself, the householder lifestyle is privileged by a number of teachings that link immortality to having male children, with some teachings further claiming that this knowledge itself guarantees the production of male children. Yåjñavalkya, however, challenges this ideal by including women in his philosophical discussions, as well as by teaching that immortality can be attained without having children. We will examine the differing portrayals of Satyakåma and Yåjñavalkya in terms of competing ideals of the brahmin man. Although the Upani∑ads are primarily about brahmin men, the dialogues also feature a number of female characters. In fact, because of the importance of procreation in securing immortality, the presentations of female speakers in the dialogues, as well as the practices assigned to women during procreation, are central to the philosophical claims of the texts. For the most part, the representations of women, especially as wives and procreative bodies, serve to reinforce the ideal of the male brahmin householder. Nevertheless, a number of characters point to “cracks in the veneer” of male brahmin orthodoxy.1 These characters embody a tension regarding women throughout the Upani∑ads: whereas women are central because of their procreative role, they are defined and depicted as subordinate to men, and their participation in Upanishadic narratives tends to be marginalized and mediated. In the latter part of this chapter we will look at female characters who speak in Upanishadic dialogues, how they speak, and how they negotiate with the limitations restricting women in Upanishadic practice. We will focus our attention on Gårg¥, Jabålå, and Maitrey¥. Gårg¥ not only speaks in the brahmodya at Janaka’s court, but also overtly challenges Yåjñavalkya’s authority (BU 3.6.1, 3.8.1–12). In the process, she displays her superiority in knowledge over a number of brahmin men from Kuru-Pañcåla. Jabålå teaches her son the truth (satya) about his lineage that eventually leads to his recognition as a brahmin (CU 4.4.1–5). As we will see, her teaching is similar to a number of instances where the authority of a woman’s words is recognized only when it is restated by a brahmin man. In Yåjñavalkya’s dialogue with 135 Brahmins and Women his...


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