Alice Song / Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. Stephanie W. Jamison presents her lecture, “Adulterous Woman to Be Eaten by Dogs: Women and Law in Ancient India,” on Thursday.

September 21, 2017

Professor Calls Attention to Women’s Adultery Laws in Ancient India

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Prof. Stephanie W. Jamison, Asian languages and cultures, UCLA, detailed the link between women’s adulterous behaviors and being eaten by dogs at a lecture on Thursday.

The focus of her lecture — “Adulterous Women to be Eaten by Dogs: Women and Law in Ancient India” — highlighted the critical responses in Ancient Indian texts against increased women’s autonomy.

Jamison said she got the title from a mandate in an Ancient Indian Sutra which dictated the punishment for a woman who had sexual relations with an individual of a lower class. She would be subject to get eaten by dogs; however, there is no evidence whether “any of the threats or provisions were ever put into effect,” she said.

She set the bounds for Ancient India between 1500 BC to 500 CE, and named her sources: Dharma Śāstras (regulated public and private life, usually attached to religious schools of thought), Arthaśāstuas (government treatises), literary epics that contain may legal references, Grhya Sūtras (focusing on domestic rituals) and Vedas (ritual texts).

Her topics of focus were marriage, specifically, a man’s assurance of a faithful wife to ensure the legitimacy of his children, because a woman’s promiscuousness “threatens the legitimacy of children,” she said.

Jamison said there was no official executor of the law, and whether the laws were enforced is uncertain.

Jamison referenced another account where the punishment for a woman engaging in sexual relations with a member of a lower class would result in her being shaved, stripped naked and publicly paraded on a donkey.

The occurrence of the punishment is unlikely — it was used more as an equivalence with the disgrace the act entailed.

Indeed the punishments were extreme, but Jamison interpreted them with a somewhat different lens, saying that their inclusion meant “women are no longer invisible to the law.”

Increased harshness in punishment, Jamison argued, was in fact a result of recognizing women’s autonomy. She mentions the “verse upon verse upon verse” in “Manu” that was not found in previous texts that criticizes the behavior of women.

“The official recognition of woman having minds of their own came with a backlash. There is a very strong strain of textual representation in which women have no agency throughout their life, and we get these provisions in all the Dharma texts, but they become more and more virulent in the later texts,” she said.

Aside from increased identification of autonomy within the laws, Jamison said the reactionary texts were also a response to “the rise of females religious in a non-marital context,” such as becoming nuns.

Though this shift for women led them into religious roles, the societal response was rather negative. These women grew to be associated with ascetic woman and other less reputable women.

“Female ascetics are grouped with women of really low and un-respectable professions,” she said. “You can be a nun or drink liquor. Both of these things are really bad.”

For Jamison, there is still more research to be done into the dichotomy of increasing liberality regarding women’s rights and the subsequent critical responses in ancient Indian literature.

“There is a lot more to be done, and I hope some of you will do it,” she said.