Women, Sanskrit, and Social Change, a guest-post by Jordan Venditti

In our time spent abroad, we are not only studying caste and religion, but also the implications of gender in contemporary Indian society. We are not studying these entities separately, but as intertwined as they continue to play a role in the context of Indian identity. Lalitha, one of our prized guest speakers, spoke to us about gender, familial relationships and her place of work, the Kuppuswami Sastri Research Institute at the Madras Sanskrit College. Lalitha’s struggles as a woman and mother reflect many of those that the average Indian woman endures. Expectations about marriage and womanhood were placed on her from a young age, and she was married at the young age of fifteen in an arranged marriage. Lalitha then felt the societal and familial pressures to conceive immediately upon entering into her husband’s home.

Traditionally, and like Lalitha experienced, families often live jointly in the same home. After marriage, young women move out of the house in which they were raised to join their husband’s family, which often includes his grandparents, parents, siblings and their spouses as well as their children. Lalitha had to adjust to her husband’s family like many women in India.

However, unlike most other women, Lalitha’s professional and career development have reached heights that very few people, men and women alike, have been able to achieve. Currently working on her Ph.D. in Sanskrit, Lalitha somehow makes time to study, play with her grandchildren, and work on a regular basis. A few days after meeting Lalitha, our group was invited to visit her place of work – the Sanskrit College.

This institution represents substantial growth in the context of Indian identity and women’s roles in the academic sphere. Sanskrit was a language that was traditionally only learned by men of the highest caste, Brahmins, and mostly used only in religious contexts. During British occupation, the use of the language suffered as English took its place as a unifying language for India. Many Indians at the time were fine with the disappearance of Sanskrit in lieu of retaining regional tongues and being able to use English for trade and advantageous positions in society. There has been a resurgence of the study of Sanskrit as scholars have begun to seek the intellectual discoveries of the past that have been lost to the ages.

Listening to and observing the Sanskrit scholars sitting in front of us, it became very apparent that the study of this language was beginning to move into a new direction. Four out of the five professors who addressed us were women, and all but three of the 24 students currently working towards a doctoral degree in Sanskrit there are women, a surprising number given that the language had previously been restricted to men. Our guest speakers explained to us that the enormous complexity of the Sanskrit language has caused most scholars to develop a narrow specialty and focus on manuscripts of that subject. This means women were not only studying the language as a whole, but its role in advances in grammar, lexicography, mathematics, literature, and warfare.

Lalitha and the Sanskrit college have shown us how the status of women in changing and how a renewed interest in India’s ancestral past is contributing to the development a new Indian identities.

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