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The Queen, the Dasi and Sexual Politics in the Sabhaparvan of the Mahabharata

Uma Chakravarti


Amongst all of the major ‘characters’ in the Mahabharata, Draupadi dominates the popular imagination in India where she, in my view, overshadows both Arjuna and Krishna, even though they are the protagonists of the famous conversation that forms the text of the Bhagavad Gita. Her humiliation in the sabha of Hastinapura stands at the centre of the Mahabharata and moves events forward to their tragic denouement.  It is the absolute core of the moral crisis that the Mahabharata, as a text, epitomises in a series of wrongs that are depicted: the abandonment of Karna by his mother Kunti to hide her pre-marital liaison, the lie uttered by Yudhishthira that leads to the vanquishing of guru Dronacharya, the killing of the unarmed Karna by Arjuna while he is recovering his chariot from its wheel being stuck in the mud… whatever be the interpretation of the dharma by which these acts are justified. Indeed all these wrongs, committed as they are by the Pandavas who won the war, as the more righteous of the two sides in a battle represented as one that was between the forces of evil and the forces of good, lend themselves to ambiguity. Only the humiliation of Draupadi at the hands of the Kauravas occupies the moral high ground—the utter indefensibility of the sexual violence against her in the sabha makes this one act the casus belli of the fratricidal war, a war that will virtually finish off all the kshatriyas, save a few. Given the investment that almost everyone reading/hearing/engaging with the text today has in the matter of ‘Draupadi in the sabhaparvan’, any discussion of the episode from a slightly different standpoint is fraught with difficulties since we are all already pre-disposed to reading Draupadi’s humiliation through the text’s own lens. Nevertheless I am going to give it a try since I think there is room enough to look at the episode, especially the question that Draupadi asks in the sabha which finally buys freedom for all the Pandavas from the implications of the question, rather than the question itself.  In doing so I will build on the very insightful work of a range of scholars but, who to my mind, have left some things unsaid and some critical questions unasked.


Uma Chakravarti is a feminist historian who taught at Miranda House University College for Women of University of Delhi for many decades and retired from there. She writes on Buddhism, early India, the 19th century and on contemporary events. Uma has been associated with the women's movement and the movement for democratic rights since the early 1980s and in that capacity she has participated in many fact-finding investigations documenting violence against the margins such as women, Dalits, and the minorities in India. She has also become a filmmaker in recent years and has directed three films to date all of which deal with history and memory with a focus on unknown women's lives and struggles. She is currently preparing a manuscript on the Mahabharata titled "The Dying Lineage: Sexual Politics in the Mahabharata."


The Power a Woman's Story Creates: Stories, Lives, and Female Renunciation in India

Antoinette E. DeNapoli


This presentation calls attention to the uncommon religious lives and worlds of Hindu holy women (sadhus) in India. As sadhus, these women practice an unconventional religious way of life known as renunciation. Sadhus are overwhelmingly men, and the elite religious institution in which they participate has traditionally excluded women from its ranks and leadership roles. How do female sadhus create their religious authority and earn the respect, trust, and devotion of their communities and, more generally, the society? How do their practices spotlight a female tradition of renunciation that offers an alternative to the dominant male traditions of renunciation practiced in India? In this presentation, Antoinette E. DeNapoli presents the oral life histories of the female sadhus with whom she has worked over the last sixteen years in the North Indian state of Rajasthan. Through an exploration of the sadhus’ personal experience narratives, Antoinette brings to light the cultural-religious categories, idioms, and mythic models through which female sadhus make sense of their worlds and their renunciation. Drawing on the metaphor of “singing to God,” which the sadhus foreground in their stories, DeNapoli shows that what it means to be a female sadhu in India involves performing the kind of radical devotion exemplified by the extraordinary lives of legendary female devotees.   


Antoinette DeNapoli is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX. She teaches courses on Asian religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, the mystical traditions of yoga and tantra, goddess traditions of South Asia, gods and heroes in South Asian religions, gender and religion, theories and methods, and a study abroad course on religion and globalization in India. She has held grants and/or fellowships from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, American Institute of Indian Studies, Wyoming Institute of Humanities Research, and American Academy of Religion. In the year 2018-2019, Antoinette will be a research fellow with the Global Religion Research Initiative at the Center for the Study of Religion and Society in the University of Notre Dame. Antoinette has been traveling to India and working with holy men and women for over sixteen years. She is the author of Real Sadhus Sing to God: Gender, Asceticism, and Vernacular Religion in Rajasthan, with Oxford University Press (2014). Antoinette is currently working on her next book titled, “Religion at the Crossroads: Experimental Hinduism and the Theologizing of the Modern in Contemporary India,” and plans to complete the manuscript during her fellowship with the University of Notre Dame.



Women and Truth Speech: The Classical Saint Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār Then and Now

Karen Pechilis


Through her devotional poetry which consists of four compositions that tradition attributes to a single historical woman, the saint Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār pre-eminently self-identifies as a speaker in praise of Śiva. She does not locate herself by gender, caste or class, but instead creates and inhabits a devotional subjectivity that speaks the truth of Śiva’s power. Her refusal to tie religiously potent speech to a specific embodiment challenges tradition and universalizes devotional expression. Her biographer, Cēkkilār, portrays her situation much differently, gendering her with lavish descriptions of her beauty and marriage, and socially locating her in a wealthy family and community. Amplifying and reshaping some of the vulnerabilities expressed in her own poetry, his biographical narrative exposes the socially-constituted gap between having the natural ability to speak and having the social location to be allowed to speak. At the center of the biography’s predictable patriarchal frame story lies the very transgressive question of where a woman can speak the truth aloud. Artists today in the fine arts, drama and dance have found inspiration in the story of Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār to address issues of women’s empowerment, some with an explicitly feminist turn, revealing ways in which Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār speaks to the modern world.


Karen Pechilis is NEH Distinguished Professor of Humanities in the Comparative Religion Department and Director of the graduate Arts & Letters program at Drew University. She has made innovative theoretical contributions to the study of bhakti (path of devotional participation); comparative analysis of female gurus; translation and critical discussion of Tamil devotional literature; reclaiming and restoring female voices from Indian tradition through gender and feminist analysis; and interpreting the historical development of the now global Naṭarāja image of Śiva. She is the author of Interpreting Devotion: The Poetry and Legacy of a Female Bhakti Saint of India and The Embodiment of Bhakti. She is the editor of The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States, and the co-editor with Selva J. Raj of South Asian Religions: Tradition and Today and with Barbara Holdrege of Re-Figuring the Body: Embodiment in South Asian Religions. She has published many articles in professional journals, including online articles in The International Journal of Dharma Studies, Prabuddha Bharata, and Women in the World’s Religions and Spirituality Project. Her many years of research in India have been supported by the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Asian Cultural Council and the Fulbright-Nehru Program.



Ruby of The Dynasty, Our Lady, Sembiyan Mahadevi

Vidya Dehejia


This talk explores the story of a remarkable woman, a princess from a chieftain’s family who married a Chola prince, and who was active on the scene for over sixty years. She made her first temple donation in the year 941 when still a princess, while her latest dedication belongs to the year 1002 when she was the respected grand-aunt of Chola emperor Rajaraja. She built temples in stone, sponsored a bronze workshop that created exquisite sacred bronzes, commissioned rich jewelry to adorn temple bronzes, and made gifts of coins to ensure continued worship of bronzes at temple festivals. With great foresight, she made endowments at several temples to ensure their maintenance and to ensure that all temple staff—whether priests or cooks, singers of sacred hymns or palanquin-bearers—were adequately compensated. Where did this amazing woman come from? How did she function so successfully in a male-dominated society? And how did she escape the discredit that the status of widowhood normally brings? Instead, Rajaraja gave her the right to issue royal order (tirumugam) with a status equal to his own!



Vidya Dehejia, Barbara Stoler Miller Professor of Indian Art at Columbia University, is author of a range of books on the history of Indian art that connect the literary and visual arts in meaningful ways. Her recent publications include The Unfinished. Indian Stone Carvers at Work (2016), The Body Adorned (2012), The Sensuous & the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India (2002), and Discourse in Early Buddhist Art (1997). In 2016, she presented the 65th annual A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery in Washington DC, a series in which the art of India was featured for the first time in its 65-year history. The set of six lectures was titled “Thief Who Stole my Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855-1280,” and Vidya Dehejia is currently converting the lectures into a book for Princeton University Press.



Kinship, Power, Gender: Some Questions from the History of Matriliny in Kerala

G. Arunima


Looking at some of the nineteenth and twentieth century material on matriliny in Kerala, this paper hopes to open up a discussion regarding the relationship between the material and the affective, and how these may help us rethink the relationship between marriage, family, gender and power.  As a part of this exercise I wish to address afresh the debates on family and marriage, and the ways in which a rights-based discourse may not be sufficient for understanding the more affective dimensions of matrilineal familial contexts. Here I wish to address the differences in the ways in which the family is understood within legal or material cultural contexts, as opposed to literary, autobiographical or the visual – and the implications of such differences. Finally, the paper will also look at the ways in which early twentieth-century discussions in Kerala on caste and religion inflected the ways in which matrilineal family reform was initiated. Each of these areas, I would suggest, provide different, yet significant, insights into understanding the nature of gendered power, as indeed the histories of matrilineal women in Kerala.


G. Arunima teaches in the Centre for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and has researched and published on both historical and modern contexts in India, focusing particularly on cultural, visual, and material texts, and rethinking the politics of the contemporary. Some of her areas of interest have been the study of family and kinship; different aspects of aesthetics and modernities; visual culture and theory; and religion and faith practices. She’s the author of “There Comes Papa: Colonialism and the Transformation of Matriliny in Kerala, Malabar, ca 1850-1940” (Orient Longman, 2003).




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