BLC Travel Grant Report

Perhaps I might be considered something just short of insane to undertake a one-week journey halfway around the world to attend a three-day conference. But in the third week of February this is exactly what I did. I have to admit I had a few doubts about the undertaking; the trip itself takes at least twenty-four hours each way. But the topic was intriguing: domesticity and the household in ancient and medieval India. I had been approached about attending the conference last spring by Professors Kum Kum Roy and Nandita Sahai, both of the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, India, while I was a Visiting Professor there. The topic was one close to much of my research, and I had readily agreed to participate. Despite its brevity, the trip and the conference were both unqualified successes. During the year, Professors Roy and Sahai had gathered a group of international scholars of the highest caliber and had refined the focus of the conference: Looking Within/ Looking Without: Exploring Households in the [Indian] Subcontinent Through Time. The three-day conference, (February 24–26) had some twenty-four speakers, while nineteen papers were presented. Scholars of ancient and medieval India from the US, Canada, Europe, and India joined the conference from a variety of disciplines such as art history, archeology, history, religious studies, sociology, women’s studies, and area studies.

Recognizing that conventional chronologies of early South Asia are inadequate both in their conceptualization and reconstruction of histories of gender and that existing frameworks such as the religious/chronological model or Marxist paradigms are problematic as they prioritize generally masculine agendas, the conference sought to look at alternative frameworks of social formations to visualize the past. In particular the conference sought to explore institutions that are often taken for granted, such as the household, in an attempt to cut across conventional chronologies and seek new ways to approach research. The conference was loosely organized around five themes: 1) the household as a site of resource mobilization, production, distribution, consumption, and reproduction, 2) the household as a space of ritual activity, socialization, sexual normativity, and conflict, 3) super households, palaces, and religious institutions, 4) non-normative households, and 5) structures of regulation and control between and among household, communities, and state structures.

My paper, “Blessed Events: The Uttarakāṇḍa’s Construction of Sītā’s Pregnancy and
Commentarial Responses to It,” was part of the first section, as it focused on impregnation, pregnancy, and birth. The Uttarakāṇḍa of Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa has long been viewed as the most controversial of the epic’s seven books. Though among scholars this reputation derives as much from its suspicious textual history as its disturbing contents, it is the latter, and especially the much-debated episodes of the repudiation and banishment of the epic’s heroine and the slaying of the low caste Śambūka, that stirs much of the book’s controversy. As a result, either the entire kāṇḍa or sections of it are often silenced or erased by both later reworkings and the scholarly tradition.

Intimately linked with the final repudiation and banishment of Sītā is her pregnancy. While the fact that she gives birth to her two sons, Lava and Kuśa, in Vālmīki’s ashram is well known, the actual impregnation, pregnancy, and childbirth of the epic’s heroine, more specifically how the epic constructs these events and traditional scholiasts’ reaction to them, haves been for the most part ignored. The paper argues that epic’s treatment here of Sītā’s impregnation, pregnancy, and childbirth is unique in a number of ways and critical to the structure of the epic and the epic’s construction of gender. Offering a close reading of the passages, it provides a window through which to expand our understanding of this highly influential epic’s underlying attitudes toward gender and the biological roles associated with it. Finally the paper discusses the reaction of the traditional medieval commentators to these passages and how those reactions help us identify undercurrents of anxiety they express toward gender related issues.

The paper was well-received and in conjunction with two other papers—one on the ayurvedic description and regulation of pregnancy and childbirth in ancient India and the other on the breastfeeding mother—led to a lively discussion, which continued into the early evening. The conference was well attended, drawing its audience from major universities in Dehli (JNU, Dehki University, Jamia Millia Islamia, etc.), JNU graduate students from a number of departments and centers, government officials (Ministry of Culture, ICCR, etc.), and so forth.

The papers presented at the conference will appear in a volume, whose publication will be subsidized by the Government of India.

I wish to express my thanks to the BLC for providing me a travel grant, which made it possible for me to attend this conference. The conference, while not directly focusing on language studies or teaching, provided me with invaluable cultural, historical, and literary insights, which can be directly translated into the classroom.