UCLA 9A: Brahui, Vedic Women

In the lectures as part of the  Introduction to Asian Civilizations: History of India course at UCLA, the instructor makes few points about the Vedic period  which has to be fact checked.

But before critiquing the lectures let us visit one point where there was a balance. In Baluchistan, there is a region where a language called Brahui is spoken: This language is Dravidian. The fact that an island of Dravidian speakers remains in the midst of Indo-European speakers has been cited as evidence of Indo-Aryans displacing Dravidians — the original Harappans — during their invasion/migration to India.

To his credit, the instructor mentions that there is another theory about the origins of Brahui. It turns out that Brahui was not present in the region during the arrival of Aryans, but arrived later, probably after the Islamic invasion of India.

Then there is the case of Brahui, a Dravidian language still spoken in parts of Baluchistan, which has often been brandished as the ultimate proof of a Dravidian presence in the Indus region. But in the 1920s, French linguist Jules Bloch demonstrated, through an analysis of the Brahui vocabulary, that the language reached Baluchistan recently, perhaps at the time of the Islamic invasions and probably from central India. This thesis was more recently endorsed by Murray Emeneau, and still more recently by H. H. Hock. Finally, the linguist and mathematician Josef Elfenbein confirmed it using a different approach.

According to the French Indo-Europeanist Bernard Sergent, “the conclusion is radical … Brahui reached Baluchistan late, and can therefore no longer provide proof or even a clue of the Dravidian-speaking character of the people who lived along the Indus.”Clearly, the Brahui trump card has failed, although a number of our Indian scholars remain unaware of the above linguistic studies.[A DRAVIDO-HARAPPAN CONNECTION? THE ISSUE OF METHODOLOGY]

Unfortunately you don’t see many examples of balanced coverage in this lecture series. Getting into the Vedic text, he talks about the purusha sukta or hymn of man and attributes this to the origin of the caste system. He also tells one questioner that Hindus were perfectly capable of coming up with exploitative systems like anyone else in the world and there is no need to get defensive about it. Few minutes later he talks about Manusmriti and states that women and shudras were not allowed to listen to the Vedas; molten lead was to be poured into their ears.

So in less than 20 minutes he jumps about 1500 years, the same way he jumps to Ayodhya of 1992 while talking about the epic Ramayana. By this time travel he successfully avoids talking about the role of women in the Vedic period. It is a neat trick.

To understand the role of women in Vedic society, we need to go back to a Vedic ceremony which Frits Staal, Michael Wood and me attended (in various years) called the Athirathram. This Vedic ceremony, which is about 3000 years old, is still performed in Kerala. It is probably the oldest surviving ritual of mankind. 

The ceremony is conducted on behalf of a male yajamanan, but he cannot conduct it without his wife beside him. This means that the woman hears all the Vedic chanting and no one pours molten lead into her ears. It is not surprising since some of the Vedic hymns were written by women themselves; there were women sages, they took part in chariot races, they attended social gatherings. A woman could remarry if her husband died or disappeared; the Vedic seer Ghosha remained a spinster in her father’s house[1]. There is even mention in later texts of women learning the Vedas[2].

This of course does not imply that all women were allowed to attend the Vedic sacrifice; only certain women qualified. The number of hymns by women are just a few; the number of goddesses are also few. The society was clearly patriarchal.

Why is it so hard to mention all these?


  1. Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, 1st ed. (Prentice Hall, 2009). 
  2. A.L. Basham, The wonder that was India;: A survey of the culture of the Indian sub-continent before the coming of the Muslims, 21st ed. (Evergreen, 1977).

8 thoughts on “UCLA 9A: Brahui, Vedic Women

  1. A few years ago, I asked if we can perform soma-yaaga. The learned laughed and told me that I would have to be married to be eligible to perform the yajna.
    Good information regarding brahui. I wonder if there is a way to get those pundits at UCLA to see this, or even better, have an open debate (like Witzel affair of last year 🙂 ).

  2. There is something that I dont understand here. The presence of language alone doesnt imply necessarily the displacement of a whole population. People can adopt different languages to facilitate trade and these languages take over the local ones -example, prevalence of english in india and spanish in south america.

  3. Revathi:
    haha..good joke! I can be deaf and dumb as well for that matter 🙂 But more importantly, wives of most men are NOT deaf and dumb, and they listen to vedic mantras being chanted without the fear of molten lead being poured into their ears as is being taught at UCLA.

  4. am I the only person who finds it bizarre that a reputed university like UCLA cannot find anyone better than Vinay Lal, a person who knows no Indian language, to teach a course on the civilization of India, covering a period spanning not decades or centuries but millenia. UCLA has a fine history department and among others is home to the great Dr. Gary Nash, author of the magisterial Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early North America which to quote from amazon.com,
    …presents an interpretive account of the interactions between Native Americans, African Americans, and Euroamericans during the colonial and revolutionary eras. It reveals the crucial interconnections between North America’s many peoples—illustrating the ease of their interactions in the first two centuries of European and African presence—to develop a fuller, deeper understanding of the nation’s underpinnings… follow this link for more http://www.amazon.com/Red-White-Black-Peoples-America/dp/0139567569
    I have never read Dr. Nash holding forth on the social structure of pre-Columbian America or offering his observations on the many archeological controversies regarding the peopling of the Americas or even as much as saying anything about the Kennwick Man controversy. Whereas when it comes to the history of India it is open season for every Western approved scholar to pontificate and issue edicts. So you will have Romila Thapar a scholar of “ancient India” writing about “secularism”, KN Panikker (a scholar of modern India) tracing current social structures to ancient Indian practices. When it comes to the history of India we set our bar very low.

  5. Since many decades, Christian zealots have embarked on a witch hunt to denigrate the hindu religeous texts through their “scientific” research. Their similar onslaught on islam has found some legitimacy thanks to the violence ways that laced the later religion inseparably. The islamic militancy and a growing atheism in the west accompanied by a falling church attendance proved be, among other factors, a strong driving force underlying the mudslinging attitude consuming some western authors. Contrary to this western posturing hindu scholars however refrained from perusal of popular antichristian works of Dan Browns and Christopher Hitchens. A purported sanskrit scholar like Wndy Doniger, from Chicagos Divinity school, a mouth piece of christianity under the garb of research, cannot speak 10 minutes in sanskrit. Her recent vulgar book is quoted by papal establishment as an authority on vedas. The caste system is their favorite stick to beat hindus and a cherished mantra to poach for converts. No western scholar praised Hinduism in recent decades, I think from a disturbing realization has dawned upon them that doctrinally speaking vedas and upanishads are a notch above the all existing other religions. Whereas vedas say ‘many faiths and one god’, Christians pronounce ‘ours is the only way’ just as the muslims do. No one wants to listen to the explanations that manu’s caste classification of hindu society was meant for both division of labor and acquiescing expertise in trade and certainly not to abuse it as a tool for discrimination. Ironically, discrimination did enter in recent decades big-time due to foreign occupation and poverty.
    On a side note, please download an excellent paper of the noted Greek Scholar, Nicholas Kazanas, from the below cited weblink, that dated Vedas and Mahabharata as 5000 or more years old in a thoroughly researched work that was presented in California in 2008. Kindly pass it on to other bloggers. http://www.omilosmeleton.gr/pdf/en/indology/RPSSC.pdf

  6. We should not rely on texts alone. The smritis were far from normative. For instance in the Nâneghât Cave inscription of Devî Nâganikâ (1st century BCE) we are told that the queen performs Vedic sacrifices, some of them singly. This might have been contrary to the smritis of the time, but it happened. Indian society was always more flexible than the texts.

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