Classical tell the history of different nation and civilizations. They seek to explain origins of religion, culture, gender relations,social stratification, education, and warfare among others. Such goodtexts include Edward Sachaus’s condensed translation of ‘al-Hind’by Alberuni and three short stories found in van Buitenen’s ‘Talesof ancient India’. As a Sanskrit and Islamic scholar, Alberuni’sview of India and Hindu differs greatly with the presentation ofIndia and Hindu culture by other authors on major issues. This paperseeks to argue that Alberuni’s presentation of the caste system ascharacterized by scientific knowledge differences while women aresacred beings that should retain purity differs with the presentationof the caste system as an issue of wealth and women as sex symbols inthree stories from the book ‘Tales of ancient India’.
First and foremost,Alberuni exalts the place of women in society in his writing. He iscategorical that Hindu culture values marriage as an avenue forcontinuation of life and prohibits prostitution and sex beforemarriage as a way of preserving the sanctity of marriage. He explainssome of the rules governing marriage including the prohibition ofmarrying related women. This rule seems not to exist in “The cityof gold” because Saktideva manages to free Kanakarekha from a curseand marry her alongside her three sisters. Again, Alberuni makes aclaim that the Hindus were not strict in punishing ‘whoredom’ orfornication (p. 157) but in “the red lotus of chastity” Devasmitatells of the punitive punishments intended for fornicators such asthe merchant named Samudratta who was caught in the act withsomeone’s wife, but was saved by his wife in the nick of time (p.109).
Still on marriage and the place of women, Alberuni examines the rulesof engagement. The fact that the Hindus recognize marriage and familyas the foundation of any nation shows the respect and honor bestowedon the union. To prevent any nation from collapsing, the Hindu asnarrated by the scholar thus prohibited divorce. Husbands were thesuperior partners in marriages. They owned their wives same asproperty till death. In case of the death of a husband, a woman wasnot allowed to remarry to cement the idea that a woman was created toserve just one man while a man could serve many women as he couldmarry up to four wives (p. 157). Similarly in “the red lotus ofchastity”, Yogakarandika, the wondering nun tells of the story ofher assistant faking a story of her wish to commit suicide after aquarrel with her husband (p. 106). It is clear to see that there isagreement between the two stories in that divorce was not acceptableand suicide was the only solution for a woman seeking separation fromher husband.
Similarly, in the short story “The city of gold” women arehighly valued in the society. In this particular society, there is nomention of harlots or other such people who sell their bodies.Through the wisdom of the King to his daughter and wife, the valuesthat women are supposed to uphold are very clear. Girls are supposedto remain virgins until they marry and remain committed to theirhusbands only. The king says to his wife, “my heart is burdenedfor a highborn virgin who fails to find her proper place is like asong that is out of tune” (p. 80) which in one way or another showthat a girl’s virginity was not a debatable issue but it wasexpected of her by default. Even all other girls that Sektidevaencounters in his journey to the city of gold are eager to announcetheir virginity. This mirrors the ideas of the classical Indiansociety that Alberuni describes pertaining to the place of women insociety.
However, the short story “The man who impersonated God Visnu”paints a very different picture of the place of women in theclassical Indian society. In the story, the roles of the courtesanand the procuress as narrated paint a very negative image of women insociety. In fact, the two positions portray women as sexualobjectives to be used by men at will. It is clear in the words of theprocuress, who tells her daughter, who also happens to be thecourtesan that “a good courtesan must be like an actress: sheexhibits love for money” (p. 73). For that society, women were toserve as sexual and love objects to be used by men as they desired.The role of the courtesan in Hindus culture was to please the noblemen of the court in various ways while procuress facilitated theprocurement of the services of the courtesan by the noble men.
Again, the fact that Lovely had agreed to sleep with Longajanghabefore marriage shows that virginity and sex before marriage were notobserved in that society. Even after Longajangha has disguisedhimself as a god, the courtesan did not find any difficulty inoffering “the pleasures of love” to the god (p. 76). All thesethings were taking place in the very eyes of Lovely’s mother. Infact, as a procuress, the mother was actively facilitating herdaughter’s promiscuity. This also greatly differs with theperceived role of parents to their daughters expressed in “the cityof gold” which is to “safeguard only for a time” before shegets married (p. 80).
Another major difference in Alberuni’s classical India and that inshort stories pertains to the issue of the caste system. Alberuniinsinuates that the animosity and hostility across the differentcastes is largely influenced by knowledge and intelligence. The poorlanguish in lack of knowledge while “it is the object of the upperclasses to be guided by the results of science, whilst the commoncrows will always be inclined to plunge into wrong-headed wrangling,as long as they are not kept down by fear of punishment” (p.24-25). To Alberuni, the caste system was reflective of distributionof scientific knowledge which contributed to the wealth of the upperclass. He makes implicit claims that among the Hindu community,scientific knowledge influenced wealth distribution and thusformation of caste systems. The brahmin caste which was the topmostwas made of the rich and knowledgeable. This caste according tonarrative has been created from the head of the Brahmin while therest were made from other body parts. Kings worked hard to ensurethat the different castes did not mix or intermarry because the uppercaste was superior in all ways such as wealth and education.
Contrarily, both“The city of Gold and “The man who impersonated god visnu”there are stories of very broke young men from the Brahmin caste. InAlberuni’ views, all men in the upper caste of Brahmin were rich.In the short stories, Saktideva and Longajangha are very desperatemen. They lack wealth though they are intelligent enough to employsleuth methods to attain their goals. Nonetheless, in all the texts,there is a very emphasis on the need of separation of castesespecially in regards to courtship and marriage. For instance, thoughSaktideva and Longajangha are very poor, they managed to landbeautiful brides by virtue of their caste and looks.
From the four readings, it thus clear that there are majordifferences in the portrayal of the Hindu culture especially whenAberuni writing is compared to the short stories. Suchmisrepresentations of culture and facts are largely products of theauthor’s bias or lack of knowledge therefore of the target culture.To understand classical India culture, it is therefore important tointerrogate various sources and be open-minded about the author’sbias.
Sachau, Edward.Alberuni’s India. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.
van Buitenen, J.Tales of ancient India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1959. Print.