Beyond the Text: In Conversation with Dr Smita Sahgal

Divisha Mohan and Vandana Likhmania of the Manmarziyaan Magazine had the opportunity to interview Dr Smita Sahgal. Dr Sahgal is a professor at the Department of History, Lady Shri Ram College for Women. Her interest lies in Ancient Indian History with a focus on Gender Studies and Religion. She is the author of the book Niyoga: Alternative Mechanism to Lineage Perpetuation in Early India. They discussed in depth, Dr Sahgal’s book and the contemporary position of gender and its study in India.

(The interview has been edited for the sake of clarity and coherence).

Divisha: Hello ma’am, thank you for giving us the opportunity to interview you. Vandana will begin.

Vandana: There are a few questions that the book itself raised for me. So I would like to begin with those.

The contemporary devar-bhabhi relationship, i.e. the relationship between a woman and her younger brother-in-law has undertones of the latter having a claim over the former. These surface in the day to day albeit in jest. Can this be traced back to Niyoga?

The Sanskrit genesis of the word is devar, the second husband, the stand-in. This is interesting because the devar is the first surrogate, in the hierarchy of surrogates. This is the case even when compared to the issue of the jaith (older brother-in-law), because the relationship between the jaith and the woman is by and large understood as the father-daughter relationship. But with the devar who is supposed to be almost like a husband, there is a tenor running through, that in case the husband is, for some reason, unable to either procreate or if he dies without leaving an heir behind, then the person who would be asked first to step in would be the devar. There is another tradition which has a lingering impact the same way — the saali, as we say, the sister in law, is also considered to be the stand-in for the bride. But the chances of the devar stepping-in are stronger and they continue in so many traditions. And he is considered almost like her husband in terms of his gene pool, his looks, his family background; that is the perfect surrogate. But tensions may come up if the devar is married. 

Though I must say that the very fact that these jesting relationships (between a woman and her brother-in-law) exist is one way of preparing the girl for a situation where if the husband is not there, the devar will step in. Even before the marriage there can be jokes like — “your husband is good-looking but your devar is more handsome.”

An interesting aspect, however, is that niyoga as a practise is never supposed to be a second marriage. Rather, it is supposed to be a temporary alliance with a clear purpose of procreating one or two progeny, which can carry forward the lineage. This can be difficult to achieve because it’s not like the girl gets pregnant on the first night they get together. As they end up spending time together, an emotional bond emerges, making it difficult for them to have just a clinical relationship. But the clinical relationship is what is clearly mentioned within the Dharmasutras.

Vandana: Is there any mention of the mandate that was to be followed in case a girl child was born through niyoga?

The prospective parents were waiting eagerly for the birth of a son alone. Not much is there on the girl child because she was never part of the philosophical imagination of the norm-setters. The niyog alliance is a temporary alliance and it also spells out multiple sexualities for women. So for them to acknowledge that and to let a woman cohabit with another man, a man other than the husband, meant an investment of ideas and a consensus-building amongst themselves. For them, the focal point was the procreation of a son; the daughter did not count. So they would not want to associate themselves with those philosophical and theological debates. The birth of a girl child is supposed to be incidental or accidental, an unwanted situation. So initially the norm-setters don’t even talk about it because the entire process is envisaged for the procreation of the son. As a result, we have very reluctant references to these, and I could only come across one or two references to it. Here, interestingly what you find is if Medhatithi is talking about it in Manubhashya, it is primarily to tell that this is the kind of girl you should not get married to. The entire identification or the identity of a girl child born out of niyoga is in negative terms. You should not get married to a girl who is being born out of this alliance. She is clearly spelled out as a burden. 

I got points of connection of this practice down to the 20th century. For example, Nirnaya Sindhu from the 17th century, talks again about niyoga uttpanna but more in the context of the fact that the legal husband of the mother is absolved of the responsibility of looking after the girl child born. The son who is born out of this alliance is willingly accepted by the family but the daughter is not. The daughter becomes the responsibility of the mama (maternal uncle), the mother’s brother. So you can imagine, you know, the uncle has the responsibility of getting her married, to look after her. A daughter born out of any relationship is a second citizen, but in case she happens to be born out of niyog, it’s worse. She is not even entitled to certain rights which a daughter otherwise has and that is getting stridhan

Divisha: So where does the agency of the woman lie apart from her reproductive value?

I have started thinking that this practice is extremely exploitative for women because it’s the marital and the natal family deciding for her. Where is the woman’s say in it? She may be forced into a relationship. 

Our way of reading those subtexts is to look at the mythical characters. So I gave the example of Kunti (from the Mahabharatha) in the book. When her husband Pandu insists that since he can’t reproduce and will not secure a position in heaven and that she must cohabit with someone else (presumably a rishi), there goes a long dialogue between them. And Kunti balks at the idea, saying she can’t because she loves him too much. From both sides there are arguments and counter-arguments. Finally Pandu tells her that as her husband he has a right that whatever he says she will have to follow. And she realises that beyond a point her arguments will not hold, and so she starts asserting her agency by saying that in that case, she will choose her own partner. Pandu agrees and then she goes on to tell him about the boon she had received from Durvasamuni. 

So while doing my research, I realised that there are examples of women with agency. And niyoga may have been something which at times was preferred also when you look at the alternatives to it. The alternatives to niyoga were ascetised widowhood or sati. So we have examples where women are saying that they don’t mind niyoga. And even for the mother, getting a son is like a life insurance policy! Because the law or dharma dictates that the son has to look after the mother in case the husband passes away. So she herself wants a son. 

Divisha: Are there any historical gaps that you discovered while researching and writing the book?

My area of study extended from 1500 BCE to 700 CE. On the other hand, I came across the continuity of the practice of niyoga. In my book, I also trace the developments in medieval times, in the early modern period, and the subsequent periods. I collated the materials primarily because I thought there might come a time in the future when people may want to work on it and are able to locate the materials.

In terms of gaps, no. I thought I came across an attempt to contain the practice but yet it continued. An effort to bring the practice of niyoga to an end can be seen in the Smritikars, the people producing law digests, who were trying to curtail the practice around the 7th and 9th centuries. On the one hand, they didn’t want women to participate in niyoga but on the other, with regard to laws related to inheritance, a share to the kshetraj, the son born out of the niyoga union, was acknowledged. Another important finding was that this practice may have had its genesis among the upper classes as the target audience of the Dharmasutras was a Brahmin male audience. But by the time attempts to curb the niyoga phenomenon began, it may have percolated to different classes. Niyoga was getting absorbed by different communities for different reasons. Therefore, it became more widespread, commonplace, and popular. Instead of gaps, I found more and more materials to substantiate its continuity.

Divisha: Is there scope for further research in the area? Have you explored these avenues?

There is tremendous scope. Recently, I explored the concept of locating non-normative gender constructions in Early Indian textual tradition (Springer) where I compared Bhramanical, Jain, and Buddhist traditions, looking at how non-normative traditions were perceived in these texts. Especially within Buddhism, in the context of a Sangha, Buddha had banned sexual relationships, that is to say, heterosexual relationships. However, there was a spurt in homosexual relations and he had to deal with it during the course of his own lifetime. However, it becomes more commonplace subsequently and there are references to the topic. Furthermore, you have references to different kinds of biological categories in Jain theological traditions. You have men with the mind of women, Manushyani; the category of Napunsak, an impotent man. Within that category, you have strinapunsak and the purushanapunsak. The Jain theologians of the day talked about various kinds of men in the context of not allowing such men to enter the sanghas. You may disagree with their classification as they don’t have any scientific reasoning, however, the research work conducted by them is phenomenal.

Similarly, Buddhist texts and Hindu texts such as the Naradasmriti provide us with such details. Naradasmriti is an interesting text to examine.  It reflects an obsession with perfection in Hindu culture. It provides details for a perfect marriage partner and a person unsuitable for marriage. For instance, the category of unmarriageable includes those who have become a maithuni and the reasons are given as well. Other undesirable attributes included having fat arms, limping, a dark complexion, etc. The Naradasmirti gives categories of impotent men as well along with describing how to test their potency. This reflects an obsession with procreation; if you are a man, your entire definition of masculinity is based on your ability to procreate. Of course, power accession is the second part. You must have control over weapon and violence, be able to demonstrate authority in public. You must be brave. Interestingly, the Sanskrit word for brave is ‘veer’ which is a derivative of the word ‘veerya’ which means semen. The identification or your license to be a man is to be a perfect sexual being. One of the definitions in the Indian context is that you should be able to reproduce a son. Interestingly, all male births are attributed to the virility of the man whereas if a daughter is born, a problem is attributed to the field or the womb of the mother.

Divisha: The gradual progression from Women’s History to Gender History has been witnessed in America. In the context of Indian academia in the field of Gender Studies, how are we progressing?

We stand to benefit from the experience of researchers in other parts of the world. The Second Wave of feminism gave rise to Women’s Studies and Women’s History. In the Indian context, of course, Women’s Studies started with the inception of the Women’s Movement.  Of course, the Second Wave impacted India in the 1970s. The whole idea for the need of Masculinity Studies or broad-based studies from Women’s Studies to Gender Studies came very early in India.  As early as the 1980s, we have works discussing ‘gender.’ V Geetha’s 2002 publication is entitled ‘Gender’ which speaks volumes about the onset of Gender History in India. There were attempts to understand the emanation of the word ‘gender’, the grammatical category, the male-female dichotomy which is subsequently appropriated by the languages and then permeates into various social science disciplines including sociology, history, etc. Today it is very well-acknowledged. Gender is not an innocent term. Gender is a very heavily loaded term which is indicative of the existence of unequal social relationships. So we have unequal social relationships because somewhere down the line, we would say we stood to benefit as many of us have earlier been trained into the science of Marxism.

The first thing that excited us in the late 1970s-early 1980s was trying to understand inequity and inequality through the lens of Marxism. However, when people started working in that area, they realised that that tool was not sufficient to analyse the topic. For instance, when we discuss working men, we pay attention to the workers, the proletariat, the bourgeoisie. But what happens in that working man’s house? He is a householder too. You realise the woman in that house seems to be facing a double whammy in terms of exploitation at work and at home as well even though they come from the same class. Which means, if both of the individuals belong to the same class yet the woman seems to be doubly exploited than the man, both on the factory site and within the household, then you will have to use another tool of analysis. That tool turns out to be the gender tool. Although the gender tool could be used to study women alone, but the bigger picture doesn’t become visible until you see her within the context of her social relations vis-a-vis the men in her family, other women, the third gender. At the same time, Gender Studies should be understood as something that has overlapping concerns with community, caste, race, ethnicity which makes the picture more nuanced, yet clearer, at the same time. The Women’s Movement and Women’s Studies made a major contribution by bringing half the humanity centre-stage. Today, by Gender Studies we mean analysing gender relations – relations of domination and subordination, unequal access to power and resources whether within the household or the public sphere.

Divisha: Is gender as a conceptual term still relevant for social scientists?

Gender provided a new lens to look at the world. Although Joan Scott’s work received the criticism that gender as a term is oftentimes assumed as a synonym for power. Scott and others have also started attributing the concept to nations for instance, the UK as a masculine nation and India as the feminine counterpart. I think we need to be careful of that as ultimately we are discussing human relationships which are related to inequity, unequal access to resources. Will biology ever have a reference to it or not? I personally think that biology will still be a point of reference for sure, although we will not be talking in terms of binaries anymore. Between the male and female population, there is a huge continuum where you have the existence of so many different kinds of biological categories who will then dissolve the binaries. To recognise the range of existing categories in between is easier for us to understand if we use a more generic term such as gender instead of women’s studies or men’s studies.  As a researcher from India, I would say that a new lens that has been provided to us now is opening up new forays of research for us. There is so much of material at our disposal to be picked up again and re-examined.

Thank you so much ma’am for giving us your time.

Also read: Courageous Filmmaking: Contextualising Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy


Divisha Mohan pursued her undergraduate degree specialising in History from Lady Sri Ram College for Women, graduating in 2019. She completed her master’s in Irish History from Dublin City University. She is currently a public relations intern at the Ireland India Council. Her interests include transcontinental connections, feminism, and gender history.

Vandana Likhmania is a fat, feminist, writer whose works have been published on several online platforms. With a degree in history, she takes a special interest in the eerie smells of dilapidated dwellings, the dilemmas of being a woman, the poetry in prosaic sentences, motion pictures, and rock music. She often forgets what day it is while watching British panel shows.

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