Rethinking Gender in Hinduism
Online Lecture Series

Project Conveners

Sharvi Maheshwari
Laura Anderson

Project Directors

Gavin Flood
Tanja Jakobsen

Project Outline

The Rethinking Gender in Hinduism online lecture series seeks to explore the complexities of the category of ‘gender’ in Hinduism, focusing on expanding past heteronormative, Western conceptions of Hindu scriptures, iconographical contexts, and lived experiences. The series provides an intersectional approach to Hindu Studies, connecting to other fields such as gender studies, decolonial social anthropology, and so on. Due to the online format of the lecture series, these contributions will be preserved and archived for the future and serve as an important resource for an emerging field.  

The ideas are open for examination from a non-political and non-sectarian perspective. The scope of looking at the liminality that the concept of gender holds from a post-colonial perspective is something that OCHS has been greatly deliberating upon, and OCHS is thrilled to create these spaces to ponder what the future of ‘gender’ in the field can consist of.

Project Output

  • The project output is an online lecture series of four lectures in Michaelmas Term 2021 under the tutelage of Professor Gavin Flood. 
  • The lecture series has the potential to continue or to expand to include other fields of studies as well. 
  • We further aim towards a publication of the papers presented in the series. This could be through a special issue of the Journal of Hindu Studies or Routledge Tantric Studies Series. 

Michaelmas Term 2021

Sexual Assault and Anxieties of Gender: The Epic Ṛṣis and their Audiences Confront the Problematics of Gender Difference and Human Sexuality

Professor Robert Goldman

Abstract: It is, of course, apparent and widely understood that the narratives of the great ancient Indian epic poems, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, are centred around episodes of sexual assault upon their respective heroines, Sītā and Draupadī, respectively. 

Less well known and commented upon, however, is the way both of the traditional authors of the work, the ṛṣis Vālmīki and Vyāsa, are dedicated to harping on this theme of sexual violence by overdetermining it with episodes of repeated physical and verbal assaults against the same figures as well as multiple assaults against a striking number of less central female characters. At the same time, the poets are at pains to create backstories that serve to provide justifications and explanations for the sexually anomalous situations in which their narratives place their central female characters. 
Moreover, a series of episodes runs through both poems that call into question the seeming fluidity and indeed the very concept of gender, as the poets dwell upon specific anxiety of retributive gender transformation, almost universally, of men into women or fictive women. 
This presentation will argue that through these representations of gender and sexuality, the Sanskrit epics both register deeply rooted attitudes about these critical issues and serve as vehicles for their dissemination of the concepts of gender normativity that continue to inflect thinking and practice of gender to the present day in South Asian society. These attitudes, of course, are by no means unique to the cultures of that region. They are, unfortunately, found in almost all patriarchal cultures around the world. This being the case, the South Asian representation of gender should be of interest to scholars of this subject in virtually all areas of the humanities and social sciences. 

Finally, this lecture explores some of the ways in which the issue of the sexuality of the epic’s principal figures is negotiated by the Sanskrit language commentators on the works and the authors of later versions of the epic narratives that are heavily inflected by the Vaiṣṇava bhakti movements in medieval and early modern times.

Sex and Gender in the Kamasutra

Professor Wendy Doniger

Abstract: Sex in ancient India was strictly regulated:   its only purpose was to produce children, and there were serious penalties for adultery, abortion, and “unnatural” acts.   Yet ancient India also produced the Kamasutra, composed in the second century of the Common Era in Sanskrit, the language of the relative few literate people in ancient India.   The Kamasutra is a remarkably permissive textbook, which assumes that the purpose of sex is pleasure (in the whole text, there is just one brief remark that one might also have children as a result of a sexual act) and imagines the lives of closeted homosexuals and of prostitutes.

The Philosophical Understanding of Gender in the Mahabharata

Professor Ruth Vanita
Abstract: This lecture, based on Ruth Vanita’s forthcoming book, The Dharma of Justice in the Sanskrit Epics: Debates on Gender, Varna and Species, analyses debates between sages on gender as a category. The debates address the question of gender’s relationship to reality in general, and in particular to conception, birth, life and death, and to the construction of personhood.

Hilary Term 2021

Reshaping Fieldwork: Ethics and Empathy with Hindu Holy Women in India

Professor June McDaniel


Gender, Speech, Body: The Classical Saint Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār Then and Now

Professor Karen Pechilis