Epic legacies: Hindu cultural nationalism and female sexual identities in India 1920-1960
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The thesis investigates the cultural interventions of Hindu nationalist, C. Rajagopalachari (CR), by offering a close reading of his re-tellings of the Hindu epics, The Mahabharata (1951) and The Ramayana (1956). It positions them alongside the writings of M. K. Gandhi and the key responses to Katherine Mayo’s controversial text Mother India (1927). The thesis explores the central female protagonists of the epics – Sita and Draupadi – asking how these poetic representations illuminate the ways in which femininity was imagined by an influential Hindu ideologue during the early years of Indian Independence. Using close textual analysis as my principal method I suggest that these popular-literary representations of sexual identities in Hindu culture functioned as one means by which Hindu nationalists ultimately sought to regulate gender roles and modes of being. I focus on texts emerging in the years immediately before and after Independence and Partition. In this period, I suggest, the heroines of these versions of the epic texts are divested of their bodies and of their mythic powers in order to create pliant, de-sexualised female icons for women in the new nation to emulate. Through an examination of the responses to Katherine Mayo’s Mother India (1927), and of Gandhi’s writings, I argue that there one can discern an attempt in the Hindu Indian script to define female sexual identity as maternal, predominantly in service to the nation. These themes, I argue, were later articulated in CR’s recasting of the Hindu epics. CR’s epics represent the vision of gender within Hindu nationalism that highlights female chastity in the epics, elevating female chastity into an authentic and perennial virtue. I argue, however, that these ‘new’ representations in fact mark a re-working of much older traditions that carries forward ideas from the colonial period into the period of Independence. I explore this longer colonial tradition in the Prologue, through a textual analysis of the work of William Jones and James Mill. Thus my focus concerns the symbolic forms of the nation – its mythologies and icons – as brought to life by an emergent Hindu nationalism, suggesting that these symbolic forms offer an insight into the gendering of the independent nation. The epics represented an idealised model of Hindu femininity. I recognise, of course, that these identities are always contested, always unfinished. However I suggest that, through the recasting of the epic heroines, an idea of female sexuality entered into what senior Hindu nationalist and Congressman, K.M. Munshi, called ‘the unconscious of India’.
- Theses