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The Body Language of Caste: Sexual Modernity in Western India - 28 November 2022

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The chapter: Brahmacharya: The Sexual Anatomy of Caste will be discussed.

Within Indian history the concept of brahmacharya (celibacy) has been crucial to shaping the structure of Hinduism. However, the modern south Asian historiography concerning the subject has mostly approached brahmacharya in reference to eminent Indian personalities such as Dayananda Saraswati, Vivekananda, and M.K. Gandhi.

What was the modern historical politics of this “sacred” concept? How and to what extent were ideas of brahmacharya defined and deployed in late colonial Indian society? What purpose did these new ideas serve in a caste society? My work responds to these questions by examining Marathi sexological discourse on celibacy, which was written in western India between 1920 and 1950.

Based on reading the sexual science literature produced by three prominent sex educators (Shivananda, R.D. Karve, and N.S. Phadke), I argue that the construction and circulation of brahmacharya was an upper caste response to the crisis that Brahminical social governance was facing in late colonial times.

My analysis demonstrates the ways in which sexual narratives of brahmacharya functioned as the anatomy of caste that shaped and were shaped by Marathi-Indian realities. The nationalist, ‘rationalist’, and ‘utilitarian’ ideas about brahmacharya articulated in this process provided a new bio-moral language of Brahminism designed to re-frame priorities of social concern.

By situating the discursive politics of celibacy in the context of late-colonial socio-political reformism, I argue that brahmachari (the celibate man)-discussed in the sexological world-was an ‘imagined subjectivity’ constructed to serve the biopolitical purpose of re-forming the modern Brahmin man in a specific, caste-sexual way.

About the speaker

Shrikant Botre

Shrikant Botre is a Wellcome Research Fellow affiliated to King’s Department of Global Health and Social Medicine (GHSM). He works on the histories of social hierarchy, health, and power – specifically, on how cultural constructions of science shaped the late-colonial and post-colonial Indian understandings of modernity. Broadly informed by the politics of progressivism, his research interest lies at the intersection of caste, food, sexuality, and print media networks.

About the discussant

Devika Shankar

Devika Shankar is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Hong Kong. She is a historian of modern South Asia and the Indian Ocean region and her research interests primarily lie in the fields of environmental history, economic history and science and technology studies. She is currently finishing her book manuscript titled An Encroaching Sea: Nature, Sovereignty and Development in South Asia which focuses on the port of Kochi and its transformation in the 20th century. She has also published articles on the history of water laws, princely sovereignty and land acquisition in the South Asian context.

About the chair

Louise Tillin

Professor Louise Tillin is Director, King’s India Institute and Professor of Politics. Louise’s research interests span federalism, democracy and territorial politics in India, and the history and politics of social policy design and implementation. Louise is a regular commentator on Indian politics in UK, Indian and international media. She is an editor of the journal Regional and Federal Studies, and an editorial board member of Pacific Affairs.

At this event

Louise Tillin

Louise Tillin

Professor of Politics

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Event details

28 November 2022

Online event