Sexuality as a promotion of Power: How the Chief Wife becomes a Means of Persuasion in the Vedic Rhetoric on Kingship

  • Marianna Ferrara Sapienza University of Rome
Keywords: mahiṣī, yajña, aśvamedha, rājasūya, ritual, sexuality, fertility, power, brāhmaṇa, sovereignty


In the ancient South Asian texts about ritual known as Saṃhitās and Brāhmaṇas, the wives of the king play an interesting role in terms of bodily actions and ritual rhetoric. Especially the so-called “chief wife” (mahiī) is described as a central and liminal player who serves as a sexual counterpart of the king at the main solemn rituals, i.e. Aśvamedha and Rājasūya, involving the travel of a horse in unconquered lands and the royal consecration, respectively. In this essay I suggest that the construction of female sexuality is a crucial point to fix the boundaries around the notion of authority, not only that of the king, but also that of his practitioner, i.e. the brāhmaṇa or purohita. From this starting point I suggest also that the chief wife of the king may be reconsidered as one of the most strategic actor on a ritual and political stage. I will try to show that the mahiṣī’s sexual function in the ritual exegesis had gained value, in connection with the attempt to deify the human primus inter pares of the political organisation, i.e. the king. More specifically, I will deal with the ritual language and codification concerning the mahiṣī’s sexuality in order to illustrate the formulation of her body in the rituals prescribed in the Brāhmaṇas about solemn rites. I will discuss how the persuasive force of description and prescription about her bodily actions served as a means of persuasion in displaying the king’s power. Finally, I suggest rethinking the role of gender in royal rituals from the perspective of literary criticism.


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Author Biography

Marianna Ferrara, Sapienza University of Rome
Marianna Ferrara received a Ph.D. in History of Religions from the Sapienza University of Rome, where she works as a Research Fellow at the Department of History, Cultures, Religions. Currently she is working on a research project centered on encountering between Europeans and the South Asian religions in Early Modern History. Her main research interests are the relations between ritual practices, canon, and authority. She is author of La lotta per il sacrificio. Rappresentazioni, categorie, metodologie nello studio dell’India antica (2013) and several contributios on academic journals and volumes, among which The Sacrifice of Others: South Asian Religious Practices in Early Modern European Vocabulary (2016).


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Sociocultural Constructions of Sexuality in South Asia