Twin Concepts of Golden and Dark Ages
Acceptance of a golden age was widespread but explanations of “the fall”
differed widely. Some reformers simply commented on wars and invasions,
claiming that political disorder inevitably led to restrictions on women’s
education and mobility.
A number of reformers located the decline during the time of the smritis, that
is, to a period when the vast body of law codes such as the Manusmriti,
commentaries, epics and puranas were written. These theorists argued that
the decline in women’s status could be traced to these writings.
But most of the reformers blamed Muslim rule. Ignoring the fact that rulers
such as Akbar attempted to abolish sati and that Muslim law accorded
women a higher status than Hindu law, these writers claimed child marriage,
prohibitions on widow marriage, seclusion and restrictions on female
education were responses to the Muslim threat to women’s safety.
Both the “golden age” and the “dark age” are problematic for historians, but
these concepts proved useful in the development of an ideology legitimating
social reform. It was the postulation of a “dark age” that made self-criticism
palatable. The past had been squandered and change and reform were
necessary to regain for society its lost vigour.
These reformers were not revivalists, they were speaking to the colonial
administrators in the language that had gained currency in the contest for
moral authority. Colonial officials agreed that religion was central to Indian
life, Indian people were slaves to religion, and sati and many other customs
were religious practices.
That the discourse on Indian military weakness versus British success
focused on the topic of gender relations to the exclusion of a range of other
issues such as trade patterns, technological innovation, the technology and
methods of warfare and dynastic failure is nothing short of amazing. Yet, this
is what happened.
Reform Being in Harmony with Natural Law and Reason The discovery
of the golden age and of the errors that had led to the fall made it possible for
Indians to prescribe change. Once people understood the misery of women
and the means of improving the situation, it was simply a matter of will.
Reform, actually a return to the