04 September 2019


Debiprasad threw new light on the question of the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy and its relation with materialism in our country. His investigation have problematized the apparently organized, however, a linier theory that the primitive communist society was matriarchal and the class-societies were patriarchal. He devoted two chapters for this subject in his Lokayata, under the title of Ganapati and Gauri. He showed that in the initial stage of hunting-gathering society where gathering was more prominent than hunting, there the society was matriarchal in nature. However, in the higher stage of hunting-gathering society where hunting was more prominent especially hunting by bow and arrow was introduced there the domination over the society was shifted to the hands of the male-folks from the women. Why? Debiprasad did not enter into a detailed discussion, but he indicated towards a huge socio-cultural- psychological and economical shift of the society. While Morgan and Engels both relied on the economic cause behind this transition in a strict sense, Debiprasad found it unsatisfactory, though, he never challenged it openly rather restricted himself in some indication, probably for the reason that he was a Marxist in such a time when economic determination was recognized as an essential component of Marxism and any deviation from it used to be considered as a deviation from the philosophy itself.

Similarly, Debiprasad showed that when the society advanced from the higher stage of hunting-gathering society to the initial stage of agricultural society again the domination over the society was changed and a reverse journey from patriarchy to matriarchy took place. Why? Why a gathering based society was generally matriarchal and a hunting based society was patriarchal? And why the initiation of primary agriculture re-established the domination of the women once again? Debiprasad employed one simple sentence to indicate the reason of the change. He said, “Hunting was the job of the male”. It is a well-accepted fact among the Marxists that the division of labour between male and female was the most primitive division of labour in human history. However, the Marxists never studied deeply the consequences of this division of labour in a society. Debiprasad restricted himself only in some indications which must be studied and elaborated by a new generation of the Marxists. In the chapter of Ganapati Debiprasad showed that the main weapon of the god was bow and arrow. In our country there are eighteen forms of the god Ganapati are found, with the common weapon of bow and arrow. It establishes sufficiently that the god emerged at the tribal hunting-gathering stage of the society which must have been pre-Indus Valley Civilization. 

Before the discovery of the remnants of Indus Valley Civilization in the beginning of the last century it was thought that the Vedic civilization was the earliest civilization in India. However, the discovery extended the horizon of human knowledge about the history of civilizations of our country. More the study of this newly discovered civilization proceeds it has been revealed that it was an early agriculturist society where no definite evidence of ploughing is found. The inhabitants of this society learned to use floods and river water wisely as well as learned to erect dams for agricultural use. This civilization was a bronze-age civilization and mainly depended on agriculture. Debiprasad showed that this civilization was a matriarchal society where Ganapati lost its importance and in that place goddess Durga or Sakamvari or Gouri emerged.

Debiprasad discussed elaborately with an ancient ritual which is still observed in a large part of our country, called, Ganesha Chaturthi Vrata. This is a ritual related to agriculture where the presence of Ganesha or Ganapati is mainly namesake. The main character in this vrata is Gauri. The vrata is observed at the session of sowing the seeds. In the first day of the ritual the image of Ganesha is placed at the site of the ritual as simply the representative of the new moon but actually he is nothing to do with the ritual itself. From the second day he is totally absent and the ritual take a complete feminine character where Gauri replaced Ganesha. However, Gauri is not the Gauri of our familiar Puranic pantheon; instead, she is a bundle of plants, along with her human representative: a virgin. Debiprasad wrote: “The plants are collected by women, placed on a diagram drawn with turmeric powder. While wrapping these up in a bundle, married women are served with vermilion. Only women remain to participate in the rest of the ritual centering round this bundle of plants. The plants, along with the virgin, are carried from room to room and asked, ‘Gauri, Gauri what do you see?’ The virgin answers, ‘I see prosperity and plenty.’ To make this dramatic visit of Gauri realistic, her supposed footprints are actually drawn on the floor showing that she did enter the rooms.”

The people of Bengal and other eastern states know very well that these types of rituals and festivals take place throughout the months of September, October and November which are essentially related to faith, magical believes and conventions connected to agriculture. It is very clear to understand that all these rituals and festivals were originated in a society where hunting was no more the main economic activity. It was already replaced by agriculture, however, agriculture remained in its initial stage. At that point of time sufficient development in natural science was absent. As a result the human did not know the biological mechanism of a plant which produces crops. Agricultural production was still mere a mystery for them. At that uncertain state of affairs for production, for rain, for fertility of the ground and overall agricultural success the human needed to depend on magic and magical beliefs. These rituals and festivals related to agriculture were mere reflection of this fact. But what is the relation between agricultural rituals and the women? Why in all the agriculture related rituals and festivals are dominated by the women? Why in the brata like Ganesha Chaturthi the presence of the god Ganesha is only namesake? What is the significance of exit of Ganesha from the scene from the second day of the festival?

According to Debiprasad the answers of these questions lie in the fact that agriculture was invented by the women. Therefore, agriculture, especially, in its initial stage was the job of the women. As the hunting was the job of the men and the society mainly depended on hunting was invariably male-dominated, similarly, the society depended on early agriculture was invariably dominated by the women. Debiprasad quoted Briffault, “In the primitive division of labour the gathering and the cultivation of the vegetable food are the special occupation of the women as hunting is that of the men.” (Lokayata/252). Debiprasad quoted Giles from Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics: “Primitive agriculture is not altogether nor to any large extent, in the hands of males. As Von Den Steiner remarks of the Bakairi of Central Brazil, it is women that has invented agriculture….” (ibid/252).

At the first stage of societal development when gathering was the main economic activity women was the driving force of the society. When economic dependency was shifted on hunting the women were dislodged from their dominating position and the male folks came in the fore. The women were deputed to perform the household activities, childbearing, child-rearing and animal husbandry. In the course of performing these duties, especially animal husbandry, someday women invented agriculture. And it happened so naturally that not only in India, but in a large part of the globe it is evident that all the early agriculturist societies were characterized by female domination, matriarchal and matrilineal elements based on mother-right. Obviously India played the key-role to develop early agriculture and matriarchal system based on that. Debiprasad quoted Ehranfels: “Women here not only invented systematic tilling of the soil, but also put this into practice, which can be no means have been an easy task, as conservatism was so strong in primitive society, specially, in the primeval culture-circle, that some remnants of these pre-agricultural groups have been preserved to the present day. In consequence of the tilling of the soil the people of this first matriarchal culture-circle gave up roaming in the forest and became first settlers.” And again, “The mutual relations between Indian and non-Indian mother-right cultures are manifold. The general geographical and also the archaeological situation favours the theory that the world-culture of mother-right originally emanated from India.” And the mother-right of Indian society “appears to have created the ancient matriarchal civilization in the Mediterranean Basin, Oriental Africa, the Near-East and specially Southern Arabia.” Therefore, it was not an accident that the early materialism or proto-materialism found its early home in India and India was a land of materialism, quite contrary to the claim of the Vedantists that it is a land of spiritualism and idealism. 

With the introduction of early agriculture there happened the exit of male and again the female-folks came in the fore. The main economic activity again came back in the hands of the women and the male-folks took the backbench. This social phenomenon is reflected in the brata like Ganesh Chaturthi where the presence of the god Ganesha is only namesake and he actually exit from the scene from the second day of the festival. Debiprasad here clearly deviated from the picture presented by Morgan and Bachofen, and also to some extent Engels regarding the transition from matriarchal to patriarchal society. Morgan explained the transition as a general point of view which very often seems as a linear development. However, contrary to that Debiprasad offered a comprehensive theoretical framework which actually contains the zigzag path of societal development. The initial matriarchal society based on gathering and hunting, where the main emphasis was laid on gathering, not hunting, was replaced by the higher stage hunting-gathering society where hunting by bow and arrow was the main economic activity. We have already seen that this type of society was invariably a patriarchal one. From this stage society developed further, somewhere in the globe to the early agriculturist society and somewhere into the pastoral society. Debiprasad wrote: “The categories do not constitute a fixed chronological sequence. Food gathering and hunting have come first everywhere, but the higher grades depend on the local fauna and flora and other environmental factors. Thus, after food-gathering and hunting, some of the people of the ancient times moved towards the pastoral economy while some others discovered agriculture.” (ibid/236) In the pastoral society patriarchy continued, however, in the early agriculturist society the matriarchy came back which was again replace by patriarchy when agriculture rolled on into the higher stage of agriculturist society.

These observations of Debiprasad solved the age-old riddle regarding the early Vedic society. From the theoretical framework put forward by Morgan and Engels we came to know that the classless society was matriarchal society based on mother-right but when the private property came in dominance the ancient clans had to be broken and the mother-right must be destroyed to pave the way patriarchy in order to retain the property within the family. Therefore the uncertainty in the identification of the father of a newborn baby must have been vanished. As a result monogamy was imposed on the women while polygamy in case of the male-folks continued. Therefore, class societies must be patriarchal according to this theoretical understanding. In the main classless society was matriarchal and class societies were patriarchal. This was a clear-cut characterization put forward by Morgan and Engels. How then can we explain the presence of the class divided early agriculturist society like Indus Valley Civilization which was matriarchal in nature? And how can we explain the presence of classless pastoral society like the early Vedic society which was patriarchal in nature? Morgan-Engels formula does not provide an answer. Here is the significance of Debiprasad that he solved these riddles with more elaborated observations which in return developed not only the general philosophical understanding but the Marxist theory on the questions related to the transition from pre-history to the civilization.

What was the main reason behind the transition from classless matriarchal society to class divided patriarchal society? According to the Morgan-Engels theory although the classless matriarchal society had its own dynamics and constant changes can be seen throughout the history of classless society, however, it was the origination of private property which put the last nail on the coffin of the matriarchal society based on mother-right. On the contrary Debiprasad put forward a different idea. The gathering-hunting society was matriarchal because gathering was in the main the job of the women. The higher stage of hunting-gathering society was patriarchal because hunting, especially, by bow and arrow was the job of the men. Pastoral society was patriarchal but early agriculturist society became matriarchal because agriculture was invented by the women and it was their job. Now what does it all mean? How far this psycho-economic and cultural approach can be considered as a Marxist approach? These questions deserve an elaborated discussion which we like to address in opportune moment. However, it can now be said at least that if the Communists of country already would have taken up these valuable observations of Debiprasad and addressed these questions there was a chance to develop the Marxist theory in order to combat the mechanical Marxist ideas which have played very important role to develop revisionism. 

Anyway, according to Debiprasad early agriculturist Indus Valley Civilization was the source of matriarchal society and consequently proto-materialist beliefs like Tantra. Tantra like doctrine which gives immense importance to the concept of awakening the female power was originated in a matriarchal society. The deities like Kali, Durga, Gauri or Sakamvari came into the imagination of the people at that type of society, Debiprasad explained. In order to describe the origination of Shakta cult (related to goddess Kali) he quoted many times from The Indo-Aryan Races written by Ramaprasad Chanda: “The Shakta conception of the Devi, as Adya Shakti, ‘the primordial energy’, and Jagadamva, ‘the mother of universe’, also very probably arose in a society where matriarchate or mother-kin was prevalent.” It is a well accepted fact the Aryan society was not this kind of society; neither matriarchal nor matrilineal. That was the reason why Debiprasad asserted so confidently that Tantra or ancient materialism in India was originated in Indus Valley Civilization and had a close connection with matriarchy.  

Debiprasad considered this magic-based belief-system which had its lot many deities and rituals as pre-spiritualistic or proto-materialist? He remarked, “Ganapati, indeed, leads us to presume that the nature of this pre-spiritualistic, or at least proto-materialistic, that is, Lokayatika, in the sense in which we have understood it.” But the question is why Debiprasad did not want to identify these belief-systems with religion proper? Why he called these notions pre-spiritualistic or proto-materialistic? A thorough reading of his texts suggests that one of the major reasons behind this understanding Debiprasad was that these belief-systems worked in order to develop the productive power of the society through more confident and enthusiastic human action while the religious doctrines always undermine human action and teach to suspend human efforts as the supreme goal of humankind is never related to this-worldly phenomena.

Since the time around 15OO BCE the Aryan tribal groups started to enter ancient India or Jambudwipa. We have already seen that the Aryans were pastoral and nomadic groups based on patriarchal social system. As a result a ferocious conflict started to open up in this part of the globe between matriarchal early agriculturist people and nomadic pastoral patriarchal tribes. Since the Indus Valley script is yet to be decoded and on the other hand the Aryans had no script at all at that point of time, the history of this conflict is not readily available. Debiprasad tried to reconstruct this history from myths, puranas and ‘religious’ texts. Bachofen applied this same method in his famous work Mother Right. Debiprasad reminded us that Marx too admitted this method: “As is well-known, we have abundant data from the religious and mythological point of view, but hardly much from the point of view social history proper. So we propose to begin from a different end. If it true that religious ideas are ultimately conditioned by concrete material factors, it should be possible for us to discover something about these material factors by examining the religious ideas in which these are reflected. As Marx said, ‘the reality of the past seems reflected in mythological fantasy’. We may therefore examine the mythological fantasies in order to arrive at the ancient reality.” (ibid/126)

In order to understand the history of this conflict Debiprasad resorted to Rig Vedic evidences. He described elaborately how Indra, the war-god of the Aryans defeated, raped and drove Usha, the mother-deity of matriarchal Harappa from the valley of Indus to the banks of Bipasha. From the narratives of killing Vrta by Indra Debiprasad described how the Aryan destroyed the dams built by the people of Harappa civilization in order to destroy their agricultural system. However, the materialism of Indus could not be destroyed by the Aryans. The stiff battle of this notion with the Aryan idealism continued even after the destruction of Indus Valley Civilization. And it is a more interesting fact that the materialism which came into being in the Indus civilization became popular among the oppressed masses in the Vedic society when it broke down into warring classes. His struggle is continuing even today. Debiprasad opined that the fate of present class struggle in India depends on how this age-old contradiction will be handled by the present generations of the toiling masses. We will try to understand the view of Debiprasad on this immensely important subject in the following chapters.

(Next: Chapter — III, Vedic Society and Vedic Philosophy)


The Communist movement in India has a history of almost a century after the salvos of October Revolution in Russia brought Marxism-Leninism to the people of India who were engaged in the national liberation struggle against the British colonialists. It is a complex and chequered history.