Lakṣmīdevī’s “intellectual petticoats” and the flamewar they inspired

When the English East India Company seized large swathes of the Indian subcontinent in the 18th century, they were forced to transform from “merchants” into administrators. They needed a new army of English civil servants, not only to deal with the considerable revenue that was being generated, but also to construct and preside over a system of law for “one of the most populous and litigious regions of the world”:

The pleadings in the several courts, and all important judicial transactions, are conducted in the native languages. The law which the Company’s judges are bound to administer throughout the country, is not the law of England, but that law to which the natives have long been accustomed under their former sovereigns…. These observations are sufficient to prove, that no more arduous or complicated duties of magistracy exist in the world, no qualifications more various or comprehensive can be imagined, than those which are required from every British subject who enters the seat of judgment within the limits of the Company’s empire in India.

(1805, The College of Fort William in Bengal, 3)

It was out of this need to train civil servants that the College of Fort William was born. During the half-century of its existence, the College accumulated a vast library of literature in many languages and became one of the intellectual centres of what has been referred to as the Bengali Renaissance. In particular, it collected numerous manuscripts of Sanskrit law treatises, commentaries, and digests which the English used to administer “Hindu” law.


Bookplate from Annadāmaṅgala, prathama khanḍa (1847).

Bookplate from Annadāmaṅgala, prathama khanḍa (1847). Fonds Fort William College, BULAC.


The BnF possesses a copy of one of these manuscripts, of the Bālambhaṭṭī, that was acquired from the collection of Philippe-Édouard Foucaux. As the title suggests, the work is attributed to the 18th century paṇḍit Bālambhaṭṭa. However, if we turn to the end of the manuscript, the colophon gives an entirely different title — Lakṣma or Lakṣmī — and attributes its authorship to a woman, Lakṣmīdevī.


Foucaux’s manuscript

Sanscrit 814, title page, in Foucaux's hand. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 814 Bālambhaṭṭī, title page, in Foucaux’s hand. Courtesy of the BnF.


As Foucaux writes on the title folio, his copy was made from a manuscript of Fort William [College] in 1866, more than a decade after the College was dissolved. The text is in fact a sub-commentary — it is a commentary on the Mitākṣarā, which is itself a commentary on the Yājñavalkyasmṛti. The attribution to Bālambhaṭṭa likely comes from Henry Thomas Colebrooke,  who, among other things, had been honorary professor of Hindu law at the College. Following the title folio, Foucaux takes an excerpt from the preface to Colebrooke’s translation of the Mitākṣarā and translates it (with a few liberties) into French:


Sanscrit 814 Bālambhaṭṭī, unnumbered folio. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 814 Bālambhaṭṭī, unnumbered folio. Courtesy of the BnF.


« La glose de Bâlambhaṭṭa est sous la forme ordinaire d’un Commentaire perpétuel. Elle procède sentence par sentence expliquant chaque phrase et chaque terme du texte original. Elle suit, en général, la Soubôdhinî (autre glose plus ancienne) aussi loin que va celle-ci, et y ajoute souvent des explications quand cette glose ne dit rien, ou quand ses expressions trop consises, ne sont pas assez intelligibles. »

(Colebrooke, Two treatises on the hindu law of inheritance, Preface, p. IX.)


BA’LAM-BHAT’T’A’s work is in the usual form of a perpetual comment. It proceeds, sentence by sentence, expounding every phrase, and every term, in the original text…. BA’LAM’BHAT’T’A’s gloss in general follows the Subódh’ihiní as far as this goes. It has supplied annotations where VIS’WE’S’WARA’s commentary was silent; or where the explanation, couched in VIS’WE’S’WARA’s concise language, might be less intelligible to the English reader.

(Colebrooke 1810, Two Treatises on the Hindu Law of Inheritance, ix)

Colebrooke further adds that the commentary “has been a satisfactory aid in the translation [of the Mitākṣarā], even where it was busy in explaining that which is evident: for it has been gratifying to find, though no doubts were entertained, that the intended interpretation had the sanction of a commentator.” However, despite his reliance on the text, neither he nor Foucaux seem to have checked the colophon at the end, which tells a strikingly different story about the commentator:


Sanscrit 814 Bālambhaṭṭī, folio 443, recto. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 814 Bālambhaṭṭī, folio 443, recto. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 814 Bālambhaṭṭī, folio 443, verso. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 814 Bālambhaṭṭī, folio 443, verso. Courtesy of the BnF.


iti śrī­ma­nmi­tā­kṣa­rā­vyā­khyā­ne ma­hā­deva­bha­ṭṭā­tma­jo­māṃ­ga­ja­vai­dya­nā­thā­rddhāṃ­ga­bhū­ta­nā­la­1kṛ­ṣṇa­ja­na­ni­pā­ya­guṃ­ḍo­pā­khya­śrī­la­kṣmī­de­vī­vi­ra­ci­te la­kṣmā2­bhi­dhe vya­va­hā­ra­pra­ka­ra­ṇaṃ sa­mā­ptam ||

(Sanscrit 814 Bālambhaṭṭī, 443r7-443v1)

  1. nāla] lālā (ed. Gharpure 1914); bāla (ed. Pārvatīya 1914).   2. lakṣmā] (ed. Gharpure 1914); lakṣmya (ed. Pārvatīya 1914).

Thus the commentary on the venerable Mitākṣarā, called Lakṣm[ī] — composed by Śrī Lakṣmīdevī, called Pāyaguṇḍa, born of Mahādevabhaṭṭa and Umā, wife of Vaidyanātha, mother to [B]ālakṛṣṇa — is completed.

West & Bühler spark the flame

Following the colophon, the text should be called something like Lakṣmīvyākhyāna, by Lakṣmīdevī. How then, did the text become recognized as the Bālambhaṭṭī by Bālambhaṭṭa? Raymond West and Georg Bühler, in their Digest of the Hindu Law of Inheritance, assumed that Bālambhaṭṭa was a nom de plume that Lakṣmīdevī wrote under, although that name is not used anywhere in the text. Unlike Foucaux and Colebrooke, they recognized her as the author, even if it was only to cast doubt on her intellectual abilities:

She generally advocates latitudinarian views, and gives the widest interpretation to every term of Yâjñavalkya…. But her opinions are held in small esteem, and hardly ever brought forward by the Śâstris, if unsupported by other authorities. Her commentary is generally considered as a performance highly creditable to the female intellect, but as showing a good deal the author’s intellectual petticoats. Colebrooke, however, seems to have regarded the Bâlambhaṭṭaṭîkâ as possessing considerable merit.

(West & Bühler 1878, 2nd ed., 6)

The language used here is very suggestive. “Latitudinarian” evokes the latitudinarian movement within the Church of England, which argued for broader, more progressive interpretations of Church doctrine. It was officially condemned by Pope Pius IX in his Syllabus of Errors in 1864. “Intellectual petticoats” echoes many of the insults that were levelled at women who advocated for their rights; Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, was famously referred to as a “hyena in petticoats”. These belittling statements seem to have been employed, in the end, to criticize Colebrooke’s judgment and his reliance on the work of a woman for interpreting the Mitākṣarā. Interestingly, by the third edition of West & Bühler’s Digest, these jibes at Lakṣmīdevī had been excised.

One particular instance of Colebrooke’s reliance on the progressive views of the Lakṣmīvyākhyāna exemplifies the very real impact it had on the Anglo-Indian courts of law. In the chapter on inheritance, the Mitākṣarā quotes the Law Code of Manu, stating that brothers (bhrātaraḥ) can inherit from a man who leaves no son. Here, the Lakṣmīvyākhyāna argues that the word “brothers” really means “brothers and sisters”, citing a Sanskrit grammatical rule.1 Colebrooke agrees, and translates bhrātaraḥ broadly as “brethren”. As P. V. Kane points out, this translation was cited in a number of court cases to argue for the right of a sister to inherit, although it was not universally accepted. Nevertheless, these cases suffice to show that the Lakṣmīvyākhyāna, via Colebrooke, had a concrete effect on the lives of Indians under British rule.


A lordly male or a poor woman?

It seems natural that a woman would advocate for the rights of women. However, later scholars have cast doubt on Lakṣmīdevī authorship, partly in response to West & Bühler’s jab at the “female intellect”. Govinda Das,2 in his introduction to the 1914 edition of the Lakṣmīvyāykhyāna, rejects West & Bühler’s assessment of the text, attributing it to their mistaken belief “that the wretched author was not a lordly male, but only a poor woman who had no business to meddle with such serious subjects as law!” Nor did he have anything nice to say about Lakṣmīdevī’s father, whom, in the introductory verses of the Lakṣmīvyākhyāna, she describes as an honoured Vedic scholar. Das retorts,

Everybody knows that the Vaidikas, that is to say, the knowers of the Vedas, are as a rule illiterate folk…. In fact, these people serve as living store-houses in the same way as the slave ants do in some of the ant communities in whose bodies honey is stored up for the use of worker ants, who go up to these torpid and bloated living ‘sacks’ from time to time to renovate their energies by licking them.

(Das in Parvatīya 1914, 4344)

Despite these rude pronouncements3 on Lakṣmīdevī and her father, Das gives measured praise for Bālambhaṭṭa, whom he initially believed to be Lakṣmīdevī’s husband and also the true author of the text. This is not solely his opinion; in a catalogue of manuscripts at the Asiatic Society of Bengal, a manuscript of the Lakṣmīvyākhyāna is described as being authored by Vaidyanātha, despite the incipit of the manuscript clearly stating that the text is by his devoted wife.


Colebrooke’s venerable old paṇḍit

However, in an addendum to his introduction, Das changes his mind upon further research ― according to him, Bālambhaṭṭa is not Lakṣmīdevī’s husband, but rather her son, the same Bālakṛṣṇa who is named in the colophon to the Lakṣmīvyākhyāna. It must be her son, he asserts, who is the true author of the text. As evidence, he cites Julius Eggeling’s catalogue of manuscripts at the Indian Office Library, which possesses an unfinished legal digest by Bāla Śarman Pāyaguṇḍa, son of Vaidyanātha and Lakṣmī, and pupil of the famous scholar Nāgeśa Bhaṭṭa. This digest, titled Dharmaśāstrasaṃgraha, was commissioned by none other than Henry Thomas Colebrooke.

sumanaḥkulaburukasāhebāl labdhajīvikaḥ |

(from the incipit of the Dharmaśāstrasaṃgraha, Eggeling 1887, 459)

He who obtained a living from the wise Mr. Colebrooke.

Although this theory of Govinda Das was influential enough to be cited several times, a number of things about it don’t add up. Firstly, as Das acknowledges, it seems puzzling that Colebrooke never recognizes Bāla Śarman as the author of the Bālambhaṭṭī. In a letter to his son, Colebrooke simply describes Bāla Śarman as a “venerable old pandit”. Secondly, the Dharmaśāstrasaṃgraha that Bāla Śarman produced for Colebrooke seems to have been merely a thinly-disguised copy of the Vīramitrodaya, another law digest. In a marginal note to the manuscript of the Dharmaśāstrasaṃgraha, dated “3rd May, 1800”, Colebrooke expresses his disappointment at Bāla Śarman’s attempted plagiarism and casts doubt on his intellectual abilities. The Lakṣmīvyākhyāna, on the other hand, which Colebrooke so praised, criticizes the Vīramitrodaya.

Another detail in Colebrooke’s note gives some indication as to why he, perhaps, never once mentions the name Lakṣmīdevī in connection with the Lakṣmīvyākhyāna. Colebrooke says that even though Bāla Śarman’s work is useless, he would still use its framework in composing his own digest, “because the Publick have, no doubt, more confidence in the Pandits than in me”. This pragmatic slight-of-hand is perhaps the same gesture that Colebrooke performs with the Lakṣmīvyākhyāna, being so careful to consistently refer to it as the Bālambhaṭṭī of Bālambhaṭṭa — he likely foresaw the reaction that scholars would have if they knew that it was authored by a woman, especially with regards to its progressive interpretations of certain laws that Colebrooke relied upon for his translation.

Maybe it is time to simply accept the Lakṣmīvyākhyāna as it presents itself, as the work of Lakṣmīdevī, rather than to look so desperately for a man to attribute authorship to. Interestingly, Lakṣmīdevī’s other work, a commentary on another law text, the Kālamādhava, did not suffer the same controversy; in fact, it was published in 1941 as volume 7 of a series titled The Contribution of Women to Sanskrit Literature. In an introduction to the series, the editor, J. B. Chaudhuri, addresses the question of whether texts attributed to women were really written by them:

This kind of doubt is due either to an inherent prejudice in men against the capacity of the opposite sex for the production of anything of literary or cultural value, or to our ignorance of the actual state of things which prevailed in this country in the past, or even due to our desire not to allow women to appear as competitors in the literary or intellectual field.

(Chaudhuri 1941, I)

No matter whether we consider the Lakṣmīvyākhyāna to have been the work of a woman,4 what we know for certain is that it had a direct effect on the lives of women, by broadening the interpretation of traditional laws to include them. The identity of its author notwithstanding, this fact alone shows that the text merits another look, as a cornerstone of the intellectual and political changes that were taking place in British India.


Suggested citation

Li, Charles. 2021. “Lakṣmīdevī’s ‘intellectual petticoats’ and the flamewar they inspired.” Texts Surrounding Texts: Satellite Stanzas, Prefaces and Colophons in South-Indian Manuscripts (Paris BnF and Hamburg Stabi collections). 11 June.

Charles Li

Charles is the resident postdoctoral researcher at the TST project in Paris.

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  1. bhrātara ity atra bhrātṛputrāv ity ekaśeṣeṇa prāguktasiddhāntarītyā pūrvaṃ bhrātā tadabhāve svasā (ed. Setlur 1914, 775), citing A. 1.2.68, bhrātṛputrau svasṛduhitṛbhyām. []
  2. This is perhaps the same “Govind Dâs” of Durgakund that Paul Deussen mentions in his Erinnerungen an Indien, who described himself as “a busy idler”: “Er sprach nicht Sanskrit, aber um so besser Englisch, und bezeichnete sich selbst als a busy idler, einen „geschäftigen Müssiggänger“, d. h. als einen Mann, der seine materielle Unabhängigkeit zu literarischer Tätigkeit benutzte” (1893, 140). []
  3. J. R. Gharpure, the editor, was evidently uncomfortable with Das’ tone: “the undersigned begs leave to note his dissent from the positions taken by the learned writer” (1914, preface). []
  4. Somewhat more well-founded objections have been raised by P. V. Kane. []

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Charles Li (June 11, 2021). Lakṣmīdevī’s “intellectual petticoats” and the flamewar they inspired. Texts Surrounding Texts. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from

Charles Li

Charles is the resident postdoctoral researcher at the TST project in Paris.

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1 Response

  1. 04/08/2021

    […] a previous article, we discussed the Lakṣmīvyākhyāna, an 18th-century commentary on the Mitākṣarā, written by […]

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