Julia Leslie: liberal feminist whose work influenced Hindu Studies, gender studies and the study of Hindu Law
Dr Isobel Julia Leslie (1948 – 2004) was Lecturer in Hindu Studies at SOAS from 1990 until her death, serving as Pro-Director for Undergraduate Studies in 1997-98.
‘I do believe Julia’s work to be seminal. It won’t be forgotten. It will go on branching and flowering and fruiting in the work of other students, researchers and scholars, and may even influence social reform. A tree cut down, after all, can grow up again from the roots’ Dr William Radice – poet, writer, Senior Lecturer in Bengali language and Literature at SOAS – Journal South Asia Research, Vol 25.
When the young Dr Julia Leslie decided to travel to South East Asia she became fascinated by the study of Indian religions; she duly became a Sanskritist who specialised in Dharmashastra – Sanskrit texts on religion, ethics and the law. Through these Julia wrote about women, sexuality and myth employing a keen “scholarly detachment” which some put down to her original study of philosophy, her first degree, at Sussex.
One of her most important pieces of work was “The Perfect Wife: The Orthodox Hindu Woman according to the Stridharmapaddhati of Tryambakayajvan” (1989). Tryambaka (1665-1750) viewed woman as sinful, impure and wicked. As a liberal feminist Julia obviously found these views ‘bizarre’ but insisted too that ‘there is a real need for understanding. If we wish to argue at all persuasively for change, we must first understand what is going on’ (ibid).
Julia’s work in the field of myth was particularly exciting; it developed from themes in ‘The Perfect Wife’ and showed how Tryambaka’s view of Indian women was totally embedded in ancient Indian myths, particularly in that of the Indra and Brahmin-murder. She produced great work on Girish Karnad’s play about the twelfth-century Vīraśaiva saint, Basava (c. 1105–68), drawing on the direct route from myth to present day sexual politics, and concluding with the ‘disturbing realisation that it is a small step from the mystic’s vision to the violence of religious terrorism’ .
Julia was a passionate ornithologist and this also seeped into her academic work, particularly so in her article for the Journal of Indian Philosophy in 1998 on ‘A Bird Bereaved: the Identity and Significance of Valmiki’s krauñcha’. It was the Valmikis, a community in the Punjab with a considerable presence in Britain, that led her to write her greatly acclaimed book ‘Authority and Meaning in Indian Religions: Hinduism and the case of Valmik’ which again drew connections between the ancient texts and current day religious politics; she became very close to the British Valmiki community and it was they who garlanded her casket at her funeral service in 2004.
‘Julia was a teacher, a truly gifted and creative teacher who loved nothing more than to share her understanding of her subject with others, and to inspire them with her love for it’ Subir Sinha, Chair, Centre of South Asian Studies, now the SOAS South Asia Institute.
Creating a Dialogue: text, belief and personal identity (Proceedings of the Valmiki Studies Workshop 2004) (ed., with Matthew Clark). London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 2004.
Authority and Meaning in Indian Religions: Hinduism and the case of Valmiki. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003.
Invented Identities: the interplay of gender, religion and politics in India (ed., with Mary McGee). Delhi: Oxford University Press (SOAS Studies on South Asia: Understandings and Perspectives series), 2000.
Myth and Mythmaking: continuous evolution in Indian tradition (ed.). London: Curzon (Collected Papers on South Asia series), 1996.
Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women (ed.). London: Pinter, 1991. USA: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1992.
Rules and Remedies in Classical Indian Law (ed.). Leiden: Brill (Panels of the VIIth World Sanskrit Conference), 1991.
The Perfect Wife: the orthodox Hindu woman according to the Stridharmapaddhati of Tryambakayajvan. Delhi: Oxford University Press (Oxford University South Asia series), 1989. Delhi: Penguin (Penguin Classics series), 1995.
Perahera. London: Gollancz, 1983. London: Arrow, 1984. London: Heywood, 1989.
Essays on the Ethnology of Nepal and South Asia, by A. W. Macdonald (tr., from French to English). Kathmandu: Ratna Pustak Bhandar (Bibliotheca Himalayica series), 1975.
On the Economic Geography of Nepal: problems of transport and communications in eastern Nepal in connection with the Swiss Technical Aid in the Jiri region, by R. Schmid (tr., from German to English). Kathmandu: Tribhuvan University, 1973.
‘Gender and religion: gender and Hinduism.’ Lindsay Jones (ed. in chief), Encyclopedia of Religion, second edition, Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2005, vol. 5, pp. 3318–26.
‘The implications of bhakti for the story of Valmiki.’ Anna S. King and John Brockington (eds), The Intimate Other: love divine in Indic religions, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2005, pp. 54–77.
‘The significance of Valmiki for British Valmikis.’ Leslie and Clark (eds), Creating a Dialogue, pp. 1–5.
‘The implications of the physical body: health, suffering and karma in Hindu thought.’ John R. Hinnells and Roy Porter (eds), Religion, Health and Suffering, London: Kegan Paul, 1999, pp. 23–45.
‘Nailed to the past: Girish Karnad’s plays.’ Journal of South Asian Literature 31–2, 1996–7 (pub. 1999), pp. 50–84.
‘A bird bereaved: the identity and significance of Valmiki’s krauñcha.’ Journal of Indian Philosophy 26.5, 1998, pp. 455–87.
‘Understanding Basava: history, hagiography and a modern Kannada drama.’ Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 61.2, 1998, pp. 228–61.
‘Dowry, dowry deaths, and violence against women.’ M. Witzel and H. B. Thakur (eds), Souvenir of the First International Conference on Dowry and Bride-Burning in India, September 30–October 2 1995, Harvard Law School, Harvard University, 1995, sec. 10, pp. 1–12. Journal of South Asian Women’s Studies (Asiatica Association), 1996–7. W. Menski (ed.), South Asians and the Dowry Problem, Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books (Ethnic Minority Studies series), 1998, pp. 21–35.
‘Some traditional Indian views on menstruation and female sexuality.’ Roy Porter and Miklaus Teich (eds), Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science: the history of attitudes to sexuality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 63–81. Leslie (ed.), Myth and Mythmaking, pp. 87–105 (as ‘Menstruation myths’).
‘The recycling of ancient material: an orthodox view of Hindu women.’ Leonie Archer, Susan Fischler and Maria Wyke (eds), An Illusion of the Night: women in ancient societies, London: Macmillan, 1994, pp. 233–51.
 A speech given at the Memorial Meeting for Dr Isobel Julia Leslie (23 January 1948 – 24 September 2004) at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 24 November 2004; subsequently published in 2005 in the journal South Asia Research, vol 25, pp. 123–7; and reproduced here by kind permission of the author and of the publisher (Sage) and editor (Prof. Werner Menski) of that journal – by Dr William Radice
 “The Perfect Wife: The Orthodox Hindu Woman according to the Stridharmapaddhati of Tryambakayajvan” (1989).
‘Understanding Basava: history, hagiography and a modern Kannada drama’ – Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studiesn, 61.2, 1998, pp 228-61