Aug 20, 2011

Marriage Customs in Mahabharata

In our society, we normally believe that the rules of marriage that we follow today are traditional. But Mahabharata introduced me to many strange rules regarding marriage and birth of children that would be considered definitely non-traditional today. The most illuminating incident was the birth of Pandavas, when Pandu and Kunti have a long conversation regarding marriage and child birth. This conversation turned out to be very revealing. We have all heard the story of how Kunti gets a magical mantra from Durvasa that enables her to get children from Gods. However, contrary to what the popular TV serial would have us believe, these children did not appear in Kunti’s lap magically as gifts from various gods. The text of Mahabharata gives ample evidence that these children were all conceived in the normal way. In fact, Pandu had to try very hard to convince Kunti to take the necessary steps and bear those children. He begins the conversation this way:

Pandu: Kunti, you know I am banned from having children, so please beget children for me from other men.

Kunti: No, I will not embrace any man but you, it is against dharma.

Pandu: No, it is not. Actually, in olden days, women used to roam about freely as men and they were not bound to one husband. In the matter of marriage and sexual partners, they did as they liked. The rule of single partner is quite new, so it is not against dharma at all for you to get children from other men.

Having given birth to Karna earlier, Kunti knew what was entailed...

This vital piece of information about the freedom of women in past is left out from most versions of Mahabharata that we know today. The TV serial Mahabharata, which is the source of mythological knowledge for many people today, surreptitiously avoids making any mention of the sexual freedom of women in ancient days. As a result, most of the audience never knew that it existed. The omission is not surprising, imagine the furor in rural Hindudom if people heard such heresies from a serial that they worshipped! Anyways, after Pandu fails to convince Kunti through this method, he tries the following.

Pandu: Kunti, you know that wives must obey husbands, hence, do as I say and get sons for me.

From this I drew the conclusion that by the time Mahabharat was written, the olden days of freedom of women were long gone, and it was already customary for women to obey their husbands. This argument still does not convince Kunti, and Pandu tries another gambit.

Pandu: There are different types of sons. They are: the son of you and your married wife, the son of wife and superior person who fathers a child out of kindness, the son of wife and another person paid to father a child, the son of conceived by wife after husband’s death, the maiden born son, the son born of unchaste wife, the son given, the son bought, the son self-given, the son received with pregnant bride, the brother’s son, and finally, the son of wife of lower caste.

Poor Kunti probably wished she had known about different types of sons when she needed it ...

From this speech, two important conclusions can be drawn. First of all, Pandu lists the sons of wives who were pregnant at marriage. In those days, it was ok for men to marry women who were already pregnant and raise those children as their own. Such liberality is not seen very often these days.

Secondly, in the list of sons, many are absolute strangers. For example, sons given, bought or adopted. But Pandu puts the son born of a lower caste wife last. In the hierarchy of sons, he can even accept strangers over a son of lower caste. That just shows the hypocritical importance of caste in Hinduism. But Kunti does not think so, and finally Pandu clinches the deal with this statement:

Pandu: Do you know, all of the above sons are the sons of the husband according to dharma? Everything that a wife owns or produces belongs to her husband. So hesitate no more, for all sons you beget shall bear my name and they shall extend the Kuru race.

And the rest, as we know, is history. Kunti agreed to the deal and gave birth to three sons fathered by three different males (Mahabharata insists that they were gods and not men, but even so, these were male gods). However, the rule that Pandu spouts here is again hypocritical. These Pandavas do not have a drop of Pandu’s blood in them, Kunti is not Pandava and neither are the gods who she got children from. But according to Pandu, these children extend the Kuru race. According to this logic, once a woman is married, she belongs not to her parent’s race but her husband’s race, and hence her children extend her husband’s race, no matter who the biological father is. Methinks Pandu needs a course in modern DNA technology, which takes no heed of a woman’s marital status but focuses on pure biology.

The Pandavas bore their "father" Pandu's name despite being his biological strangers

After reading this conversation between Pandu and Kunti, we are left with a very surprising view of how our ancients regarded marriage, and this view is at once more suffocating and more liberal than today. The importance of male child is entirely sickening, marriage was even then very important to the status of women, and husband’s word was still the law within the marriage. But yet, this was a time when pre marital and even extra marital partners were not as frowned upon as they are now. Now I think I know why the society did not want women to be educated. Before the advent of modern age, education mostly meant being able to write letters, do calculation, and read religious texts. And if women were reading these texts, they might question the narrow confines of their own roles and marriages. Even now, though so many women are educated, Pandu’s ideas would be considered heretical. In conclusion, this glimpse into the ancient rule proved to be very complex and unexpected.



Savindra said...

Hai, I don't know your name...your article is amazing. I never read the whole article yours is the first article.

Thanks for your writing

sewa said...

wow thanks savindra, im really glad u like it :)

Shyam said...

Sewa, This was again a great read.
I will be lying, though, if I don't share the different reading that I would do of Pandu's logic, which reminds me of many absurdities in South Asian society in particular even today: namely, if you have power, you can twist any idea into the argument that will best serve your interest. Given that condition that "you know that wives must obey husbands, hence, do as I say and get sons for me” holds, he can go on to turn logical frogs into turtles and turtles into rabbits and then back into logical frogs. If you read it with a rational mind, Pandu, like many Patriarchs in all spheres of South Asian societies today, is not even aware that they can’t "prove" his point without acknowledging his intention first of all. See how in order to justify his obsession, he defines the term "son" like only a shameless Sophist will, then brings all the specious logic back to the ridiculous point that all those types of sons, even while they are unequal by caste and such, will belong to him, and not his wife--who will do nothing but obey! He picks and chooses what fits his point. Granted, some of the types of son reflect a generous and humane attitude—but we know that he's not really interested in all those other types, is he? If we look into the rhetorical patterns of using and abusing logic, examples, and precedents to justify the speaker's selfish desire, then I don't see how this anecdote is proof that "this was a time when premarital and even extra marital partners were not as frowned upon as they are now." I don't think that SA societies, at least after patriarchy was established, actually accepted women's sexual freedom; I would need evidence to that effect, not of someone alluding to so-so precedents, whose rhetorical manipulation is so blatant.
Now, I am not writing this comment to disagree with your interpretation of the anecdote, just to offer a different perspective: in both real life and in fiction, it's not what a character says that should be treated as historical or logical evidence, it's what the character is trying to do by saying what he is saying, by using the rhetorical material that he is using. From that perspective, I am not sure that "In those days, it was ok for men to marry women who were already pregnant and raise those children as their own." Pandu’s wife was not pregnant at marriage--and he'd be darned if she was--and he'd be happy if he could get sons in other ways. It's Pandu's intention--and/or perhaps also of the male writer who chose those particular "evidences" and arguments to design that conversation in that particular way--that we should be (also) reading, right? In the case of fiction history, we should also consider an extra layer of author intention: what is the writer trying to do with the design of a particular conversation/event? The author of this episode must have thought how beautiful the argument is, how convincing, how undeniable! Alas, not when a woman or some not-so-bought-in men are reading it.
But besides my different perspective/interpretation of the conversation, I do agree with the great comments and observations in your article. Here is an example of where I said, yep: "However, the rule that Pandu spouts here is again hypocritical.… Methinks Pandu needs a course in modern...." You really hit the nail on the head about Pandu's hypocrisy and absurd twisting of ideas—as long as the interlocutor is a powerless woman, child, lower caste, student... and that still continues in our terribly patriarchal society.
It all boils down to what I call the socio-epistemological hierarchy, or the order of importance of your knowledge or argument based on how much power you can wield rather than what the merit of your idea or argument itself is. This really was yet another thought-provoking read—as you can tell by the length of this comment.

sewa said...

Dear Shyam, as usual, your comment is very thought provoking. I agree with your observation that Pandu was only able to execute his wishes because he was above Kunti in the socio-epistemological hierarchy.

However, about the acceptance of pre and extra marital sexual relations, there is more to the story than just Pandu's powerful status vis-a-vis Kunti. In myths, a limited number of sexual encounters (usually just one) is allowed for the purpose of getting children (specifically sons). However, this tradition, called niyog, is allowed only under certain conditions, eg. if the husband is dead or impotent. Pandu and Dhritarashtra themselves were born from the same process, their father having died, their mothers begat children from Ved Vyas. The story of how Pandu and Dhritarashtra turned out albino and blind is pretty famous. Similarly, after Parashuram killed all the kshtriyas in the world, kshtriyas daughter in laws begat more kshtriyas from Brahmin men (who went to them not out of lust but a virtuous motive (sic)). Besides these famous stories, there are also other countless minor ones depicting niyog. To be fair, I did not encounter a single story where a premarital child was accepted. Satyavati did acknowledge her premarital son Vedvyas, but not before her husband died. So in this case I guess Pandu was fibbing to convince Kunti.
Also, about the acceptance of women's sexual freedom in SA, even you put in the condition that this could not have happened "at least after patriarchy was established!"
What if there was a time before patriarchy was established?
Though we have been believing that patriarchy is inevitable in our past societies, recently I have been reading a lot about the sexual freedom of men and women before Aryan invasion in SA. This can neither be proved through Mahabharat, nor is there enough evidence through other sources. It is just something to keep in mind that maybe a society had existed in SA prior to the establishment of patriarchy. Throughout mythological stories there is a thin (but largely ignored) thread that hints at that society. I have previously talked about confusing messages regarding female sexuality in this article:

Thank you so much for your analytical comments. Your comments have helped me improve immensely :)

Anonymous said...

your article is interesting ...

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't disagree with most of the content. we're descendants of apes or so they say. its not hard to imagine what sort of freedom they must have had regarding sex, child bearing, marriage. It's not just south asian culture and style to interpret and twist reason and logic. Its human nature. Its not only south asia with a patriarchal society. Its global. Europeans would literally use a lock with metal clothes to make sure that their wives wouldn't have sex with any other men. they would still do the same if it were not for the economic development they experienced that alongside brought the rise of ideas, values, and feminism to where it is today. i assure u some still wish for the old days where they had total say and control. Not that your article is wrong, but that the issue you raise is global.

curly locks said...

Dear Annonymous, thanks for understanding my theme, and thanks for your intelligent comment!

Anonymous said...

hahah nitya thinks pandu needin a dna course is a really good one :)

Jess said...

Hi Sewa, great article! I know you have written this a while ago but if you haven't already, you may want to give a read to this version of the Mahabharata:

There are many stories in it that pre-date the Pandava story line both from the perspective of the narrative and from the contexts in which they were written. One of the earliest tales outlines the love triangle between Brihaspati (Jupiter), his wife Tara and Chandra (the moon). Tara has an affair with Chandra but the gods deem that her children begotten by Chandra must be considered Brihaspati's and that he must raise them as his own. This establishes the "rule" that children gotten out of wedlock by the wife must still be considered as the responsibility of and part of the family line as the wife's husband. While Pandu most certainly is displaying some convenient cunning in reciting these rules, he is not making them up himself. Interesting, huh?

curly locks said...

wow, thank you for the link jess, I will definitely look it up. BTW, I am familiar with Tara and Chandra's story, but I liked how you linked it to the tradition of male descent that I discussed. Once again, thanks a lot for popping in :)

Arjuna Mahanayak said...

"The importance of male child is entirely sickening"

I don't get how it is sickening? Males were more competent than women, and therefore were rulers more often than women were. Thats why a male child was required.

And also the study that males went through was not just calculations and vedas, there were many more topics that were studied. You might want to read up on that... Women could also study religious texts, and that is obvious by the speech of kunti/draupadi in the text.

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