Hinduism is a patriarchal religion, but it is ridiculous to say women there have no rights or were constantly oppressed. Unfortunately most foreigners seem to associate Hindu women with Sati and non-remarriage of widows and many Hindus remain unaware of what their own scriptures said. Yet, it is very easy to trace how restriction on women tightened until they became oppressive. So I decided to put down aspects of women in Hindu religious texts that I find personally fascinating. If anyone has hyper – sensitive moral antennae or is over-civilized please go away.

Polyandry in early Hindu society.
Eight types of Hindu marriages.
Twelve types of son in Hinduism.


In Vedic society marriage was naturally a matter of supreme importance, but there does not seem to be any fixed rules regarding it. Though monogamy no doubt existed, the society was polygamous. The Vedas contain prayers to defeat rival co-wives and place the husband under the speaker’s control. But evidence indicates that polyandry was also common. Many scholars in the past, both Indians and Europeans, have been reluctant to accept this, and consequently they sometimes translated the plural form as the singular. However, more proper translations show that there is enough indication of polyandry. The first evidence lies in the metaphors used. Three images stand out. Surya, daughter of sungod, is constantly described as the bride of twin Asvins. Rigveda, I, 116, 17 declares that they competed in a divine chariot race for her hand and both won her. Elsewhere (I, 119, 5) says, “The virgin Surya after being won, out of friendship declared “Thou (plural form is used in the original) are my husbands” and elected you as her lords”. Another verse says that she had another husband, Soma, and Aswins were also her husbands at the same ceremony (X, 85, 9-15). Even if they are only metaphors of natural forces — as they often are — the poets wouldnot have introduced such a reference in sacred writings if it was not practiced among mankind as well. The Maruts or stormgods are said to have one wife Rodasi, their ‘common wife’. Rodasi tends to the Maruts in order to be united sexually with them. She mounts their chariot and hastens with them to come to the sacrificial altar. It is clearly stated that she is their joint wife. (I, 167, 4-8). Though it is said that Maruts are storm clouds and Rodasi lightning, there is no reason for the poet to call her their common bride and them her husbands, when sister or daughter would have been an equally descriptive term. Instead the term is ‘sadharani’ or common wife. Similarly, VII, 33, 11 hail the sage Vasistha as the son of both Mitra and Varuna from Urvasi. He thus has two fathers but one mother. This of course, can be explained as another metaphor, but it shows that this was not thought to be something shameful.

The above references, could be explained as metaphors. However in many of the verses, the reference is explicit. The marriage hymn , Rigveda X, 85,37-38 says: “O Pusha [sungod]! The woman in whose womb men plant their seeds, send her as a propitous one. She, ruled by desire yields her body , we embrace her with desire … you [fire] give the bride with children to husbands.” The verses are explained as declaring that husbands referred to here are the gods who are guardians of the girl (like guardian angels), but surely the plural terms used are significant. When we look at Atharva Veda nuptial hymns, we see the same thing. In Atharvaveda, XIV, 1:44, the bride is being blessed thus, “Be thou supreme among fathers-in-law, supreme also among brothers-in-laws; be thou supreme over sister-in-law, supreme also over mother-in-law”. Again, XIV, 1: 46 declares, “Joy to the husbands embracing the wife”. There are several other mentions of Fathers in this context, but they can have other meanings. However these two verses are certainly proof of polyandry. Both Taiterya Samhita and Aitarya Brahmana (later portions of the Vedas) forbid polyandry; they declare that a man can have more than one wife but a woman cannot have more than one husband. Obviously such a regulation would not have to be passed if the practice was unknown.

Polyandry can also explain why in later ages, the younger brother-in-law was considered to be the proper husband for a widow. The very term for a younger brother-in-law is ‘devar’ — meaning second husband. This could either refer to the fact that through marriage of the elder brother all brothers became married at once, or that he automatically inherited the post of husband as his closest kin, if the elder died.

If we accept that polyandry was practiced in early Indian society then, it explains the only concrete example of it —Draupadi’s marriage in the epic Mahabharata. The incidents of the epic takes place considerably later than the Vedic period, when civilization had settled down and wealthy and powerful kingdoms have appeared. Naturally restrictions on women have also tightened. Kunti the mother of Pandavas, had abandoned her first-born because he was illegitimate. Yet, Yuddhistir, her eldest Pandava son, decides that all five brothers shall marry Draupadi. At first Draupadi’s father refuses saying that while a man can have many wives, it has never been known for a woman to have many husbands. At this Yuddhistir gives examples from the past: Jatila had married seven sages and Barkhi had been the wife of ten brothers. The marriage duly takes place and Draupadi becomes the wife of all. There was no reason for Yuddhistir to have made such a suggestion unless it was already known. Similarly, society at large would never have accepted it — though the enemies of the Pandavas mockingly call her no better than a courtesan — unless it was an established custom. We are told that all people of the city including the Brahmins happily attended the wedding and Vedic rites were performed. Interestingly, the wedding rite takes place with only Yuddhistir, the eldest brother . Nevertheless, she became the legal wife of the younger brothers as well. Thus her brother-in-laws truly became her ‘devars’ or second husbands. Evidently during this epic period polyandry was disappearing due to disapproval of patriarchy, but it was still known and grudgingly accepted.


Concurrent with the epic period, we enter the period of Dharmashastras or sacred lawbooks. These Shastras are not as holy as Vedic literature and here dharma means not ‘religion’ so much, but the dos and don’ts of society. It is not that they give new laws, they simply codify what was in usage, try to fill up some gaps and thereby grant the laws scriptural authority. They are considered to be location and time-specific and so can be ignored, whereas Vedic literature and the two epics are eternal. Many of them — particularly the most famous one, called Manusamhita, — had been edited over time, so that it is hard to fix their chronology or get an entirely accurate picture. Many Hindus have only heard about them but regrettably had not read them. One of their most fascinating features is their classifications of marriages and children. More or less, they all agree on the following:

1. The gift of a daughter, after decking her with as much costly garments and jewels as possible, to a learned man of good conduct, whom the father himself invites, is called the Brahma rite.

2. The gift of a daughter who has been decked with ornaments, to a priest who duly officiates at a sacrifice, during the course of its performance, is called the Daiva rite. [here the hope is that by such a marriage the priest’s prayers would be doubly powerful].

3. When the father gives away his daughter according to the rule, after receiving from the bridegroom according to sacred laws, a cow and a bull or two pairs of cows, that is named the Arsha rite.

4. When a contract is signed with the husband, and it has been said [by the bride’s father] that “You two shall now practice your [householder’s] duties together” and the daughter is given after the husband had been duly honoured, then the marriage is known as Pragyapata marriage. [here possibly, the husband himself sought the girl’s hand].

5. When the bridegroom receives a maiden, after having given as much wealth as he can afford to the kinsmen of the bride, and to the bride herself, according to his own will, that is called the Asura rite. [here instead of the husband receiving the dowry, it is the bride and her family who receive it].

6. The voluntary union of a woman and her lover is the Gandharva rite, which springs from desire and has sexual intercourse for its purpose. [Here, no rituals or witnesses are necessary; merely the couple exchanging vows is sufficient].

7. The forcible abduction of a maiden from her home, while she cries out and weeps, after her kinsmen have been slain or wounded and their houses broken open, or during war, and subsequent marriage is called the Rakshasa rite.

8. When a man by stealth seduces a girl who is sleeping, intoxicated, or disordered in intellect, and then marries her, that is the eighth, the most base and sinful rite of the Pisakas.

From the above laws we see that various kinds of marriages were prevalent in those days. The first four were called ‘dharmavivaha’ [holy marriages] since they had been contracted according to proper sacred rituals with the aim of procreation. Marriage in these cases is a social and religious contract. The Asura rite was condemned as nothing other than sale of daughters and it was strictly forbidden to anyone desirous of escaping hell. The Gandharva or love marriage is called ordinary or common marriage as contrasted with ‘dharmavivaha’. The most famous example of this type of marriage is the marriage between King Dushmanta and the forest-dwelling Shakuntala, where it is sealed by their wishes alone. Here marriage is an intensely personal matter and has nothing to do with family obligations. Possibly that is why the writers of the shastras did not wholly approve of it and declared that in case of such a marriage, the bride’s parents are not obliged to give the bride any gifts. The 7th marriage, Rakshasha, is condemned as barbaric ; however there seems some confusion. Some shastras declare that it is the only lawful marriage for the warrior-caste while others argued that it is also ‘dharmavivaha’ for the warrior-caste. The implication is obvious. In the distant past, warriors frequently raided other tribes or cities and carried away women as brides — the verses sanctifying such marriages therefore are earlier than other verses which condemn this. Pikasas marriage is condemned by all. In later ages, the shastras, declared that only the first six are valid. Their preference is for the first four alone. But they also realized they cannot control human nature: wealth will lure fathers to give away their daughters and many daughters would prefer a wealthy suitor to a learned one; men and women will fall in love and marry in defiance of authority and duty. There is therefore nothing to do but recognize them and the children born of these unions.

Though the last two types of marriages were condemned in scriptures, social reality was otherwise. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, (a secular lawbook written for the administration of the Mauryan empire and later a manual for government for other Hindu states), recognizes even the last two as legally valid. Marriage was held to be a sacrament. Some declared that a girl who had been forced was like a virgin and could be given in marriage to another; but the qualifying condition was she must be unmarried. A marriage performed with proper ceremonies, even if the bride was under duress, cannot be dissolved, and additionally provided legitimacy for children born from such unions. However, Arthashastra does allow divorce in the case of last four marriages (but not for first four) if both parties agree to it.


Various categories of children are legitimized and entitled to inheritance of the ‘father’s’ estate, in the shastras and the epics, which I can confidently claim had not been sanctioned by any other culture.

1. Him whom a man begets on his own wedded wife, is the son of the body (Ourasa), the first in rank.

2. He who was begotten according to the law of Niyoga ( when the husband is dead, impotent, diseased, or missing, the relatives of the wife’s or husband’s family, or sometimes the husband himself, would designate someone to make the wife pregnant) is called a son begotten on a wife (Kshetraga). [this was a very widespread practice and many husbands who are otherwise able, willingly sent their wives to men they considered to be superior. Several heroes and kings were born in such a way who inherited kingdoms from their mother’s husband. The Jews and Spartans too had this kind of system. This however becomes oppressive when the woman is unwilling, as some stories testify where the women send maidservants in their stead]

3. That boy equal by caste whom his mother or his father affectionately give, or gave in times of distress, to a man as his son, is the adopted son (Dattak).

4. When a boy who is capable of judging between right and wrong, and endowed with filial virtues, belonging to the same caste is accepted as a son, he is called artificial (krittim) son. [here the boy is obviously mature enough and his parents do not seem to have any role to play].

5. He whom a man receives as his son, [of same caste or not] after he has been deserted by his parents or by either of them, is called a son cast off (Apaviddha).

6. If a man buys a boy, whether equal or unequal in caste, from his father and mother for the sake of having a son, that son is called a son bought (Kritaka).

7. He who, having lost his parents or being abandoned by them without (just) cause, gives himself to a man, as his son, is called a son self-given (Svayamdatta)

8. If a woman abandoned by her husband, or a widow, of her own accord contracts a second marriage and bears a son, he is called the son of a re-married woman (Paunarbhava).

9. If a child be born in a man’s house and his father be not known, [i.e., he is born not from niyoga but from his mother having an affair only], he is a son born secretly in the house (Gudhotpanna or grihaja), and shall be the legitimate son of the husband of the mother.

10. A son whom a damsel bears in the house of her father, is the son of an unmarried woman (Kanina) and such offsprings of an unmarried girl belong to him who weds her afterwards.

11. If one marries, either knowingly or unknowingly, a pregnant bride, the child in her womb belongs to him who weds her, and is called a son received with the bride (Sahodha).

12. If there is no son, a daughter can be appointed as a son (Putrika) or the daughter’s son shall be designated as a son (Putrika-Putra). [such designations can be done through formal rituals, or some say, will be valid simply by wishing it]

We thus see the ancient scripture-writers were very generous because they accepted human nature; practically every child born in whatever way was considered legitimate and entitled to a share in the husband’s inheritance. Naturally the biological son and the daughter/daughter’s son, were considered to have the greatest claim, with the Khetraga usually coming next. Depending it seems on the age of the shastra, the ranks of the sons vary, with some arguing that a wife’s sons are higher than an adopted son or that only some kind of sons can actually inherit the husband’s property, the rest being only kinsmen. Arthashastra too records these various types of children and their claims on property. However, as time passed and women’s status degenerated with restrictions imposed on their sexuality, society became less accepting of such affairs. Moreover, these various kinds of sons led to intermixing of castes, with the children born in different castes inheriting the caste of the legal father. Finally, all kinds of sons, except the son of the body and adopted sons and grandsons by a brotherless daughter were forbidden by custom, and this injunction had been followed by Hindu society since.

The above marriages and sons probably explain the development of childmarriages. Vedic society knows nothing of child-marriages, nor is it mentioned anywhere in the epics. On the contrary all marriages are between men and women who had attained puberty. But as we can see from evidence of love-marriages and ‘sons of unmarried women’, that adolescent girls were sexually active in their natal homes. Fear of scandal was a strong impetus in marrying off girls as quickly as possible, so that the shastras insisted that it is best if a girl is married even before menstruation. The choice of husbands was possibly another important factor. The same shastras agree that “three years after menstruation, a maiden gains overlordship over herself. She is then free to select her own husband and her parents can have no say, since they had failed to find a suitable match for her”. This meant she often married someone whom her parents would disapprove of. There is a special term for people who married out of their varna: Anuloma marriage is when a man of higher caste marries a woman of lower caste, and Pratiloma marriage is one where a woman of higher caste marries a man of lower caste. Among conservative families, especially among Brahmins, Pratiloma would naturally be regarded with abhorrence. Though the practice seems to have been extensive, scriptures grew more and more harsh towards such unions, declaring that untouchables are born this way, until it stopped. Yet another kind of marriage is ‘Swayamvara’ (selecting one’s husband herself), practiced mostly among the warrior-castes and royal families. A group of suitable candidates would turn up and the bride would choose among them. Probably she had the right to refuse to marry any as Draupadi refuses to marry Karna, but it is not certain. In historical times, Princess Sanjukta chose in this way Prithviraj, whom her father considered his mortal enemy, though both were kings. Incidents like these obviously made the parents marry off their daughters still as a child. In the middle ages, as society became more rigid, child-marriages flourished. Blind reverence for scriptures and customs prevented parents from questioning it. Waves of Islamic invasions probably contributed to this impulse as well; if the heathens do carry off your daughter, it is comforting to know that the ‘disgrace’ is now the headache of the husband’s family.



About Rachel

I am who I am

Posted on March 16, 2012, in English Language. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. wow! great article. I did not have time to read all of them, skipped through some parts of the article, though I could definitely say you did your research and took your time.

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