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Transcript
A few questions on the Mahabharata and clarifications
By T.N.Sethumadhavan
October 2013
My grandson who is studying in the USA raised a few interesting questions on the Mahabharata relating to
monogamy/polygamy, dharma and avatars which I clarified to him. Q&A is reproduced below.
I - Evolution of monogamy
Question
1. “I am in the episode where Kunti marries Pandu. Now, why was it important in those
times for kings to have more than one wife? Wasn't it morally wrong at that time? If that
is not wrong, why is it frowned upon in this time?”
Response:
This question is about evolution of monogamy (having only one wife by a male e.g.
Rama and Sita) from polygamy (having more than one wife eg. Dasaratha and his three
queens) in Hindu society. There was another system also which was called polyandry
(one female having more than one husband eg Draupadi and five Pandavas).
To put it in other words the student wants to know whether polygamy was right or wrong.
If it is right why it is not practiced now and if it was wrong why was it practiced then?
To find out answers to these questions we must know about the evolution of human
society with particular reference to the institution of marriage according to Hinduism.
Marriage is one institution that is looked upon as sacred and having existed from time
immemorial. This is one aspect of Hindu culture which has never been treated lightly in
traditional literature.
MARRIAGE - FROM PROMISCUITY TO MONOGAMY
Marriage has been looked upon as having been made in heaven. In India we look upon it
as a divine knot sanctified by fire. A marriage ceremony continues to be a traditionbound one in an overwhelming number of cases. Civil marriage is still a newborn
practice.
In a traditional Hindu society love marriages are frowned upon and the majority still opts
for arranged marriages. The low divorce rate is evidence of the sanctity and respect that is
still attached to the institution of marriage. Traditionally an Indian wife has been
portrayed as being devoted to her husband owing her position entirely to her husband.
But today with the rate of literacy among girls being on the rise there is an increasing
murmur in society against marriage being a form of domination of the female by the
male. No doubt the male sex is physically dominant but the two sexes have always been
intricately bound up with each other in an emotive, sensual and social relationship. If
physical superiority of the male sex was enough to ensure subjugation of the female sex
we would never have had matriarchy and superiority of a woman as a mother right in the
past.
Pairing between the sexes is a part of social life and hence it affects and is affected by
other facets of social life. The method of acquiring the means of sustenance, the title
(ownership) to property, the form of inheritance etc. have a determining say in the marital
customs that exist. Again animals are promiscuous (i.e. free for all - no restrictions of any
kind) but civilized humans are monogamous, thus the change from promiscuity to
monogamy must have occurred in the long process of evolution from ape to man and then
from savagery to civilization.
SOCIAL EVOLUTION
Man has inherited his first form of sustenance viz., hunting and gathering from lower
animals who sustain themselves either by preying on other animals or by grazing on
vegetation. A society based on hunting and gathering had to carry out its activities in a
collective manner.
Correspondingly sexual life was also promiscuous. In the harsh environs, there was no
accumulation of wealth, everything that was gathered or caught had to be consumed, and
there could be no saving.
Property was negligible and whatever property existed was in the form of crude tools,
made of stone and bone and this belonged to the tribe as a whole, as every member
participated in the hunt which was by nature a collective activity. The marital custom
associated with this form of existence was promiscuity. This age has been termed as
Kritayuga in the Rigveda.
PASTORAL SOCIETY LEADS TO ACCUMULATION OF WEALTH
From hunting and gathering man evolved to a pastoral living. With the domestication of
cattle, life centered on the tending of cattle and the property still being held collectively
but its ownership now being limited to clans of a similar group; pairing or group marriage
was limited to members from that clan. Activity was still collective but with the growing
productive power consequent to domestication of cattle it became possible and necessary
to accumulate cattle by rearing them.
An easy way of increasing the number of cattle was to rob that which was reared by
another clan, thus the Vedic word for war was Gavisti which literally means to "search
for cows". In this environment when the life of all members of a clan depended on the
property (cattle) which they owned together the clan became cohesive and endogenous
(growing from within). Marriage was limited to members of the clan and marriage with
members of another clan was looked upon with hostility. As the wealth of the clan grew
by plunder and increase in productive power, the male sex acquired the role of custodians
of clan property.
MONOGAMOUS MARRIAGE BECOMES A SOCIAL NECESSITY
In a Matriarchy the senior most lady in a tribe/clan was recognized as the leader.
Patriarchy replaced Matriarchy as Accumulation of Property made Monogamous
Marriage a Social Necessity.
The root of the word for father in most ancient languages of the Indo-Aryan group is ' Pa '
which means to protect. By virtue of its physical superiority the male sex took the lead in
plundering the wealth of other clans. Thus the title to property gradually came to be held
exclusively by males as against its being held collectively till then.
The evolution of individual title to property among male members of a clan was a logical
culmination of this process. But the change in title to property from communal to
individual raised the question of inheritance. Under promiscuous matriarchy the father
could not be an identifiable parent. And to make possible the transition of the title to
property from father to son on the demise of the father, there had to be an identifiable
father and a son.
To make this possible, promiscuity had to give way to monogamous marriage where only
one male member, is tied in wedlock to one female member. This shift did take place,
but it was not an abrupt one, there had to be many intervening stages of polygamy,
polyandry, etc., till monogamy could become the order of the day.
POLYGAMY & POLYANDRY
Polygamy is the practice of having multiple mates that could be of any gender
simultaneously. Polygamy may not always be legal in a society, but it has been recorded
in virtually every society and culture. In the days of early humans, hunter gatherers
engaged in multi-male and multi-female mating practices. When civilizations first
developed, the most powerful men with the most land and resources often had thousands
of wives while poor men often didn't have wives at all.
Polygamy remained a common phenomenon for a long time with kings and noblemen
having more than one partner in their harem. But even polyandry continued to linger on
for a long time. There are instances of polyandry in Indian mythology, though they have
been explained away as a fortuitous result of events. The Mahabharata episode where the
five Pandava princes have a common wife is one such instance. Although as per the
Mahabharata this instance of polyandry was not intentional; its very existence is evidence
of the fact that polyandry had not yet become unacceptable.
But even after monogamy became an established practice, occasionally people must have
reverted to practices of polygamy, polyandry and promiscuity.
Polygamy and polyandry were prevalent in ancient India, but it is doubtful whether they
were ever popular in the public opinion. It was practiced mostly by the warrior castes and
rich merchants. Polygamy in ancient India was a matter of personal choice, status symbol
and at times social, moral and religious obligation.
Marriage in traditional Hinduism was meant for progeny and carrying out obligatory
duties (dharmakaryam) in accordance of a person's dharma so that the four major aims
(purusharthas) of human life could be realized. If polygamy served these ideals, the
Hindu law books did not object to its practice. The Hindu law books made provision for
polygamy and certain marriages under special circumstances for continuation of family
lineage.
If we study the history of ancient India, we realize that polygamy and polyandry were
practiced by the rich and the powerful, while the sages and seers were strictly
monogamous or completely celibate. We also notice that whether it was in the past or in
the present, polygamy was never a popular practice in the public opinion.
Yet in the epics and the Puranas we cannot fail to notice the prevalence of the practice
and the tensions and the obstacles it created in the families and in the performance of
obligatory duties. Lord Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, was strictly monogamous, a
practice that was in accordance with the mortal standards of Treta yuga (the great epoch)
in which he incarnated. In contrast, Lord Krishna, another incarnation of Vishnu, who
incarnated in the Dwapara yuga, was polygamous. The Pandavas, to whom he was related
through his sister, practiced both polyandry and polygamy.
The gradual evolution of the present practice of monogamy is reflected in the
Mahabharata, in which the great patriarch Bheeshma divides the evolution of the
institution of monogamous marriage into four stages which he associates with the four
Yugas in which the Rigveda has divided Aryan Man's development.
HINDUISM DOES NOT FAVOR POLYGAMY
Hindu scriptures describe family as a social institution, and at the same time as an
integral part of this illusory world. In the ultimate sense the institution of family is meant
to keep each individual chained to the world of illusion. The relationships in the family
are meant to develop attachment, selfishness and desires. In the end these relationships
really do not last, just as everything here is impermanent and each individual is left to
himself or herself to take care of liberation.
When it comes to the pursuit of the three chief aims of human life (purusharthas),
namely dharma (religion), artha (wealth) and kama (sensual pleasure), we may take
advantage of conjugal relationships, but in case of the fourth aim, moksha (liberation), we
have to take sole responsibility for its attainment, by withdrawing ourselves from all
relationships, attachments and allurements.
From a spiritual perspective, Hinduism therefore views family as an illusion (samsara
maya) and the main cause of our attachments. Hinduism therefore exhorts every
individual to be wary of the illusory nature of the family and develop a divine oriented
attitude, while performing their obligatory duties as worship to God.
Since family itself is an instrument of maya, polygamy makes it more difficult for the
male member involved in it to break out of his illusions. The extent of karmic burden
created out of multiple conjugal relationships is enormous due to the number of lives that
become entwined with him in his role as the husband and the father of many. Whatever
he does or does not would affect the lives of the women he married and those of their
children. Spiritually, therefore polygamy is the least desirable option for an individual to
pursue.
POLYGAMY IN CONTEMPORARY HINDU SOCIETY
Present day Hindus do not practice polygamy. They consider both polygamy and
polyandry primitive and immoral; remnants of an old society that still haunt the lives of a
few unfortunate victims. It is not that it is entirely absent, but those who practice it are
subject to great social and family pressure. Many keep the second marriage a secret,
knowing the consequences.
In India, the Hindu Marriage Act 1955 declares polygamy as both illegal and punishable
under the law. One of the conditions stipulated by the Act is that a marriage may be
solemnized between any two Hindus, only if neither party has a spouse living at the time
of the marriage. The Act also makes provision for seeking divorce on the grounds of
adultery or if either party had married again without divorce or was already married and
was not legally divorced. The Act explicitly declares bigamy a punishable offence under
Indian Penal Code. Because of these reasons the latest concept of “live in relationship”
between a man and a woman is also frowned upon in India.
CONCLUSION
It would be observed from the above discussion that the journey from promiscuity to
polygamy to monogamy has been a process of social evolution and not an incident or
occurrence that happened at a single point of time. It took millions of years for this
process to take the present shape. We cannot be sure that this phase is going to be a final
one since the society is a living organism undergoing a constant change and the concept
of monogamy may witness a change in the future depending upon the standard of morals
that may prevail at that point of time. The present practice of “live in relationship” is a
taste of things that may emerge from the womb of time in the decades to come.
Hence there is nothing absolutely or irrevocably right and wrong or moral and immoral
for all times to come; it all depends on the prevailing social conditions. We have to view
the processes from the same angle of time, space and causality (circumstances) in which
they took place and no judgment can be passed with hindsight or allow our imagination
to run wild with the so called foresight.
CH2
Question
2. "Patriarchy replaced Matriarchy as Accumulation of Property made Monogamous
Marriage a Social Necessity."- Please clarify.
Response
In the matriarchal societies mother is considered as the head of the family. When the
society advanced from hunting stage to cattle rearing and agriculture states the concept of
acquisition of property came into being. As the males were stronger in physical strength
properties came to be held more by males than females. Moreover on the demise of a
male member proper identification of a father and his son became necessary for passing
on the inheritance to the property. Hence polyandry (having more than one husband) and
matriarchy gave place to monogamy (one male having one wife) became necessary for
social harmony. This development took centuries to come into a shape.
Question
3. Rama was an avatar before Krishna which implies that the concept of monogamy was
already in its inception-to-evolved practice, by then. Now Krishna or the time of
Mahabharata was after Rama's period. Why did polygamy start all over again? And did
such practices prevail in highly knowledgeable times?
Response
Polygamy did not start all over again during the time of Krishna. Even in Rama’s time
polygamy existed as Ram himself had three mothers – one real and two step mothers.
Even today polygamy exists indirectly and illegally although it is legally banned in many
countries. The relationship between a male and a female outside marriage is nothing but
polygamy e.g. Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky for which the former had to face
impeachment proceedings and worldwide indignation. These practices exist in all times –
knowledgeable or primitive, whether in a so called highly evolved society as of now or in
the cave days. Human nature to eat the forbidden fruit is the same whether in
Ramayana/Mahabharata days or the days of Bill Clinton.
II - Dharma
Question
4. Also, Dharma says, that u should fight for injustice. This is the biggest teaching. Now
Bheeshma, Dronacharya, kulguru kept quite when Draupadi was insulted. So this was the
biggest mistake they all made. Now, when there was a discussion over whether
Mahabharat battle must take place, why did Lord Krishna send petitions of peace to
Hastinapur king Drutarashtra? Wasn't the insult to a woman, one of the biggest sin? Why
to ask for peace?
5. And why did not Bheeeshma leave adharma clan of Duryodhan? Isn't Dharma a
bigger compensatory practice over a Pratigya?
Response
Venerable elders like Bheeshma, Drona kept quite when Draupadi was being disrobed in
the assembly. This is one of the extremely debatable instances in the scriptures (like
Sita’s agnipariksha in Ramayana) particularly when Bheeshma could have stopped it.
Instead he was debating what his dharma was and came to the conclusion that because he
was eating the salt of Duryodhana he was not to antagonize Kauravas however much he
loves Pandavas. This is the beauty of Mahabharata which is a mirror of human frailties
and shows that in life there are no black and white answers to many questions and that
there is always grey area. Shantiparva and Yakshaprasna in MB are entirely devoted to
the question of analyzing dharma from various angles.
The next question is that when a woman (Draupadi) was insulted how Krishna could
pursue peace efforts and was it not a wrong step on his part. The answer is that it was not
a wrong step to pursue peace efforts even when Draupadi was insulted because war
brings forth more calamities to the kingdom as a whole when compared to humiliation to
an individual woman, for after all an individual is nothing before a nation. That is why
saam (talking and discussion), daan (charity, bribing), dand (use of force) and bhed
(divide and rule) were the four methods prescribed by Kautilya in his Arthasastra to
convert the opponent to one’s own thinking. Among these use of force comes as the last
resort when everything else fails. So Krishna’s peace efforts as Pandava’s ambassador to
Kauravas were his last minute effort to avert the Great War.
Question
6. If it was the dharma of a king to win a kingdom and marry the girl of that kingdom.
Why doesn't every other caste get this right?
Response
This question relates to the dharma of the four castes of the Hindu society. Please see the
discussion below.
Question
7. Who and why were these dharmas made so unevenly? And how does someone decide
that, ok, this practice is the correct dharma?
Response
This question relates to the evolution of the concept of dharma in Hinduism. Please see
the discussion below.
DEFINITION OF DHARMA
There is no proper equivalent word in English for the Sanskrit term Dharma. It is very
difficult to define Dharma. Dharma is generally defined as ‘righteousness’ or ‘duty.’ It is
also the principle of unity.
Bhishma says in his instructions to Yudhishthira that whatever creates conflict is
Adharma, and whatever puts an end to conflict and brings about unity and harmony is
Dharma. Anything that helps to unite all and develop pure divine love and universal
brotherhood is Dharma. Anything that creates discord, split and disharmony and foments
hatred is Adharma.
The rules of Dharma have been laid down for regulating the worldly affairs of men.
Dharma brings as its consequence happiness, both in this world and in the next. Dharma
is the means of preserving one’s self. If you transgress it, it will kill you. If you protect it,
it will protect you.
In the matter of Dharma, the Vedas are the ultimate authority. Reason cannot be the
authority in the matter of Dharma.
Just as a doctor prescribes different medicines for different people according to their
constitution and the nature of their disease, so also Hinduism prescribes different duties
for different people. Rules for women are different from the rules for men. The rules for
different Varnas (castes) and Asramas (stages in life) vary. But, non-violence, truth, nonstealing, cleanliness and control of the senses, are the duties common to all.
Dharma depends upon time, circumstances, age, degree of evolution and the community
to which one belongs. The Dharma of this century is different from that of the tenth
century. What is Dharma in one set of circumstances becomes Adharma in another set of
circumstances. That is the reason why it is said that the secret of Dharma is extremely
profound and subtle. Lord Krishna says in the Gita: “Let the scriptures be the authority in
determining what ought to be done and what ought not to be done”. That is the truth of
Dharma.
CH3
VARNASRAMA DHARMA
The principle of Varnasrama Dharma is one of the basic principles of Hinduism. It is also
prevalent throughout the world according to Guna-Karma (aptitude and conduct), though
there is no such distinct denomination of this kind, elsewhere.
The duties of the castes are Varna Dharma. The four castes are Brahmana, Kshatriya,
Vaisya and Sudra.
The duties of the stages in life are Asrama Dharma. The four Asramas or orders of life
are Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sannyasa. These duties are as follows:
VARNA DHARMA
There are three qualities or Gunas, viz., Sattva (purity), Rajas (passion) and Tamas
(inertia). Sattva is white, Rajas is red and Tamas is black. These three qualities are found
in man in varying proportions.
Sattva preponderates in some persons. They are Brahmanas. They are wise persons or
thinkers. They are the priests, ministers or philosophers who guide kings or rulers.
In some, Rajas is predominant. They are Kshatriyas. They are warriors or men of action.
They fight with the enemies or invaders and defend the country.
In some, Tamas is predominant. They are Vaisyas or traders. They do business and
agriculture and amass wealth.
Sudras are service providers. None of these qualities is highly developed in them. They
serve the other three castes.
In a broad sense, a Sattvic man, who is pious and virtuous and leads the divine life, is a
Brahmana, a Rajasic man with heroic quality is a Kshatriya, a Rajasic man with business
tendencies is a Vaisya and a Tamasic man is a Sudra. Hitler and Mussolini were
Kshatriyas. Ford was a Vaisya.
Serenity, self-restraint, austerity, purity, forgiveness, and also, uprightness, knowledge,
Realisation and belief in God are the natural duties (dharma) of the Brahmanas. Prowess,
splendour, firmness, dexterity, and also, not fleeing from battle, generosity and lordliness
are the natural duties (dharma) of the Kshatriyas. Agriculture, cattle-rearing and trade are
the natural duties (dharma) of the Vaisyas. Action consisting of service is the natural duty
(dharma) of the Sudras.
The underlying principle in caste system or Varna Dharma, is division of labor among
different people, according to their aptitude, capacity or quality. The Brahmanas were in
charge of spiritual and intellectual affairs. The work of political administration and
defense was given to the Kshatriyas. The Vaisyas were entrusted with the duty of
supplying food for the nation and administering its economic welfare. The Sudras did
menial work. This division of labor began in Vedic times when Character Determined the
Caste
USE AND ABUSE OF THE CASTE SYSTEM
The Hindus survived many a foreign conquest on account of their caste system. But class
jealousies and hatred crept in the system losing the spirit of co-operation. The Hindu
society became sectarian in the name of the caste system. Hence there is degradation in
India. All castes fell from their ideals and forgot all about their duties. The greed and
pride of man created discord and disharmony. There is nothing wrong in Varna dharma.
It is arrogance and haughtiness in men that have brought troubles.
ASRAMA DHARMA
The duties or dharma of the four Asramas or orders of life are:
Brahmacharya:
The first stage, Brahmacharya, is the period of study and discipline
Grihastha:
The second stage is that of the Grihastha or householder. The household stage is entered
at marriage, when the student has completed his studentship and is ready to take up the
duties and responsibilities of a householder’s life. Of all the Asramas, this is the most
important, because it supports all the others. As all creatures live supported by the air, so
the other Orders exist supported by the householder. As all streams and rivers flow to rest
in the ocean, so all the Asramas flow to rest in the householder. The Grihastha is the very
heart of Aryan life. Everything depends on him.
Marriage is a sacrament for a Hindu. The wife is his partner in life. She is his Ardhangini.
He cannot do any religious ritual without her. She stands by his left side when he
performs any religious rite. When the householder sees that his sons are able to bear the
burden of his duties, when his grandsons are around him, he should know that the time
has come for him and his wife to retire from the world and spend their time in study and
meditation.
Vanaprastha:
The next stage is that of the Varnaprastha. Brahmacharya is a preparation for the life of
the householder. Even so, Vanaprastha is a preparation for the final stage of Sannyasa.
After discharging all the duties of a householder, he should retire to the forest or a
solitary place and begin to meditate in solitude on higher spiritual things. He is now free
from social bonds and the responsibilities of life. He has ample time for study of
scriptures. His wife may go with him or remain with her sons.
Sannyasa:
The fourth and the last stage is that of a Sannyasin. When a man becomes a Sannyasin, he
renounces all possessions, all distinctions of caste, all rites and ceremonies and all
attachments to any particular country, nation, or religion. He lives alone and spends his
time in meditation. He lives on alms. When he attains the sublime state of deep
meditation he rejoices in his own Self. He is quite indifferent to sensual pleasures. He is
free from likes and dislikes, desire, egoism, lust, anger, greed and pride. He has equal
vision and balanced mind. He loves all. He roams about happily and disseminates
Brahma Jnana or Knowledge of the Self. He is the same in honor and dishonor, praise
and censure, success and failure. He is now Ativarnasrami, i.e., above Varna and Asrama.
He is quite a free man. He is not bound by any social customs and conventions. Such a
Sannyasin is an ideal man. He has attained perfection and freedom. He is Brahman
Himself. He is a Jivanmukta or a liberated sage. Glory to such exalted personages who
are living Gods on earth!
In conclusion the scriptures tell us:
Follow your Dharma with zeal and enthusiasm. Discharge your duties faithfully. Develop
all the virtues which constitute Dharma. Never deviate an inch from the path of
righteousness. Stick to Dharma with all your heart, with your entire mind and with all
your soul. Performance of one’s duties brings happiness, quick evolution and freedom.
You will soon attain immortality, eternal bliss, supreme peace, perennial joy, absolute
freedom and perfection. Glory to Dharma, the supreme light that leads you to the
kingdom of eternal bliss and everlasting peace. May the eternal Dharma of Hinduism be
preserved for ever! May all Hindus be consolidated by the bond of true love!!
III - Avatar (Incarnation)
8. Question
6. Balarama is the ninth avatar of lord Vishnu. Why did lord take two avatars-krishna
and balarama in the same Yuga? And why was balarama avatar so aggressive?
Response
Balarama was the elder brother of Krishna, conceived by Devaki as her seventh child of
Vasudeva. When the child was in the womb he was taken out by divine power and placed
in the womb of Rohini, the elder wife of Vasudeva. So he was born as the son of Rohini.
As he was extraordinarily strong he was called Balarama. As per the puranas Balarama
was the incarnation of Adisesha the serpent on which Vishnu is resting in the ocean of
milk. He came down to help Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu. He was an expert in fighting
with gada or mace and plough. Thus Krishna and Balarama go together in scriptures (as
is the case of Vishnu and Adisesha). They both play significant roles in the Mahabharata.
Also read
1. Hindu women as life partner http://www.esamskriti.com/essay-chapters/Hinduwomen-as-life-partner-1.aspx
2. Five Elemental Women http://www.esamskriti.com/essay-chapters/FiveElemental-Women-1.aspx
3. Demystifying Caste http://www.esamskriti.com/essay-chapters/DemystifyingCaste-1.aspx
4. Question and Answers Indian Civilization http://www.esamskriti.com/essaychapters/Questions-and-Answers-Indian-Civilization-1.aspx