Ancient History & Civilisation


“Dharma”—Children—Child marriage—The art of love—Prostitution—Romantic love—Marriage—The family—Woman—Her intellectual life—Her rights—“Purdah”—Suttee—The Widow

When the caste system dies the moral life of India will undergo a long transition of disorder, for there the moral code has been bound up almost inseparably with caste. Morality was dharma—the rule of life for each man as determined by his caste. To be a Hindu meant not so much to accept a creed as to take a place in the caste system, and to accept the dharma or duties attaching to that place by ancient tradition and regulation. Each post had its obligations, its limitations and its rights; with them and within them the pious Hindu would lead his life, finding in them a certain contentment of routine, and never thinking of stepping into another caste. “Better thine own work is, though done with fault,” said the Bhagavad-Gita,98 “than doing others’ work, even excellently.”Dharma is to the individual what its normal development is to a seed—the orderly fulfilment of an inherent nature and destiny.99 So old is this conception of morality that even today it is difficult for all, and impossible for most, Hindus to think of themselves except as members of a specific caste, guided and bound by its rule. “Without caste,” says an English historian, “Hindu society is inconceivable.”100

In addition to the dharma of each caste the Hindu recognized a general dharma or obligation affecting all castes, and embracing chiefly respect for Brahmans, and reverence for cows.101 Next to these duties was that of bearing children. “Then only is a man a perfect man,” says Manu’s code,102 “when he is three—himself, his wife, and his son.” Not only would children be economic assets to their parents, and support them as a matter of course in old age, but they would carry on the household worship of their ancestors, and would offer to them periodically the food without which these ghosts would starve.103 Consequently there was no birth control in India, and abortion was branded as a crime equal to the murder of a Brahman.104 Infanticide occurred,105 hut it was exceptional; the father was glad to have children, and proud to have many. The tenderness of the old to the young is one of the fairest aspects of Hindu civilization.106

The child was hardly born when the parents began to think of its marriage. For marriage, in the Hindu system, was compulsory; an unmarried man was an outcast, without social status or consideration, and prolonged virginity was a disgrace.107 Nor was marriage to be left to the whim of individual choice or romantic love; it was a vital concern of society and the race, and could not safely be entrusted to the myopia of passion or the accidents of proximity;108 it must be arranged by the parents before the fever of sex should have time to precipitate a union doomed, in the Hindu view, to disillusionment and bitterness. Manu gave the name of Gandharva marriage to unions by mutual choice, and stigmatized them as born of desire; they were permissible, but hardly respectable.

The early maturity of the Hindu, making a girl of twelve as old as a girl of fourteen or fifteen in America, created a difficult problem of moral and social order.* Should marriage be arranged to coincide with sexual maturity, or should it be postponed, as in America, until the male arrives at economic maturity? The first solution apparently weakens the national physique,110 unduly accelerates the growth of population, and sacrifices the woman almost completely to reproduction; the second solution leaves the problems of unnatural delay, sexual frustration, prostitution, and venereal disease. The Hindus chose child marriage as the lesser evil, and tried to mitigate its dangers by establishing, between the marriage and its consummation, a period in which the bride should remain with her parents until the coming of puberty.111 The institution was old, and therefore holy; it had been rooted in the desire to prevent intercaste marriage through casual sexual attraction;112 it was later encouraged by the fact that the conquering and otherwise ruthless Moslems were restrained by their religion from carrying away married women as slaves;113 and finally it took rigid form in the parental resolve to protect the girl from the erotic sensibilities of the male.

That these were reasonably keen, and that the male might be trusted to attend to his biological functions on the slightest provocation, appears from the Hindu literature of love. The Kamasutra, or “Doctrine of Desire,” is the most famous in a long list of works revealing a certain preoccupation with the physical and mental technique of sex. It was composed, the author assures us, “according to the precepts of Holy Writ, for the benefit of the world, by Vatsyayana, while leading the life of a religious student at Benares, and wholly engaged in the contemplation of the Deity.”114 “He who neglects a girl, thinking she is too bashful,” says this anchorite, “is despised by her as a beast ignorant of the working of the female mind.”115 Vatsyayana gives a delightful picture of a girl in love,116 but his wisdom is lavished chiefly upon the parental art of getting her married away, and the husbandly art of keeping her physically content.

We must not presume that the sexual sensitivity of the Hindu led to any unusual license. Child marriage raised a barrier against premarital relations, and the strong religious sanctions used in the inculcation of wifely fidelity made adultery far more difficult and rare than in Europe or America. Prostitution was for the most part confined to the temples. In the south the needs of the esurient male were met by the providential institution of devadasis—literally “servants of the gods,” actually prostitutes. Each Tamil temple had a troop of “sacred women,” engaged at first to dance and sing before the idols, and perhaps to entertain the Brahmans. Some of them seem to have lived lives of almost conventual seclusion; others were allowed to extend their services to all who could pay, on condition that a part of their earnings should be contributed to the clergy. Many of these temple courtesans, or nautch* girls, provided dancing and singing in public functions and private gatherings, in the style of the geishas of Japan; some of them learned to read, and, like the hetairai of Greece, furnished cultured conversation in homes where the married women were neither encouraged to read nor allowed to mingle with guests. In 1004 A.D., as a sacred inscription informs us, the temple of the Chola King Rajaraja at Tanjore had four hundred devadasis. The custom acquired the sanctity of time, and no one seems to have considered it immoral; respectable women now and then dedicated a daughter to the profession of temple prostitute in much the same spirit in which a son might be dedicated to the priesthood.117 Dubois, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, described the temples of the south as in some cases “converted into mere brothels”; the devadasis, whatever their original functions, were frankly called harlots by the public, and were used as such. If we may believe the old abbé, who had no reason to be prejudiced in favor of India,

their official duties consist in dancing and singing within the temples twice a day, . . . and also at all public ceremonies. The first they execute with sufficient grace, although their attitudes are lascivious and their gestures indecorous. As regards their singing, it is almost always confined to obscene verses describing some licentious episode in the history of their gods.118

Under these circumstances of temple prostitution and child marriage little opportunity was given for what we call “romantic love.” This idealistic devotion of one sex to the other appears in Indian literature—for example in the poems of Chandi Das and Jayadeva—but usually as a symbol of the soul surrendering to God; while in actual life it took most often the form of the complete devotion of the wife to her mate. The love poetry is sometimes of the ethereal type depicted by the Tennysons and Longfellows of our Puritan tradition; sometimes it is the full-bodied and sensuous passion of the Elizabethan stage.119 One writer unites religion and love, and sees in either ecstasy a recognition of identity; another lists the three hundred and sixty different emotions that fill the lover’s heart, and counts the patterns which his teeth have left on his beloved’s flesh, or shows him decorating her breasts with painted flowers of sandal paste; and the author of the Nala and Damayanti episode in the Mahabharata describes the melancholy sighs and pale dyspepsia of the lovers in the best style of the French troubadours.120

Such whimsical passions were seldom permitted to determine marriage in India. Manu allowed eight different forms of marriage, in which marriage by capture and marriage “from affection” were ranked lowest in the moral scale, and marriage by purchase was accepted as the sensible way of arranging a union; in the long run, the Hindu legislator thought, those marriages are most soundly based that rest upon an economic foundation.121 In the days of Dubois “to marry” and “to buy a wife” were “synonymous expressions in India.”*122 The wisest marriage was held to be one arranged by the parents with full regard for the rules of endogamy and exogamy: the youth must marry within his caste, and outside his gotra or group.123 He might take several wives, but only one of his own caste—who was to have precedence over the rest; preferably, said Manu, he was to be monogamous,124 The woman was to love her husband with patient devotion; the husband was to give to his wife not romantic affection, but solicitous protection.126

The Hindu family was typically patriarchal, with the father full master of his wife, his children, and his slaves.127 Woman was a lovely but inferior being. In the beginning, says Hindu legend, when Twashtri, the Divine Artificer, came to the creation of woman he found that he had exhausted his materials in the making of man, and had no solid elements left. In this dilemma he fashioned her eclectically out of the odds and ends of creation:

He took the rotundity of the moon, and the curves of creepers, and the clinging of tendrils, and the trembling of grass, and the slenderness of the reed, and the bloom of flowers, and the lightness of leaves, and the tapering of the elephant’s trunk, and the glances of deer, and the clustering of rows of bees, and the joyous gaiety of sunbeams, and the weeping of clouds, and the fickleness of the winds, and the timidity of the hare, and the vanity of the peacock, and the softness of the parrot’s bosom, and the hardness of adamant, and the sweetness of honey, and the cruelty of the tiger, and the warm glow of fire, and the coldness of snow, and the chattering of jays, and the cooing of the kokila, and the hypocrisy of the crane, and the fidelity of the chakravaka; and compounding all these together he made woman, and gave her to man.129

Nevertheless, despite all this equipment, woman fared poorly in India. Her high status in Vedic days was lost under priestly influence and Mohammedan example. The Code of Manu set the tone against her in phrases reminiscent of an early stage in Christian theology: “The source of dishonor is woman; the source of strife is woman; the source of earthly existence is woman; therefore avoid woman.”130 “A female,” says another passage, “is able to draw from the right path in this life not a fool only but even a sage, and can lead him in subjection to desire or to wrath.”131The law laid it down that all through her life woman should be in tutelage, first to her father, then to her husband, and finally to her son.132 The wife addressed her husband humbly as “master,” “lord,” even as “my god”; in public she walked some distance behind him, and seldom received a word from him.133 She was expected to show her devotion by the most minute service, preparing the meals, eating—after they had finished—the food left by her husband and her sons, and embracing her husband’s feet at bedtime.134 “A faithful wife,” said Manu, “must serve . . . her lord as if he were a god, and never do aught to pain him, whatsoever be his state, and even though devoid of every virtue.”135 A wife who disobeyed her husband would become a jackal in her next incarnation.136

Like their sisters in Europe and America before our own times, the women of India received education only if they were ladies of high degree, or temple prostitutes.137 The art of reading was considered inappropriate in a woman; her power over men could not be increased by it, and her attractiveness would be diminished. Says Chitra in Tagore’s play: “When a woman is merely a woman—when she winds herself round and round men’s hearts with her smiles and sobs and services and caressing endearments—then she is happy. Of what use to her are learning and great achievements?”138 Knowledge of the Vedas was denied to her;139 “for a woman to study the Vedas,” says the Mahabharata, “is a sign of confusion in the realm.”140* Megasthenes reported, in Chandragupta’s days, that “the Brahmans keep their wives—and they have many wives-ignorant of all philosophy; for if women learned to look upon pleasure and pain, life and death, philosophically, they would become depraved, or else no longer remain in subjection.”141

In the Code of Manu three persons were ineligible to hold property: a wife, a son, and a slave; whatever these might earn became the property of their master.142 A wife, however, could retain as her own the dowry and gifts that she had received at her nuptials; and the mother of a prince might govern in his stead during his minority.143 The husband could divorce his wife for unchastity; the woman could not divorce her husband for any cause.144 A wife who drank liquor, or was diseased, or rebellious, or wasteful, or quarrelsome, might at any time be (not divorced but) superseded by another wife. Passages of the Code advocate an enlightened gentleness to women: they are not to be struck “even with a flower”; they are not to be watched too strictly, for then their subtlety will find a way to mischief; and if they like fine raiment-it is wise to indulge them, for “if the wife be not elegantly attired, she will not exhilarate her husband,” whereas when “a wife is gaily adorned, the whole house is embellished.”145 Way must be made for a woman, as for the aged or a priest; and “pregnant women, brides, and damsels shall have food before all other guests.”146 Though woman could not rule as a wife, she might rule as a mother; the greatest tenderness and respect was paid to the mother of many children; and even the patriarchal code of Manu said, “The mother exceedeth a thousand fathers in the right to reverence.”147

Doubtless the influx of Islamic ideas had something to do with the decline in the status of woman in India after Vedic days. The custom of purdah (curtain)—the seclusion of married women—came into India with the Persians and the Mohammedans, and has therefore been stronger in the north than in the south. Partly to protect their wives from the Moslems, Hindu husbands developed a system of purdah so rigid that a respectable woman could show herself only to her husband and her sons, and could move in public only under a heavy veil; even the doctor who treated her and took her pulse had to do so through a curtain.148 In some circles it was a breach of good manners to inquire after a man’s wife, or to speak, as a guest, to the ladies of the house.149

The custom of burning widows on their husbands’ pyres was also an importation into India. Herodotus describes it as practised by the ancient Scythians and Thracians; if we may believe him, the wives of a Thracian fought for the privilege of being slain over his grave.150 Probably the rite came down from the almost world-wide primitive usage of immolating one or more of the wives or concubines of a prince or rich man, along with slaves and other perquisites, to take care of him in the Beyond.151 The Atharva-vedaspeaks of it as an old custom, but the Rig-veda indicates that in Vedic days it had been softened to the requirement that the widow should lie on her husband’s pyre for a moment before his cremation.152 The Mahabharata shows the institution restored and unrepentant; it gives several examples of suttee,* and lays down the rule that the chaste widow does not wish to survive her husband, but enters proudly into the fire.153 The sacrifice was effected by burning the wife in a pit, or, among the Telugus in the south, by burying her alive.154 Strabo reports that suttee prevailed in India in the time of Alexander, and that the Kathæi, a Punjab tribe, had made suttee a law in order to prevent wives from poisoning their husbands.155 Manu makes no mention of the practice. The Brahmans opposed it at first, then accepted it, and finally lent it a religious sanction by interpreting it as bound up with the eternity of marriage: a woman once married to a man remained his forever, and would be rejoined to him in his later lives.156 In Rajasthan the absolute possession of the wife by the husband took the form of the johur, in which a Rajput, facing certain defeat, immolated his wives before advancing to his own death in battle.157The usage was widespread under the Moguls, despite Moslem abhorrence; and even the powerful Akbar failed to dislodge it. On one occasion Akbar himself tried to dissuade a Hindu bride who wished to be burned on the pyre of her dead betrothed; but though the Brahmans added their pleas to the king’s, she insisted on the sacrifice; as the flames reached her, and Akbar’s son Daniyal continued to argue with her, she replied, “Do not annoy, do not annoy.” Another widow, rejecting similar pleas, held her finger in the flame of a lamp until the finger was completely burned; giving no sign of pain, she indicated in this way her scorn of those who advised her to refuse the rite.158 In Vijayanagar suttee sometimes took a wholesale form; not one or a few but all of the many wives of a prince or a captain followed him to death. Conti reports that the Raya or King had selected three thousand of his twelve thousand wives as favorites, “on condition that at his death they should voluntarily burn themselves with him, which is considered to be a great honor for them.”159 It is difficult to say how thoroughly the medieval Hindu widow was reconciled to suttee by religious inculcation and belief, and the hope of reunion with her husband in another life.

Suttee became less and less popular as India developed contacts with Europe; but the Hindu widow continued to suffer many disabilities. Since marriage bound a woman eternally to her husband, her remarriage after his death was a mortal offense, and was bound to create confusion in his later existences. The widow was therefore required by Brahmanical law to remain unmarried, to shave her head, and live out her life (if she did not prefer suttee) in the care of her children and in acts of private charity.160 She was not left destitute; on the contrary she had a first lien on her husband’s estate for her maintenance.161 These rules were followed only by the orthodox women of the middle and upper classes—i.e., by some thirty per cent of the population; they were ignored by Moslems, Sikhs, and the lower castes.162 Hindu opinion likened this second virginity of the widow to the celibacy of nuns in Christendom; in either case some women renounced marriage, and were set aside for charitable ministrations.*

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!