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
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?”
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 tradition-bound 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.
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.
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.