A few questions on the Mahabharata and clarifications

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 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.


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.


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  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.


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. 


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.

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