Saturday, June 16, 2012

Brief History of Hindu Marriage - 4 - Atithi Devo Bhava

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In previous part, we saw how the yuga system was used by Bhishma Pitamaha to explain the evolution of human pair-bonding. How the "relations" were defined and slowly came into existence. We also saw how time is relative in Indic narrative and that the stages of increasing complexity in any institution be linked with the Chaturyuga system. I would like to clear one thing beforehand. Though I use the masculine proverbs while citing examples (partly because I am man, hence the pronoun "he" comes naturally to me, while speaking of other people), this is applicable to humans, irrespective of gender. So, please adjust your filters accordingly.. :-)

The essence of a stable pair-bond is the right of the partners over each other. Be it a monogamous pair bonds (as it happens with most of us) or official Polygamous pair-bonds (both poly-androus and poly-gynos), there is a sense of ownership over the partner. As the pair-bond strengthens typically the ownership too grows and previous "allegiances" (like old friends, parents) start taking a relative back-seat. Even among polygamous lot, the sense of belongingness and ownership between the "hive" or the group of mating partners, exclude others from this network. 

When we talk about slowly evolving stability of a human pairbond, we are basically talking about slowly evolving "exclusion" of this "other". The other can be a "friend" OR "guest" OR anybody else outside the mating hive. Even in modern days, the tension between network of friends and a newly married member of that network who can't devote enough time to mingle with his old buddies evoke a strong sense of betrayal. The sentence "Saalaa, Shaadi ke baad badal gaya" (Bugger changed after marriage, he wasn't like this before!!), is often heard either in humorous context OR in some cases serious ones, from network of friends, relatives, parents etc. This denotes that the process of "exclusion" has begun. It is not always a pleasant process. 

A closely knit group of friends are known to share almost all intimate secrets with each other. Modern lifestyle forces most of us to move away and seek for new friends as we travel for education and job, this wasn't the case for a agrarian OR even pastoral and nomadic society. A group of friends usually stay in vicinity throughout the life. Once a group is formed, people tend to remain in that group as long as they aren't physically separated. The torment of "exclusion" is high in people with such lifestyle. However, since for most of our history, humans have stayed this way, this bondage is one of the most important factors which influenced the marriage institution.

As is the case with previous parts of this series, the main reference here is Acharya V.K.Rajwade's book - Bhaartiya Vivaha Sansthecha Itihaas. I have composed this article taking help from references cited in this book.


Socrates is known to have given his wife Xanthippe to his close friend Alcibiades. Plutarch says that roman statesman Cato, the younger gave his wife to his friend Quintus Hortensius. These are references from Græko-Roman narrative from period around 100 BCE to 50 BCE. What do Indic sources say about this?

The famous sages referred to as "Sanatkumar" are cited to have said in 45th chapter of Udyogparva of Mahabharata that "इष्टान् मित्रान् विभवान् स्वास्च दारान्" (In times of need, good friends even give their wives). The context here is, Yudhishthira is explaining the 6 qualities of a "true friend" as described by ancient seers. This is one of the six qualities. We traditionally date Kurukshetra great war on 3101 BCE. When Yudhishthira refers to an "ancient" seer, one sees that there was a time when a "woman" was shared by friends. This is proverbial "satya-yuga of marriage institution" as described in previous part. Much before Yudhishthira, during Ramayana itself, the pair-bond was solidified and this custom probably vanished. But there was a time when this was prevalent. 

Even Panini (around 1000 BCE to 500 BCE) says in one of his sutras (4-1-18), द्वयोर्मित्रयोरंपत्यम् द्वैमित्री (A son of two friends is called Dvaimitri).  If a friend "gives" his wife to his friend for the sake of "Graama-Dharma" and if she gets pregnant while dwelling with the friend, the resulting offspring is referred to as an offspring of two fathers and both the men have the responsibility of looking after his Brahmacharyashrama. Such offspring is called as "Dvaimitri" by Panini.

It appears that perhaps this custom was prevalent until Panini's time OR perhaps Panini too was referring to older examples. The purpose of Panini's works is codifying the grammar of language and not telling history. Hence it is possible that to make his grammar ironclad, he has cited a case from older times and given a name and grammatical solution of using that name in a sanskrit sentence. Either way, this custom was known to Indians (whether practiced or not, I am not sure) until the days of Panini. 

The custom of serving a friend OR a guest with women (if not one's wife) was practiced openly until 19th century. Even today, the "escort" services do the same thing, albeit in hushed tones. There are plenty of references from Mughal, Marathas and earlier era where a beautiful "Daasi" was sent in night to serve the friend or guest who was visiting the royal families.


As the commerce expanded, the circle of friends too expanded. Especially many of those belonging to the Vaishya varna of Grihastha-society, used to widely travel around and at times stay at friend's OR acquaintance's home. Thus the words Atithi and Mitra are usually used interchangeably. Atithi, more often than not, is a friend from far off who comes to stay. As said above, it was common custom among the rich and royal, to send a daasi to serve the Atithi. In 168th chapter of Shanti Parva of Mahabharat, there is a story of a brahmin named Gautama who was felicitated by a tribal leader by donating him a Daasi, along with other donations (food, clothes, cow etc). 

However, the story of evolution of the exclusion of the "other" and solidification of pair bond is narrated again by our Bhishma Pitamaha in Anushasana Parva of Mahabharat. It seems Bhishma gave the entire extract of his life to Yudhishthira while resting on his deathbed, the Shara-Shaiyya. In concise four stories, Bhishma explains to Yudhishthira how the stable pair-bond evolved and how the wedded partners started exerting the right of "ownership" upon each other. 

1. These stories occur in chapter 266 of Mahabharata's Anushaasan Parva. First story is that of a Rishi named "Sudarshan". Sudharshan says to his wife Oghavati," I have vowed to live in accordance of Grihastha-dharma. Hence, never be unpleasant to a guest. Even if the guest wishes, do not feel inhibited to have intercourse with him as pleasing the guest is your dharma and mine". Later, a guest arrives at Sudarshana's in his absence and proposes to have intercourse with Oghavati. She happily obliges and when Sudarshan returns he praises his wife and thanks her to have followed the "grihastha-dharma".

2. The next story which Bhishma narrates is that of Chirakaari. Chirakari was son of some Gautam Rishi. Once while Gautama was away from his Ashrama, Indra visited to have sex with Rishi's wife and left. When Gautam Rishi came to know of this, he was consumed by extreme rage. He ordered his son, Chirakaari, to kill his mother for this infidelity and went to deep forest to perform tapasya. Later when his anger vanished, he came back to his Ashrama. He saw that Chirakari had not killed his mother and Gautama praised his son to have shown the presence of "Vivekabuddhi" and praised his wife to have followed the Aatithya-dharma. There is a crucial difference in these two stories. Sudarshana did not feel angry for what his wife did. Gautama perceived this act as infidelity and was visibly outraged, although later he let this go and accepted wive's behavior as Dharmik.

3. The third story is actually a twin story. That of Gautama rishi (this time the famous one from Ramayana, the husband of Ahilya) who cursed her for her infidelity to become stone. Second is that of Jamadagni, Renuka and Parashurama. Renuka didn't even commit adultery, only momentarily looked at Chitrarath Gandharva with lustful eyes. Jamadagni saw through this and ordered his son Raamabhadra (who later came to known as Parashuraama) to cut off his mother's head. Unlike Chirkari, Parashurama actually beheaded his mother and Jamadagni saw it through. Thus, we see by this time, the pair-bond had become so strong that even the thought that wife OR mother  looking at other man with infidel intentions was not tolerated both by husband and son. 

4. Fourth story is of course, that of Sri Raama and Seeta. Seeta remained loyal to Sri Raama and vice-versa, in spite of being abducted by Raavana. Although Sri Raama was not sure of Seeta's character and asked her to perform Agni-Pariksha, he accepted her thereafter. The main indicator here is Seeta's resolution. It was the sense of belongingness and ownership over Seeta that inflamed Raama and made him move all the way from Maharashtra to Sri Lanka to reclaim her. Even Seeta was sure that Sri Raama would come to rescue her. 

IN these four stories, Pitaamaha Bhishma explains to Yudhishthira and us, how the human pair-bond evolved. My homage to this great soul. Sudarshan refers to that early stage of marriage institution which is symbolized by "Satya Yuga" as discussed in previous part of this series. Whereas Sri Raama and Seeta symbolize the matured and "institutionalized" form of stable human pair-bonding. This evolution happened with time.

In next and final part, discovery of fire, the institution of Yagna and its relation with Hindu Marriage institution will be discussed. 


Anonymous said...

Have you written the next part of series? Good writing. Your posts on BRF are amazing.

काय चालूये.. said...

I have not written the final part yet. I have gathered few notes but have not written it.. will do so by this month..

Thanks a lot for appreciation.. :)

manan said...

The evolution of marriage is directed by the material civilization and its needs. Society needs a range of characteristics in individuals and a balanced distribution of these traits to survive. That is why complex societies have stringent rules of marriage and do not let selection take its course. Aristocracies justify this by appeals to nobility and bloodlines the root cause of which is that traits required for complex organisations may not be found in sexually dominant creatures. If pure selection were to operate, the loss of these traits would cause society to collapse which is why hedonism is looked upon with increasing disfavour from simple to complex cultures

Akash said...
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