From Ram to Abram: A History of Hindu Marriage

Dr.Ambedkar being administeared the Oath by the first President of Indian Republic Dr.Rajendra Prasad. Jawahar Lal Nehru the then Prime Minister of India, looking on. (1947)

Ram was a hero. Abram was a coward who became the Patriarch of Judaism, Jesus, and Islam.

When kings Pharaoh and later Abimelech demanded his wife, Abraham, as he was later called, acquiesced without a murmur. To protect his own life, he sent Sarah into their harems (Genesis 12: 14–20, 20: 1–17) describing her as his sister. Then he followed pagan aristocrats and took concubines for himself (1 Chronicles 1: 28–34).

In contrast, when the “demon” king Ravan abducted Sita, Ram organized an army of monkeys, burnt down Lanka, killed his powerful enemy, and rescued his wife. That contrast is quite ironic, since it was not Ram but Abraham who has shaped the law that regulates modern Hindu marriage.

Abrahamic tradition, as taught by the Christian New Testament (though not by Judaism and Islam), redefined Hindu marriage because of the way Ram’s and Abraham’s narratives end: to protect his honor, Ram banished his wife while she was pregnant with twin boys. And, Abraham sent away his concubines and became loyal to his wife.

Before choosing monogamy, however, Abraham requested God to accept his concubine’s son as his heir. God rejected Abraham’s prayer because marriage is not a human construct that can be re-structured by human whim. If Abraham was to follow God, he had to learn that one man marrying one woman was divine design that had been corrupted by human sin.

Restoring the divine design for marriage was a part of God’s salvation that Abraham was to unfold in human history. Abraham became the Savior’s patriarch because he obeyed God and devoted himself to his wife. Naturally, the Bible’s language is discreet, but no mature reader can miss that in Genesis 17:15–19 and 18: 9–15 God commands an elderly Abraham to sleep with his wife, not with younger concubines.

Both Ram and Abram lived in cultures that accepted all sorts of marital perversions including polygamy and harems. Some of these corruptions, as we shall see, had been given highest religious status. But, God called Abraham to transform Canaan’s wicked cultures that respected neither the wife nor marriage.

In choosing Abraham, God restored what humans had lost due to sin. The Bible begins by telling us that God created “man” as male and female, to become “one flesh.” Husband and wife were not to be separated: either by one’s whims (1 Corinthians 7:3–5 and 10), or by another human being (Genesis 2:19–25).

Marriage in India
It is because of the Bible that independent India gave to Sita the right to reject Ram’s edict exiling her. Under The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, Section 9, a Sita can now sue Ram for her conjugal rights. Likewise, if this law had existed at the time, Kasturba could have sued Mahatma Gandhi for her right to have her husband sleep with her and not with other women in his ashram.

Because Hindutva leaders often lecture about a “Uniform Civil Code,” not many Hindus realize that the law giving a Hindu wife an exclusive right over her husband comes from the Bible. It overturned Hindu religious/cultural tradition, and was designed by the British to put in place a system of liberating laws that were just, clear, understandable. That became the reason for the Divorce Act, 1869, Section 32.

But didn’t Ram have only one wife?
In the time of the epics, Mahabharat and the Ramayan, it was normal for a girl to be married before she reached puberty. That was most likely the reason Sita became pregnant only after she was brought back from Lanka and not before. Her twins were born after she was banished, without being divorced. So, did her young husband live as a celibate after expelling her?

Different answers to that question are given by more than three hundred different versions of Ram’s story. However, what these versions seem to agree upon is that after Sita’s twins had grown up, Ram followed his father’s example and performed the Ashvamedha Yagya (the Horse Sacrifice). The yagya, explained in Yajurveda, required the Chief Queen to spend a night, with the sacrificed horse, naked and mimicking copulation, while three naked queens went around the horse, uttering obscenities. The queens were then given away to the priests. (See Ralph Thomas Hotchkin Griffith, The Texts of the White Yajurveda [Munshiram Manoharlal], and Arthur Berridale Keith, The Veda of the Black Yajus School Entitled Taittiriya Sanhita, [Oxford]).

While Sita’s idol may have been used in this sacred ritual, is it possible that self-respecting priests would perform this most powerful yagya if they got idols instead of queens? Why would they violate the Vedas at their own expense?

Since Brahmin priests cannot corrupt their most magical ritual, the Jain Ramayan makes better sense of the story that after expelling Sita, Ram took 8,000 wives, and the chief queens were: “Maithili, Prabhavati, Ratinibha, and Sridama” (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramayana#Jain_version.)

Even if Ram performed the yagya only symbolically and not in a scripturally prescribed manner, the indisputable point is that the Ram–Sita model did not inspire Hindu Scriptures or tradition to define marriage as monogamy (an exclusive and lifelong relationship between one man and one woman).

Keshab Chandra Sen and the Battle for Reforming Hindu Marriage
The 1869 Act mentioned above intensified the movement to reform the Hindu world. The pioneers of the nineteenth century social reform movement had not opposed polygamy mainly because they were Kulin Brahmins. The first reformer, Raja Rammohun Roy (1772–1833), had already been married to three wives before he was nine years old.

By the 1850s, thinkers–activists such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820–1891) had begun to publicly agree with Christian missionaries that polygamy was evil. They could see that their culture allowed elderly Kulin Brahmins to marry prepubescent and teenage girls even after they were already on their deathbeds.

Since Brahmanism had banned widow-remarriage from ancient times, after Lord Bentinck banned Sati in 1829 these girls were left with few options once they became widows. They could live as domestic slaves in their homes or choose freedom as prostitutes. In 1853 it was estimated that 12,718 brave women had chosen the freedom to serve men as “public women.” Such awful social realities prompted Bengali reformer Keshab Chandra Sen (1838–1884) to consider what Abraham’s son, Jesus Christ, had done for the women in Europe and America.

Sen was attracted to the Christian principle that marriage should be a lifelong and exclusive union between one man and one woman and that a widow should be free to study, work, and remarry, including outside her caste. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French magistrate who visited the United States of America in 1831–32, had already explained why the US was surging ahead of Europe: it was because American Christianity had pursued biblical ideals of womanhood and marriage more faithfully than Europe (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America trans. George Lawrence, ed. J. P. Mayer, HarperPerennial, 1988, Vol II, p. 603)

Keshab’s campaign in favor of monogamy infuriated his upper caste patrons such as Debendranath Tagore (1817–1905). India’s British rulers agreed that India would progress if it became illegal for a Hindu to have more than one wife. But the “Mutiny” of 1857 had made the British so nervous that they could not muster the courage to ban polygamy. The best that the government could do was to enact the “Special Marriages Act of, 1872 (Act No. III of 1872)” patterned after the Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872.

Since Hindus insisted on safeguarding their option of polygamy, this Special Marriage Act was designed “to provide a form of marriage for persons who do not profess the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Parsi, Buddhist, Sikh or Jaina religion”. That is, the Act was designed for sects such as Brahmo Samaj that had been enlightened by Christ. The Act’s key provisions were the same as that of the Christian Marriage Act. A person could not be married under this Act if he or she already had a living spouse. The female had to be at least 15 years old and the male had to be at least 18.

It was this 1872 Act that formally split the first sect that tried to reform India by Christianizing Hinduism (Brahmo Samaj) into two factions, one led by Tagore and the other by Sen. In 1951 it also caused a split between Nehru and Ambedkar. Only in 1955 did Nehru and Ambedkar succeed in transforming the Christian marriage law of 1872 into the current Hindu Marriage Law.

Ambedkar and the Reform of Hindu Marriage
After 1872, it took seven decades for the British to muster the courage in 1946 to draft a bill to reform Hindu marriage. But it was too late for them to focus attention on India’s social problem. People had begun to perceive the British rule as India’s bigger problem. Therefore, after India became independent, Nehru accepted it as his responsibility to liberate Indian women from the slavery the culture had inflicted on them.

content_ambedkarYet, during the debates in the Constituent Assembly, it was Dr. Ambedkar who demonstrated the resolve to reform Indian society. His studies in the USA and UK had enabled him to attest the validity of Tocqueville’s observation that monogamy was the force that emancipated women. Therefore, he commended the adoption of a Civil Code that would ban polygamy. He must have anticipated that Muslim members of the Assembly would oppose him. Since Mohammed had thirteen wives, besides concubines and sex-slaves, no Muslim could say that polygamy was wrong on moral grounds. What Ambedkar did not expect was the Kulin opposition to having only one wife. Their resistance became a mountain that Ambedkar could not move.

Dr. Ambedkar tried to get the Constituent Assembly to affirm moral principles such as: equality between men and women on the question of property; that a husband should not be able to throw out one wife simply to get a second dowry and that there ought to be concrete justification for a divorce petition. The Kulin Brahmins controlled the Congress as well as leaders such as, Rajendra Prasad and Vallabh Bhai Patel. Therefore, the best that Ambedkar could get into the Constitution was an article of the Directive Principles stipulating that: „The State shall endeavour to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India.”

content_nehruAs Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru agreed with his the then Law Minister, Dr. Ambedkar, India could not be modernized without transforming Hindu marriage. Therefore, he encouraged Ambedkar to bring before the Parliament a bill to reform Hindu Marriage. When some members of his own party objected, Nehru announced that his government would resign if Ambedkar’s bill was not passed. After prolonged consultations, the Bill was introduced on September 17, 1951. It triggered a debate that exposed the hostility of the traditionalist Congressmen to any major attempt at reforming India.

Ambedkar heard the debate in Parliament for four days before giving a passionate speech that went as far as questioning the morality of Lord Ram and his wife Sita. Boldly, he mentioned that the extra-marital relationship of Krishna and Radha indicated the degraded condition in which Hinduism maintained its women. This turned the conservative MPs against him, just as Tagore’s party had opposed Sen in the 1870s.

By September 25, amendments had completely deformed the portion of the Hindu Code Bill concerning marriage and divorce. Therefore, it had to be buried without Nehru uttering any protest. For him, democracy was the art of compromise. For Ambedkar, a historic opportunity had been lost for emancipating women and nurturing strong families, children, and the economy. So, on September 27 he resigned from Nehru’s government. In a press release a few days later, Ambedkar said that Nehru had backtracked under his own party’s pressure, “I have never seen a case of a chief whip so disloyal to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister so loyal to a disloyal whip….” On his part, Nehru feared that Brahmin MPs, who dominated the Congress, would reject the attempted reform en bloc, and that Rajendra Prasad, then the President of India, might carry out his threat and refuse to sign the new bill into law.

Such real life experiences taught Dr. Ambedkar that while politics was helpful and necessary, it was naïve to rely on democracy to change society. God’s Ten Commandments require us to neither commit adultery nor covet a neighbor’s wife, precisely because such covetousness is a part of sinful human nature. The New Testament agrees that monogamy is for the spiritually mature. True love is not chemistry; it is a gift of divine grace.

Why did monogamy become the cultural norm in some Western societies? It is neither because of education nor because of economics but because of mass spiritual awakenings or “revivals” of true biblical spirituality. Now, amid a decline of the West’s cultural foundations, the norm is becoming abnormal. Secularization assumes that cultural power, not God’s word, must determine how one lives. That makes Ram and Krishna more attractive than Christ, who said, that any man who looks at a woman lustfully, commits adultery in his heart, and any man who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her a victim of adultery (Matthew 5: 27-32). Freeing men from the cultural authority of the Bible is turning western men into boys—playboys—who take little responsibility for their playmates or for the children they bring into the womb or the world. When men become playboys, women become “Desperate Housewives.”

”But Doesn’t Hindutva Champion a “Uniform Civil Code?”
Hindutva does demand that the Constitutional policy of Directive Principles should be given teeth and turned into a law binding on all Indians. This stance, however, does not reflect any change of heart.

Rather than opposing polygamy per se, Hindutva fights primarily to make it hard for fellow Hindus to convert to Islam. The reason for this that after The Christian Marriage Act of 1872, morphed into The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, it became hard for a Hindu to take a second wife. Many found that the easiest way to have more wives was to convert to Islam.

Hindutva did not act on its rhetoric because the Supreme Court has made it easy for aHindu to take a second woman (see “Hindu Men, Monogamy and Uniform Civil Code”, Flavia Agnes, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 30, No. 50, Dec 16, 1995). All that a man has to do is hire a clever priest who will ensure that a second-marriage ceremony cannot be proven to have been a proper Hindu marriage. As a result his second “wife” becomes, from a legal point of view, an unmarried consort, like Krishna’s Radha or Shiva’s Parvati.

Dr. Ambedkar was right: politics can change only the law. It has no power to change our hearts or a culture. He advocated religious conversion because he knew that all religions are not the same. Like secular ideologies, ‘religions’ are also created to control, or even exploit. It is only Truth that liberates and transforms.

Vishal Mangalwadi is the author of 
Truth and Transformation: A Manifesto for Ailing Nations

website: www.RevelationMovement.com; email:vm1212@gmail.com
An abridged version of this article has been published in Hindi and English
in the July 2012 issue of FORWARD Press (New Delhi)

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