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Hindu History

- Our Ancient Customs (Part - 2)

Dwanda-Vivaha (Monogamous Marriage) And Worship of the Mother Goddesses

by Sudheer Birodkar

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Table of Contents

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In the earlier chapter we saw how our practices of Yagna, Dana and Gotra came into being. In this chapter we shall see look at the institution of monogamous marriage. Marriage is one institution that is looked upon as sacred and having existed from time immemorial. This is one aspect of culture which has never been treated lightly in traditional literature.

Marriage - a divine knot sanctified by fire

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.

Marriage has been looked upon as having been made in heaven. In India we look upon it as a divine knot sanctified by fire.

In a traditional society such as ours 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.

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. Traditionally an Indian wife has been portrayed as being devoted to her husband and who owes her position entirely to her husband. Traditionally a Hindu wife was independently considered a non-entity. The new found consciousness has pinpointed this aspect of Indian tradition and has made marriage a sort of bondage for the female partner. This assessment of marriage is more or less a factual one but it creates a wrong impression of marriage as having originated as a subjugation among the sexes.

In Matriarchy of the Past the Mother was Socially Paramount

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 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 (including primates) are promiscuous 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, 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 in the form of Cattle

Later on with the domestication of cattle, life centered around the tending of cattle and Gotra as an institution came into being. With property still being held collectively but its ownership now being limited to endogamous clans; 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, Marriage was limited to members of the clan and marriage with members of another clan was looked upon with hostility As the wealth of clan grew by plunder and increase in productive power, the male sex acquired the role of custodians of clan property.


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 identifiable by a male member.

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.

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. According to Bheeshma during the Kritayuga, there existed marriage by Samakalpa (promiscuity) during the next age the there was marriage by Samasparsha (group marriage) in the following yuga the marriage form was termed Maithuna (restricted marriage which included marriage within a Gotra) and finally in Kaliyuga we have Dwanda (monogamous marriage).

Polyandry in the Mahabharata

But even after monogamy became an established practice, occasionally people must have reverted to practices of polygamy, polyandry and promiscuity.

In a Matriarchy the seniormost lady in a tribe/clan was recognised as the leader. Patriarchy replaced Matriarchy as Accumulation of Property made Monogamous Marriage a Social Necessity

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. A1though 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. In brief this episode is as follows:

Each of the Pandava princes had specialised on one of the martial arts. Arjuna had specialised in the art of archery. Once when the five Pandava brothers had gone off to an excursion, news reached them that a king of the neighbouring country had organised a Swayamvara (a contest in which the ablest of the suitors weds the bride to be). In that particular Swayamvara the contest was of archery in which an artificial fish was attached to a revolving disc which was suspended over a pool of water. The successful archer had to look at the reflection of the rotating fish in the water and get his arrow right into the eye of the fish. This feat, the Pandava brothers decided was for Arjuna to take up. Accordingly the brothers arrived at the Swayamvara where the best of archers had assembled. After many of the master archers had been humbled as none of them could make to the fish's eye, came off the champion of them all - the unmistatable - Arjuna. Much to the amazement of the audience, Arjuna's arrow found its mark and Arjuna carried away Draupadi - the beautiful bride to be. Thus the Pandava princes arrived at their palace with Arjuna carrying his precious Draupadi.

Wanting to surprise his mother Kunti, Arjuna called out to her and asked her to guess what he had won while at the excursion. When Arjuna had called out, Kunti was at prayer with her back towards Arjuna. Innocent that she was as to what Arjuna was referring to, she gave her usual blessing that whatever he might have won he would share equally with all his four brothers. Confounded as she was when she discovered what Arjuna was referring to she could not revoke a blessing once given; for that would anger the Gods. And then the mother's word being law for the Pandavas Arjuna decided to implement what his mother had pronounced.This was how the five Pandava brothers came to wed one woman - Draupadi.

The practice of Swayamvara itself seems to be a carry-over of the days of group marriage when men and women assembled together and selected their partner who was to be their companion for a brief period. In later days (i.e in Kaliyuga) when monogamy (i.e Dwanda) became the established practice, the custom of selecting one's partner continued but now the choice made was a lifetime one. That monogamy (Dwanda) is associated with Kaliyuga is itself eloquent. Kaliyuga is identified as the age when man is immobile and prostrate, implying that he has reached a settled civilized stage. It is only when riparian agriculture has become man's vocation does he finally settle down.

A hunter's way of life is associated with constant migration in search of prey, a pastoral way of life is semi-settled, semi-nomadic as man still has to move about in search for better pastures for his cattle. Thus agriculture, a settled way of life and monogamy, go together. With the coming of agriculture, the quantum of wealth also grew substantially and got concentrated in the hands of the powerful. In this scenario, inheritance from father to son became an established custom as patriarchy and father-right have taken the place of matriarchy. In such an environment it is but natural that descent or lineage is recognised from the father's side i.e it is patri-lineal and that the son inherits property that belongs to his father. Daughters generally have no share in their father's or husband's property, as that always passes to mate descendants. The property of a deceased male would normally go to his brothers and not to his wife if she has no sons. In case she has sons the property would devolve on them when they attain majority. Such view points are present in the Mitakshara school of Hindu law which has been the dominant one in most parts of India as against the less significant Dayabhaga school of law which grants women the rights to property.

The Mahabharata is taken as the watershed between the Dwapar Yuga and Kali Yuga. Our entire history since the MahAbharata is enveloped in Kaliyuga, one of whose characteristics is Dwanda the monogamous marriage. But in ancient times monogamy was often flouted and natural love was given a free rein. We hear of innumerable instances of Gods and seers making love to nymphs for sensual pleasures. The episodes of Vishwamitra-Menaka, Surya-Kunti, etc., form part of our folklore. It would be interesting to recount the episode of Vishwamitra, and Menaka here.


The Love Story of Sage Vishwamitra and the Celestial Nymph Menaka

This story typifies the laxity that prevailed in earlier times and which was significant enough to be immortalised in folklore and religion.

Vishwamitra was one of the important sages of India in ancient times. Incidentally, he was born a king and due to penances he acquired the status of a Brahmin. To please the Gods, he once retired to the forest and lived the life of a recluse for years together. As the years passed in meditation and penance (Tapascharya), so powerful became his meditation that the Gods felt their position becoming insecure. To guard their interests, the Gods decided to make Vishwamitra give up his meditation. Towards this end they employed the services of the celestial nymph Menaka and asked her to go and use her charms to make give up his meditation.

With this malicious intent Menaka came down to Vishwamitra'a abode and exercised her charms for enchanting the meditating Vishwamitra. Oblivious of her intent, the unsuspecting Vishwamitra, human that he was, he gave in, to the damsels distracting advances. Once she had tripped Vishwamitra by capturing his coveted attention Menaka successfully proceeded to dismantle his shield against wordly passions, and finally sealed the fate of the unfortunate Vishwamitra's meditation, when by Vishwamitra she conceived a child. Realising that his meditation had gone to pieces, Viswamitra was furious, but the irreparable damage had been done. Menaka gave birth to a chubby girl whom she named Shakuntala.

Having completed her deed , Menaka returned to the abode of the Gods, but she had to / leave her child Shakuntala behind and as Vishwamitra disowned the child and went back to his soul searching meditation, Menaka decided to leave her child at an ashrama (traditional Hindu monastery for imparting education). At the ashrama Shakuntala grew up to become a lovely maiden and lived a happy life among friends, flowers and her pet deer and rabbits. One day it so happened that Dushyanta the king of that country had come to the forest on a hunt. Pursuing a wild boar he ran into the ashrama where Shakuntala lived and his eyes fell on a handsome fully grown male deer whom he immediately made a target of his arrow. As the deer fell crying out in agony, Shakuntala rushed out and was shocked to find her, favourite pet in pain. She hurriedly removed the arrow and tried to comfort the hurt deer. This moving sight of a maiden's affection for her pet touched Dushyanta's tender feelings and coming before Shakuntala he prayed for being pardoned.

Magnanimously, Shakuntala pardoned him on condition that he stay in the ashrama for a few days and tend the deer whom he had wounded, to which readily agreed. In the serene environment of the ashrama, Dushyanta's affection for Shakuntala grew into romance and finally he asked for her hand in marriage. With the consent of the elders, their nuptials were duly solemnized. After a few days Dushyanta received news that all was not well in his capital and he had to perforce return, promising to come back after a few days and take Shakuntala with him. Before taking her leave Dushyanta gave Shakuntala his ring as a remembrance. In anticipation of the happy day when her beloved would return to reclaim her, Shakuntala spent her days dreaming about him.

During one such moods when she was oblivious of the happenings around her, a famous but short tempered sage visited the ashrama and saw Shakuntala sitting at the doorstep. The sage stood before her for sometime but she failed to become aware of his presence. Angered by this breach of hospitality, he cursed her that the person whom she was thinking about would forget her, so saying the sage turned to leave. But fortunately one of Shakuntala's friends heard the sage's curse and explained to him the reason for her behaviour. Mollified by the explanation the sage added that in spite of the curse Shakuntali's beloved would recognise her if she showed him any article which the said person had given her.

Shakuntala's days passed in dreaming about her beloved. During those days she realised to her joy that she had conceived Dushyanta's child. Days turned to weeks and weeks to months but the much awaited visit from Dustyanta did not materialise. Her patience at the end of its tether, Shakuntala decided to wait no longer and to go to Dushyanta. Along with her foster father, teacher and some of her mates she set out to Dushyanta's palace. On the way the entourage had to cross a river which they did by hiring a canoe. Thrilled by the pristine emerald blue waters, Shakuntala could not resist waiding her fingers through them. Unknowingly the ring given to her by Dushyanta slipped off into the river and lost in her bliss Shakuntala proceeded to the palace. At the palace, Dushyanta failed to recognise Shakuntala, as a result of the curse. Shocked at Dushyanta's unexpected behaviour, Shakuntala was dumbfounded.

After fruitlessly trying to persuade Dushyanta, the disgraced Shakuntala left the palace. Out of shame she decided to live alone in an isolated place where she gave birth to a chubby boy whom she named Bharata.

The boy grew up with his mother and was extremely fearless. In his isolated home his only playmates were the lion and tiger cubs who moved about in the forest. This brave boy Bharata cultivated the hobby of opening the mouths of the cubs and counting their teeth. Meanwhile in Dushyanta's palace a fisherman came carrying the ring which was given to Shakuntala by Dushyanta at their wedding. The fisherman had found the ring in the stomach of a large fish that he had caught and seeing the royal emblem carved on it had brought it to the palace. Seeing this ring revived Dushyanta's lost memory of Shakuntala and he rushed to the Ashrama to reclaim her.

Remorse enveloped him when he came to know that Shakuntala no longer stayed there. As providence had willed it, after a few years while on a hunt, he saw the strange sight of a boy holding open the jaws of a lion cub and trying to count its teeth. Wondering as to whose son he was, Dushyanta got down from his mount and asked the boy his name. Astonished that he was on being told by the boy that he was Bharata son of King Dushyanta the ruler of the land; Dushyanta's astonishment gave way to overwhelming pleasure when he saw Shakuntala emerging from the hut nearby. The family came together in a joyous reunion. And this brave boy grew up to be a powerful and benevolent king the memory of whose rule was immortalized by our country being known since ancient times as Bharatvarsha - named after one of its great king's Bharata.

This episode is one of the many in Indian history and mythology which depict an environment in which natural love was given free rein in earlier times. This was in contrast to the restrictive and puritanical attitude that has prevailed over the ages till today


WORSHIP OF THE MOTHER-GODDESS

Hinduism is one of the few religions in which worship of independent Goddesses survives. Religions with a dated origin like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism Judaism do not recognise worship of Goddesses. This form of worship of Goddesses, survives only in those religions which preserve a continuous link with antiquity. In Hinduism Goddesses are associated with every major God, for instance Parvati with Shiva, Laxmi with Vishnu, Saraswati with Brahma, etc. Worship of these Goddesses takes place along with that of the Gods. But there is another form of worship of Goddesses who are not associated with any God, like Goddess Durga, Kali, Ambika, Chandi, Bhavani, etc. The names are many and they permeate through our mythologies.

Independent Goddesses were Worshipped all over the Ancient World

But this worship of mother-Goddess is not limited to India. It is found in most of the ancient civilizations. In Mesopotemia there was the cult of Ishtar, in Greece there was Athena or Pallas Athene. In pre-Islamic Arabia, independent Goddesses were worshipped. On of them was named Mann'at. But only in modern India has this method of survived in a significant way. There are shrines all over India dedicated Goddesses alone. We have the shrine of Vaishno-devi in Kashmir, Meenakshi and Kanyatumari in the South, Ambejogai in Maharashtra etc.

Apart from the many standard names for Goddesses like Durga and Kali there are many local cults where the presiding Goddess has her own specific name for instance in Maharashtra (Western India) we have many local deities with names such as , Tukai, Vithai, Mumbai, etc. The suffix "ai" means "mother". In Northern India the suffix "ma" is used which also means mother.

The Goddess Gayatri.

Hinduism is one of the few religions in which worship of independent Goddesses survives. Religions with a dated origin like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism Judaism do not recognise worship of Goddesses. This form of worship of Goddesses, survives only in those religions which preserve a continuous link with antiquity. In Hinduism Goddesses are associated with every major God, for instance Parvati with Shiva, Laxmi with Vishnu, Saraswati with Brahma, etc. Worship of these Goddesses takes place along with that of the Gods. But there is another form of worship of Goddesses who are not associated with any God, like Goddess Durga, Kali, Ambika, Chandi, Bhavani, etc. The names are many and they permeate through our mythologies.

But this worship of mother-Goddess is not limited to India. It is found in most of the ancient civilizations. In Mesopotemia there was the cult of Ishtar, in Greece there was Athena or Pallas Athene. In pre-Islamic Arabia also, independent Goddesses were worshipped. One of them was named Mann'at.

This is a common feature in the worship of Goddess that they are all referred to as mother. Surprisingly, very few Gods if at all, are referred to as father. Another significant point is that most of these Goddesses are worshipped in their own right and not because they are the consorts or subsidiaries of some male God. In most cases they are not even associated with any male God. This independent stature of the Goddesses along with their being referred to as 'mother' has a tale behind it.

As mentioned earlier, in the long process of biological and social evolution of humans from the lower species we inherited and adapted the instincts of the lower species. As far as intercourse between the sexes is concerned, all species are promiscuous and to begin with even man must have been so. In an environment where promiscuity exists, the line of descent between generations is recognizable only through the mother, the father being indeterminable. Crude as it may seem today, in the distant past it must have been very much real. The structure of a promiscuous society logically has to be matriarchal, with the mother having a special status; she being the only recognized parent. Consequently the senior most female in a group (tribe) is looked upon as the head (matriarch} of the tribe.

At that rude and crude state of society, when human knowledge was at a primitive level, the process of procreation was one that generated awe and respect. Witnessing of the fact that it is the female who conceives and begets both males and females must have been another reason why various cults of fertility worship came into being. The process of intercourse between the sexes also became an object of worship in some cases as in the Linga and Yoni that are represented in a Shivalinga. The parallel between the female (mother) giving birth to a child as a result of intercourse and the earth sprouting plants after sowing of seeds elevated both the mother and the earth to a divine status.

Worship of fertility, virginity and the process of intercourse was interlocked with the worship of the mother-Goddess and earth looked upon as mother (of the plants). The terms mother-earth and motherland (Matrubhoomi) that have come down to us throw light on the closeness of the two for primitive minds. Indian mythology is replete with stories that portray Goddesses as being superior to males with supernatural qualities. These males though portrayed as demons have an ambiguous relation with the male deities of later times. One such story is about Goddess Durga which in brief is as follows :

Once the king of the Asuras (demons), Mahisha (meaning buffalo) or Mahishaura undertook severe penances. So powerful were his penances that the Brahmadeva, the God of Creation had to appear before him and ask what he desired. When Brahma appeared before him, Mahisha asked for being granted immortality, which Brahma could not grant, as all being who are - born have to die. Then Mahisha asked him that his death should be at the hands of a woman only. This boon was granted by Brahma. Mahisha was gleeful as this boon meant that he was as good as immortal, the chances of a brute like him being killed at the hands of a lady being very slender.

His boon being been granted, he set about his pre-planned schemes, the first being to capture heaven from its lord - Indradeva. With a powerful army he marched on heaven and as the boon made his death impossible, he could defeat the Gods and capture heaven. Having driven the Gods from heaven, Mahisha started harassing the people who worshipped the Gods, they were now forced to pay obeisance to Mahisha . The harassed people approached the Gods who in turn approached Shiva and together they decided to create a female Goddess on whom they bestowed their combined power and sent her to destroy Mahisha.

This Goddess who was Durga approached the heavens occupied by Mahisha and challenged him to come and battle with her.

Mahishasura Mardini Durga.

In his battle with Durga, Mahisha decided to defeat her by deception. Suddenly taking on the form of a buffalo he charged at her, but Durga was ready and with perfect agility she pinned down the buffalo to the ground. Realising that his game was up, Mahisha tried to take on his original form and escape from Durga's clutches. But Durga was too fast for him and before he could change himself completely to his original form, she hacked off his neck and as a result the corpse of Mahisha was half man and half buffalo. From that time onwards Durga also came to be known as Mahishasura Mardini (the Killer of Mahishasura).

Amused at seeing a lone female come forth to challenge him Mahisha sent his trusted lieutenants to take up this challenge. But Durga annihilated them one after another. Exasperated Mahisha finally sent his most powerful lieutenant demon Raktabeeja to destroy Durga.

Raktabeeja was no ordinary demon, as he had also been granted a boon that in any battle, whenever a drop of his blood fell on the ground, another demon like him would issue forth from that drop of blood. While battling him, Durga had to face an increasing number of demons. She realized that this demon could not be dispatched off in the ordinary way. So she took on the form of the fierce Maha-Kali, who would lick every drop of blood that fell from the body of Raktabeeja. This prevented Raktabeeja's boon from being realised and thus Raktabeeja was also eliminated.

On seeing his last hope Raktabeeja dead, Mahisha himself set out to deal with Durga himself. Mighty that both of them were they fought to a standstill with neither making progress.

Losing patience Mahisha decided to defeat Durga by deception. Suddenly taking on the form of a buffalo he charged at her, but Durga was ready and with perfect agility she pinned down the buffalo to the ground. Realising that his game was up, Mahisha tried to take on his original form and escape from Durga's clutches. But Durga was too fast for him and before he could change himself completely to his original form, she hacked off his neck and as a result the corpse of Mahisha was half man and half buffalo. From that time onwards Durga also came to be known as Mahishasura Mardini (the Killer of Mahishasura).


This is one of the many episodes in Indian mythology that extoll the deeds of a Goddess in slaying of a male demon) who is shown to have supernatural powers An interesting parallel to this story is that of Parvati trampling dead the ageing Shiva and as a result of her vivifying tread Shiva is reborn as a young man whose consort Parvati becomes. The fact that Shiva is also known as Mahesha which very evidently is cloae to Mahisha gives credence to the idea that the Mahisha and Shiva were originally one person and their separation was brought about later when Shiva was accepted as a member of the divine pantheon. This could be a result of the fact that worship of the mother-Goddess is older than worship of male deities. This elevation of males who were earlier portrayed as demons and enemies of the mother-goddesses could have made necessary disentangling the personality of the male demon from that of the male God which was later given to him. But nevertheless some lingering evidences did survive.

CONCLUSION

These are a few aspects of our multifarious culture that originated in a tribal ethos and which survived in later ages in the form of rituals which had lost the bonds with actual life which they once had. All ages that humankind has passed through, have made their contribution in adding some components to human culture. But in most cases these components lost their link with actual life as those circumstances which gave birth to the customs and beliefs passed out with the changing way of life. But the customs themselves survived as rituals and became insulated against the changes in the society around them.

Now we move on to examine how the Hindu Caste System originated in Vedic Times.

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Sudheer Birodkar

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