Kathasaritsagara (the Ocean of Story)

by Somadeva | 1924 | 1,023,469 words | ISBN-13: 9789350501351

This is the English translation of the Kathasaritsagara written by Somadeva around 1070. The principle story line revolves around prince Naravāhanadatta and his quest to become the emperor of the Vidhyādharas (‘celestial beings’). The work is one of the adoptations of the now lost Bṛhatkathā, a great Indian epic tale said to have been composed by ...

Note on polyandry

Note: this text is extracted from Book III, chapter 15.

For the sake of readers who are unacquainted with the plot of the world’s greatest epic I may, perhaps, be excused for beginning this note with a very brief outline of the events in the first book of the Mahābhārata, which has already been so often quoted in Volume I.

The Mahābhārata, meaning “great poem relating to the Bharatas,” consists of eighteen parvans, or books, made up of about 400,000 verses of eight and eleven syllables each.

The outline of the story up to the polyandrous marriage of Draupadī, mentioned in our text, is as follows:—

There once lived in the country of the Bharatas, in the city of Hastināpura (about sixty miles north-east of the modern Delhi), two princes named Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Pāṇḍu. Their uncle, Bhīṣma, governed the kingdom until they came of age. Legally the eldest brother, Dhṛtarāṣṭra, should have ruled, but he was born blind and so his younger brother took his place. There was also a third brother named Vidura, but as his mother was only a Śūdra woman he could not succeed. Dhṛtarāṣṭra married Gāndhārī, the daughter of King Subala of Gāndhāra.

Pāṇḍu had two wives, Pṛthā, or Kuntī, and Mādrī, daughter of the King of \ladra. After a series of most successful campaigns Pāṇḍu retired with his wives to the Himālayas, leaving the reins of government in the hands of his blind brother, and his uncle Bhīṣma as regent.

Both brothers had sons by supernatural birth. Dhṛtarāṣṭra had a hundred sons, called Kauravas, or Kuru princes, while Pāṇḍu had but five—three from Kuntī, named Yudhiṣṭhira, Bhīma and Arjuna, and two from Mādrī, who were twins, Nakula and Sahadeva.

While the five princes were still but children, their father Pāṇḍu died as the result of the fulfilment of a curse. On hearing of this misfortune Dhṛtarāṣṭra took his brother’s wives and children under his care, and brought up the latter with his own hundred sons. Owing to the general superiority in all feats of strength of the Pāṇḍu princes, inordinate jealousy of their cousins finally led to Arjuna and his brothers leaving Hastināpura. They lived at Ekācakrā, disguised as mendicant Brahmans. From there they went to the Court of King Drupada, whose beautiful daughter Draupadī was about to hold her svayaṃvara (marriage by choice). Only the man who could perform a certain great feat in archery could win her. All Dhṛtarāṣṭra’s sons tried and failed, and Arjuna alone succeeded in filling the conditions of the contest.

We now come to the incident which is supposed to have caused the polyandrous marriage of Draupadī.

The five Pāṇḍus returned to their mother with Draupadī, and she, thinking they had merely brought back alms, called out from within the house: “Share the gift between you.” This command of a parent was law, and accordingly Arjuna informed Drupada that he and his four brothers were going to have his daughter in common The king was taken aback, and begged the brothers not to commit an act that was sinful and opposed both to usage and the Vedas. At this juncture the illustrious Ṛslii Vyāsa appears and, by relating the supernatural history of both the Pāṇḍus and Draupadī herself, shows that in reality the five Pāṇḍus originated in a single divine being. Thus the proposed marriage was not really polyandrous, and so could be consummated without breach of propriety or transgression against the sacred Vedas. Examples of similar marriages in the past are quoted, and finally the marriage takes place.

This brings us to the consideration of the practice of polyandry, which is the subject of this note.

From the above story it is clear that the practice was regarded with disfavour by the Aryans. If it did occur, it was necessary to explain it away, or to prove that it was not a true case of polyandry. In fact the practice can be described as non-Aryan. It was certainly non-Vedic, and was strongly opposed by the Brāhmans.

On the other hand, it was not denounced in the Sūtras, though we must not infer from this that the Pāṇḍus lived before they were composed.

Polyandry was practised by both the Tibetans and Dravidians, and this fact has often been brought forward to explain the reference to the polyandrous marriage in the Mahābhārata. It has been suggested that, as the Pāṇḍus were themselves a northern hill tribe or family, probably they were really polyandrous, and needed no excuse. The Pānḍavas were of the Kṣatriya caste and enjoyed the lowest forms of marriage sanctioned by Manu; thus they would have little scruple in imitating the practices of the peoples they conquered, especially as the number of their own women was bound to be very limited. The subject is an interesting one, especially when we remember that in modern times the practice is almost entirely confined to the Indian Empire and Tibet.

In speaking of any form of human marriage it is as well to explain the exact scope of the terms employed. For instance, the word polygamy is now used as a generic term to include all forms of marriage which are non-monogamic, and not merely that form in which a single husband has more than one wife.

There are three distinct forms of polygamy:

  1. Polygyny, where one man has more than one wife.
  2. Polyandry, where one woman has more than one husband.
  3. Communal -or group- marriage, in which there is more than one husband and more than one wife in a single household.

In a true case of polyandry, therefore, the woman must be married to more than one husband, and not merely have one husband and several lovers. In India it is not so easy as it may appear to ascertain whether a woman is properly married or not. We have already seen that in various localities dēva-dāsīs are married (Vol. I, App. IV) to idols, knives, drums, etc., and in making up their statistical tables, reporters of the Census of India were in considerable doubt as to how to classify them.

Among the Nairs or Nāyars of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar, marriage may mean either the formal ceremony of tying a tāli round the neck of a girl, known as tālikaṭṭu; or the ceremony of actual alliance as husband and wife, known as sambandham.

For an interesting account of polyandry in Malabar, reference should be made to M. Long worth Dames’ translation of the Book of Duarte Barbosa, published for the Hakluyt Society, 1918, 1921, vol. ii, pp. 40, 40n2, 42, 42nl, 43, 59, 59n2, 60 , 61n2. The passages are most ably annotated by Dames, and many useful references are given.

Although polyandry can be described as non-existent among the Nāyars of to-day (except perhaps in certain remote country parts), its prevalence has been repeatedly testified by travellers and missionaries from the fifteenth century onwards. The two distinct marriage ceremonies have always existed, but the significance of the second has apparently greatly changed. The tālikaṭṭu took place (and still does) before the girl attains puberty, and the tāli is tied by a mock bridegroom. The second ceremony was a kind of official leave for the girl to cohabit with any Brāhman or Nāyar she chose. Such men were in no way related; consequently this system of polyandry, if so it can be called, is known as non-fraternal.

The more usual variety of polyandry is that in which the woman marries the head of a family of brothers, the younger ones sharing the marital rights. This “fraternal polyandry” is still found widely disseminated in Tibet and the neighbouring Himālayan regions, as well as among the Todas of the Nilgiri hills. Full references and adequate accounts of polyandry in these regions, as well as evidence from the Pacific Islands, and isolated cases in Africa and elsewhere, have been collected and admirably presented by Westermarck in his History of Human Marriage, fifth edition, 1921, vol. iii, chapters xxix and xxx.

Thus there is no need for repetition here. It will suffice to enumerate briefly the different suggestions put forward to explain polyandry and to add any fresh reference of importance.

We will take fraternal polyandry first. The most usual explanation given is excess of males over females. This has been found to exist in most localities where polyandry occurs—viz. Siberia, Turkestan, Tibet, Mongolia, North and Central Bhutan, on the Sikkim-Bengal frontier, among the Todas and in Coorg in South India. It has also been noticed in the New Hebrides, the Bismarck Archipelago, the Hawaian Islands and New Caledonia.

Some of the other possible causes of polyandry may be looked for in the factors which have produced this shortage of women.

For the 1921 Census of India the following causes of the low proportion of females to males in the Indian Empire were suggested as a basis for inquiry:—

  1. Infanticide.
  2. Neglect of female children.
  3. Evil effects of early marriage and premature child-bearing.
  4. High birth-rate and primitive methods of midwifery.
  5. Hard treatment accorded to women, especially widows.
  6. Hard work done by women.

The reports showed that the two commonest causes of paucity of females were Nos. 3 and 4. Infanticide was rare, although its practice in former times in such provinces as the Pañjāb and Bombay may still have effect in the low female birth-rate.

In Eastern Bengal and the Central India Agency the hard life of the women has also to be taken into account, while in Travancore, where the women are well cared for both before and after marriage, the sole cause of the excess of males is that their mortality is increasingly small.

There are, however, other reasons for a general scarcity of women, which are not at first apparent. For instance, polygyny of the richer classes may lead to polyandry among the poorer families. In many countries a wife is an expensive luxury, and consequently the brothers club together to meet the cost.

There are still other factors to be considered. Polyandry of the fraternal variety strengthens family ties, and keeps the property intact.

Among the pastoral tribes of Tibet and Southern India a man will wander for months on end with his flocks, leaving his brothers and cohusbands in charge of their common wife.

When considering non-fraternal polyandry none of these factors applies, and we have to look for other reasons to explain the practice as formerly found among the Nāyars.

It cannot be said that they are in a stage of development only a little further advanced than promiscuity, because, on the contrary, they are considerably more highly civilised than the neighbouring castes who do not practise polyandry.

The explanation probably lies in the history of the Nāyars. They were originally a military caste, and as such adhered to a system of polity incompatible with the then existing marriage state. The men never lived in the same houses as the women with whom they consorted, and inheritance ran through the mother.

Burton, in his first published work, Goa and the Blue Mountains, 1851, p. 218 et seq., drew attention to this very point:

“The domestic ties, always inconvenient to a strictly military population, were thereby [the Brahmaic adoption of the Matriarchal inheritance] conveniently weakened, and the wealth, dignity and unbroken unity of interests were preserved for generations unimpaired in great and powerful families, which, had the property been divided among the several branches, according to the general practice of Hinduism, would soon have lost their weight and influence. As it was unnecessary that a woman should be removed from her home, or introduced into a strange family, the eldest nephew on the sister’s side, when he became the senior male member of the household, succeeded, as a matter of course, to the rights, property and dignity of Karnovun [head of the house].”

For other suggested origins of the non-fraternal polyandry reference rshould be made to Westermarck, op. cit vol. iii, pp. 198-206.

In conclusion, I would quote a short passage from his summary on p. 206:

“To explain in full why certain factors in some cases give rise to polyandry and in other cases not is as impossible as it often is to say exactly why one people is monogamous and another people polygynous. But, generally speaking, there can be little doubt that the main reason why polyandry is not more commonly practised is the natural desire in most men to be in exclusive possession of their wives.”— n.m.p.

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