Marital Alliances in Indian History, Part 1 of 2

1 Apr

Marriage as a tool of statecraft represents one of the oldest means of legitimating rule or conquest—in myth or history.

In the Sanskrit epic of the Mahabharata, “whose core probably reflects Indian life at about 1000 B.C.” (Wolpert 37), for example, marriage surfaces as a metaphor for the Aryan penetration of the Gangetic plain in the first millennium BCE: the great tale begins with the story of King Santanu and his abiding love for the personified river, the goddess Ganga.

The other major epic of ancient India, the Ramayana, similarly reflects the maneuvering and stratagems of Aryan marital alliances, with the king’s politicking three wives each plotting for the accession of her own son to the throne.

But most significantly, the Ramayana hints at the ever-present religious climate within which these machinations take place: “we see how powerful a force religious law, or dharma, has become in dictating ‘proper’ behavior, even for a monarch” (Wolpert 40).  This enduring concept of social or religious duty throws a singular cast over Indian marriage arrangements—even a match made with the most realpolitik of considerations in mind necessarily occurs against this backdrop of dharma, the “all-comprehensive” (de Bary 218) and universal law.

As dharma’s macrocosmic scope encompasses and forms “the foundation of the universe” (de Bary 220); on the microcosmic level, marriage and the ashrama or life stage of the Householder is the foundation of society, the family, and when used for political purposes, the state.

In this worldview, the codification of marriage practices, rules, duties, and obligations in Sacred Law—smriti, human tradition—ensures the smooth functioning of society.  Central to this is the strictly-regulated caste system: proper behavior of the four primary varnas—the Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra—frames the “essence of all dharma… for the sake of solidarity and progress of society as a whole” (de Bary 224).

Because of the centrality of the householder’s role, with this “second stage of life often characterized as the basis and support of the other three” (de Bary 230), smriti laboriously categorizes marriages within and among the Indian castes.

Taking into consideration the children of mixed marriages, their offspring, and so on, the superficially simple structure of four classes breaks down into “more than three-thousand real castes, subcastes, mixed castes, and exterior (untouchable) castes” (de Bary 226), a veritable labyrinth of genealogy which is, nevertheless, systematized in Sacred Law.

Classifications pivot on the concept of hypergamy, in which the husband belongs to a higher class than the wife, and the taboo against hypogamy, in which a wife’s status ranks higher.

While man and wife from within a single caste join in a so-called “unblemished marriage” (de Bary 227), and most hypergamous unions prove acceptable, children resulting from hypogamous marriages occupy the very lowest positions in society—the Candala, offspring of a Brahman woman and Shudra man, for example, are so despised as to be “excluded from all considerations of dharma” (de Bary 227).

A clear breach of proper social order, Candala and other low castes—such as the Parasava children of a Brahman man and Shudra woman—represent an analogous rift in the religious order as well, and so are divorced entirely from both spheres.

“Since the Aryans brought with their Caucasian genes a new language, Sanskrit, and a new pantheon of gods, as well as the patriarchal, patrilineal family and three-class structure of priests, warriors, and commoners” (Wolpert 26), institutions of social cohesion that facilitated political and cultural dominance began enter India before 1000 BCE, but endure and continue to exercise cultural influence well into the Classical Age, ca. 320 to 700 CE.

Mrichakatika, or “Little Clay Cart,” a play written by King Shudraka—contemporary of Kalidassa, known as the “Shakespeare of India” for his secular literature—relates the story of an hypogamous union between Carudatta, an impoverished Brahman man, and Vasantasena, the courtesan with whom he falls incurably in love.

Strangled for her violation of the social order, Vasantasena’s body is found by another mournful courtier who had admired her as well, and laments that her social status could not have matched her high moral distinction:

When thou, sweet maid, art born again,

be not a courtesan reborn,

but in a house which sinless men,

and virtuous, and good, adorn (Shrudaka 128)

The social significance of even supposedly private and personal feelings is further highlighted in “Little Clay Cart,” as the play is “the only Sanskrit drama to include a legal trial scene” (Wolpert 92).

But smriti pertains to the form of marriage as well as the agents within it—eight distinct types of marital arrangements are described in the Asvalayana Grhya Sutra, along with the corresponding social and religious value applicable to each.

The Brahma form of marriage, for instance, consists of a father giving away his daughter “after decking her with ornaments and having first offered a libation of water”; after consummation, “a son born to her after such a marriage purifies twelve descendants and twelve ancestors on both her husband’s and her own sides” (de Bary 231).

Ritual offerings and requirements lessen down the line of marriage categories, as does the commensurate spiritual merit.

A Prajapatya marriage, for example, purifies only eight descendents and ancestors, and requires just the injunction to the bride and groom to “Practice dharma together” (de Bary 231)—indicating that though the ceremony is simpler and the participants perhaps of lower status, the union still falls within the bounds of the universal social order.

Again, Classical literature illustrates the dangers of a “love-match,” a coupling outside of the traditional forms and structure.  Kalidassa’s Shakuntala follows the story of the titular forest nymph and the king who falls in love with her—performing the simple Gandharva rite, or “love-match” (de Bary 231) agreement between man and woman, the mis-matched lovers wed.

When the nymph’s “‘bewitching youth’ so enthralls the king that he forgets his wife and courtly responsibilities entirely” (Wolpert 91), Kalidassa depicts the tragic consequences of abandoning duty and dharma: heartbroken when the king ultimately returns to his monarchical obligations and promptly forgets her, Shakuntala:

tossed her arms, bemoaned her plight,

accused her crushing fate

Before our eyes a heavenly light

in woman’s form, but shining bright,

seized her and vanished straight” (Kalidassa 61)

But duties to provide for and protect wives also accompany the obligation of a woman not to transgress social boundaries—“the highest dharma of all four classes,” the Manu Smrti asserts, is that “husbands, though weak, must strive to protect their wives” (de Bary 233).

A man who neglects this duty could prove as contemptible—and meet as unfortunate a fate—as the brazen Vasantasena or Shakuntala, even at the highest levels of society.

The historical drama Devicandragupta, or “The Queen and Chandra Gupta,” describes just such an incident in the court of Chandra Gupta II, who ruled from CE 375 to 415.

Inheriting the throne as the eldest son, Chandra Gupta’s brother Rama subsequently “proves himself weak and treacherous by promising to surrender his wife to a barbaric Shaka ruler who had defeated him in battle” (Wolpert 90), a breach of the dharma which required he protect and care for his wife.

Recognizing this transgression and the unworthiness of his brother, Chandra Gupta supposedly dresses as a woman, takes the queen’s place, and murders the Shaka king in his harem—returning to court to kill Rama as well, and marry the widow he saved.  Though the popular tale may be apocryphal, it reveals the value Chandra Gupta attached to dharma at his court, particularly in marital alliances, of which he arranged many during his reign.

This is an excerpt from a paper written for an Asian Civ course at the University of Alabama.  Please remember that all plagiarists go to hell, and in Alabama, they get stoned.

Works Cited:

de Bary, Theodore. Sources of Indian Tradition. Introduction to Oriental Civilizations.

New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Gordon, Stewart. When Asia Was The World. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Da Capo Press, 2008.

Kalidassa, Translations of Shakuntala, and Other Works. Arthur W. Ryder. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1914.

Shrudaka, The Little Clay Cart. Harvard Oriental Series. Volume Nine, Arthur W. Ryder. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University, 1905.

Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India. 8th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.


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