Marital Alliances in Indian History, Part 2 of 2

1 Apr

While king, Chandra Gupta II used marriage as a tool to expand his territory and consolidate control over an increasingly far-flung empire.  Marrying his daughter Prabhavati to King Rudrasena II of the Vakataka, “Chandra Gupta II extended the influence of his empire south of the Vindhyas” (Wolpert 91), expanding his political influence deep into the Deccan Plateau of the Indian subcontinent.

Additionally, Chandra Gupta II’s own marriage to Kuvera, queen of the Nagas, allows him to look eastward and further reinforce his territory through another marital alliance.  But though this strategy of consolidation and expansion through marriage evidences a shrewd and highly tactical mind, Chandra Gupta II’s political gains yet overlay a deeper spiritual foundation: under his reign, both Brahmanism and Buddhism flourished.

The consolidation of power that this Classical ruler’s marital alliances allowed brought peace and such abundance of wealth “that hospitals were provided free of charge, to which the poor of all countries, the destitute, crippled, and diseased may repair,” even as the social order was maintained by “untouchables hovering beyond the pale of Hindu society, carrying gongs to warn passing upper-class people of their polluting presence” (Wolpert 91).

Of course, the peace and affluence of the Gupta state, as described in accounts of Chandra Gupta II’s time, could not have been possible without first unifying North India—a task begun by Chandra Gupta II’s grandfather, Chandra Gupta I, who used similar tactics of marriage to integrate his conquests.

Securing as a bride the daughter of the king of the ancient Lichavi clan, Chandra Gupta not only legitimated his rule by associating his new state with a primordial, time-tested power, but also locked “his grip on the river Ganga… that vital Gangetic artery, which carried the major flow of North Indian commerce” (Wolpert 89).  With one wedding, Chandra Gupta managed to expand his territory and secure a source of wealth that his grandson would later use to fulfill the dharma and obligations of a ruler to his people.

This pattern extends even further back in Indian history—to the first imperial unification under the Mauryan Empire, from 326 to 184 BCE.

Chandragupta Maurya and his successors, rulers of the kingdom of Magadha, which had “emerged as first among many competing kingdoms and confederacies of the Gangetic plain” (Wolpert 55), succeeded in unifying North India shortly after Alexander the Great’s 326 BCE incursion into India.

In a treaty with “Seleucus Nikator, Alexander’s Greek heir to western Asia,” Chandragupta: fixed the western border at the Hindu Kush mountains, secured the withdrawal of Greek forces with an offering of five hundred war elephants, and exchanged ambassadors with the Greeks (Wolpert 59).

Most interesting, however, is the treaty’s mysterious “marriage clause,” which may reference a daughter of Seleucus Nikator coming to the Mauryan court as a bride for Chandragupta—if true, such an arrangement would date marriage politics in international relations back to the very earliest emergence of a unified Indian state.

Dharma as a political concept, as well, can be tracked back at least this far—Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka is immortalized in stone, his extant rock edicts exemplifying the use moral advice as a form of state propaganda.  One “key admonition… is Dharma, that unique word which means religion, law, duty, and responsibility” (Wolpert 66), a term used most often of all others in the rock edicts of Ashoka.

The entrenchment of dharma as a focus of Indian marriage patterns can be seen in its applicability even to non-Indians, and in the marital “alliances” of non-elites.

While the political marriages of royalty and nobility often had far-reaching geopolitical consequences, even common people planned their daughters’ marriages with careful consideration of personal politics and economics.

Abraham bin Yiju, a 12th-century merchant in the Indian spice trade, provides a classic case study: a Tunisian Jew, bin Yiju engaged in commerce from India’s southwestern port of Mangalore, a “heterogeneous community of Arabs, Gujaratis, Tamils, Jews, and others” (Gordon 77).

While calculated marriages among traders such as bin Yiju might not have built an empire, they did help to strengthen and extend business and commercial networks in this world in which “trade and family were closely related” (Gordon 86).  For this reason, the successful merchant bin Yiju is highly selective in accepting or rejecting marriage proposals for his only daughter—ultimately, a match with his nephew by an elder brother proves a practical choice, allowing the father to “keep Abraham bin Yiju’s wealth in the family, provide for the impoverished relatives, and place the daughter in the community” (Gordon 94) of Tunisian Jews so important for trade contacts.

And yet, despite the care he takes when it comes to the marriage of his daughter, Abraham bin Yiju’s own choice of a wife dramatically upsets the social order of the Mangalore community he has joined.

Buying, freeing, and marrying a slave would be bad enough—but bin Yiju’s bride Ashu is a Nair, who, “along with Brahmins, were generally the elite of Malabar” (Gordon 91).

A warrior class, the Nairs paralleled the traditional kshatriya role, occasionally serving as wife-givers to the Brahman class.  Because of her high status, “if [Ashu] formed a liaison with… men outside her lineage, or a man of lower caste, the family was deeply shamed” (Gordon 91)—the result being Ashu sold into slavery, from which bin Yiju, fortunately, rescued her.

Even the Jewish Abraham, however, a non-Hindu and non-Indian, cannot escape the consequences of the age-old taboo against hypogamy: “his partners disapproved, and signaled… that such a wife would never be welcome in Aden or Cairo” (Gordon 90), the larger centers of the spice trade.

This example of bin Yiju only serves to reinforce others throughout Indian history and literature—Chandragupta Maurya and his later namesakes, Ashoka, Kalidassa and Shrudaka—all of whom acted out their commercial, political, and personal motives in a theater shaped by Vedic law.

The injunctions, regulations, duties and obligations of dharma, “the foundation of the universe,” thus also formed the foundation of Indian political history, and in particular the structure and consequences of marital alliances from the time of the earliest Indian unification to the Classical Age and beyond.

The result?

A society in which smoothly-running social order was enforced by deeply-entrenched ideology, singular in its ability to cut across both ethnic and class lines.

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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5 Responses to “Marital Alliances in Indian History, Part 2 of 2”

  1. Admin April 1, 2010 at 10:57 pm #

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