You are here

Chapter 2: Marriage in India

 “Thilke blissful lyf 
  That is betwixe an housband and his wyf: 
  And for to live under that holy bond 
  With which that first God man and womman bond.  
  ‘Non other lyf,’ sayde he, ‘is worth a bene: 
  For wedlock is so esy and so clene, 
  That in this world it is a paradys.’”

                        Marchantes Tale. Chaucer.

In all countries, for a woman marriage has a significance not only greater than but different in quality from the significance it has for a man. It is not merely that to the man marriage is only one incident, however far-reaching in its effects and values, among the recurrent vicissitudes of life; while to the woman, even if it be so regarded, it is at least the most conclusive of all incidents--that from which depends not alone her own comfort but rather the fulfilment of her whole being and function. A man’s life is made up of the intermittent pursuit of many a quarry at the impulse of divergent passions, projected from time to time in varying light upon the evenly-moving background of the sub-conscious activities. He studies and his soul is engrossed in the niceties of the arts or the subtleties of philosophy. He finds satisfaction for his intellect and even his emotions in the choice of the fitting phrase for a description. At another time he rushes to sport, and, for many hours in the day and many days in the month, finds pleasant fatigue and final occupation in stalking the stag through the forest with its dry crackling leaves. In administration he makes a career: and he may be busy day and night with problems of finance, the just use of authority or the thousand questions of policy in a developing civilization. Whatever his profession may be, his work engages the greater portion of his life and all his highest and most useful energies. A man’s pulse quickens its beat rapidly, and as easily falls again to a slow extreme of indolence and indifference. He does his best and finest work in the hours of rapid energy. It is then that he fulfils those functions of creation and fruitful activity which appertain to the male in the self-ordered organization of the world. But among those his union with his mate is not the most important. Rather it may be called the expenditure of a superfluous energy. He needs his mate only in the moments of excited passion, when his energies, unexhausted by duties that he counts more valuable, are at their strongest. But as a companion he values the woman that is given to him mainly in the hours of repose and leisure--those periods when the over-stimulated mind and body sink to the level of an indolent passivity. Companionship he seeks that his surroundings should be easy and congenial, when his work is done and he is weary. Again, when a man marries, he either has loved or will love other women and he knows in his heart that the wife, who is to share and make his home, can be only one, though perhaps the tenderest and sweetest, of his loving memories. Herein, for the woman who gives him her love, is the irony. Only with the man to whom all love is ashes and who can never kindle the fierce flame of passion, can she expect the sole and exclusive possession to which she is inclined by her own nature. From the man who can promise her his only love, the gift is of little value and his love but the thin shadow of a spectre. But she knows the man whose love is as a robe of purple or a diadem of rubies cannot be for her alone, wholly hers.

To the woman, however, marriage is the incident of all incidents, that one action to which all else in life--even the birth of her first male-child--is subsidiary and subordinate. She goes to her mate, in shyness and modesty, as to one who for the first time shall make her truly woman. At his touch the whole world changes and the very birds and flowers, the seas, the stars, and the heaven above, put on a different colour and murmur a new music. In a moment the very constitution of her body alters and her limbs take nobler curves and her figure blooms to a new splendour. Her mind and emotions grow: and the dark places which she had feared are seen to be sun-lit and lofty. Marriage is to her more than an incident, however revolutionary. It is rather the foundation of a new life, indeed a new life itself. For her, henceforth, her whole existence is but the one fact of being married. It is her career, her profession, her study, her joy, her everything. She lives no longer in herself but rather as her man’s wife. “Half-body,” the Sanscrit poets say, not untruly of the married woman.

In India, even more than in Europe, certainly more than in Northern Europe, marriage is to a woman everything. In early childhood she becomes aware, gradually and almost unconsciously, of the great central facts of nature. She lives in a household in which, along with the earning of daily bread, all talk freely of marriages and the birth of children. When a brother or sister is born, she is not excluded, and no one tells her tales of mysterious storks or cabbages. As she grows older, she hears the stories of Sita, the divine wife, and of Sakuntala, the loved princess: and the glowing winds of spring and the burning sun help to bring her to a quick maturity. Around her she sees her girl friends given in marriage to flower-crowned boy bridegrooms, brought on gold-caparisoned horses with beating of drums and bursting fire-works and much singing to the bridal bower and the sacred fire. She learns of widowhood and the life-long austerities imposed on a woman whose sin-haunted destiny drags her husband to the grave. In the household prayers she sees that her father needs her mother at his side for the due offering of oblations and the completion of the ritual. Of a woman unmarried, not a widow, she never hears and the very notion can hardly frame itself on the mirror of her mind. No wonder that, with her earliest reflections, she bends her thoughts upon the husband that is to come and to be her lord, to whom she will hold herself affianced by the will of God through all the moving cycle of innumerable deaths and existences.

Matrimony in India, in nearly every case, is stamped by one of two types, the marriage-contract of the Mussulmans, or the unions sanctified in the vast and extremely complex social system that is comprised under the general name of Hinduism. In theory, legally one might say, marriage among the Mussulmans of India is a contract that should in no way differ from that practised in other countries of Islam. A man and a woman bind themselves or are bound by a voidable contract which confers certain rights of maintenance and succession, in consideration of mutual comfort and cherishing. The contract, but not its sanction and consequences, can be repudiated at the man’s will and, subject to certain intelligible limitations, at the claim of the woman. In all cases proper and ample provision is and must be made for the children. The woman who is divorced, or widowed, is in no way prevented from entering upon a fresh contract with another husband, rather she is encouraged and assisted so to do. Broadly speaking, this is the legal position in every Mussulman marriage. No other world-wide system has ever been so reasonable and so human. It is a legislation passed through the mouth of its Founder for all followers of the faith, as human beings bound in their relations to other men and women only by justice, which is the ultimate morality of the world. The interpretation of the Legislator’s act has varied slightly in the jurisprudence of the “Four Pillars of the Faith,” the talented authors of the four great law-schools of Islam. Among the Shiah sect in Persia, also, the rulings have been somewhat modified and extended in the judge-made law of the ecclesiastical courts: and contracts for temporary marriages--marriages limited to a stated, sometimes a short, period--have for example been recognized and ratified. But these are all variations which show the more clearly how, in essence, the matrimony of Islam is a thing of law, an agreement for certain purposes and with certain consequences, between human beings regarded in their capacity as agents in a very human world. That this should be so is, in fact, a necessary consequence from the whole character of Islam. For the very essence of Islam is its rationalism. God created the world that He might be known. From the children of Adam He expects praise and He exacts obedience and resignation. By His strength and will He divides among them their shares of blissful or unkind environment. But in the activities of human life, when they have satisfied the requirements of prostration to the All-Powerful Creator, He leaves them free to move as they will under the guidance of the highest human morality--justice. In the verses that are concerned with the relations between man and man, the Book of the Qor’an is as rational as the ethics of Aristotle or the commentary of a student. Even the Persian mystics, that were clad in wool, the children of the Tasawwuf--they who represent Indo-Aryan mysticism outcropping from the level calculations of the Semitic faith--sought, in the main, only to modify the attitude of man to God. In place of obedience, with its scale of service and reward, they set up a spiritual ecstasy of love, and in this love they hoped to unite the human consciousness with the divine thought of which it is a manifestation and in which it seeks absorption. But the way with its four stages of ascent, by which they pointed the road to final union with absolute Being, rarely traversed the ethics of human action in the phenomenal world. With the commands of justice and with the contracts which made possible and legitimate the companionship and love of man and woman they never really sought to interfere.

This then is the plan, clear, reasonable, and humane. But in the practice of India, it must be confessed, there have been many deviations. They live after all, the Mussulmans of India, among a population, of which they form but the seventh part, highly religious, mystical, seeing in all things magic and the supernatural. In great part they derive from the castes and tribes of Hindu India, converted to the creed by conquest, interest, or persuasion. Large sections still retain and are governed by the Hindu customary law of their former tribe. The rich Mussulman merchants of Bombay, who traverse the ocean like other Sindbads and seek their merchandise in the Eastern Archipelagoes or in the new colonies of the African continent, peaceful merchants of whom a large sect still perpetuates the doctrines of the Shaik of the Mountain and reveres the memory, without the practice, of the Assassins, follow in their domesticities and the laws of succession rules whose significance depends from the mystic teachings of the Hindu sages. In Gujarát the Mussulman nobility preserve with respect the names and practices of the Rajput chiefs from whom they are descended. They marry within families of cognate origin and transmit their estates and dignities by a rule that is widely apart from the jurisprudence of Islam. But that marriage is indefeasibly binding on a woman for all time, even after death’s parting, so that the widowed wife may never seek another husband--these are ideas whose ultimate basis is a view of the world as a thing moved and deflected by magic and magical interpositions. Yet these opinions of the surrounding Hindu population have invaded the Mussulman household also. The proud families which claim direct descent from the Prophet of Arabia have in practice created an absolute prohibition of remarriage. And in many families of temporal rank the same veto is observed, as having in it something exclusive and patrician. Even among the common people, it is only the first marriage which is known by the significant name of “gladness,” while the corrector Arabic term has been degraded with a baser meaning to the marriage of a widow. In practice, too, the wise provisions of the law for dowries and the separate maintenance of a wife have been neglected, while divorce is much discountenanced and the claims of an ill-used or insufficiently-cherished wife to a decree are ignored or even forgotten. Child-marriage has become the rule, and consent to a life-long bond under a contract which has come to be regarded almost as inviolable, is only too often given on behalf of the young girl by a relation indifferent to all except wealth and position.

Yet such is the radiance, so purifying the chemistry of reason that, in spite of superstition, it continues to oxidize and revive the body which it permeates. The inroads of Mongol tribes from Central Asia--recent and bigoted converts--laid low the body politic of Islam. For five dark centuries Mussulman culture was turned into a wilderness. In India Islam has been further obscured, as has been shown, by the encroaching customs and feelings of peoples who conceived life on an incompatible and magical apprehension. Yet the word of rationalism was never wholly silent, and the thought of human justice in a world of causation persisted, however feebly, to sweeten and humanize the relations of men and women in the fundamental contract of matrimony. The Mussulman woman in her family wields great power and influence. She is consulted and made much of to an extent rare in most countries. The words of the Qor’an are a constant inspiration to her husband; and he knows himself to be bound to cherish as best he can the woman who is described in Scripture as a field which he should cultivate and as a partner to whom he owes kindness and protection. Under this inspiration he can hardly fail to estimate at its highest the value of womanhood; for even in heaven his promised reward includes the pleasures of beautiful and enchanting women. Thus has Omar Khayyam written in the 188th Rubaiyat:--

  “They say there will be a paradise and fair women and black-eyed virgins, 
  And there, say they, will be pure wine and honey.  
  So if we adore our wine and our beloved, why, ’tis lawful 
  Since the end of all this business will be even thus.”

The Mussulman religion idealizes above everything manliness and the manly virtues; and it certainly does not undervalue the place of sex in human life. Now, it is the virile man who yields most readily to the sway of woman. His very vigour impels him to her side: and in the reactions from enterprise and affairs he wishes to be soothed by her companionship and delight. So it is true that the Mussulman woman in India has seldom cause for complaint within her household. The day’s labour done, husband and children gather in the inner apartments, where she rules, and devote themselves to her comfort and entertainment.

Where she suffers, if at all, is from the too rigid custom of the purdah or female seclusion. What in India distorted the modest injunction of the Prophet that women should veil their faces before strange men to the excessive and even fantastic purdah system, is a question still hotly debated by Indian reformers and publicists.

Hindus accuse the Mussulman population of introducing the system: Mussulmans point to the more rational habit of other Islamic countries and lay the charge to the door of the Rajput nobility. Whatever may have been the original cause, the results are sometimes ludicrous and injurious. Applied as it is in the houses of nobles and rich merchants, the custom is sufficiently tolerable and even advantageous. The ladies have gardens in which to exercise their limbs: they drive in screened carriages to see the town or enjoy the country breezes; they have liberty to visit at all hours the houses of their women friends and profit by their conversation. They have light and air and reasonable freedom. Like many other points of aristocratic ceremony, the practice of seclusion is valued largely by the inconvenience it causes to others. It needs little knowledge of feminine nature to appreciate the pleasurable sense of dignity it causes the wealthy purdah lady when, at a visit, she sees all male servants and even the owner of the house sent hurrying to hide in remote corners while she makes her stately progress from her carriage to her friends’ apartments. On her travels she notes with pride the tumult in the crowded station when sheets are held across the platform to seclude her from stranger eyes as she slowly strolls to her compartment. But to apply the same etiquette to the middle and the poorer classes is little short of madness. Yet there are many parts of India, where the Mussulman population, and especially their womankind, insist with melancholy pride on these observances, whatever their poverty and decay. There are found in little crumbling mud-hovels, clinging to the base of ancient forts and palaces, women who spend their useless lives crouched in a dark ill-smelling room, where the light of day and the breath of energy and aspiration can never reach them. They bear feeble children: fall sick of a decline or internal ailments: and go out in premature senility like a candle in a choked tunnel. Fortunately the sturdy Mussulman peasantry of the north know nothing of these follies: nor in Káthiawád and Gujarát do the Mussulman artisans, who are here pictured, ruin their homes by this disastrous aping of an aristocracy. But even with this drawback--one maintained, it must be remembered, mainly by the same feminine lust for pride and precedence which in England keeps the clerk’s wife from cooking a dinner--it is in general true that the rationalism of the system has produced mutual respect and affection, together with much courtesy and chivalry, between the sexes.

The Afghan or Pathan woman is in many ways apart from her Mussulman sister of the real India of the plains. Strong, virile, courageous, but treacherous and illiterate, the Afghan tribes are still narrowly within the pale of savagery. They are hillmen, living in secluded valleys or rocky fastnesses, with the virtues of their kind, but far removed from those urbane polities which in all languages and races have set the type of civilization. In Islam the word for civilization is as much derived from the word for “city,” “Medinah,” as in the languages that trace their descent from the Latins. Of gentler qualities the Afghans have no share. But they have strong passions, great thirst for love, and the freeman’s respect for others’ freedom. The woman is caressed and petted, loved with a passionate love, loaded with gifts, and then--when old age breaks her vigour--too often cast aside with the callous thoughtlessness of the savage. The men are jealous and she lives always under the shadow of a knife, the long, thin, sharp-edged knife of the Pathan, so quickly drawn across the throat at the first whisper of dishonour. Herself passionate and hot-tempered, she too blazes out in sudden rages, and the small dagger that she carries is not unseldom used. Passion and excitement, quick pulsing heart-beats, fiery love, splashing like scarlet flames upon the dusty background, and then the slow neglected downward track of old age, that is the Afghan woman’s life.

Mostly she is chaste and clings to her own man, till the last bullet catches him full in the chest and his life gurgles out with the bubbling blood. But she can also love greatly and superbly, like the fine full-blooded creature that she is. There was such a girl once, a child merely, fifteen years old, who from the barred windows of her father’s house at Kabul, saw a young English officer ride past on his charger with the ill-fated expedition. She came of royal stock and her father was a chieftain of rank in the Amir’s service. Yet she learnt the officer’s name, who can say with how many precautions and terrors: and found he was still unmarried. When the troops left, she crept forth too, this child of fifteen, and turned her face from her father’s house and her people to follow the man she had chosen. She found her way across the mountains by the wind-bitten passes, with little food or shelter, till she reached the deserts of Sind and the wide stretches of the Indus. Not till then was she safe from the avenging dagger. Then slowly she traced her road till she came to the port of Karachi. And there, in the new cantonment, with its strange avenues and houses, she found the man whom she had sought. He, happily, was rich and of distinguished family. He heard her story and married the brave girl who had dared so much for his love. Then he brought her to England and had her taught and trained, and she found favour at Court, and their lives were happy.

Such the Afghan woman can be. The love which she gets--and gives--echoes in the poetry of Lawrence Hope.

  “You are all that is lovely and light, 
  Aziza,--whom I adore, 
  And, waking after the night, 
  I am weary with dreams of you.  
  Every nerve in my heart is tense and sore 
  As I rise to another morning apart from you.  
  I would burn for a thousand days, 
  Aziza, whom I adore, 
  Be tortured, slain, in unheard of ways 
  If you pitied the pain I bore.  
  Give me your love for a day, 
  A night, an hour; 
  If the wages of sin are death, 
  I am willing to pay.  
  What is my life but a breath 
  Of passion burning away?  
  Away from an unplucked flower?  
  Oh! Aziza, whom I adore, 
  Aziza, my one delight, 
  Only one night--I will die before day, 
  And trouble your life no more.”