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Chapter 3: The Hindu Woman in Marriage

  ἀλλ᾿ ἐννοεῖν χρὴ τοῦ το μὲν γυναῖχ᾿ ὅτι 
  ἒφυμεν ὡς πρὸς ἄνδρας οὐ μαχουμίνα 
  ἔ πει τα δ᾿ οὕνεκ᾿ ἀρχόμεσθ᾿ ἐκ κρεισσόνων 
  καὶ ταῦ τ᾿ ἀκούειν κἄτι τῶνδ᾿ ἀλγίονα.

                     Antigone, ll. 61 seq.
  “But we must reflect first that we were born a woman, 
  Not such as to strive against men: and then that as 
  we are ruled by them that are the stronger, we must 
  obey in these things and in things yet sorer.”

Another system still survives among the inhabitants of the southern coast lands where the Arabian Sea beats against the palm groves of Malabar. Here the tribes of the Nairs, formerly warlike and still brave, headed by the ruling house of Travancore, maintain a marriage system that dates from the earlier Dravidian culture which preceded the Aryan invasions. Both among the Nairs--the noble class--and among the priests, the Nambutiri Brahmans, an ecclesiastical and land-owning aristocracy of peculiar sanctity, the customs of matriarchy prevail in various degrees. Among the Nairs, for several centuries, the law was of polyandry, pure and simple, the wife having several husbands according to her own good pleasure. In late years the actual habit of polyandry is to all intents defunct and only in very few cases, if at all, could a Nair lady be found who consorts with more than one husband. But succession is still traced through the female line and a boy succeeds to his mother’s brother, not to his father. And in other subtler ways the effects of polyandry are still manifest. Perhaps the most curious survival is that the religious ceremonial of marriage--an expensive and public rite--is performed at an early age with a man, with whom the girl has no other connection than formal participation in this ineffective sacrament. Much later comes what, in the European sense, would be called the real marriage, with the husband whom she is to cherish. This is a contract, entered into freely by both parties, dissoluble at will. One of the elements of its popularity and success is in this very freedom which has given the Nair ladies a position enjoyed by few other Indian women. An attempt absurdly made to limit this freedom by legislation, which gave an option to the parties by an act of registration to introduce the usual disabilities of a rigid matrimony, has proved an utter failure. An accompaniment of the polyandrous or matriarchal system, which still prevails, is that husband and wife do not live together. The Nair house is the abode of a whole large family, based upon joint descent from a common female ancestor. In the house or family mansion the apartments of the women are together and are entirely separate from that part of the house in which the men live. In this house the husband has no part or share; but he comes to visit his wife in her apartment just as she goes occasionally to visit him in the similar household in which, by his descent on the mother’s side, he has a right to live. On the freedom of choice exercised by a Nair lady in her mating there is little restriction, save only the one that she must not choose a man of lower station.

The Nambutiri Brahmans, on the other hand, though they live among the Nair tribes and are their priests, have gone no further than a compromise between this system and the arrangements usually prevalent among Brahmans. The results, like those of most compromises, have been disastrous. Only the eldest son of a family marries. The rest, when study of Scripture and the practice of ascetic simplicity prove unsatisfying, seek consolation in indiscriminate seduction. The immediate results of a theory so unnatural are polygamy, burdensome dowries, marriages for wealth alone, and the seclusion and bondage of women. In spite of the simplicity and candour of these Brahmans--qualities which make them personally loveable even to those who deplore their influence--their community has been gravely injured by such marriages. Only the simplicity of their desires and the earnest conservatism of their faith have made them tolerate a system so unnatural and injurious. They bow with pious resignation to the will of God, by which they mean the results of their own human folly.

Bitter must the contrast be to the secluded and austere Nambutiri ladies when they see their Nair neighbours at the annual winter festival which commemorates the death of Kámdev, the Hindu God of Love. Long before daybreak, every Nair girl of any position is out of bed and goes with her girl friends to the nearest tank. Plunging into the water together, they sing in unison the song which is sacred to the God of human hearts. As they sing, they beat the water, with the left hand held immediately under the surface and the right brought down upon it in a sloping stroke, splashing and sounding deep. Stanza after stanza, song after song they sing till the first light of dawn peeps over the cocoa-nut palms. Then they go back to their homes to dress in their best and enjoy their holy day. They darken their eyelids with collyrium and make their lips red with betel leaf. In the gardens they play on swings with their friends. Then they sit down in merriment and enjoyment to the noon-day meal of arrowroot and molasses with ripe yellow plantains and green cocoa-nuts. Afterwards they again sing and dance, while all good husbands on this day of days visit their wives in their family mansions and make themselves pleasant to the ladies of the family and bring little presents and friendly good wishes.

This system, strange though it appears to those who are familiar only with Jewish and Teutonic customs, has been particularly successful in securing the ends of every marriage--comfort, free development, and the worthy upbringing of healthy children. In no class in India is education better appreciated and more widely shared by the sexes. Every Nair girl is sent to the village school, her education as much a matter of course as her brothers’; while there are many who have matriculated at the Madras University. At the same time, by the universal admission of those who know them, there are few women in India who have greater charm or exercise as valuable an influence on the manners and morals of society.

Marriage in Hindu India is, therefore, very various both in practice and in theory according to the locality and the race or caste. But regarded as a whole it presents, one may say, some common characteristics. It is invariably a religious rite, sanctioned by magical ceremony, really sacramental. Only in castes which allow a widow to remarry is the second union divested of most of this supernatural sanction, to become almost a free contract. Again marriages are in general arranged by the parents or relations--with the advice of priests and astrologers--while the husband and wife are still children, either in real childhood or shortly after their puberty. Further, in all the higher castes, and in lower castes as they assume or usurp a higher position, widows are forbidden a further marriage. Normally the idea of marriage in the classes in which Brahman influence is most firm is accompanied by a certain ascetic thought, which holds sensuousness and enjoyment to be something debasing and earth-bound. The world of action being illusory and unreal, and each action entailing its answering reaction, deliverance from illusive appearances and absorption into the one final reality can be gained only by passive withdrawal from activity. But all action springs from desire: and the strongest and most attractive of desires is love. Hence in marriage there should be no overpowering desires, none of those impulses of emotion which keep the man bound during thousands of incarnations to the idly-turning wheel of illusion. Only as a deliverance from conflicting desire and as the means of continuing family life is marriage in itself to be valued. Its happiness and fruition are to be sought not in the tumults of passion but in the calm and ordered affection of a disciplined and worshipful pair. From the husband protection and self-restraint are due; from the wife to the lord, whom heaven has given her, unflinching devotion, constant respect and obedience, unwavering chastity.

But in some castes and places the ideal has been altered largely by feudalism and chivalry, by luxury and an appreciation of human happiness, and by the influences of a kindly humanizing belief. There we find love welcomed and pursued, and the beauteous wife elevated like a substantiation of that Krishna-spirit in which man attains on earth to the love which is unending.

In general, Hindu marriage does undoubtedly, to a marked extent, reach very closely to the purposes which it seeks. In general, it produces a very real, if somewhat colourless, affection, an affection maintained by common interests and the great bond of constant association. The defects which it has are in the main the excrescences of a religious system, such as are apt to grow wherever reason is displaced by theological or supernatural commandment. When rationalism grows strong enough to question the authority of priestly ordinance and tradition, it will be possible without any very serious effort to prune them safely from the sturdy trunk of Hindu life.

Child-marriage is, of course, that one of all its features which has been most violently attacked. But it may be doubted whether those who have attacked it have always had a clear understanding of its significance. Real child-marriage--the wedding of children who have not yet reached puberty--is after all nothing more than an indefeasible betrothal. And in itself it is a logical and natural deduction from a theory which postulates the selection of the bridal pair by supernatural agency, working either through the divinations of an astrologer or through the parents’ careful affection. Any element of personal choice and free-will would be repugnant to the underlying thoughts and must to a large extent be subversive of the social and moral superstructure. Free-choice could be introduced generally only by a substitution for Brahman regulation of something quite other--as the warrior castes, for instance, extorted for themselves from a submissive hierarchy a different scale of moral values. Moreover, in practice child-marriage has some clear advantages. For it allows the wedded pair to be brought up together, as children only, in their parents’ houses, till in time they become habituated to each other’s company and affection, while gradually they come to know and learn their place in those large households to which their future lives belong. The Hindu married couple can live in no independent isolation like the European. Rather they will be but one unit of a great family household managed on behalf of all by its eldest members. The real marriage, the consummation of their growth to man and woman, comes much later, after many years perhaps, when the parents at last give their consent to the grown student and the healthy maiden who helps daily in the household tasks. Rather it is not the child-marriage that is so much to be deprecated as the marriage that succeeds, as in some castes it does, too quickly upon puberty. For, by an unhappy ignorance, puberty is in India only too often thought, as it was thought in the Europe of the Renaissance, to be maturity; and the marriage thus concluded is at once made real.

In fact, in both cases what is needed is a little more scientific knowledge and the embodiment of the knowledge in the Penal Code. Cases occur only too frequently of the martyrdom of young brides, not so much from cruelty, or even from uncontrolled passion, as from sheer ignorance of scientific fact. It has become a superstition, supported of course by the usual authority, that puberty means maturity, not merely for love--which would be sufficiently misleading--but even for child-bearing. Here it is that rational education must enter the field. In a country in which knowledge is luckily not accounted shameful, it is easy for education to explain that puberty is only the beginning of a new period, and that love’s first blossoms must not be followed by too early fruit.

In this respect the practice of Hindu marriage unhappily does show a fault of the most serious and terrible kind. If education has still much to do, the state of the law most certainly requires improvement. It is sometimes said that the Penal Law of India at present does not give adequate protection to girls who, for various reasons, are unmarried. But silence is usually kept about the far more serious fact that it provides practically no protection to the married girl. In her case the age of consent has actually been fixed at twelve; and no child of more than twelve can claim protection from the law against the brutality of the man to whom she has been married. Obviously the limit of age for the protection of girls should be the same in all cases, whether she be married or unmarried, whether she be the victim of the man to whom she has been joined beside the sacred fire or of one who owes her no special duty. It is the most obvious confusion of thought which fails to see that the offence, if it is one, is exactly the same, whether or not a mystical ritual has been first observed. The thug was no better than a common strangler because he first prayed to Bhavani before he murdered. The offence is the same in all cases; the punishment should, if anything, be more severe to the man who is peculiarly bound in duty and in honour to cherish the woman he has made his wife. The State is now prepared to protect against perversion a class of women who, on an outside estimate, do not exceed one-hundredth of the population and who ex hypothesi are of a position and character somewhat less than reputable. But the State denies its protection to the other ninety-nine women of each hundred, the mothers of the country, the honoured helpmates of its households.

The harshness is made the greater by vices which, though forbidden, have in practice become common. The sale of daughters is an offence against which the sacred writings of the Hindus strongly and consistently inveigh. Yet in only too many cases parents do little else than sell their girls in marriage to the highest bidder. The sums of money which they demand and which they use, not for the daughter’s benefit, but for their own, are so large that they are forced to accept a suitor of sufficient substance without regard to fitness or religious sanction. Of the higher classes many nowadays revolt against such conduct, which they recognize to be wicked and despicable. But in the lower castes it is still general. The inner motive of such actions is, of course, the ignorance, quite as much as the selfishness, of the father. Too ignorant to comprehend that a human soul is an end in itself and that a daughter is also a free human being, he looks on her with besotted eye as a mere instrument of his own betterment. Hand in hand with this evil, and dependent from it, is the terrible practice of giving young brides to elderly husbands. In no other country could the results be more disastrous or the girl-wife more unhappy. Vallabh, the Gujaráti poet, has expressed that wretchedness in a beautiful song, which has had some influence in abating this social evil. From it the following lines are quoted, addressed to the Goddess Mother:--

  “Goddess mother, old is the husband thou hast given me, 
  Mother, accursed is this coming to life of mine. Alas, what more can I say?  
  Goddess mother, a little child am I and he a great lumbering, aged man, 
  My youth is like a blossom and my husband is a shrivelled mummy.  
  Mother, mine are just sixteen years and he has seen his eighty.  
  Goddess mother, of a winter’s night there is many a taste one feels, 
  But doltish is old age, and my husband is deaf and dumb.  
  Goddess mother, sportive am I and would like to play and I make my eyes twinkle, 
  But, mother, he, he says, ‘I’ll beat you,’ and lifts his stick in his hand.  
  Old is my husband, mother, what good can come out of age?  
  Goddess mother, on the festival all the girls are gaily dressed and merry, 
  But my husband is tired and weak and ugly, and I bend my head in shame.  
  Mother, my hair is black and his head is all white or grey.  
  My youth is at its blooming and already my life is wrecked.  
  Goddess mother, why was I not strangled at birth, why was I not poisoned?  
  Yet if my husband die, it is my part to be true to death.  
  Nay, Goddess mother, with joined hands I pray at thy feet, 
  When I am born again, give me a husband that is young and strong.”

But as long as society tolerates the acceptance of money by a bride’s father, so long will there be parents to be tempted by gold to sanction their children’s ruin. And even then there will persist a deeper reason. For girls are all early married and widows may not marry a second time. So, even against his will, an elderly man is forced, if he wishes to have the legitimate and socially-sanctioned companionship of a woman, to seek in marriage one of the young girls who alone are in India available for a suitor.

The prohibition of widow remarriage has also been bitterly attacked, often by those Indians who, from education or environment, have been affected by rationalism, sometimes by those who find a false pride in the imitation of foreign custom. But the prohibition is not of course universal. Those castes which have not yet set up a claim to the higher ceremonial purities, are free to compound with human desires by a second marriage, devoid of sacramental significance. It is in the higher classes that the woman may have to pay for the pride of caste by her individual austerities. Yet against the prohibition of widow remarriage may be set the terrific wastage in Europe of chaste and unmarried women. It has not at least entailed upon Indian society that narrowing and unnatural education which Europe has seen itself forced to accept, with all its consequent evils, and which is perhaps inevitable if chastity is to be required as their highest and sometimes their only virtue from women who are in every case condemned to a lengthy and, in a vast number of unhappy cases, to a life-long celibacy. In India a woman is at least allowed to know and to be natural; for an early marriage gives her in her ripening maturity the fitting fulfilment of her womanhood. And, even at the worst conjunction of destiny, the ideal of devotion crystallized in an unbroken widowhood is, in itself, no ignoble aspiration. The unflinching veneration that a son gives to his widowed mother is in India no small recompense for her sacrifice to a sacred duty. Widowhood is recognized by all as a state--divinely imposed--of austerity and atonement. But it has its own quiet rewards in the family home, with its sense of duty done, like a nun’s or a Sister of Mercy’s. It is harsh in those castes, which have merely adopted a custom, when the inspiring ideal is not felt living in their hearts, deep and intense. And it is also harsh in those cases where the original thought has been warped by an exaggerated deduction or where punishment is too rigorously exacted for illicit infringement of the rule. At least in the case of the child-widow, betrothed indeed by a sacrament, but never really wedded, some speedy relaxation of the rule appears desirable: and it is probable that, with the decay of faith and with the new scepticism about blessings conveyed by an astrologer’s predictions, some such amendment will soon ensue.

A deeper objection to the Hindu system is one which has been seldom, if ever, expressed. Racially, the absence of that natural selection which expresses itself in sexual desire, cannot but be detrimental. It is perhaps vain to expect a vigorous childhood to be born from unions in which healthy desire is replaced by the coldness of duty or by an instinct that has not been transfigured by personal attraction and selection. The difficulty is inherent in a system which bases its selection upon the supernatural and rejects the natural call of spirit to spirit and sense to sense. And yet it must be confessed, not without shame, that a careful selection by parents, if it could be trusted to be rational and disinterested, might be no more injurious than the restricted and illusory choice, too often made in ignorance, which so far seems to be the only substitute that civilization has learnt to provide. In general, it may be said that the Hindu rules of marriage are, in the ordinary sense of happiness, as conducive to the happiness of the spouses as the fast transforming systems of modern Europe, and that their happiness is less self-centred and more altruistic. Romantic love is, after all, most commonly, even in Europe, the short-lived flower of life in one sex and one class. Marriage must everywhere be in practice limited and artificially restricted. Economic conditions are very near the base of most marriages; and even in the richer classes must be a main constituent of the bride’s decision. Moreover, for the lasting purposes of marriage, affection is no bad substitute for love--affection and the sense of destined consecration. It may at least be asserted that, in general, among the upper castes of India the mingled feeling of duty and devotion is as strong as, and perhaps more stable than, in the corresponding sections of English society. In many places, however, and in many castes, the soft bloom of companionship and emotion is bruised by the brutality of a first union with a partner before unknown and undesired. Nor can it be denied that the gnostic asceticism, to which Indian idealism has so often condescended, has killed, where it could, that joy in a free humanity which alone can invest marriage with the flaming beauty of love. When the value of love is considered as an inspiration to art and chivalry and, indeed, to every creative activity, then the loss, thus self-inflicted, will appear in all its gravity. It may well be that the deathly slumber of the arts in modern India is to no small extent due to spiritual conditions which exclude and condemn the love which is profane, and is therefore alive and immortal.