Hinduism and Premarital Relationships
This article presents a historical analysis of premarital sex, caste distinctions, and sexual mores of ancient Hindu communities in the context of changing traditional values among the youth and the new social challenges that may impact Hindu society. This subject is complex. Hence it may be revised further if research brings out new information.
Hinduism is a complex religion. Its beliefs and practices evolved over a long time. Hence, the rules governing the conduct of individuals in Hinduism are also very complex and at times ambiguous. In many respects, the rules are also specific to individuals according to their gender, caste, and social status. Therefore, what holds true for one group may not hold true for all. The Hindu law books suggest austerities for those who pursue liberation, and a balanced, holistic life for those who pursue worldly desires. In Hinduism you will find support for both, with a range of intermediate approaches and mixed attitudes in between.
Therefore, it is difficult to generalize social and religious practices of Hinduism, or any historical truths pertaining to them. Since Hinduism is a pluralistic faith with many variations and approaches in its beliefs and practices, you have to be careful in drawing conclusions about what Hindus may believe or may not believe or what they may practice or may not practice. In addition, you have to be also careful about any generalizations or conclusions you may draw, because there can be exceptions and variations. Unless you understand the subtle nuances of its traditions and customs and lived for long among Hindus, you may not grasp its beliefs and practices or essential doctrines.
The problem with Hinduism is that you can argue from every angle and support different standpoints, depending upon how you may view them. Therefore, those who write about Hinduism cannot escape criticism from those whose knowledge is limited, biased, or who cannot see or understand the complexity of Hinduism itself. There can be conflicts with regards to not only opinions and interpretations, but also facts, since Indian history has become a mess with ideological slant dominating the minds of historians and scholars alike.
One such complex issue about which there can be divergent opinions and multiple realities in Hinduism is its stand with regard to premarital sex. In the following discussion we will examine this subject and see whether it was practiced at all in ancient India. Although this subject has been treated here in some detail, it may be still incomplete in some respects, and the conclusions drawn here may not satisfy all. Readers are therefore requested to bear with any interpretations they may find here. The essay will be refined further in future depending upon any new findings and conclusions that may emerge.
How sex is viewed in Hinduism
In Hinduism, sex is not a taboo. Hinduism, unlike some other faiths, does not regard sexual desire as evil or impure. Still it is a puritanical faith, because it puts heavy emphasis upon virtuous living and the importance of purity and austerity. Sexual desire is personified in Hinduism as a deity (kamadeva) who instills the passion of love in those whom he chooses to torment. According to its beliefs, sexual desire is the basis of virility, spirituality, austerity, creation, procreation, rebirth, and continuation of existence. The worlds cannot exist or continue without sexual desire, and God cannot ensure the order and regularity of his creation unless beings procreate and support the gods in heaven. Since it is central to our existence, fulfillment of sexual desire is considered in Hinduism one of the chief aims of human life, without which a householder cannot attain the fourth aim, namely liberation, or ensure his existence or that of his ancestors in the ancestral heaven.
However, as in all other matters in Hinduism, intention is important to determine whether the sexual conduct of a person is lawful (dharma) or unlawful (adharma) and whether the sexual desire is pursued for the right ends. If a person pursues it purely for pleasure and selfish enjoyment, it is considered evil and unlawful. On the contrary, if it is pursued for procreation, as part of one's householder duties, the tradition upholds it as dutiful, moral and lawful. Without procreation, the worlds cannot continue and gods cannot be served. Hence, sexual desire has a divine purpose. Hinduism also permits the use of sexual intercourse in certain Tantric practices for self-realization or to sublimate the sexual energy into spiritual energy. Even the Upanishads hint at the faint connection between the supreme bliss of Brahman and the bliss arising from sexual union, which is a billion times less intense, but all the same divine.
Thus, sex is not evil in Hinduism as long as it is pursued as the means to righteous ends, and not considered an end in itself. The Hindu law books are consistent in using this interpretation as the standard to determine the lawfulness or unlawfulness of human conduct. Hence, you will find in them approval for certain practices, which present day society may not appreciate. For example, young widows who were still maidens or whose husbands died without leaving behind heirs were permitted in some places in the past to approach other men in their families or even god-men to bear children.
Hinduism draws a clear distinction between normal sexual desire and lust. While pursuit of sexual desire for procreation is considered one of the chief aims of human life, lust is considered one of the chief enemies of human life. Both men and women are urged to guard themselves against it to avoid sinful karma. The law books prescribe rules for both men and women to avoid lustful thoughts. In that they display a clear bias against women, holding them as weaker of the two and more culpable in inciting lust in men. Hence, they vehemently advise men to curtail the freedom of their women and keep them within bounds so that they will not distract men from performing their obligatory duties or succumb to temptations and cause the intermixture of castes and decline of their families.
Premarital sex and sexual morality in ancient India
Sexual mores of ancient India were determined largely by social structure, caste rules, and the caste status of the individuals. The scope for premarital sex was virtually absent in Brahmana families as their lives were guided by the law books and strict moral conduct. However, we cannot say the same about the princely families, feudal lords, land owning communities, lower castes, and people who were outcastes or lived in the forests. These communities enjoyed considerable freedom, especially if they were not subject to Vedic morality or traditional Vedic laws.
While we do not know whether the Hindu law books were really enforced by the rulers, or they just painted a world of ethical idealism, we can safely assume that the priestly families adhered to righteous conduct and followed the moral percepts of the Vedic religion. Therefore, although they treated women with considerable respect and gave them a place of honor in their families, they ensured that neither their conduct nor the conduct of their woman would result in the decline of their families and the order and regularity of society. A Brahmana was supposed to live virtuously, as a paragon virtue and express the ideals of God's creation through his words and deeds. Those who took liberties were either excommunicated or subjected to social humiliation.
However, since the Vedic laws were not universally practiced or promulgated, people in ancient India did not adhere to the same sexual morality or moral conduct everywhere. It was probably true even with regard to even premarital sex. For example, as we learned from Greek sources that unmarried women were often auctioned off by their fathers and sold into slavery or bonded labor. Such women probably lived at the whims of their masters and earned their freedom by paying off the debt or earning the favors of their masters. Women were also abducted or captured during wars and sold into slavery or forced into marriage.
Since the kings enforced the laws, they often considered themselves above law. They married many women and received maidens as gifts from other kings, vassals, and local princes. The princes must have also enjoyed considerable freedom in choosing their sexual partners before marriage and eligible princesses for their marriage. Megasthanese, the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya recorded that men practiced polygamy. They married many women and kept many women, some for work, some as wives and some for pleasure. As a result their houses were full of children. Polygamy was the common practice in ancient India. People from all classes engaged in it.
The following are a few exceptions to what the law books suggested, which are worth mentioning in this regard.
1. Tantric practices allowed sexual intercourse with virgins as part of initiation ceremonies.
2. Certain tantric practices required the presence of lawful wives and unlawful partners for the sexual rituals.
3. Prostitution was a recognized profession in ancient India and some of them had access to the royal court.
4. The Devdasi or Jogini tradition was prevalent in certain regions of southern India. It went by many names. The women who were part of the tradition served the gods in the temples as their earthly partners. They also worked as dancers, singers, menial servants, etc. as part of the temple duties. Outside the temples, in their private lives, they served the men whom they chose as their husbands or life partners.
5. We have to believe that cases of adultery were common since the law books prescribed punishments for the same.
6. Women engaged in various professions as bodyguards to the king, soldiers, spies, artisans, entertainers, teachers, singers, dancers, fisher women, boat-women, prostitutes, and farm wokers. It meant that the usual rules of seclusion and isolation of women which were common in some families were not enforced or practiced in their case.
However, circumstantial evidence strongly favors the view that the kings as well as the people in ancient India upheld morality, believed in karmic repercussions, fate and divine justice, and adhered to their caste laws, duties, and moral responsibilities. Families protected their children to uphold and continue their lineages and family traditions. Faith provided basis for their conduct and morality, while caste rules limited their ability to disobey their elders who held the key to occupational knowledge.
The laws and punitive punishments were mostly disproportionate to the crime if the accused were lower castes. Since they formed the majority, it deterred them from breaking the laws. As observed by Megasthanese and later by Hieun Tsang, people in ancient India lived frugally and led simple but virtuous lives. They upheld virtue, truth and morality. Thefts were exceedingly rare, since the punishments were severe. In such a morally sensitive and restrictive environment that showed no lenience for the weak and the poor, there was hardly any incentive for people to engage in any sexual misconduct or immorality.
Marriage types and traditions of ancient Hindu society
The complex nature of Hinduism and the privileges that were enjoyed by the higher castes and by men of status in society also led to a complex set of marriages laws, customs and traditions. They prescribed the ground rules for people of different castes, governed their public conduct, and gave them an opportunity to legitimize and sublimate their sexual mores, desires, preferences and indulgences through scriptural authority and the backing of an established tradition. They suggested the manner in which men of different social backgrounds could marry and raise their families according to their wealth, power, status, and strength and how they could channel their desires in permissible ways without disrupting the orderly progression of society.
The Hindu law books thus approached the institution of marriage from a very broad perspective to reflect the diverse ways and circumstances in which men could enter marital relationships or consummate their marriages. In doing so, they used human conduct as the criteria and considered the extremes to which men could go in their pursuit of marriage and relationships with women. Indeed, it was a unique feature of Hinduism, which is not found in any other culture or tradition outside India.
The Hindu law books recognize either six (Apastamba) or eight types of marriages (Manusmriti) by which men could marry and become householders. All the eight types were prevalent in ancient India since the Vedic times. It was probably not true that the law books invented the eight types. They might be prevailing practices to which the law books might have given their stamp of approval. The classification was done mainly according to the manner in which the bride was chosen by the groom and the specific rituals and practices that were associated with each type of marriage. The law books gave specific names to each marriage type and specified which of them were lawful or unlawful and which of them were suitable or unsuitable to the practice of Dharma and continuation of family.
The eight types of marriages as listed in the Manusmriti are, Brahma, Daiva, Arsha, Prajapatya, Asura, Gandharva, Rakshasa, and Paisachika. They are considered increasingly lawful in the ascending order, and increasingly unlawful in the descending order, according to the karma and the progeny they produce and how far they comply with the tenets of the faith. The Manusmriti declares that one should avoid unlawful marriages because they produce children with evil impurities.
According to such criteria, the first one (Brahma) is the most lawful and produce most virtuous children and the eighth one (Paisachika) is the most unlawful and produce most evil children. Manu suggested that of them, 1-6 were lawful for Brahmanas, 3-6 for Kshatriyas, and 4-6 for Vaisyas and Sudras. The last two were to be avoided by all means. In most classifications, the first four are considered auspicious and lawful, and the last four are considered unlawful and inauspicious.
Although we do not find any descriptions of it in the law books, it appears that in ancient times the Brahma type marriage was practiced by the Brahmanas since it led to the birth of virtuous progeny, and the Daiva type by the Kshatriyas, since gods like Indra, Varuna, or Soma, who acted as the witnesses to the marriage were warrior gods. The Arsha type was practiced by the seers and sages, since they required to gift at least a cow and bull to the bride's father, which they generally kept in their households. As the name suggests, the Prajapatya type was probably practiced by the common folk (praja) since among the first four, which were generally deemed lawful, it was the simplest and the least expensive.
The Asura type marriage suited the feudal lords, kings, and wealthy merchants who occupied positions of power and enjoyed wealth and influence. With their wealth and power they could easily bribe the fathers of the brides whom they desired and obtain their consent to marry them. The Gandharva type marriage was probably more prevalent among kings, warriors, artists, writers, musicians, entertainers, etc., who were prone to passions and succumbed to the temptations of love and lust.
Of the eight types, the last two, namely the Rakshasa and the Paisachika types were probably practiced by certain tribes who were not yet integrated into Vedism. The Rakshasa type marriage suited those who relied upon their individual or collective aggression in a display of brute power to settle scores with their rival groups or humiliate them. In the marriage, they would kidnap and forcibly carry away the girl without her parent's consent and marry her forcibly by threats or coercion to a member of their group. According to a recent report, such marriages are still practiced in some parts of northern India, and it is usually the groom rather than the bride who is kidnapped and forced to marry. The last type of marriage is called demonic (Paisachika) and considered the most heinous because in it the bride is first raped when she was asleep, intoxicated or out of senses, and forced into a marriage. Rapes are rampant in present-day Indian society, but unlike in the past now they result in court cases rather than marriages.
The law books are clear about which types of marriages are lawful. They make it abundantly clear that the consent of the father is of utmost importance because as her father and chief provider or nourisher he is primarily responsible for her birth, life, and existence. Hence, no marriage is lawful if his permission is not taken before her marriage or if she is obtained by tempting him with money against his free will. According to the law books, women who are married in this manner are not qualified to be called lawful wives or have the right to share the obligatory duties (dharma) of their husbands.
The importance of maidenhood in marriages
The Hindu law books prevaricated the possibility of premarital sex with their emphasis upon maidenhood as a precondition for marriage. Traditionally, the Hindu code of conduct, as enshrined in the law books, does not recognize any marriage in which the bride is not a maiden. This is true in case of all the eight types of marriages which we have discussed before. The bride has to be a virgin for the marriage to consummate. Otherwise, she is automatically disqualified. Such unequivocal emphasis upon virginal purity of the bride precluded any possibility of premarital sex by maidens. It also discouraged men from engaging them in sexual relationships and incur evil karma.
The evidence that the Hindu law books intended the sacrament of marriage for maidens only and men were meant to marry only maidens as part of their family tradition and professional duties can be found in the tradition of Hindu marriage itself. It becomes obvious when you consider the names that are used to describe the various customs and practices of a typical Hindu marriage. For example, in all the ceremonial practices associated with Hindu marriages, the bride is invariably referred to as maiden (kanya) only, not as woman, as evident from the following.
1. In the marriage, acceptance of the bride by the groom is called kanya- grahanam.
2. The very act of giving away the bride by the father to the bridegroom is called kanya-dan, which means giving away the maiden in a marriage.
3. Both the words mentioned above, kanya-dan and kanya-grahanam, are also alternative terms to Hindu marriage.
4. The price that is meant to be paid to the father by the groom or his parents is called kanya-sulkam, meaning tax, or debt, paid to obtain the virgin. The father has a right to collect it because he takes care of the bride up to her marriage in good faith as his duty, whereas her husband is morally and karmically responsible for her upbringing from the day of her birth.
5. If the bride has any defect or blemish which effects her suitability or compatibility for marriage, it is called kanya-dhosham. For the good of all, it has to be resolved before she is married.
6. The dowry given by the bride's father to the groom's parents is called kanya-dhanam. It is currently one of the major social evils of Hinduism in several parts of India.
7. The abduction of a maiden in the rakshasa type of marriage is called kanya-haranam.
From the above clearly Hindu marriages traditionally recognized only maidens as qualified for marriages. Virginity of the bride in traditional Hindu marriages is not just a moral or social imperative, but a spiritual one also. During the marriage ceremony, the bride has to be gifted to the gods before she can be married to the bridegroom. Upon receiving the virgin bride as a gift, the gods give her away in turn as their gift to the groom in good trust, and the groom has to promise them in the presence of celestial witnesses that he will look after well until his last breath. The agreement is important to the gods, because they depend upon it ensure their nourishment, which will come to them as offerings when the married couple perform rituals, sacraments, and sacrificial ceremonies as part of their obligatory duties to discharge their karmic debts or to commemorate auspicious events in their lives, such as birth, conception, initiation, etc.
Thus, every marriage in Hinduism is a covenant between humans and gods in which the bride becomes the consideration or the gift for its execution. For the gods it ensures the continuity of the tradition and another addition to their network of providers. Therefore, during the marriage ceremony the bride's father first gifts his daughter to the gods, and gods then give her away as their gift to the bridegroom in return for a promise that he would protect her and nourish them, and ensure the order and regularity of society through his progeny. Maidenhood of the bride is vital to the agreement because gods will not accept the bride if she is already taken by another or gifted to another. Hence, Vedic beliefs make virginal purity a divine necessity in Hindu marriage tradition.
Rules of celibacy
The rules of celibacy and chastity prescribed by the law books for the boys and girls precluded any possibility of premarital sex among the children of upper castes. In fact, boys faced even stricter regulations than the girls before their marriage and during their education, which precluded any possibility on their part to indulge in premarital sex or sexual misconduct. The phase itself was called the phase of celibacy (brahmacarya, which in most cases lasted until the age of 30. During this phase, they were not allowed to put on any make up, wear ornaments, and seek any form of pleasure or entertainment. For them the law books prescribed several rules to keep them segregated from the opposite sex and help them focus upon their education which was vital to their future survival and continuation of family tradition.
Thus by prescribing a strict code of conduct for both boys and girls, providing ideals, prescribing punishments as deterrence, and by enforcing them through various institutions, the elders in Vedic society prevented the incidence of premarital sex and the problem of misconduct among them. Since in the Vedic society maidenhood was important to the marriage of girls, they were closely guarded by her parents or her guardians and not allowed to go out or meet men alone. They were also denied schooling. Whatever education they received was either from their parents or husbands. Mass education of women in India became possible only in the last 100 years during the last phase of the British rule.
Such controls, and carefully laid out strategies of the Vedic society, prevented the possibility of premarital sex among young people. They helped them regulate their conduct around the central purpose of practicing dharma and ensuring the order and regularity of society. Adherence to dharma, and belief in rebirth and karma inspired them to live responsibly knowing that their lives were the result of their past deed and they had an obligation towards their parents, gods, and others to continue their family tradition, and preserve their name and reputation.
The Royal exceptions
Although India derives its original name (Bharat) from the legendary King Bharata who was born out of a secret wedlock (gandharva marriage) between Shakuntala, a beautiful princess, and Dushyanta, a native king, it is important not to generalize such incidences and infer from them that premarital sex was common or lover marriage were popular in ancient India. The truth is, in the earlier days, as it is now, mainstream Hinduism neither approved free sex nor condoned premarital sex. If there were any exceptions to them in the past, they very rarely happened and mostly with regard to princely families and warrior classes who considered themselves above the law they promulgated.
Shakuntala herself was born out of a union between Meneka, a celestial nymph, and Viswamitra, a renowned warrior sage. Indra sent her to tempt him and disturb his austerities. She succeeds in her attempt to entice him, which led to her motherhood. After giving birth to her, neither of them took care of her. Menaka left for heaven and Vishwamitra returned to his austere life, abandoning the newly born child. A sage named Kanva took pity on her and brought her up in his hermitage. Young Shakutala who was by birth a heavenly beauty grew in his care to become a beautiful and virtuous maiden.
During one chance encounter with Dushaynta, a neighboring king, she fell in love with him and secretly married him, which subsequently led to a lot of problems for her. She became pregnant, and when she went to the royal court, due to a curse Dushyanta could not recognize her or acknowledge their marriage. Bharata, who was born out the union grew up to become the ruler of the entire Indian subcontinent. The story was immortalized by Kalidasa in his famous Sanskrit play, Abhijnana Shakuntalam (3 to 4 Century C.E.).
In marrying Dushyanta, Shakuntala did not violate any Vedic law nor engaged in misconduct. She was not brought up by her original father. Hence, she had no obligation to seek him permission. She and Dushyanta belonged to the warrior class. As discussed before, the secret marriage (gandharva) by which they married was recognized as a lawful for them by the law books. Most importantly she did not engage in premarital sex. She was a maiden when she married Dushyanta. Hence, the son who was born to her through the wedlock was also legitimate and he was perfectly qualified to rule the country as the king. Clearly, her actions did not violate her chastity or broke any marriage traditions and customs. Therefore, it is wrong to suggest that Shakuntala engaged in premarital sex or Bharata was born out of unlawful wedlock.
However, it was true that in ancient India, the ruling classes enjoyed many privileges both as protectors of their people and upholder of the laws. The rules that applied to common people did not apply to them. Hence, if they took liberties with their sexuality or morality, they got away with it. Since they had the power to create and enforce laws, there were not enough checks and balances upon their own conduct. Most kings engaged in promiscuity and married many women. During wars they captured and enslaved women. Some they kept and some they gave away as gifts. They also received maidens from vassals and regional satraps as gifts or part of tributary.
In contrast, the women who lived in the royal households enjoyed little freedom. They served their king in various ways, as his queens, wives, servants, nannies, concubines, bodyguards, or mothers to his successors. While kings chose to live as they wished, their women lived in seclusion and under close scrutiny. It is possible that the king's children enjoyed greater freedom and privileges, but we do not know how far it translated into sexual misconduct.
We find exceptions to the Vedic ideals in some ancient legends such as the ones recorded in the Puranas and in the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. For example, Satyavathi, the great grandmother of the Pandavas had a sexual encounter with sage Parasara before she married king Shantanu. Sage Vyasa was born out of their union. Kunti, the queen mother of Pandavas, bore a son (Karna) through the Sun god before she officially married Pandu. Since the child was born before her marriage, she abandoned him by putting him in a basked and leaving it in a river. He was found by a couple who lived in a village down the stream and brought him up as an ordinary child.
Such exceptions were rare and comparable to the legends found in other cultures, such as the story of Mother Mary giving birth to Jesus as a virgin. Just as Mary remained a virgin even after the conception of Jesus, these women remained chaste even after they bore children through chance encounters. For example, although sage Parasara engaged in some form of sexual union with Satyavathi, he did not take away her maidenhood or violated her chastity.
We have to believe that he made her even purer by removing the smell of fish from her body and imparting to her a sweet fragrance. Symbolically it means he removed her past life smells or impressions (vasanas) and restored her chastity and virginal purity so that she would be fit to be the wife of a king. His encounter with her was also not a chance event. It was destined to happen because the fragrance which he imparted to her body attracted the attention of king Shantanu and resulted in her marriage to him, which in turn led to the beginning of a legend which is immortalized in the Mahabharata.
It was the same with Kunti also. She was bestowed with the miraculous power to summon gods to the earth by her mere wish. One day, in a rush of feelings, charmed by the radiance of the Sun, she summoned him, which resulted in the birth of karna. His birth was also not a chance event, but part of her destiny, which was closely intertwined with the birth of Pandavas, Kauravas and Lord Krishna himself. As in case of Satyavathi, her encounter with the Sun god did not result in her loss of chastity. In Hinduism, as Isvara himself, the Sun symbolizes the purity of the highest kind (suddha sattva). Hence, his contact with her would have made her even purer and preserved her chastity. In fact, their union was not physical, but mental or psychical.
The stories of Shakuntala, Satyavathi and Kunti clearly suggest that Vedic people often wrestled with the contradictions between idealism and reality, but rationalized them to the extent possible to avoid ambiguity and moral confusion. Even in cases where virtuous women seemingly transgressed the prevailing norms as the play of Destiny or the consequence of their karma, they struggled to maintain their chastity and inner purity, and kept their high moral ground. Their lives also prove that while women were subject to extra scrutiny, men got away with their transgressions, without having to explain their conduct.
The free spirited working women of ancient India
In ancient India women of higher castes were subjected to many restrictions, and enjoyed little freedom. In contrast, women of lower castes lived more freely and had fewer restrictions. Since their lives and conduct hardly mattered to the men of higher castes, unless they were in direct contact or under their direct control, they lived relatively freely without the weight of the Vedic morality pressing them down. From the available sources we can conclude that they worked as solders, laborers, hunters, spies, body guards, horse riders, fisher women, boat women, nannies, nurses, dancers, medicine gatherers, sorcerers, cooks, magicians, flower girls, washer women, potters, distillers, singers, temple maids, entertainers, prostitutes, caterers, cleaners, water carriers, musicians, wood carvers, and so on. Some of them also worked as teachers and trainers in women related professions. These professions became popular and participation of women in them increased as the Indian subcontinent witnessed urbanization and the emergence of several major towns and cities (Puras and Nagaras).
Those who did not come under the direct preview of Vedic culture enjoyed even greater freedom in choosing their professions, marriage partners, or even engaging in sex with married men. They belonged to different social and ethnic backgrounds, and practiced various professions. Ancient India witnessed the rise of Lokayata sect. Its followers were atheists and materialists who did not accept the authority of the Vedas or Vedic laws. It is also possible that some women followed the sect and ignored the norms of Vedic society.
Apart from them there were other classes of women upon whom Vedic society had minimal influence. We may include in this category women who were condemned, excommunicated or declared outcasts, women who were captured in wars and later freed, women who earned their freedom by escaping from their oppressive homes or paying off their debt to their past masters, women who were thrown out of their homes by their men, women who by profession were prostitutes and entertainers, women who were sold into slavery or bondage and obtained freedom, women who could not find marriage partners because of their disability, social standing or family reputation, women who were kidnapped, raped and later freed, and women who were abandoned by their deceitful husbands, or separated from them because of death, imprisonment, banishment, wars, famines, and calamities. Since societal influence upon them was weak such women defied the norms and lived freely without the fear of retribution or condemnation for their sexual preference, relationships, or lifestyles.
We have painted this broad canvas of women to suggest that life in ancient India was complex and heterogeneous and the Vedic laws did not govern the lives of all. Apart from Hinduism, there were Buddhism and Jainism besides hundreds of sects, teacher traditions, ascetic groups, and schools of philosophy. Therefore, while we may speak about the conditions of those times, we cannot be definitive.
A few decades ago, premarital sex was almost unknown in middle-class Indian families. If any people indulged in it, it was by force, or without public knowledge. If such incidents became public, the people who were involved in it were exposed to a lot of ridicule and condemnation. Men or women with questionable reputation had far and fewer chances of finding a suitable marriage partner. Their families also suffered because of such behavior.
About 50 or 100 years ago gender segregation in public gatherings was the norm in society. It was practiced in educational institutions, from schools to colleges, and to universities. There used to be separate seating arrangements for both sexes in the classrooms. It not only minimized their interaction but the possibility of secret affairs and premarital sex. Those who freely mingled with the opposite sex in public attracted negative attention and even censure. Since Hindu tradition suggested that the bride and the bridegroom should not see each other until their fixed marriage, dating was unheard of.
The segregation of sexes extended to other areas also. To the extent possible men and women tried to keep a distance in trains and buses, movie theaters, restaurants, and other public places. Since arranged marriages were the norm, such behavior was encouraged by parents and elders. The segregation which was almost universal in India, except perhaps in some metropolitan cities, minimized the possibility of premarital sex and the consequential problem arising from it. It certainly helped the families to cope with social pressures and control their children's conduct in pubic, while it also probably led to social problems such as eve-teasing, aggression, and violence against women.
The situation has changed in the last decade or so mainly due to the increasing influence of modern education, urbanization, television, Internet, mobile phones, and cultural influences from the West. Now the young people of today have many avenues to communicate through mobile phones, text messages, emails and social networks without being obvious and without being noticed by their parents. As a result, premarital sex in Hindu society is now said to be a growing problem, and more evident among the urban youth who are also most irreligious. In the rural areas, parents still have some control over their children, and segregation of sexes and traditional lifestyles can still be seen in many places. Rural children also learn more about their religion from their parents than the urban children. We have to see how, in the long run, these developments shape Hindu society.
As religious beliefs and traditional values continue to lose their hold upon people, parents have to now deal with changing attitudes of their children toward such issues as premarital sex, prostitution, adultery, and homosexuality. With rapid urbanization and with abnormally high population density in the cities where it is virtually impossible for anyone to avoid social contact or communication with the opposite sex, the youth of today are becoming more expressive in their personal choices and sexual preferences. Protected by constitutional rights and conditioned by secular education and modern worldviews, they are challenging the religious morality and social order which they hold to be outdated, irrelevant, and restrictive.
Thus, Indian society is presently vertically segregated into two major segments. On one side you have the progressives who want to throw the old order out of the window and usher in a free society which they see in the Hollywood movies or read in the western pulp fiction, and on the other you have the traditionalists who believe that they must return to those eternal values that distinguish India from the rest of the world. You can see this conflict in almost in every sphere.
There is idealistic romanticism on both sides and youthful exuberance in their aspirations to move forward into a better future by breaking free from the shackles of the past that they believe are holding them in control and slowing down their progress. Both hold the past responsible for their current problems, but view it differently.
For one side the past itself is a problem while the future holds a promise, and for the other the past that suppressed Hinduism and its values is the problem and its full expression holds the promise. We have to see how such differences will eventually balance out and result in a transformative and adaptive society that retains the best of the past and the promising features of the present and move forward to continue the story of 7000 years.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- The Basis of Morality in Hinduism
- Hinduism and Abortions
- Ashrama Dharma in Hinduism
- The Concept of Sin in Hinduism
- Hinduism and Divorce
- Hinduism and Adultery
- Fate, Freewill and Fatalism in Hinduism
- Hinduism and Homosexuality
- The Hindu Marriage, Past and Present
- Hinduism and Polygamy
- Hinduism and Prostitution
- About Suicides in Hinduism
- Theism and Atheism in Hinduism
- What is Brahmacarya in Hinduism?
- Hinduism - Sex and Gurus
- Parenting and Children in Hinduism
- Hinduism and Education
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