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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: The Son and the Beyond

Published: 13.05.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

In connection with 'man's destiny after death' we have to distinguish between [a] the belief in the origin and reality of the ancestors and the description of the dead man's way to the ancestors; [b] the lifelong funeral rites to be performed by the son and by other relatives for the sake of the ancestors. § 4 is an attempt to describe [a].

We give an impression of the 'beyond' on the basis of several quotations from BUTZENBERGER (59-92, Vedic religion).

"After his death [and inhumation], the deceased is transferred into a closed subterranean realm... Probably, the deceased was supposed temporarily to remain as a weak or powerless image of himself in his subterranean refuge, an image which was, when buried improperly, capable of interfering with the world of the living. It must be emphasized that there is no concept of a soul in (A 0) [A 0 = section A zero]; it is the deceased in his entirety who is transferred into 'yonder world'" (BUTZENBERGER 64-65). "As is assumed in (A 0), the deceased is transferred into a new reach or realm in his entirety, a realm where he is supposed to continue to exist at least for a certain period of time." (BUTZENBERGER 72)

A 0 = the early period; A 1 to A 3 (infra) = the subsequent periods.

A 1: "The changes induced [in the course of time] by incineration, on the other hand, are dramatic and complete [incineration instead of inhumation]. So, it would appear to be highly questionable whether the deceased may still be considered present after the process of incineration has been gone through, and whether an afterlife is possible at all." B. adds: Actually, the fire-god (!) restores the body and guides the dead to heaven (72). But the dead is not brought directly to heaven. In the first phase he is a preta (spectre), singular, existing still in the world of the living. In the second phase he joins the (more respectable) pitris or fathers, plural, existing in heaven, at least in an upper realm of the next world. The pretas meet with various events: OLDENBERG 555-566, esp. 556; BUTZENBERGER 77-79; OBERLIES Rg 306-312. The diversity of the different preta motifs (their experiences, their conditions) is remarkable.

Skt. pita is related to English 'father', Latin pater; Skt. mata is related to English 'mother', Latin mater. -- Skt. pitarah: fathers, ancestors; Skt. matarah: mothers (female ancestors are not mentioned very often).

OBERLIES Rg 299-312 concentrates on early Vedic religion. He stresses the social aspect: relation between son and ancestor, common ancestor worship of the living. As we proceed in our presentation, it is here that the son enters the stage. There are changes in the course of time, but the basic responsiblity of the son remains the same throughout the centuries.

"A significant portion of funeral and burial rites was intended to achieve cohesion even in the face of death's obvious time of disruption -- cohesion of family, group or society. Cohesion in this sense was not in the first place a connection with the deceased but rather a connection of the survivors among themselves." OBERLIES Rg 300....... 307-308: In the... 'sacrifice with rice balls for the ancestors'... the deceased of the individual families were mainly fed... rice balls. These correctly performed rituals link the deceased with the family over three generations (the deceased, his father and his grandfather), not counting the living as a fourth generation...."

According to OBERLIES there were two types of offerings for the ancestors (fathers, pitris): (i) Soma sacrifice for the fathers [soma = sacred beverage] by a group of individuals [agnates?] once a year. And (ii), monthly offering throughout the year, donation to the deceased of one and the same family (mainly offering of rice-balls and water). OBERLIES Rg 312. In the first case the deceased form a wider circle. In the second case the relation with the ancestors is more direct and the responsibility for the service is with the householder (pater familias).

Fathers of daughters are forced to marry the daughters off as soon as possible; see the next section. What is expected is the birth of a (grand)son. There is, of course, no communication between the pitris and the living, no pita (singular) can instruct a father to arrange instantaneously a marriage for his daughter. (An exception is mentioned in MEYER We 113.) The pitris and their demands are nevertheless a reality. It is not impossible, perhaps probable, that secular thoughts (definite chastity of the bride) were an additional motive for marrying girls off at an early age. -- Early marriage of sons has no comparable status.

Pitris live mainly on rice-balls and water; refer for a description of the ritual to DUMONT 16-20 ubi alia. We know that the pitris must always be fed; see ABEGG 246-247 on their shocking food habits. ABEGG's materials form a handbook on preta law. -- The son is responsible for the feeding of the pitris. He has also to kindle the fire of the burial, probably from time immemorial (e.g. LEINMÜLLER 159: pyres of his parents).

Bibliography. OLDENBERG 523-590 (all aspects of the ancestor theme); MONIER-WILLIAMS sub voce shraddha; HOPKINS My: §§ 14-15 (pretas and pitris in the epics); ABEGG passim; WALKER 39-40, 146-149, 427-429; GONDA I 130-138; BUTZENBERGER 55-92; OBERLIES Rg 299-312; MICHAELS 131-149.

The importance of the son is dogmatically embedded in the concept of the three 'debts'. There are three religious debts: study of the Veda (debt towards the rishis or divine sages), procreation of a son (debt towards the ancestors) and sacrifice (debt towards the gods): Manu Smriti 6.35-37.

According to MALAMOUD De (39-62), indebtedness to the manes defines in some way human existence in early Indian religion. Paying one's metaphysical debt and fathering a son go together. MALAMOUD observes: "... il suffit qu'un homme ait vu le visage de son fils qui vient de naitre pour qu'il soit dégagé de sa dette aux Pères, et assuré de gagner l'immortalité." (52) And furthermore he quotes "il est dit que le fils est un sauveur simplememt parce qu'il existe." (54) Also: "La dette due aux Mânes occupe donc une place centrale dans l'idéologie brâhmanique. Elle est un élément essentiel de la définition religieuse de l'homme." (55)

A famous text, used by Ch.MALAMOUD in his discussion on debt (1980: 54), is contained in a well-known narrative (story of Shunahshepa), a narrative which is in turn embedded in a Vedic work on the sacrificial art (Aitareya Brahmana). In spite of its uncertainties the tract gives a good idea of the importance of the son and the mother in those days. We supply HAUG's translation: HAUG II 461-462. The tract comprises nine verses and ends with a prose passage (portion ten).

(1) The father pays a debt in [sic] his son [MALAMOUD De 54-55], and gains immortality, when he beholds the face of a son living who was born to him. (2) The pleasure which a father has in his son, exceeds the enjoyment of all other beings, be they on the earth, or in the fire, or in the water. (3) Fathers always overcame great difficulties [great darkness] through a son. (In him) the self is born out of self. The son is like a well-provisioned boat, which carries him [= them, the fathers?] over [over the great difficulties]. (4) "What is the use of living unwashed, wearing the goatskin [skin of the black antelope, garment of the Vedic ascetic], and beard? What is the use of performing austerities? You should wish for a son, O Brahmans!" [marriage, rendering ancestor worship possible, is more rewarding than asceticism]. (5) Food preserves life, clothes protect from cold, gold (golden ornaments) gives beauty, marriages produce wealth in cattle [dowry?], the wife is the friend, the daughter object of compassion [grief? § 8.9], but the son shines as his [his father's] light in the highest heaven [translation not verbatim]. (6) The husband enters the wife (in the shape of seed), and when the seed is changed to an embryo, he makes her mother, from whom after having become regenerated, in her, he is born in the tenth month. [Verse 6: conception..."makes her mother" (?)... birth] (7) His wife is only then a real wife when he is born in her again. *The seed which is placed in her she develops to a being and sets it forth* [*... * text not clear]. (8) The Gods and the Rishis endowed her [the wife] with great beauty [brilliance]. The gods then told men, *this being is destined to produce you again* [*... * text not clear]. (9) He who has no child has no place (no firm footing) [He who has no son does not possess 'the world']. This even know the beasts. Thence the son cohabits (among beasts) even with his mother and sister. (10) This is the broad well-trodden [broad and prosperous] path on which those who have sons walk free from sorrows. Beasts and birds know it [they see the path]; thence they cohabit (even) with their own mothers.

The word 'debt' occurs only in the difficult verse 1, and the ancestors are not mentioned in the tract, a eulogy on the son. Verse 6 can be compared with Manu 9.8 / OLIVELLE 323. -- The text is not directly connected with the Shunahshepa story (the narrative). But the Shunahshepa story is about a man who has no son.

The well-known etymology of putra, or son, is missing in out tract. One author, probably later than the tract, invented a hell 'Put,' a linguistic artefact. On this basis he etymologized putra as one who 'protects' (-tra) his father against reincarnation in the hell 'Put' (hell for the sonless). MALAMOUD De 53; SCHMIDT 45. There is also another putra etymology. The two etymologies were probably not yet known at the time of our tract. -- The birth of a son creates tremendous joy, while lack of sons is a terrible blow (SYED To 129-147).

The importance of the son is for everybody a simple fact, but a fact which can be traced back to primitive forces (production of daily bread, protection against enemies). Later on the functions of the son were extended (performance of sacrifices). SYED To 138; CHIN Ru 202.

Ancestors, receiving oblations (fathers), and (DUMONT 17) persons offering oblations (sons) are basically male. However, women can also offer oblations (DUMONT 20) and receive oblations (WINTERNITZ 15, DUMONT 18). The matter (male and female in ancestor worship) is not absolutely clear. Refer for ancestresses, and oblations offered by devadasis, also to MARGLIN 81-83.

Brief information on disposal of the body will be found in WALKER 146. The custom requires further study.

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