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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: [02] Marriage and Married Life

Published: 16.05.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

Marriage has many aspects. One aspect is ritual. We have already mentioned ritual in connection with the wish to obtain a son (§ 6.1).

The marriage ritual is long and complicated and differs from place to place. As can be expected P.V.KANE describes the various ceremonies in great detail. He summarizes the ritual material: "There are certain rites that are preliminary, there are then a few rites that are of the essence of the samskara [central section] viz. panigrahana, homa, going round the fire [parinaya] and the saptapadi, and there are certain rites like the seeing of the pole star &c. that are subsequent to the central rites." (531) KANE has a long list of observances (526-541), HILLEBRANDT (63-68) gives a list of sixteen (fifteen) ceremonies. There is no fixed order, and probably no way to describe Hindu marriage in a short form which is generally applicable. We record the following:

Panigrahana: grasping the bride's hand (534), and parinaya: leading the bride round the fire (528). Saptapadi: seven steps: there are seven small heaps of rice, and the bridegroom makes the bride step on each of these seven with her right foot. "This (the saptapadi -- taking seven steps together) is the most important rite in the marriage ritual." KANE 529, 538; HILLEBRANDT 66. Homa: offerings of fried grain (528-529). In the night after the main ceremony the bridegroom shows to his bride [in the house of the bridegroom?] the Pole Star and the small star Alcor : the wife is advised to be as faithful and obedient to her husband as Arundhati (Alcor in Ursa major) to Vasistha (Mizar in Ursa major); and the husband shall be as firm as the pole star. Arundhati is described in various stories as the model of female loyalty. After death, Vasistha and Arundhati entered the firmament and became the two neighbouring stars just mentioned. KANE 530.

The marriage implies separation of the girl from her family (and early marriage implies early separation). The separation is a general problem, but more particularly a problem in connection with (a) the patriarchal organisation of the family and (b) in connection with specific views on ownership. The daughter does not belong to her father (b) but to her future husband. Through the marriage the girl passes into the hands of the in-laws, where she finally belongs. The daughter is a trust, and the father of the girl is merely a trustee (SYED To 163-164: Mahabharata and Harsha biography), the daughter is a unilateral gift to the bridegroom's family (MICHAELS 115-120).

The separation of the daughter from her family may not be absolute. SCHMIDT suggests that "even juridically the ties of a woman with her own family are never completely cut" (SCHMIDT: 63; see also KAPADIA 235). But the connection of the daughter with her natal home seems to be purely theoretical in many or in most cases. Even under extreme circumstances a wife cannot run away to find refuge in her native family, if the local custom (family of the husband, native family) does not tolerate such a course. This is the situation in 'traditional India', including the distant past.

The separation of the girl from her parents must have produced a serious crisis: a loved family lost, an unknown family won. The son remained in his family. Whether he paid much attention to the new member of the family (the bride) or not, depended on the circumstances. "They don't know each other, they ignore one another but try cautiously to get close to one another.... They do not talk much with one another, do not eat together, hardly go out together, do not travel together." (MICHAELS 126) The marriage had consequences for almost all members of the two families, but the bride was the real sufferer. The sorrow of the father over the loss of the daughter is occasionally described in Sanskrit literature (SYED To 164-165, Harshacarita et alia).

The quasi-philosophical background of marriage, although not mentioned in the ritual, is the concept of the "ideal oneness of the married human couple." Here belongs the common saying that the wife is one half of the husband. But LESLIE insists, naturally, that the relation is not strictly symmetrical: the wife has to serve the husband in one way or another (and not vice versa). LESLIE 30-31, 312 (wifely obedience). -- WINTERNITZ 13, 16-17 (wife is one half of the husband); JAMISON III, especially 270 footnote 59 (wife participating in sacrifice).

The ritual partnership of man and wife does not prevent polygamy (JAMISON 31, WINTERNITZ 14), nor does the story of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, inaugurate monogamy. The concept of Shiva who is in art often shown with his family (one wife, two sons) has also no influence on the social system. In agreement with literature one form of Shiva shows the god as half-male and half-female. The androgynous motif demonstrates a positive attitude to the female principle, but it is no concrete message. See C.D.COLLINS 76-81 for the famous Elephanta relief and for the literary spread of the androgynous motif.

A.MICHAELS presents on pp.124-131 a text on "The situation of the Woman", i.e. of the married woman. The pages are a substantial supplement to the relevant portions of the present essay. See also the bibliographical data in MICHAELS' footnote 199-200 (pp.124-125):

MICHAELS (129): "In marriage, the young wife is initially isolated, confused, desperate, and homesick for her parents's house. All her life she internalizes the conflict between her parents's house and the husband's house. The wedding can be a trauma for her." Here and elsewhere religion and culture form a continuum. The loyalty of the wife is a central element in Indian religion (Hinduism).

Marriages of choice are apparently not a subject of interest in Indian thought. It is taken for granted that the almighty family makes the necessary decisions and arrangements. All marriages are arranged, the partners being minors. On the other hand, choice of the partner seems to be the rule in narrative literature, where arrangements by the family are no subject and where the partners are adults.

"They don't know each other; they ignore one another but try cautiously to get close to one another." (MICHAELS 126) This applies to the present and to the past.

Title Photo Background:
Picture Credits: ASW - Aktionsgemeinschaft Solidarische Welt e.V., BERLIN.

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  1. Hinduism
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  5. Samskara
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