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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: [03] Adultery

Published: 29.05.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

Roughly speaking we have to take the following points into account: extramarital sexual union with mutual consent (lover responsible or women responsible); rape (man guilty, woman innocent); contact between a man and the wife of a man's guru (an abominable crime). The Sanskrit vocabulary is limited.

Punishments for women are numerous. They are tolerable or barbarous, real or fictitious, they lead to supersession or not. JOLLY 66, 121, 128; MEYER We 389-391; WINTERNITZ 52-53; ALTEKAR 212-215; KANE 571-572; KAPADIA 99-100; THIEME 467-474; LESLIE 255, 287-288: atonements and punishments. -- Punishments for men: WINTERNITZ 52-53; JOLLY 128.

Manu 9.29. A woman who controls her mind, speech and body and is never unfaithful to her husband attains the worlds of her husband, and virtuous people call her a "good woman."

9.30. By being unfaithful to her husband [committing adultery], on the other hand, a woman becomes disgraced in the world, takes birth in a jackal's womb, and is afflicted with evil diseases.

LESLIE quotes an ancient authority: "In the case of a woman convicted of adultery, Kautilya rules that if her husband is not ready to forgive her, she should have her nose and ears cut off, whereas her lover should be killed." (LESLIE 56) Refer to LESLIE 56-57 for noselessness in different contexts (and meanings).

KANE 571 quotes a Dharma Shastra with the following words: "an adulterous woman should be deprived of her authority (over servants etc.), should be made to wear dirty clothes, should be given food just sufficient to enable her to live, should be treated with scorn and made to lie on the ground (not on an cot)"; [see also THIEME 468] a woman becomes pure from adultery when she has her monthly period after that, but if she conceives in adulterous intercourse she may be abandoned and also when she is guilty of the murder of her foetus..."

Refer once more to KANE 571: "The humane character of the legislation of the Indian sages is seen by the fact that even for adultery they do not allow the husband to drive the wife out of the house and to abandon her." There was obviously a tendency to speak lightly of adultery. How great was the difference between legal father and begetter? P.V.KANE has isolated seven propositions in connection with adultery. We quote Nos. 3 and 5: "... the wife who has committed adultery but has undergone penance is to be restored to all the ordinary rights of wives... " (572). No.5: "... a wife, who commits adultery with a Shudra or [sic!] has had a child thereby, who is guilty of killing her foetus or of attempt to kill the husband or guilty of one of the deadly sins... is to be deprived of her right to participation in religious rites or conjugal matters and is to be kept confined in a room or in a hut near the house and to be given starving maintenance and poor apparel, even after she undergoes penance...” (573). ALTEKAR 313; WALKER 4; SUTHERLAND 83.

S.NARASIMHAN refers also to the humane legislation in Hinduism: "A religion that said -- as Hinduism did -- that even a woman who was a patita [fallen] was not to be abandoned and that if a woman had a lover she could, after expiation, be accepted by her husband as his partner in the conduct of even religious rites, could never have required a woman to burn herself as a sati." (152)

THIEME mentions vacillation between harsh and mild punishment (467-474) and also vacillation between inculpation of the wife and inculpation of the lover. See also § 9.4 (Manu 8.317: sin transferred to the husband); MEYER We 155.

ALTEKAR mentions shastric statements reflecting leniency towards innocent women: "With a broadmindedness that is indeed admirable, a number of... [law-books] declare that women, who had the misfortune of being made prisoners, or of being assaulted criminally, should be treated with sympathy, and not with contempt, and be accepted back by their families after they had performed certain purificatory rituals." (308) ALTEKAR mentions several authorities who declare that a ravished woman is free from guilt (308, 308-316). This is clearly leniency if we consider the difference between ancient thought and modern thought.

R.SYED observes that rape may be a means of humiliating a family and destroying its honour (izzat, p.151). Such cases have been mentioned by Amnesty International (e.g. May 2001, p.13, Uttar Pradesh).

Draupadi (Mahabharata) had five husbands (the five Pandavas). This was a clear deviation from the rules of Aryan society. But polyandry, hetaerism, adultery, promiscuity and obscenity (to use the modern vocabulary) existed as elements of a mythical past and as strange non-Aryan habits (mentioned in the epics). They existed also as alleged prehistoric trends and as customs of historical castes and tribes. JOLLY 47-48; MEYER We 82-104; WALKER 3-5; BROCKINGTON 223-224.

We conclude the present section with a few observations on chastity.

A girl to be married had to be a virgin. This probably created occasional problems in the early period, but in later times child marriage should have excluded lapses of this type (§ 5). MEYER We: 104, footnote 1; JOLLY 59; SYED To 147, footnote 1; THIEME 430-434. Chastity of the husband and of the wife is encouraged, but the rules for the husband are (naturally) less rigorous (THIEME 475-476, also MEYER supra). Shiva is the model of chastity and fidelity. The early marriage in general (ignoring the calculation of years) was certainly a method of securing the virgin-status of the future wife (§ 5, THIEME 445).

Menstruation is a purifying agent (§ 8.4; KANE 571; THIEME 471). The blood of the menstruation purifies a woman after adultery, an unexplained tradition. The magic force of chastity occurs frequently in narrative literature (infra). The Ramayana relates at the climax of the plot that the innocent and virtuous Sita was twice rejected by Rama (during the long exile she could not have preserved her virtue!). This indicates an oversensibility of the Ramayana populace to the question of chastity, but the accentuation of chastity is perhaps hyperbolic (literary). The two rejections of Sita are a climax. See also § 11.3.

In a series of articles in Japanese, MINORU HARA has discussed the women subject (Women in Ancient India, MINORU HARA i-ii) on the basis of gnomic and narrative literature. -- Ch.1-2 of Pt.i are on "Chastity" and on "The Miraculous Powers of Chastity." Ch.1:... "The husband as god...",... "Obedience to the husband..." Ch.2:... "The sun does not rise... The sun falls down upon the earth...". See also KANE 567-568 (power of female virtue).

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