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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: [05] Remarriage of Women

Published: 31.05.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

Besides niyoga (supra) there are sundry instances, mutually overlapping, of remarriage of women in different contexts. The term punarbhu ('become [a wife] again') indicates this, but its meaning is not uniform (THIEME 447-460 [esp. 459], JOLLY 60 and the triad infra). The term was used in closely related but different cases. There is little information about the form and practise of remarriage. THIEME 452-457 discusses remarriage as negation of suttee (two Vedic verses, § 12.1).

(1) We mention first of all the wife whose husband does not return or does not return in time from a journey, the so-called proshita-bhartrika (abbreviation 'PB') 'the wife whose husband is away.' Such a wife is handled like a widow, and her life resembles that of an ascetic. She is not supposed to wear jewellery, to show herself in a window, to use cosmetics, to open her braids of hair, to eat sweetmeats, to enter other peoples' houses, to attend festivals and so on (JOLLY 69; THIEME 429). The institution of the proshita-bhartrika is unexplained.

Similar but not identical is the case of Shakuntala. When King Dushyanta in Kalidasa's drama Shakuntala is reunited with his wife Shakuntala after long separation he describes her (being still unrecognized by her) in the following words: "Ah, this is her ladyship Shakuntala: Who, wearing a pair of dusky garments, with face emaciated by her observance of vows, having her hair tied up [!] once and for all and of pure conduct, has been practising one long vow of separation, from me, extremely cruel (unto her)." Dushyanta's cruelty was his repudiation of Shakuntala. In this case the problem was solved by reunion, not by remarriage.

The life (living condition) up to actual remarriage depends on the case, Manu 9.76: "A wife should wait for eight years when her husband has gone away for a purpose specified by Law [dharma], for six years when he has gone for learning or fame, and for three years when he has gone for pleasure [love]". This may be followed by remarriage. -- Before starting his journey, the husband should make arrangements for the wife's livelihood (Manu 9.74). "... but if he leaves without providing for her, she may maintain herself by engaging in respectable crafts." (Manu 9.75) The case (PB) is mentioned in the law-books (Manu etc.), but we do not know to what extent and in which form it was reality. See THIEME 429 (Rama's exile: Sita does not want to be left behind).

WINTERNITZ 53-54 (PB); OLIVELLE 326 (9.76, PB). WINTERNITZ mentions the not unusual case of a wife whose husband has turned ascetic (in our days). Our knowledge of PB-cases in ancient India is limited.

(2) The following three cases form a group of remarriage modes which have no common denominator but belong as a triad to the Dharma Shastra tradition. The woman in question is always designated as a punarbhu, as a remarried woman. LARIVIÈRE (40-41) has discussed one of the relevant Sanskrit-texts. A punarbhu is (i) a virgin who has not completed the marriage ceremony and must marry again. We do not know why such a girl should wish another husband instead of the first. In the second case (ii) the married woman has left her husband, commits adultery and later on returns to her original husband. The second case is also unexplained. The third and last case (iii) of the triad is a widow who has no brothers-in-law. A niyoga is (nevertheless) intended, and the woman enters into a levirate marriage with a man of the same caste (LARIVIÈRE 41, JOLLY 60).

(3) There is an often-quoted verse which sanctions in a generalizing manner five cases of remarriage of women. Remarriage is allowed: when the husband has disappeared, has died, has become a monk, is a eunuch or an outcaste. See JOLLY 60, KANE 610-611, LARIVIÈRE 38, DATTA Co 7-10. -- JOLLY mentions that the traditional fivefold chain has been used by the modern propagators of the remarriage of widows.

Remarriage in general: "The rules of Manu [etc.]... directly or indirectly attest to the remarriage of married women as a social reality that they had to record as a rule because the practice was embedded in tradition. At the same time, the lawmakers seem to find such a social reality unpalatable and attempt to alter it by eulogizing constancy to one husband and one alone as the ideal for married women." (DATTA Co 10)

(4) The Artha Shastra permits divorce. The permission does not depend on any of the above-mentioned conditions, the only condition being "mutual hatred" (KANE 621-622). This would allow both parties to marry again. In other words, divorce is the same procedure for both parties. "Moreover, the rules found in these sections [Artha Shastra] show a breadth of outlook which is generally wanting in the Smrtis." KANGLE 153 Several cases of divorce and remarriage (effected by the wife) are contained in Buddhist literature (ALTEKAR 85-86). There is thus frequent deviation from the "ideal oneness of the married human couple." (§ 7.2)

Widow remarriage and niyoga existed side by side and probably disappeared simultaneously. According to ALTEKAR, remarriage of adult widows vanished between circa 300 B.C. and 200 A.D. (152). Remarriage of adult widows became kalivarjya (155). However remarriage of child widows lingered on for many centuries. But ALTEKAR writes "From about 1000 A.D. the prohibition of remarriage began to be extended even to the cases of child widows." (155) Girls betrothed by word or even by thought [!] should not be allowed to marry again after the death of their husbands. (155)

Remarriage of Shudras, outcastes etc. was probably wide-spread, perhaps no problem at all. CHEN In 83: "Widowhood [in non-Brahman lower castes] is not marked by the kind of dramatic break in the life of woman as in high caste society."

One text has discussed the subject of the unsuitable husband in unusual detail (LARIVIÈRE 38-40, JOLLY 59). The same text (and that is even more unusual) prescribes an examination of the man prior to the marriage ("One should examine a man's virility..."). If the man failed, the marriage did not take place and inconveniences for the wife were avoided. The examination helps to avoid remarriage.

JOLLY §§ 18-20 (esp. 59-61, 64-67); MEYER We: 303-312 (esp. 304, footnote 1); WINTERNITZ 53-54, 95-96; ALTEKAR 83-86, 150-156; KANE 608-623; SUTHERLAND 79; LARIVIÈRE; BROCKINGTON 222; THIEME 447-460; DATTA Co (remarriage, pro and contra, an old discussion).

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