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Hindu Widow Marriage$

Ishvarchandra Vidyasagar

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780231156332

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231156332.001.0001

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(p.xvii) Hindu Categories for First-Time Readers

(p.xvii) Hindu Categories for First-Time Readers

Hindu Widow Marriage
Columbia University Press

Without a doubt, Hindu Widow Marriage poses certain challenges for newcomers to the Hindu tradition. While the basic goal of the work is immediately intelligible, it actually contains a variety of discrete arguments on selected topics of Hindu law, many of which can be somewhat dense and technical. Nevertheless, I would not have taken the trouble to translate this work if I did not think it could be read and appreciated without vast amounts of specialist training. Readers equipped with even a basic knowledge of the fundamental conceptual categories and social norms of the tradition will be able to appreciate both the argument and the significance of the work. One might even say that for those just beginning to learn about Hinduism, Hindu Widow Marriage provides an excellent illustration of one modern attempt to think about the world in light of normative Hindu ideals. It is as if Vidyasagar takes readers on a guided tour of the classical Hindu tradition, with widow marriage as his organizing theme. Even so, a bit of background will allow first-time readers to feel better prepared for that tour. Toward that end, I offer some brief comments on four broad conceptual categories that are important to keep in mind when reading Hindu Widow Marriage. Readers with some background in the Hindu tradition may wish to skip this section.

Sources of Authority

Hindus revere the Vedas as revelation (shruti). These texts represent the most sacred, transpersonal source of religious authority. However, the Vedas actually offer precious little by way of rules for social and ethical behavior. For this, Hindus look to a variety of sources, all of which are in play in Hindu Widow Marriage. Broadly, Vidyasagar’s appeal is to the authoritative treatises (shastra) on duty (dharma, a term that may be rendered as “law” or “religion” (p.xviii) or “righteousness,” depending on context). Taken as a collective body of law, the dharmashastra, or authoritative treatises on duty, are often referred to as tradition (smriti) in order to distinguish them from revelation. There are several major works of dharmashastra in the Sanskrit tradition, which as a whole offer something like the legal codes for orthodox Hinduism. The most important among these texts are the books ascribed to Manu, Yajnavalkya, Narada, and Parashara. Vidyasagar often refers to these individual works as samhita, meaning “collection” (e.g., Parashara Samhita).

Hindu religious and social norms are also recorded in a variety of other texts. This includes the genre of purana, which are lengthy works of myth and legend, as well as itihasa, which are histories or epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Finally, there are numerous medieval digests (nibandha), or compendia of legal matters. For Bengalis, the digests on selected topics of law composed by the sixteenth-century digest writer Smarta Raghunandan Bhattacharya, oft cited in Hindu Widow Marriage, are of great importance (e.g., Udvahatattva, dealing with marriage). Beyond these written texts, there stands the authority of custom (achara). In lieu of clear injunctions in the Vedic or the smriti texts, the custom of learned men is understood to provide a third canon for behavior. In the case of the ban on widow marriage, it is in fact custom that represented the real obstacle to change, since in Bengal those occupying the highest rank in Hindu society did not allow the custom of widow marriage. Vidyasagar knew this all too well, but he was also convinced that it could be shown that the authoritative treatises on duty allowed for widow marriage in certain circumstances. Since the authoritative treatises on duty are supposed to represent a higher authority than custom, he argued that existing custom should be overruled. As he saw it, custom should be no bar to reform where proper authority could be found in the dharmashastra and other texts of smriti.

Hindu Society

Rightly or wrongly, for many people, Hinduism is synonymous with the “caste system.” Setting aside for now the purported equation of Hinduism with caste, we need at the very least to be more precise in our basic terminology. When thinking about Hindu law and the so-called caste system, (p.xix) we must recognize that the authoritative treatises present what is in fact an ideal template for society rather than an empirical description. Within this ideal template, the operative concept is not in fact “caste,” but “class” (varna). The classes of the authoritative treatises are the four ideal hierarchical strata of Hindu society: the ritually superior Brahman, the politically powerful Kshatriya, the economically central Vaishya, and the lowest class, assigned to serve these three higher “twiceborn” classes, the Shudra. These four are sometimes rendered conveniently as Priest, King, Commoner, and Serf, respectively. However, even the authoritative treatises recognize that society is in fact much more complex than this ideal template would lead us to believe. A second concept is thus introduced—that of “caste” (jati, which indicates something like a birth group). The precise relationship among the four classes and the various birth groups is a complicated issue, as is the matter of understanding class and caste as practiced throughout South Asia. Thankfully, readers of Hindu Widow Marriage will discover that the subtleties of class / caste are in fact not vitally important. Nevertheless, the fundamental dynamics of social hierarchy and ritual prerogative, not to mention the constant potential for social ostracism, all very much come into play in the text. What is more, the systemic conservatism of the class / caste social structure must be borne in mind when considering the very limited success achieved by the widow marriage movement.

To appreciate the issues treated in Topics 10 and 11 of Book Two, for instance, it may help to know that along with class the other great organizing scheme for twiceborn Hindu society is that of “stage of life” (ashrama). These stages are, once again, four in number and arranged in a linear order. They are taken to mark the ideal life-trajectory of any “twiceborn” Hindu male (that is, any male member of the top three classes, Shudras being ritually excluded by definition). According to this scheme, a twiceborn male’s ritual life properly begins when he is initiated into the life of the Vedic student. After completing the requisite period of study, he proceeds to the life of the householder. Having raised sons of his own and seen the birth of grandsons, he becomes eligible to enter the final two stages, which are dedicated more intensively to religious pursuits: the stage of forest-dweller and solitary renouncer.

Taken along with varna, the ideal of ashrama frames a collective vision of duty known as varnashrama-dharma, the “duties of class and stage of life.” For many Hindus, varnashrama-dharma is a distinguishing marker of the tradition, (p.xx) an essential code that is often described as sanatana, or “eternal.” Likewise, this eternal set of duties is understood by many to be synonymous with what we routinely call Hinduism. The rubric of varnashrama-dharma and the notion of an eternal Hindu moral vision have both proved to be central for colonial and postcolonial attempts to define and defend Hinduism. In this respect, one of the fringe benefits of reading Hindu Widow Marriage is that in attending to Vidyasagar’s debates with his opponents, we are taken to the heart of modern contests over the meaning of this “eternal” Hinduism.

Marriage and Sons

Marriage (vivaha) is obviously the duty at the very center of this work. It would be too difficult in this context to summarize Hindu views of marriage. Suffice it to say that marriage is considered a life cycle “rite” (samskara) of central importance. Technically, marriage is known as the “gift of a virgin” (kanya-dana). This is a crucial concept to bear in mind while reading Hindu Widow Marriage. The rite of giving (dana) a virgin (kanya) to an eligible male marks the commencement of the stage of householder existence. According to Manu, the householder is the most important ashrama, for without a wife a male Hindu householder cannot perform his requisite duties, from producing male offspring, to worshipping the gods, to attending to his ancestors. Of these many duties, the production of a son is considered essential because it is the son who guarantees the continuity of the family line. It is the son who will light the father’s funeral pyre. In so doing, he both advances the latter’s spiritual progress beyond this world and also helps to carry on the duties of the lineage in this world.

The centrality of this issue within the argument of Hindu Widow Marriage will become immediately apparent to readers. Indeed, the precarious nature of marriage and procreation means that great pains must be taken to address possible impediments to the fulfilling of the householder’s duty. For instance, the authoritative treatises on duty recognize that it is sometimes the case that a husband is unable to sire sons. It may be that he has gone mad, become impotent, or abandoned his home to become a renouncer. Alternatively, sometimes wives are barren. How, then, does the householder gain a son? The authoritative treatises take pains to address such matters, (p.xxi) considering every conceivable scenario and issuing injunctions (vidhi) and prohibitions (nishedha) on what should and should not happen. It turns out that sons can be acquired in a variety of ways. Adoption is the most obvious alternative, but questions and controversies nevertheless arise: What sorts of adoption are permissible? Under what circumstances? And what status will an adopted son have when it comes to issues of inheritance? This last issue is one on which the lawmakers and the digest writers generated a great deal of debate and legislation (for a collection of texts on the issue of inheritance alone, see A Complete Collection of Hindu Law Books on Inheritance, translated into English by S. S. Setlur).

Property matters and how property is bequeathed can, of course, be a contentious issue. This was true in premodern India, as the classical lawbooks and medieval digests clearly attest. Under British rule, matters of property and inheritance took on new and further implications as the lawbooks were yoked to the imperatives of an emergent colonial state and capitalist economy. Readers should therefore bear in mind that behind the heated debates over widow marriage stands the thorny issue of property rights. While Hindu Widow Marriage played a crucial role in garnering support for passage of Act XV of 1856, when it came to the matter of property rights the act proved to be something of a mixed blessing. Widows were granted the right to marry, but any widow who chose to marry forfeited whatever right she might otherwise have had to her first husband’s property. As a variety of subsequent acts issued during the twentieth century indicate, there was much that needed rectifying about the handling of marriage, succession, and inheritance in the original Act XV (for a list of these subsequent acts, see the chronology). For many present-day reformers, the goal of achieving full and equal rights for Hindu women has yet to be achieved. To pursue this topic here would take us far beyond the text of Hindu Widow Marriage, but the bibliography lists a sampling of works that can help orient readers in this area.

The Levirate and the Four Eons

Besides adoption, the authoritative treatises also envision solving the problem of “issue” by what is known in the biblical traditions as the levirate (niyoga). According to the dharmashastra, if a husband was unable to produce a son— (p.xxii) whether from impotence, death, madness, or some persistent ailment—his brother could be enjoined to perform the necessary act. Obviously, this was viewed as a sensitive issue, both socially and morally. Recourse to such a tactic would call for great ritual care and enormous restraint. The treatises specify just how and when such niyoga can be performed. Even so, it is generally recognized that this particular strategy is fraught with danger; it could prove destructive both to the marriage bond and to the larger fabric of Hindu society. To address the tension between the ideal of niyoga and the dangerous reality, the authoritative treatises invoke a pervasive Hindu system of cosmology and time reckoning.

According to Hindu cosmology, the universe comes into being and dissolves back into primordial chaos on a cyclical basis, a process that spans what are to mere mortals nigh immeasurable spans of time. Within any cycle of creation, the human social, moral, and religious universe declines progressively. The authoritative treatises and other texts picture a primordial mythical eon (yuga) in which humans live far longer than in subsequent eons; in this primordial eon they are wiser, more moral, and more spontaneously given to religious activity. This is the Age of Truth, or Satya Yuga, and during this cosmic eon humans can be expected to carry out extensive religious and ritual ceremonies; they also can be held to the highest moral standards without fear of failure. But from here, things inevitably go downhill, declining through three succeeding eons: the Dvapara, Treta, and Kali yugas. The fourth of the eons, the Kali Yuga, is the darkest and most degenerate. During the Kali Yuga, the human life span is short and the baser passions run amok; there is very little hope for strenuous religious and moral exertion. If a religious practitioner during the Satya Yuga could be expected to live a life of great sacrifice, austerity, and personal renunciation, during the Kali Yuga such a person can scarcely be expected to do more than make the most basic religious gifts (for a rather nice overview of the idea of the decline of religious duty across the yugas, see Topic 12 of Book Two). Needless to say, we are currently thought to be living in the Kali Yuga.

This summary should provide enough context to make sense of what the lawmakers think of the levirate as an option for the Kali Yuga. Clearly, the men of this degenerate eon cannot be expected to responsibly assume the moral challenge of sleeping with their brothers’ wives for the purpose of producing offspring. For this reason, niyoga is considered one of the so-called kalivarjya rites—those rites that must be shunned during the Kali Yuga. As readers will (p.xxiii) see, there are also other such rites and actions that should be shunned in the Kali Yuga. This is a special eon that calls for special rules.

All of this brings us, finally, to the theme of widow marriage (vidhavavivaha). It is Vidyasagar’s argument that of all the lawbooks, it is the authoritative treatise composed by Parashara that contains the specific norms and guidelines for life during the Kali Yuga. As such, if we are looking for rules to guide us in the possible reform of Hindu marriage practices during the present eon, we should look to Parashara first, and not Manu or the other lawmakers. In verse 4.28, Parashara appears to provide an explicit injunction that would sanction the marriage of widowed women (as well as women who find themselves in four other dire circumstances). As readers will discover, however, questions immediately arise: How are we to understand the meaning of Parashara 4.28? What is its relationship to the rules and injunctions found in the other authoritative treatises? Is this really a rule for the Kali Yuga, or is it intended for other yugas? How can we know? And finally, even if Parashara has enjoined this, what are we to make of the fact that people in nineteenth-century Bengal did not follow this practice as a matter of local custom (deshachara)? That is, how are we to resolve a tension between scriptural injunction and community practice?

Suggested Readings

Readers wishing to put more flesh on these issues might wish to consult a translation of Manu, which is the lawbook most translated and discussed in the modern era. An accessible translation is Wendy Doniger and Brian K. Smith, The Laws of Manu. I would particularly recommend chapter 3, on marriage and the householder’s life; chapter 9, on women and types of sons; and chapter 10, on types of castes and the problem of the outcast (another theme running throughout Hindu Widow Marriage). For a useful discussion of selected topics in the interpretation of Sanskrit legal literature, see Ganganath Jha, Studies in Hindu Law.

For one of the most insightful discussions of the widow marriage movement in relation to the systemic constraints of caste society and gender norms in modern India, I recommend Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s essay “Caste and Social Reform: The Case of Widow Marriage,” in his Caste, Culture, and Hegemony: Social Domination in Colonial Bengal. A broad discussion of Hindu (p.xxiv) law and the colonial state can be found in Rajeev Dhavan, “Dharmasastra and Modern Indian Society: A Preliminary Exploration.” A readable anthropological discussion of women and marriage practices in Bengal can be found in Lina Fruzzetti, The Gift of a Virgin: Women, Marriage, and Ritual in Bengali Society. For a single book that helps put Hindu Widow Marriage in its broader context, consult Sumit Sarkar and Tanika Sarkar, eds., Women and Social Reform in Modern India: A Reader.