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PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | July 2013  

 

 

 

 


     Women and Rites of Marriage

 


     Rhyddhi Chakraborty

 

 


     Once a nine year old girl refused to be married and demanded a chance to pursue her education. But her mother, being dissatisfied with her decision, brought the girl to the Holy Mother Sarada Devi to convince her, and to perhaps scold her, for being a nuisance. Instead of scolding the little girl, the Holy Mother scolded her mother for taking the decision on the girl's behalf and recommended that the girl be allowed to pursue her education, by which she could become capable of deciding her own fate, good or bad.

 

     This is but one example of the subordination that the majority of women in India have had to suffer from a very young age. The Holy Mother lived from 1853 to 1920, but the subordination and fate of Indian women have not improved much since then. Instead, there has been a sharp rise in crimes against women. For example, one of India's leading dailies has reported that crimes against women were on the rise in the state of West Bengal. The figures available from the State Crime Record Bureau (scrb) stated that the crime rate had shot up by 83 per cent in 2005 as compared to 2001-2. The cases were related mostly to domestic violence - dowry murder, rape, bride­burning, forcible suicide, and the like. According to the Twelfth Planning Commission's draft on the social sector, an all­India average of domestic violence is 33.5 per cent.3 This sharp increase implies a lack of awareness about gender equality and the sanctity of marriage. If we present a correct picture of a woman and the rites of marriage, in the Indian context, we may contribute to a general awareness of the importance of women's welfare within society.

 

 

     Women and Their Status

 

 

     The word "woman" is derived from the old English term wifman(n), or wifmon(n) - wif meaning "wife" or "woman", and man(n), meaning "man"or "human being". Thus, in the English language, the concept of woman is defined as subordinate to man, her reproductive functions, and her family and society. This subordination has been an important issue for the social sciences and feminism.

 

     From the biological point of view, it is argued that the human female, like in many other species, is physically weaker than her male counterpart. It is for this reason that the male dominates the female at the physical level. The same biological determinism is operative at the psychological level, wherein certain specific tendencies are attributed to women and certain others to men. It is believed that there are necessary, unique, and exclusive qualities of men and women. For Sigmund Freud, femininity is neither inborn nor culturally conditioned, but in every culture the process of becoming a woman requires the repression of the active - masculine - side of her sexuality. This repression almost becomes natural and inherent in women.

 

     Other theories emphasize the social aspect of human life explaining the subordination of women in the context of the sociocultural environment. Friedrich Engels holds that women became subordinate due to the rise of the institution of private property. Claude Levi­Strauss states that subordination is the result of social dynamics. According to Levi­Strauss, the fundamental bonds of society are the bonds between men, or groups of men, by means of exchange of women. It is the men who exchange women and not vice­versa. Thus the social relationship is established not between a man and a woman but between groups of men, and a woman is not a partner but an object of exchange.

 

     In addition to these theories, the concept underlying the physiological theories is the most important and valuable, as women are invariably related to this concept through the concept of reproduction. In many Indian texts the concepts of bija, seed, and kshetra, field, have been applied to human reproduction. The male was compared with a seed­giver and the female with the field. It was thought that the female cannot create life, just as a field or land cannot create life - as the field nourishes the seed, the female nourishes the embryo. The bija­kshetra nyaya is presented in the Manusmrti, 9.32-52 and 10.68-70. Manu accepts that bija is superior to kshetra. A seed sown in a defective field gets destroyed without producing any result. The Manusmrti speaks much of the supreme importance of bija.

 

     Similar concepts were prevalent among the Greeks. Pythagoras and Aristotle explained that biologically the male is superior to the female (32). Among the Armenians the earth was thought of as a material womb, from whence men came forth. The culture and custom of recognizing the earth as mother, seeing a similarity between the two, was prevalent in ancient Greece as well. Thus one of the first theophanies of the earth, particularly of the earth as soil, was its motherhood, its inexhaustible power of fruitfulness. Smohalla, an American Indian prophet of the Umatilla tribe, forbade his followers to dig the earth, for, he said, it is a sin to wound or cut, tear or scratch our common mother by the labour of farming.

 

     Such a mystical devotion to the Mother Earth is not an isolated instance. In some form or other it was and is present in many other cultures. The members of a primitive Dravidian tribe of central India, the Baiga, carried on a nomadic way of agriculture, sowing only in the ashes left after part of the jungle had been burnt away, thinking it a sin to tear their mother?s bosom with a plough (ibid.). In parts of Assam, Bengal, and also in the state of Odisha, on the first three days of the monsoon, Mother Earth is given total rest, as she is believed to be menstruating. During this time the rains wash part of the top-soil away making the rivers reddish in colour. This is called ambhuvachi, and during these three days no ploughing or farming takes place, while some fertility rites and rituals are practised only by the women. Whatever the rituals may be, the underlying belief in these cases is that the earth emerges as a mother, giving birth to living forms that it draws out of its own substance. Through these beliefs the idea of motherhood is respected, even considered sacred, and therefore women can have their right status in society.

 

     With the change from hoe­agriculture to bullock­plough agriculture in the Indo­Gangetic plains, men's role in agriculture increased and women continued to be unrecognized farmers. Moreover, the spread of the concept of the bija­kshetra, devalued and distorted the role and function of women. Society gradually became patriarchal; males were thought of having a potency to create and provide new life. Giving life was thought of as more important than nourishing it, because nourishing consisted in helping and supplementing the growth of life, a secondary activity (ibid.). This kind of comparison between man and woman started with the advancement of civilization and the building up of societies, when people started to settle down by forming families through the institution of marriage.

 

 

     Beliefs in Marriage

 

 

     Every culture of the world recognizes some form of marriage. In most cultures and religions neither men nor women are considered complete, after reaching maturity, without marriage. Marriage is defined as a formalized union, governed by the customs of a specific society. It has significance as a religious sacrament and as a social institution with economic, educational, and other functions crucial to the maintenance of modern societies. Anyone entering into it is linked to an extensive network of moral functions, rights, and obligations. Therefore, marriage underlies a belief.

 

     In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad it is said: "Sa imam-evatmanam dvedhapatayat tatah patishcha patni chabhavatam tasmad-idam-ardhavrigalam-iva sva iti ha smah yajnavalkyah; He (the Divine Person) parted this very body into two. From that came husband and wife. Therefore, said Yajnavalkya, this (body) is one­half of oneself, like one of the two halves of a split pea."

 

     Thus, for the Hindus, marriage is a sacred institution through which men and women become one in spirit. Hindu marriage is also a social duty, and in the Vedic period it was a moral and religious obligation as well. Marriage and the grooming of male children was the only way through which a man could repay his debt to his ancestors.

 

     Among the Zinacantecos, a Maya Indian group in Central Mexico, marriage is the only means to attain heaven at death. Marriage here takes place on two levels. It is not simply the relationship between two individuals and their families, but it is also a bond between the souls of the bride and the groom. Among the Hopi Indians in the south­west of the US, a woman initiates a marriage and brings a husband to her father's house. The marriage is necessary for the girl's life after death. The wedding clothes that are provided by her husband's male relatives will become her shroud upon her death and will transport her spirit into the afterworld. And so, without entering marriage, one cannot truly die (ibid.).

 

     Jewish belief traces the origin of marriage to Adam and Eve and views their union as a part of creation's fabric. The nuptial blessings emphasize marriage in the scheme of creation and speak of the state of marriage as paradise regained. As a blessing from God, Jewish marriage should not only perpetuate humankind but should also enhance and complete the partners' personal growth (ibid.). Christian marriage is also regarded as a sacrament. The ceremony joins the bride and groom into one spirit in union with God.

 

     Marriage also underlies the belief in the continuation of society. The institution of marriage perpetuates society by socially recognizing the union of men and women and by incorporating their offspring into social life. There are even provisions in several cultures and religions for remarriage in case one of the partners passes away, thus granting the continuation of the institution of family and society. The two best known forms of this are the levirate and the sororate. In the levirate, when a husband dies, an approved male relative of his may live with the widow and the children. This substitute husband will conceive more children as if he was the deceased. In the sororate, the place of a deceased wife is taken by her unmarried sister (9.219).

 

     The Nur and Zulu societies of Africa practise "ghost marriages", which are of two types. If a man is engaged and dies before marriage, his fiancé should marry one of his kinsmen and conceive children for the dead man'this is similar to the levirate. A man may also "waken" a dead relative who has never married by marrying a wife to his name and conceiving children for him. Also, among these two groups, women may "become" men to carry on the male line. A rich woman or the eldest daughter in a family with no sons can marry another woman and become the father of her wife's children who are conceived by some male relative of the female husband (ibid.). The importance of all these forms of marriage is that they allow for the perpetuation of the family line and indirectly the entire society through the existing structure of social relations.

 

     While these forms of marriage perpetuate society through those who have died, many societies ensure their continuation into the future by marrying those individuals not yet born. Among the Tiwi of Australia a young girl is contracted for her future marriage before her birth, at her mother's wedding ceremony. When the girl enters puberty, her wedding ceremony is held. This ceremony is attended by the girl, her father, and her husband as well as her future sons­in-laws (ibid.).

 

     Another form of belief in the institution of marriage is that it creates an alliance and helps social integration. Marriage is the starting point for the kinship ties that run across and between different and independent kinship or descent groups. Such marriages are used to create an alliance between two lines of descent with very little focus upon the relationship between the bride and groom. In many cases these are arranged marriages, often making an agreement between the two families. Love is not a requirement here, but the affection that develops after many years of successful marriage is a product of that marriage.

 

     Among the Georgian Jews, when a dowry is unavailable, a love marriage may take place by elopement, the legitimacy of which is later recognized if the match appears to be successful.

 

     In the final category of marriage beliefs, marriage represents a gift, or a system of exchange of women between two descent groups. The position of giving or receiving wives sets up a mechanism, by which status is expressed and validated, between the two kinship groups. The ideal exchange is for both descent groups to exchange sisters, thereby acknowledging the status of each group to be equal.

 

     When women are not exchanged equally, the balance between the two groups remains unequal and the equality must be achieved through other means: payments made by the husband to the family who has given him the wife. These payments are viewed as equivalent to the reproductive powers of the woman, who is being given to another group, as well as a return on the labour and usefulness that the bride's family will lose upon her marriage. These payments are known as "bride­price" or "bride­wealth". Thus, in some societies, women are the medium of exchange by which powers can be gained and shown. Service may be used as bride­price or may even be combined with bride­wealth payments. To repay the bride's family for the loss of a daughter, the groom will serve his in­laws for an agreed period of time. In the Hebrew scripture, for example, this type of service is described in Genesis 29, which tells of Jacob's service to his father­in­law for seven years, for each of his wives, Leah and Rachael.

 

 

     Marriage as a system of exchange is prevalent in modern societies in some form or other. Of these, the most popular form is that of the dowry. It is not the opposite of bride­price, rather, it is generally viewed as her share of the family inheritance. In some instances, however, the dowry may closely resemble the practice of paying bride­price, as it takes place in marriages in India and Sri Lanka. Most Hindu marriages are traditionally made between members of the same caste and no dowries are given. However, when a girl marries into a higher caste, she should be accompanied by a substantial dowry as a symbolic payment for her movement to a higher status. This practice is known as hypergamy.

 

     Exchange relationships at marriage may be composed primarily through the flow of gifts between families, and frequently these expenses will be about equal on both sides. The power of the gift is not only in the object gifted but in the relationship that lie behind gifts. It is the exchange itself that is essential to the completion and success of a marriage. This exchange of gifts is often an important part of the religious ceremony of marriage. Alas! It is often misunderstood and the true purpose of marriage is mistaken.

 

 

     (To be concluded)

 

 

     

 

 

 

 


 

 

International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015


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