Table of Contents


First Book

Ancient India's
Contribution to
Modern Civilization



- A Search for Our Present
in History


Chapter 1

Popular Beliefs
and Folklore


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Some Prevalent Social Practices


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A Search for - Our Present in History

Some Prevalent Social Practices

In this chapter we turn our attention to the more prevalent social practices. These practices are part of real life for any average Indian. We have taken six practices for discussion viz. the doctrine of Moksha (Salvation through release from the cycle of re-birth), the practice of observing Upavasa (fasting) on various religious festivals, of performing important events at a particular auspicious time (Muhurla), the practices of dowry (Daheja/kunda), child-marriage (Balvivaha) and widow burning (Sati). We first take up the doctrine of Moksha.


People all over the world have goals and ambitions regarding their career, family life, standard of living) etc. But all these goals are worldly and are of relevance only if they are realised during the person's lifetime. Religion which plays an important role in the life of many of us is looked upon as a link between life in this world and in the 'next'. Many religious activities are undertaken keeping in view our life in the next world. The All Souls Day ceremony ( Sarvapitri Amavasya) performed in memory of those who are no more among us, is one such instance. Almost all religions prescribe goals whose realisation transcends the material world. These goals are variously known as salvation, transmigration, etc.

In the Hindu religion these goals are elevated to a still higher pedestal. Hinduism prescribes that, pursuit of goals whose realisation is beyond our existence in the palpable world around us should be made an organic part of our activities while we are still living. Further, that each and every thing that we do here (Karma) is accounted for by the celestial accountant ( chitragupta ) and has implications on our next life as per the theory of re-birth (Punarjanma) .

Traditionally, a devout Hindu elevates himself in the eyes of his co-religionists if he pursues activities of charity, penance, renunciation, etc., with an eye on a goal whose realisation is possible when the person concerned is no more . This is the goal of release from the cycle of re-birth and is termed Moksha - popularly called Mukti.

One may wonder as to how this idea which aims to at regulating the activities of mortal human beings with a promise of reward after death could have come into being. While many conflicting philosophical doctrines exist for explaining and Justifying the concept of Moksha, a student of this subject would sense the answer in the intimate link between the idea of Mokaha and that of Karma. It can be seen that the origin of these ecclesiastical doctrines is embedded in real life.

The idea of attaining Moksha i.e. release from the cycle of re-birth has in varying degrees been based on the premise that if a person faithfully carries out the duties decreed to him by birth (in a particular caste) he is rewarded by a more nobler life by being torn in a higher caste and vice-versa. After reaching the highest caste if he continues to perform the duties decreed upon him he can obtain Moksha and his soul (Atman) does not have to be re-born.

In theory this doctrine was made applicable not only to human being but to all living creatures. Thus even a dog could be re-born in a higher form of life, e.g. he could be born as a man as member of a particular caste and thus through noble behaviour continue his upward journey till he finally obtained Moksha.

But it is clear that this mode of thinking was meant to influence humans and was a tool to impose self discipline among members of various castes to stick to their vocation and station in life as decided by birth. The carrot of re-birth in a higher caste and finally release from the cycle of re-birth, ensured observance of the caste order and discipline in society with minimum need for physical coersion.

This was an important reason why slavery which is always based on physical subjugation and coersion) as seen in other civilisations did not need to make its appearance in India. But if at all the carrot of Moksha did not serve its implicit purpose of ensuring caste discipline the Dandaniti (Penal Code) as prescribed by the Dharmashastras (legal literature) was always there to do it. But the need for this was almost non-existent .

We do not hear of any caste revolts in ancient India, comparabale to the slave revolts inancient Greco-Roman world - as that of Spartacus for example.

The doctrines of Karma and Moksha represented a neat integration of religion into the social structure. This integration was never so perfect in other civilizations. Its existence in India, helped to strengthen the immobility between different castes, because according to these doctrines a person could move into a higher caste only in his next life and that also was possible provided he faithfully carried out the duties assigned to the caste in which he had been born in his 'present' life. Hence the doctrines precluded any outside chance of a person trying to infiltrate into another caste by dint of hard work, enterprise or coersion.

Thus it helped in cementing the social differentiation that the heredity aspect of the caste system had introduced. Disqualifi cations and inferior status of any caste became acceptable when looked upon as a result of deeds (karma) of the individual concerned in his past life or as his fate (Daiva) that had been destined for him by divine will. By providing explanation for every unequal status, these doctrines sapped away the reason for being dissatisfied with status inherited from birth. But these doctrines had many contradictions which were not always evident. The principal religious injunction that is quoted is the one attributed to Sri Krishna who we are told said in the Bhagvad-Geeta that a mortal should go about performing his duty without any es on its fruits.

Most Indians see in this proclamation an argue ment for renunciation. But renunciation only means 'to give up' something, it does not imply that one should dutifully go about the function assigned but not expect the fruits in return. While the proclamation in the Bhagvad-Geeta amounts to saying ' give (and obey) but do not expect anything in return', renunciation simply means to give up whatever one has. This differentiation could be likened to hair splitting, but it is essential to realise that there is a difference between renunciation as is practised by sages and hermits and the injunction in the Bhagvad-Geeta which is applicable to all human beings in the normal course of living. Thus, this message of the Bhagvad-Geeta which is meant to have a social appeal must have been relevant in the context of the then existing social structure.

The Bhagvad-Geeta is not meant for Arjun alone whose vacillation in fighting this relatives in the Mahabharata war is supposed to have been the reason why Sri Krishna recited the Geeta.

But all this apart, it is inconceivable that a deeply philosophical document such as the Bhagvad-Geeta could have been recited on a battlefield, and that too just before the beginning of a battle. Even a person who has memorised the Geeta takes about two hours to recite it. Applying human standards it would be unrealistic to presume that this text was recited on a battlefield. The Bhaqvad-Geeta must have been composed in a quite corner by different persons possibly at different periods. It reflects doctrines that are necessary to sustain social structures that have existed in India in historic times. By representing it to have been recited by Lord Krishna the messages of the Geeta could be ensured of divine invoilability.

The possibility of its being conceived by different persons is substantiated by the obvious contradictions between its various injunctions. For instance, the above injunction of carrying out duties without expecting the fruits of labour cannot be reconciled with Sri Krishna's telling Arjun that he need not face any dilemma while battling his relatives because if he wins the battle he would obtain the kingdom of earth but even if he loses and is killed he would still gain the kingdom of heaven Thus Arjun has to be motivated to fight by making him aware of the fruits of his deeds. This is one instance of a contradiction within a philosophy which in one way or the other commends performance of duties decreed upon us (by birth - in the context of the social structure that existed in ancient India).

In present-day India, this social structure is dis appearing. Consequently, ideas about Karma, Daiva and Moksha are losing their social relevance But they continue to be a part of an average Indian's temperament. this is partly because these habits of thinking, have crystallized and refuse to die easily In part, the reason for their survival is that they provide an escape from those harsh realities of our day-to-day life that we cannot overcome. They soothingly reduce the mental burden of helplessness and failure and enable us to reconcile with them.


The next social practise we take up is that of Upavasa i.e. fasting on certain holy days. Fasting on festivals and other days of religious significance is not new to an Indians We have also observed that on certain occasions like thread ceremony, marriage or death in the family an Indian shaves (tonsures) his head. This is even done while visiting an important shrine normally in fulfilment of a boon e.g. at the Tirupati shrine in Southern India.

It may even surprise us to see people walking over hot coals, puncturing cheeks, ears and tongue, etc. That could be the origin of such strange practices which are a part of worship ? What is the nature of worship itself ?

All of us know that we are taught to pray to the Almighty. The term almighty itself speaks for our concept of divinity. Something that is supreme, all-powerful can be looked upon as God. Fear, need and helplessness evoke awe and respect followed by worship. This is why, natural phenomena like, thunder, lightning, a mighty river especially one causing floods, etc. were objects of worship in ancient times. #ignorance about the nature of a thing alongwith its having a determining influence on human lives have been reasons for such things being elevated to the status Of a deity.

The word for fasting i.e. Upavasa itself means to move near ( to the Supreme) and by implication to overcome helplessness. A calamity has always been an occasion for prayer. But in normal times we pray for a positive reason like asking for a boon. Appeasement of an anger deity has also been a cause for prayer. But whatever the reason for prayer a common feature is; the offerings that are made. No prayer can be complete unless accompanied by an offering.

In earlier times, sacrifices of animals and human beings were offered to propitiate the Gods. In the present aye the items we offer have changed but the practice remains, We never go to temples or churches empty-handed, coconuts, flowers, sweets, candle-sticks, etc., are items that we take along as offerings. Thus the concept of give and take during worship has existed since ancient times till today.

The origin of customs like fasting must lie near by this nature of worship. Human society has always had, haves and have-nots. During worship the haves had something to offer, but the have-nots did not.

The practices of fasting, tonsuring the head, puncturing parts of the body and other forms of self torture could have originated in the section of have-nots as they had nothing else to offer when asking for a boon. Even today, practices like puncturing the tongue, ears, etc. are prevalent mainly among backward tribals living on the margin of subsistence. Another possible reason which universalised some of these practices, fasting for instance; could be that fasting and other forms of penance was undertaken when normal offerings failed in getting a boon fulfilled.

Penance itself is of two types. Penance undertaken before the boon is fulfilled and that undertaken after its fulfilment. Penance before a boon is fulfilled is in the nature of a price paid in advance for something to be received in the future. Penance after fulfilment f a boon asked for ia undertaken as a price for something already received.

But in both forms the penance has the , nature of a price arising out of a mutual obligation between the devotee and his deity. There is no penance in which the decotee does not seek a boon or a favour and there is no boon that can be had without penance or offerings. These two elements are inseparable in worship. Worship and prayer become purposeless if the aspect of a boon or favour is removed from it. While praying we seek something. This something could be a definite object or it may be mental peace and protection from calamities.

A prayer, without the asking of a favour does not exist. Hence, normally religions activities cannot be considered to have been undertaken with a selfless motive. A conditional exception can be made about hermits and ascetics (Sanyasls) who roam all over or retire to forests or the snow clad Himalayas in search of peace of mind or universal truth. But the fact remains that they also are seeking something and so strictly speaking their activities s cannot be termed as self-renoun cing.

Bhakti and Bhiksha are the two essential elements of worship. While Bhakti i.e. invocation is the method of prayer, Bhiksha i.e. the asking for a boon is the motive behind prayer.

Incidentally the Sanskrit word for God is Ishawra, which could be an amalgam of the teo words 'Isha' and 'Vara'. Isha means to wish for something and vara means a boon or gift. Hence t may not be accidental that the name for God means to 'wish for a boon'.

(The Students New Sanskrit Dictionary, Devasthali, G.V., Published by K.B. Dhavale)

The self and individual oriented nature of any prayer is perceivable in our act of praying. Prayer is normally a link between an individual and the supreme. What an individual asks during a prayer is his or her private affair which is normally not shared with others. Two or more individuals do not pray collectively unless they aremeant for a common objective e.g. soldiers praying for victory in war, business partners praying for prosperity of their firm, etc.

A point may be raised about the public prayers during which participants pray for world peace, relief for victims of flood or famines. It can be said that such prayers are for others and not for ourselves, thus the motive is charity. It is true that such prayers have a charitable and selfless character but even here we pray as humans for other humans.

We are selfless individually but are not so collectively as the motive for prayer remains that of asking something from the supreme, which we expect it to grant us.

The essence to self motive in worship is visibly demonstrated in our idea of looking upon a particular shrine or deity as more alive to the prayers of devotees (Jagrut Deva) as compared to other shrines or deities . This is further demonstrated by our flocking to the shrine of such a Diety to pray for the granting of our innumerable boons.

Thus we can see how our practice of Upavasa is deeply embedded in the mundane aspects of real life. However, practices like Upavasa and Vrata have always had a popular and deep appeal. The following anecdote of Sati Savitri and Satyavan brings out this fact.

Savitri was the only daughter of King of Ayodhya. From her childhood days Savitri displayed a very devout | temperament towards prayer end worship. As she grew up, her devotion towards spiritual pursuits also increased. Even when she came of age her aittitude towards life was very different from that of other girls of her age.

Seeing her unusual bent of mind her father grew worried about finding the right match for her. He started looking out for a person who would have a similar ebnt of mind do that he could be an ideal husband for Savatri. The search for a partner in life ended when Savatri's father met Satyavan who was of royal blood and had similar | devotion towards spiritual pursuits.

The marriage was solemnised in due course and Savitri and Satyavan began their happy conjugal life. Their common interest drew the two very near to each other. t But one day calamity struck and Satyavan fell seriously ill. Savitri prayed with all her devotion and observed Vrata to pray for her husband's recovery.

She even fasted for days together to lift the curse of illness from Satyavan. But the gods had decreed otherwise and one day after prolonged illness Satyavan passed away. The God of death Yama duly knocked at the door to claim Satyavan's soul.

Savitri pleaded with Yama not to take away Satyavan from her but to no avail. Yama was adamant, it was his duty to take away the soul of a person whose death had been decreed in heaven. Thus Yama picked up the dead Satyavan and started his way eowarcS heaven. awhile he was proceeding towards heaven, vamp felt that he was being followed by someone.

On looking behind he saw Savitri coming behind him to heaven. Yama dissuaded he from following him, as Savitri was still living and hence could not enter heaven. But, Savitri refused to budge and said that she was inseparable from her husband even in death.

Looking at Savitri' s undying devotion to Satyavan even Yama was moved and he asked her to demand anything i from him except her husband on the promise that she would then return to earth. Pleased at this opportunity, Savitri asked for a son to which Yama duly conceded and started his way back to heaven.

Af ter sometime he again looked back and saw Savitri following him. He demanded to know that what she wanted now. Savitri told Yama that she only wanted to be with her husband so that Yama' s boon to her could be fulfilled, as without Satyavan, she could not conceive.

Thus caught at his own game Yama had to concede defeat and he returned Satyavan to life. Savitri's devotion to her husband thus made even the Gods change what they had destined for Satyavan .

In memory of this mythological event, many Hindu women observe fast on Vata-Purnima day which falls in the first half of June. On this day women visit temples with offerings . A special prayer is performed before the Vata tree to propiate the Gods for getting their worldly boons granted.


People, the world over believe in astrology. Many of us frequently consult soothsayers and fortune-tellers. Beliefs in good and bad omens, auspicious and inauspicious moments are also widespread. But an Indian is more familiar and habituated with such ideas.

During performance of any important function whether it is a naming ceremony (namakaran vidhi or barasa), thread ceremony (janeu sanskar or munja) marriage, etc., an essential part is to ask a pandit to work out the auspicious moment or 'muhurat' when the ceremony should be performed.

A Question that naturally comes to an inquisitive mind is, how could this practice of deriving muhurtas have come into being ? All of us know that derivation of a muhurta is nothing but the fixing of a particular time for an-event to be performed in the future. We understand that making a judgement about the future has to be based either on forecasting techniques or on astrology. In this case we know it is based on astrology. the birth of ideas of aupicious and inauspicious moments in the future, lies in our belief in the wider idea of astrology.

Astrology is a gift of its close sister discipline astronomy. There could be no astrology without astronomy, as astrology predicts the turn of events in the future with the real or imaginary changes in planetary and star positions. We know that the firmament i.e. the observable universe, has a mechanics of its own. The earth and sun being part of the firmament go about their own movement as per the mechanics. The rotation of the earth on its axis causes day and night and its revolution round the sun causes weather changes. This simultaneous occurence of weather changes and changes in star patterns both of which recurred year after year in the same way stuck into the memory of ancient people.

This co-relation between a change in star patterns and a change in weather which repeated itself year af ter year, germinated ideas that star patterns decide weather changes. This interpretation gave birth to ideas that appearance of a particular star spelt prosperity while that of another spelt doom. In India the appearance of a comet (Dhumketu) was looked upon as portending doom.

Following this it was not a difficult step to believe that changes in an individuals fortune are also decided - by changes in star patterns. Thus the development of astronomy lead to astrology and to beliefs in the auspicious or inauspicious. Henceforth the practice of consulting learned pandits for derivation of auspicious dates or time in the future could evolve naturally.

A positive corollary of such beliefs was the development of the calendar. The intimate link of the early calendar systems with star patterns was very evident in that fact that they were either solar or lunar calendars. The calendar, derived as it was from astronomical observations which also fathered astrology, displays certain primordial evidences of this common parentage. In Sanskrit the word for calendar is Punja or Punjika which also means palm or paw.

(Quoted from English-Sanskrit Dictionary by Vaman Shivram Apte, Published by Radha Bai Sagoon, Mumbai 1920)

The practice of palmistry must have been the result of linking up of individual fortune with that element of the human body by which a person literally builds his future. This element is obviously the hand, more properly the palm. But there is nothing more in palmistry than this. We know that lines on our palm are a result of the skeletal frame within our hand. For this reasons lines similar to those on our palms are also present on our footsoles, armpits and at all other joints. More so, such lines exist on the palms of a Gorilla or a Chimpanzee too, but none of us would claim to foretell the fortune of any simian this way.


Dowry is one of those social practices which no educated Indian would own up with pride, although many of us still adhere to this much deplorable practice. Dowry continues to be given and taken . Even among the educated sections of society, dowry continues to form an essential part the negotiations that take place in an arranged marriage. During the marriage ceremony the articles comprising thc dowry are proudly displayed in the wedding hall. Dowry is still very much a status symbol. A number of marriage-negotiations break down if there is no consensus between the bride's and groom' s families. Dowry deaths ofva newly married bride are still regularly in the news.

Although the practice of dowry exists in many countries, it has assumed the proportion of a challenge to the forces of modernity and change only in India. Many reasons are put forward for explaining this practice. It is said that a dowry is meant to help the newly-weds to set up their own home.

That dowry is given as compensation to the groom's parents for the amount they have spent in educating and upbringing their son. These explanations may seem logical in the present day context, but they cannot explain how this practice originated. A search for the origins of dowry would have to move backwards into antiquity. Discussion about dowry has to take into account the less prevalent practice of bride price, which is but a reversal or dowry. Although it may not be possible to ascertain when and where these practices originated, it can be supposed that dowry and bride price are posterior to the institution of monogamy. This is the same as saying that dowry and bride price came into being after the practice of monogamous marriage had become prevalent.

But monogamous marriage is itself a culmination of the human adaptation of animal promiscuity. Man's is the only species practising monogamy, all other species are promiscuous. Thus it is a logical corollary that Man's institution of monogamy came into being at sometime in the long evolution of his species. The practice of monogamy itself evolved in stages as is evident from historical anecdotes as in the Mahabharata where the five Pandava brothers have one wife.

Promiscuity gave way to Polygamy/polyandry, and after various permutations and combinations, monogamy became the established system. As long as promiscuity existed there was no question of dowry or bride price. The origin of these two practices could be linked up with the discarding of promiscuity in favour of Polygamy and Polyandry. These two forms of marriage are themselves mutual opposities. While in polygamy there is pairing between one male and But the existence of the diametrically opposite practices of dowry and bride price, possibly owe their origin to polygamy and polyandry. The formation of polygamous and polyandrous forms of marriage could have been made necessary by changes in the demographic balance between the sexes. A rise in the number of females as compared to that of males is a cogenial situation for the emergence of polygamy. Mere the chances of more than one female member of society being in wedlock with one male member are more.

In Absence of polygamy, in a society having a larger number of females as compared to males, many female members would have to deprived of marital life. The obligation to get more than one female member into wedlock with one male member could have been the situation which gave birth to dowry as a price exacted by the male and his family from the female's family.

The origin of bride-price could have taken place in opposite circumstances where the sex ratio favoured females and as there was a large number of males for every female, polyandry and bride-price could have been the result.

Alongwith this generalised hypothesis there were many factors specific to different situations which gave birth to dowry and bride-price. These factors can be identified with more certainty. In India' s context, these practices can be seen to be a result of the dialectics of our caste system. The conflict of opposing tendencies of the caste hierarchy, as we know have resulted in endogamy, preventing inter-marriage between members of different castes. A reason for the origin of dowry and bride-price can also he seen in the same conflict. Hence discussion on these two practices would have to be intertwined.

Dowry (Dahej/Hunda) as we all know is paid in cash or kind by the bride's family to the groom' s family alongwith the giving away of the bride (Kanya-dana). The ritual of Kanya-dana is an essential aspect in Hindu marital rites: Kanya = daughter, dana = gift. A reason for the origin of dowry could perhaps be that the groom and his family had to take up the 'onerous' responsibility of supporting the bride for the rest of her life.

Bride-price on the other hand involves the receipt of presents, in cash or kind, by the bride's family in return for giving away of the bride. Hence bride-price has the character of an exchange.

One feature about dowry and bride-price that is conspicuous is that dowry is prevalent among the higher castes while bride-price exists mainly among the lower castes and tribals (Adivasis). We can only conjecture as to why this curious combination could have come into being. In the caste hierarchy it was the lower castes, the vaishya's and Shudras who did most of the physical labour amd menial work. lie have discussed in an earlier chapter that the various occupational divisions into Jatis exist only among these two castes. The two upper castes, the Brahmins and Kshatriyas had only priestly and martial duties allocated to them and hence no occupational sub-division existed among them.

Thus among the lower castes, the coming of a bride into the family meant an increase in the number of members ~ who could work alongwith other members and become a source of income for the family. While the family from _ where the bride came sufferred the loss of one earning member. Hence a bride-price was paid to the bride's parents to compensate for this loss. Contrarily, among the higher castes to whom no manual labour was assigned in the caste hierarchy, the reverse logic applied.

A marriage meant an additional member who was to be supported and hence was a burden on the groom's family as the bride did not go out to earn and contribute to the family income. Thus a dowry was collected to provide the additional burden resulting from a bride's entry into the groom's family.


Sati i.e. widow burning would normally be looked upon as a negative aspect of culture. When confronted with questions as to why such a Practice should have existed, a student of history with misplaced national pride would try to explain awasy such practices.

Today Sati is illegal, it is also generally looked down upon but it continues to exist in the rural corners of our country. One- still does hear of stray incidents of woman being forced to or trying to commit Sati. The country owes the abolition of this deplorable practice to the crusading efforts of Raja Rammohan Roy the 18th century social reformer.

The reason why this inhuman practice could hae come into being are many. But the principal among them could be identified in the same mileu which which gave birth to dowry. Closer examination of this practice of widow-burning supports this inference. Widow-burning as a widely prevalent practice can be seen only since the mediaeval period but there are reasons which trace its origins in antiquity.

Even a casual observer will notice that widow-brning is more prevalent among the higher martial caste. Among the lower castes and aboriginal tribes it is nearly absent. The prevalence of Sati among the higher castes is no co-incidence.

As mentioned earlier, among the higher castes, a bride was looked upon as a burden as she represented a drain On the family's income while not contributing anything towards it. If this was her status as a bride, it is not surprising that if she had the misfortune to become a widow, her presence in the family was dreaded. And apart from being considered an object of ill omc , her presence after her husband demise was a dead weight to her in-laws family.

A widow's status as an unwanted burden was also a result of the taboos that prevented a wicow from participating in the house-hold work as her touch, her voice, her very appearance was considered unholy, impure and something that was to be shunned and abhorred. Thus without her husbandRa woman's existence was not tolerated and an extreme but logical outcome of this was widow-burning.

Other auxiliary reasons also went into making widow burning a prevalent practice. The near impossibility of widow re-marriage arising from the taboos and prejudices that santified virginity of a bride was an important reason. Another reason could be the non-recognition of the individuality of a woman who was considered part and parcel of her husband, without whom she was a nullity.

This attitude of looking at women is visible in the legal literature (Dharmashastra) of antiquity. The Manusmriti considered to be one of the most important legal texts guiding ancient Indian polity has injunctions which reflect this attitude. It says "a woman is undeserving for indepancemsce" (Ne stree svatantyam arahathi). Beliefs that a wido, especially a young one would fall into immoral practices for sensual ple asures was also used to stoke the fires of Sati. Strangely enough this logic was never applied to the stronger sex. Widowers were never an under-priviledged lot.

But the most visible factor that perpetrated Sati was the 'halo of honour' given to it. Especially in the medieavel ages Sati was given the status of an act of honour. This was mainly so among the Rajput martial caste of northern India among whom Sati took the form of a collective suicide after a battle in which male members had suffered death at the enemy's hands.

Sati was even committed by women before their husbands were actually death when their city or town was beseiged by the enemy and faced certain defeat. This form of Sati was more popularly known as Jouhar. The Jouhar committed by Rant Padmini of Chittor when faced by the prospect of dishonour at the hands of a Sultan from Delhi has been immortalised in Indian history.

In those days North India was under foreign subjugation. The most powerful kingdomset up by the invaders was the Sultanate of Delhi.

But in RaJputana, the RaJputs had defiantly preserved their writ by resisting the Delhi Sultans. One such Rajput kingdom was at Chittor. In those days of the aribitrary feudal power structure, any feudal lord who took a fancy for any lady would claim her for himself even at the cost of killing her husband if she happened to be married or even by waging a war if she was queen or princess. one such lady of unsurpassable beauty was the Rana of Chittor named Padmini.

Chittor was under the Rule of King Ratnasen, a brave and noble warrior-king. Apart, from being a loving husband and a just ruler, Ratnasen was also a patron of the arts. In his court were many talented People one of whom was a musician named Raghav Chetan. But unknown to anybody, Raghav Chetan was also a sorcerer. He used his evil talents to run down his rivals and unfortunately for him was caught red-handed in his dirty act of arousing evil spirits.

On hearing this King Ratnasen was furious and he banished Raghav Chetan from his kingdom after blackening his face with face and making him ride a donkey. This harsh Punishment earned king Ratansen an uncompromising enemy. Sulking after his humiliation, Raghav Chetan made his way towards Delhi with -the aim of trying to incite the Sultan of Delhi Ala-ud-din Khilji to attack Chittor.

On approaching Delhi, Raghav Chetan settled down in one of the forests nearby Delhi which the Sultan used to frequent for hunting deer. One day on hearing the Sultan's hunt party entering the forest, Raghav-Chetan started playing a melodious tone on his flute. When the alluring notes of Raghav-Chetan flute reached the Sultan's party they were surprised as to who could be playing a flute in such a masterly way in a forlorn forest.

The Sultan despatched his soldiers to fetch the person and when Raghav-Chetan was brought before him, the Sultan Ala-ud-din Khilji asked him to come to his court at Delhi. The cunning Raghav-Chetan asked the king as to why he wants to have a ordinary musician like himself when there were many other beautiful objects to be had. Wondering what Raghav-Chetan meant, Ala-ud-din asked him to clarify. Upon being told of Rani Padmini's beauty, Ala-ud-din's lust was aroused and immediately on returning to his capital he gave orders to his army to march on Chittor.

But to his dismay, on reaching Chittor, Ala-ud-din found the fort to be heavily defended. Desperate to have a look at the legendary beauty of Padmini, he sent word to King Ratnasen that he looked upon Padmini as his sister and wanted to meet her. On hearing this, the unsuspecting Ratnasen asked Padmini to see the 'brother'. But Padmini was more wordly-wise and she refused to meet the lustful Sultan personally.

But on being persuaded she consented to allow Ala-ud-din to see her only in a mirror. On the word being sent to Ala-ud-din that Padmini would see him he came to the fort with his selected his best warriors who secretly made a careful examination of the fort's defences on their way to the Palace.

On seeing Padmini, the lustful 'brother' decided that he should secure Padmini for himself. While returning to his camp, Ala-ud-din was accompanied for some way by King Ratnasen. Taking this opportunity, the wily Sultan treacherously kidnapped Ratnasen and took him as a prisoner into his camp.

Ala--ud-din showed his true colours and demanded , that Padmini be given to him and in return Ratnasen was to get his liberty. Word was sent into the palace about the Sultan's demand.

The Rajput generals decided to beast the Sultan at his own game and sent back a word that Padmini would be given to Ala-ud-din the nextmorning. On the following dat at the crack of dawn, one hundred and fifity palaquins (covered cases in which royal ladies were carried in medieveal times) left the fort and made their way towards Ala-ud-din's camps The palanquins stopped before the tent where king Ratnasen was being held prisoner. . Seeing that the palanquins had come from Chittor; and thinking that they had brought alongwith them his queen, king Ratnasen was mortified. But to his surprise from the palanquins came out, not his queen and her women servants but fully armed soilders, who quickly freed ; Ratnasen and galloped away towards Chittor on horses grabbed from Ala-ud-din's stables.

On hearing that his designs had been frustrated, the lustful Sultan was furious and ordered his army to storm Chittor. But hard as they tried the Sultans army could not break into the fort. Then Ala-ud-din decided to lay seige to the fort. The seige was a long drawn one and gradually supplied within the fort were depleted. Finally King Ratnasen gave orders that the Rajputs would open the gates and fight to finish with the besieging troops. On hearing of this decision, Padmini decided that with their menfolk going into the unequal struggle with the Sultan's army in which they were sure to perish, the women of Chittor had either to commit suicides or face dishonour at the hands of the victorious enemy.

The choice was in favour of suicide through Jauhar. A huge pyre was lit and followed by their queen, all the women of Chittor jumped into the flames and deceived the lustful enemy waiting outside. With their womenfolk dead, the men of Chittor had nothing to live for. Their charged out of the fort and fought on furiously with the vastly Powerful array of the Sultan, till all of them perished. After this phyrrhic victory the Sultan's troops entered the fort only to be confronted with ashes and burnt bones of the women whose honour they were going to violate to satisfy their lust.

These women who committed Jawhar had to perish but theirmemory has been kept alive till today by bards and songs which glorify their act which was right in those days and circumstances. Thus a halo of honour is given to their supreme sacrifice.

But this halo of honour has to be seen in the light of the above complusions of alien rule in Inda during the medieveal ages. From the 13th century onwards upto the coming of the British, the position of women was insecure due to the arbitrary power structure associated with the feudal society and the rule of the Sultans of Delhi. Although during the reign of the later Mughals the situation had improved relatively, women in the medieaval ages were often exposed to the lust of feudal overlords. Their insecurity increased after the demise of their husbands. This compulsion which was resultant of a particular age was by far the most important reason for the prevalence of Sati during the middle ages.

Although the Moghal emperor Akbar tried to curb this practice, he could not eradicate it completely. As long as circumstances made necessary the existence of such an anomalous and inhuman practice, all efforts to stamp it out were bound to fail. But with the passing of the feudal power structure and entry of the industrial age under the British, the compulsions of the medieaval age which helped the existence of Sati were no longer there. Hence the efforts of Raja Rammohan Roy succeeded while those of emperor Akbar could not.

One last reason that needs to be mentioned in this context is that of grief and remorse experienced by a widowed lady. Women as such are more sensitive and emotional than menu This explains in part the readiness of some woman to commit Sati. But it should be borne in mind that the proportion of voluntary Sati was far less and the reasons behind voluntary Sati Though facts were blown out of proportion to justify this practice. However, in conclusion it can be observed thet a complexity of factors contributed over different periods to make Sati a prevalent custom.


Child-marriaye is another 'blessing' of the medieaval age and it was born from the same compulsions that ; perpetuated Sati.Child-marriage was not not prevalent in ancient India. The most popular form of marriage was Swayamvara where grooms assembled at the bride' s house and the bride selected her spouse. Svayam-vara can be translated as self selection of one' s husband, Svayam = self, Vara = husband. Instances of Swayamvara ceremony are found in our national epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Various types of marraiges wereprevalant in ancient India Gandharva Vivaha (love marriage), Asura Viviha (marriage by abduction) etc., But among these Bal-Viviha is conspicuous its absence.

There are many reasons to believe that this custom originated in the medieval ages. As mentioned earlier in the turbulent atmosphere of the medieavel ages, law and order was not yet a universal phenomenon and arbitrary powers were concentrated in the hands of a hierarchy led by a despotic monarch. In India the Sultans of Delhi who held the place of the despotic monarch, came from a different type of culture. They were orthodox in their beliefs with a fanatical commitment to their religion and a ruthless method in its propagation. Intolerant as they were to all forms of worship other than their own, they also exercised contempt for members of other faiths. (See note at the end of this chapter).

Women as it is are at the receiving and during any war, arson, plunder, etc. During the reign of the Delhi Sultans these were the order of the day and the worst sufferers were Hindu women. During these dark days were spawned customs like child-marriage and seclsion of women from the rest of the society, wearing of the Ghunqat (veil). This age also perpetuated customs like Sati and looking upon the birth of a female aby as an ill omen, even killing newly born baby girls by drowning them in a tub of milk. Amidst the feeling of insecurity, the presence of young unmarried girls was a potential invitation for disaster.

The predatory Sarasenic feudal lords and princelings of foreign origin who stalked all over India in the middle ageswere a source of constant threat . Hence parents would seek to get over with the responsibilities of their daughters by getting them married off before they reached the marriage age. The custom of child marriages with the 'bride' and 'groom' still in their cradles was a culmination of this tendency. This way the danger to a growing girl's virginity was somewhat reduced.

Alongwith this principal reason, there were a few other reasons arising from the nature of the feudal society which were condusive for the prevalence of this practice. In a feudal society, qualities like rivalry, personal honour, hereditary friendship or enimity are rated very highly. Because of this, military alliances play a very important role in preserving or destroying the balance of power between the various kingdoms and fiefdoms. To ensure that the military alliances entered into were observed by both parties, practices like exchanging Juvenile members of the respective families who were educated and brought up at each other's palaces were followed.

They were a sort of captives who were held to ensure that the military alliances between the two kingdoms or clans were honoured. But a more lasting bond that could back up military alliances were-matrimonial alliances between members of the two famf lies . But such matrimonial alliances could be worked out smoothly only if the bride and groom were ready to accept each others Young men and women of marriageable age are bound to be choosy. This difficulty could be avoided when the marriage was between two children or babies where there was no question of their having any sense of choice as to who their partners in life should be.

The caste hierarchy also perhaps had its role to play in perpetuating such a system. Caste which is based on birth and heredity does not allow marriages between members of different castes . But as youngsters whose emotions and passions could be ruled by other considerations might violate this injunction. Out of the necessity to preserve itself, the hereditary caste system could have helped in nourishing the practice of chlld-marriage.

Among other subsidiary considerations which could Cave helped to preserve this custom might be the belief that adults (or adolescent) boys and girls would indulge in loose moral practices. This consideration would have - been more relevant in the context of the puritanical and orthodox environment of the bygone ages. The practice could also have been perpetuated, especially among- the economically weaker sections, by the consideration of keeping marriage expenses to a minimum. A child-ntarriage need not have been as grand an affair as adult marriages.

Note on Sati and Child-marriage

Sati, Child-marriage, Ghunghat, etc were largely caused by the arbitrary tryannical rule of the Sultans of Delhi. The temperament of theseSultans was a result of socio-cultural reasons. They had imbibed these their tryannical traits alongwith their religion from the Arabs who display traits like fanaticism and short-temperedness in their extreme. The reasons why these traits should exist among those Arabs who originate from the Saudi Arabian Peninsula are to be found in their harsh natural environment.

Saudi Arabia, the birth-place of Islam is devoid of fertile plains and river valleys which are congenial to the development of a settled civilized life. This was responsible for the atrophy of residents of the Arabian peninsula into barbarism, and their exclusion from civilization. The same cannot be said of the people of Mesopotamia, Assyria and Egypt who today consider themselves to be Arabs but were the founders of great riparian civilizations of the ancient world. The absence of a civilized way of life among the Arabs (from the Arabian peninsula) nourished the fanatical attitude which later became a characteristic of Islamic thought and way of life.

This attitude was transmitted to other people who were converted to Islam. Added to this was Islam's monotheistic character because of which Mohammedans regarded all other religions in exclusion from their own. This singularistic and exclusive character of monotheistic Islam precluded any possibility of assimilation into itself of other deities or forms of worship. And whenever it had the support or the force of arms, its fanatical and intolerant nature found brutal expression in the annihilative repression it unleashed whenever it came in contact with another religion or culture.

Such was the cultural lineage of the Sultans of Delhi. It made itself evident in the forcible conversion of peoples of other faiths to Islam at the point of the sword, destruction of places of worship belonging to other faiths, the imposition of Jazia tax on non-muslims and other policies whose objective was to stamp out all other religions and to Islamize the country.


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