In a recent judgment, a Delhi Sessions Court judge ruled that premarital sex is “immoral” and against the “tenets of every religion.” He also ruled that a woman, who has premarital sexual intercourse on the assurance of marriage, does so “at her own peril” and that “no religion in the world allows premarital sex.” Many contemporary Hindus might agree with this judgment. However, ancient Hindus would have found this judgment so alien to their worldview.
Gāndharva Vivāha in Ancient Hinduism
Hindu texts catalog eight means of varying degrees of acceptability of acquiring a bride. Gāndharva vivāha is one of those. In this type of marriage, a woman selects her own mate. The two consensually agree to live together. Sensual passion drives the consummation of their relationship, which didn’t require parental or societal consent. In The Mahābhārata (Anuśāsana Parva, 44), Bhīṣma tells Yudhiṣtra that in gāndharva vivāha a father, regardless of his own preferences, gives his daughter in marriage to a person she has chosen and who reciprocates her sentiments. In narratives such as the story of Ṥakuntala and Duṣyanta, wedding follows a romantic union. In other words, premarital sexual courtship was allowed in gāndharva vivāha.
Even though later texts portray gāndharva vivāha as the norm among the celestial beings called Gandharva, it probably originated as a form of courtship among the Ārya tribes in the Gandhāra region (modern day Kandahar in Afghanistan) in ancient India.
Several Hindu texts deemgāndharva vivāha less desirable than some other forms of marriage. However, The Mahābhārata (Ādi Parva, Sambhava Parva, 73) and The Kāmasūtra (3:5-29-30) opine that gāndharva vivāha is the foremost of all forms of union. The Manusmṛti (3:21-26) refers to the various societal views of gāndharva vivāha. According to one view, it is less desirable than some other types of marriage whereas according to another it is conducive to all sections to society.
The Baudhāyana Dharmasūtra(1:11:10-11) says that gāndharva vivāha is based on love and freewill and hence suitable to all sections of society except the Brāhmaṇa. Dharmaśāstras prescribe a restrictive lifestyle of penury and austerity to the Brāhmaṇa, who was not entitled to enjoy the same degree of freedom and indulgence granted the rest of society. Since gāndharva vivāha is based on love and freewill it would have been seen as sensual indulgence. Hence the Brāhmaṇa was not allowed it. The Nāradasmṛti (12:40-46) takes a more pragmatic approach and recognizes gāndharva vivāha as applicable to all sections of society including the Brāhmaṇa.
Gāndharva vivāha and the associated premarital sex found qualified acceptance in Hinduism in ancient times. Only later on it went out of vogue. This refutes the assertion that premarital sex is “against the tenets of every religion.”
Promiscuity and Morality
Did a society that accepted gāndharva vivāha endorse promiscuity?
The eminent scholar P. V. Kane (History of Dharmaśāstra, Volume 2, Part 1, pp. 427-431) points out that there is no indication that sexual relations were promiscuous or unregulated in ancient Hindu society. The Nāradasmṛti (12:72) points out that while consensual premarital sex in the gāndharva context is not an offense the concerned parties should honorably marry.Kane (History of Dharmaśāstra, Volume 2, Part 1, p. 521) points out that a gāndharva liaison always had been solemnized with wedding rites. The Mahābhārata (Ādi Parva, 195:7) mandates the performance of wedding rites after a gāndharva liaison. In all literary references to gāndharva vivāha, the lovers are devoted to one another and their liaison culminates in marriage. Therefore, a qualified acceptance of gāndharva vivāha is not an endorsement of promiscuity.
The testimony from ancient Tamiḷ texts also confirms that Hinduism didn’t condone promiscuity. The eminent scholar R. Nagaswamy points out (Mirror of Tamil and Sanskrit, pp. 76-78) that the ancient Tamiḷ grammar Tolkāppiyam refers to an older social custom called kaḻavu (i.e., stealthy union), which was characterized by promiscuity. Kaḻavu was practiced by the Tamiḷ tribes during the Neolithic Era before they embraced Hindu culture. The Tolkāppiyam informs us that the learned Ārya disapproved of this practice and introduced a newly formulated institution of marriage called kaṛpu, which is the Tamiḷ cognate of the Sanskrit word kalpita (i.e., newly formulated). Kaḻavu and kaṛpu are associated with promiscuity and chastity respectively. One is contrasted with the other. Kaṛpu is recognized as the lawful union.
Can premarital sex in the context of gāndharva vivāha be considered immoral?
In The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, the neuroscientist Sam Harris defines morality as that which maximizes collective happiness in the most reasonable, sustainable, and comprehensive manner. Harris’ definition is consistent with the traditional Hindu view as enshrined in The Vaiśeṣikasūtra, which reasonably defines dharma as “that from which results happiness and beatitude.” Morality can be scientifically defined and measured as a function of evolutionary biology and neuroscience. A behavior is moral if it maximizes collective happiness and immoral if it diminishes it.
There is no evidence that premarital sex in the context of gāndharva vivāha diminished happiness. So, it cannot be deemed immoral. This is why Hindu sages didn’t consider it adharmic. At times, they even hailed it as the foremost of all forms of union.
Understanding the Roots of Prejudice
The present judgment is not a reflection of either a reasonable thinking or the traditional Hindu worldview on the subject of premarital sex and morality. Instead, it is a reflection of the misogynistic Christian and Islamic worldviews that many Indians have sadly internalized.
Christianity and Islam are oppressive toward women and commoditize them. The feminine sexuality is feared and violently denied. If her behavior gets out of patriarchal control, she must be cruelly punished. The Bible (Deuteronomy 22:13-21) requires a groom to drag his bride on the nuptial night to her father’s doorstep and stone her to death on the suspicion that she may not be a virgin. Onlookers are urged to participate in this violent orgy. However, a young woman shouldn’t presume that she would be safe if she avoided premarital sex. The Bible (Judges 19:24) also sanctifies offering one’s own virgin daughter for gang rape. As I point out in the article, The Jealous Prophet and His Heavenly Son, Islam treats women as commodities to be captured, ransomed, and traded. Ayan Hirsi Ali (The Caged Virgin – an Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, pp. 15-16) points out that as a result of Islam’s oppressive attitude toward the feminine, millions of young Muslim girls are genitally mutilated, infibulated, and denied the pleasures of sex forever.
These religions oppose premarital sex because of misogyny and an irrational fear of feminine sexual expressions. Their teachings must be deemed immoral because they diminish empathy and feminine happiness resulting from a natural exploration of sexuality. It is unreasonable to judge premarital sex based on the immoral standards of Christianity and Islam.
In contrast, Hinduism views sexuality as natural and the feminine as sacred. The Ṥatapatha Brāhmaṇa (5:2:1:10) declares that the woman is the “better half of the man.” Sexual indulgence is an important aspect of life. As Kane points out (History of Dharmaśāstra, Volume 2, Part 1, p. 429), the principal purposes of marriage are dharmasampatti (i.e., prosperity attained by following dharma), prajā (i.e., procreation), and rati (i.e., enjoyment of sexual and other pleasures). Only exploitative expressions of sexuality are denounced (The Nāradasmṛti 12:46).
The judge’s advocacy of hubris and shunning directed at a woman who consents to premarital sex on false assurances of marriage is repulsive. It is quite contrary to the enlightened Hindu worldview which placed emphasis on respecting the feminine dignity and freedom. For example, if a girl is taken against her will through abduction, deceit, rape, or force, the offender has to be severely punished. The girl herself can be given again in marriage to a virtuous man as an unblemished maiden (The Vasiṣṭha Dharmasūtra 17:73, The Baudhāyana Dharmasūtra4:1:17).
The reasonable and healthy Hindu framework allows one to evaluate the desirability of premarital sex in today’s context. One need not let Christian and Islamic prejudices and misogyny to distort one’s worldview.