I think it’s safe to say that marrying for love is a recent phenomenon. Traditionally, marriage has always been a coming together of two individuals with the intention of having children. Love was neither necessary nor sufficient. Things like social standing, material riches, and good genes (read beauty) mattered a lot more – not only for the people entering the alliance but also for future generations.
It was a great way to consolidate and build generational wealth and status.
In my reading of mythology, three different forms of marriage appear. (The official number is eight.) For lack of better words, I’m using the words ‘groom-dominant’, ‘bride-dominant’ and ‘competition’ to describe them.
1. Groom-dominant marriages
These are typically alliances which the groom’s side initiates with an offer of bride price and gifts. From the Mahabharata, Gandhari and Madri were brought into the Kuru household this way. In both cases Bhishma sets out armed with elephants and horses laden with silk, gold and weapons, and the marriage is fixed over an elaborate dinner and (one supposes) a goblet of wine.
In such cases, we of the modern world are apt to think that the woman in this case is nothing more than a lifeless piece of property which can be bought and sold at men’s whims.
2. Bride-dominant marriages
These are marriages that happen based on the result of a voluntary groom-choosing ceremony. Among the popular women from our myths, Kunti and Damayanti get their husbands this way. The modus operandi here is that the bride walks around the hall with a garland in her hands, from one suitor to the next, listening to the descriptions of her companions. When she comes face to face with a man she likes, she will blush appropriately and choose him as her husband.
In this form of marriage, there is a case for men feeling bad because it’s our turn to be made into objects that are judged. Much like cattle at a village fair.
3. The Competition
Another version of this is the competition. The two most popular heroines of our mythology – Draupadi and Sita – are given away in this manner. In the former case, suitors have to shoot a revolving fish in a bowl of water attached to the ceiling by looking only at its reflection in a cauldron of oil. In the latter, men have to string a bow belonging to Lord Shiva and make it twang before they could win Sita’s favour.
Here it’s a little difficult to say who is in power. For one, men have to showcase their strength and skill. There is a certain amount of risk involved in the process – not just of physical harm, but also of shame and social stigma. It could not have been advisable for any king or chief of that time to fail in a display of strength in a gathering of other kings.
For another, women don’t have much of a choice here either. What if she doesn’t like the person who wins the competition? When Ravana strides up to the bow to lift it up, Sita is said to dig her fingers into the garland in apprehension, because if the King of Lanka succeeds, she would not be able to reject him. Draupadi, too, in her vehement protest against Karna’s entering the competition, indicates that she would have been helpless if he had indeed succeeded.
There are no instances as far as I know of ceremonies in which more than one suitor passes the challenge. Maybe in that case the bride gets to choose between the two winners? We can only speculate.
What do these tell us?
The first thing we learn from these different forms of marriage is that the balance of power was not always tilted in favour of the men. Kingdoms which were rich and powerful could afford to call for a groom-choosing and declare that their princess would choose her mate from a large gathering of worthy men. The kingdom of Kunti, in those days, was fertile, surrounded by allies, and was well-defended along the shore of the Yamuna. It would have been next to impossible to take it by force. So it was an attractive marriage alliance target for all kings of North Country.
Then there were kingdoms that were not quite of that stature yet. Kings of such cities were not certain that a groom-choosing would attract enough suitors, but they didn’t wish to undermine their status either by giving away their daughters for a price. So they took the middle ground and threw a contest, offering an alliance as a prize. At the time of Draupadi’s marriage, Panchala had the benefit of rich natural resources and a strategic geographic location, but she had no allies among her neighbours. She was a growing force, but she wasn’t quite there yet.
And then there were kingdoms which no one wanted. Their only chance of gaining an alliance with the big kingdoms was to give away their princesses for a price. It helped if these princesses were beautiful. Both Gandhari and Madri came from small, rocky (or sandy) northwestern kingdoms that had no claim to power, but they were known for their beauty. (In contrast, Kunti was supposed to be plain in appearance.) Bhishma was perhaps the first visionary among the rulers of North Country to look far and wide when searching for Kuru queens; he knew that these corner kingdoms, though ignored by many, offered three advantages:
- Strategic hold over kingdoms that lay between the two cities
- The princesses were beautiful, so the sons they will give Hastina will be ‘worthy’.
- The princesses were ‘cheap’. They were ‘sure shots’. There was no groom-choosing or competition to worry about. All he needed to do was make them an offer and they would accept.
I will admit most of what I said above is my own concoction. But it seems logical to me that marriage in those days was as amenable to power play and status as it is today. Instead of painting the whole social milieu in one stroke, I think it is more revealing to judge them on a case-by-case basis, keeping in mind that objectification – then as now – went both ways. Only the nature differed.
Whenever there is an imbalance of power, therefore, objectification seems a natural consequence. So perhaps a better way to fight objectification is to address the power imbalances and fight for equality.
What do you think? Do you agree with the ‘analysis’ above? What are your thoughts on marriage – both then and now – in relation to how it reflects society’s power imbalances?