Hinduism and Adultery

Social taboo


by Jayaram V

Day and night woman must be kept in dependence by the males (of) their (families), and, if they attach themselves to sensual enjoyments, they must be kept under one's control. - Manusmriti

Her father protects her in childhood, her husband protects her in youth, and her sons protect her in old age; a woman is never fit for independence. - Manusmriti

When creating them Manu allotted to women a love of their bed, of their seat and of ornament, impure desires, wrath, dishonesty, malice, and bad conduct. - Manusmriti

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The classic case of adultery in Hindu Puranas is that of Ahalya. She was duped by Indra and drawn into an illicit relationship for which she bore the brunt. Incidents of women cheating behind their husbands and husbands having illicit affairs with other women were not unknown in ancient India. Stories woven around the subject have been part of the Indian folklore. However, Hinduism does not favor extramarital relationships.

Adultery is a mortal sin. People who get caught in adultery or illicit relationships have to deal with a lot of social ridicule and public disgrace, particularly in the rural areas, where society at large is still traditional. Especially in case of women the consequences of adultery are much worse and such actions are rarely forgotten or forgiven. Hindus believes that marriage is a sacred relationship, which extends over several lives. The sanctity of marriage should be maintained and upheld all the times. The marriage vows are meant to ensure that both spouses would perform their obligatory duties to uphold dharma and remain faithful to each other.

Marriages are not meant for mere sexual enjoyment, but raising families and ensuring family and social order. Breaching the sacred commitments and the bond of marriage established with gods as witnesses is a sacrilege and a bad karma. This however does not mean there has been no adultery in Hindu society either in the present or in the past. Most of it happens in secrecy, under the cover.

Until a few decades ago it was a matter of pride and status symbol in certain rural communities for some men of upper castes to maintain two houses, one for their legitimate wives and one for their mistresses. The feudal system enabled men in power to extend their sway not only on the lands they owned, but on the men and women who lived in their domains and who were indebted to them either by tradition, belief, fear or money. India has the largest number of sex workers and a notorious place for trafficking in women. The Hindu Marriage Act, explicitly prohibits polygamy and prescribes punishment for those who violate the law.

The Traditional View

Hindu law books are very severe against adultery, not only for moral reasons but also for social reasons. They consider that it would lead to confusion of castes, degradation of family values and social disorder. In olden days women from upper castes were barred from moving in society freely.

Literary evidence suggests that ancient Hindu society was not free from the problem of adultery. Historically, Hindu women attracted more condemnation and ostracization for adulterous relationships. The punishments were also severe in their case. An adulterous woman was called patita, meaning a fallen or abandoned woman, an outcast or a woman who fell from the grace of her husband (pati). Another epithet was kulata, meaning an unchaste woman or a woman who degraded the good name of the family (kula) and her husband.

Infidelity or faithlessness of a husband or a woman was considered a deviation from the social norm or from the established code of conduct or tradition (abhichar). Hence, it was called vyabhichar, and the woman who indulged in it was called vyabhicharini. The use of such harsh terms denote the stigma that was attached to women who dared to engage in adulterous relationships.

The ancient Hindu law books reflect the discriminatory approach and gender bias. They condemned adulterous relationships and those who indulged in it, but the punishments were particularly harsh in case of women. Since the purity of the caste and family were vital to the protection of Dharma, adultery was considered a potential threat to the order and regularity of society as well as to the preservation of the family name and the social order. Hence, they put the onus of protecting the family name and lineage more upon women and the onus of protecting the child bearing women upon men.

They also distinguished adulterous relationships involving married women from those involving free women. The former attracted a tougher punishment. The law books also treated differently acts of adultery involving different caste women. The higher the caste of the woman and lower the caste of man, the greater was the severity of punishment. The punishment meted out to lower caste men who engaged in adulterous relationship with higher caste women was even more severe.

Hindu mythology has a number of stories illustrating the manner in which gods themselves often indulged in adulterous thoughts and actions. Lord Rama banished his wife Sita into the forests on the mere allegation of possible adultery. The stories depicting the libidinous activities of some Hindu divinities such as Indra and Agni with the wives of some virtuous rishs are well known.

Vatsyana's Kamasutra explains how men can seduce different types of women. Women like Amrapali, Vasanthasena were public women with refined character, who commanded respect in society for their social and artistic skills. Women were bought and sold in public places and used as servants or pleasure girls. The nobility and the royalty until recently maintained large harems purely for carnal pleasures. Temporary relationships, contractual arrangements, relationship with housemaids, use of free women for seeking favors from the influential and streets of pleasure houses populated by women trained in the art and craft of love were also very much prevalent in ancient India.

Manu was particularly suspicious of women's behavior and prescribed strict code of conduct for men to keep a watch on their women so that would not fall into evil ways and bring disrepute to themselves and to their families. He believed that if women were left alone, they would succumb to evil temptations and bring sorrow on their families. So "even weak husbands (must) strive to guard their wives." He declared that women would easily succumb to men, caring neither for age nor for looks. "Through their passion for men, through their mutable temper, through their natural heartlessness, they become disloyal towards their husbands, however carefully they may be guarded in this world. Knowing their disposition, which the Lord of creatures laid in them at the creation, to be such, every man should most strenuously exert himself to guard them." (Manu:9.14-15).

References to adultery in Hindu literature

Both the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, several Puranas and secular literature of Hinduism contain references to adulterous and amorous behavior. One of the most scandalous incidents was the one in which Indra seduced Ahalya, the wife of Sage Gautama. She was the personification of purity and virginity until Indra’s eyes fell upon her astounding beauty. She could not resist his overtures.

For her transgression, she remained imprisoned inside a stone for centuries until she was rescued by Lord Rama. Indra too was cursed by Gautama for his despicable action, but being the lord of the heaven, he escaped with milder punishment. Scholars still debate the motive behind Ahalya’s decision to engage in the amorous relationship, whether it was her pride or fate or both, which led to it.

Another interesting story is that of Agni. It is said that when the seven sages performed a Yajna to propitiate him, he appeared before them and happened to see their wives. Enamored by their beauty he desired them. Then, goddess Swaha assumed the forms of the seven women to satisfy his lust and thereby saved their chastity.

Reference may also be made to the manner in which Kunti begot the Pandavas by invoking the five Vedic gods. However, her actions cannot strictly be considered adulterous because lust was not involved, but an innocent curiosity to test her power to obtain children by summoning the powers of gods. Lord Rama was monogamous and led a chaste life, but Krishna had many wives. Legend has it that he also had amorous relationships with numerous gopis (wives of cowherds). Some believe that the relationship was symbolic rather than factual or physical.

The Vedas contain many charms, formulae and sacrificial ceremonies, which are meant to enchant and attract women, make them submit to sexual advances, or engage disinterested wives in sexual intercourse for procreation. Some are meant to protect vulnerable women from potential rivals and harm the secret lovers if necessary through powerful spells.

Scriptural Evidence

The following excerpts from different scriptures show how the problem of adultery was regarded in ancient times.

Bhagavadgita 1.41-43

"With the emergence of adharma, O Krishna, women become impure. And when women fall into bad ways, O descendent of Vrisni, admixture of castes takes place.

"The intermixture of castes lead the destroyers of the family and also the family to hell. The ancestors (in heaven) also fall, as they do not receive the ritualistic offerings of food and water due to them.

"Because of the misdeeds of these destroyers of family and order of the castes, the order (dharma) of the community and of the family are permanently destroyed.

Vishnu Purana 3.11

A man should not think incontinently of another's wife, much less address her to that end; for such a man will be reborn in a future life as a creeping insect. He who commits adultery is punished both here and hereafter; for his days in this world are cut short, and when dead he falls into hell.

Manusmriti: Chapter 8

353. For by (adultery) is caused a mixture of the castes (varna) among men; thence (follows) sin, which cuts up even the roots and causes the destruction of everything.

354. A man formerly accused of (such) offences, who secretly converses with another man's wife, shall pay the first (or lowest) fine.

355. But a man, not before accused, who (thus) speaks with (a woman) for some (reasonable) cause, shall not incur any guilt, since in him there is no transgression.

356. He who addresses the wife of another man at a Tirtha, outside the village, in a forest, or at the confluence of rivers, suffer (the punishment for) adulterous acts (samgrahana).

357. Offering presents (to a woman), romping (with her), touching her ornaments and dress, sitting with her on a bed, all (these acts) are considered adulterous acts (samgrahana).

358. If one touches a woman in a place (which ought) not (to be touched) or allows (oneself to be touched in such a spot), all (such acts done) with mutual consent are declared (to be) adulterous (samgrahana).

359. A man who is not a Brahmana ought to suffer death for adultery (samgrahana); for the wives of all the four castes even must always be carefully guarded.

360. Mendicants, bards, men who have performed the initiatory ceremony of a Vedic sacrifice, and artisans are not prohibited from speaking to married women.

361. Let no man converse with the wives of others after he has been forbidden (to do so); but he who converses (with them), in spite of a prohibition, shall be fined one suvarna.

362. This rule does not apply to the wives of actors and singers, nor (of) those who live on (the intrigues of) their own (wives); for such men send their wives (to others) or, concealing themselves, allow them to hold criminal intercourse.

363. Yet he who secretly converses with such women, or with female slaves kept by one (master), and with female ascetics, shall be compelled to pay a small fine.

364. He who violates an unwilling maiden shall instantly suffer corporal punishment; but a man who enjoys a willing maiden shall not suffer corporal punishment, if (his caste be) the same (as hers).

365. From a maiden who makes advances to a (man of) high (caste), he shall not take any fine; but her, who courts a (man of) low (caste), let him force to live confined in her house.

366. A (man of) low (caste) who makes love to a maiden (of) the highest (caste) shall suffer corporal punishment; he who addresses a maiden (on) equal (caste) shall pay the nuptial fee, if her father desires it.

367. But if any man through insolence forcibly contaminates a maiden, two of his fingers shall be instantly cut off, and he shall pay a fine of six hundred (panas).

368. A man (of) equal (caste) who defiles a willing maiden shall not suffer the amputation of his fingers, but shall pay a fine of two hundred (panas) in order to deter him from a repetition (of the offence).

369. A damsel who pollutes (another) damsel must be fined two hundred (panas), pay the double of her (nuptial) fee, and receive ten (lashes with a) rod.

370. But a woman who pollutes a damsel shall instantly have (her head) shaved or two fingers cut off, and be made to ride (through the town) on a donkey.

371. If a wife, proud of the greatness of her relatives or (her own) excellence, violates the duty which she owes to her lord, the king shall cause her to be devoured by dogs in a place frequented by many.

372. Let him cause the male offender to be burnt on a red-hot iron bed; they shall put logs under it, (until) the sinner is burned (to death).

373. On a man (once) convicted, who is (again) accused within a year, a double fine (must be inflicted); even thus (must the fine be doubled) for (repeated) intercourse with a Vratya and a Kandali.

374. A Sudra who has intercourse with a woman of a twice-born caste (varna), guarded or unguarded, (shall be punished in the following manner): if she was unguarded, he loses the part (offending) and all his property; if she was guarded, everything (even his life).

375. (For intercourse with a guarded Brahmana a Vaisya shall forfeit all his property after imprisonment for a year; a Kshatriya shall be fined one thousand (panas) and be shaved with the urine (of an ass).

376. If a Vaisya or a Kshatriya has connection with an unguarded Brahmana, let him fine the Vaisya five hundred (panas) and the Kshatriya one thousand.

377. But even these two, if they offend with a Brahmani (not only) guarded (but the wife of an eminent man), shall be punished like a Sudra or be burnt in a fire of dry grass.

378. A Brahmana who carnally knows a guarded Brahmani against her will, shall be fined one thousand (panas); but he shall be made to pay five hundred, if he had connection with a willing one.

379. Tonsure (of the head) is ordained for a Brahmana (instead of) capital punishment; but (men of) other castes shall suffer capital punishment.

380. Let him never slay a Brahmana, though he have committed all (possible) crimes; let him banish such an (offender), leaving all his property (to him) and (his body) unhurt.

381. No greater crime is known on earth than slaying a Brahmana; a king, therefore, must not even conceive in his mind the thought of killing a Brahmana.

382. If a Vaisya approaches a guarded female of the Kshatriya caste, or a Kshatriya a (guarded) Vaisya woman, they both deserve the same punishment as in the case of an unguarded Brahmana female.

383. A Brahmana shall be compelled to pay a fine of one thousand (panas) if he has intercourse with guarded (females of) those two (castes); for (offending with) a (guarded) Sudra female a fine of one thousand (panas shall be inflicted) on a Kshatriya or a Vaisya.

384. For (intercourse with) an unguarded Kshatriya a fine of five hundred (panas shall fall) on a Vaisya; but (for the same offence) a Kshatriya shall be shaved with the urine (of a donkey) or (pay) the same fine.

385. A Brahmana who approaches unguarded females (of the) Kshatriya or Vaisya (castes), or a Sudra female, shall be fined five hundred (panas); but (for intercourse with) a female (of the) lowest (castes), one thousand.

386. That king in whose town lives no thief, no adulterer, no defamer, no man guilty of violence, and no committer of assaults, attains the world of Sakra (Indra).

387. The suppression of those five in his dominions secures to a king paramount sovereignty among his peers and fame in the world.

Manusmriti: Chapter 9

5. Women must particularly be guarded against evil inclinations, however trifling (they may appear); for, if they are not guarded, they will bring sorrow on two families.

6. Considering that the highest duty of all castes, even weak husbands (must) strive to guard their wives.

7. He who carefully guards his wife, preserves (the purity of) his offspring, virtuous conduct, his family, himself, and his (means of acquiring) merit.

8. The husband, after conception by his wife, becomes an embryo and is born again of her; for that is the wifehood of a wife (gaya), that he is born (gayate) again by her.

9. As the male is to whom a wife cleaves, even so is the son whom she brings forth; let him therefore carefully guard his wife, in order to keep his offspring pure.

10. No man can completely guard women by force; but they can be guarded by the employment of the (following) expedients:

11. Let the (husband) employ his (wife) in the collection and expenditure of his wealth, in keeping (everything) clean, in (the fulfillment of) religious duties, in the preparation of his food, and in looking after the household utensils.

12. Women, confined in the house under trustworthy and obedient servants, are not (well) guarded; but those who of their own accord keep guard over themselves, are well guarded.

13. Drinking (spirituous liquor), associating with wicked people, separation from the husband, rambling abroad, sleeping (at unseasonable hours), and dwelling in other men's houses, are the six causes of the ruin of women.

14. Women do not care for beauty, nor is their attention fixed on age; (thinking), '(It is enough that) he is a man,' they give themselves to the handsome and to the ugly.

15. Through their passion for men, through their mutable temper, through their natural heartlessness, they become disloyal towards their husbands, however carefully they may be guarded in this (world).

16. Knowing their disposition, which the Lord of creatures laid in them at the creation, to be such, (every) man should most strenuously exert himself to guard them.

17. (When creating them) Manu allotted to women (a love of their) bed, (of their) seat and (of) ornament, impure desires, wrath, dishonesty, malice, and bad conduct.

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