This book attempts to explore the institution of niyoga in early India, examining its genesis and trajectory through the temporal and spatial canvas, for though the focus remains on the early period, the fluctuations are best studied over a larger span of time. The early texts refer to niyoga as apaddharma, a practice to be resorted to only in times of exigency. Niyoga allowed a married woman to cohabit with a designated male if her husband was infertile or had died without leaving an heir. Niyoga, therefore, emerged as an alternative to lineage perpetuation with due normative sanction. The institution had its beginnings in a pastoral set-up, but with changes in social formations, it also underwent many variations. As state societies gave way to regional polities, and as property issues became increasingly important, normative traditions evolved and mutated, and patriarchies changed their stance on the socio-sexual regulation of both men and women. With the passage of time, the institution of niyoga became marginalized within the legal framework, and yet, as this study shows, the practice continues to be espoused at local levels up to the modern era.
Smita Sahgal is Associate Professor of History at Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi. Her fields of specializations are History of Religion and Social History. She is the co-author of the very well-received book Teaching History and has published a number of articles in national and international journals. She is currently working on a project sponsored by Indian Council of Historical Research titled `Masculinities in Early India: Exploring the Possibility of a Discourse'.
The idea of writing a monograph on niyoga in early India emanated from a chance discussion with Professor K.M. Shrimali on the concept of godharma that obliquely refers to the practice of niyoga. I assumed that this practice was exploitative for women. He asked me to think as a historian should and arrive at a conclusion only after a thorough research. There can be a gap between perception and reality, he suggested. I decided to take up this challenge and keep my perceptions aside to work systematically on an institution from the vantage of a historian. Thus, started my own academic journey on unravelling the institution and practice of niyoga in early India. I did not come across any comprehensive work on this issue. Some European Indologists and nationalist Indian scholars had commented on it or made it a part of their other encyclopaedic research while other young researchers made observations on it but a methodically researched monograph could not be cited. Therefore, I decided to embark on an exploration of my own: research old available material, scan the relatively new ones, revisit primary references and piece together scattered information after putting it through logical analysis. It was a long but extremely enjoyable exercise and I searched deeper into texts and travelled extensively through time. Many of my perceptions were challenged by the material excavated. I began understanding the human mind better, but more than that, I began comprehending the social processes that decided both the sustenance and marginalization of the practice. I could see that there was a gendered implication to this process but even that seemed to have been rooted in caste and class. There was a larger reality to be investigated of who stood to eventually gain from the practice of niyoga. It was worth tracing the growing conflict between those who once validated the practice in the name of 'social good' and then shunned it and those who eventually decided to accept it despite the growing disdain for it. Throughout my research, I never lost sight of my primary subject: women. I tried to remain as objective as possible for any historian in assessing his/her views on the practice of niyoga. Some perceptions were confirmed but the survey conducted also revealed many truths that I was not prepared for. The reality of patriarchal, son-centric social structures glared straight at my face, but I was determined to cull out women's opinions and I was successful. I discovered many women's voices buried under or camouflaged in many myths, but I also discovered voices of many men as they negotiated social reality in a bid to relate to this practice. So many of them were impacted by it: ksetra, the wife practising niyoga; hetrin, the husband the official inseminator; and ketraja, the son born of the union. Along with that, there was niyogopattanas, the daughter whose destiny was decided by the social identity as a progeny of niyoga. These were the principal actors in the unfolding of the practice and all seemed to have responded in distinct ways. However, their responses needed to be evaluated in the changing milieu and consequent value systems designed by their diverse societies. I felt inadequate in gauging responses of men to this practice and l ooked for frames of masculinities in early India for analysis. I came a cropper; there existed none. Therefore, I had to undertake the exercise of formatting theoretical frames of masculinities in early India. I have had to depend on scholars who have worked in the field though their work largely deals with contemporary Western societies. Works of R.W. Connell and others provided an initial thrust for constructing frames of masculinities in early India but the subtheme on masculinity acquired a shape of its own as the research progressed. The focus of this work is largely early India but as I delved into rich textual repertoire, I realized that the practice was not just confined to the early period and that its existence has been recorded beyond the phase and across the global canvas. Therefore, I decided to put all available material together in this monograph for the benefit of researchers who might want to undertake detailed research subsequently. I sincerely hope the work will benefit future course of research in this area.
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