27 December 2011



It is generally said that every girl in India is born for marriage. At least this idea was universal some two generations back, although in this latter half of the 20th century, the growing number of professional women remaining single and of orders of Sanyasinis, is making this belief rather antiquated. It was however universally widespread in the days of the Holy Mother's infancy. A daughter, though loved and cherished, was often felt a liability and a burden, and parents did not finally feel relieved until she had been given away in marriage. The feeling of the Indian mind on this point in ancient days has been beautifully expressed by Kalidasa, the great Sanskrit poet and dramatist, in a verse he puts in the mouth of Rishi Kanva, the foster-father of Sakuntala, when his daughter leaves for her husband's home: 'Verily, a daughter is the property of another man. Today, having sent her to her husband, my conscience has become quite clear, as on restoring a deposit after a long time'1 (Sakuntalam, 4, 151).

   It cannot be denied that this way of thinking has often led parents to hurry their daughters into thematrimonial bond even at a premature age. It is perhaps the very same mentality, buttressed by quasi-religious theories, that has crystallized into such practices as early marriage and child marriage, enforced by social compulsion. That this was not so in the early history of Hindu society is clear from the fact that just like boys, girls also used to be educated in 'forest universities,' some of which at least were run on co-educational lines. In fact, the theory of compulsory pre-puberty marriage for girls of the higher castes came into popularity only along with a change in the conception of women's education. In early Aryan society - and it is also recognized by the orthodox Smritis - girls, like boys, were invested with the sacred thread at the proper age and subsequently initiated into Vedic study and Aryan religious life.2 How long their education continued, one cannot say, but modern scholars believe that marriage did not come in the way of it in so far as the Vedic hymns chanted and the marriage rituals and practices followed indicate that both the contracting parties were adults.

   A time, however, came in later days when the investiture of girls with the sacred thread came to be abandoned. This change of ritual procedure, though apparently simple, was fraught with immense consequences in the educational and matrimonial life of women. The investiture with the sacred thread was, for the Aryan mind, the symbol of the commencement of Brahmacharya, or the period of education. And also, only a person invested with it was entitled to Vedic study and Vedic religious practices. The abandonment of it in the case of woman, therefore, meant herexclusion from the ancient Aryan system of education, the chief characteristics of which were the study of the Vedas and residence in the teacher's house during one's educational career.

   It may, however, be asked whether the Hindu lawgivers of later days totally overlooked the educational needs of girls and wanted to reduce them to the position of ignorant domestic slaves. This was far from their intention. What they contemplated was that for woman marriage, which was in effect only a betrothal, would take the place of the ceremony of investiture with the sacred thread (Manu, 2.67), and that instead of going to a Guru for study, she would have her education at the hands of her own husband. As investiture with the sacred thread took place in early boyhood, so too the marriage of girls was to take place before they reached the age of puberty. The idea behind it was this. A boy could absorb the ideals of his teacher and have his character moulded by his influence, only if he was put under him at an impressionable age, that is, in his early boyhood. So also it was argued that a girl could become one in mind with her husband, and participate wholeheartedly in his ideals and aspirations only if she was brought under the influence of his personality at a tender age, before her individuality was formed and hardened in its distinctiveness by experiences and contacts of pre-marital life. The husband generally was an adult who had completed his long period of Brahmacharya, or education combined with moral and spiritual training, and the first obligation that marriage placed on him was the education of his wife, that of being the father of her progeny coming only next.

   This is the ideal underlying the custom of marrying girls in their childhood. But ideals do not always tally with realities, and the system of child marriage, too, has not been an exception to this. The attainments that the system at its best pre-supposes in the bridegroom are beyond what we may expect in ordinary social life. A bridegroom, according to it, must practically be a sage who has overcome his animal propensities, and is capable of viewing his wife more as a soul in formation than as a member of the opposite sex. Such men are few and far between, and in consequence the vast majority of marriages contracted under the system seldom produce those ideal conditions pre-supposed by it. Of course, when the joint family was a living institution, and the young had the advantage of intelligent guidance from their parents and elders, the evils of the system were much mitigated. In spite of all that, in the vast majority of cases, it has stood in the way of women's education, and has driven girls to the ordeal of motherhood at too premature an age.

   But the ideal has its possibilities. Given suitable conditions, it is capable of producing results that compel one's recognition. This is what one finds in the life of the Holy Mother. Here is an example of a girl of five being married to a youth of twenty-three. But the youth was a sage and a great teacher, and the girl a fit recipient of noble teachings. As a consequence we find in their lives a new ideal of conjugal life being evolved - an ideal in which the carnal side of humannature is completely eliminated and the husband plays the part of a spiritual teacher, transferring the richest experiences of his life to the wife, who in her turn becomes a lifelong disciple, finding the highest fulfilment of her life in serving her husband, in absorbing his teachings, and in continuing his life-work after him.

   The study of the Holy Mother's life is the study of the gradual unfoldment of this great purpose. The circumstances that led to the singular marriage of the Holy Mother, which facilitated these developments, are given below.