A Hindu tradition called Niyoga allowed a childless woman to procreate through a man other than her husband. The Madras High Court took judicial cognisance of this tradition in its verdict earlier this week, upholding the freedom of expression of writer Perumal Murugan, much to the umbrage of the Hindu groups opposed to a book depicting it.

Unwittingly, however, the verdict also put in perspective Narendra Modi’s tacit denial of this tradition in the context of its best known symbol, Kunti, the mother of the legendary Pandavas in the Mahabharata. Modi famously claimed, at a corporate hospital in Mumbai in October 2014, that Karna, whom Kunti begot before her marriage, was testimony to the advances made by ancient India in genetic science. In a radical interpretation of the epic story about a boon received by Kunti to have a child with any god, Modi said:

“If we think a little more, we realise that Mahabharat says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb.”

The champion of yoga is evidently so squeamish about Niyoga that he mythified it as an unrecognised breakthrough made by ancient India in genetic science.

Though there is no reference to the Prime Minister’s speech in it, the high court verdict cited others’ views on the taboo subject of Niyoga, which served as the backdrop to Murugan’s Tamil novel Madhorubhagan. Referring to the campaign against the book, the judgment quoted an article by Lavanya Manoharan asking,

“Why have all those who now protest Madhorubagan spared the Mahabharatha?” 

Besides, the judgment paraphrased a book by Sarva Daman Singh as follows:

“Pandu is said to have told his wife Kunti of a time when women were free to cohabit with anybody they chose without a trace of sin. They went uncloistered, and were their own mistresses, taking their pleasure from where it pleased them.” 

Another book, this one by Devdutt Pattanaik, is summarised by the judgment in this manner:

 “… a reference is made to sterile men becoming fathers by asking gods to visit their wives. In this context, the birth of Kunti’s children is adverted to. Different gods were invoked, from which different progenies were born.”

The counsel for the besieged author submitted, according to the judgment:

“that the concepts of Niyoga, ascriptions of divinity to procreation through extra-marital means (the instance of Kunthi in the Mahabharatha being the most notable one) and also the recognition and even encouragement of sexual relations outside wedlock are all prevalent in Hindu myths and ancient literature” (the parenthesis as in the judgment).

On the other hand, the counsel for the protestors is quoted as alleging,

“The reference to the Niyoga marriage from the epic Mahabharatha cannot be a suggestion for writing a lascivious, prurient, obscene and disparaging novel by the author, especially one involving a temple festival.”

The high court, on its part, observed:

“The Indian scriptures, including The Mahabharata, are said to be replete with obvious examples of sex outside marriage, also specifically for the purpose of having progenies and that too, of the intellectual class... Can we say The Mahabharata or the various other literatures, which we have quoted herein above, are part of our history, yet they say something that is unusually lascivious and therefore should be banned?”

By regarding figures like Karna as “obvious examples” of either extra-marital or pre-marital sex, the high court has proved to be remarkably clear-eyed in an environment in which an authority no less than the Prime Minister could misrepresent Niyoga as genetic science.

Liberal ethos

The judgment, written by the chief justice of the Madras High Court, Sanjay Kishan Kaul, said:

“Surprisingly, on the issue of a liberal ethos towards the relationship of man and woman, sex and religious mores, the ancient scriptures seemed to be more liberal than at times what appears to be the current norm.”

As for the Niyoga portrayed by Murugan as part of a temple festival in Tamil Nadu, the verdict said:

“The novel refers to a social practice, if at all it ever existed, to somehow solve the problem of a childless couple through this peculiar, yet not very desirable practice. It is in fact a reflection of the desperation to which the society drives the childless couple to a make such a compromise.” Bemoaning the intolerance that had forced Murugan to call himself dead as a writer in January 2015, the high court held: “There cannot be a new puritanism imbibed in this civilization of variant cultures.”

Just how new is this puritanism can be gauged from this historical irony. Almost a century ago, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar wrote matter-of-factly about Niyoga in the very book in which he coined the term Hindutva, the ideology of the current dispensation. While giving a long list of instances to establish that inter-caste marriages had been a common occurrence from Vedic times, Savarkar said,

“Pandu allowed his wives to raise issue by resorting to the Niyoga system and they having solicited the love of men of unknown castes, gave birth to the heroes of our great epic.” 

Thus, making no bones about Niyoga, the original propounder of Hindutva debunked the traditional narrative that Kunti begot her children from gods and not mere mortals.

If Savarkar was so open to recognizing Niyoga for what it was, could Babasaheb Ambedkar, far removed as he was from Hindutva, have lagged behind in critiquing that tradition? While questioning the morality of the ancient Aryan society in his book titled Riddles in Hinduism, Ambedkar said that the Niyoga system had resulted in “a complete state of promiscuity”, especially because “there was no limit to the number of Niyogas open to a woman”. In the catalogue he made of multiple Niyogas for each woman, Ambedkar mentioned that Kunti had four Niyogas, including the one that led to Karna’s birth. He added that that there was no cap even on the duration of Niyoga,

“which might last for one night or twelve years or more, with the husband a willing and a sleeping partner in this trade of fornication”.

Savarkar and Ambedkar could not have got away with such irreverence to tradition in today’s India, as evident from the harassment suffered by Perumal Murugan at the hands of state and non-state actors. Hence the value of the Madras High Court judgment goes beyond upholding the freedom to deal with taboo subjects. It has served to expose the corrosive link, however unintended, between Modi’s attempt to glorify Niyoga as genetic science and Murugan’s declaration of his demise as a writer three months later.

Manoj Mitta is the author of The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra and co-author of When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath