In 1961, a German scholar, Bachofen, brought out his epoch-making work Mutterecht suggesting that a state of promiscuity existed in human society before the establishment of the institution of marriage. He quoted many passages from the classical literature of many countries. His conclusions were further supported by other scholars, namely, Maclennan, Morgan, Lubbock, Spencer, etc. However, other anthropologists like Darwin and Westermark refuted this theory and reiterated the view that the institution of marriage existed right from the commencement of the human race.
In ancient Indian Vedic literature, there is virtually no direct reference to the existence of promiscuity. However, this social phenomenon is indirectly presented by certain well-known myths; for example, Prajapati was enamoured of his daughter; Pusan wooed his mother. But a study of the ancient literature brings forward that the code sanctioned for the gods is invariably different from that applicable to men. Thus, even the Vedic gods named above are shown to have had incestuous relationships with daughter, sister, mother, etc. (S. C. Sarkar. Some Aspects of the Earliest Social History of India. Oxford, 1928). These references clearly indicate the existence of a society with minimal sex taboos.
Later, the Epics and Puranas also refer to the practice of parental incest, the most famous example being of Manu, the father of mankind, who was begotten by Brahma on his daughter Satarupa (S. C. Sarkar. Some Aspects of the Earliest Social History of India. Oxford, 1928). There is another reference in the Aitareya Brahmana indicating that for begetting sons, men united with their mothers and sisters.
In the Mahabharata, there are indications that promiscuity prevailed in the earlier period. The Kama Parva (Kumbkonam edn., 37.23) refers to the prevalence of many such traditions among the people of Madra Pradesh where the women were very licentious and self-willed and considered a blemish on mankind. As it was not possible to determine birth in their caste, the sisters and not sons were the heirs. The reference in the Rajatarangini about the Brahmanas of Gandhara living in incest (Kalhan. Rajatarangini, i. 308) indicates the prevalence of such a tradition in north-west India also.
The absence of restrictions on social intercourse as enjoined by the institution of monogamous marriage among the Madra and Bablika regions is confirmed by other references to the prevalence of certain traditions, namely, Strirajya, Strivabya or Narivaisaya in north-west India (Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, Niranaya Sagar edn,; Santi Parva IV, 7; Brihatsamihita, XIX, 22).
Certain statements made by Pandu about an age in which women in India were uncontrolled, licentious, self-willed and independent are further evidence of the prevalence of promiscuity. Their pre-matrimonial relations with men did not involve any sin on their part. Pandu states further that such practices prevailed in Uttarkuru even in his own time.
The most glaring example of the existence of promiscuous sexual relations is contained in the story of Uddalaka and his son Svetaketu which says that once Svetaketu was standing by the side of his mother when a Brahmana caught her hand and snatched her away. The angered Svetaketu was calmed down by the father, who said that there was no point in getting furious on this account because all the women in the world were uncovered and self-willed and that this had been the practice since time immemorial (that is, Sanatan Dharma) (Adi Parva, Mahabharata, 128, 4-5).Promiscuity in Indian society
However, the son did not accept this explanation and made a rule that the woman who neglects her husband and the man who violates an unmarried girl shall be guilty of destroying the embryo. Some scholars have attempted to dismiss this legend of Svetaketu as mere fiction, but it is so much in keeping with various other traditions of that period that it can hardly be ignored.
Certain practices reminiscent of the prevalence of promiscuity in the earlier ages lingered on until the time of the Smritis when the institution of marriage was well established. This resulted in the introduction of a legal provision for sons born as a result of intercourse with a man other than the husband. Such sons were called Gudhotpanna. The provision was also made for children born of unmarried and widowed women in India. In all, four categories of such children are enumerated in the law books.
All these references confirm the prevalence of promiscuity in India in ancient times. However, it is not possible to determine the extent to which it was prevalent or whether this practice was confined to the Aryans, the non-Aryans or both. The references to Madra and Gandhara indicate that in the Punjab and north-west India, women in India enjoyed more liberty than those in other parts of the country.
As things stand now, one would not fail to observe an increasing tendency for unabated discussion on sex among the urban educated classes and the various sociological surveys conducted reveal that quite a number of women in India view sexual desire as a biologically, socially and psychologically normal phenomenon. Despite this liberation of the modern generation, there is no gainsaying that any failure to abide by traditional notions of sexual morality entails grave risks for all women in India, married and unmarried alike. No man would be willing to accept promiscuity on the part of his wife.