This is a guest post by my friend and renowned mythologist, Dr Devdutt Pattanaik
Having children has always been important since time immemorial, and the continuity of the family unit has been of major significance in Hindu culture. Infertility is a social stigma even today, and Indian mythology is full of stories about what couples have done in the past to overcome their problem of infertility.
Ancient tales hold the key to the unconscious desires of a people. They help us appreciate the fears and insecurities of people who visit state-of-the-art infertility clinics. In this article, sacred narratives from ancient scriptures are explored to understand the importance of fertility in the Hindu worldview.
Debt to Ancestors
The following story of sage Agastya from the great Hindu epic Mahabharata (written 2000 years ago) tells us why Hindus, in particular, and Indians, in general, are so obsessed with children. Besides social factors like ‘someone to take care of me in my old age’, it directs our attention to a profound religious demand for a child, especially a male one.
The sage Agastya wanted moksha, liberation from the endless cycle of rebirths. So he broke all social bonds, went to the forest, meditated and performed austerities. He believed that by refusing to succumb to any desire, by refusing to yield to the illusory pleasures of the material world, his soul would break free from the prison that was his body. He spent years mortifying himself. Liberation eluded him. Then, one night, he had a vision: he saw his ancestors hanging head down over a gaping hole. They were crying, “We are trapped in the land of the dead. And there is no hope of escape.” “What can I do to help?” asked Agastya. They replied, “Father children, so that we can be reborn. Help us return to the land of the living so that we too can work towards our moksha. Or else, you will land up in the hell known as Put and suffer there for all eternity. Repay the debt you owe your ancestors.” Thus admonished, Agastya returned to his village, got married, fathered children, and only after they had become independent did he return to the forest.
Hindus believe that all men come into this world burdened by a debt – the pitr-runa (pitr = ancestor; runa = debt). The only way to repay this debt is to father a male offspring. During funerary rites, known as shraadha, Hindu males are reminded of this debt. In the Dharmashastras, Hindu law books written between 500-1000 A.D., it is said that those who fail to repay this debt end up in the Hell known as Put where they suffer for all eternity. Since the birth of a child, preferably male child, liberates a man from his debt, the Sanskrit word for son is putra (deliverer from Put). The daughter or putri is also a deliverer from Put, but to a lesser extent.
Dharma and Karma
Two words that play a crucial role in the understanding the Hindu (as well as Buddhist and Jain) attitude towards life are dharma and karma.
Dharma is essentially duty that must be performed for the sake of social as well as cosmic stability. Failure to do so leads to social anarchy and cosmic chaos. Duty is traditionally defined by one’s inherited caste (teacher, protector, provider, servant) and by one’s stage in life (student, householder, senior citizen, hermit). Producing a child is one’s biological duty applicable all human beings. Those who wanted to renounce the world were only allowed to do so after they had fulfilled all worldly duties.
Men who could not fulfil their biological obligations because of a physical problem (impotence) or a mental quirk (homosexuality) were termed rather derogatorily kliba or napunsaka, sexually dysfunctional non-man. In the Manu Smriti, an ancient Hindu law book, such men were debarred from sacred rituals and from inheritance. Only by producing children, were a man and woman considered biologically fulfilled. It must be remembered, that only after marriage was a man in Hindu society given the right to enjoy worldly pleasures and possess worldly wealth. A king could not be king unless he was married. And an impotent man or a man who could not father a child was not allowed to be king. Hence, in the Mahabharata, when the king Pandu learns that he will die the moment he has sex with his wife, he renounces his crown – his inability to father a child debars him from kingship.
Karma means both action and fate. Hindus (as well as Buddhists and Jains) believe that every action leads to a series of reactions. All creatures are obliged to experience the repercussions of their (conscious and unconscious) actions, either in this life or the next. Thus, every event is the result of past actions. If one is barren, it is because of events that occurred in the past, either in this life or in the one before. A folk story based on the Mahabharata illustrates this point. At the end of a great war, queen Gandhari is informed that all her hundred children are dead. She weeps and seeks a reason for this unfair situation, to which a sage replies, “In your last life, you sat on a stone under which there were a hundred turtle eggs. The eggs were crushed. So the mother-turtle cursed you that you too would experience the loss of hundred children.”
A situation in governed by karma, but one’s reaction to is governed by free will. Astrology helps understand what karma has in store for us. The result of karma can be either endured or it can be modified by certain occult rituals, by the power of holy men or by the grace of god. This is the reason why childless men in India visit temples, go on pilgrimages, seek the intervention of holy men or perform elaborate rituals.
White seed and Red Seed
Why a male offspring is more important to a Hindu (besides social factors) can be traced to certain beliefs. In the Mahabharata, it is said that the soul of a man lies locked in the semen. Semen is the medium through which ancestors slip into the land of the living. The soul in semen is embodied in the womb.
According to ancient Hindu seers known as rishis, within the womb is the red seed known as rajas (the counterpart of the white male seed known as shukra). The rajas wraps the soul in flesh and blood. The shukra, besides being a medium for the soul, is also the source of bones. Thus all living creatures come into being because of the father’s white seed and the mother’s red seed. The former generates consciousness and transforms into the skeleton while the latter creates the flesh.
There is an interesting story in this regard from the Padma Purana. A king had two wives but no children. He asked some sages to make a potion that would make his wives pregnant. He died before the potion was ready. The two widowed queens did not want to waste the magic potion. So the elder queen drank it while the younger queen made love to her ‘like a man’. In due course, the elder queen gave birth to a child, but it was only a lump of flesh. The sages said, “Since no white seed was part of the conception, the child had no bones and no consciousness.” They appeased the gods and the child was ‘repaired’.
Power of the white seed
Indian men are known for their obsession with virility. Virility here refers to many things, physical strength, mental agility, sexual energy as well ability to father a male child. So when an Indian says, “I have less strength (takat kum hai),” he could refer to malaise or lethargy or impotence or inability to father a male child. Here again is an ancient belief that physical strength is reflected in semen strength.
The ancient seers believed that food consumed is transformed in the body into sap (plasma), then flesh, then blood, then bone, then marrow and finally seed (Hence the traditional Indian belief that out of a thousand drops of blood comes one drop of semen). The seed can produce a new life or if retained can transform into a magical substance called ojas that gives a man superhuman strength and occult powers. It also helps man escape from the cycle of rebirths.
In women, the red seed is shed every month. Hence, women are considered to be the weaker sex – they cannot attain ‘spiritual’ status because they have no access to ojas.
Men on the other hand can retain their white seed and become ‘holy’. This is the reason given to explain the presence of greater number of holy men than holy women in India. This is also the reason why powerful warrior gods like Hanuman and Ayyappa are associated with both virility and celibacy.
In the Mahabharata, it is said that a male child is born when the white seed is stronger than the red seed. Thus a virile man (one whose semen is strong) fathers only male children. When the red seed is strong, the child is female. When both white and red seed are equal the child is neither this nor that (this was the traditional explanation for transexuality and homosexuality). This belief perhaps explains why, despite modern genetic data on X and Y chromosomes, it is the woman in India who is ‘blamed’ for the feminization of the fetus and why she is given special diets to make the fetus male. This also explains why men feel angry and ashamed when they father daughters. The sex of the child is linked to their virility, or lack of it.
The fertile period
According to the Dharmashastras, though sex for pleasure was permitted, greater importance was given to sex for procreation. Men who had to father male offsprings were advised not to waste semen. They were advised to have intercourse only when the woman was in ‘season’. This period was known as ritu and it roughly corresponds to the fertile period, the days in the menstrual cycle when a woman is most likely to conceive. Women were advised to make themselves beautiful and present themselves to their husbands after their periods.
If a woman who was in her fertile period approached a man for sex, he was obliged to have sex with her, the reason being – a fertile period should not be wasted. Every time a fertile period was lost, an ancestor lost his opportunity to be reborn. When a woman menstruated, she was held responsible for the opportunity last. She was equated with ‘death’ and hence considered polluted. She was asked to isolate herself during her periods, just as men who cremate the dead are isolated from the rest of the community.
A man who turned down a woman who approached him during her fertile period was described as a eunuch and held in disdain. In the Mahabharata, there are tales of women who approached men who were not their husbands during their fertile period because their husbands were unavailable. This was legally sanctioned. The sage Aruni was horrified when his guru’s wife approached him for sex. She explained, “Your guru has gone on a pilgrimage. Asking you do fulfill his biological obligations is a lesser sin than wasting this fertile period.”
The time when men and women had sex affected the nature of the child conceived. In the Bhagavata Purana is the story of Diti who approached her husband, the sage Kashyapa, for sex in the evening, a time reserved for prayers to ward of malevolent spirits. As a result, she conceived children who were demons.
When a man approached a woman, before intercourse, he was expected to invoke the gods, especially Vishnu, the god who sustains natural order, and Tvastr or Vishvakarma, the god who makes things. Only through their blessings, was it believed that a child could be conceived. This was known as the garbhadhana sanskara, or the rite of conception.
The sterile man
When a man could not produce a child on his wife, he was given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to marry again, and again. If despite this, he failed to father a child, it was concluded (but never explicitly stated) that he was sterile. In such circumstances, the Dharmashastras suggested that another man be invited to cohabit with the wives. This practice was known as niyoga or levirate.
In the Mahabharata, when king Vichitravirya (vichitra = odd; virya = virility) dies, his mother invited the sage Vyasa to produced children on his widowed daughters-in-law. Children thus produced were called children of Vichitravirya (the legal father), not the children of Vyasa (the biological or surrogate father).
It is alleged that this practice of niyoga is followed (rather clandestinely) even today, whereby sterile men make their wives cohabit with relatives or with holy men. Though religiously sanctioned, this practice is socially frowned upon and hence no one talks about it openly.
In the Kathasaritsagar, a collection of stories written in the 11th century A.D., there is the story of a king who makes an offering of rice balls to his ancestors. As he about to throw the offering in the river, three hands reach up – one of a farmer, one of a priest and one of a warrior. The oracles revealed, “The farmer is the man who married your mother, the priest is the man who made your mother pregnant and the warrior is the man who took care of you.” The king is advised to give the rice ball to the farmer because scriptures describe him as the true father. Thus was the practice of surrogate fatherhood established.
There are tales that suggest that the ancients were familiar with the ‘idea’ of artificial insemination. For example, we learn of ‘magic potions’ being created by sages for queens of childless kings that makes the women pregnant. What were these magic substances? Could they be ‘fertility drugs’ or could they be metaphors for ‘donated semen’?
One story states that the god Shiva once spurted semen when he saw Vishnu in the form of the celestial enchantress Mohini. Sages collected this semen and gave it to the wind-god Vayu who poured it into the ‘ear’ (a common mythical metaphor for the womb) of Anjani, a monkey, who gave birth to Hanuman, the monkey-god. Devoid of the mythical aura, one might say that the tale refers to the practice of artificial insemination: semen is transferred to the womb without sexual intercourse).
The surrogate mother
In the Bhagvata Purana, there is a story that suggests the practice of surrogate motherhood. Kans, the wicked king of Mathura, had imprisoned his sister Devaki and her husband Vasudeva because oracles had informed him that her child would be his killer. Every time she delivered a child, he smashed its head on the floor. He killed six children. When the seventh child was conceived, the gods intervened. They summoned the goddess Yogamaya and had her transfer the fetus from the womb of Devaki to the womb of Rohini (Vasudeva’s other wife who lived with her sister Yashoda across the river Yamuna, in the village of cowherds at Gokul). Thus the child conceived in one womb was incubated in and delivered through another womb.
In India today, when a couple does not have children, they often visit shrines and pray. Some visit holy men. Others offer cradles and dolls at shrines of mother-goddesses. Still others visit serpent shrines.
Serpents in many ancient cultures have been associated with fertility ( don’t forget that the serpent continues to be the symbol of medicine). There are many reasons for this. Probably because the serpent could slough its skin, it was believed to possess the power of rejuvenation. Probably because the serpent lived under the earth, it was believed to be the keeper of the secret that transforms seeds into plants. Farmers in India worship serpents in the hope they have a good harvest. Women worship serpents so that they are fertile and their husbands, virile.
In modern times, these practices may seem silly and superstitious. But for centuries they have offered hope to a people who believed that producing children was their biological duty. They offer the psychological support that today counselors provide. While these support structures can turn into crutches, their place in culture demands the be understood rather than be summarily dismissed.