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Exploring the Beneficiaries: Indian Historical Review

39(2) 163–198

A Gendered Peep into © 2012 ICHR

SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London,
the Institution of Niyoga New Delhi, Singapore,
Washington DC
in Early India* DOI: 10.1177/0376983612461415

Smita Sahgal
Department of History, Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi, Delhi, India

In patriarchal societies around the world the absence of a male issue has been regarded
a serious social aberration. Alternatives have been worked out to surmount the prob-
lem. Early Indian literature apprises us of one such option; niyoga or levirate wherein
a widow or the wife of an impotent man was temporarily made to cohabit with a
designated man in order to procure a son who would be regarded as the son of his
mother’s legal husband. It clearly came within the fold of apaddharam or the law of
exigency, something that could be resorted to only in the time of emergency. There
seems to be a divergence of views in the narrative tradition and normative [shastriya]
literature on the issue of its genesis and purpose. But what comes out clearly is that
niyoga was hailed as a ‘strategy of heirship’.
  The article intends to look at the trajectory of the practice in ancient and early
medieval India from the vantage of principal female actors. A host of queries would be
taken up. It would be worth dwelling upon the issue of its sustainability and popular-
ity; whether the practice of niyoga was designed to benefit a particular section of the
society or was meant for larger social good. Did the practice of niyoga bring women
some solace or turned out to be an exploitative way of controlling their sexuality? Did
the woman have the right to reject it or enter in out of their volition? How did men
negotiate this practice? Did it bruise their masculinity or repair, at least in some cases?
Did the practice also have caste and class angles to it? Can we detect divergence in the
views of Brahman theoreticians and members of other castes such as kshatriyas for
whom its practical application amounted to a survival tactic? Who eventually stood
to gain from the practice and its eventual fading away? What was the legal and social
status of the daughter born of such unions? We shall take up these issues for analysis
in the article.

*This article is a part of the research project titled, Niyoga: Commissioned Procreation and Sexual Regulation
in Early India [A Socio-Historical Study in North India between 1500 BCE and 700 CE] funded by the
ICHR. The responsibility of facts stated or opinion expressed is entirely of the author and not of the ICHR.

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164 Smita Sahgal

Phrase- strategy of heirship, apaddharma, masculinity, ksetraja, sexuality, beneficiaries

Ancient societies around the world were known to be obsessed with the procreation of
male child. In any patriarchal set-up sons are looked upon as promoters of lineage,
inheritors of property (especially land) and performers of ancestral rites. The absence
of a male issue was regarded a serious aberration in ancient societies including early
India and alternatives were worked out to surmount the problem. Niyoga or levirate
was one such option wherein a widow or the wife of an impotent man was temporarily
made to cohabit with a designated man in order to procure a son who would be regarded
as the son of his mother’s legal husband. It clearly came within the fold of āpaddharma
or the law of exigency, something that could be resorted to only in the time of emer-
gency. P.V. Kane has defined niyoga as the ‘appointment of a wife or a widow to pro-
create a son from the intercourse of with an appointed male’.1 Ancient Indian literature
has given numerous clues to the existence of this practice. There seems to be a diver-
gence of views in the narrative tradition and normative (śāstrīya) literature on the issue
of its genesis and purpose. But what comes out clearly is that niyoga was hailed as a
‘strategy of heirship’.2
The article intends looking at the practice of niyoga or commissioned procreation
and its social and legal implications for all principal participants and products which
include the sonless widow/wife, her husband, the man designated to reproduce as well
as the son produced (and even the daughter) of the niyoga arrangement, primarily in
ancient and early medieval India. However, the article would also comment on its con-
tinuation in the contemporary world. The idea is to explore the normative dimensions
of the practice, its genesis, consolidation and eventual marginalisation. The vantage
chosen is largely gendered even as the issues of caste and class would surface. Our
point of enquiry is whether this kind of practice, legalised in the dharmasūtras, ever
took a woman’s and other participants’ point of view into its reckoning. Did it bring
them some solace or turn out to be an exploitative way of controlling their sexuality?
Did the woman have the right to reject it? Did the practice also have caste and class
angles to it? How did men of upper and lower castes view the practice? Who eventu-
ally stood to benefit from the practice and its eventual fading away? Does the practice
continue in oblique way even today? These issues shall be taken up for analysis in this
Before analysing the issue it may be essential to state our sources on a relative time
line and identify the locale. The setting is broadly north India with an emphasis on the
Ganga belt. The focus of the study is on the chronological span between 1500 BCE and
700 CE. References to the continuation of the practice in medieval times and contemporary

Kane, ed., History of Dharmasāstras, Vol. II, chapter XIII, p. 599.
The term has been borrowed from Jack Goody’s Production and Reproduction, who has shown that poly-
andry, polygyny, adoption and concubinage are among some of the ‘strategies of heirship’ in the ancient and
modern societies of Eurasia and Africa.

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Exploring the Beneficiaries 165

India may become essential to highlight certain issues. The material for examining the
issue is sourced for the most part from Sanskrit/Brahmanical texts. The earliest text
Ṛksaт̣hitā and later Vedic texts, such as, Aiteryabrāhmaṇa, Pancaviṃsabrāhmaṇa,
Taittīryasamhitā and Bṛhadāranyaka Upanishad, cover a rough span from 1500 BCE
to sixth century BCE and contain allusions to alternative sexuality. The post Vedic texts
that include the gṛhiya sūtras, such as, those of Āpastambha and Parāsara, Śrautasutra
of Āsvalayana and Śankhāyana and the dharmasūtras of Āpastambha, Vasisṭ ha, ̣
Gautama and Baudhāyana provide prescriptive data on Brahmanical socio-sexual
norms from about sixth century to the end of the first millennium BCE. Folklores and
epics mention levirate, especially the Mahābhārata, which can be traced back to the
later Vedic and post Vedic times, although the Brahamanisation of the texts and formal
redaction can be dated to a period between fourth and sixth centuries CE. References
to practices akin to niyoga can be sought in the early Purāṇas, such as, the Vāyu,
Brahmānada and Matsya. None of these texts can be dated before the fourth century CE
and their composition span may stretch for a couple of centuries. The dharmāsastriya
literature of around the same period starting from Manusmṛti (second century BCE to
third century CE) to Yajnavalkya, Bṛhaspati and Nārada smṛtis also provide us with
the normative views on sexuality of which niyoga formed a part. The last two are of
special significance because these were almost legal digest and begin reflecting the
perspective of the state on various issues. Even though the practice became rare from
the Gupta to post Gupta periods (fourth to seventh centuries), references to it cropped
up in the early medieval commentaries on smṛtis, such as, those of Medhātithi’s
Manubhāṣya and Vijnānesvara (Mitāksara), and Visvarūpa and Aparārka’s commen-
taries on Yajnavalkya smṛti (ninth to thirteenth centuries). Haradatta’s commentary on
Āpastamba Dharmasūtra and Śrautasutra that belong to around sixteenth century also
gives us an idea of the contemporary opinion on niyoga. The various versions of the
Mahābhārata as well as commentaries on it, such as Nilakant ha’s ̣ Bhārata Bhāvdeep, a
seventeenth century vulgate of the Mahābhārata, also have stray references on niyoga.
Bālambhatti’s commentary on Mitākṣara also gives us a clue of how the practice was
viewed by eighteenth century scholars. The text is of special importance for us because
it has been attributed to a woman Lakmidevi and may give us an alternative point of
view. However, it must be acknowledged that many scholars view it to be a work of a
man. Apart from these, hints of the institution of levirate come from Jain and Buddhist
sources, such as, Vinayapit ̣aka and the Jātakas and Āvasyakacūrni.
As mentioned earlier niyoga was a method employed by childless men to secure
sons. The method or strategy had a legal and social sanction with the details of the
procedure often being delineated in the texts or followed as a method of tradition.
Levirate union has also been defined as a form of non-marriage invented in order to
accomplish the most important goal of marriage: the birth of the son.3 Let us explore
the different strategies of heirship that existed in early India and locate the practice of
niyoga therein.

Doniger, ‘From the Margins of Hindu Marriage’, p. 173.

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166 Smita Sahgal

Strategies of Heirship
In vertical systems of transmission, heirs are deliberately sought after; not just as gen-
eral recruits to the lineage system, clan or tribe, but as specific heirs that individuals
require to secure their own particular line by acquiring descendants preferably of their
own flesh and blood.4 The issue of security is multidimensional. There is a very funda-
mental need to secure one’s old age, the time when an individual can no longer support
himself/herself in his/her post productive phase of life. This must have been acutely
clear to the populace of the ancient culture who were subjected to frequent fluctuations
of economic milieu. Progeny/kin would constitute an important part of one’s capital or
savings. Then there is also the concern for making provision for continuity of family
estate, however, large or small. And related to this is the security not just for old age,
but, for afterlife, the continuity of one’s name, one’s memory or even one’s religious
All around the world having one’s own child through a socially recognised marital
arrangement was the most preferred method of ensuring heirs. However, if this failed,
alternative strategies of heirship were evolved in different cultures. Polygamy, a sys-
tem of plural marriage, was acknowledged as the most common way of resolving the
problem of the absence of heirs. In androcentric societies it would be assumed that
the inability to produce children/heir was largely the fault of the woman in the hetero-
sexual relationship and that the problem could be sorted out with the man marrying
again. In such an arrangement the first wife retained her status as still the ritual partner
to her husband but certainly felt threatened by the coming of subsequent wives who
could be the potential mothers of the heirs. The subsequent wives may be acquired for
political considerations (largely in a royal set-up) or for ensuring the birth of heirs.
Ancient Sanskrit texts are replete with narratives that cite numerous cases of polygamy
and progeny born thereof. The bias in the normative and legal literature is clearly in the
favour of aurasa (a son born of one’s own semen) and of one’s own caste (savarṇa).
However, sons born of wives of different castes are also given certain kinds of inheri-
tance rights. Polygamy did not envisage the divorce of the first/other wives and hence
the addition of new wives also implied the existence of a prosperous set-up. It is not
surprising, therefore, that among the resource constrained households or among lower
classes polygamy was not the best suited option and there would be attempts to locate
alternative forms of securing heirship, if their monogamous relationship failed to pro-
duce an heir.
Polyandry was one such device. Apart from the very famous case of Draupadi mar-
rying Pāṇd ̣avas in the Mahābhārata we do come across some other cases of poly-
andry in the ancient texts.5 An analysis of the passages relating to the practice in the
Mahābhārata reveals that Draupadi was neither appalled nor outraged by the prospect

Goody, Production and Reproduction, p. 87.
In the Ṛksaṃhita, Suryā, chooses Aśvins as her husbands, X.39.11, Vasis. tha was born of Urvaśī, the celes-
tial nymph, and the fathers were Mitra and Varun.a, VII.33.11. Matsya Purān. a has the reference of Marisha,
the daughter of Chandramā, who married the ten Prachetas and gave birth to Prajāpati Daks. a, IV.46-49.

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Exploring the Beneficiaries 167

of polyandry because she was familiar with the institution of fraternal polyandry.
However, this practice was not a favoured strategy to acquire heirs as in societies where
patriarchy was getting consolidated with time multiple sexuality of women became dif-
ficult to reconcile with. In that it shared its fate with niyoga.
Adoption was yet another way of ensuring one’s succession. The ideal was to adopt
an heir from close agnates. In ancient societies of India, Greece and Rome adoption
had little to do with incorporation of strangers. The adoptive relation often fell within
the descent group and indicated the narrow range of property rights in the full sense.
The adopted son was often the paternal nephew who had no automatic right of inheri-
tance (though he may have a residual one) unless he was formally adopted. When this
happened, he inherited from his uncle, continued his lineage and performed ancestral
rites. The dharmaśāstric literature did acknowledge the existence of an adopted son
and granted him some inheritance right. Baudhāyana informs us, ‘he [is called] an
adopted son [dattaka] who, being given by his father and his mother, or by either of
the two, is received in place of a child’.6 However, the debate on the issue of adoption
remained complicated. Not everyone accepted it as the best alternative. Manu forbids
the adopted son to participate in the ancestral rites of his natural father or stake a claim
in the inheritance of his natural father.7
The ancient Indian tradition had another unique strategy of heirship; the appoint-
ment of a daughter to reproduce a son to continue the lineage of her father. This nor-
mally happened when a man could not produce a son of his own and sought to appoint
his daughter to provide a son who would perform ancestral rites for him, carry on
his lineage and inherit his property. The appointed daughter was called a putrikā, the
appointed grandson, putrikāputra. Baudhāyana is emphatic that the agreement should
be properly made and well known.8 Manu declares that, ‘there is no difference between
the son’s son and that of a daughter for the latter could also save him in the world
beyond, just like a son’s son.9 He goes on to say that a son is just like oneself and a
daughter is equal to son. How can someone take the father’s property when she stands
for his self?’10 Interestingly if a son was born to the man after the appointment of the
daughter, the putrikāputra would still have an equal stake in his grandfather’s property.11
Even as a daughter has been apparently given the same status as the son, the fact
remained that she could neither inherit land nor perform ancestral rites. However, her
son could do both once appointed by his grandfather.
Where do we place niyoga among a range of such strategies of heirship? A study
of available textual material indicates that it was a well debated issue both within the
context of folklore traditions as well as among the custodians of the society. The social
relevance of the practice is shown by placing the progeny born of such unions’ right

Baudhāyana Dharmasūtra, II.2.3.20.
Manu, IX.142.
Baudhāyana Dharmasūtra, II.2.3.15.
Ibid., IX.139.
Manu, IX. 130.
Ibid., IX.134.

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168 Smita Sahgal

after the natural progeny/heir in the normative and legal texts.12 Clearly the arrange-
ment emanated from the need to procreate within a specified context, the context of
an issueless (sonless to be specific) marriage. Marriage was designated as one of the
highest goals of social existence for a woman and the Brahmanical law makers also
deemed a household (gṛhastha) existence crucial to a man (especially a Brahman). But
all marriages might not have culminated in the birth of a son and niyoga was advised
as an alternative.

Principal Participants in the Practice

According to the practice the wife or widow13 of the (impotent or dead) man, referred
to as kṣetrin, would be asked to cohabit with a man, the bījin, from within the family
or a kinsman appointed by the family. The wife ‘appointed’ for niyoga was desig-
nated as his kṣetra. The son or kṣetraja, produced in the kṣetra, would be called the
progeny of the husband, the kṣetrin, and would perform ancestral rites for him, apart
from inheriting his property. The biological father, the bījin or the niyogin, generally
did not have any legal rights on him but later smṛtikars allocated him some privi-
leges. The daughter, niyogōtapanna, born of such unions is also referred to, though
very rarely. The sexuality of the woman here was determined not just by the procre-
ative status of her husband but also her own reproductive capacity. Only a young
woman, not having produced sons and capable of producing some would be asked to
enter into a niyoga alliance. In the days of uncertain healthy births, there would be a
preoccupation with utilising the procreative capacity of all eligible women. In the
material environment of unsure food supply, extra hands would be welcomed to con-
tribute to productive activities. These may account for some of the reasons to encour-
age alliances outside marriage but within strict specification. We are referring to a
social formation marked by tribal pastoralism and early agriculture that evolved its
own set of moral behaviour and social codes.

Locating the Social Formation of Niyoga and Assessing

its Rationale for the Participants
Niyoga as an institution cannot be homogenised as a singular tradition followed in a
particular way through the length and breadth of the country and over time and space.
It was primarily institutionalised in societies of pastoralists and early farmers. The term
received its formalisation much later but practices akin to it could be cited right from
the days of the social set-up reflected in the Ṛksaṃhita. Additionally the societies were
likely to be patriarchal, patrilocal and patrilineal where inheritance would be through a
woman’s husband’s line. Some of the groups practicing niyoga also followed the tradi-
tion of acquiring the wife through the payment of a bride price (śulka), something that
Manusmr. ti, IX. 166–171.
The second connotation of the word is revealing: ‘widow’ may also designate the wife of an impotent man.
Cf. O Flaherty, Sexual Metaphors and Animal Symbols in Indian Mythology, p. 276.

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Exploring the Beneficiaries 169

was recognised by Manu as well. The wife in such a social set-up would be integrated
within the husband’s family to the extent that she would not be welcomed in her natal
group on her husband’s death or in case of a separation. There was hardly any scope of
her inheriting property at that end. In a sense then niyoga acknowledged the investment
made by the husband’s family in acquiring the bride and also their right on her fertility
and labour in case the husband died without leaving an heir or turned out to be impo-
tent. Cultures that followed the practice tended to be exogamous; marriage within the
clan or group was discouraged or even forbidden as this precluded the possibility of the
man’s sister-in-law turning out to be a blood relative. Niyoga would have been prac-
ticed in both monogamous and polygynous societies.
Niyoga, by and large, had its relevance in resource constrained milieu where each
hand, each womb, each life would be seen as contributing to the sustenance of the
individual, family and society at large. Religious rationale was also applied to vali-
date the practice. Sons rescue their forefathers from hell by performing the śrāddha
ceremonies in which ancestors were ritually remembered and maintained by means of
pinḍa offerings. One of the most vivid demands exerted by one’s ancestors upon one’s
procreative life is depicted in the story of the ascetic Jaratkaru who, in his wanderings,
came upon his own ancestors hanging upside down in a cave, languishing because of
his becoming a childless ascetic. ‘Son, strive diligently, for the continuation of fam-
ily, for your own sake and our sake. This is the law…. Put your efforts into marriage
and your thoughts into offspring…you are our last hope.’14 If having son was a way to
redeem the manes then the validity of niyoga becomes quite comprehensible. Pāṇd ̣u,
the father of the Pāṇd ̣avas in the Mahābhārata, too faced the dilemma when he was
told that the gates of heaven were closed to him who did not have any progeny. In fact,
this added compulsion distinguishes niyoga from levirate practices in other ancient
societies especially in Jewish levirate.

Trajectory of the Practice through the Canvas of Time

It is best understood as a practice which not only shared its points of commonality with
many similar cultures but also shaped up differently in accordance with perceived
requirements of a particular society. By and large niyoga has its genesis in pastoral
cultures or those which followed simple agriculture. It consolidated where the popula-
tion was unstable and land became an item of hereditary transmission. With passage of
time even as its immediate relevance reduced in fully developed agrarian and urban
set-up, it continued to stay in their historical memory to be invoked whenever required.
The societies practicing niyoga were largely patrilineal, patrilocal and patriarchal but
the levels of patriarchal hold certainly varied. Sons were preferred over daughters and
in most of the societies the daughters did not have inheritance rights especially in land.
The practice can be located in caste framework as well as with almost all castes pursu-
ing it at some or other level and at some point in historical trajectory. Yet there were
disparities that can be located on temporal, spatial and cultural canvases.
Mahābhārata, I.13.20-22.

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170 Smita Sahgal

The study of early India has been constrained by the lack of reconstruction material.
For the ‘early Vedic Period’, we rely on the Ṛksaṃhita and we clearly get the sense of
the practice being followed here. The practice, not formalised as the niyoga, had certain
specificities. It was contoured in the pastoralist society of northwestern region of the
subcontinent. The society appears to be tribal where the fissures on the lines of lineages
and patriarchy had begun surfacing. The niyoga alliances were largely impermanent
though towards the end of the text compilation references to more permanent relation-
ships also appear. Interestingly, gods frequently appeared as temporary mates coming
to the rescue of men and women for a precise and short-term exercise. Aśvins were
the most sought-after mates who assisted Pumitra and Vadhrimti get sons.15 Similarly
Indra and Varuṇa come to the aid of Purukutsa’s wife in getting son Tras ̣dasyu through
niyoga.16 The godly reference can be rationalised; it attempts to disguise the identity of
the human niyogin, and grants a divine stamp to the product of the unions. Inheritance
laws did not figure in the early Vedic myths alluding to the practice as land had still not
become a crucial item of transference. However, most of the references are from the
royal families and, therefore, we can assume that succession and lineage perpetuation
seemed to have been the primary rationale behind these unions.
The later Vedic texts do not abound in allusions to niyoga or practices akin to it.
However, from the tenth manḍala of Ṛksaṃhita (X.102) we get a reference to a myth
wherein possibly a bull (or a bull-like man) surrogated for the weak sage Mudgala and
helped him win the cattle race and also grant his wife, the Mudgalani, a child. There
are scholars who clearly see in it a niyoga myth possibly recounted on an occasion of
performance of a related niyoga ritual. If the theory is accepted then we clearly get an
idea of a society where commissioned procreation on the lines of niyoga was being
ritually practiced.
The verses X.18.8 and X.40.2 of the Ṛksaṃhita reflect a relationship between the
widow and her brother-in-law. The tenth manḍala is considered to be a later Vedic
addition to the main text. The surrogate here is not a divine being but the devara/
didhiṣu or the brother-in-law and the relationship does not appear to be temporary. The
funeral verses of Atharvaveda (XIV.2.17), like those of the Ṛksaṃhita, also give a clear
sense of a widow entering into a stable relationship with the didhiṣu. We are still not
clear from the above-mentioned verses whether the brother sired children in the name
of dead brother or not. However, it does become clear that in the patriarchal milieu of
the later Vedic texts, a widow was considered a form of property by the dead man’s
family and her womb and labour would have been pragmatically utilised by his family
members. There is, however, another possibility at work. The arrangement could be a
welfare measure for a widow. This was a strong argument in the ancient Judaism for
following the practice of levirate. We may not get evidence in subsequent periods in
support of the argument; its possibility in the early and later Vedic periods cannot be
completely ruled out. This kind of relationship may have anticipated a clearly charted

Ṛksaṃhita, I.111.19, I.117.20 and X.39.7.
Ibid., IV.42.8-9.

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Exploring the Beneficiaries 171

out normative relationship between the widow/wife of impotent man and her brothers-
in-law as delineated in the dharmasūtras of the ‘post Vedic period’. Even as other
later Vedic texts are reticent on the issue, we get a sense of the practice getting more
pervasive in the later Vedic phase (roughly between 1000 BCE and 500 BCE) from the
narrative traditions of the epics especially the Mahābhārata.
The kernel of the story certainly belongs to the later Vedic period and its first text
the Ādi Parva abounds in references to niyoga like relationships. The social milieu is
still largely pastoral and that of early agriculture, but a significant change has occurred
in the political formations. Janapadas and raṣtras based on territory had begun emerg-
ing and with it the issue of land transmission and succession to the throne had acquired
new dimensions. A successor was crucial to continuation of lineage who would inherit
land and title. Caste society was in full swing at least in the Yamuna–Ganga Doab
where the main war was apparently fought and the Middle Ganga basin where the story
would be eventually redacted. Among the Rajanyas/Kshatriyas succession is extremely
relevant, so Satyavati first made the request to Bhīs ̣ma to give up his vow of celibacy
and enter into alliance with her daughters-in-law to reproduce an heir for the throne.
She specifically appealed to the concept of āpaddharma (Law of Distress) and urged
him, in the capacity of the brother of the deceased, ‘to beget children on his wives so
that the line may continue’.17 She was clearly invoking the instrument of niyoga as
might have been current in those times and accordingly chose the known brother-in-
law as the first surrogate. But Bhīs ̣ma did not relent. He refused to give up the vow of
celibacy for which she herself had been responsible.18 Satyavati had to finally see the
reason from Bhīs ̣ma’s perspective. Convinced by his arguments, she finally confided in
him of a son that she bore with sage Parāsara before marriage. ‘He is a truth teller, an
ascetic devoted to quietude whose sins are burnt away. If he is commissioned by me,
and if you speak to him, he will beget excellent children in the fields of your brother.
For with your consent, Bhīs ̣ma, the great ascetic will surely sow sons in the fields of
Vicitravīrya.’19 Veda Vyāsa conceded though reluctantly. He demurred that princesses
should first observe a yearlong vow of self purification.20 Urged to be practical about
the pressing situation, he acquiesced to his mother’s request though he warned her that
his ugly and smelly being needed to be endured by her daughter-in-law.21 Satyavati was
more worried about her duty towards the lineage than such a possible problem. Having
commissioned her son as the bījin, she attempted to convince her elder daughter-in-law

Mahābhārata, I.97.10-24.
Some scholars, such as Holtzmann and Winternitz, are inclined to believe that Bhīs. ma did enter into rela-
tionship with Vichitravirya’s widows and the children born were actually his own. The decline to Satyavati’s
offer is a later interpolation. Holtzmann refers to a passage in Bhīs. ma Parva (VI.108) where Arjuna says,
‘How shall I fight in battle with my grandsire?...When as a child I used to climb unto his lap, and I would say
“father dear” to the father of my father Pān. d.u, and he would say to me, “I am not thy father, I am thy father’s
father…”’ For further details, see Winternitz, ‘Notes on the Mahabharata, with Special Reference to
Dahlman’s Mahābhārata’.
Mahābhārata, I.99.8-16.
Ibid., I.99.38-39.
Ibid., 1.99.42-43.

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172 Smita Sahgal

Ambikā to have a sexual union with a man appointed by the elders to procure the son,
‘Restore once more the doomed dynasty of Bhārata! Give birth to a son whose splendor
will equal that of the kings of gods.’22 The two princess hoping to cohabit with Bhīs ̣ma
were repulsed at the sight of Veda Vyāsa and the result was a blind son (Dhritarāstra)
and a weakling (Pāṇḍu) were born, almost out of a curse of Veda Vyāsa.
Pāṇḍu too made the request to his wife Kuntī to cohabit with a good Brahman and
save Pāṇḍu himself. However, he did not cite territorial succession as the main reason;
it was a spiritual factor that spun him into action. The doors of heaven were closed
to a man without sons.23 He cited numerous niyoga like cases to support his argu-
ment which shall be discussed subsequently. From these stories and from Pāṇḍu’s own
reasoning, a new scope to niyoga arrangement is added; the possibility of Brahmans
working as niyoga mates and the inclusion of niyoga logic within the framework of
dharma or duty of a householder. Simultaneously, the framework of niyoga became
more patriarchal as the stri dharma code of Śvetaketu made niyoga mandatory for
women if their husbands or family members deemed it so.24
The Mahābhārata gives us information on a range of niyoga unions. When Pāṇḍu
wanted his wife to cohabit with a good Brahman, she chose gods and interestingly the
sons were aware of who their genitors were. Uddālaka’s wife mated with a Brahman
to beget his son Śvetaketu.25 We also have example of Brahman woman cohabiting
a Candāla to produce a son, Matanga, to be accepted by his legal Brahman father.26
Kalmās ̣apāda Saudas sent his wife Madyantī to his teacher Vasis ̣tha ̣ to beget a prog-
eny.27 Puranic stories inform us that he was a very unwilling ks ̣etrin who felt victim-
ised by circumstances. Śāradaṇd ̣āyanī was asked by her husband to chose a perfect
Brahman husband and beget sons for him. This kind of niyoga seemed to be remote
controlled where the husband gives a broad format of sexual union to be formalised
but does not choose a mate himself. We also get information of an odd kind of niyoga
of the queen Bhadra Kaksivatī. She did not get pregnant when her husband Vyus ̣itāśva
was alive but had sons from him when he died.28 It appears to be a case of niyoga
where the identity of real genitor was deliberately hidden to highlight the devotion of
wife to a husband in a typical patriarchal set-up. Another story of the Mahābhārata
that gives us a scheme for a strange niyoga like relation is the story of Mādhavī where
a daughter driven by her duty towards the father and his subjects reproduces four sons
for four men out of short-term sexual relations.29 One wonders if we can take it as a
variation within niyoga; an ‘alternative niyoga’ wherein the niyogin was not a man and
the woman’s womb did not belong to one man, her husband. It did not fall within strict

Ibid., 1.99-46-47.
Ibid., I.111.10-35.
Ibid., 1.113.10.
Ibid., XII.35.22.
Ibid., XII.27-29.
Ibid., 1.113.10-30.
Ibid., I.112.15-30.
Ibid., V.115 ff.

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framework of niyoga as spelt out in the smṛtis and śāstras but certainly came very close
to it in its import.
It was in the post Vedic societies reflected in the dharmasūtras that the effective
formalisation of the practice took place. Now the practice was given its formal nomen-
clature in the texts. By this time agriculture had certainly become the dominant occu-
pation at least within the rural middle Ganga belt. The socio-political milieu was also
changing; on the one hand, there was more steady food supply and relative stability
in the population growth, on the other, there was a greater need of clarifying inheri-
tance laws as transfer of land was becoming a major issue. Moreover mahajanpadas
or the territorial states had come up making this issue all the more relevant within
the royal circles. Not only was the caste system well established but this period was
also associated with the coming up of various sub-castes or jātis that became great
social identity markers. The dharmasūtras of Āpastamba, Baudhāyana, Vasis ̣tha ̣ and
Gautama began deliberating on the issue. Even the non-Brahmanical literature espe-
cially the Jātakas began alluding to it. The practice must have been already pervasive
among many sections of the society. The norm setters of the day addressed this issue
primarily for the elite/upper classes but their views would become far more spread out
subsequently. Interestingly, what comes out is a plurality of views on the issue within
the Brahmanical framework itself. The reason must be that the practice was received or
reviewed differently in different societies represented by the texts. We ascribe the texts
largely to north India up to the Vindhayas but even this is a large expanse of land and
regional variations were bound to come up.
The Gautama and Vasis ̣tha ̣ dharmasūtras30 condoned the practice and delineate the
details about its effective materialisation. The preferred surrogate was the devara or
the younger brother and the aim was stated clearly: the begetting of the son in the
absence of one due to the husband’s impotency or death. The emphasis was clearly
on a temporary alliance and on detached procreation of a healthy heir and thereafter
the resumption of old ties between the two participants. This kind of approach was
clinical and pragmatic with a deliberate undermining of emotional ramifications of
such an alliance. The Gautama Dharmasutra also took into account a variety of views
existent during the day of its compilation including those that critiqued the practice,
especially in the context of inheritance norms. The point of contention was who the son
belonged to, the legal begetter (husband of the woman) or the genitor. Simultaneously,
it took into account the fact that such practices were already in vogue and possibly took
the stand that these are best controlled after being invested with formal recognition.
Therefore, there was a stamp of Brahmanical approval to the practice even as it was
repeatedly projected as an alternative resorted to only in certain circumstances. The
normative texts do not give us a sense of women’s approach to the issue apart from stat-
ing that this arrangement could be beneficial to a woman/widow desirous of having an
offspring. The assumption is clear that the wife/widow would seek her social security
through this kind of an agreement.

Vasis ̣tha
̣ Dharmasūtra, XVII.56-65.

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174 Smita Sahgal

There were also norm setters, such as Āpastamba, who were critical of this kind of
alliance.31 The authors of this dharmasūtra forbade polyandry and condemned niyoga
in the same breath. We are told of the harsh consequences of solemnising such a union.
It is worth noting that Āpastamba does not mention ‘twelve kinds of sons’ (ks. etraja
being one of them), which are known to other smr. tis. The criticism had begun surfac-
ing from some Brahmanical quarters who would not accept a woman with multiple
sexual relations. The patriarchal checks of a set-up from where the authors hailed were
certainly more stringent. Baudhāyana Dharmasūtra provides us with a more complex
picture. While niyoga was permissible for a childless widow, with her brother-in-law,32
we are also told of the views of sage Aupajanghani that only aurasa would benefit the
husband, a ks. etraja would benefit his genitor in the other world.33 Gradually the issue
of purity of lineage began assuming importance amongst the Brahmanical groups who
debated on the issue of inheritance. It also got linked with the issue of utilisation of a
woman’s procreative and labour capacities in the new environment of relative stability
of food and labour. We need to remember that we are looking at societies where the
Brahmanical world view dominated. The Brahmanical norm setters must have been at
the crossroads most of the time as they would have had to make a compromise between
what they perceived to be correct for the society and the existent social realities. This
may explain an apparent confusion in views on the same issue.
The practice of commissioned procreation certainly continued during what we call
the Mauryan and post Mauryan periods. The Mauryan Empire was the first of its kind
in size and expanse in early India and subsumed within its ambit numerous kinds of
social set-up ranging from metropolitan Pātlipautra to many other agrarian and urban
core areas. Alongside a number of economically and socially peripheral areas dotted
the map of the Mauryan Empire. The Arthaśāstra represents the first attempt to pro-
vide the administrators with guidelines on governance and running a state. Though
attributed to a single author Kautilya, it spanned more than 500 years in its compila-
tion, from fourth century BCE to second century CE. It can be situated in the eastern
part of north India and has multiple Brahmanical authorship. It is an important text
from our perspective; its relevance lies in its giving us a sense of how the state would
have viewed the institution of niyoga. We, therefore, get an idea of not just its social
recognition but also its legal standing. The Arthaśāstra gives a clear idea of its continu-
ation but between niyoga and niveśa, the latter figures in more frequently. Niveśa, a
variation of niyoga, was permanent in nature, almost like a second marriage where the
sons were also known by the name of their genitors and called punarbhava. However,
these relationships shared a similarity with niyoga; the preferred surrogate would be
the uterine brother of the husband, patisodharyam.34 The occasion of such a union was
the physical or social death of the husband, the latter implying his leaving the home and
abandoning the wife. Kautilya suggested a waiting period of seven tīrthas (menstrual

Apastamba Dharmasutra, II.10.27.5-7.
Baudhāyana Dharmasūtra, II.4.9-10.
Ibid., II.3.33.
Arthaśāstra, III.4.38.

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cycles) to overrule the possibility of a pregnancy from the old relationship. In III.4.39
what has been interpreted as a descending order of preference is given if there are
many brothers (bhahus. u); ‘one who is proximate [in age], one who is pious, one who is
capable of maintaining her, or the youngest, if without a wife’. The niyoga in the text
was apparently a slightly different custom from niveśa/gamana but also overlapping in
its strains with the latter. It was a temporary union designed solely for the purpose of
raising heirs to property. The text mentions a niyukta (III.7.6) without the definition of
the ‘appointed man’. From our viewpoint it becomes clear that distinct types of alterna-
tive sexual unions and strategies of heirship were acknowledged by the text.
Manusmr. ti, a dharmaśāstra, of the post Mauryan period heats up the debate on
the relevance and continuation of the practice.35 This text too belongs to north India,
with its base in the Ganga belt. By the post Mauryan period significant socio-economic
changes had already permeated the north Indian landscape. Decline of Mauryas resulted
in the rise of local monarchies as well as invasion by outsiders, out of whom the
Kus.ān. as seemed to be the most noteworthy. There was agrarian expansion with new
virgin terrains coming under the plough and also growth in population. Simultaneously
there was development in long distance trade, urban expansion and greater moneti-
sation of economy. A changed socio-economic milieu implied a revision of existent
social mores. New social groups had to be recognised by the norm setters despite the
fact that the latter may have resisted their social integration. A subtle tension amongst
these groups does become evident on a closer reading of the text. Again like other
Brahmanical texts there is the issue of plurality of views on the same topic rationalised
in terms of plurality of authorship. The institution of niyoga also received multifarious
comments in the text, and at times they appear to be contradictory. So Manu in one pas-
sage accepts the practice especially in the context of a young bride acquired through a
payment of bride-price only to reject it in another and leaving it to be pursued only by
animals and people of low caste, especially the Shudras. Again in the chapter on inheri-
tance norms the practice is obliquely acknowledged as ks. etraja is given inheritance
rights, only to disallow his presence in some funerary rites elsewhere. At best Manu’s
acceptance of the practice may be acknowledged as reluctant. The text itself tries to
represent distinct and contradictory views of numerous societies it was associated with
but what becomes evident is a growing Brahmanical discontent against giving inheri-
tance rights in the property to a ks. etraja. This may have partially been because there
was steady growth in population, and from the point of view of the law setters, there
may be no need to utilise procreative faculties of widows and wives of impotent men.
Simultaneous consolidation of patriarchal mores and emphasis on purity of lineage
may have prompted them to confine the sexual life of woman to just one husband. This
appears to be a stand taken up by men of upper castes and classes, shaken up with the
possibilities of inter-caste alliances (vars. asankara). They may have begun hedging in
the practice among their castes and classes. However, the practice might have contin-
ued to be relevant for resource strained lower classes, something well recognised by
Manu himself.
Manusmr. ti, IX.59-64.

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176 Smita Sahgal

Apart from a Brahmanical view on this practice we also start getting non-Brahmanical
views from the Jātaka stories. For us this is a view that acquires its weight from the
fact that Jātakas represent a popular outlook not easily skimmed through Brahmanical
traditions. Once again, the word niyoga is not used; in fact we don’t even get a sense
of it being a regular practice. In Suruci Jātaka36 this practice is obliquely mentioned
or rather resorted to in dire circumstances, when the king’s numerous wives fail to
reproduce. Finally, the chief queen prays for ‘divine intervention’, as happens in the
Vedic stories, and the couple was blessed with a progeny. The story is significant from
a number of vantages. It shows that ‘divine intervention’ mechanism was resorted to
by many communities especially if it were the crucial issue of political succession.
Secondly, in this case niyoga was followed only when the alternative of polygyny
failed. His numerous wives failed to reproduce. The king’s impotence became too evi-
dent for anybody to ignore and yet it was never made explicit. The suffering was borne
by the chief queen and other wives who took it as their fate. Only towards the end of
the story niyoga was resorted to in the name of public good; when the subjects of the
king demanded the lineage of the ruler be perpetuated. Once again it becomes clear
that the mechanism of niyoga was rooted in a patriarchal system, whether we look at
Buddhist tradition or Brahmanical. The Buddhist Jātakas also recognised a variety in
niyoga arrangements. It was not just divine intervention that was sought, at times a
levirate agreement where the brother-in-law takes charge of a widowed sister-in-law
was also acceptable, as can be seen from the story of Khandahalajātaka.37 A daughter-
in-law was discouraged to choose death (sati) on husband’s death as there were many
brothers-in-law to look after her.
The Gupta and post-Gupta societies of north India saw a Brahmanical constriction
on niyoga. The period can be described as one which witnessed a gradual decline in
long distance trade and monetisation of economy but a simultaneous enhancement
of the area under plough as many land grants were being made to Brahmans and
sāmantas. There were invasions by outsiders, many of whom actually settled down
within the Indian subcontinent. The result, from the sociological perspective, was a
simultaneous assimilation of new groups as well as a strong resistance from them.
Codification of laws became a prerequisite to effective administration and dispensation
of justice. Niyoga, too, needed to be reviewed in the new circumstances. The smr. tis of
the period were less ambivalent in their attitude towards the institution. A study of the
Br. haspatismr. ti38 and Nāradasmr. ti39 is useful in understanding Brahmanical attitudes
towards the practice. What became manifest was that the issue of niyoga moved
out of the domain of mere social norms meant for guidance to concrete laws used
by the state courts to dispense justice. And here we find the authors of the Br. haspatismr. ti

Cowell, ed., The Jātakas, pp. 198–205.
Ibid., Vol. VI., no. 542, reprint Indian edition, Delhi, pp. 68–80.
Br. haspati smr. ti, Julius Jolly trans and ed., The Minor Law Books, part 1, Nāradasmr. ti and Br. haspati smr. ti
Sacred Books of the East, Vo. 33, chapters 24–25.
Nāradasmr. ti, Julius Jolly trans and ed., The Minor Law Books, part 1, Nāradasmr. ti and Br. haspati smr. ti,
Sacred Books of the East, Vo. 33, chapter 12.

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critiquing the practice in no uncertain terms. The text recognises its value at one point
in time when wise people knew how to use it judiciously but with onset of kaliyuga, the
dark times, when people have got misguided, the authors proscribe it for the fear of its
getting abused. The smr. tikaras effectively utilise Manusmr. ti’s ambivalent position to
bolster their own case of prescribing a ban on the practice. Kaliyuga was a reference to
a time when the property, family of the upper classes and the Varna system valued by
them was under heavy attack. This was an age of territorial and social expansion. New
vanquished tribes were assimilated within the Brahmanical framework and often it was
done against their wish. New sub-castes emerged both amongst upper and lower castes.
This was also the time when a lot of migration of Brahmanical groups (Brahmans and
sāmantas) happened as pieces of lands were being donated to them.
Issues related to inheritance especially of landed property became more complex
and required revisiting. The Brahmanical societies of the Gupta and post Gupta periods
possibly took a conservative stand on property matters. In lean times when their prop-
erty was anyway under attack from certain quarters they would not want to share it with
adopted sons (dattaka) or those born out of niyoga unions. Such unions may have been
considered redundant by some law setters of the day. They may have advocated a legal
proscription and yet the practice may have actually continued. Therefore, a degree of
contradiction is evident in their work. A strong opponent of niyoga, Br. haspati, in real-
ity made some provision for a ks. etraja in his legal treatise.
The Nāradasmr. ti, another law book, of the period paralleled the Manusmr. ti in its
description of niyoga but was not as harsh in administering its utilisation only for the
lower classes. The spirit of the authors of this treatise is quite pragmatic. Even as they
sought to contain it and might have had some genuine reservations from their perspec-
tive, they decided to grant legitimacy to an institution that was still in vogue. However,
there was a simultaneous attempt at constricting the sexual autonomy of a woman. The
text goes on to suggest that a woman who after death of her husband rejects her brother-
in-law and establishes relations with a stranger should be called wanton (svairiṇi).40
This implied that niyoga, a practice regulated by husband’s family, was acceptable; the
problem came up when the woman decided to take an independent stand. A study of
Nāradasmr. ti makes it clear that the smr. tikaras of the day were certainly obsessed with
the issue of reproduction and inheritance laws. No wonder we have sections on how to
measure a man’s potency, prescription of remedies for an impotent man and details on
the types of sons recognised by law.
Bhāsa’s play Dūtavākyam can at best be ascribed to early Gupta period. In this play
Duryodhana insults the Pān. d.avas as sons born out of niyoga and hence not worthy of
being shared property with.41 The issue is a complex one for his own father was also
a product of the same alliance and by logic then his own lineage was not above board.
A student of early Indian history is concerned with the fact that this question became
a part of a famous play. It implied that it was being discussed in the public domain
and was not merely confined to political or academic circles of a few Brahmans and
Nāradasmr. ti, XII.50.
Shastri, ed., Trivendram Dramas of Bhasa, V.21.

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178 Smita Sahgal

Kshatriyas. The writer, actors and audience all participated in the discussion of the
issue once raised through enacting of the play. Duryodhana’s derisive comment may
actually reflect an attempted marginalisation of the practice even as its occurrence was
A study of early Puranic literature helps us to gauge how the institution of niyoga was
being received during this period. As mentioned earlier the Purān. as were extremely
reticent in usage of the term niyoga even as they described the practice in their myths
quite often. The earliest of the Purān. as, the Mārkand. eya,42 does give us a strange story
of a king who finally got a ks. etraja after his wife, who had converted into a doe, was
impregnated by a sage in her animal birth. The myth is a strange one and it alludes to
an odd kind of niyoga arrangement where the reproduction of a ks. etraja materialises
in the second birth of the queen and that too in an animal form. The progeny, however,
was human and extremely wise and brought about the redemption of his legal father.
The point reiterated was that birth of a son was an extremely essential for a man and
that a ks. etraja would do in the absence of an aurasa. Another message was clear; even
though niyoga had to be contained, it could be resorted to during emergencies. The
Purān. a would overlap with the early Gupta period. Its locale was the Vindhaya region
and Madhyadesha (present day Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh).
The Vāyu Purān. a,43 Brahmān. d. a Purān. a44 and Matsya Purān. a 45 give us magnified
details of Dīrghatamas’s story that had already figured in the Mahābhārata and describe
the relationship between the sage and queen Sudes. na within the framework of niyoga
without using the term even once. The fact that the story was in circulation implied its
attractiveness for the populace as these stories/myths were for their consumption. In
all probability these were recounted to the masses on certain occasions. Dīrghatamas–
Sudes. na’s story is relevant from another angle. It tells us of niyoga arrangements where
duplicity was involved. Sudes. na, like Ambikā of the Mahābhārata, did not want to
mate with a blind, old sage and initially sent in her maid. However, on discovery of
the deceit she was forced to mate with him. It may give us an idea of the fact that the
women of the day may have attempted to change the complexion of commissioned
procreation and that each of such alliances may have something unique about it.
Similarly, Visnupurān. a has many tales with niyoga as the theme and gives us a
sense of the practice being commonplace.46 The Bhagvatapurān. a takes up the issue
of the paternity of the ks. etraja.47 However, the Garudapurān. a is against the practice
of a woman entering into a levirate relationship with the brother-in-law.48 The only

Pargiter, trans., Mārkandey Purān. a, Canto LXXIV.
Vāyu Purān. a, trans. by G.V. Tagare, under G.P. Bhatt, ed., Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology, Vols
37–38, Delhi, 1988.
Brahmān. d. a Purān. a, trans by G.V. Tagare, under J.L. Shastri, ed., Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology,
Vols 22–26, Delhi, 1984, 2.3.74. 54-55.
Matsya Purān. a, ed. and trans. by Taluqdar of Oudh, Sacred Books of the Hindus, 2 vols. Allahabad,
1916–17, reprinted New Delhi, 1980.48.-50.
Wilson, trans., Vis. n.u Purān. a, IV.4.1-7, Vol. II, pp. 537–38.
IX.14.9-12. Bhagvatapurān. a, with commentary of Sridhara, Pandit Pustakalaya, Calcutta, 1972.
I.105.42, cited in Altekar, The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization, p. 147.

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Purān. a that actually speaks of the niyoga in some detail is the Agnipurān. a, wherein
a ks. etraja is officially recognised as a successor and partaker of the inheritance.49 The
interesting twist here is that the man without sons need not ask his wife to cohabit
with another man, but would himself cohabit with another man’s wife to claim the
son. Who was the niyogin in this case? Are we not talking in terms of ‘alternative
niyoga’? Once again it becomes clear that there did not have to be a singular type
of niyoga alliance. There must have been variations and these would suit different
cultures and different circumstances. This kind of alliance may be for those couple
who were possibly not getting a son even as their marriage yielded daughters. The
society would have held the wife responsible for this and may have then prompted
the man to have a temporary alliance with a woman who possibly had sons by her
marriage. This also implied that the concept of absolute right on the ks. etra could also
be interpreted in another way; the right of the husband to give away the ks. etraja to
the real genitor.
Among the non-Brahmanical societies, those practicing Jain tradition also seem
to be aware of niyoga. The term may not have been in circulation but the use of this
alternate procreative strategy was known, practiced some times and critiqued at others.
One is analysing Jain references now as their codified canon literature (Śvetāmbara)
became available around this period even as it cannot be denied that many references
would have been of a prior period. Jain tradition is also significant for other reasons; it
was largely rooted in urban areas and gave an insight into traditions that may actually
oppose Brahmanical thinking. However, it becomes evident that like the Brahmans
even Jain mendicants could play the role of stud bulls and hence there were injunc-
tions against their staying anywhere close to ‘women….food and drink’. From early
medieval text of Āvaśyaka Cūrṇi, we get a direct of a mother-in-law prompting her
widowed daughters-in-law to enter into a niyoga like relation with a man she claimed
was her dead son’s brother.50 Interestingly none of the widows objected and there was
no social critiquing of the practice which allowed the four widows to have children
from such an association.
The story does give us an idea of the continuation of the practice at the popular level
but we also get a sense of clear discomfort with the practice in Jinasena’s Harivaṃsa,
a text of twelfth century CE. Here the author in his section on the Mahābhārata had
expunged niyoga births of Vicitravīrya’s sons and he did not mention Draupadi’s poly-
andry either. Is it possible that the institution of niyoga was not condoned by those who
were deemed to comment on society or some norms? The practice might have still
continued as some kind of crisis remedy to be used very sparingly. The pursuance of
the practice was also remarked upon by foreign travelers, such as Alberuni51 and Marco
Polo,52 and their views can be taken as unbiased observations of the day because they
were not influenced by any ulterior motives.

Shastri, ed., Agni Purān. a.
Āvaśyaka Cūrṇi ascribed to Jinadasagani, Ratlam, 1928, pp. 466–69.
Sachau, ed., Alberuni’s India, p. 107.
Yule, The Book of Ser Marco Polo, p. 376.

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180 Smita Sahgal

How did Brahmanical commentaries of early medieval and medieval periods por-
tray the institution of niyoga? The response was varied. There certainly was an attempt
to marginalise it but the interpretation was varied and context specific. Bharuci is the
earliest commendatory on the Manusmr. ti from south India. He allowed the widow to
enter into a niyoga relationship to secure a son.53 Similarly Medhatithi the author of
Manaubhās. ya, a commentary on Manusmr. ti, did not appear to be very unkind in his
treatment of the levirate arrangements.54 The ninth century author from Kashmir had
to deal with a very different scenario in his homeland and unlike Manu of the Ganga
belt he could not afford to be very dismissive about the institution of niyoga. On the
one hand, Medhatithi did not reserve it only for the people from the lower caste. On
the other hand, he was emphatic about using it as a way of redeeming a situation
of heirlessness. Compared to many other north Indian states, Kashmir’s geographical
contours would have defined its distinct social dynamics. The problem of population
growth and available supply of food and labour may have shaped up Medhatithi’s
views in a way different from other early medieval/medieval commentators.
Even as Medhatithi appeared to be relatively sympathetic to the practice there were
other medieval commentators who worked systematically to marginalise the practice from
the normative domain. We need to remember that the period was losing its cosmopolitan
urban touch as long distance trade and money economy gradually declined. This is not to
suggest a total erasing of urban culture. However, the more broad-based urbanism of the
Gupta period gave way to more localised urban cultures. Grants of land to Brahmans and
temples implied assimilation of many new groups within Brahmanical societies and this
required adjustments at both the ends. There is a possibility that practices akin to niyoga
were followed in these societies and now commentators had to take a stand keeping in
view the new socio-political scenario. Govindaraja, in his Manut.ika, was critical of the
institution of niyoga. He apparently belonged to north India in or around the twelfth cen-
tury. Narayana who is given a date between mid twelfth and thirteenth centuries carried
a fairly ambivalent attitude. At one point he rejected the institution completely while on
the other reluctantly acknowledged its existence, going to the extent of suggesting that
if the brother-in-law was unavailable a sonless widow could look for a mate in a kins-
man. However, there were other commentators, such as, Kullakbhatta55 (from Bengal),
Raghava and Nandana, who were clearer in their proscription of the arrangement sug-
gesting that its relevance had waned in their contemporary societies.
Similarly the commentators on Yajnavalkya too began questioning the continuity of
the practice of niyoga. The issue got linked to two simultaneous processes—grant of
property rights to the childless widow and growing ascetisation of the widow. There
was a debate among medieval scholars on the issue whether a woman should submit
to niyoga or not in order to access property of her husband. Bhoja of Dhara was clear
that niyoga and the birth of a ks. etraja was a prerequisite to acquisition of husband’s
wealth but Vijnaneshvar opposed the practice tooth and nail and stated that a woman/

Derret, Bharuci’s Commentary on the Manusmrti.
Jha, ed., Manubhasya.
Acarya Kaudinyayana, ed., Manvarthamuktavali.

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widow was entitled to a certain share of her husband’s property irrespective of her
being with or without a son. However, he was careful not to grant a widow the right to
alienate the property.56 Jimutavahana in his digest gave a sonless wife a greater share
in the property than to the one with sons and with some claim on the stridhana.57 In
his tacit way he was making up for a woman who gave up her right to have a son by
not entering a niyoga alliance. Similarly Madhava supported widow’s right to claim a
certain portion in her dead husband’s property without having to enter into a niyoga
relationship.58 On the other hand, Hāradatta reinterpreted Apastamba Dharmasutra to
allow a childless woman of an impotent man into entering a levirate alliance. We get
a variety of views on the issue from early medieval and medieval commentators from
all around the subcontinent. There is greater tilt towards marginalisation but there are
also attempts to either resurrect the practice or the views supporting the institution
just reflected the existent social reality. What becomes clear, however, is that the issue
reached the intellectual circles of middle and south Indian societies. Many new regions
were getting Brahmanised and so were the people, both the elite and the ruled. This
implied the acceptance as well as the application of Brahmanical norms for the purpose
of administration and maintenance of order. The process would have been a protracted
one that required revisiting dharma norms and bringing those in line with the social
milieu of the day. Even if they were the custodians of law, the ruling elite had to frame
rules that would simultaneously instruct some changes but also reflect certain existent
traditions. The plurality of views on the practice of niyoga that we get in these medi-
eval societies must have been contoured on their specific social requirements or what
was perceived by those in power.
In the seventeenth century too we get a sense of an occasional resorting to the prac-
tice of niyoga. Nilakan.t.ha, in his commentary on the Mahābhārata, acknowledged the
existence of the practice and the offspring as a legal heir.59 What became evident was
the Brahmanical approval of a new category of the bījin or levir who would actually
be paid for his services.
The potential advantage of the practice was well recognised by the Hindu reformer
Dayannanda Saraswati, who proposed the utilisation of this institution for the creation
a new ‘aryan society’.60 The temporary alliance between a widow and a robust man
from her caste would not only resolve the problem of childlessness and release sexual
frustration, it could effectively be utilised to create a race of healthy Aryans capable
of defending themselves against evils of all kinds. He was definitely envisaging a new
kind of Brahmanical set-up based on this concept but he did not get many takers from
amongst the upper castes.
A survey of late nineteenth and twentieth century societies reveal that despite
Brahmanical marginalisation of the practice, levirate continued to exist amongst many

Setlur, ed., Yajnavalkya Smrti [with Mitaksara, Subodhini and Balambhatti].
Sastri, ed., Dāyabhāga of Jimutavahana.
Chandrakanta, ed., Parāsara Smr. ti [with Madhaviya].
Śrimanmahabhāratam with the Bhāratabhāvadīpa of Nīlakan. t. ha, 8 vols (including the Harivamsa).
Saraswati, Satyarth Prakash.

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182 Smita Sahgal

social groups in its modified versions. During late nineteenth century it was called
sagai amongst many groups. In Orissa it was known by the term Devarani Suttoputti
and came very close to niyoga, where the younger brother would beget a child in the
name of his deceased elder brother.61 The Census Report of 1911 revealed the exis-
tence of the practice among many castes of Rajputana that allowed widow remarriage,
such as, Ahirs, Gujars, Minas, Rawats and even among the Bhils, who once practiced
junior levirate. The custom began falling into disuse in imitation of higher castes. In
the Central Provinces of the first quarter of the twentieth century the practice of junior
levirate (levirate with younger brother of the deceased) seemed common amongst the
lower caste, such as, the Telis, Chamars and Kostis. Today the practice has followers
amongst the ‘untouchable’ community of Chuhras.62 Among lower castes, niyoga cre-
ated a legitimate occasion for the widow to re-amalgamate into social and economic
life. An asceticised widow would have been an economic burden on the family/clan.
Her reintegration in the family or clan, however, may not always spell out her well-
being. The determining factors would be the wish and arrangements made by her mari-
tal home.
However, it would be a misnomer to believe that the practice was confined to lower
castes and classes where a woman, widowed or otherwise, had productive value. In fact,
all the societies where women labour were valued found ways to reintegrate women
after they had been widowed. For instance, in the Brahmanical societies of North West
Province, Swat and Kashmir, widow remarriage amongst Brahmans was practiced
but within the family, more often than not with the younger brother of the deceased.
In Punjab and Haryana, the Jats and Brahmans of Punjab carry on with the practice
known as karewa which is almost like a second marriage and works out a relationship
between the sister-in-law and the younger brother, if the older brother expired.63 We
need to remember that Brahmans here like the Jats belong to a peasant set-up and do
not follow priestly vocation. For them their daughter-in-law has significant economic
value within and outside the house. In most of these societies niyoga takes the form of
remarriage. It is hardly a temporary alliance with the singular objective of procuring
a son. However, from the Ghatiyal potter community of Rajasthan we get evidence of
‘barren’ women entering into temporary alliances with men (generally the brother-in-
law) to obtain a son. This practice may not have an open social sanction but certainly a
subtle sanction of the village community including the husband.64
In some societies the niyoga relations are closer to polyandry. The sambandaham
practiced amongst Nair women implied multiplicity of sexual relations for the wom-
an.65 In a matrilineal set-up like this raising of children was the responsibility of the
mother, and the lineage and property matters also lay within her domain. This kind of
relationship does not fit into a typical niyoga relationship. The aspects of commonality

Chattopadhyaya, ‘Levirate and Kinship in India’.
Kolenda, ‘Widowhood among “Untouchable Chuhras”’ and Kolenda, Caste, Marriage and Inequality.
For details, see Choudhary, The Veiled Women, Shifting Gender Equations in Rural Haryana.
Raheja and Gold, Listen to the Heron’s Words.
Gough, ‘The Nayars and the Definition of Marriage’.

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lay in the nature of temporary alliances and the fact that all children born to the
woman were/are recognised as the children of her husband and in that capacity they
participate in the funerary rituals of their legal father. Therefore, there is a validity of
her legal husband. Despite greater autonomy and control over one’s sexuality, even
Nair women are bound by caste norms. In Jaunsar Bawar region,66 and among hill
tribes, such as Khasas, Bhutias and Lepchas, the practice of niyoga overlaps with that
of polyandry.67
Niyoga as a practice witnessed many variations through time and in different locales
and cultures. It emerged under certain circumstances, was formalised with time within
Brahmanical frameworks, and then was marginalised by later law setters. The societies
that adopted it had their own set of rationale that included productive and reproduc-
tive grounds but somewhere patriarchal factors came to play a significant role. The
societies that sought to push the custom/practice to the margins also had their own set
of thinking and once again caste-based patriarchal mores along with changing socio-
economic relations influenced the decision makers of the societies. At the popular level
its continuity could not be negated despite Brahmanical marginalisation. It carried on
in its mutated forms through the medieval and modern times though it would be incor-
rect to suggest that the factors that caused its genesis and sustenance in early India
subsisted later on as well.

The Practice from the Perspectives of the Principal

Participants and Progeny
The important issue is what the practice meant to the women participants and product,
that is, ks. etra and niyogōtapanna, and the male participants and products, that is, the
ks. etrin, bijin and ks. etraja. The textual sources represent women’s and men’s points of
views and allow us to reconstruct divergent ways in which niyoga was understood,
which could include both shades of compliance as well as contestation. Let us first
review it from a female perspective.

Reviewing Niyoga from the Perspective of the Female Actors

Women participants were seemingly most affected because the practice directly implied
the control of their body, of their sexuality. Yet we cannot deny that men who fell
within its ambit also required a social re-adjustment. The survey has already revealed
that within the Brahmanical set-up there was gendered marginalisation of the voice on
the issue of women’s sexuality. We have purposely avoided the usage of the term ‘fem-
inist perspective’ because feminist consciousness draws attention to the pervasive pat-
terns of subordination, limitations and confinement that have hampered and crippled

For details, see Majumdar, Himalyan Polyandry and Berreman, ‘Himalyan Polyandry and Domestic
Nakane, ‘A Plural Society in Sikkim’ and Nancy, The Dynamics of Polyandry, Kinship, Domesticity and
Population in Tibetan Border.

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184 Smita Sahgal

the development of the female half of the humankind.68 It grants women a kind of reali-
sation that they have been continuously and purposely being segregated from power.
This was not possible during the period of our study because women were simultane-
ously class differentiated and subjected to the frequent cross-class expansion of patri-
archal ideologies. Their agency may not have remained open to self-evident modes of
collectivisation.69 In fact given the kind of source material at our disposal, which is
largely Brahmanical in nature, we can risk a generalisation. There seems to be an
absence of self conscious women ‘agents’ with transformative potentialities in early
India. Even as there seems to be an absence of collective consciousness, it appears
some of them did utilise their competence to question existent patriarchal prescrip-
tions. It may, therefore, be relevant to look at individual cases of dissidence or
It may also be important to point out that protest against some aspects of patriarchal
subjugation would often come along with consent to others. The world that we are
looking at was very complex. Today consent may be recognised as a major impedi-
ment to organised resistance but it seemed to have been a survival tactic in a day and
age where women were socialised into subordination early in life. Women would have
tolerated, accepted patriarchal values and even contributed to their sustenance in return
for personal protection and privileges.
Right from the time of her birth, a girl child’s identity was linked to her reproductive
potential. Some societies and caste groups could not negate her labouring potentials
especially the early agrarian tribal societies or the low caste groups but none could
deny that her chief utility lay in her being the future mother of sons. Her reproductive
potential made her an asset as well as an object of panic for the custodians of state
and society. The possible control of her own sexuality implied that she would use her
procreative faculties in her own way and that could leave men in a quandary about the
identity of their own progeny/heirs. So in societies where she could be removed from
primary production and public spaces as was the case among upper caste societies, she
was removed and made completely dependent on the men within the natal or marital
homes. One way of reducing her autonomy was by framing norms and creating myths
that censured her mobility and sexuality. Even in societies where she had a productive
presence the aspiration of men for upward mobility ensured an attempt to limit her say
in matters associated with sex and procreation.70
How was niyoga viewed by women across the board in early India? We need to
acknowledge that views of women across social groups, castes and culture specific
patriarchies are difficult to assess given the kind of textual material we have at our
disposal. Most of the material that we possess is reflective of the views of upper caste

Keohane, Rosaldo and Gelpi, eds, Feminist Theory, pp. ix–x.
Sangari, Politics of Possible, Essays on Gender, History, Narratives, Colonial English; Keohane, Rosaldo
and Gelpi, eds, Feminist Theory, p. 364.
The process of Sanskritisation or Brahmanisation entailed an attempt at upward mobility by lower caste
men. This necessitated an aping of social norms and ritual practices of the higher castes. Constrictions on
women’s mobility or decision making were steps taken in that direction.

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men. Therefore to access literature that airs the views of women and that too from the
lower castes is a tough task. Non-Brahmanical literature may assist us in some ways
but niyoga was not rigorously discussed therein even when there is preoccupation with
issues related to female sexuality. The Brahmanical literature did give the issue enough
space especially in the early texts. Women’s voice may not really surface in here except
in indirect ways. In the majority cases from the epics, at least, the initiative of niyoga is
taken by people other than the women themselves. And the choice of partners is made
by these, ‘authoritative others’.71
The legal texts primarily echoed the views of male custodians of society but the
narratives do give us a peep into how some women participants evaluated the issue.72
We have already seen how the prescriptive texts like the Manusmr. ti viewed the prac-
tice primarily from the male Brahmanical perspective and gave little choice to women
actors about accepting or rejecting it. However, one rare example comes from Manusmr. ti
where on death of the prospective groom, it is recommended that the girl promised into
marriage should be actually asked for consent to enter into a niyoga relationship with
her brother-in-law (IX.97). This appears to be a rare example but may actually suggest
the existence of an alternative to forced niyoga arrangement.
Even as choices were made for them not every female actor took it without remon-
stration. We have seen that Kuntī openly aired her ideas against it. She questioned
the design of niyoga for someone who had been too much in love with her husband.
In a way she protested against the segregation of the pleasure of love from sex and
finally resorted to having a sexual union only with gods and thereby not allowing
men to exercise their control over her body. Ambikā, Ambālikā and Sudes. n.ā protested
against niyoga in oblique ways. Their resistance to mate with men chosen for them
registered their protest at not being included in the decision over who their niyoga
partner would be. The prospect of entering niyoga at somebody else’s behest must
have been extremely unwelcome to them. Besides, we are also informed of the tales of
Śāradan. d.āyanī and Madayantī who did not openly oppose the practice but entered in it
very reluctantly, as a favour to their husbands. In other words there were ways in which
women in the myths managed to convey their sense of indignation at being subjected to
a practice that was aimed apparently at not merely clinical sexual interaction but would
actually amount, in their perception, to an obvious transgression of their private self.
The problem would have got complicated in the context of a household where a woman
would be subjected to shifts in emotional and social equations with her brother-in-law.
From treating him as brother when her husband was alive, she would have to look up
to him as a potential husband on his death. This could confound her sense of social
propriety. It may be interesting to note that Sītā did cast aspirations on Laks.aman.a’s

Dhand, ‘The Subversive Nature of Virtue in the Mahābhārata’.
There appears to be another difference in the approach of compilers of normative and narrative texts.
While the normative texts appears to have clear Brahmanical stamp on them, narratives reflect Kshatriya
views as well. The former appear to be clearly uncomfortable with niyoga as a practice and only seem to
accommodate it, but the latter clearly valourise the practice. Could this be suggestive of the distinct ways the
issue was viewed by Brahmans and Kshatriya?

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186 Smita Sahgal

intentions when the latter was not willing to leave her alone during Rāma’s absence
when the latter went in search for the deer Marīca. When Laks. aman.a refused to leave
her alone, she accused him of designs on her and suspected that he intended to take
her as his wife, once Rāma disappeared or died.73 Sītā was obviously familiar with the
convention of niyoga between the woman and her brother-in-law, and feared that she
may be pushed into it if her husband disappeared. From her outburst it appears that
the custom of a brother taking to wife his brother’s widow was more of a right than an
obligation on the part of the brother-in-law.
The issue of niyoga was not without its share of complexities. On the one hand, it
appeared to be extremely unfair to its women participants. On the other hand, we also
have examples of women who apparently entered the unions out of their volition, some-
times to save the Kshatriya caste as was the case after Paraśurāma’s curse74 or to save
the father and his kingdom as was the case with Mādhavi. In fact, the normative tradi-
tion states that a man must unite with his wife during her fertile season (r. tugamana).
In many a myth, women attempt to seduce men who were not their husbands arguing
that if the men refused, their fertile period would be fruitless. The story of Uttanka and
his guru’s wife in the Mahābhārata reflects the concern.75 When Uttanka was put in
charge of the household by his teacher during the latter’s absence from the ās. arama,
Uttanka took serious care of his teacher’s house and family. Then one day he was
asked by his teacher’s wife to cohabit with her as she was in her fertile phase and in
the absence of her husband she feared that it would go waste. The women of the house
implored Uttanka to render her this service as she was depressed. Uttanka refused to
oblige, calling it a crime. Even as the cohabitation did not happen, the insistence of
the woman/women to enter into a sexual relationship with a man other than her/their
husband appeared to be an accepted one especially during his/their long absence as it
did echo the acknowledgement of her/their primary social duty and possibly of their
desire to procreate.
The Mahābhārata has another legend that refers possibly to a niyoga on the persis-
tence of a woman. This is the case of Ulūpī, the Kauravya-nāga princess, whose son
Irāvat. was possibly begotten by Arjuna by the way of a niyoga.76 One version makes
her the widowed and childless ‘snus.ā’ of the Kauravya king, the other the widowed and
childless ‘sūta’. Any way it appeared that she was eagerly looking for a suitable ‘agent’
with the permission of her father-in-law, when she met Arjuna at Gangadvara. Arjuna
had been exiled as he had entered the premises when Draupadi was with her other
husband and as per an understanding had to spend a year in exile as a hermit. He was,
therefore, reluctant to breach his brahmacārin vow for the year but Ulūpī persuaded

Rāmāyan. a, Aran. ya, XLV, 7-8, 20-27.
Mahābhārata, I.98.1-5. Paraśurāma, incensed at the assassination of his father, killed in his fury the king
of Haihayas and taking up his bow and unleashing his mighty missiles, he burned down the Kshatriyas time
and again. Then the Kshatriya women cohabited with the Brahmans to reproduce sons and save Kshatriya
Mahābhārata, I.III.85-90.
Mahābhārata, I. 206.1-30. VI. 90.

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him to accompany her to the Nāga palace close by and stay with her for a short time till
she conceived a child. The details in her case show that the initiative was wholly hers
bearing striking similarity with Śāran. d. āyan. ī’s case with regard to quest and random
selection. Interestingly in this story she did not cohabit with ‘pitr. avya’, the younger
brother of the deceased Nāga prince who was displeased at the prospect of the ks. etraja
son of the elder brother getting the throne. This eventually resulted in Irāvat.’s expul-
sion from the Kauravya court.77
The willingness to follow niyoga also apparently emanated from the desire to do
both personal as well as social good. This, too, could have been a result of an inter-
nalisation of the duties women were supposed to follow. The compliance of women
in matters of sexuality could also have been linked to the notions of morality current
in societies of early India. However, there could have been another pragmatic social
factor that prompted women to give their consent to niyoga. Niyoga ensured mother-
hood for childless women or widows and this implied social prestige. Also there was
a reassurance of a safe future for themselves and their children, if they could procure
sons from levirate unions.
Moreover, compared to celibate widowhood or worse still the possibility of com-
mitting sati, an alliance of niyoga would have been preferable. The niyoga practice, or
practices akin to it, continued especially among women of low castes and some other
social groups in contemporary societies. It is quite likely that many women would have
followed it out of their consent even in early India. It may then be difficult to generalise
an absolute exploitative marginalisation of women in all possible niyoga situations.
Even as there appears to be a stronger context for a patriarchal subjugation of women
and their sexuality and the containment of women’s protest on the issue of niyoga,
there also appears to be the case of occasional concurrence in it by women participants.
Niyoga, with its foremost aim of ensuring reproductive continuity, was not unproblem-
atic for the populace and especially for the formulators of norms who kept the debate
alive by promoting, modifying, rejecting or accommodating the practice throughout
the course of early Indian history and perhaps later too.
It is worth mentioning that even as women were seeking to secure their future
through production of sons they rarely figured in as guardians of their sons. The debate
about whom the ks. etraja belongs to often obviates the position of the mother. Most of
the texts deliberate over the issue of who the seed belongs to, the owner of the field or
the inseminator. The point about the role of the female in the process of procreation
and her right on the progeny is by and large marginalised. This may have been the case
with other types of sons as well. However, Nārada apparently made the reference to the
mother’s right over the son as well. He mentioned that ‘there can be no crops without
the soil, nor is there any seed without the seed, hence the child is held to belong both to
the father and the mother’.78 But the enumerated duties of the son were largely for the
benefit of the father. The mother, though, was assured a safe existence with her son on
the demise of her husband.
For details, see Sarkar, Some Aspects of the Earliest Social History of India, pp. 180–81.
Cited in Ganganath Jha, ed., Manusmr. ti with Medhatithi’s Manubhās. ya, 2nd edn, Vol. X, p. 710.

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188 Smita Sahgal

There is another issue related to niyoga alliance that needs to be given some consid-
eration. What happened to the girl child born out of a niyoga alliance? The mythmakers
and law formulators had been so obsessed in their orientation towards a male heir that
they had very little to say about a female child born of such unions. By and large the
texts are silent on her. We come across only rare references to her being. Medhatithi
is not completely dismissive of a girl born of niyoga (niyogōtpanna), but at the same
time takes the view that one should not voluntarily marry such a girl.79 While com-
menting on Manusmr. ti’s Discourse III (girls recommended for marriage), Medhatithi
commented, ‘niyoga having being permitted, that girl who would be born under that
form would not be excluded by the foregoing qualifications [on the basis of gotra,
name etc.]’; hence she is separately excluded by the term, ‘who is not born of unlawful
intercourse’; which means that one should not voluntarily marry a girl born of niyoga,
because she is ‘born of unlawful intercourse’.80 This statement should be gauged in
the context of the gradual decline of the practice at least within the dharmaśāstric
discourse. As it were the niyoga alliances were not recommended except in dire cir-
cumstances to men/families without the scope of producing a natural heir. The birth of
a daughter was generally not viewed positively and there seems hardly any reason to
believe that a niyogōtpanna would have been welcomed.
Interestingly, on the one hand, she is called a niyogōtpanna and ‘amaithuni’, one
not recommended for religious functions and marriage. On the other hand, the son
born of such a union was called a ks. etraja. Her connection with the field of the father
was not stressed at all. Her entry would have blocked a chance of securing property
or continuation of the lineage. Her sense of discrimination would have then doubled
with the normative suggestion that she was not an ideal choice as a wife. Like other
women her sexuality was also determined by her caste and class but with an additional
qualification of not being born of a preferred marital alliance. It is also not very clear
that she could ever get the status of a putrika. Putrika is a daughter of a sonless man
on whose sons her father could have ritual rights and to whom his property could be
passed on. Incidentally putrikadharmini is also not recommended as a potential wife.
In the Mahābhārata Bhīs. ma tells Yudhisthira, ‘Bull of the Bharatas, one ought never to
marry a girl who does not have a brother or a father—for she is a putrikadharmini’.81
However, compared to niyogōtpanna her status certainly seems better because once
she gets married both she and her son have a financially secure future. The issue, how-
ever, needs to be explored further.

Locating Niyoga within the Discourse of Masculinity

Before attempting to locate niyoga within the discourse of masculinity, it may be essen-
tial to comprehend the notion of masculinity and work out its defining parameters in
the context of ancient Indian literature. Masculinity no longer remains a muted field in

Medhatithi, Manubhās. ya, III.5.
Medhatithi, Manubhās. ya,, Vol. 4, p. 28.
Mahābhārata, XIII.44.14.

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gender studies, though it is relatively a late entrant in sociological studies and has to
still make its niche within the socio-historical domain of early India. Therefore, the
effort made here to unravel the attributes that could be utilised in the creation and com-
prehension of the concept and the subsequent positioning of niyoga therein remains
largely tentative.
There is little doubt that certain stereotypes have come to pervade social conscious-
ness. More often than not, anatomy becomes the bedrock of masculinity. It is the
possession of ‘penis’/phallus upon which masculinity is supposedly predicated. The
sexual and procreative functions have been cited as the most enduring characteristics
of masculinity. The shorter Oxford Dictionary tells us that a ‘male’ is ‘of or belongs to
the sex that begets offspring, or performs the fecundating function’ and ‘masculine’ has
‘the appropriate excellence of the male sex; virile, vigorous and powerful’. Masculinity
almost appears as an essence or commodity, which can be measured, possessed or lost.
The possibility of something like ‘failed masculinity’ or ‘emasculation’ reinforces the
idea that masculinity is supposed to be a characteristic of men. Even as there is no
rigid classification of masculinity, virile sexuality, fertility, acquisition and display of
power in the public and household domains as well as the demonstration of temper and
physical strength especially in violent acts/activities, such as wars, along with the style
of confrontation (as in a boxing ring) are some acknowledged traits associated with
masculinity. Conversely impotency, homosexuality, physical weakness, public exhibi-
tion of emotions and giving in to defeat would be reflective of ‘failed masculinity’ or
‘feminised men’. Femininity is by and large distinguished from masculinity on the
basis of subordination of women to men.
‘Hegemonic masculinities’ are constructed in relation to women and ‘subordinated’
masculinities. The concept of ‘hegemony’, deriving from Gramsci’s analysis of class
relations, refers to the cultural dynamic by which a group claims and sustains a leading
position in social life.82 It revolves around the question of how particular groups of men
inhabit positions of power and wealth and how they attempt to legitimate and repro-
duce the social relationships that generate their dominance.83 Hegemonic masculinity
is located in patriarchy and guarantees the dominant position of men and subordination
of others especially women. An association between men and power is made to seem
natural. Feminists use the term male bias or describe such associations as ‘sexist’.84
Let us now attempt to create a framework for comprehending ‘masculinity’ in early
India. There is no discourse on masculinity per se in early Indian texts; however, the
idea of masculinity does run through various texts. The first requirement is to work out
a tentative definition based on different terms that we come across in the literature. We
need to remember that the term ‘masculinity’, its implication and the recent discourse
have evolved in the context of a particular language (English) and time (modern, con-
temporary), and distinct cultures (the West; America and Western Europe) that speak
the language or use it for academic discourse. Its transposition in South Asian studies

Connell, Masculinities, p. 77.
Carrigan, Connell and Lee, ‘Towards a New Sociology of Masculinity’.
Cornell and Lindisfarne, eds, Dislocating Maculinity: Comparative Ethnologies, p. 20.

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190 Smita Sahgal

is somewhat a recent phenomenon. Therefore, even as one would seek to examine the
given theoretical premises, the definition/framework that eventually evolves may not
fit any particular monolithic model and may require modification or reinterpretation in
distinct contexts of early India. Interestingly the term ‘masculinity’ does not occur in
Monier-Williams, A English–Sanskrit Dictionary, though we do come across terms
like ‘man’ ( purus. a, vīra),85 ‘manly’ (paurus. ah, Viryogyah, vīrah, mahavīryah, narah),86
‘manliness’ (paurus. ama, vīryam, parakrama, sāhasam, surata, manusyatvam),87
‘masculine’ (Paurus. ah, Parus. eyah, purus. ajatiyah),88 ‘masculinely’ (purus. vat, nara-
vat, paurus. ena)89 and ‘masculineness’ (purus. vtvam, paurus. am, paurus. ta, purus. asilata,
purus. asvabhāvah, purus. aprakr. ti).90 Additionally manhood is understood as pumstva,91
purus. tva, ‘masculine gender’ is referred to as pulingam and puman,92 ‘manly act’ is
purus. kara,93 ‘manly duty’ is naradharmah,94 ‘someone resembling a man or having
the qualities of man’ is referred to as aklīvah95 and ‘a masculine woman’ is called
96 97
.rsabhi. There are also words, such as, kiṃpurus. a (evil man or a monkey-like man),
98 99 100
Khlība, pānd. aka (passive homosexual) and na-puṃsaka (non-man) that may be
construed in opposition to what has been understood as ‘manliness’ in a larger question
on masculinity.
A study of these words and their meanings do give us a sense of some aspects that
could be associated with masculinity in early Indian literature. Moreover, there could
be a host of other words that may give an import of manliness or masculinity when
used in a particular context. Put together, there are certain defining features of ‘man-
liness’ or the absence of it that are connoted with the usage of these words. Sexual
potency dominates the list. The term ‘vīrya’ which clearly denoted manliness, power
and energy in texts, such as Ṛksaṃhita and Mahābhārata, has at its root the reference
to semen. Two other words derived from Vīrya, Vīrtva (manliness and heroism)101 and
virkr. t (performing manly deeds),102 suggest virility, heroism and courage. A ‘manly
act’ or purus. akara is supposedly reflected in his virility and sexual potency in securing

Monier-Williams, A Dictionary, Sanskrit to English, p. 1005.
Monier-Williams, A Dictionary English and Sanskrit, p. 481.
Ibid., p. 485.
Ibid., p. 485.
Yajnavalkya Smrti, I.55.
Monier-Williams, A Dictionary English and Sanskrit, p. 485.
Ibid., p. 481.
Ibid., p. 485.
Ibid., p. 485.
Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit–English Dictionary, p. 283.
Doniger and Smith, eds, Laws of Manu, p. 58fn.
Staal, Discovering the Vedas, Origins, Mantras, Rituals, Insights.
Doniger and Smith, eds, Laws of Manu, p. 58fn.
Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit to English Dictionary, p. 1006.
Ibid. Also in Vajasneyisamhita and Mahābhārata.

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his lineage by producing a male offspring. Interestingly the term vīra, which is com-
monly understood to connote a ‘courageous man’ also implies a ‘husband’ and, also, a
‘male child’ (as in Purān. as)103 and Vīrakāma suggests ‘desirous of male offspring’.104
Where do we locate the instrument of niyoga within the framework of masculinity?
In such a discussion we need to observe the positions of various male actors, such as,
those of the ks. etrin or begetter (the legal father), who gets the progeny, the genitor or
the biological father and the product or the male progeny, the ks. etraja, to gauge mul-
tivalent perspectives on the impact of the practice on their construct of masculinities.
We have already seen that masculinity of a householder, in early India, was defined
largely in terms of an active sexual life and procreation of male children. However,
there were instances of individuals failing to keep up to this ideal paradigm of mascu-
linity. Niyoga was an apparent strategy to overcome an apparently emasculated exis-
tence. But there was a catch; resorting to this option was also tantamount to an open
acknowledgement of one’s impotency or khlibavāda. But this was apparently the lesser
of the evils; accepting one’s impotency was a lesser sin than not attempting to over-
come its social implications. We have already seen that napuṃsakas and khlības stayed
on the margins of the Brahmanical world view. The implications of being impotent
were varied and harsh, which one would experience both in public and private spaces.
Publically it implied a loss of face before others, becoming an object of ridicule but
more important it amounted to debarment from inheritance, exclusion from perfor-
mance of rituals especially the ancestral rites and at spiritual level it supposedly spelt
out the closing of the door of heaven on one’s death. A man who would resort to niyoga
would make adjustments at numerous levels. Apart from psychological retuning it also
implied social reorientation. At a personal level it entailed a renegotiation with one’s
spouse. The absence of virile/fertile ‘manliness’ could result in losing a wife as the
dharmaśāstras did allow a woman to remarry on this count. Or else the image of the
husband which she would have internalised over years, of a strong, virile and fertile
man who would also be her protector, would get dented. Her fear of remaining child-
less and without old age security could become acute and for the man his emasculated
existence implied the loss of experiencing paternity. For any one experiencing ‘inad-
equate’ manliness the fear of complete social and domestic marginalisation would have
been very real. In such a scenario niyoga emerged as a rescue device and the husband
may actually encourage the wife to enter into a relationship with a designated man or
even support the choice she made.
The dharmaśāstras allowed the impotent man the chance to reverse his fate by
resorting to getting a child by commissioned procreation. Manu (IX.203) mentions
that an impotent man who has acquired wives and gets son from the relationship would
be entitled to a share in the property. The ks. etrin or husband of the ks. etra, the legal
begetter, would also be assured his place in heaven as the son redeems the father of
his sins and invests immortality on him. The kinship and family framework would be
sustained as kin would accept him as the father of the child; the wife would stay with
Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit to English Dictionary, p. 1005.

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192 Smita Sahgal

the spouse and the child/son would acknowledge him as the father. He too gets to
participate in the upbringing of his son. On the one hand, a man’s incomplete mascu-
linity is vocalised through this institution; on the other hand, it actually gets repaired.
No wonder at the mythic level we have so many stories of husbands instructing their
wives to cohabit with a bījin or giving their tacit support when she sought a partner.
Kings or the royal kinsmen were extremely worried about the threat to their lineage
and, hence, most vocal to its adoption. For the ‘manly’ king had to ensure a successor.
We have already discussed cases of Vimada’s wife, of Vadhramati, of Purukutsa’s wife
who all sought godly intervention to overcome the absence of a son largely with the
consent of their respective spouse. Mugdalini was also possibly helped by someone
with the vigour of bull in procurement of children. In the Mahābhārata, we have noted
that Śāran. d. āyan. ī was instructed by her husband to select a Brahman and get sons from
him. King Kalmās. adpāda made his wife cohabit with his teacher Vasis ̣tha ̣ from whom
numerous sons were born. We are also familiar with the stories of Veda Vyāsa begetting
progeny on his brother’s widows on the request of his mother, and Pān. d.u requesting
Kuntī to help him secure a share in the kingdom and a place in heaven by resorting
to the practice. Even as the practice became rare subsequently, the Purān. as give us
a sense of its continuity in the stories of kings Bali and Sagara and also the Yavan.a
king who requested known Brahman sages to become progenitors to their children.
The Suruci Jataka also informs of a story where the king Suruci requested his wife to
beget a successor for the good of his subjects. Similarly, as seen earlier, the Āvaśyaka
Cūriṇi too gives us the tale of a mother-in-law pushing her widowed daughters-in-law
to cohabit with their brother-in-law.
How do we classify the masculinity of men who resort to niyoga? If we go by
Connell’s categorisation, the masculinity of the begetter (and times of the genitor/bījin
too) can be placed within the framework of ‘complicit masculinity’. They are men who
may subscribe to the hegemonic project but do not embody hegemonic masculinity.
Masculinities constructed in ways that realise the patriarchal dividend without the ten-
sion or risk of being the front line troops of patriarchy are complicit in this sense.105
Connell calls them a slacker version of hegemonic masculinity. Somewhere they have
internalised the ideal of hegemonic masculinity, but real life compromise in marriage,
fatherhood and community life keep them away from ‘naked domination and uncon-
tested display of authority’.106 Resorting to niyoga may then imply re-adjustments at
various levels but it also implied a tacit acceptance of patriarchal ideals and values.
Rarely do we come across voices questioning the logic and need of this strategy of
Complicit masculinity is also reflected in the actions of those commissioned to pro-
create. So many a times they take up the responsibility only to reiterate the hegemonic/
upper caste ideal of perpetuating a lineage. The levir or niyogin may actually encounter
complexities in subscribing to such an action and yet do it in the name of larger social

Connell, Masculinities, p. 79.

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(patriarchal) good. For a devara the situation would be really complex. The niyoga
relation may place emotional stress on the devara, as it required him to cohabit with a
woman he had previously regarded as forbidden. He might oblige under social duress
but may remain extremely uncomfortable with the idea of entering into a relation-
ship with a reluctant woman. This kind of situations could be encountered by other
Brahman levirs as well. The fear of rejection was a real one. In the Mahābhārata, Veda
Vyāsa warned his mother that her daughters-in-law may not tolerate his smelly being.
Dīrghatamas was equally appalled at Sudes. n.ā’s resistance and cursed her children. In
fact, Dīrghatamas seemed to have convoluted views on the issue of woman’s protest in
an unwilling relationship. On the one hand, he questioned Br.haspati for forcing himself
on his mother, on the other, he did precisely the same to a reluctant Sudes.n.ā. Within
the niyoga format, it was not just the issue of being rejected by unwilling partners but
also the problem of wasting away their semen or life force on others when their bio-
logical children would never be known by their name. In the Bible [Genisis.38], Onan
the brother-in-law of Tamar purposely wasted his semen as he knew that his children
would only be known by the name of his dead brother.
Complicity in masculinity could also result in the development of other kinds of
complexities. There could also be the issue of developing a genuine affection for the
sexual partners. The normative texts forbid the process to be anything but short term,
swift, clinical and detached. This may not always be the case, especially when the cou-
ple waits for the male child/children to be born and only girls are reproduced. Affection
for a woman other than one’s own wife would not fit within parameters of ideal mas-
culinity. Additionally, if the niyogin was the brother-in-law, there would have been the
psychological problem of adjusting to the shifts in the relationship with his sister-in-
law, on the one hand, and his wife, on the other.
Yet the practice of niyoga allowed some men the opportunity to publically declare
their virility. The story of Brahman Gargaya is the case in point.107 He was most will-
ing to act as a bījin and procreate in order to prove his manliness and take revenge on
those who ridiculed him as impotent. For him the concern was not the continuation of
a lineage as was the case with Yavan.a ruler who requested him to beget a son. He was
keen to prove his virility and fertility and seek revenge on those who humiliated him.
This was a case where the interest of both the ks. etrin and bījin colluded and none had
to compromise.
The progeny of such unions may have also undergone complexities in life. The issue
of double paternity and the epithet of dvapitā could make a ks. etraja an object of scorn
among his peers, especially at a time when the commentators of the smr. tis had begun
proscribing the practice of niyoga from the early medieval period. In the Dūtavākya
of Bhāsa, as mentioned earlier, Duryodhana refused to recognise Pān. d.avas as heirs
because they were born of niyoga.108 It was almost an abuse hurled at them. The episode

Vis. n.u Purān. a, ch. XXIII. The story is also found in the Bhāgavata Purān. a and the Harivaṃsa with slight
V.21, Pramatmajanam pitratam katkam vrajet.

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194 Smita Sahgal

is interesting as even when Duryodhana ridiculed his cousins, he conveniently forgot

that he himself was not completely free of a niyoga connection. After all, his father was
also born of one.
It is quite possible that, within one’s self estimate, the issue of double paternity or
a non-biological paternity could bring in confusion. Pān. d.u is the best example of this
kind of confounded masculinity. He was a product of a niyoga union and also begot
children from such an arrangement. Pān. d.u could never forgive his legal Kshatriya
father, Vicitravīrya, for leading an unfettered lustful life that, he assumed, became a
curse to his sexual potency. Yet he found himself addicted to acknowledge Kshatriya
passions of hunting and gambling. He finally chose an austere existence of his Brahman
biological father, Veda Vyāsa, as a mode of penance. At the same time, the legitimate
Kshatriya requirement of seeking sons to perpetuate his lineage and claim his share in
the kingdom forced him to beget children through niyoga. The instrument of niyoga
caught him an intricate web, made him lament his fate and paternity but also provided
him with an ostensible alternative for social reintegration and spiritual ascendancy.
The myth of Kalmās. apāda reveals that niyoga as practice could bruise a man’s ego
substantially even as it may eventually come to his rescue. There are significant strains
of tension between the ks. etrin and niyogin in this case and some may have arisen out of
his suspicion of the wife being/becoming close to the bījin/niyogin.
However, we also have examples of some epic characters who proudly asserted
their niyoga credentials. In the Vanaparva section of the Mahābhārata, Hanumāna
while introducing himself to Bhīma states, ‘I was begotten on Kesarin’s field [ks. etra]
by the wind [Vāyu], who is life breath of the world’.109 For the ks. etraja Hanumāna,
association with his biological father was as much a matter of pride as his relationship
with the father who begot him. The dvapitā syndrome does not bother him at all.
The ks. etraja critique of the practice may come in oblique ways. Arjuna, who himself
was a product of a niyoga union, questioned the one between Kalmās. apāda’s wife and
̣ He called it unlawful and could not believe that as great a
the king’s teacher, Vasis ̣tha.
king as Kalmās. apāda could let his masculinity be bruised by allowing a union between
his wife and his teacher. What could trigger Arjuna’s reaction when he knew that he
himself was a product of such a union? This could probably be because Arjuna thought
that he was above board on account of his semi-divine origin, or else the point of cri-
tique was the relationship between a guru’s wife and his student. Such niyoga practices
were normally forbidden. There were exceptions though as we have already seen in
the case of Uddālaka who had his son Śvetaketu through this practice. Śvetaketu, the
ks. etraja in this case, is supposedly the author of fresh patriarchal constraints to a wom-
an’s sexuality. On a closer look he appears to be a victim of psychological complexities
emerging out of his mother’s polyandrous existence that could have brought in the
issue of his legitimacy as well. His dictate then seems to be an attempt to segregate his
legitimate ks. etraja identity from that of a son whose father’s identity was put to ques-
tion, given the fact a woman could forge multiple sexual unions in that social set-up.

Mahābhārata, III.147.20-25.

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Historically he represents a transitional phase in the reformulation of patriarchal norms

possibly from a freer tribal set-up to a more closed caste based society. This would
have coincided with the gradual objectification of women especially in the context of
the household. This appears to be case where the complicit masculinity of a ks. etraja
was certainly moving towards the disposition of the hegemonic as Śvetaketu donned
on the cap of an arbiter of social norms.
One may also dwell upon the relationship between the ks. etraja and the bījin, that
is, between the son begotten by a man and his biological father. If we go by what S.C.
Sarkar thinks of the ‘real’ fathers of the Pān. d.avas, that is, Vidura, Virata, the Vāsus of
Chedi Matsya clan, Purujīta and Aśvapati of Mādras, it would appear that the biologi-
cal fathers were in touch with their sons and, in fact, continued to stay friendly with
them in their hour of need. In the case of Dīrghatamas and Vasis ̣tha ̣ as well we realise
that the same connection and interest stays. Vasis ̣tha ̣ remains in contact with both the
mother and the son and his own son Parāśara becomes the guardian of Asmaka after the
death of Kalmās. apāda. Dīrghatamas was also visited by Valeya princes and his other
descendants from Vali’s another wife continued to protect and favour Anava princes.
Only in Śāran. d. āyan. ī’s case the real father does not remain in the view. What about
Uddālaka’s case? One is not sure but if the bījin was Kahoda, Uddālaka’s favourite
disciple, then Kahoda lived all along with him, and also married Uddālaka’s daughter,
and her son Astavakra and Śvetaketu were closely connected and were almost brought
up as brothers. The myths, thus, did not rule out the possibility of connection between
the ks. etraja and his biological father but do not dwell upon the complex inter-personal
relationships amongst the ks. etrin, bījin, ks. etraja and ks. etra (wife). For the ks. etraja the
issues could range from the emotional to the legal and even the political.
The legal problems would be largely around the issue of inheritance. A ks. etraja
certainly stood to gain the name and property of his legal father and at times of his
biological father too (Manu) but always stood next to an aurasa, the biological son, in
the list of acknowledged sons in law books. If a biological son were born after him, the
latter stood to gain, both in terms of legal inheritance as well as father’s affection. This
could bring about tension between the two brothers on a variety of issues.
Not just from siblings, the ks. etraja could face envy from other quarters as well as
the story of Irāvat. informs us. This son of Kaurvya-Naga princes, begotten on Arjuna,
was brought up as the heir of the Kaurvya-Nagas when his uncle, because of his hatred
for Arjuna, managed to get him expelled from the court. A ks. etraja born of the free
will of a woman and born outside the family could easily hurt male ego. Consequently,
the uncle decided to assert his political right to rule. The legend befits a time when the
patriarchal questioning of woman’s sexual will was coming into vogue. As the legend
goes, Irāvat. thereafter repaired to Arjuna, and then after preparing for the great battle
in the Himalayan region joined in his enterprise. The ks. etraja in this case returns to his
biological father.
As the dominant notion of masculinity changed with time so did its relation with
the institution of niyoga. From the male perspective niyoga may appear to be a curious
device that sought to simultaneously puncture and sustain one’s masculine sensibility.

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196 Smita Sahgal

In early India procuring a male progeny was so essential that even a man with female
children could be called a khlība.110 The masculine identity of an individual certainly
rested on his sexual and procreative potentials. Deficiency in these areas amounted
to humiliation within public, domestic and spiritual fields. Social healing to bruised
masculinity could come through the practice of commissioned procreation, though at
a price. The husband would have to share his wife with another man, the niyogin. The
niyogin, on the other hand, would have to tolerate a reluctant partner or camouflage
his affection for her if they struck an emotional cord. Moreover, he would also have to
renegotiate another relationship with his own spouse. The progeny would have come to
terms with the diverse baggage of emotions—ridicule, love, envy, comfort and anger.
Even when there was a gradual proscription of the practice, it continued on the
margins for long time. Dayanand Saraswati advocated its revival and his discourse can
be situated in the context of a perceived ‘emasculated’ nation and the need to recreate
a strong Aryan race to rescue the society. It continues in a modified way today as well.
The modern system of artificial insemination after considered gene selection comes
quite close to it but for a major difference. The process is a clinical process and it omits
the performance of a sexual act. The social implication of this can be immense for an
individual’s masculinity as the public declaration of impotency is skipped over and the
compromise to a man’s dignity on sharing his wife/property could be avoided. There is
little doubt that even as centuries have gone by the notion of masculinity continues to
hinge on sexual might and ability to reproduce as primary attributes.

Who Stood to Benefit from the Institution of Niyoga?

In the final assessment it may be worth recalling who the real beneficiaries of the
socio-legal systems were? We also need to know how a practice legally and morally
acceptable in the early periods became immoral in Brahmanical discourse later on and
yet sustained itself over different geographical zones and across different castes. This
brings us to the issue of how morality should be understood. Morality may be under-
stood as a set of values devised for social governance at a given historical moment. It
is certainly influenced by the socio-economic milieu but is eventually moulded by the
aspirations of those who wield power. The early Brahmanical texts, especially the
Vedic corpus and the sūtra literature, betray an upper class bias. There is an assumption
within the texts of the need to retain an essential control over resources, material and
sexual. Sexuality was not an issue allowed to be discussed in the public domain or a
practice to be followed out of free will. It was a matter of regulation by those who had
an access to ideological, political and economic power and was shaped up by their
perception of social requirements. Multiple sexual relations for women might not be
deemed immoral if these were forged for social good. Growth in population and even-
tual expansion of material reserves may have been sought as rationale for sanctifying
the institution of niyoga. The upper caste bias continues in the law books of the later

Doniger, Splitting the Difference, pp. 279–80.

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times as well. Those associated with its compilation and codification came under
greater patriarchal influence and also acquired many more resources to spare the pro-
ductive and reproductive labour of women amongst their caste. Moreover, as the inher-
itance laws mutated over time, there was a surge to remove extra claimants and also
satiate the material needs of widows so as to discourage them from practicing niyoga
for the sake of acquiring sons and securing their future. Simultaneously many lower
castes sought to emulate the upper caste mechanisms of controlling the sexuality of
their women folk and dispense the practice. Some with improved class structures may
have succeeded but those without resources still found merit in the varied forms of
levirate. Their notions of morality were at variance with the upper caste and it is not a
coincidence then that even as the Hindu law does not recognise the practice, the state
gives credence to customary norms that may accommodate the practice.
Overall one can affirm that the socio-legal status of participants in the niyoga
arrangement was determined by those who ruled the state and framed laws. There is
little doubt that both the formulation as well as the dilution of niyoga was done from
a Brahmanical perspective. By and large this would be in line with their own notions
of propriety and from their vantage of power sustenance. Sometimes it coincided with
women’s security requirements in the absence of better alternatives but essentially
niyoga remained a patriarchal upper caste/class device for controlling reproductive and
productive faculties of the populace for their benefit.

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