Friday, November 03, 2006

Polygamy in world religions and cultures

Polygamy was accepted in Hebrew society, in classical China and was prevalent in many traditional African and Polynesian cultures. In India it was practiced from ancient times itself. In ancient Greece, prior to Roman Catholic Church, it was accepted. Messianic Christianity allowed and still allows polygamy.

Polygamy was practiced most of the prophets depicted in bible (David, Moses, Solomon etc) and was practiced throughout the time of New Testament up to 11th century. Currently it is estimated that there are as many as 80,000 non-mormon Christian polygynysts in US itself!!

Polygamy and polyandry (having more than one husband for a woman) were practiced in ancient Hindu society. An address by Bhishma to Yudhishtira in Mahabharata goes like this: "A Brahmana can take three wives. A Kshatriya can take two wives. As regards the Vaishya, he should take a wife from only his own order. The children born of these wives should be regarded as equal." (Anusasana Parva, Section XLIV). Manu Samhita clearly says that all classes including Brahmins are allowed to have more than one wife. For example, Manu say:

A Brahmin's first wife is to come from a Brahmin family, yet his second wife can be from either Brahmin family or Ksatriya. His third wife can be from either Brahmin, Ksatriya or Vaishya. His fourth wife can be from any class, including that of Sudra. Although some speculate that the Brahmin class were never allowed more than one wife, this is not at all supported in the Manu Samhita or in various Vedic scriptures where there are stories of many Brahmin sages who are said to have more than one wife.

In more recent history, the founder Acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada who was popular in 1970’s and known as religious ambassador from India, many times cited the need in socirty for the acceptance and practice of polygamy for the purpose of protecting all women cia proper religious marriage.

In China polygamy was legal till 1911, after which Ching dynasty banned it through a law. Confucianism which is a major religion in China allowed polygamy. Confucianism has stressed the ability of managing ones family of several wives. In the book of Great Learning (Daxue) wrote, "a man can first manage himself, then manage a family (of more than one set of wives & offsprings), then he can manage a small country, and then, he shall be able to unify and manage a nation."

US banned polygamy in 1890. It was allowed in the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon –LDS) church, but was ended in 189o after government coercion was given that prohibited Utah from becoming a state as long as they allowed Polygamy. The situation seen from US after banning polygamy in US and other countries were pathetic. People started having illegal relations with women and maintained them as under various names- ex-wife, secret wife, concubine etc. this has created a state of uncertainty in the society where people become less loyal to their relationships and the moral value declined a lot.

If we look at Hong Kong, Taiwan, China and Macau, in all of these countries the law banned polygamy and people used to have extra relationships across the border. This is called cross-border polygamy as widely discussed. Mongolia is currently rethinking on allowing polygamy because of gender imbalance.

If we analyze any region on earth, there had or has some form of polygamy prevailed or prevailing currently. But whenever it is banned, people utilized it illegally and it paved a way for prostitution and illegal marriage where there is no limitation for wives.

Having said all these, there are certain situations where polygamy will become a useful method to tackle some dangerous situations. In any society, there may arise a situation where females out number males because of many reasons. In today’s context, a reason may be wars or fights. It is common that men actively participate in those fights and passes away leaving a family aside. Look the case in Chechnya. Now there are more females than males. The only way to bring up the society back to a stable state is through polygamy. And we have to keep in mind that, sexual desire is human and natural and what will happen to this society if those women are not taken care by society.

In the case of Islam, it has a put a clear clause on this issue. If we study the situation existed in Arabian Peninsula during the time of Prophet Muhammad, people used to have immense number of wives. This caused a practice of uncertainty in the society where in people started marrying woman just for joy and men were not serious about the aftermaths too. This shows that “living in extremes is difficult and hazardous for a society”. In this circumstance Islam put forward a medium path where it restricted the number of wives to be a maximum of four with a strict condition. You can read it from a verse from Quran as shown below,

“And if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry [their mothers] that are lawful to you, two, three, four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly [with them], then only one, or those which your right hands possess. That will be more suitable to prevent you from doing injustice. And give these women their dowers also the way dowers are given; but if they, of their own good pleasure, remit any part of it to you, take it and consume it gladly.” (4:3-4)

So Islam allowed Polygamy but with a strict conditions. It teaches that man has to get an approval from his wife or wives for a new marriage. At the same time it has clear cut views on the relationships between couples, family members, how to behave with parents etc. All that meant from these is making a healthy society. It has banned prostitution and an Islamic state can take necessary action against someone depending on the evidence, if that state has firstly taken steps to prevent prostitution and maintain a state of calmness in that society. In between we have to realize that there are many conditions that have to be fulfilled in Islamic Juridical system before taking or commanding a punishment.

What is happening in societies where polygamy is illegal? People seek to find out other ways and it formed a state of insecurity. It can be evidently see that prostitution is very less in Arabian countries compared to other world countries (I am not supporting the law or governance of Arabian countries completely here. There are many dimensions that I seriously criticize against those countries though. We can discuss this topic later if you are interested). And surely this has helped to attain a healthy situation in those societies although they lack in many other things.

Note: This articles includes excerpts from various web pages in addition to my own thoughts.

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