Niyoga, meaning of the term would be ‘delegation’. Here the idea of delegating a husband’s duty of providing his wife with a child, to some other man; ideally a brother or a close relative. Circumstances such as the husband being impotent, or died without any successful attempt of reproduction, or that he has forsaken the world and has chosen to be an ascetic.
The entire idea of such delegation stems from the importance given to the advancing of a family lineage in ancient India and modern societies even. If a married couple is not able to reproduce any children, a male child more specifically, questions like who will be the carrier of their family lineage after their death, or who will be the inheritor of whatever wealth and property they have gathered. Niyoga, the ritual finds mention in various scriptures of Hinduism as well as other world religions. It was practiced as a widely accepted measure to be started for the greater good of society; under strict defined guidelines.
The concept of Niyoga has undergone understated changes over time to accommodate those leading opinions, but some embedded clauses such as these remain:
- The woman would agree to this only for the sake of lawfully having a child and not for pleasure.
- The appointed man would do this for Dharma (principle), considering it as his duty to help the woman bear a child and not for pleasure.
- The child, thus born would be considered the child of the husband-wife and not that of the chosen man.
- The chosen man would not seek any paternal relationship or attachment to this child in the future.
- To avoid misuse, a man was allowed a maximum of three attempts in his lifetime to be appointed in such a way.
- The act will be seen as that of an aspect of truth or reality and while doing so, the man and the wife will have only an aspect of truth or reality in their mind and not passion nor lust.
- The man will involve niyoga as a help to the woman in the name of God, whereas the woman will accept it only to bear the child for herself and her husband.
- There would be no sexual foreplay, oral or any other type of sexual activity except the intercourse.
- There would be a semi-transparent curtain covering the upper part of the woman, only permitting view and access to her lower part for the man performing niyoga.
- The bodies are to be covered with ghee (a class of clarified butter that originated in ancient India), so that lust may not take root in the minds of the participants but the actual act may take place for conception only.
Ref: This excerpt is taken from the Satyarth Prakash chapter four written by Maharishi Dayanand Saraswati in Hindi and translated into English by Pt Ganga Prasad Upadhyay.
In the Mahabharata, after the last funeral rites were performed for Vichitravirya, Satyavati wept and mourned for her deceased son. Ambika and Ambalika were also broken down at the early death of their husband. Upon realizing the possible extinction of the dynasty, Satyavati approached Bhishma requesting him, ‘The continuation of the Kuru dynasty now depends on you’. The wives of your brother, Ambalika and Ambika, desire offspring, and under my order you should procreate children by them to continue this dynasty. Do not plunge our ancestors into hell.
After hearing Satyavati’s request, the relatives and friends of the Kuru family also given their consent. However, Bhishma replied to his stepmother, O mother, what you have said is certainly sanctioned according to the code of virtue, but you forget my vow regarding marriage and children. I have taken a vow of lifelong celibacy. I may have to reject monarchy of the three worlds, the kingdom of heaven, and anything greater that exists, but this vow I will never renounce.
Hearing Bhishma’s determination, Satyavati replied, I know the vow that you have taken is on my account, but considering the present emergency you should accept this order as duty to the ancestors. Bhishma again emphasized his duty to truth. Listen to this narration and then decide the right course of action. Therefore, a purified brahmana should be requested to raise children by the wives of Vicitravirya. Satyabati later appointed her first son Vyashdeva, an honest, sense controlled, and freed from all sins. In due course Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura born.
Another incident I want to cite when Pandu was cursed to die if he got intimate with any woman, his wives Kunti and Madri had to option to niyoga with the Gods to reproduce their five sons – the Pandavas. Though this wasn’t as prescribed by Niyoga, it was packaged a bit to include the Gods (devas) to suit the requirements of the mothers of the pandavas.
In the Ramayana, Kalmashapada was the predecessor of Rama. His queen Madayanti had engaged to niyoga with sage Vashista to bear a child named Ashmaka. The Ramayana also adds that this act of “giving” his wife to a Brahmin helps Kalmashapada, the “father” attain heaven.
There have been instances of similar arrangements in other world cultures throughout history. One of them is Levirate Marriage which finds reference in Judaism, Islam and Christianity among others. Levirate Marriage is a type of marriage in which the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow, and the widow is obliged to marry her deceased husband’s brother. The key word here is obligation.
In the novel, Mathurobhagan (One Part Woman – published in English in 2014), Perumal Murugan brings to the fore the ritual that was practiced in Tiruchengonde, a small village in central Tamil Nadu. The story is created in the 1940s about a childless couple, kali and ponna, who are desperately looking for ways to conceive a child. The plot builds up to a ritual in the Maathorubaagan temple where the character joins other childless women engaging in free sex in an attempt to get impregnated. A child born out of such a process was treated as gift of God. This representation of women, this sexual permissiveness depicted, offended ardent religious fanatics and protests ensued; all concluding in the suicide. He is alright but freedom of speech had received a fatal blow in that moment for India.
In the modern age, Niyoga still survives. It only has put on new names. Surrogacy, IVF and artificial fertilization are a go-to as even today the root cause for the practice remains. The importance attached to a child and family ancestry still holds. However, for good reason the important thing to note here is that the role of women in this practice has changed. Whether for artificial fertilization using scientific methods involving no direct impregnation in picking out ideal surrogates, the husband and the wife both are equal participants in the decision making. IQ levels, appearances, family backgrounds, medical histories are just some of the parameters one can use to assess a possible surrogate, to make that best choice. Even the circumstances under which any of these is permitted have broadened now. In the more progressive states of today, a single woman is extended a right to artificial fertilization. Taking of a child by a single woman is not so big a stigma today and it is not so uncommon to find a happy family with one parent.
Surrogacy has been normalized now to a great degree, with celebrities like Aamir Khan and Shahrukh Khan resorting to it. India legalised commercial surrogacy in 2002. Since then, our country has been the favorite destination for people need a surrogate child. But the economical availability of the service has also led to the issue of exploitation.
Now a doubting character may raise a doubt about the legal validity of Niyoga by pointing out the flawed thought and labeling Noyoga as adultery. Let it be understood that Niyog is neither a sin nor an adulterous act. Niyoga is willful and consensual act of sex between a man and a woman with the sole intent of producing a baby and it is done within the knowledge of the social guidelines that the two belong to. So, Niyoga is not a sin or a crime because it is not done under the cover of darkness or in secrecy. On the other side, adultery is a nighttime affair where sex is performed for fun away from the inquisitive eyes of the social or moral police.
It would be a good idea to quote from the Satyarth Prakash what Maharishi Dayanand Saraswati wrote in reply to a question about procedure to be followed in Niyoga:
“Just as marriage is performed by proclamation, so is NIYOGA. As marriage requires sanction of the society and consent of the couple, so does Niyoga. When a man and a woman want to perform Niyoga, they ought to declare before men and women of their families that they want to enter into Niyoga relation for the sake of issues, that they will sever their connection when the purpose of Niyog is fulfilled, that they should be counted as sinners and be penalized by the society and the State if they do otherwise, that they will meet for intercourse only once a month and will abstain from intercourse for a year after the conception.
(The translation from Hindi into English was done by Pt Ganga Prasad Upadhyay, an renowned Vedic scholar and preacher par excellence)
He also advocated niyoga (which made allowances for the wife to be impregnated by a stranger with her husband’s permission if the husband was impotent) to minimize the chances of illicit relationships and for begetting healthy and strong children. Ironically, all the reformers in some way or the other thus attempted at reconstructing the image of Indian womanhood to suit the purposes of the patriarchal society. Women, themselves had very little scope to speak for their roles in society. With the change of times at the close of the twentieth century and the beginning of a new millennium, women now have the urge to seek self-identity and independence.
While such search for freedom from male oppression is desirable, this can also lead to social ostracism and expose them to extreme humiliation. Jyotirmoy Debi (1898– 1988), analyzes very dauntingly the condition of women in Indian society in her essay ‘Meyeder Moner Katha’. She tries to create awareness about the society’s insensitivity towards women over generations: Possibly, it’s too early to speak or even discuss about what goes on in a woman’s mind, but the times are surely appropriate to voice and consider the woman’s condition in society.
Also read Pt Ravi Shankar-The Eccentric Lover
Consult NIYOGA WIKIPEDIA