'Amorous kin – The Vedic and Avestan desire'

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

- Prathik Sudha Murali

Early references to the institution that is termed ‘marriage’:

The institution of marriage is as old as the Rig Veda, probably around 2500 BCE. The 10th mandala spells out a procedure of marriage that still is the main event in a Hindu marriage. The mantra talks about ‘pAnigrahaNa’ or taking hold of the hand. The husband says a verse to his wife on this occasion being; “garbhNAmi tE soubhagavtAya hastam mayA patyA jaradashtiryathAsa:….gArhapatyAya dEvA”

“I take your hand in mine for happy fortune and that you may reach old age with me, your husband. The gods have given you as the mistress of my house”

It is also evident that the Zoroastrians, the ancient inhabitants of Iran also knew of the contract of marriage. A portion of the Avesta (presumably 1000 BCE), is called ‘Yasht’, which talks predominantly about sacrifices (similar to the Sanskrit - ‘yashti’). The 17th Yasht, called the ‘Ashi Yasht’ gives a detailed account of the wailings of the goddess Ashi. She says;

“masyA verEzinsti sasyA, yat kanyO ushvAdhayanti…kuta hish asEm karanavANi?”

“The worst deed that is done by tyrants is that, they deprive maidens of marriage! What shall I do? Where shall I go?” (If you are a person who has a decent vocabulary of Sanskrit you may identify similar words like kanyA and kuta, meaning maiden and where respectively, such is the close connection of Avestan and Sanskrit)

Thus, it is evident that marriage as a social convention was known to mankind at least for the past 4000 years and that it was widespread. But, was it always between two strangers is a question this article tries to analyse.

The sibling incest – Desires of Yami:

In the 10th mandala of the Rig Veda, Yama and Yami, who are siblings argue with each other over their desires. Yami’s words imply, apart from the desire she experiences for a union with her brother, the arguments over acceptance of such a practice. There arises a situation where the count of mortals reduces and Yami uses this opportunity to express her desires to her brother.

She says that even the gods want this union to happen. She asks for the souls of the brother and sister to be knit together; he as the loving husband, who takes her as his consort. She goes onto justify that her desires are not against the ordinances of god and that this is acknowledged by the heavens and earth. She wishes to lie beside him on the same couch and yield herself to her brother, like a wife does to her husband.

Yama is afraid of public opinion and the rules of the gods Varuna and Mitra and refuses to budge over her requests. Yama says that there will be times where brothers and sisters will unite, but that his arm shall not be her pillow. He says that people call it a sin when a brother comes near his sister and that he shall therefore not put his arms around her body.

Upon hearing his excuses of being afraid of the laws and of public opinion, she calls her brother weak and that he has no heart. She questions the relationship of a brother and sister. She says “Is he a brother when she has no lord? Is she a sister when destruction arrives?”, as if to suggest even these relationships are a social construct.

Later, during the period of the dharmasutras (circa 2nd Century BCE), a marriage contract between cousins is specifically prohibited. However, it says that this is allowed for south Indian Brahmins as it has been in practice since time immemorial. However; this exception is only for a cousin and not the sister.

The Cohabiting father:

The majority of translators of the Vedas into English have either not translated the verses of the 61st sukta (Poem) of the 10th Mandala (Chapter), or did it in Latin so that people do not understand the meaning of these verses. Even the Wikipedia page of the said sukta has these verses missing in text.

These verses of the Rig Veda talk about a god called Prajapati cohabiting with his daughter. Prajapati makes love to his own daughter which is denoted by the words of the 6th mantra, being “kAmam karnvANE pitari yuvatyAm”. The Veda also lauds this act as well performed (sukrutasya yOnau).

This act however is seen as not in line with good conduct, hence in the Shatapatha Brahmana (later extension of the Veda Samhita) and the much later puranas hold that Rudra (Puranic Shiva) punished prajapati for the same.

The Avestan agreement:

It is clear from evidences that ancient Persians had incest marriage contracts between a mother and a son and that these were considered sacred. The Zorastrian texts call this as ‘khvEtuk-dAs’. This practice among Persians is also noted by the Indian Smritis. The Smriti of Brihspati (Circa 2nd Century BCE), advices a king not to disturb long lasting practices of certain regions, even though it may be improper. It cites several instances as examples, one such example is that of marrying one’s own mother in the Persian country (mAtruvivAhOpi pArasIkEshu drishyatE- we see maternal marriage in Persia).

Thus, we observe that the thought of incest desire, marriage and consummation existed in both ancient Indian and Persian cultures. Later sources from both the cultures deny and do not approve of such practices. Today’s Parsis interpret the khvEtukdas to be allowed only between second cousins and not in the maternal sense. Also, the smritis of Hinduism have specifically prohibited some of these practices as have been dealt with in this article itself. Further, many later interpreters of the Vedas have ascribed philosophical meanings to such poems and stake a claim to deny the literal meaning.

Though it is not practical, nor essential to extrapolate and create a debate on the appropriateness of such statements and practices in the current scenario, these texts and such observations from them form a very interesting study of belief systems and practices in the ancient world. They also help to comprehend how human society has molded itself and changed its morality, practices and beliefs over the millennia that it has crossed in between to land in 2019, today.


Rig Veda-X.10 Avesta Yashti-17.59 Translated by K.E.Kanga Bodhayana Dharma Sutra-1.2.3 Rig Veda X.61 Sacred books of the East – Vol 18

The author can be reached at sahagamana@gmail.com

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