Abandonment and exposure in Hindu Religion

The ancient Sanskrit literature of India appears to have preserved some remnants of the time when the patria potestas gave the father a right to abandon and expose his children, especially daughters.

Thus it is stated in the law book of Vasistha, that the father and the mother have power to give, to sell, and to abandon their son. More ambiguous is a text in the Yajur Veda, to the effect that they put aside a girl immediately after effect that they put aside a girl immediately after her birth. It is no means certain that this putting aside of a daughter is an equivalent for exposing her, as was supposed by some writers.

Others explain the term as referring to the delivery of a girl to her nurse or attendant. It is true that female infanticide had been a common practices with same castes up to very recent times, and the barbarous custom of widow-burning (sati) would seem to show that sentiment could not have stood in the way if it was though expedient to do away with female children as soon as born. As regards the desertion of sons, there are , particularly, the law-texts referring to the rights and position of the apavidha, or son cast off, one of the twelve species of sons that are enumerated and described by Indian legislators. Thus in the code of Manu, the apavidha is described as one deserted by his parents or by either of them. The old comment or (medhatithi) adds that the reason of the desertion may be either extreme distress of the parents, or the committing of some fault on the part of the body. If someone else takes pity on the helpless child and may perhaps be viewed as a relic without a just cause.

Yajnavalkya says : whoever being father and son, sister and brother, husband and wife, preceptor and pupil, abandon each other when not degraded (put out of caste) shall be fined 100 panas. Analogous rules are laid down by Vishnu, v.113 and Manu, viii 389. The practice of buying or selling children is specially reprobated. The desertion or repudiation of a wife is frequently referred to in the law books as a punishment for misconduct on her part, but it appears that in most cases she was not to be deprived of a bare maintenance. In a modern text, the repudiation of a wife for any offence short of adultery is characterized as a practice no longer fit for the present (or kali) age. The higher Hindu castes of the present day do not admit divorce or repudiation except for very stringent reasons, if at all; but it is common enough among the lower castes, especially those of Dravidian origin, where the marriage tie is very loose. For the supposed abandonment and exposure of old people, Sanskrit literature seems to contain no other evidence than a text of the atharva Veda. In which the spirits of exposed ancestors are invoked side by side with those buried or burnt. However, the term exposed (uddhita) is ambiguous on the summits of hills or to those on tress, according to Persian fashion. Exposure of old people, in a certain way, may be found in the barbarous custom, suppressed by the British government, of taking persons supposed to be dying to the banks of the Ganges and immersing them in water.

Source: Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics: Volume 1. Edited by James Hastings, James Hastings John A Selbie

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