Is Adultery a Crime? This Story from Mahabharata Will Surprise You

Even our former colonial masters have given up their adultery law, so why are we clinging onto it?

2 min read

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether adultery is a crime. A five-judge Constitution Bench will assess the validity of Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises adultery. Another relic of colonial rule in India, the adultery law has been seen as gravely misogynistic by many.

The petitioners in this case seem to be taking a cue from our ancestors.

Author Gurcharan Das, whose latest book, ‘Kama: The Riddle of Desire’ has been released recently, narrates a tale from the Mahabharata to show how polygamy was the norm till certain laws were imposed on society. The below excerpt is part of a longer interview.


Mahabharata’s Acceptance of Polygamy

Gurcharan Das told me when we met, “It's very interesting that the Mahabharata has a lovely story about a young man Shwetaketu – the same guy who is a big hero in the Upanishads. Shwetaketu suddenly sees his mother going out with a different man every night, to find her coming home in the morning.”

The author went on to narrate that the young man looked at his father knowingly, but his father didn’t “seem to have any problems”.

One day, Shwetaketu can't stand it anymore and confronts his father, “don't you have a problem with your wife going out with different men?” To his surprise his father says, “No son. This is how the world has always been. Human beings are polygamous.”

For the Mahabharata to admit that there was a time when we were all polygamous is a big deal.

“Now of course, Shwetaketu grows up and becomes an important figure and he’s the one who enacts monogamy in the world,” says Das.

Shwetaketu’s Project, White Man’s Burden

“This (adultery law) is a remnant of our colonial past and proof of the fact that we’ve been brainwashed. This law has been removed from the books in England but it’s still there in our books. And the people who are fighting it, of course are the same people who fought against the decriminalization of Section 377, i e, mostly religious extremists across Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.

Divided by Beliefs, United in Misogyny

Gurcharan Das also said, “A lot of harm was done by Manu, just as harm was done by the medieval Christian law books and even Islam which stated that the woman, the adulteress, ought to be stoned to death.” “So it’s everywhere,” Das says about underlying misogyny in many religious scriptures.

He also observes, “The funny part is that the man can go to jail but the woman can’t because the woman is the property of the husband. We have to stop thinking in these patriarchal terms.”

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