The Supreme Court has decriminalised adultery. In a landmark judgment, CJI Deepak Mishra notes that the husband is not the master of his wife. He can no longer drag the adulterous man to the courts for a dalliance with his wife.
A five-judge Constitution Bench assessed the validity of Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises adultery and struck it down. 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 have taken 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 Acknowledges Adultery
Das says, “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 and she comes back home in the morning. He looks at his father and he doesn't seem to have any problems. So one day he can't stand it and asks his father, ‘Don't you have a problem about your wife going out with with different men?’ And he (father) says, ‘No son. This is how the world has always been. Human beings are polygamous.’ For the Mahabharat to admit that that there was a time when we were all polygamous is a very big deal.”
Das continues, “Now, of course, Shwetaketu grows up and becomes an important figure and he’s the one who enacts monogamy in the world.”
Shwetaketu’s Mission Carried Forward by the British Raj
The adultery law in the Indian books is a legacy of the British Raj. Das elaborates on it.
“This (adultery law) is a remnant of our colonial past and 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 decriminalisation of section 377, which is the religious people. The clerics of Islam, the clerics of Hinduism and the clerics of Christianity.”
Divided by Beliefs, United in Misogyny
Das acknowledges that all religions are essentially patriarchal in nature and safeguard men’s dominance over women. He says, “ A lot of harm was done by Manu also as well as the medieval Christian law books and even Islam where the woman, the adulteress, is meant to be stoned to death. So it’s everywhere. The funny part is that the man can go to jail but the woman can not because the woman is the property of the husband. We have to stop thinking in these patriarchal terms.”
In one fell swoop, the Supreme Court has changed this equation today.