Social Scientist. v 15, no. 165 (Feb 1987) p. 32.


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SUKUMARI BHATTACHARJI*

Prostitution in Ancient India

THE EARLIEST mention of prostitution occurs in the Rgveda^ the most ancient literary worlcof India. At first however we hear of the illicit lover, jara sindjatini—male and female lover of a married spouse. What distinguished such an illicit lover from the professional prostitute or her client is the regular payment for favours received. When we merely hear of an illicit lover there may or may not have been an exchange of gift; in a case of mutual consent gifts must have been optional. In the remote days of barter economy when money or currency wiis yet unknown, such gifts were equivalent to payment in cash. We have oblique references to women being given gifts for their favours, but the contexts leave us guessing whether the woman was a willing partner or whether she agreed to oblige in return for the gifts she received. But clearly, even in the earliest Vedic age, love outside wedlock was a familiar phenomenon and unions promoted by mere lust are mentioned in quite an uninhibited manner.

Prostitution as a profession appears in the literature of a few centuries after the Vedas although it must have been common in society much earlier. After the earliest Vedic literature between the twelfth and the ninth centuries B.C. (i.e., Rgveda, Books II-VII), we have a vast literature which covers the period between the eighth and the fifth centuries B.C. In this literature, too, we hear of the woman of easy virtue, of the wife's illicit love affairs.1

Extra-marital love may have been voluntary and unpaid but there is the possibility of it being regarded by the male partner as a form of service for which he was obliged to pay in some form. But as long as it was confined to a particular person, it was a temporary contract and was not regarded as a profession. The later Pali term muhuttia (lasting for an instant), or its Sanskrit equivalent muhurtika signified such purely temporary unions with no lasting relationship or obligation. Such affairs may have been voluntary or professional, depending on the attitude of the partners.

Gradually, there arose a section of women who, either because they could not find suitable husbands, or because of early widowhood, unsatisfactory married life or other social pressures especially if they had been violated, abducted or forcibly enjoyed and so denied an honourable status in society, or had been given away as gifts in religious or secular events—

'"Formerly Piofessoy of Sanskrit, Jadavpur University, Qil^utta.



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