All available information on the way of life of peoples of simple food- gathering societies leads to the conclusion that a family composed of one male and one female, who care for the needs of their immature offspring, may afford one of the most efficient ways of keeping down the mortality rate and facilitating community survival.
Discussing the importance of monogamy in the earlier parts of human history, Melville Jacobs and Bernhard Stern write:
When a distinction is made between basic social relationship and relationships that are largely sexual, there is not a society in the world that is other than monogamous as far as the majority of its people go.
The people in societies of low-technological level cannot take care of unmarried adults who know only the skills of their own sex and not those of the other sex.
Monogamy seems to be the earliest form of marriage though its evolution has been controversial. Some argue that in the earlier periods of history there was promiscuity, followed by matriarchal and patriarchal forms of marriage.
But there is also enough evidence to suggest that before the emergence of agriculture, people of subsistence economy had monogamous marriage.
If we do not enter into the debate and look at the present popular form of marriage, it could be safely said that all over the world monogamy is the most favourite form of marriage. Even those who practice polygamy-polygyny and polyandry-are returning to monogamy. The tribals in India are also abandoning polygyny.
The classical Hindu joint family is also getting weak in the present context of globalization. If democracy has become a standard mode of government, monogamy has become a standard form of marriage all over the world. In all cases, it consists of husband, wife and unmarried children.
Though popularly polygamy is understood to mean marriage with two or more wives, it properly designates marriage of either a man or a woman with more than one mate.
What is commonly reckoned as polygamy is accurately called polygyny, the complementary institution being polyandry. In addition it must be considered as the union of a group of men with a group of women-a custom known as ‘group marriage’.
Robert H. Lowie has written authoritatively on primitive society. His book Primitive Society is considered to be the second important work after Morgan’s Ancient Society. While working among tribals, Lowie has found and recorded several cases of polygyny. Introducing this form of marriage Lowie observes:
Polygyny is one of those dangerous catch words that required careful scrutiny lest there result a total misunderstanding of the conditions it is meant to characterize. In every human society, the number of male and of female individuals born is approximately equal.
Hence, in order to have either polygyny or polyandry as a fairly common practice, it is obviously necessary that some non-biological factor should disturb the natural ratio.
Lowie has put his argument in a very logical way. He says that nature has ordained human procreation in such a way that the ratio of males and females in a society remains more or less equal. In such a situation, polygyny or polyandry is created not by nature or due to biological reasons.
They are the cultural constructs made by society. If some people keep more than one wife, some others will have to go without a wife. Similarly, if the natural equilibrium of male-female ratio is disturbed, there would be two or more men to share one wife. Lowie argues that except monogamy all other forms of marriage are socially and culturally constructed.
The answer to this question can be sought with reference to history. In simple food-gathering economies polygyny was rare, though it was permissible. Since the sexes were of equal status it was not often that a woman wanted another wife in her home occasionally, however, she asked her husband to take another wife, or she acceded to his wish for another.
However, three or more wives were virtually never found in these societies, if for no other reason than because the lowly economy involved so much labour for the husband in fulfilling his portion of the household’s productive work.
But, with the advances made by these food-gathering societies, there emerged hereditary wealthy headmen who took it as a matter of social position to purchase from two to as many as five wives, but more than five were rarely found. Besides the headmen, there were a few of his kinsmen who were also able to afford second wife.
The advanced food-gathering stage was followed by agricultural societies. With small surplus produce they were as good as advanced food-gathering societies. Therefore, they also did not go for a second wife. Lowie critically examines the available empirical evidences. He says that the practice of polygyny is found among the Eskimos. Eskimos work as hunters of fish in the Arctic Sea.
The life of the fishermen is quite risky. This reduces the male population. Thus, polygyny becomes arithmetically possible among them. This form of marriage is also found in many parts of Africa.
Here, there is an extraordinary multiplicity of wives. Lowie says that there have been well-authenticated cases of men with five, ten, twenty and even sixty wives. Lowie thus makes his hypothesis on polygyny clear:
Unfortunately, none of the authorities I have seen on the subject deigns to furnish us with data as to the relative numbers of the sexes. From remarks incidentally dropped by them it seems certain that only the wealthy and the eminent man have polygynous households.
Lowie has also referred to the polygynous situation of the Kikuyu tribe of East Africa where two or three wives were common, and the rich had six or seven.
The African data also help Lowie to make yet another generalization. He says that in polygyny one is required to pay bride-price. The amount of bride-price is so high that for most of the people it is difficult to go for polygyny.
In this situation, polygyny became the luxury of the rich only. On the basis of such empirical evidences from Eskimos as well as from Africa, the following inferences about polygyny can be drawn:
(1) Nature has biologically balanced male-female ratio. This permits only monogamy. Polygyny is socially and culturally constructed.
(2) In some societies males are exposed to serious risks as are the Eskimos, and the male-female ratio is disturbed, giving rise to polygyny.
(3) In food-gathering societies, the status of males and females is almost equal. It naturally does not promote polygyny.
(4) In agricultural societies, where the landholding is large and additional hands are required, polygyny is prevalent.
(5) The bride-price also gives rise to polygyny. Those who can afford it go for polygyny.
(6) Polygyny does not encourage the degradation of women. In most cases it is the first wife who encourages her husband to take on a second wife with the objective of shifting part of her household duties on other shoulders. Like the Kikuyu wife, she would address her husband: “Why have I to do all the work; why do you not buy another wife?”
Considering all the empirical data that are available from tribal societies it could be concluded that polygyny is practiced only among the wealthier classes, whose males can afford to buy multiple wives.
These societies, mostly agricultural, were wealthy enough to permit the nobles or monarchs to exceed by far the maximum of five wives found in African tribes. It is said that some of the African monarchs have been reported to have had hundreds of wives.
The Indian scene is not very different from that of African. Here too, tribals who numbered more than 400 groups also practice polygyny. It is a different thing that in the wake of development and modernization polygyny among them is increasingly decreasing.
The monarchs or the rulers in our country also had a band of wives in their palaces. In Hindu mythology, Dasharath of Ramayana had three wives. The rulers of princely states also had a rich tradition of polygyny. Very clearly, polygyny has been the idiom of the rich class. It was assumed that polygyny gives status to a man.
Our description of polygynous marriage would remain incomplete if we do not mention anything about the patterns of relationship in this kind of family. In Africa, where the number of wives is considerable, each wife occupies a separate hut with her children and manages an independent household.
It should also be said that harmony in the polygynous family lies in the definite superiority of the first wife. It is said that all the other wives serve as maids of the first wife.
Today, however, polygyny is on the way to extinction. It must also be observed that its emergence is not due to biological reasons. In all situations it is a form of marriage which is constructed by the society. As Lowie opines:
But the one fact that it is most important to remember is that while probably a majority of primitive tribes permit polygyny, biological and in some measure social conditions prevent the majority within any one group from availing themselves of their theoretical prerogative.
Here, it should be made clear that in a tribe, which is theoretically polygynous, does not mean that a majority of members practice polygyny. It is empirically the privilege of very few.
Admittedly, the practice of polyandry has been rare. Claims for its presence suggest that less than 1 per cent of the peoples of the worlds.
tribes or other politically independent units have permitted it. Moreover, where polyandry was permitted only some of the families were polyandrous while the majority of the persons in such societies lived in monogamous or polygynous family. This form of marriage is that where one woman has many husbands.
John Lewis has provided a definition of polyandry. He says: “It is a marriage in which a woman can have more than one husband at the same time.” Polyandry has been found in small number of societies.
In simple food-gathering societies, it has been reported, for example, among the Wahuma tribals of East Africa and among the tribal groups of Tibet and Toda (southern India).
Among the Wahumas polyandry is an altogether unique phenomenon. Though it is legitimate to practice polyandry, it is not a dominant institution among them. When a man is too poor to buy a wife alone, he is assisted by his brothers, and they share his marital rights until the woman’s pregnancy, when they become his exclusive prerogative.
We have also noted earlier that there is prevalence of polygyny among the Eskimos. But there are instances wherein the group also practices polyandry. It should be said that among Eskimos polygyny and polyandry go together.
Among certain Eskimo communities the conditions of life are so arduous that female children are considered a burden and are killed frequently after birth, “and thus the polygynous tendency due to the perils of masculine life is more than checked”.
There is wide prevalence of polyandry among the Todas of Nil- giris. Why do they practice polyandry? We have some data which indicate that in the past the tribe had marked excess of men over women, coupled with the practice of female infanticide. But this custom has been abandoned and now there is a progressive diminution of male preponderance.
Among the Todas, when a man marries a woman it is understood that she automatically becomes the wife of his brothers, who normally live together. Even a brother born afterwards will be regarded as sharing his elder brother’s rights.
In such cases of fraternal polyandry no disputes ever arise among the husbands, and the very notion of such a possibility is flouted by the Toda mind.
When the wife becomes pregnant, the eldest of her husband’s performs a ceremony with a bow and arrow by which legal fatherhood is conventionally established in this tribe, but all the brothers are reckoned to be the child’s fathers.
“The situation becomes more complicated when a woman weds several men who are not brothers and who, as may happen, live in different villages. This is non-fraternal polyandry. When the husbands are scattered over several villages, the wife usually lives for a month with each in turn, though there is no absolute rule.
In such cases, the determination of fatherhood in a legal sense is extremely interesting. For all social purposes that husband who performs the bow and arrow ceremony during the wife’s pregnancy establishes his status as father not only of the first child but of any children born subsequently until one of the other husbands performs the requisite rite.
Usually it is agreed that the first two or three children shall belong to the first husband, that at a later pregnancy another shall establish paternal rights, and so forth.” Among Todas, thus, biological paternity is completely disregarded; for a man long dead is considered the father of a child provided no other man has performed the essential ceremony.