‘May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons’: Social and Ethical Impact of Surrogacy in Ancient Indian Myths

Ralla Guha Niyogi

Basanti Devi College, Kolkata

Vol. 1, No. 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF

DOI: 10.21659/bp.v1n1.03


The practice and implications of surrogacy in the twenty-first century Indian society raise several interesting questions related to social and ethical issues like commercialization of women which are of significance in modern times. Surrogacy, however, is not a contemporary practice recently evolving in modern society. Its roots may be traced to ancient Indian society as depicted in our myths, where surrogacy was not only practised but also socially accepted. My discussion will be limited to referring to a few instances of surrogacy and its variations as found in these myths, where women come forth as strikingly forthright and often take independent decisions regarding their involvement in surrogate births, thus displaying many ‘modern’ responses.

            In the first part of my article, I shall discuss some instances of surrogate births which were not considered unethical by ancient society in general, though the woman was apparently regarded as merely an instrument to propagate the family line. What is more, any emotional turmoil or physical trauma that the woman might undergo in the process was subordinate to the urgent necessity of producing children to prevent extinction of the family name, involving in most cases the woman’s active or passive support.

            At the start, we must also keep in mind that the study of Hermeneutics, or the re-construction of the historical context of a literary work, speaks of analysing a text by placing it in the context of its times and the society in which it was located, while appreciating the cultural and social forces that might have influenced its outlook. Ethical or moral views and ideas of commercialization would have been far different in ancient times and therefore the actions and responses of mythological characters should be judged in the perspective of norms and accepted modes of social behaviour of that time. Thus what may seem ‘unethical’ or ‘commercial’ in the 21st century may have been the accepted code of conduct for men as well as for women in their contemporary social context. For this reason, we should be careful not to impose our own set of perceptions or apply our present-day standards of the rights and privileges of men and women in modern society on these ancient men and women who lived and acted in accordance with the ethical values or moral principles laid down by their society, that in turn controlled or influenced their behaviour.

            Birth in Indian mythology is initially conceived of as mental, not womb-born(a-yonija). From Vishnu’s navel a lotus emerges in which Brahma appears. In other versions the first creation is a golden egg (Hiranya-garbha) from which Brahma appears. Brahma creates mind-born sons (manas-putra) and a daughter Sandhya. When these do not agree to propagate, he creates from his mind Svayambhuva Manu and Shatarupa, the first couple, who produce humanity. In Greek mythology too, Athene appears out of Zeus’s head full grown, like Brahma’s sons and daughters.

            It is interesting to note that there are numerous instances of miraculous births in our epics. Rama and his brothers are womb-born after their mothers have consumed the magical pudding that the supernatural being appearing from the yajna-flames handed over to King Dasharatha. Jarasandha is also born after a miraculous mango is given to Brihadratha’s two queens by a sage. Each queen produces half a child and throws that away. The Rakshasi Jara joins the halves together to make a complete boy who is named after her.As she gave him life, so she is a surrogate mother in a way. Even our ‘Thakurmar Jhuli’ is full of tales of children born after mothers eat miraculous plants or fruits. No male agency appears to be needed. There are also instances of men turning into women and having children: Ila, from whom the lunar dynasty emerges, was the male Sudyumna and female Ila in alternate months and had sons in both conditions. Bhangasvana had a hundred sons as a man and another hundred as a woman, but preferred to remain a woman when given the choice…Full Text PDF