While absence of a cohesive legislation to regulate the booming surrogacy industry undermining  women’s health and rights, it continues to be a controversial, sensitive topic. It may come as a surprise that surrogacy existed in ancient times as well, widely mentioned in our mythology, and was practised, socially accepted and even respected.

Kartikey, the god of war, often termed ironically as the god of fertility , was born out of surrogacy through Shiva and not Parvati’s womb, the surrogate mother being Ganga.

A conversation between King Pandu and Kunti where he begs his wife to perform niyog, (where a woman whose husband was either dead or impotent could choose and appoint a person for helping her bear a child, often a rishi or her brother-in-law). This childless couple discuss surrogate fatherhood elaborately with each listing out examples. The Ikshvaku king Saudasa had a son Ashmak through his queen Madayanti and Rishi Vasisht. The Kuru Queen Satyavati got her illegitimate son rishi Vyas to perform niyog on her two widowed,  childless daughters-in-law Ambika and Ambalika, to give birth to a blind Dhritarashtra and a sickly, pale Pandu respectively – both unhealthy sons, a consequence of the unhealthiness of the conception performed by a reluctant Vyas and the two reluctant widows. Niyog only if performed by a consenting woman, produced healthy heirs as is proved by Kunti with Indra, Dharma and Vayu to produce Arjun, Yudhistir and Bhim respectively while the twins Nakul and Sahadev were born from Madri, Pandu’s second wife and the Ashwini twins.

Kartikey, the god of war, often termed ironically as the god of fertility , was born out of surrogacy through Shiva and not Parvati’s womb, the surrogate mother being Ganga.

Surrogacy, or the transfer of embryo from one womb to another was not unheard of. The birth of Balaram, the seventh child of Krishna’s parents Devaki and Vasudev, where the embryo was transferred to the womb of Rohini (Vasudev’s first wife), to prevent the baby being killed by Devaki’s brother Kamsa. Reference of surrogacy is also evident in Mahabharat where the birth of Draupadi and her twin brother out of Yagnakunda. Gandhari, wife of king Dhritarashtra, conceived but endured a long pregnancy  for nearly two years; after which she delivered a mass. Rishi Vyasa found that there were 101 cells that were were put in a nutrient medium and were grown outside the womb till full term. Of these, 100 developed into the male  Kauravas and one as a female child, Dushala.

Goddess of All Things

Kartikey, the god of war, often termed ironically as the god of fertility , was born out of surrogacy through Shiva and not Parvati’s womb, the surrogate mother being Ganga.

 It may come as a surprise that surrogacy existed in ancient times as well, widely mentioned in our mythology, and was practised, socially accepted and even respected.

Clearly, there is no conflict between the socio-religious mores and assisted reproduction, often accepted as a form of treatment and not a violation of religious belief or personal freedom.

The classic womb-on-rent is shown through the story of Madhavi, the beautiful daughter of King Yayati, who was blessed with a rare boon that she would mother emperors, and with each childbirth she would regain her virginity. She was given by King Yayati to one Rishi Galav as he could not furnish the rishi’s odd request for 800 white black-eared horses, his gurudakshina for Vishwamitra. Galav offered Madhavi to three kings,  Haryasva of Ikshvaku race of Ayodhya, King Divodasa of Kashi and King Ushinara of Bhojanagari , who each gave him two hundred ashwamedhi horses in exchange for an heir. Finally, Vishwamitra by accepting Madhavi forfeited his claim of the remaining 200 horses and Galav’s debt is cleared. Yayati arranges for Madhavi’s swayamvar, as many suitors (including the three kings who had sons by her) were keen to marry her. But, Madhavi, disinterested in marriage or childbearing, refuses to retire to the forest to live as an ascetic.

While this episode may shock the modern reader likely to consider that a woman was regarded merely as a commodity from ancient  times, Madhavi’s story is a lesson even then and  even now. While displaying how the then society endowed women with respect after they had served the purpose of propagating royal dynasties, it echoes eerily on the exploitation and commodification of today’s women too. Madhavi’s four sons grow up to become great kings and are aware of their birth and proudly call themselves the sons of Madhavi, reserving deep love and reverence for their mother and saluting her. All of them  obeyed her when she requested them to make her father Yayati, ascend to heaven by virtue of their good deeds, proving they were always and firstly, their mother’s sons.

However bizarre or shocking this story may seem, one cannot always  impose current  standards and perceptions of contemporary society on these ancient people who acted according to the socio-ethical mores of those times to define and influence their behaviour. Madhavi herself recommends the solution to Galav when he voices his dilemma, showing her consent. But later, by refusing to have her swayamwar, rejecting marraige, men and the royal mansion for the wild forest instead, she shows her hurt, her protest and her disillusionment at the social and personal injustice meted out to her.

Surrogacy flourishes even now, preferred vastly to adoption of  a child but the next time, as we peruse though some high-profile case, probably we need to think of that unknown, faceless woman, probably a modern Madhavi, who has agreed to sell her womb to some wealthy person or a celebrity?

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