By Swami Harshananda
Niyoga literally means ‘appointing’.
In ancient societies, there seems to have been an inordinate hankering for a son, who could save a person from any calamity in the next world after death, with appropriate obsequal ceremonies performed here. Both the Ṛgveda and the Deuteronomy section of the Old Testament of the Bible refer to the practice of a childless widow marrying the brother of her husband to raise issues.
‘Niyoga’ literally means ‘appointing’. In a more technical sense it means the appointment of a childless wife or a widow to procreate a son from intercourse with an appointed male. Frequent wars among the kṣattriya princes and kings, leading to large scale deaths, leaving behind young childless widows, could have been one of the major causes for this practice. Another cause could have been getting a right over the husband’s property since a childless widow had been debarred from it except bare maintenance.
The Mahābhārata is full of instances of niyoga, the most well-known one being the command of Satyavatī to Vyāsa to procreate sons in the two widows of her son Vicitravīrya who died prematurely. Most of the dharmaśāstras have condemned the practice which must have existed in very ancient times though some have permitted it under stringent conditions.
Rigorous necessary conditions were laid down, for this. The most important of them were that the decision had to be taken by the elders of the family and the person had to be the brother of the husband or belonging to his gotra or pravara. The relation would last only till a son is born. Gradually the practice was frowned upon by all and was included under the list of kalivarjya items.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore