There is a blessing in Sanskrit – you may have heard of it – Ashtaputra saubhagyawati bhava. May you remain married and be the mother of eight sons. It always puzzled me, as a child. Eight sons. EIGHT SONS? I mean, sure, patriarchy, so daughters are worthless and your only worth as a woman is in how many men you give birth to, but still. Eight sons? Seemed like overkill.
Now, in the newly minted wisdom of my forty years, that blessing seems understandable. With context.
See, a woman in the days of yore, was purely a dependent. Since she wasn’t allowed to work outside the house, she had no income. She had no wealth of her own, aside from whatever jewellery she was given by her parents for her wedding. That jewellery, even today called streedhan – the wealth of the woman – was her sole asset. For everything else, she depended on someone else. Before marriage, her father. After marriage, her husband. If you were married, nobody could mess with you. Theoretically. You had a house to shelter you, a family to protect you, your basic needs were taken care of. No wonder then that a married woman was called a saubhagyawati – the one blessed with good fortune.
Because if you weren’t a saubhagyawati, you were truly unfortunate.
Of course, given the long-standing tradition of child marriage, especially the prevalence of young girls, often aged 9-10, being married off to much older men, often widowers - the chances of one's husband dying were pretty high. And after your husband died, you weren’t just a widow. You were a target.
You lived on the mercy of your in-laws: they decided how much food you deserved, what chores you needed to do to earn your keep, where you slept and how much verbal abuse you took – in exchange for the food and shelter you got. Your jewellery, your streedhan, would be taken – what need did a widow have for such things anyway? It could be so much better utilised as payment for all the money the family spent on your upkeep, and then some. Otherwise, you were free to go to a widows’ home or live destitute on the streets, begging out your existence. Even if you had a daughter – because what self-respecting mother would be her daughter’s dependent? Even if she agreed to be, what family would agree to look after a daughter-in-law’s mother?
And then, there was the fact that widows were also vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse behind the closed doors of patriarchal homes. Perhaps that’s why so many went meekly to the sati pyre, preferring an agonising death over years of untold horror ahead.
But it was an altogether different scenario, if you had a son. As the new head of the household, your son could offer you protection in your old age. You wouldn’t be some abject widow, but the mother of the man of the house. And your position would be – if not equal to the married women of the home – then at least one of respect. Even if your son wasn’t the head of the household – if an uncle was alive, for instance – you had someone to watch your back. Someone who could speak up for you, at a time when women didn’t have a voice.
So, it paid to be the mother of a son. A son. Singular. Then why wish someone to have eight?!? My guess? Infant mortality. As late as the 1900s, India’s infant mortality rate was a whopping 53%. So half the children born in India, basically died in infancy. If half the children you bear – remember, contraception wasn’t widely available or for that matter, embraced, till much, much later – are going to die, it’s a numbers game. The royals might have believed in an heir and a spare, but for ordinary people those were rubbish odds. And besides, even if your child survived miraculously into adulthood, guess what? The life expectancy of Indians? Ridiculously low in the 1800s. Back then, an Indian could just about manage to reach 25 years of age, before kicking the bucket. True story. Till the mid 1900s, in fact, with a little help from the Great Famine, the Spanish Flu and smallpox, not to mention poverty, the average Indian could only hope to live to the ripe old age of...35.
Which essentially meant that even if you produced two strapping sons, should you outlive them, you were still screwed. In other words, it all came down to probability. Instead of placing your eggs in just 2 baskets (literally, ehehehe), wouldn’t it make more sense to put them in 8? That way, even if you just had spectacularly bad luck, you still had a reasonable chance of not ending up on your ass, on the streets, with nobody to look after you.
Of course, all this is just conjecture on my part. And hey, who knows? Maybe blessing someone with eternal marriage to someone waaaaaay older, and a brood just 3 short of a cricket team, might have benign intentions behind it. But somehow - I doubt it. How about you?