According to Dr. Rachel Kieran, a psychologist, the term polyamory “has been used as an umbrella term. However, this concept covers a vast range of relational agreements, each determined by the individuals involved. Terms used to identify such relationships are as numerous as the individuals who endorse them, continue to evolve within cultures, and are often dependent upon the particular configuration of the couple, triad, or family at a given moment.”
Polyamorous (poly) individuals usually describe polyamory as having a network of lovers, rather than having just one. It means having different people who you can relate to and share different facets of your personality with; and it being both consensual and the same for one’s partner(s).
The affectionately named “polycule” symbol consists of a ring of five inward-facing hearts representing core elements of polyamory: love, honesty, openness, commitment, and consent.
India has had a long past of poly relationships which ranged from polygamy to polyandry to various other forms of group marriages, but there was a significant change in mainstream narratives as we moved from the past to the new.
Several waves of cultural movements changed the sexual landscape of this country. Thus, a nation with the eroctic temples of Khajuraho, the sexual text of “Kama Sutra”, its several promiscuous gods and goddesses like Krishna, became a veiled society.
Here, modesty is the rule of thumb now, coexisting with Shiva lingams and scriptures dedicated to love making as an art form.
All this is, of course, being challenged today by the changing definitions of relationships. From LGBTQIA+ rights gaining more prominence in the mainstream, to the decriminalisation of adultery, there is a change in discourse around the universality of hetero-normative relationships.
While the past might point to monogamy not being the default relationship, it does certainly throw light on the intersection of various social circumstances, like casteism and gender issues, within poly relationships of ancient India.
With the Vedas permitting “brahmins” upwards of three wives and a “shudra” with one, it clearly shows the discriminatory tint of ancient India. Islamic polygamy is codified in Muslim family law in India, in what seems like another anachronistic type of poly relationship.
In contrast to this, we have modern, consensual, poly relationships, where acceptance and power structures are challenged on a personal day-to-day basis.
In an anonymous survey I conducted, by asking people to sign google forms, 14 (63%) individuals out of a total number of 22, considered polyamory a way to challenge the institution of marriage.
Many poly people point out that they don’t want to accept societal systems, expectations or roles by default. They also reiterate that they try to be aware of the traditional power dynamics within a relationship and work against it, while empowering each other.
Here is the result of a small survey conducted by me among my friends and acquaintances. The demographic of the individuals was 9 females and 13 males. Out of them, only one identified as poly.
There were some contesting opinions about whether poly people face discrimination or not, but apart from four individuals who were unsure, 18 concurred to discrimination in their opinion.
And, on the opinion of the need for some sort of state intervention or the other, 10 persons were in favour; eight against it; and four considered it to be agreeable, but not requiring immediate attention.
Consensual polyamory, although still not a mainstream notion, has amassed its fair share of criticism from both ends of the political spectrum.
The idea that polyamory is a result of the isolatory nature of the modern capitalist society, where individuals find themselves increasingly burnt out and seek emotional connections from various individuals, is gaining traction among various thinkers.
Many activists like Yasmin Nair, a co-founder of Against Equality, an anti-capitalist collective of radical queer and trans writers, thinkers, and artists, criticized polyamory by arguing that instead of being a radical notion, it’s a redundant and fetishizes “a peculiar form of monogamy…and long-term relationships.”
Nair goes on to add that most radical notions related to polyamory like having a better emotional support system and better financial and structural support are systematic issues and failures.
I believe that polyamory just treats the symptoms while hiding the causes. To change and revolutionize the various aspects of marriage and relationships without changing the existing culture notions of power dynamics isn’t enough. Long lasting changes are wrought by changing the base of economics and institutionalised systems.
Other criticisms say that polyamory does not account for the existing gender dynamics and issues, which might align against vulnerable groups like women, queer folk and financially unstable partners. This along with the added issue of there not being a legal code to deal with such issues.
Legal codes pertaining to polyamory, although in their infancy, are being discussed in the west. These codes are bound to run into enormous challenges in light of conflicting family codes of the land, based on religion.
Radical feminists argue that “co-opting and rebranding of polygamy” is disturbing. They also point out that the idea of non-monogamy was actually developed by radical feminists “to challenge patriarchal heterosexuality”, which is not the notion behind polyamory. Rather, polyamory is a rebranding of polygyny.
In the same small-sized survey conducted by me, among among young adults, on the question of women and vulnerable individuals being at greater risk of not having their needs met, the following results were evident:
The philosophical debate behind the morality, ethics and the issues surrounding the emergence of polyamory as a new form of expressing oneself into relationships, needs to face the criticism. It also needs to highlight the radical nature and revolutionary aspect of it.
The total number of polyamorous individuals, though hard to estimate, are being guessed by researchers who are just beginning to study the phenomenon. But, the few who do estimate, state that openly polyamorous families in the US alone number more that half a million.
India isn’t too far behind with its increasingly digitized dating space. The number of polyamorous individuals is on the rise.
I think that the debate about poly relationships being the next big cultural and sexual revolution, or just an expression of the flaws of our sick society, still needs to be resolved.
Nevertheless, one thing is for sure: polyamorous relationships are here to stay.
Hence, it’s high time we acknowledge them and consider the advantages and issues arising out of such relationships.