From Sacrament to Contract – The Changing Nature of Hindu Marriages in India

By Sandhya Shyamsundar, WBNUJS, Kolkata.

Marriage has been, since the ancient times, one of the most important social institutions. It implies the union of man and woman in body and soul. Sociologists have offered various definitions of marriage, among them being Malinowski’s i.e ‘a contract for the production and maintenance of children’ whereas according to Robert H Lowie, marriage is ‘a relatively permanent bond between permissible mates.’

The Hindus attach religious sentiments to marriage. To them, marriage is a sacrament which must be performed in order to attain salvation. Being catalyzed by the explosive economic, social and cultural changes that have molded the needs of people in Indian society, the aims, functions and motives of Hindu marriages have kept on evolving with the demand of its constituent members. Arranged marriages are shattering, divorce rates soaring and new paradigms of sex and relationships are being explored. New norms are being formed and we live in a constant molten state of confusion. The concept of Hindu marriage has undergone a drastic change – the entire focus has now shifted from marriage being a holy sacrament to a formal contract.

Hinduism revolves around the theory of spiritualism which lays down that Brahman is the all superior being and that the most crucial aim for any Hindu is to attain ‘Moksha’ so that, after death, he/she can be merged with the infinite one and be freed from the cycle of rebirth.  This whole concept of attaining salvation drives Hindus to strictly conform to the norms of society; and marriage, being one of the norms, is almost obligatory and unavoidable.

[sociallocker]

Just like majority societies of the world, Hindu marriage is purely seen as a universal ‘customary practice’ in India. Hinduism provides ten Samskaras i.e rites for man, Vivaha i.e marriage being the last of them. And according to the Hindu Shastras, a man’s life is divided into four Ashrama (stages) wherein marriage is associated with the second ashrama i.e the Grihasta Ashrama (the stage of the householder). Here, marriage is a sacrament and not a mere social or civil contract – it is an indissoluble and irrevocable bond. Its purpose, accordingly, is not to allow mere physical pleasure to man but to ensure his spiritual growth.

The aims of marriage are Dharma (religion), Praja (progeny) and Rati (sexual satisfaction), the last being the least important – all done with one goal in mind – to attain Moksha and pave one’s path to eternal peace. Polygamy was permitted for Indian Hindus with instances of polyandry and polygyny being cited in two of the greatest Indian epics i.e. The Mahabharata and  The Ramayana. Priests were relied on for mate selection which was primarily based on the use of Jathakam or Janam Kundali. Arranged marriages were rampant which idealized that love between the couple would deepen and grow over time.

Inter caste marriages were rarely allowed- the practice of Anuloma marriage (between a man of higher caste and a woman of lower caste) and Pratiloma marriage (between a woman of higher and a man of lower caste) could never be disputed in shastric societies. Apart from religion endogamy, exogamous marriages like gotra, pravara and sapinda are also practiced. Gotra refers to a group of families who trace their origin from a common ancestor and consider themselves to be blood relatives whereas families belonging to the same pravara, share a common saint. Among Hindu marriages, marrying within the pinda i.e marrying among first cousins is strictly prohibited.

The entire concept of marriage in Hinduism is heavily endowed with religious sentiments. This is now greatly changed and Hindu marriage has assumed a contractual form for the benefit of both parties involved, duly aided by socio- legal reforms.

Over the past few decades, significant changes have been taken place in the institution of marriage in India. These changes have been caused by a variety of factors including various processes of change like industrialization, democratization and modernization, spread of education, women emancipation movement, social reform movements, impact of western culture, social legislations, role of media, urbanization, etc.

Traditional approach to marriage has changed. Before, it was seen as a compulsory bond and unmarried life was considered a taboo. Though Hindu marriage was considered to be sacrosanct and indissoluble; the Hindu marriage Act, 1995 permits divorce on various grounds of adultery, cruelty, unsoundness of mind, mutual consent, etc. The Act also lays down restitution of conjugal rights in cases of desertion. This has virtually affected the stability of marriages and, divorces are happening on a rampant scale. Also, Live in relationships are being preferred over marriages for convenience reasons.

A significant transformation has taken place regarding the aims of marriage. The aims of Marriage, earlier, were linked to the 4 Purusharthas in Hinduism. Today, marriages take place not only for performing religious duties but for personal and practical reasons like obtaining love and companionship, economic independence and financial stability, emotional support, to establish a family, etc. Monogamous marriages are generally practiced among Hindus. Other forms like bigamy, polygyny and polyandry are considered void and are prohibited under the Hindu marriage Act. Remedies for bigamous marriages are also available under the criminal law.

In traditional India, rules of exogamy and endogamy were followed by Hindus. Today, as per the Hindu Marriage Act, inter religious and inter caste marriages are permitted. Difference between Anuloma and Pratiloma marriages are eradicated by legal provisions. Today, persons are permitted to marry within the same gotra and pravara. Consanguineous marriage that is marrying within sapinda relationship is prohibited the Hindu marriage act, 1955.

Earlier, there was no particular age limit for marriage- child marriage was practiced abundantly in India. Today, relief for child marriage can be obtained under the Child Marriage Restraint Act-1929, Civil law, Criminal law and Matrimonial law. The bridegroom must have completed the age of twenty one years and the bride, the age of eighteen years at the time of marriage. Adult marriages or late marriages by educated people are preferred over child marriage in order to gain economic independence, career achievement, higher education, etc.

Formerly, marriages only required religious and social approval but in modern times, it requires legal sanction as well. Under the Special Marriage Act-1954, registration in government offices is an integral part of marriage. The Big fat Indian wedding performed flamboyantly among Hindus is taking a slight step forward towards preference regarding registered marriages.

Indian women, traditionally, had no say in the selection of her marriage partner – marriages were fully controlled by parents, relatives, astrologers and matchmakers. With global westernization, ‘love marriages’ are now replacing arranged marriages. A new concept of love-cum arranged marriage is also gaining popularity among the youth. Marriage bureaus and online matrimonial sites (e.g: shadi.com) are now gaining momentum due to the shift from a collectivistic society to an individualistic one.  The criteria for mate selection have changed from just caste and religion to looks, annual income of the candidate, education, family reputation, etc.

Problems relating to marriage have been solved through socio-legal provisions. Previously, the concept of stridhan was integral during the wedding ritual which degenerated into dowry. Under the Hindu Marriage Act, the relief for dowry incidents is that of divorce on the ground of cruelty and property disposition whereas taking dowry from the bride is an offence under the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961.

There is also a shift noticed in the wedding attire. Though people still stick to the traditional Hindu costumes, the vermilion and mangalsutra that symbolize holiness of marriage; new fashion trends are seeping in. People, especially the elite class, hire fashion designers to cull out new clothing styles drawing inspiration from Bollywood celebrities.

Thus, we can clearly see that there is a shift from the concept of marriage regarded as a sacrament to a contract in Hinduism. This change as aforementioned has been backed up by social processes of change and socio legal provisions that have modified the rules, approach, forms, mate selection criteria, aims, etc of marriage. The divine string that once held the concept of Hindu marriage together has broken and has restrung itself to give us marriage that is now perceived as a civil contract between people. Traditionally, the mating game began with the formula of marriage, sex (consummation) and love whereas now, it’s been radically altered – love, sex and then marriage. Indian society being in a continuous state of flux has yet to determine whether this change has been for the greater good or not. However, it is clearly evident that there has been a significant change regarding Hindu marriages from ancient to modern India.

[/sociallocker]