Category Archives: Marriage (Vivaha)

Women and Marriage in Hinduism

Throughout Hindu history there has been a noticeable inequality of the sexes; when considering how ancient the Hindu tradition is, it is only recently that reforms have been made in order to accommodate women as more equal to their male counterparts. One major area of life that has been under reformation when taking into account inequality is the marriage ceremony and life as a married woman. It was not until the passing of the Special Marriage Act in 1954 that there were any reforms to family law in Hindu society (Agnes 91). Before these reforms to Hindu law, women were typically treated as if they were a form of “property” that were owned by their fathers up until their marriage; after marriage the responsibility for such “property” was passed from a woman’s father to her husband (Agnes 11). Manu (the quintessential giver of Hindu law) stated that women “should never be free” in their lifetime, for a woman should be dependent on her father, then her husband, and then her sons as she progresses throughout her lifetime (Agnes 11). Although there have been recent reforms to Hindu law in regards to equality, the genders are still not considered as equals.

For women in the Hindu tradition, marriage is their rite of passage and their official entry into religious life and it can be likened to the upanayana ceremony for males (Rodrigues 135). It has been viewed as a religious ceremony throughout all of Hindu history, dating back to the Vedas (Mitter 208). It was (and still is) a woman’s duty to marry and produce offspring, most notably a male heir; thus we can conclude that the majority of women who entered into marriage had experienced puberty, for it was their responsibility to produce children soon after marriage (Mitter 195-198). Although it was not uncommon for girls to be married before experiencing puberty (infant marriages), most textual sources show that the majority of ancient marriages were between a couple who were of appropriate age to bear children (Mitter 198). Infant marriages were looked upon with disfavour as the union of two immature children rarely resulted in favourable conditions for either the husband or the wife. It was customary for a girl to end her education when she entered into marriage; although this was not always the case, it had the potential to create uneducated women in Hindu society (Chandra 17). Eventually the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929 and the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 were passed which both outlawed the practice of child marriage and required that the potential husband and wife both be of sufficient age (Sarkar 107).

Entering into a Hindu marriage in ancient times took place in one of eight forms as described by Manu in the Smritis; Brahma, Daiva, Arsha, Prajapatya, Asura, Gandharva, Rakshasa, and Paisacha. Of these eight forms, only the first four are considered as appropriate for a Brahmin, whereas the last four are considered as inappropriate practices (Mitter 210). While all of these forms are still seen in Hindu life today, there are two forms that are the most prevalent today: the Brahma and the Asura marriages. All of these forms of marriage can be (and most often are) arranged by the fathers of the bride and groom. Arranged marriage holds for nearly all marriages in earlier times and is still very prevalent among Hindus today. Marriages in Hindu society are not taken lightly, for they are about more than just bringing together a man and a woman; Hindu marriages are considered links between family lineages and can even enhance a family’s jati (Rodrigues 138). The linking of family lineages is why careful consideration is taken with regards as to who is compatible and who is not. Although the “love-marriage” is becoming more popular in Hindu society, the traditional arranged marriage rarely takes into account the opinions of the woman or the man (Gupta 92). The European and Western ideal of a marriage, which is termed a “love-marriage”, is one in which there is an independent decision by two people to marry based on common feelings of romantic love (Gupta 83). Although the practice of the “love-marriage” is the norm in western countries, it is viewed as somewhat unacceptable for Hindu society; “love-marriages” may disregard all formal practice of arranged marriages and the linking of family lineages which are characteristically so important to ancient Hindu tradition.

Another custom found in Hindu history is polygamy, the practice of having more than one wife. Polygamy was prevalent in the Vedic period, even though it was looked upon with disapproval (Mitter 207). In ancient Hindu society, polygamy was customary among the upper classes of Hindus; the higher a Hindu male’s rank in society was an indication they were “allowed” more wives than a Hindu male of lower social rank (Gupta 35). On the other hand, while polygamy was widely prevalent, polyandry (the practice of more than one husband) was considered malevolence (Gupta 36). The most extreme case of polygamy in Hindu history was among the Kulin Brahmins of Bengal; it is recorded that thirty-three Kulin Brahmins were married to two thousand and fifty-one women (Basu 9). Wives in such polygamous marriages did not receive the same amount of love and devotion that a monogamous marriage had to offer and they neither held the same social status that a woman in a monogamous marriage would have. A wife in a polygamous marriage lived in their parent’s household instead of their husband’s, for their husband was always travelling from one wife to the next (Basu 10). The enactment of the Hindu Marriage Act in 1955 made it illegal to practice polygamy and polyandry in Hindu society.

Since Hindu marriages undergo such careful consideration and planning between the families that are about to be joined, there were no methods for terminating such a union through divorce (Gupta 67). Hindu marriages were considered to be permanent and anyone who did divorce their significant other was viewed as being unrespectable; divorce in Hindu society was viewed as the ultimate tragedy in a married household (Gupta 68). More recent reforms in Hindu law have since accepted that some marriages are not meant to work, and divorce is now a more common occurrence among the Hindu community than it had previously been. Although divorce is now allowed among Hindus, it is somewhat difficult to obtain grounds for a divorce as it is still viewed as being moderately disgraceful (Gupta 73).

It was not until the passing of the Special Marriage act in 1954 that there was an attempt to address some of the problems associated with marriage and family law in Hindu society (Agnes 95-96). Although this act did not fully take into account the problem of gender inequality, it was the first significant step toward the future creation of a unified policy for marriage and divorce that had the ability to protect the rights of women (Agnes 96-97). Under the Special Marriage Act, divorce was only attainable by mutual consent thus making the Act a minor step forward in creating the grounds for a future comprehensive code for obtaining divorce (Agnes 96-97). Consent between concerned parties was a major stipulation of the Special Marriage Act; divorce was only possible if both parties were mutually agreeable to such an occurrence (Agnes 97). Without such consent, divorce was not possible. Since this act only addressed family laws, another act was instituted to address the problems of gender inequalities in Hindu society: the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955.

The Hindu Marriage act of 1955 deemed spouses as equals in a monogamous relationship and stated they had equal rights and responsibilities to each other (Agnes 83). When the Hindu Marriage Act was first passed in 1955, it did not address divorce. It was not until major amendments were made to the Hindu Marriage Act in 1976 that divorce by mutual consent was granted (Agnes 97). Although the amendments allowed for couples to obtain grounds for divorce under the Hindu Marriage Act, cruelty was not seen as a viable reason for divorce, which is seen as one of the fundamental problems of the act (Sarkar 107).

The future of Hindu marriage and gender equality is unclear; while there have been major breakthroughs in law and reform for gender equality, it is difficult to predict whether Hindu society will continue moving towards equality between the genders. Marriage is still viewed as a very traditional and religious aspect of Hindu life as it was in ancient times. New reforms to Hindu laws and traditions have outlawed certain practices like polygamy and polyandry and have allowed for other practices such as divorce. While it is difficult to say where Hindu marriage is to go from here, one can definitely say that it has come a long way from its ancient roots.


Agnes, Flavia (1999) Law and Gender Inequality: The Politics and Women’s Rights in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Basu, Monmayee (2001) Hindu Women and Marriage Law: From Sacrament to Contract. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chandra, Sudhir (1998) Enslaved Daughters: Colonialism, Law and Women’s Rights. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Gupta, A.R. (1982) Women in Hindu Society: A Study of Tradition and Transition. New Delhi: Jyotsna Prakashan.

Mitter, Dwarka Nath (1913) The Position of Women in Hindu Law. New Delhi: Inter-India Publications.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2005) Hinduism: The eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics; Online Books, Ltd.

Sarkar, Lotika (1999) “Reform of Hindu Marriage and Succession Laws: Still the Unequal Sex.” In From Independence Towards Freedom: Indian Women Since 1947, edited by Bharati Ray and Aparna Basu, 100-119. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Related Readings

Hindu divorce

Hindu Marriage Act

Child marriages

Polygamy and polyandry

Gender inequality

Brahma marriage

Daiva marriage

Arsha marriage

Prajapatya marriage

Asura marriage

Gandharva marriage

Rakshasa marriage

Paisacha marriage


Related Websites

Written by Jerri-Lynn Winters (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Marriage (Vivaha) Samskara


Vivaha refers to marriage within the Hindu tradition. Because of the great importance attached to married couples and their roles within society, vivaha is considered the most important samskara (life cycle rite) undertaken by individuals (Harman 126). Marriage and the ensuing ghrastha (householder) stage is deemed crucial within Hindu society for a variety of reasons. During their marriage the couple is expected to cultivate three of the four goals of life. The first goal is dharma (duty), and is achieved through their joint performance of sacrificial offerings to the gods. The art of love, pleasure, and fulfillment of sexual desire is known as kama and facilitates procreation. This enables the couple to repay their debt to the ancestors. Finally, as householders they participate in the greater social order by pursuing artha (the pursuit of wealth and material possessions) (Sharma 75).

Importance & Symbolism of Marriage:

In many ways, marriage symbolizes the beginning of social life for both women and men. For women, it also enables their participation in religious matters. The vivaha samskara is akin to the upanayana (sacred thread) ceremony undergone by males during the sisya (student) stage (Harman 131-132). Thus, after marriage, a woman may fulfill her religious duties. The importance of marriage for women is paralleled in Hindu literature. Unmarried goddesses are often portrayed as dangerous and uncontrollable (as in the case of Mariyamman – the fever goddess), reinforcing beliefs surrounding the inauspiciousness of unmarried, divorced, or widowed women [See Harman (1989) for an interesting analysis of the symbolism and role of marriage within Hindu religious mythology]. Comparatively, in the epic, Ramayana, the hero Rama and his wife Sita represent an idealization of marriage that is upheld for Hindu couples to aspire to (Sharma 72).

Marriage is of near equal importance for men. Within the social realm, vivaha is especially important for males of lower class varnas. It may be one of the few samskaras performed for lower class males or combined with several other life cycle rites to reduce the associated costs. With few exceptions, males cannot perform sacrificial offerings without a wife and marriage is seen as necessary to live in accordance with dharma (Harman 128-132; Sharma 75). This importance is likewise symbolized within Hindu religious mythology and unmarried gods may be depicted as powerless. For example, in one of the representations, the god Siva is a corpse until his marriage to Sakti animates him (Harman 9). Hence, vivaha serves both religious and societal functions within Hinduism that are mirrored within the religious literature itself.


In India, arranged marriages are still the norm (Harman 126). Within the upper varnas (classes), it is traditionally the bride’s family who initiates the search for an appropriate partner. Interclass marriage (unions between different varnas) is generally not tolerated. However, hypergamy, or marrying up for women within one’s own varna is usually the goal of the bride’s family (Sharma 73; Fowler 54). The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 made dowry (payment to the groom’s family by the bride’s family) illegal in India. Nevertheless, expensive gifts or other financial arrangements are still made (Fowler 54). Polygamy and caste restrictions in India were also abolished by the Hindu Marriage Act, along with child marriages and restrictions on divorce [See Sharma (1985) for a more detailed discussion of the Hindu Marriage Act]. Despite these legal amendments, many of these traditions are still observed in rural areas (Fowler 54).

Parental consent to marriage is important within Hindu society as marriage links not only individuals, but lineages as well (Harman 126). There are eight types of marriages recognized within the influential Dharma Sastras: brahma, daiva, arsa, prajapatya, asura, gandharva, raksasa, and paisaca. The first four are arranged with the approval of the bride’s family and are considered the most desirable (Harman 13). To illustrate, the marriage category of brahma is an arrangement where a father gives his daughter to a man who has studied the sacred literature. Typically, this type of marriage is the most highly regarded and would be preferable for individuals within the brahmana (priestly) class [See Harman (1989) and Rodrigues (2006) for further details pertaining to marriage types]. Within the remaining four types where consent is not always issued, raksasa refers to the abduction of a bride against her will and is considered suitable for ksatriyas (warrior classes), whereas gandharva describes a love match between the bride and groom and is generally thought to be inauspicious (Harman 13).

Auspiciousness is of great concern in Hindu society and marriages are no exception. Before a marriage can be arranged, the families involved must consult the astrological charts of both the bride and groom to determine the auspiciousness of the match, as well as to determine the best time for the ceremony to take place (Sharma 73). Great care is taken in determining auspiciousness and a union considered inauspicious is abandoned (Rodrigues 81). Once a suitable partner and time is found, preparations can be made for the ceremony itself.

Ceremony & Associated Rituals:

Weddings are lavish affairs, meant to display the families’ social status within the community (Harman 127). The rituals associated with vivaha may carry on as long as twelve days, however, the wedding ceremony alone generally lasts only a few hours and traditionally should be performed at night. A great canopy is set up where the rituals and ceremony will take place and the canopy is elaborately decorated with lights and other ornaments (Fowler 52-4). Weddings are considered a time of great ritual purity. Persons deemed inauspicious or polluted (such as widows) are forbidden to attend. During this time the bride and groom are treated as if they were deities and are thought to be living embodiments of gods and goddesses. Their status is elevated to such a point it is said the couple receives the right of way over individuals who normally carry a higher status than themselves (Harman 128-31). The bride and groom are ritually bathed and anointed with oils. The bride will be dressed in her finest jewels and sari and will have her hands and feet colored with henna. A brahmin priest is contracted to preside over the rituals (Fowler 55-6).

The actual wedding ceremony varies considerably from place to place, however, Sharma (1985) outlines six rites commonly observed. The first is madhuparka in which the groom and his party arrive at the bride’s house, traditionally on horseback. They are received by the bride’s family and the groom is honored as a deity. The second element is that of kanyadana. This is where the father gives his daughter to the groom and the couple lights a fire in the sacrificial pit. During panigrahana, the groom takes the bride by the hand and presents her with a mangalasutra, or pendant, that is tied around her neck (73-5). [Rodrigues (2006) describes this pendant to be similar in nature to the yajnopavita (sacred thread) that is given to twice born males at their upanayana ceremony].

Following the ritual of panigrahana, the bride steps on the north stone by the sacrificial fire. This is known as asmarohana and symbolizes the couple’s strength against their enemies. During asmorahana, the bride throws three oblations of rice into the fire (lajahoma). The final rite during the wedding ceremony is considered the most important and is what legally seals the marriage. Referred to as saptapadi, the bride and groom circle the sacred fire seven times with corners of their garments tied together. Also known as the seven steps, each step symbolizes a different aspect of the marriage such as friendship, wealth, and fertility. By taking the seventh and final step, the marriage is made official. After completion of the ceremonies, there is typically a celebration held that includes dancing, singing, and feasting. Varagrhaprasthana marks the bride’s departure from her family’s home to her husband’s, where she will remain during the course of her marriage under her in-laws care. Consummation of the marriage does not take place until 3 days after the marriage ceremony and is known as caturthikarma (Sharma 73-5).


Fowler, Jeaneane (1997) Hinduism: Beliefs and practices. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.

Harman, William P (1989) Sacred Marriage of a Hindu Goddess. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary P (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Sharma, Arvind (1985) Marriage in the Hindu religious tradition. Journal of Ecumenical Studies: 22(1): 69-80.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Auspiciousness / inauspiciousness

Deities & marriage


Dowry Traditions




The Marriage Act



Rama & Sita

Same-sex marriage


Siva & Sakti


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Katherine Mitchell (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Arranged Marriage

In the Hindu tradition arranged marriage is the most prevalent form of marriage. Rather than a man or woman seeking a relationship with a partner, family members, kin or community elders will select a mate based on particular criteria and the couple will enter into a marriage. Mate selection is not taken lightly; it requires a certain amount of expertise and can take anywhere from six months to over three years to successfully arrange a marriage (Dhruvarajan 36). Although some may think that this is an ancient or outdated practice, the majority of marriages in India are still arranged, even among the educated middle class population of modern India (Medora, Larson & Dave 414).

In Hindu society, marriage is not only a union between two individuals; it is also the joining together of two families. The primary importance of a marriage is the sharing of common goals among families rather than merely achieving personal happiness (Hamon & Ingoldsby 214). Marriage in Hindu tradition is not only a ritual celebration but a religious, economic, political and social event for both the couple being married as well as their family and community (Mullati 18).

India is a collectivist culture in which emphasis is placed on the needs and goals of a group, particularly the family and extended family, rather than on the individual. In Hindu tradition the extended family system is considered to be the most essential institution and it thereby defines the social norms and values (Hamon & Ingoldsby 211). Due to the nature of collectivism there is greater emphasis placed on the needs of the family as a unit. Arranged marriages have the potential to benefit one’s family and therefore it is one’s duty to allow their family members to select a mate for them. In comparison, western cultures are individualistic and place a larger priority on individual happiness and success. In individualistic cultures love and romance are considered to be of vital importance when choosing a marriage partner (Hamon & Ingoldsby 213), whereas among Hindus, intense emotional affection can be viewed as threatening the structure of the family (Levine, Sato, Hashimoto & Verma 3).

In Hindu tradition, love and romance are not considered prerequisites for marriage. In fact, love is often considered a weak foundation for marriage and is expected to develop after marriage takes place (Hamon & Ingoldsby 213). Many Hindus believe that feelings of love or romantic attraction can overtake more appropriate traits in a spouse and hinder the traditional purpose of arranged marriage (Hamon & Ingoldsby 213). In arranged marriage dating is not considered to be a necessary step, however feelings toward this may be changing among modern Hindus.

In mate selection there are many factors to be considered and potential partners are carefully screened to ensure compatibility. Family ideals, values, history, and background are assessed as well as social, educational and economic statuses to ensure they are compatible with one’s own (Hamon & Ingoldsby 215, Mullatti 19). Religious and caste endogamy are also considered to be vital factors (Mullatti 18). In Hindu tradition, individuals believe that their marriage partner is predestined (Gupta 77). Many Hindu families will consult an astrologer to ensure that prospective partners are indeed compatible. The astrologer will match the partners’ horoscopes and predict important aspects such as financial success and future children (Hamon & Ingoldsby 218).

The most important consideration in a Hindu marriage is caste endogamy, in which members belonging to a certain caste marries within that caste (Hamon & Ingoldsby 214). Following traditional endogamous rules, a girl’s family status may be improved if she marries a boy of a higher sub-caste; such a match is known as Anuloma. However, Pratiloma matches, which refers to a girl marrying a boy of lower sub-caste, are considered taboo (Mullatti 19). To marry outside of one’s caste or religion is often still considered taboo, however the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 legalized inter-religion and inter-caste marriages (Mullatti 18).

Most young Indian adults prefer arranged marriage because they believe that their elders have more wisdom and knowledge than they do, and therefore are better equipped to select prospective mates. It is believed that choosing a spouse is a significant issue, which is better left to more responsible members of the extended family (Gupta 77). In modern Hindu society there is an increasing trend to consult the young adults and obtain input regarding their prospective mates, this trend is leading to marriages that are semi-arranged (Hamon & Ingoldsby 216).

The influence of western media (movies, television, Internet, etc.), widespread education, urbanization and technological progress has resulted in transformations among youth in modern India regarding their values, ideals, attitudes, beliefs and perceptions. These influences have caused many young people to desire greater freedom and independence to express themselves and make their own decisions, including the decision of whom they marry (Hamon & Ingoldsby 219). A minority of Indian youth who are influenced by western ideals are opting to select their own marriage partners and are therefore choosing to be in love marriages, against the approval of their parents.

In order to find the perfect mate, the use of matrimonial advertisements is becoming increasingly popular, so much so that they are becoming routine in major Indian newspapers (Hamon & Ingoldsby 216). As respondents reply to these advertisements the pool of prospective partners are narrowed down and the young adults may meet, talk on the phone and occasionally go on a chaperoned date. After a few encounters the man typically proposes to the woman. If the woman accepts the proposal the extended families are informed of their decision to marry (Hamon & Ingoldsby 217).

Arranged marriages have been prominent throughout Hindu tradition and continue to be prevalent in modern times. A marriage that is arranged by one’s family and elders in the community is not based on love; rather it is based on the needs of the family as a collective unit. Great consideration is put into the pairing of individuals to allow for the best possible union for both the couple being married and the extended family. Although attitudes may be shifting somewhat, modern Hindu young adults still prefer arranged marriages, as they feel that they do not possess the necessary knowledge and wisdom to choose their own mate. The attitude change that has occurred has allowed young adults to be consulted regarding their potential partners and allowed them more control over their final marriage partner.


Dhruvarajan, V. (1989) Hindu women & the power of ideology. Granby, Massachusetts: Bergin & Garvey Publishers Inc.

Gupta, G. R. (1976) Love, arranged marriage, and the Indian social structure. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 7, 75-85.

Hamon, R. R., & Ingoldsby, B. B. (Eds.) (2003) Mate selection across cultures. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications Inc.

Levine, R., Sato, S., Hashimoto, S., and Verma, J. (1995) Love and marriage in eleven cultures. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 26, 554-571.

Medora, N.P., Larson, J.H., & Dave, P.B. (2000) East-Indian college student’s perceptions of family strength. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 31, 407-425.

Mullatti, L. (1995) Families in India: Beliefs and realities. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 26, 11-25.

Related Topics For Further Investigation




Hindu Marriage Act of 1955









Dowry System

Noteworthy Websites Related To The Topic

Written by Lisa Foster (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Hindu Dowry System (Origins)

Although the tradition of a bride/groom price is not common in the Western world, many different religious groups still continue to practice it. Currently, the dowry refers to the wealth that the bride brings with her into her marriage. This wealth can vary from gifts to material goods, in addition to anything the groom and his family may ask for. It usually occurs within patriarchal societies. Despite the establishment of laws prohibiting such practices, the dowry tradition still occurs in the Hindu religion. It is quite surprising that it is prevalent (in South Asia), since the sex ratio is skewed towards males. In turn, it can also result in abortions (of female fetuses), infanticide, and parents holding the belief that females seem to be a burden (Arunachalam and Logan 1). If families are not able to live up to the expectations of the groom and his family, weddings can be broken off and cause humiliation for the bride and her family (Sharma 137). This makes it hard for the bride to remarry in the future.

Not only has the practice of dowry been incorporated within the ancient Indian traditions of marriage, but scholars also believe that its practice is constantly legitimized by references made to ancient texts of the Hindu religion. It is also believed that the misinterpretations of some of these historical texts lead to the continued practice of such a tradition (Sheel 33). The first occurrence of the dowry practice (in South Asia) dates back approximately 2,000 years to Manu asserting stridhan (Arunachalam and Logan 2006:10), which is distinguished from the modern dowry. Kishwar explains that the stridhan consists of gifts that are voluntarily and exclusively given to the bride from her household. Therefore, it is seen as the bride’s parents signing off part of their will to her. Although the dowry is prohibited in India, the notion of stridhan is not what makes it difficult for people to distinguish the two (121). Historians trace back the tradition of dowry to the kanyadana concept along with the moral basis of stridhana. The kanyadana practice arose from the dana tradition which held the belief that gift giving was one of the ways to achieve high cultural and spiritual recognition. Initially, marriage incorporated kanyadana in the sense that the father presented his daughter as a gift to the groom at the time of their marriage. In addition to the bride, the accompanying of gifts enhanced the social status of the bride’s family; however, it was not necessary (Sheel 19).

The early origins of the dowry practice suggest it was used as a form of inheritance from the father to the bride for security purposes (Arunachalam and Logan 2). As with most patriarchal societies, Hindu society practiced the tradition of transferring property (movable or non-movable) to the bride at the time of marriage. The Codes of Manu incorporated the earliest account of property rights. “It subscribed to the view that the unmarried daughters were to be given a quarter of their brothers’ share of patrimony for the purposes of their marriage,” according to Sheel (46). The Patrimony consisted of the property that the father granted his sons. Each brother was to give one-fourth of his share to his maiden sister, as described by Manu. In Hindu law, sons are granted a share of ancestral property, independent of their family. Alternatively, daughters can only be given the right to property from their fathers. Therefore it makes it possible for a father to deny access of his property to his daughter but not his son (Sharma 47). The form in which a bride is wed is reflected by her caste and class status, which in turn determines the value of the dowry. Marriage validation required gift giving even though a woman’s right to property was dependent on marital status. The patriarchal system continued to be strengthened in the various varnas of Hinduism, while marriage was not given a simple structure. Eventually, it became the norm to forbid the passing down of non movable property due to the exploiting motives of the groom and his family. Instead, brides were given movable property as a form of dowry. As the act of inheriting property began to decline, other attempts were made to instill the dowry (Sheel 37).

Along with the notions such as stridhan, the development of the dowry system is thought to be linked to the societal structure. Scholars believe that during the Rgvedic period societies were grouped in tribal constituents, rather than on a caste system. Not only did women have reproductive roles, but they were also able to perform many other duties while the men were active in tribal battle. Although some historians suggest that the Rgvedic period did not contribute to sexual discrimination, others feel that it was crucial in establishing a hierarchy based on gender. For instance, Uma Chakravarty argues that class and gender order were established during this significant period and marked the beginning of the male dominated Hindu culture. However, rituals and practices had not yet lowered the status of women (Sheel 35). As the Vedic period passed, there was a decline in women working in the field of production. As they moved into the private sector, the family structure and patrilineal progression resulted in further caste and gender segregation. As argued by R.S. Sharma, the establishment of varna occurred during the end of the Vedic period, at the time of the Buddha. Many rituals such as rajasuya were established as a result of these rigid changes in the social structure (Sheel 36). In turn, these rituals served to authorize “the existing and emerging hierarchies based on varna, gender, and patrilineal kinship structure” (Roy 136). Prescriptive and normative literature (from that time) gave rise to notions such as caste purity via marriage, rules prohibiting adultery, and patrilineal succession. The caste system was an attempt to validate the newly emerged socio-political structure of the society. In this sense, it seems appropriate to associate marriage with property. As stated by Sheel (36), a huge quantity of Brahmin literature holds laws and customs that attempt to keep women within a patriarchal system. It was clear who the victims of such a movement were—the women. Brahmins adapted the principle of stri-dharma and not only did the women accept it, but they honored it.

Not only did the dowry originally represent affection but it also meant superior morality within the higher Hindu classes (Sheel 41). Simply put, “a better status fetches larger amount of dowry” (Sheel 18). As Nath observes, “making gifts was a visible sign of prosperity…either for distributing tribal wealth or for gaining prestige and dominant status” (85-86). One of the oldest examples of this occurs in the Ramayana (one of the most influential texts of Hinduism), where a dowry follows the marriage of Rama and Sita (Sheel 41). The Smritis validate the dowry practice by arguing that a girl “was honoured by the giving of gifts” (Sheel 44).

The most ancient record of marriage dates back to the tenth book of Rg Veda. In this ancient record, marriage was described as a ceremony of the groom holding the bride’s hand followed by prayers aimed at offspring, well being, and long life while praising Gods. The bride and groom both seemed to have freedom in picking their partners, who had to be outside of the family. Thus, this literature reflects a society where rigid social structure had not yet been established (Sheel 38). But such an egalitarian society surrendered to a government system aimed to address social issues, halfway into the first millennium. For example, the purity-pollution dichotomy became established which was unheard of. The varna system became more complex and led to the creation of the Dharma sutras (Sheel 39).

Furthermore, the complexities resulted in diversification of marriage forms and practices (Sheel 39). The Mahabharata is a text that displays the transition of marriage. Talbot points out that the “epic progresses from extolling purely ksatriya forms to recommending kanyadana for Brahmins and kanyadana or warrior like marriages to ksatriyas and in the final phase advocates kanyadana for everyone” (Talbot 61). However, discrete forms of marriage were described following the Smrti period, with a large influence from the Brahmin class. The various wedding forms were prescribed in the Manusmriti into two typical categories; either they were dharmya (socially acceptable) or adharmya (not socially acceptable). The dharmya types emphasized on the father whose duty was to arrange the marriage and present his daughter as a gift, in the way that was specified according to the type of marriage it was. By following the dharmya tradition, the father and his daughter both gained respect. This represented the kanyadana ideal which says the virgin bride is the gift. On the other hand, the socially unacceptable adharmya types of marriages were identified as not following a patriarchal system. Their marriages did not necessarily require the participation of the bride’s father. These forms of marriage were nonexistent in the upper classes and only permitted for the lower classes. However, historians noticed that the majority of these adharmya types of weddings were approved for ksatriyas. In the Mahabharata, Krishna permits and encourages Arjuna to abduct his sister, Subhadra. Yet, in the latter part of the epic, these types of weddings are inappropriate for all Hindu castes. One of these adharmya marriages includes the Asura rite which consists of the groom choosing to acquire the bride by passing on as much wealth possible to the bride and her family. It was disapproved because it was believed that a “purchased wife” was unable to perform sacrificial rites and would destroy the groom’s family (Sheel 43).

As the Dharma shastras illustrated the importance in the idea of kanyadana, they varied on the legitimacy of providing wealth after marriage. For example, the Asura marriage has been approved and/or disapproved in many different parts of Hindu history. The adharmya marriages were criticized, perhaps to help spread the Brahminical dharmya which considered daughters as being gifts. The influence that the Brahmin class had on the Hindu culture was enormous, as gift giving gained importance in the marriage tradition. However, both the dharmya and adharmya forms of marriage co-existed as they applied to different castes (Sheel 44).

Thus it is possible to understand how the kanyadana and Asura notions lead to the modern practice of dowry. The kanyadana form dominated the Hindu culture in ancient times. It involved the father gifting his daughter at the time of her marriage. With time, the transferring of property, hypergamy, and caste rules lead to the dowry representing currency transfer. Hypergamy is the practice of Hindu women marrying males whose caste is at least as high as theirs. Das (1975) explains that “stratification in status, wealth and power determines the rank and lineage within a caste group and gave impetus to hypergamous marriage to gain social prestige”. However, it is surprising that the dowry system was not heavily incorporated into Hinduism during the pre-modern times. A major factor that delayed such a movement included the fact that the kanyadana ideal did not deny other forms of marriage. It allowed for the existence of various forms of marriage, although the upper classes took it to an extreme. Secondly, although the kanyadana was particularly directed to the upper castes, the dowry custom was restricted to a small group of the society. This group was of elite status because it consisted of wealthy individuals that were able to afford gift giving. As the kanyadana ideal began to spread to other castes, the dowry came to represent a burden (Sheel 45-46).

Presently, the dowry is known to serve as a way of acquiring a fine husband and represents good social status. Rather than being voluntary as it was in its ancient context, it became mandatory. The gifts that are now presented for marriage are assessed in terms of how much cash they represent. Usually, a mediator is required to make a compromise and set a price for the dowry that the two families agree on. It is hard to determine the extent to which the dowry tradition still occurs because “those giving as well as those accepting dowry are punishable under the existing law” (Sharma 46). In fact, the only way to catch the public’s attention is through the controversy caused by “dowry deaths.” Therefore, scholars make use of indirect methods in order to evaluate trends and determine why it is still occurring (Arunachalam and Logan 3). Although a dowry system is followed by the various Hindu classes, it is important to realize that there are some exceptions. There are established societies based on matrilineal structures which helps explain the variations in the regional trends of the dowry tradition.

Ultimately, the inheritance practice changed to the price of maintaining high quality husbands during the later part of the nineteenth century. Although it is difficult to determine who benefits most from the dowry, current data reveals that a practice arose in the 1950’s where bachelors began to prescribe a list of objects for exchange in marriage (Arunachalam and Logan 12). According to the Institute of Development and Communication, although the dowry system originates with the brahmin class, eight percent of dowry deaths and abuse cases occur in the middle and lower classes of the Hindu society (Sharma 46). When the daughter agrees to marriage, she is still assured that she will be offered security and an improved quality of life. The relocation of wealth from the brides’ to the grooms’ families still takes place today and is often thought to ensure a good match. Furthermore, marriage became mandatory in the Hindu tradition even if it meant spending vast amounts of money (Sheel 47). The bride’s family eventually agrees to the amount that the groom and his family ask for mainly due to the dishonor that can arise from having an unmarried girl living in her parents’ household while her age is appropriate for marriage. If the bride’s family cannot fully pay the dowry price within a single payment, installments can be made to reach the price. Therefore, there have been two major changes from the traditional practice of dowry to the one of today. The first has been a shift from the dowry tradition being optional to it becoming mandatory; and the second has been the new role of negotiation in determining the amount of the dowry (Sheel 18).


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Brahmacharya in the Dharma Sutras. Amritsar: PIHC.

Sharma, Usha (2003) Women in South Asia: Employment, Empowerment, and Human

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Sheel, Ranjana (1999) The Political Economy of Dowry. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers

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Talbot, Cynthia (1980) How to Get a Wife: Marriage Strategies in the Mahabharata. Ann

Arbor: University of Michigan.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Laws of Manu







Asura rite of marriage





The Dowry Prohibition Act

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Article written by: Amarpal Dhillon (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.