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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2701

Some little known Hindu traditions of marriage

By Syndicate Special Correspondent

The other day some newspapers reported that tribals from Lahaul valley in Himachal Pradesh had protested against the police registering criminal cases against their young men who had abducted girls of marriageable age. The custom of abduction, it was claimed, was well established by long tradition and sanctified by scriptures. According to tradition, the abductors would be pursued by the father and other relations of the girl and, if caught, would receive severe beating and would be left bleeding. The girl would be recovered.

But if he managed to escape, he would carry the girl home and, after a decent interval, visit the village again with his wife and gifts for the parents of the girl and her relatives. The marriage would be accepted and celebrated with high spirits, the liquor being provided by the ‘offending’ young man. Apart from the custom being long established, it was argued, it was sensible and practical. How much chance does a young man have against an unwilling female and her chasing kinsmen when he has neither automatic weapons to scare the girl nor mechanized transport to take off the pursuers?

Hindu customs, including that of marriage, have their foundation in tradition and practice, both of which are subject to change. The scriptures sanction whatever has been established by long practice in a society. At one time there was no institution of marriage, and women were neither confined to houses nor dependent on their husbands. The Upanishads record how Satyakama, the son of Jabala, being desirous of higher studies, went to his mother and asked her who his father was, since this information was always necessary before a student could be admitted to an ashram. Jabala answered: “My son, I do not know. During my youth, when I conceived you, I attended to many guests who frequented the house, and I had no way of asking.”

How the institution of marriage was established is recorded in the story of sage Uddalaka, and his son Svetketu who established this custom when a guest asked his mother to accompany him for the night. Polygamy and polyandry were freely practiced and accepted in spite of Lord Rama’s gallant efforts to establish monogamy.

Draupadi’s marriage to the five Pandava brothers was not an aberration. The Puranas record the case of Jatila who married seven sages, and another woman who had 10 husbands. The son of sage Uthathya, born blind, cursed polyandry. On being humiliated and insulted by his wife, Pradveshi, for his blindness, he laid down that thenceforth a woman must learn to be happy with one man all her life, and must be forbidden love with another man.

However, there are numerous instances of virgin births, apart from cohabitation with man other than the husband for progeny that took precedence over all concepts of chastity and fidelity. The Mahabharata is replete with instances of births out of wedlock. The Lahaulis were, therefore, on firm ground in their protest against the police, and could quote Lord Krishna. When Arjuna abducted Subhadra, his sister, and the Yadava warriors, including his elder brother Balram, were buckling on their armour to chase the fleeing Arjuna, Krishna asked Balram: “Have you lost your head? What Arjuna has done cannot be upsetting. Is Arjuna not worthy of her? Is a girl’s choice of her husband always right?” The chase was promptly called off.

Five forms of marriage were well recognized in the epic period. The most favoured was the Brahm marriage under which the father of the girl, after making discreet inquiries about the qualities and status of a man, gave away his daughter in the presence of witnesses, and the bride and the groom exchanged vows before the sacrificial fire. The father performed the ceremony of ‘kanyadaan’ with the hope of achieving salvation through the gift. Though the mother claimed a superior right over the son, the daughter was under the exclusive command of the father. This form was preferred by the learned that got a wife as a gift from her father to help at rituals and sacrifices. For completing the great horse sacrifice, Lord Rama had to install a golden statue of Sita at the site of the ritual.

The girl adorned with costly ornaments and decked in all finery would be given away. The fire god would preside over the ceremony and bless the couple with prosperity, and a long and fruitful life. The bride and the groom would exchange vows of mutual respect. The groom would accept her in marriage with the words: “I am cast in the image of Vishnu, but so far I lacked a Lakshmi. You are cast in the image of Lakshmi. Without you I am incomplete. Let us beget numerous long-lived sons; let our love abound and our happiness and glory ever increase. I accept your hand in marriage with all the promises of happiness and progeny that go with it.”

Among Kshatriyas, numerous forms of marriage were acceptable. Abduction was frequently resorted to. The father of a Kshatriya girl, having selected a match, would use persuasion and gifts. In some societies, however, the father could expect costly gifts. Madri, the second wife of King Pandu, was obtained after Salya, her brother, had received precious stones and cattle from Bhishma who negotiated the marriage. If the girl did not receive any offers of marriage, the father might arrange a ‘swayamvar’ or a trial of strength where the girl made her choice or accepted the one who passed the test. Sita and Draupadi were married thus.

In a Gandharva marriage, the girl would choose her husband and the father would endorse the choice. Arjuna married Chitrangada, the Manipur princess, under the Gandharva mode. An ‘asura’ marriage was one where the girl was bought at a high price, and the father and her relations were bribed with money and costly gifts. Lastly, the man could run away with the girl after killing her custodians and relations in a ‘rakshisa’ marriage.

Of these five prevalent forms, the last two were frowned upon while the first three, in their pure or mixed forms, were acceptable. Approval of the exact form depended entirely on the established custom. The ‘asura’ and rakshisa’ were looked down upon as the customs of outsiders, outside the pale of Aryan society. Sexual fidelity was not highly prized. Procreation took precedence over the notion that only the husband could beget a child.

The subject of legitimacy and heritage is, however, totally different, though related to the marriage customs. With the rise of Brahmanism, of the three approved forms of marriage only the Brahm marriage came to be accepted. But some societies, such as the Lahaulis, have kept alive the heroic or Kshatriya tradition, and it is accepted as part of their personal law, sanctioned by scriptures and by long-established practice.

- Syndicate Features -

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