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Hindu Marriages Purpose and Significance

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by Jayaram V

Said Yagnavalkya: it is not, indeed, for the husband's sake (kamaya) that the husband is dear, but for the sake of the self that the husband is dear ..." Brihadaranyaka Upanishad {IV.5.6}

According to Hinduism, marriage between two souls is a very sacred affair that stretches beyond one lifetime and may continue up to at least seven lives. The relationship between the two does not necessarily have to begin only when they have attained birth as human beings. The gender of the two partners also does not have to be the same in all the births. As the stories in the Puranas confirm, two individual souls may come together any time during their existence upon earth, even when they assume a lower life form, such as that of any animal or bird, and carry forward their relationship further into higher life forms such as that of human beings. Once married, a couple are expected to uphold their family names by remaining faithful and truthful to each other and by enacting their respective roles as laid out in the Hindu law books. As the epic Ramayana and the Mahabaharata illustrate, a couple ought to stick together through the ups and downs of life, however challenging and arduous the situation may be, taking care of each other and keeping faith in each other.

In Hinduism, the institution of marriage is not peculiar to humans only. Even gods do marry and lead married lives just as humans. In the Hindu temple rituals, gods are married ritually to their divine consorts by the temple priests with all the fanfare once a year or every day. Devotees participate in such ceremonies as guests and bless the divine couple with love and devotion. Through their actions and their attitude towards their partners, the gods exemplify the ideals of marriage life for the ordinary mortals. At times they also indulge in excesses, which are justified by the scriptures as divine plays (lilas) with some latent purpose, acceptable and justifiable in the divine sphere, but not so in case of human beings, since unlike gods, men are subject to the limitations of the earthly life and the cycle of births and deaths.

According to the beliefs of Hinduism, marriage is a sacred institution devised by gods for the welfare of human beings. Its primary purpose is procreation and continuation of life upon earth. Sexual union is intended solely for this purpose and should be used as such. Its secondary purpose is upholding of the social order and the Hindu dharma, while its ultimate aim is spiritual union with the inmost self, which is possible when a couple perform their obligatory duties and earn the grace of God through their good karma. A man and a woman are believed to come together as a husband and wife primarily for spiritual reasons rather than sexual or material, although they may not be mentally aware of the fact. Once married, the couple are expected to carry out their respective traditional duties as householders and upholders of family traditions and work for the material and spiritual welfare of each other, the members of their family and also society.

Marriage in Hinduism, therefore, is not just a mutual contract between two individuals or a relationship of convenience, but a social contract and moral expediency, in which the couple agree to live together and share their lives, doing their respective duties, to keep the divine order (rta) and the institution of family intact. As the torch bearers of Hindu dharma, in their capacity as individual souls, whose destinies are intertwined by their previous karmas, a married couple have a responsibility towards their society, the gods, other living beings and their ancestors. In short, in Hinduism marriage is a social and family obligation to perpetuate a divine centered life in which self-realization rather than sexual gratification is the reason for its continuation.

The concept of divorce is alien to Hinduism, as marriages are meant to last for a life time. Neither men nor women can throw away their marital relationships on some flimsy or selfish or whimsical grounds. Remarriage is permitted only under exceptional circumstances. Polygamy was a normal practice among Hindus just a few centuries ago. Presently, in India, the Hindu Marriage Act not only prohibits it but also makes it a punishable offence.

In the earthly plane, a marriage symbolically represents the same relationship that exists at the universal level between the Purusha, the Highest Supreme Self or Father God and Prakriti, the Universal Divine Mother or Mother Goddess, who as the dynamic energy of God is responsible for manifesting the Creation under the Will of God. Together they participate in the act of creation and bring forth all the beings as their progeny. In a marriage earthly beings perform the same role, except in a limited manner.

According to the Vedic tradition marriage is the means by which a man perpetuates himself through his progeny. A father extends himself into his future life and also into the next world through his children. In this process he is helped by his wife who bears him children through the sacred union in which there is a transfer of sexual energy (rethas).

In traditional Hinduism, marriage is the best means for the continuation of family and the Hindu tradition, by fulfilling which the two partners in the marriage cocreate their future and become qualified for their salvation. The roles of a husband and wife in a marriage are expected to be complimentary, because without the help from the other neither of them can fulfill the duties and obligations of the married life. The Hindu law books try their best to delineate the roles and responsibilities of each partner in a marriage so as to avoid any confusion. The couple have to follow their family rules and make sure that they do not contribute to the social disorder. In a traditional Hindu family, married couples have to perform many traditional duties, some of which have to be performed by them alone and some in association with the other. Among others, the following are some of their common duties and obligations.

  1. Participate in the creation of progeny
  2. Work for the welfare of the family members.
  3. Respect the Hindu dharma and family traditions by performing the obligatory duties, various samskars and rituals.
  4. Perform devotional services, charitable works and other morally and spiritual uplifting activities.
  5. Serve the gods, earthly beings, the ancestors and the dependent parents and relationships.
  6. Look after each other through thick and thin.
  7. Assist each other in their spiritual progress and work for each other's salvation.

Hindu scriptures do show a clear bias towards men and take the superiority of men in marital relationships for granted. They declare that a woman ought to be respected, protected and kept happy and that the happiness of women in the household is vital for the prosperity, peace and happiness of a family. They also recognize the importance of women in the affairs of their families and in molding the character and integrity of their children. However, at the same time they emphasize the need to keep women under constant vigilance by their men, since, according to them, women cannot be completely trusted or left to themselves.

They also do not consider gender equality as an important consideration in marriage or in society, although they do emphasize that each partner in a marriage has a unique role to perform, which cannot be discharged by the other. Man is recognized as the primary upholder of the dharma, the main recipient of all ritual honors, where as his wife participates in them as his partner and associate (saha dharma charini) to complement his efforts. He is incomplete without her and so does she. But when it comes to the comparison, he clearly stands above her. When he leaves the world, she loses every thing, her wealth, her identity, her comforts and her status. Thus clearly and unequivocally the Hindu scriptures relegate women to a subordinate position in relationship with men.

Marriage has another dimension in Hindu religion, which is unique by itself. Marriage is not viewed as a purely human affair, but as a sacred covenant between a man and a woman in which gods participate as witnesses as well as donors of the bride. During the marriage ceremony, the priest first marries the bride to the gods and then presents her to the bridegroom as a gift from the gods. Then he asks the groom to take an oath with gods as the witnesses that he would protect her and abide by her for the rest of his life. The idea behind this practice is that a man ought to respect his wife and treat her well as a divine gift since he cannot perform his obligatory duties as the upholder of the dharma all by himself. Besides, the belief that he has received the bride in good faith from the gods themselves puts him under a moral obligation to treat her well.

In modern Hindu society the equation between man and woman is changing. With the decline in our concern for upholding the Hindu dharma and in our anxiety to emulate the modern lifestyles to look progressive, liberal and advanced, a good number of Hindus are shunning anything and everything that remotely looks orthodox Hinduism. With the decline in family values and changes in the family structure, there is a significant overlapping of roles and responsibilities between men and women in Hindu families. Men still enjoy some degree of advantage over women in marital relationships. But in a society where religion is no more central to human endeavor as it used to be, we may see further deterioration in their role as the protectors and upholders of traditional values. The traditional beliefs and practices associated with the institution of marriage still hold good in many orthodox Hindu families, where women continue to perform their obligatory duties in their subordinate position. We are not however sure how long this will continue.

In Hinduism there are both moving parts and stable parts. The stable parts, which are essentially its core beliefs and concepts, keep the appeal of the Hindu religion intact, while the moving parts, which are essentially its practices and applied aspects, keep it moving and evolving and contribute to its resilience and vitality. Despite all the flux and commotion that is going on in the present-day Hindu society, marriage is still a viable and powerful institution where divorce rates are considerably lower than those of the western countries and where marriages are more stable and enduring.

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