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Hindu Marriage: Sacrament or Contract

Probably, no other people have endeavoured to idealize the institution of marriage as the Hindus have done. Even in the patriarchal society of the Rig Vedic Hindus, marriage was considered as a sacramental union. In addition, it continued to be so in the entire Hindu period; even in our contemporary world, most Hindus regard their marriage as a sacrament.

Manu enjoins on the wife that she should become a paturnuvrate, i.e., she should follow the same principles as her husband. We find the following passage in the Manu Smriti

I hold your hand for Saubhagya (good luck) that you may grow old with your husband, you are given me by the just, the creator, the wise and by the learned people.”

Rig Veda admires a wife, saying, “Be thou mother of heroic children, devoted to the Gods; be thou queen in the father-in-law’s household. May all Gods unite the hearts of us two into one.”

Wife is also ardhangini (half of Man). According to the Saptatha Brahmana, “the wife is the half of the husband. Man is only half, not complete till he marries.”

The Taittiriya Samhatta is to the same effect, as it declares, “half is she of the husband that is wife.”

Mutual fidelity between husband and wife

Mutual fidelity of husband and wife is implied from this notion of unity of' personality of husband and the wife. Manu declared that mutual fidelity between husband and wife is the highest dharma. Manu further said that once a man and woman are united in marriage, they must see that there is no difference between them, and that they remain faithful to each other.

Marriage for perfection of personality

Manu declared that a man who has not taken a wife has not fully perfected his personality and must be regarded as incomplete. His personality is developed and completed only upon the union of his wife, himself and his offspring. This is the significance of unity of personality of man and his wife under Hindu law. According to Manu, husband and wife are united to each other, not merely in this life, but even after death, in the other world. The rule is that, “once is a maiden given in marriage, true wife must preserve her chastity as much after as before her husband’s death.”

Marriage as sacrament

The Hindu marriage is a sacramental union. Marriage is one of the essential samskara (sacraments) for every Hindu. The aim and objectives of this institution is to achieve by cohabitation of man and woman, the supreme values of Dharma (i.e. duty according to law and religion), Artha (economic achievement), Kama (love and procreation) and Purushartha (best and noble actions and deeds). These are the material determinants of the concept of marriage.

A Hindu marriage was a sacrament in the sense that, a wife could never ask for divorce. Marriage was considered to be an indissoluble union. It was only in some exceptional cases; the sages allowed a woman to abandon her husband and take another. Old Hindu Law did not recognize divorce because it considered marriage as an indissoluble union. However, it was recognized by custom. Some smritikars allowed a wife to abandon her husband in some exceptional cases.

The Vedas hold marriage to be one of the important sacraments sanctifying the body. Hence, the marriage is given great importance by the Hindus. It is said that “the man who does not win a wife is really half, and he is not the full man as long as he does not beget an offspring.” According to Vedas, “a marriage is the union of flesh with flesh and bone with bone. It is a union, which the Vedas regard as indissoluble. As long as her husband is alive, the wife is enjoined to regard him as her God. Likewise, the wife is declared to be half the body of her husband (ardhangini) and shares with him equally, the fruits of all his acts, good or bad.”

Hindus had been treating the marriage as a sacrosanct act. In order to bring about the marriage, in view of the sacrosanctity attached to it, various ceremonies were provided by the Hindu philosophers. The marriage carried along with it divine blessings. It was believed that peace and prosperity used to dwell in the house where female members received due respect and honour. Marriage was considered to be essential for spiritual welfare. In the ancient society, monogamy was considered a virtue in spite of the fact that in some class of people and under certain circumstances, polygamy was permissible.

A sacred and holy union

The concept of Hindu Marriage has been described as a religious ceremony which results in a sacred and a holy union of man and wife. The wife is completely transplanted in the household of her husband; a new birth as a partner of her husband, becoming a part and parcel of the body of her husband.1)

A wife is also hailed as “the very source of the Purushartha, not only of Dharma, Artha and Kama, but even of Moksha.” Narada says that “the attainment of the ultimate bliss or moksha is just impossible for a woman who has not been sanctified by the rites of a marriage.” KM Kapadia holds the view that “Marriage was desired not so much for sex or for progeny as for obtaining a partner for the fulfillment of one’s religious duties.”

Honoured position of wife

In Mayne’s Hindu Law and Usage, the author says that the wife on her marriage was at once given an honoured position in the house. She was mistress in her husband's home and where she was the wife of the eldest son of the family, she exercised authority over her husband's brothers and his unmarried sisters. She was associated in all the religious offerings and rituals with her husband. As the old writers put it, “a woman is half her husband and completes him.”

Manu exhorted men to honour and respect women. Women must be honoured and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands, and brother-in-law who desire their own welfare. Where women are honoured, there the Gods are pleased; but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite yields rewards. The husband receives his wife from the Gods; he must always support her while she is faithful. Let mutual fidelity continue until death. This may be considered as the summary of the highest law for husband and wife. Disputes between husband and wife were not allowed to be litigated either in the customary tribunals or in the king's courts. Neither bailment nor contracting of debt, neither bearing testimony for one another nor partition of property was allowed between them.

Hindu Marriage as a religious ceremony

The concept of Hindu Marriage has been described as a “religious ceremony which results in a sacred and a holy union of man and wife, by which the wife is completely transplanted in the household of her husband, a new birth as a partner of her husband, becoming a part and parcel of the body of her husband. It has primordial importance in the contemplation of law. On the one hand, it signifies the spiritual union of man and woman, as husband and wife and, on the other hand, it conceives of the basic principle of mutuality bringing two parties together with the forces of social milieu, developing since the age-old times of civilization. Several obligations, corresponding duties and relative injunctions seem to evolve out so as to hold this tie together. The aims and objective of this institution is to achieve, by co-habitation of man and woman, the supreme values of Dharma (duty according to law and relation), Arth (economic effort and achievement), Kama (love and procreation) and Purusharth (best and noble actions and deeds). These are the material determinants of the concept of marriage which enjoin and oblige both husband and wife to live together under the same roof and by common effort to achieve the good of both.2)

The bond of husband and wife enjoins upon them the respective obligations and duties, loyalty, love, chastity and care, which are all the parts of the same bond on the social plane, that answer the character, either of the husband or the wife. Negative injunctions are also ingrained in this relationship. The Hindu wife was enjoined to share the life and love, joys and sorrow, troubles and tribulations of her husband, to render selfless service, unstinted devotion and profound dedication to her husband.3)

About the Author

Adv. Sunil Sharma is a writer for about 25 years and has authored more than 40 books on various subjects including Jurisprudence, Hindu Law and Environmental Laws.

SK Mitra on Hindu Law
SK Mitra on Hindu Law: cited in the case of Girdhari Maheshwari, AIR 2009 Raj 38; 2009 (1) WLN 373
Vaddeboyina Tulasamma vs Sesha Reddi, AIR 1977 SC 1944

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