Monday, 1 November 2010

Hinduism and forced marriages

These days we hear so much about forced marriages and so many movies have been made about these. If you ask me: Are forced marriages Hindu?

My reply would be:

No, they aren't. How can they be?

If you read our ancient texts, including Vedas, it was a woman's prerogative, nay birthright, to choose her own husband. Rich people and kings organised big swayamvar ('swayam' i.e. own + 'var' i.e. groom) ceremonies during which their daughters chose from one of the eligible men who wanted to marry them. And it was not limited to kings or rich people.

We have stories in which rich princesses chose poor aspirants and poor women married rich aspirants and caste system didn't play a major role in it. Parshuram was son of a Brahmin father and Kshatriya mother (a princess).

Raavan was son of a Brahmin father and a Rakshasi mother. Still he was one of the aspirants who wanted to marry Sita and Janak had accepted him in the ceremony. Karn, regarded as a charioteer, attended Draupadi's swayamvar implying that her father had invited him/ accepted his presence.

And here is one of the rare examples that show how a woman used her birthright (according to Hinduism) of choosing her life-partner. Karn actually succeeded the test set by Draupadi's father (another version says that Draupadi refused him before he had a chance because she feared that he'd succeed given that he'd already beaten Arjun once).

From the perspective of a 'modern' person, one would think that Draupadi didn't have much choice but to marry Karn, whom her father had accepted as an aspirant and eligible life partner for his daughter. But Draupadi wanted to marry Arjun (or had been born to marry Arjun). She was sure that he would pass the test. She hadn't anticipated that another man could pass the test. So she finds a way out of this sticky situation though it is not appropriate and evidently discriminatory by today's standards.

She goes against her father's wishes and refuses to marry Karn on the pretext that he is of a low birth.

She willingly marries Arjun, disguised as a poor Brahmin (so neither Kshatriya nor Prince or King), when he passes the test. It is made explicit that she'd recognised him though everyone considered him to have died, burnt in the Lakshagrah incident.

Rukmini marries Krishna in spite of the fact that her brother Rukmi had arranged her marriage with Krishna's cousin, Shishupal and states that it is her birthright as a woman. And we still respect both Rukmini and Krishna while people often forget or abhor Rukmi and Shishupal who are regarded as low-beings (though both were born princes).

And this is a tradition that was still in vogue as late as in the 12th century as is evident from the story of Prithviraj Chauhan (1149-1192 A.D.) and Samyukta in which Samyukta marries Prithviraj Chauhan against her father's wishes in her swayamvar and is supposed to have spoken of her birthright to choose her own husband.

As we have seen above, women like Draupadi and Samyukta went against their father's wishes and chose another man. And we still respect them as women.

In fact, what was essential was that the woman gave her heart to a man (what is called man se patI dhAraN karnaa in Hindi) i.e. considered someone as her husband from her heart and soul.

Yes, that is Hinduism. Forced marriages aren't Hindu if you consider that a woman has to consider a man as her husband from her heart and soul which is impossible if you force a girl to marry a boy chosen by her parents or someone else (of course, it's always easier when parents search for a suitable match and the girl can choose one of the eligible boys/ men chosen by her parents).

And we still honour this tradition of 'swayamvar' in our wedding ceremonies in the form of 'jaymaalaa' (the garland of victory) during which the girl puts a garland around the boy's neck implying that the boy has won over her heart and she accepts him as husband and then the boy honours her wishes by putting a garland of flowers around her neck.

This ceremony is the only one required for gandharva-vivah (a valid Hindu marriage) that is done without the presence of a third person i.e. only the bride and groom are present. But given the way boys breach a girl's trust (and opposite, too, happens at times), gandharva vivah has gone out of mode. But this doesn't make it unacceptable from religious point of view. Yet, it is not advisable because of lack of security as there is no proof of such marriages and any of the two may later refuse to acknowledge that it actually took place.

Sita is considered as a worthy example that a Hindu girl/ woman is supposed to follow. And Sita chose her own husband whom she'd seen, by chance, in a garden and this before the 'swayamvar' ceremony. She's supposed to have fallen in love with Ram at first sight and accepted her as her husband by heart and soul and this before the ceremony. Ramayan is incomplete without Sita's swayamvar. Do you think Sita would have been the exemplary wife that she's portrayed to be if she had been forced to marry Ram?

Marriage according to Hindu tradition is a sacred bond of love and mutual respect, for eternity, in which it is the girl who chooses her own husband whom she accepts as such from the depths of her heart and soul, a bond that is as beautiful, fragrant, sacred and delicate as the flowers in the wedding garland, flowers that we offer to God. This is the Hinduism in which I believe, Hinduism where women are free to choose in spite of political constraints. And forced marriages don't lead to any happiness and lead only to a woman's fury that killed Bhishma Pitamah, in the form of Shikhandi, in spite of the fact that he had the boon that he'd die only when he wanted to.


  1. That was a well researched post. Hinduism's beliefs are all distorted by vested interests and made controversial. It is the only religion, or as you would prefer, philosophy, that is most democratic, allowing its adherents the complete freedom to live life as they choose as long as it is according to the dharma. Looking forward to the next!

  2. @zephyr: Thanks, glad that you liked it.

  3. Kudo's to you Ritu....

    What a beautiful, well researched article!!!!

    My pranams to you.

    I am an engineer and author of international best seller AM I A HINDU?

    The most important aspect of Hinduism is


    Even an atheist has the right to openly condemn Hinduism in the public and still proudly say he or she is a Hindu.

    In fact the CHARVAKA philosophy or NASTIKA philosophy, [existed during the Vedic period] founded by CHARVAKA rejected the existence of God and considered religion as an aberration.

    Voltaire in Essay on Tolerance wrote: “ I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death, your right to say it. “

    Hinduism is the symbolic representation of what Voltaire wrote.

  4. Thanks :-) Glad that you like it.