Changing Dimensions of the Institution of Marriage in India

By Dr Purnoor Kaur

The ideal that marriage aims at is that of spiritual union through the physical. The human love that it incarnates is intended to serve as a steppingstone to divine or universal love. (“Chapter-57: The Marriage Ideal | The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi | Free ...”)

Many civilizations around the world view marriage as a sacrament or a sacred vow, a sacred union bestowed by God, and celebrate the occasion with ceremonies and customs that often have a spiritual backdrop. In Christianity, the sacrament is traditionally blessed by a minister or priest in a religious ceremony that signifies the joining of a man and a woman and is typically held in a church. Jewish weddings are sacred rituals that take place under a canopy called a chuppah, which stands for the home the couple will create together. India also presents a fascinating palette of traditions and beliefs are seen. Majority of Indians 79.8% are Hindus (Census 2011) and traditional Hindu marriages, known as ‘vivaah’, are performed with religious rituals and ceremonies in the presence of a priest, family and friends, usually in a mandap, a sacred canopy. Vibrant and joyful celebrations include ‘Sangeet’ families and friends come together to sing and dance, ‘Haldi’ turmeric paste application to the bride and groom's skin to purify and bless them, ‘Baraat’ a groom's wedding procession, and so on. The wedding ceremony concludes with ‘Homam’ a fire ritual to invoke blessings from the gods and goddesses for the couple's future happiness and prosperity. As an extension of continuously observed customs over a long time, legislation adopted The Hindu Marriage Act in 1955 which is applicable to people who are Hindus, Buddhists, Jains or Sikhs by religion.1 To Buddhists, marriage is more of a social and moral obligation than a sacrament, and is essential to the continued existence of the sangha that laypeople marry and have children. Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and Shintoism are other similar examples of religions that treat marriage as a sacrament and perform it with rites and ceremonies. Likewise Muslim belief holds that marriage is both a religious obligation and a path to enlightenment. The marriage ceremony, known in Islam as "nikah," is officiated by a religious leader. Out of the total, 14.2% of the population belongs to Islam religion and they are governed by the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937. This deals with not only matters of marriage but succession, inheritance and charities as well. Interestingly, The Indian Christian Marriage Act was the first entrant in Parliament of India, enacted in 1872.

Marriages in India were arranged by parents often with the intention of creating connections between families and preserving family rank and wealth. Most unions took place between members of the same caste, except for rare instances, there were marriages between people of different castes, especially in the upper classes, a notable reference is marriage of ‘Jodha’ and ‘Akbar’. Furthermore, polygyny was a common practice among the elite and the warrior class while monogamy was the norm for the masses. The institution of marriage was highly regarded as a means of upholding social order and ensuring the survival of one's family. Promising a union of bride and groom of very young ages was a common practice. Eventually, acculturation seeped in owing to foreign invasions and colonisation and opened up opportunities for further evolution of this institution.

Simply put, marriage is a legally accepted relationship between two people. Britannica’s latest update (January 5, 2023) explains marriage as, a legally and socially sanctioned union, usually between a man and a woman, that is regulated by laws, rules, customs, beliefs, and attitudes that prescribe the rights and duties of the partners and accords status to their offspring (if any).

Birth of the word

The word ‘marriage’ is a Latinate word that made into English over the years through prior adaptation and popularisation in the years of French ascendancy and resultant conduits. Just like the phenomenon in discussion, its label has undergone cultural journeys to finally be assimilated in English.

Its roots are in Latin, where it took the journey from ‘maritus’ to ‘maritaticum’ in Colloquial Latin by the 11th century. Later, the word was adopted in the Old French and finally completed its journey to Middle English in the thirteenth century. Sometimes after that it seems to have gained access to English lexicon.

Challenging stereotypes

Broadly speaking, family has become a spectrum, inclusive of interspecies bonds. Dimensions of marital relationships have expanded, and more dramatically so, in India. Normalisation of love weddings as opposed to planned marriages, and inter-caste and interreligious marriages have also become increasingly common. Individuals of modern India are more likely to choose mates from different social and cultural backgrounds. Nuclear families are finding new meanings with mutable gender roles. Both spouses now typically hold down outside jobs and contribute to household and child-rearing tasks. More and more Indians are looking to forge partnerships on their own terms, and as a result, the institution of marriage is altering and adjusting to meet these new realities.

Such changes are being parallelly documented by anthropological researchers as well as our beloved Bollywood which helps us understand and navigate the changes through its unique combination of visual and emotional storytelling. In the 1970s and 1980s, Indian films often depicted arranged marriages as the norm and emphasised the importance of preserving family traditions and cultural values. More recent films have started to reflect the changing attitudes towards arranged marriages and the increasing acceptance of love marriages and the increasing desire for personal freedom and choice. Other notable themes are the role of women in marriage, the challenges faced by inter-caste and inter-religious marriages, the issue of dowry, divorces and same sex relationships, etc.

Some popular examples include: "2 States" (2014) based on the novel of the same name by Chetan Bhagat, explores the theme of inter-caste marriage in India and the challenges faced by a couple from two different cultural backgrounds. The film highlights the difficulties faced by couples in inter-caste marriages, as well as the cultural differences and societal pressures that can impact a marital relationship and how love, respect, and understanding in a relationship can help overcome cultural and societal differences. "Ki & Ka" (2016) explored the concept of a married couple where the wife is the breadwinner and the husband stays at home. The movie depicts a non-traditional, gender-nonconforming marital relationship, challenging societal norms and gender roles. "Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan" (2020) focuses on the theme of same-sex relationships in India. The film follows the story of two gay men who are in love and want to get married but must overcome the opposition of their families and society. The film is a light-hearted take on a sensitive topic and not only aims to raise awareness about the issue of same-sex relationships and promote acceptance and equality but to break the taboo surrounding homosexuality.

The good

One of the greatest advantages of moving away from a traditional set of thoughts is challenging the social evils prevalent around the institution. Girls were married off before 18 completed years very often as part of traditions. In recent years, child marriage has become controversial and is now outlined as a serious social and public health issue as the consequences of child marriage are severe, both for the girls who are forced into it and for society as a whole. Girls who are married young are more likely to drop out of school, suffer from health problems, and experience domestic violence. They also have fewer opportunities to participate in the workforce, which can lead to economic insecurity for themselves and their families. Despite the multi-faceted approaches and criminalization of underage marriage, the latest NFHS -5 survey reveals that among women aged 20-24 years, 14.7% in urban areas and 27.0% in rural areas, were married before 18 years of age, revealing gaps in implementation or acceptance among the general public.

Another such practice which we distanced from in recent years is the dowry system in India. It is the practice of giving a monetary or material gift to the groom by the bride's family during a marriage. This practice was seen as a way for the bride's family to secure a good future for their daughter. Despite its harmless purpose, the practice has led to many cases of domestic violence and even death. Many experts believe that the dowry system reinforces patriarchal attitudes and puts pressure on young women and their families. Even with the efforts by the Indian government to criminalise the practice and raise awareness about its negative effects, it continues to persist. According to a newly released data by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the number of cases filed in the country under the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 increased to 13,534 in 2021, a 25% increase over the number of cases filed in 2020 (10,046). The state of Uttar Pradesh reported the greatest number of these instances in the country, up to 4,594. While there were still 6,843 dowry-related deaths (304-B IPC) in 2020, the number dropped to 6,589 in 2021, a decrease of 3.8 percent from the previous year. There have been 2,222 dowry-related deaths reported in Uttar Pradesh, making it the state with the greatest total number of such incidents in the country. Telangana had the largest number of such deaths in the south (175 in 2016), while Kerala had the lowest (60 in 2016).4 We should be vary of such subjective definitions of customs that may cross fanaticism meet malevolence at its maxima.

The confusing

In the past, we heard a common saying that once a woman is married off and leaves her parental house; she may only step out permanently as a corpse. There were no apparent alternatives. However, divorce rates in India have been increasing over the past few decades, as more and more individuals opt for ending unhappy or unsatisfying marriages. This also suggests that individuals are becoming more aware of their rights and more willing to assert their needs and desires in relationships. The recent trends instigate two contrasting lines of discussion in the society, on the one hand, self-pronounced traditionalists may believe the rising number of divorces are due to lack of responsibility towards the family and only a result of fading values, however the evidence for the same is low and on the other hand, we have evidence of domestic violence and harassment, adultery, dowry related violence, female emancipation, forced abortions, foeticides, infanticide, etc. Yet there are no measures of these intangible struggles and no one thing can be claimed for sure. There also have been reports of falsified allegations from females against the entire family with intent of revenge or asset acquisition. At best, it is an admixture of unknown scenarios. No generalisations are possible or justifiable. Financial fallout after a divorce is a tragic reality. Keeping the latter in consideration, a new concept has entered the global market to obtain financial security during a divorce using a divorce insurance, which can pay for things like legal fees, alimony and child support. It may not be long before we see commercials selling such policies in lieu of widespread deceit.

"Thappad" (2020), explores the theme of domestic violence in Indian marriages. The film follows the story of a woman who files for divorce after her husband slaps her at a party. The film highlights the impact of domestic violence on a marital relationship and how it can lead to emotional trauma and damage to the self-esteem of the victim. The film aims to raise awareness about the issue of domestic violence and the importance of treating partners with respect and dignity in a marital relationship. The film is a call to action for change in societal attitudes towards domestic violence and the need for a more equal and just society. On one hand, a divorce may bring relief from a toxic or unhappy marriage, allowing individuals to move on and pursue happier relationships. It may also provide an opportunity for personal growth and self-discovery. On the other hand, divorce can also be a difficult and stressful process, causing emotional distress, financial difficulties, and conflicts between the parties involved. It can also have negative impacts on children, affecting their wellbeing and relationships in the future.

The absolute rise in premarital relationships is difficult to correctly assess. But, it will not be wrong to assume that there has been a progressive change in recent years towards more permissive attitudes toward premarital relationships in urban and younger populations. Despite their outward attempt to distance themselves from traditional marriages and archetypes, premarital relationships typically mimic the norms and conventions of married partnerships.5 Exposure to global cultural influences has led to a common tendency of experimenting with new ways of thinking and building relationships. Coupled with the growing popularity of smartphones and the internet, online dating has become more accessible and convenient for people in India. Nevertheless, the ease of dating picture does not assure anything but a roller coaster. Alongside the dreamy love stories co-exist the ‘Tinder Swindlers’ and ‘Emotional Atyachar’. On the positive side, it provides a convenient and efficient way to meet potential partners and form relationships by allowing individuals to connect with others who share similar interests and values. The platforms offer a range of features, including personality tests, algorithm-based matches, and chat functions, to help individuals find compatible partners. The growing number of working professionals and busy lifestyles has also made online dating a convenient choice for individuals who have limited time to meet potential partners through traditional means. The freedom to choose one’s partner can quickly turn into an opportunity for deceit. With no checks on sexual predators on dating sites and a wide outreach, dating platforms are not the ideal to search for love. People may indulge in catfishing and may not be truthful about their identity or intentions online. Changing patterns of interpersonal relationships can give rise to a plethora of problems for everyone involved. The risk of marginalisation, stigma, and discrimination along with the internalisation of such phenomenon is a recipe for increase in mental health problems and even suicide. The current understanding of legitimacy is based on interpretations that are simply extrapolations of existing frameworks. There is a delay in explicit laws and provisions may put additional burdens of vulnerabilities additional to the social stigma.

Another less discussed extension of a similar nature consists of live-in relationships, same-sex relationships, and polyamorous family systems. The level of acceptance of such new phenomena has grown, but there are no correct demographic surveys to document them as of now, along with a lack of recognition in usual documentation. The discussions around live-in relationships in India have been going on since the 1970s after the judgement of Badri Prasad Vs Board of Consolidators, 1978 in the Supreme Court. With no explicit definitions, Article 19(a)- right to freedom of speech and expression and Article 21- protection of right to life and personal liberty of the Constitution of India often enter courtroom discussion in dealing with such matters. Freedom and danger go hand in hand, so does the need to protect personal rights of the women and the women herself. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that women are safeguarded under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 as live-in relationships fall under Section 2(f) of the law which defines a domestic relationship. The complexity of the present situation brings along with it multiple challenges that cannot be dealt under the lone shield of jurisdiction.

The ugly

Paradigm dictates that any change or advancement in a system or culture will be faced with resistance or disagreement. One such morally reprehensible form of violence has appeared with the shifting scenarios known as honour killing. It is a form of homicide in which a member of a community or family is killed for perceived violation of traditional or cultural norms. In India, honour killings are often associated with issues related to marriage and relationships, such as marrying someone outside of one's caste or religion or rejecting an arranged marriage. These killings are typically carried out by family members and are often motivated by a desire to restore honour to the family. Honour killings are illegal under Indian law. Yet, they are not uncommon in the country. In the film ‘Ishqzaade’, the concept of honour killing is touched upon as the two lead characters belong to political families who are engaged in a long-standing feud. The relationship between Arjun and Zoya is perceived as a threat to the honour of their families, leading to tensions and the possibility of an honour killing. Keeping such depictions still very relevant, 33 murder reports in the country stated honour killing as the motive of crime (as per the Crime in India Report 2021).

Rather implausible to the mind, forced marriages are a reality in this day and age. The theme was explored by "Jabariya Jodi" a Bollywood movie released in 2019. The film follows the story of a man who is a kidnapper of grooms for forced marriages, but his life takes a turn when he falls in love and is faced with the dilemma of following the traditions of his community or pursuing his own happiness. Though the film successfully emphasises on the importance of individual freedom and the need for society to evolve and embrace more progressive attitudes towards love and relationships, the reality shows a crueler grasp of evil. According to Crime in India Report 2021, 182 cases of human trafficking for marriage were reported (370 & 370A IPC), with a large numbers of victims of kidnapping and abduction with marriage as motive who were recovered alive included 10,235 adult females and 306 adult males, and shockingly, 12,788 female and 143 male children. (366 IPC) Majority of cases under crime against women under IPC were registered under ‘Cruelty by Husband or His Relatives’ (31.8%). There is no justification to why such crimes keep showing up year after year and how do they sustain their presence where we are outshining most developmental feats. Focused research into the matter may reveal further insights.

Centuries of development, pursuits of economic excellence, individualistic dissociation, political, technological, and digital revolutions, and pandemics have all led us to a tipping point for alternate societal arrangements. In the near future, we are likely to witness, greater social acceptance of diverse forms of relationships, including live-in relationships and single parenthood, an increasing trend of love marriages, and an increase in inter-caste and inter-religious marriages, with never seen before levels of social mobility and exposure to diverse cultures. The absolute changes may vary across different regions and demographic groups. Undeniably, marriage is still the fundamental association in a family structure. The smaller changes have the potential for magnification in all aspects of demography. Traditions coming off their age pose more unanswered questions, yet all said and done, not everyone is set to stray off the traditional ways. The celebratory big fat weddings go on harmoniously alongside the modest celebrations of many forms of love. India keeps up with the limitless buffer of embracing and adapting to diversity, and that is what makes it Incredible.


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