Institution of Marriage in Ancient India

It is held by many scholars that the human race must have originally lived in a state of promiscuity, where individual marriage did not exist, where all the men in a horde or tribe had indiscriminate access to all the women and where the children born of these unions belonged to the community at large. A passage in the Mahabharatha describes in detail how such a state of things existed in Indian society till it was prohibited by a sage named Shwetaketu who was shocked beyond measure to find his own mother going out with a stranger in the presence and with the full approval of his own father.

Marriage a Divine Sacrament

But during Rig Vedic period the institution of marriage was strongly planted. According to the Rig Veda the purpose of marriage was to enable a man, by becoming a householder, to perform sacrifice to the gods and to procreate sons. Marriage (Vivaha) was one of the sacred sacraments which every individual had to undergo and was also the second stage, Grihasthashrama (householder) among the four stages of life prescribed in the Ashrama dharma. The term dampati used in the Rig Vedic period designates the mistress as well as the master of the house that is both husband and wife.

In ancient India marriage was a medium for bringing together the two distinct halves of life, man and woman. Husband and wife were not two separate entities capable of division, but two halves constituting an entire, single organic whole. It was in their wholeness that perfect humanity could manifest itself. During those times the family rather than the individual was regarded as the social and political unit and hence marriage was regarded as a sacrament. According to ancient Hindus marriage is not a temporary contract to serve the momentary physical demand or to enjoy good company for some time and then to lapse at the slightest inconvenience. It is a permanent union which stands various vicissitudes in life only to grow stronger and more stable. The primary function of marriage was the continuity of the race through the procreation of children and to ensure transmission of the cultural heritage. Marriage was regarded as a sacred religious union brought about by divine dispensation.

Criteria for selecting a bridegroom

Several factors like having intelligence, good character, good health and wealth were taken into consideration while choosing a bridegroom. Also other aspects like a bridegroom being a celibate and having the support of relatives and friends were taken into account. Kaatyaayana says that a bridegroom who is lunatic, guilty of grave sins, leprous, impotent, belonging to same gotra, bereft of eyesight or hearing, an epileptic should be avoided. Mahabharatha observes that friendship and marriage should take place between those alone whose wealth is similar and whose learning (in families) is of equal status, not between rich and poor.

Criteria for selecting a bride

Rules for the selection of the bride was far more elaborate than those for selecting a bridegroom though in some respect they are the same like the necessity of good family and absence of disease. Aasvalaayana Gruhasutra says one should marry a girl who is endowed with intelligence, beauty, good health and possessing auspicious characteristics. Kamasutra recommends that the bride must be younger than the bridegroom by at least three years, a virgin and of the same caste. An undesirable bride was one who had tawny (orange-brown or yellowish-brown colour) hair, excessive limb (such as a sixth finger or a deficient limb), who is hairless or very hairy, talkative, have a hoarse voice, very dwarfish or very tall, belonging to the same gotra as of the bridegroom and having dimple on her cheeks when she laughed. Manu, Manava Gruhyasutra and Yajnavalkyasmriti say that the girl to be chosen must not be brother less. This was because during ancient times when a man had no son, he would stipulate with the person marrying his daughter that the son born to her would be his (i.e. the girl’s father’s) son and would offer pindas as a son to his maternal grandfather. The result would be that the son of such a girl would not be able to offer pindas to his father (biological father) and would not continue the line of his father (biological father). Therefore brother less maidens were not chosen as brides.

Tallying of horoscope

Tallying of horoscopes played no part in the settlement of marriage in ancient India. The Grihyasutras and Dharmasutras nowhere suggest or recommend that horoscopes of the parties should be consulted before deciding their marriage. The reason was during those days the science of astrology was in its infancy and made it progress only during 400-900 A.D. A reference to parents of brides consulting an astrologer for the marriage of their wards occurs perhaps for the first time in the 7th century work Dasakumaracharita.

Custom of Dowry

In prehistoric times women were regarded as chattel and so it was the bride’s father and not the bridegroom’s who was regarded as justified in demanding a payment at the time of marriage. The bridegroom carried away the bride and deprived her family of her services and hence he could not have dreamt of demanding dowry or donation. Therefore dowry was unknown in ancient India. Among rich and royal families gifts were used to be given to son-in-laws at the time of marriage. They were voluntarily given out of pure affection. The dowry system is connected with the conception of marriage as dana or gift. A religious gift in kind is usually accompanied by a gift in cash or gold. So the gift of the bride also was accompanied by a small gift in cash or ornament. It is only medieval times and in Rajputana that we find the dowry system assuming alarming proportions, however happened only in the case of royal and aristocratic families (13th -14th century A.D.) But during the last 150 years the dowry system has assumed scandalous proportions.


The word Stridhan is derived from stri, woman and dhan, property and means literally woman’s property. Stridhan consisted of movable property like utensils, ornaments and apparel that was given to the bride at the time of marriage. According to Manu and Yajnavalkya, Stridhan usually consisted of gifts received from near relations at any time and from non-relations at the time of marriage. By 1100 A.D. commentators like Vijneshwara belonging to the Mitakshara School began to plead that all properties acquired by a woman like property acquired by inheritance, partition, etc. should be considered as Stridhan. However women were not allowed the right of disposal over this property and could only enjoy its income. The Dayabhaga School of Bengal did not accept this amplification of Stridhan, but it allowed women the right of disposal over Stridhan in the older and narrower sense of the term.

Marriageable Age

The age of marriage for both sexes varied considerably from age to age, from province to province and from caste to caste. A boy was to marry after he finished his Vedic studies which varied from 12, 24, 36 and 48 years or as much time as was necessary to master one Veda or a portion of it. Hence the earliest a boy could marry was at the age of 20 (Twelve years of study after his Upanayana ceremony which took place at the age of eight). Angiras says that the bride should be two, three or five years younger to the boy which means that the girls were married not before the age of fifteen. This was the trend during the Vedic age and continued till about 5th century B.C. The writers of Dharmasutras who flourished from 400 B.C. – 100 A.D. began to advise that marriage of girls should not be delayed after their puberty.

Causes for lowering the marriageable age of girls

  • The institute of nunnery in Jainism and Buddhism and the instances of several grown up maidens taking holy orders against their parents desire and some of them later falling from their high spiritual ideal must have strengthened the view of those who favoured marriages at about the time of puberty. If a girl is married before her personality is fully developed there was no danger of her joining a nunnery. We may therefore conclude that during the period 400 B.C.-100 A.D. the marriageable age was being gradually lowered and the tendency on the whole was to marry girls at about the time of puberty.
  • From about 200 A.D. pre puberty marriages became the order of the day. Yajnavalkya insists that girls should be married before their puberty. The analogy of Upanayana was also utilized for lowering the marriage age for girls. Smriti writers of the period 500-1000 A.D. began to encourage the marriage of girls at the age of eight as it was the same age for boys to undergo the Upanayana ceremony. Though during the Vedic period girls like boys used to undergo the Upanayana ceremony, over the period of time it was completely given up and marriage was prescribed as a substitute for Upanayana for girls.
  • The parents of lower section of the society where the custom of bride price was prevailing were the first to take advantage of the lowering the marriageable age of girls for their own selfish ends. Their example was followed by other classes.
  • The ramification of the caste system into hundreds of sub castes and the prohibition of inter caste marriages among them from about eighth and ninth century A.D. further accentuated the evil of child marriage. The selection of a suitable bridegroom was becoming progressively more difficult and parents did not like to take a risk of losing a good bridegroom at hand by postponing the marriage to a later date.
  • Sati system which had become popular also helped in this cause. If the father died and the mother followed him there would be at least a father-in-law to look after the young orphans if they were already married.
  • Joint family system and the satisfactory economic condition in the country favoured early marriage as the young couples were taken care off. It was also presumed that the girl could adjust with the family members of her husband and no chance of scandals would arise if married before puberty.

Types of Marriage

Grihyasutras, Dharmasutras and Smritis mention eight types of marriage. They were-

  • Brahma – In this type of marriage, the father used to invite a man learned in the Vedas to marry his daughter decked with garments and jewels.
  • Daiva – In this type of marriage, the person who organizes a sacrifice marries his daughter to the priest who had come to officiate at the sacrifice
  • Arsha – In this type of marriage, the father marries his daughter after receiving a cow and bull or a pair of it by the bridegroom
  • Prajapatya – In this form of marriage, the father after honouring the bridegroom gives his daughter and addresses both of them with the words- “may both of you perform your religious duties together”
  • Asura – In this type of marriage, the bridegroom willingly gives as much wealth as he can afford to the bride and her kinsmen
  • Gandharva– In this type of marriage, there is the union of a girl and the boy through mutual consent.
  • Rakshasa – In this type of marriage, the bride is forcibly carried from her home by the bridegroom after her kinsmen are beaten and wounded.
  • Paishacha– In this type of marriage, a man by stealth seduces a girl who is asleep, intoxicated or disordered in intellect

In the first four forms there is the gift of the girl (kanyadana) by the father or other guardian to the groom. This is in the sense of transfer of the father’s right of guardianship and control of the maiden to the husband. The mere listing of the Rakshasa and Paishacha forms of marriage do not mean that it was legalized but meant that there are eight ways in which wives could be secured. Among all the forms of marriage that of Brahma is the best and Paishacha is the worst. Gradually the last one came to be universally condemned and the seventh allowed only in the case of a Kshatriya. In general only the first four alone were approved for a Brahman though Manu and others condemned even the third for both this and the fifth types of marriage were looked upon as selling a daughter. The sixth was out of question when child marriage prevailed.

Inter caste Marriages

All writers on Dharmashastra start with the proposition viz. that the four castes Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra are arranged in a descending scale of social status and that marriage is or was permissible between a male of a higher caste with a woman of a lower caste. But the union of a woman of a higher caste with a male of lower caste was reprehensive and was not permitted. Marriages between the members of the different twice born castes, (Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas) were quite common in the society down to the 8th century A.D. as the cultural differences between them were not far reaching. Even orthodox Smriti and Nibandha writers regard them as legal. Agnimitra (a Brahmin) of the Sunga dynasty had married Malavika, a Kshatriya Princess in 150 A.D. The Kadamba ruler, a Brahmin had given his daughter to a Gupta prince (a Vaishya). This type of marriages, when men of high caste married with women belonging to a lower caste was called Anuloma. Later after 9th century A.D. under the influence of growing rigorous notion of puritanism Brahmin gave up meat eating, and instead of one bath began to have two or three ablutions a day. They also began to undertake a number of Vratas and instead of two Sandhya prayers added a third one. All these factors led to their exclusiveness and the earlier practice of forming matrimonial alliance with Kshatriyas and Vaishyas was given up.

While a marriage between members of the twice born was recognized, that between an individual belonging to a twice born caste, especially a Brahmin woman with that of a man belonging to Shudra caste was looked upon with disfavor and condemned with severity. Still such marriage used to take place and was called Pratiloma.

Marriage Rituals

There prevailed great divergence in the rites of marriages since ancient times. Some of the common rituals associated with a marriage of twice born were as follows.

  • Vadhuvara gunapariksha– Examining the suitability of a girl or boy
  • Varapresana– Sending persons to negotiate for the hand of the girl
  • Vaagdhana or Vaannishchaya– Settling the marriage
  • Nanadi shraddha– The honouring of pitrs (ancestors)
  • Mandapa Karana– Erecting a pandal where the ceremonies are performed
  • Gauri Hara puja – Worship of Shiva and Gauri by the bride
  • Tailaharidraaropana – Applying of turmeric powder to the boy and girl’s body
  • Snaapana, Paridhaapana and Samnahana– Making the bride bathe, put on new clothes and girding her with a string or rope of darbha
  • Madhuparka– Reception of the boy at the bride’s house where honey and curds are partaken.
  • Pratisarabandha –Tying an amulet string on the bride’s hand
  • Parasparasamikshana – Looking at each other at a proper time by the boy and girl when a piece of cloth held between them is removed
  • Kanyaadana – The gift of the bride
  • Mangalasutra bandana – Tying a string having golden and other beads by the boy around the bride’s neck
  • Agnisthapana and Homa – Offering oblations into fire by reciting mantras
  • Panigrahana – Taking hold of the bride’s hand
  • Laajahoma – Offering of fried grain in the fire by the bride
  • Agniparinayana – The boy going in front takes the bride round the fire and water jar
  • Saptapadi– Taking seven steps together around the fire
  • Murdhaabhisheka – Sprinkling holy water on the head of the boy and girl

Polygamy and Polyandry

Though monogamy seems to have been the ideal and probably the rule, the Vedic literature is full of reference to polygamy. Polygamy was a useful instrument for kings and nobles in strengthening their political power by contracting numerous but judicious matrimonial alliances. The rich probably regarded plurality of wives as a proof of their wealth, reputation and social position. Though it was the kings and nobles who practiced polygamy, the Sutras allowed a man to have a second wife if his first wife did not bore him a son. With regards to polyandry we do not come across a single passage in the Vedic literature which refers to that practice. The only exceptional case is that of Draupadi as the wife of the five Pandavas.

Divorce/Dissolution of marriage

There is absolutely no reference to divorce in the Vedic text or in the post Vedic literature. The theory of Dharmashastra writers is that marriage when completed by homa and saptapadi is indissoluble. Kautilya in his Arthashastra says that there can be no dissolution of marriage if it was celebrated in one of the first four forms, namely Brahma, Arsha, Daiva and Prajapatya. However if the marriage was in the Gandharva, Asura or Rakshasa form, then the tie may be dissolved by mutual consent.

While Hindu law did not allow divorce, it allowed separation of wife and husband under different circumstances. According to Kautilya, a woman can abandon and marry the brother of her husband her husband becomes a lunatic, a recluse, or of a bad character, traitor of the state or gone abroad since a long time. Similarly a husband could abandon his wife if she acted immorally, was barren, unable to beget a male child, ailing or spendthrift.


During the early Vedic period remarriage of a widow was permitted but it does not seem to have been the rule. The Grihyasutras are silent about remarriage; so probably by that time (600-300 B.C.) it had come to be prohibited generally among the Brahmins and other higher castes. The only option for a widow was to marry her husband’s brother or go in for Niyoga if her husband died sonless. But some authorities like Parashara, Narada and Devala permit a woman to take a second husband under certain circumstances like if he is missing or dead, had become a recluse, impotent or tainted. But these rules soon become more or less dead letters and the remarriage of women become rare if not altogether obsolete in course of time. One of the earliest historical instances of remarriage was that of Dhruvadevi, queen of Ramagupta, who after Ramagupta’s death married her brother-in-law, Chandragupta. Among the lower castes widow remarriage was allowed though it was held to be somewhat inferior to the marriage of a maiden.

The custom of Niyoga

As the law givers have opined that a bride is given to the family and not to the groom only, a childless widow was allowed to have sexual relation with the brother of her husband to beget a son. This act was known as Niyoga. To die without a son was regarded as a great spiritual calamity and it was the sacred duty of a brother to see that a son was raised on his sister-in-law to perpetuate his brother’s memory and to ensure him a seat in heaven. If this was not done, there was also the danger of the widow marrying a stranger and being lost to the family. A son by Niyoga was always preferred to a son by adoption as the former had the blood of the mother, if not his father at least that of a near relative. Niyoga was also allowed if the husband was incapable of procreating children and the brother-in-law was regarded as the most eligible person for this duty. The custom of Niyoga was fairly common down to 300 B.C. and after that time it began to meet with considerable opposition, because society felt that such temporary unions were undesirable.

The practice of Sati

In prehistoric times there prevailed a belief in several societies that the life and needs of the dead in the next world are more or less similar to those in this life. It therefore became a pious duty of surviving relations to provide a dead person all the things that he usually needed when alive. Especially when an important personage like a king, a nobleman or a warrior died, he would require his wives, horses and servants in the next world and it would therefore be necessary and desirable to kill these all and burn or bury them with him. Such a belief should have given rise to the custom of burying and burning the dead husband along with his living wife.

There is no reference to Sati in the Vedic literature, Grihyasutras and Buddhist literature. Not it is mentioned by Megasthenes and Kautilya. The earliest historical instance of Sati is that of the wife of the Hindu general Keteus who died in 316 B.C. while fighting against Antigonos. The custom of Sati became gradually popular from 400 A.D. and was known to Kalidasa, Bhasa, Vatsyayana and Shudraka. Smriti writers of that period refer to that practices, but do not consider it ideal for the widow and allow it only as a second alternative and regard ascetic life as preferable to it. The custom gained popularity among the fighting classes and the conduct of a widow boldly burning herself with the remains of her husband appeared as the most glorious example of supreme self-sacrifice. From about 700 A.D. fiery advocates began to come forward to extol the custom of Sati in increasing number. Angiras argued that the only course which religion has prescribed for a widow is that of Sati. Harita maintained that the wife can purify her husband from the deadliest of sins, if she burns herself with his remains. The views advocated by these writers gradually began to produce some effects on society. During the period 700 -1000 A.D. Sati became more frequent in north India especially in Kashmir. Later it was popular among the Rajputs of Rajasthan, the Sikhs and Marathas. After 1000 A.D. Sati was practiced in Deccan and the far south. Though it was popular among the Kshatriya women later women of Brahmin caste and other castes also practiced it.


  1. S.Altekar- The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization, From Prehistoric times to the present day, Motilal Banarasidass
  2. Swami Madhavananda & R.C.Majumdar, Edited- Great Women of India, Advaita Ashrama, Almora, 1982
  3. P.V.Kane –History of Dharmashastra, Vol II, part –I, Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona, 1941
  4. Usha Sharma, Edited- Marriage in Indian Society: From Tradition to Modernity, Vol-1, Mittal Publication, New Delhi, 2005
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