India, there is a notion that the honour of the family rests with the women who can violate it by conduct that is against the principles of the concept of ritual purity. Thus, marriage is not an independent affair of the boy and girl, but an affair of significance to the entire families of both spouses who seek to strengthen their relations, already existing or new, through matrimonial alliance. This led to an elaborate restrictive control on sexual and marital norms.
In these circumstances, a natural question is whether, in India, a man or woman exercises some control over the selection of his or her spouse. The nature of marriage as an institution in India is significantly different from that in Western societies. Whereas marriage based on romantic love has been prevalent in India in ancient times, its prevalence in the West does not seem to have originated earlier than the 20th century. This conceptual difference would be evident even from a linguistic study of certain kinship terminology. For instance, the relatives by marriage are ‘relatives in law’; signifying a mere legal relationship as against natural or fundamental relationship indicated by the term ‘relatives by blood’. The quality of affinity-based relations in Indian societies is similarly different from that prevailing in the West. In the West, a spouse is free to behave with members of the family of her husband according to her will or in conformity with the latter’s mode of behaviour. In India, however, a spouse is obliged to love and honour her husband’s relatives in much the same way as she is expected to love and respect her own parents. In fact, she may do neither, but that is a different matter.
Organisation of arranged marriage
Until quite recently, marriage in Hindu society depended not on the free mutual choice of the young people, but on the will and choice of the parents or other elderly relatives. In the old days, arranged marriages were organized by the parents and elderly members of the family in consultation with the family astrologer. In such matrimonial alliances, the social status of the two families was the most important factor and the personalities of the bride and bridegroom hardly played any role. Thus, the arranged marriage was organized by an intermediary who was called sambhal in Vedic times. Later, the sambhal came to be called ghatakas or match makers, who kept the genealogical records of every family for consultation before concluding matrimonial relations between the two parties. This procedure avoided intermarriage between persons belonging to the same sapinda or consanguineous group.
After consulting the genealogical records, the parents or elderly relatives of the bridegroom were approached and, if they agreed to the proposal, the next step was to consult the horoscope of the bride and the bridegroom to see that both the parties conformed to each other in their fundamental temperament. It is well known that Hindu astrology embodies various rules pertaining to marriage. These rules are quite elaborate and complicated and for the perusal of a horoscope to organize a successful arranged marriage, the services of expert astrologers were used. These experts prescribed the date, exact time and place for solemnising the arranged marriage with a ritual ceremony. With the change of values over time and in the wake of industrialisation and urbanisation, it became harder to organize the arranged marriage, that is, within the members of the same caste in a circle of acquaintances. This called for the extension of the area within which a arranged marriage was sought. Earlier, arranged marriages were organized between persons residing within a radius of 50 km, later it was extended to a radius of 500 km. As an aid to finding prospective brides and bridegrooms of the same caste, matrimonial advertisements in newspapers came to be used. Such advertisements crept into periodicals published by various caste organisations as well.
Despite the spread of education, the Hindu family structure still continues to be traditional, especially in regard to marriage which is still arranged by the parents of the young ones with the main consideration being caste endogamy and gotra exogamy and dowry. Village communities, especially, adhere to this procedure. However, in cities the position is slightly different. The young boys and girls studying in universities or other institutions of higher learning come to know each other. Often, a friendship develops, but if the question of marriage comes up the boys may be disinclined to do so and the girls usually submit to the will of the parents who are invariably guided by considerations of caste endogamy. Although the ideal of a shy, chaste and submissive woman is gradually losing significance with the spread of education, the psychological impact of ambivalent values is still an obstacle to the young in conforming to their convictions. Society, largely, is liable to misinterpret the character of any person, especially a woman, who is truly frank, bold and claims independent views on sexual mores. In these circumstances, even the woman who is profoundly convinced of the mismatch inherent in an arranged marriage normally consents to it. Economic independence and social status of the educated working woman in urban society is still overshadowed by the feudal concepts of the upper middle and higher classes in regard to arranged marriage as a means to economic and social security. This ambivalent attitude towards the educated working woman has led to increasing mental conflict and tension.
After intensive interviews with more than 500 educated working women in India between 20 and 40 years of age, Dr Promilla Kapur writes in her book Marriage and the Working Woman in India, that the percentage of women preferring arranged marriage has gone up in the last two decades of the previous century from 37 to 52 per cent. However, this preference has been accompanied by an emphasis on knowing their selected partner well before the marriage. This is clearly a progressive step and a deviation from blind tradition and indicates a line of thought which is distinctively individualistic and motivated by a wider experience. In other words, the modern girl is playing it safe by placing the responsibility for mate-selection on the parents while, at the same time, demanding the right to know the partner before marriage. Radhakrishnan’s view that “we do not marry the woman we love, but we love the woman we marry,” is bound to be reversed in the course of time. A tendency is evident among the youth in favour of the concept that marriage is a social institution evolved primarily for the personal satisfaction and benefit of the two individuals. This signifies that marriage is now becoming a social tie rather than a religious one, which in turn, involves doing away with the cumbersome rituals of the Vedic ceremony. The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 has made a decisive change in the concept of marriage in India from the sacramental to the contractual.
Today, the method of selecting the marriage partner has changed, especially in urban areas. We find that the tradition of parental selection without consulting the young ones is being replaced by the custom of self-choice with subsequent consent by the parents or the parents’ choice is subject to the approval of the parties to be married. The demand for self-choice, however, is emerging very slowly, partly due to the traditional respect for parents and partly for avoiding uncertainties in this important aspect of life. Another type of marriage called ‘neo-arranged marriage’ has also come into vogue. In this type of marriage, the two families come to an understanding, introduce the girl and the boy and grant them the restricted freedom to meet and find out about each other. Even in such cases, the young ones invariably submit to the choice of the parents.
Apart from these traditional types of marriage, there exists in India, the so-called ‘civil marriage’ based on mutual love and concluded by registration in a court of law. As against this, the traditional type of arranged marriage is organized according to caste, sub-caste and horoscopes of the boy and girl. Such a marriage virtually brings forth an alliance between the two families.
The traditional type of arranged marriage requires that the bridegroom, accompanied by his parents and relatives and friends, goes to the bride’s house where a religious ceremony is held under the supervision of a Brahmin priest. The ceremony includes chanting of rituals before the holy fire fed with sandalwood, ghee (clarified butter) and incense. On the conclusion of this ceremony, the bride moves into her husband’s family. The wife shares the husband’s prestige in the family. Thus, a young Indian does not set up a house on his own on getting married but brings his bride to the joint family home. This too is changing with rapid urbanisation.