3 Kinds of Marriage in Hindu Mythology – and what they tell us

Marriage

I think it’s safe to say that marrying for love is a recent phenomenon. Traditionally, marriage has always been a coming together of two individuals with the intention of having children. Love was neither necessary nor sufficient. Things like social standing, material riches, and good genes (read beauty) mattered a lot more – not only for the people entering the alliance but also for future generations.

It was a great way to consolidate and build generational wealth and status.

In my reading of mythology, three different forms of marriage appear. (The official number is eight.) For lack of better words, I’m using the words ‘groom-dominant’, ‘bride-dominant’ and ‘competition’ to describe them.

1. Groom-dominant marriages

Bhishma-bride-price

These are typically alliances which the groom’s side initiates with an offer of bride price and gifts. From the Mahabharata, Gandhari and Madri were brought into the Kuru household this way. In both cases Bhishma sets out armed with elephants and horses laden with silk, gold and weapons, and the marriage is fixed over an elaborate dinner and (one supposes) a goblet of wine.

In such cases, we of the modern world are apt to think that the woman in this case is nothing more than a lifeless piece of property which can be bought and sold at men’s whims.

2. Bride-dominant marriages

sita-swayamvar

These are marriages that happen based on the result of a voluntary groom-choosing ceremony. Among the popular women from our myths, Kunti and Damayanti get their husbands this way. The modus operandi here is that the bride walks around the hall with a garland in her hands, from one suitor to the next, listening to the descriptions of her companions. When she comes face to face with a man she likes, she will blush appropriately and choose him as her husband.

In this form of marriage, there is a case for men feeling bad because it’s our turn to be made into objects that are judged. Much like cattle at a village fair.

3. The Competition

draupadi-swayamvar

Another version of this is the competition. The two most popular heroines of our mythology – Draupadi and Sita – are given away in this manner. In the former case, suitors have to shoot a revolving fish in a bowl of water attached to the ceiling by looking only at its reflection in a cauldron of oil. In the latter, men have to string a bow belonging to Lord Shiva and make it twang before they could win Sita’s favour.

Here it’s a little difficult to say who is in power. For one, men have to showcase their strength and skill. There is a certain amount of risk involved in the process – not just of physical harm, but also of shame and social stigma. It could not have been advisable for any king or chief of that time to fail in a display of strength in a gathering of other kings.

For another, women don’t have much of a choice here either. What if she doesn’t like the person who wins the competition? When Ravana strides up to the bow to lift it up, Sita is said to dig her fingers into the garland in apprehension, because if the King of Lanka succeeds, she would not be able to reject him. Draupadi, too, in her vehement protest against Karna’s entering the competition, indicates that she would have been helpless if he had indeed succeeded.

There are no instances as far as I know of ceremonies in which more than one suitor passes the challenge. Maybe in that case the bride gets to choose between the two winners? We can only speculate.

What do these tell us?

The first thing we learn from these different forms of marriage is that the balance of power was not always tilted in favour of the men. Kingdoms which were rich and powerful could afford to call for a groom-choosing and declare that their princess would choose her mate from a large gathering of worthy men. The kingdom of Kunti, in those days, was fertile, surrounded by allies, and was well-defended along the shore of the Yamuna. It would have been next to impossible to take it by force. So it was an attractive marriage alliance target for all kings of North Country.

Then there were kingdoms that were not quite of that stature yet. Kings of such cities were not certain that a groom-choosing would attract enough suitors, but they didn’t wish to undermine their status either by giving away their daughters for a price. So they took the middle ground and threw a contest, offering an alliance as a prize. At the time of Draupadi’s marriage, Panchala had the benefit of rich natural resources and a strategic geographic location, but she had no allies among her neighbours. She was a growing force, but she wasn’t quite there yet.

And then there were kingdoms which no one wanted. Their only chance of gaining an alliance with the big kingdoms was to give away their princesses for a price. It helped if these princesses were beautiful. Both Gandhari and Madri came from small, rocky (or sandy) northwestern kingdoms that had no claim to power, but they were known for their beauty. (In contrast, Kunti was supposed to be plain in appearance.) Bhishma was perhaps the first visionary among the rulers of North Country to look far and wide when searching for Kuru queens; he knew that these corner kingdoms, though ignored by many, offered three advantages:

  • Strategic hold over kingdoms that lay between the two cities
  • The princesses were beautiful, so the sons they will give Hastina will be ‘worthy’.
  • The princesses were ‘cheap’. They were ‘sure shots’. There was no groom-choosing or competition to worry about. All he needed to do was make them an offer and they would accept.

In closing…

I will admit most of what I said above is my own concoction. But it seems logical to me that marriage in those days was as amenable to power play and status as it is today. Instead of painting the whole social milieu in one stroke, I think it is more revealing to judge them on a case-by-case basis, keeping in mind that objectification – then as now – went both ways. Only the nature differed.

Whenever there is an imbalance of power, therefore, objectification seems a natural consequence. So perhaps a better way to fight objectification is to address the power imbalances and fight for equality.

What do you think? Do you agree with the ‘analysis’ above? What are your thoughts on marriage – both then and now – in relation to how it reflects society’s power imbalances?

Images Courtesy: 0, 1, 2, 3

Comments

  1. I think most human activities, though clouded in serene ceremonies, have been about who gathers the most resources & power. All of us are power hungry animals. Just because we live in organized cities instead of jungles and behave in the politest of manners, the basic quality doesn’t change.

    Destination Infinity

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  2. Quite a nice one! Loved reading it and agree with most of it.
    I have also always believed that power did not always favour men as per these texts. Things maybe changed over time or maybe how the same people behaved in different situations.

    For Shantanu, marrying both Ganga and Satyavati were challenges as they came with their own conditions despite not being in the position of power otherwise (let’s keep aside Ganga’s beauty and Satyavati’s fragrance for a moment). While when it came to Bheeshm for getting wives for Vichitraveerya, he abducted princesses of a powerful kingdom. Imagine, this was done by the same Bheeshma who left his kingdom for a fisherwoman meant for his father. Why he could not abduct her as well is doubtful. Maybe because he viewed his father’s love interest as his mother and didn’t want to display force as opposed to what he did explicitly when he got wives for Vichitraveerya and implicitly when he got wives for Dhritarashtra and Pandu who were younger than him and he thought display of force was okay.

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    • Yes, an interesting question of why Bhishma didn’t just swoop in and carry Satyavati away. Why did he negotiate with her father? Another way of looking at it: maybe the Satyavati incident taught him not to get into talks with a bride’s father and resort to challenge at the first sign of conflict 🙂

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  3. A great piece, as usual. I am a silent stalker of the articles put here. But for this particular piece, as a mythology retard (for lack of better words), aren’t their stories apart from those of the rich and the powerful, the common man, that would speak differently of the marriage system then. From what I understand, kingdoms were filled with people of all strata and coming upon a pattern of marriages based on the stories of the rich and the powerful, is commenting on the elite and not the norm, do we have any stories of the normal people, like sudama or eklavya..except the rare incidences that are famous and passed on in form of songs and dramas?

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    • Hi Nikita,

      Interesting point you make there. I don’t think there are any stories of how the ‘common men’ got married in those days. I would think in the same way that the kings got married, but depending on which side of the bargain had ‘the upper hand’, they would choose an appropriate marriage ‘type’. For instance, the most beautiful girl of a settlement would probably choose her suitor and demand bride price. Whereas a high-status man would have asked for dowry and would have had the luxury of choice when it comes to brides.

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  4. The analysis you gave sounds logical. The women although generally obeyed their father and respected the choice their fathers made for their husband but, I think in certain cases the rationality of thought prevailed among fathers too. Like , Shankuntala marrying to Dushyant
    ( it was a gandharva vivah) and, in this case Kanva Rishi was OK with the alliance even though vivah happened secretly ,I mean no witnesses there! . Also, The grandson of Krishna ,Aniruddha was abducted by Usha and her father was happy there. Krishna himself eloped with Rukmini and though her brother was not for this marriage ,her father wanted Rukmini to marry Krishna instead of Shishupal.
    In all 3 cases, women chose their husbands and their fathers were happy with daughter’s choices. So, either the choices won hands down as compared to other competitors or they respected girl’s wishes (Although in all 3 cases the husband chosen were from powerful background so your power balance theory is valid here too).
    I guess, every kind of marriage or any kind of selection was approved as long as commitment was sincere between the two.
    Remember Bhishma returning Amba to her betrothed Salva?
    I do not remember one marriage which was done forcefully by parents. Do you remember any?

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    • Hi Kirti,

      I think one could argue that Gandhari’s marriage to Dhritarashtra must have happened without her express consent. But you’re right, very few documented instances of forced marriages.

      Maybe this is something to do with Nikita’s point, that we only saw the highest levels of society and not the middle classes and the working classes. Maybe over there, depending on who held more power, it was not uncommon to have forced marriages, marriages where dowry had to be given, or bride price could be demanded.

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  5. You haven’t mentioned Gandharva marriage Sharath. Shakuntala and Dushyanth typically had one and so does many couples in mythology. Arjuna’s elopement with Shubadra is a form of Gandharva marriage too.

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    • Hi Sumeetha!

      Nice to see you here again. The eight ‘official’ forms of marriage are actually listed in the link provided in the article. But even that one doesn’t mention the Gandharva marriage. Maybe it’s because it has always been ‘unofficial’, and because it happens without witnesses, it lent itself to a lot of misuse. Dushyanth, after all, almost denies Shakuntala as his wife.

      But yes, an omission, no doubt. Thanks for pointing it out 🙂

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  6. Good Information!!
    There are many Cultural Factors affecting the marriage alliance in India.

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  7. Hey sharath ,
    Nice to see this … Here is a questin for u.
    where does these marriages fill in ur explanation .. I feel there are 8 not 3.

    According to Hinduism there are eight different types of Hindu marriages. Not all had religious sanction. The first four were considered proper. Rakshasa and Gandharva marriage was regarded acceptable to Kshatriyas as was Asura marriage for Vaishyas and Shudras.[1] The eight types are:

    Brahma marriage – The Brahma marriage is the marriage of one’s daughter, after decking her with costly garments and with presents of jewels, to a man of good conduct learned in the Vedas, and invited by oneself.
    Daiva marriage – The Daiva rite is the marriage of one’s daughter, decked with ornaments to a priest who duly officiates at a religious ceremony, during the course of its performance.
    Arsha marriage – Arsha marriage is when the father gives away his daughter, after receiving from the bridegroom a cow and a bull or two pairs of either as bride price.
    Prajapatya marriage – Prajapatya is when a girl’s father gives her in marriage to the bridegroom, treating him with respect, and addresses them: ‘May both of you perform together your duties’.
    Gandharva marriage – The voluntary union of a maiden and her lover which springs from sexual desire is called Gandharva marriage.
    Asura marriage – Asura marriage is when the bridegroom receives a maiden, after having given of his own free will as much wealth as he can afford, to the bride and her kinsmen.
    Rakshasa marriage – Rakshasa marriage is the marriage of a maiden involving her forcible abduction from her home after her kinsmen have been slain or wounded.
    Paishacha marriage – When a man by stealth seduces a girl who is sleeping, intoxicated, or mentally challenged, it is called Paishacha marriage. This is condemned in the Manusmriti as a base and sinful act.

    courtesy : wikipedia

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    • Hi Sam. You’re right. There are eight forms of marriage. In fact, I did leave a link in my post to the eight ‘official forms’ of marriage. In this post, I was interested in looking at the different forms of ‘swayamvar’ – the groom-choosing, the competition, and the abduction (for want of a better word). Hope that clarifies. Thanks for leaving a comment 🙂

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