Are All Hindu Marriages Arranged? The Culture Explained

Indian Hindu parents discussing wedding arrangements

Marriage is sacred in most religions, but one could argue that no religion sees the marital relationship as sacred as the Hindu religion. After all, divorce wasn’t even a concept in India, or within the Hindu community until after 1955, and the enactment of the Hindu Marriage Act. Indian culture is steeped in old world traditions that have continued to remain intact within the Hindu religion, even to present day.

While there are no exact numbers or figures on Hindu arranged marriages, most experts believe that up to 85%-90% of Hindu marriages are arranged.  While some sources cite that number slightly higher or lower, the largest consensus seems to believe that the 85%- 90% statistic is fairly accurate.

The 85%-90% statistic is very surprising to many people outside of the Hindu culture, but to the men and women in India, even the millennial generations, this figure isn’t surprising at all. As a matter of fact, most want to keep it this way!

The History of Arranged Marriages in the Hindu Religion

Hindu arranged marriages appear to have begun coming into favor right around the birth of what ultimately became modern Hinduism, around 500BC. Most experts agree that one of the main purposes of an arranged marriage was to maintain the integrity of the highest castes in India. To ensure that that caste system remained rigidly in place, only marriages between men and women within the same caste were considered.

It is speculated that the original arranged marriages of India, and the Hindu religion, were primarily arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. In many cases, there was a familial connection. There are also recorded instances where at the time of birth, families had already decided what offspring would marry to maintain the status quo within the caste and family system.

Experts believe that such alliances between families were maintained for many years, with the matriarch and patriarch of each family ultimately making the decisions on marriage. As such, since many of these marriages were predetermined long before adulthood, many young women were married well before they were adults. 

Ultimately, as the culture continued to evolve and grow, arranged marriages, and how they came to pass, also began to change. In fact, the arranged marriages of today, in most cases, look nothing like the first arranged marriages in India.

The Hindu Marriages

Marriage takes on deep meaning within Hindu culture and is intended to connect two people together for eternity.

While a small percentage of Hindu couples meet and marry in what would be comparable to modern Western societal dating rituals, even today, the vast majority of marriages are arranged on some level. While the method of arranged marriages may differ considerably now, in the 21st century, arranged marriage it is still remarkably common and desired.

In traditional Hindu culture, there were 8 forms of marriages recognized overall. However, not all marriages were created equally. In fact, within the Hindu religion, some types of marriage were held in much higher regard than others, and several were deemed unacceptable.

The Hindu tradition of arranged marriages is long and varied, and ultimately has evolved into something that looks quite different than the marriages in early Hindu culture.

While not all forms of marriage exist in modern society, these are the recognized forms of marriage that have existed at one time or another in Hindu society.

  • Brahma Marriage
  • Prajapatya Marriage
  • Daiva Marriage
  • Arsha Marriage
  • Gandharva Marriage
  • Asura Marriage
  • Rakshasa Marriage
  • Paishacha Marriage

Brahma Marriage

The Brahma marriage is the marriage held in the highest regard within the Hindu religion, as the Brahmins are the highest caste in India’s social order. The original Brahma marriages were initiated once a young man had completed his studies and proven himself to be of good character.

The father of the groom would seek out a female partner for his son. His choice was a woman of good social status, as dictated by the caste system.

The father of the bride would give permission only after confirming the moral character and religious knowledge of the potential groom.

The process of Brahma marriage is full of tradition and ritual, with the bride adorned with ornate jewelry and clothing, and is often what is depicted in media representation of Hindu marriages.

While a dowry was typically part of a Brahma wedding, it was not the basis of a traditional Brahma marriage. The most important factor was the character of the groom and his understanding of the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism.

Today, Brahma marriages still exist, although the ultimate worthiness of the groom is decided now based on social structure, his education, job, and standing within the community, rather than based on his understanding of the Hindu religion.

Prajapatya Marriage

A Prajapatya marriage is initiated by the father of the bride by selecting a suitable groom for his daughter. The father of the bride gives his daughter away, symbolically, to the father of the groom, and the couple is blessed in marriage.

An expectation within the prajapatya marriage was that the bride was coming into her childbearing years, and as such, it was important to ensure she was married and ready to start a family. The father of the bride would take great care to find a groom he felt was worthy of his daughter.

Daiva Marriage

While the Prajapatya marriage does emphasize the desire to have a young daughter married early for the purpose of creating family, the father of the bride searches for a suitable groom for his daughter, and as such, the marriage is considered a respectful union and well received.

The Daiva marriage, on the other hand, is not seen as respectful to a Hindu woman by society.

This type of marriage is initiated by the father of the bride when, as his daughter reaches childbearing years, he has not been approached by a groom’s family for potential marriage.

Fearful that his daughter will ultimately remain unmarried, the father gives his daughter to a priest during a rite of sacrifice.

These types of marriages were performed simply because it was seen as much more shameful for a young girl not to be married, or to be able to find a husband. Most of the time, the family in question had little social standing, was from a lower caste, and was very poor, and the family felt little hope that their daughter would find a spouse otherwise.

Arsha Marriage

An Arsha marriage is also a not-so-desirable marriage for a Hindu woman. Ultimately, in an Arsha marriage, a bride was given to a sage, typically in exchange for 2 cows. In ancient Hindu times, men who were considered to be extremely enlightened were called Rishis. A Rishi was thought to be a wise sage and as such, they held great power in Hindu religion.

If a Rishi, or sage, set his sights on a young Hindu woman, he would in essence, demand her hand in marriage for the price of two cows. It was ultimately seen as inappropriate to go against the wishes of a sage, so therefore, the family of the bride would ultimately accept the terms of marriage for their daughter.

Gandharva Marriage

The Gandharva marriage is the closest Hindu concept of a typical Western world love story and marriage. While Hindu women typically don’t date in a traditional sense, the Gandharva marriage is one where the bride takes control and picks her own husband.

There has definitely been some controversy surrounding this type of marriage.

First, it was considered to be lust based, or perhaps love based, which was unusual. The idea of a bride deciding for herself who she wanted to spend her life with, without input from family or consideration of caste or religious upbringing, was somewhat scandalous many years ago.

If that weren’t enough, the Gandharva marriage was not a marriage in a traditional sense. The bride and groom decided for themselves to marry, without the wedding traditions or rites, or even parental acceptance. Over time, there was controversy over whether this type of marriage was even legally recognizable without any of the rituals and rites that are part of a Hindu wedding and marriage.

During the 20th century, there were several court cases to determine the validity of this kind of marriage, and ultimately it was deemed as legitimate and similar to the ideals of a Western “Common Law” marriage. As time has gone by, Ganharva marriage has evolved. Now, Gandharva marriages are often compared to Western “marriages for love”, and while they are not arranged marriages, they now include the standard wedding rites and rituals of a Hindu wedding.

Asura Marriage

The Asura marriage may often be seen as akin to bribery. 

In early Hindu times, the Asura marriage was considered a lowly marriage, while in modern times, they are wholly unacceptable. Basically, the Asura marriage gave no real thought to compatibility or happiness, at least from the bride’s standpoint, and was based on money only.

A groom, regardless of his personal code of conduct, physical characteristics, or personality, would demand that a young woman he fancied marry him.

To provide incentive, he would pay the bride’s family as much money as he possibly could. In essence, he would buy himself a wife, and without regard to the feelings of the young woman, the wedding would move forward.

Rakshasa Marriage

Rakshasas, in Hindu mythology, were a type of shapeshifting demon. As the name suggests, the Rakshasa marriage is definitely not a sanctioned or approved marriage – even in early Hindu times.

In a Rakshasa marriage, the groom overpowers the bride’s family and kidnaps her, forcing her into a marital commitment. The bride’s family is severely wounded, or even killed, and the bride is ultimately taken against her will. 

The story of Rakshasa marriages have been told with a sense of folklore, where the groom is extremely enamored with the young bride yet faces familial resistance to marry her.

Therefore, the only way to win her hand is to go into battle with her family and ultimately persevere and “win” his bride, almost as a prize. 

However, regardless of how the story is told, the marriage is forced upon the woman and as such, is not acceptable or desirable in Hindu culture.

Paishacha Marriage

A Paishacha marriage is another wholly unacceptable form of Hindu marriage and involves trickery and deceit. 

Basically, in this kind of marriage, a man either forces himself sexually upon a sleeping or intoxicated woman, or kidnaps her, takes her from her home, and ultimately forces her into marriage, usually due, in part, to sexual coercion.

This type of marriage was forced upon women who were in some state of incapacitation. Whether mentally or physically challenged, drunk, unconscious or asleep, the woman would be essentially raped, and ultimately forced to marry their attacker.

The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955

With some forms of marriage obviously not desirable or healthy, particularly for Hindu women, and as such, the entire family unit, in modern times, it became necessary to create some laws and legislation surrounding Hindu marriages in India. Therefore, the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 was developed.

The rules surrounding marriage in Hindu culture were based on ancient Sastrik Law, and as such, were not typically subject to the governmental laws of the land.

While many Hindu families did not want any state run interference in their religious rites, ultimately to ensure some continuity and accountability, it became necessary to enact some rules and regulations.  So, despite some of the opposition, the Marriage Act was created. 

Some of the main points of the Hindu Marriage Act include:

  • Neither party has another spouse at the time of marriage
  • Neither party is unfit, either physically or mentally, for marriage
  • Brides must be age 18 or above  (since 1978 amendment )
  • Bridegrooms must be 21 or above (since 1978 amendment)
  • The parties aren’t closely related in lineage (No link for 5 generations on the bridegroom’s family, or 3 generations on the bride’s family)

With the enactment of the Marriage Act of 1955, marriage became, in many ways, much safer, particularly for women who, as evidenced by some of the forms of Hindu marriage, could potentially be hurt, physically or mentally by some forms of Hindu marriage. 

While the original age limitations were in the original Marriage Act specifically, the implication that the bride and groom were fit for marriage was part of the original Act, and an amendment in 1978 to prevent child marriages, added the specific ages to the Act.

Another important aspect of the Marriage Act was the provisions or allowance for dissolving a marriage. While fewer than 1% of all Hindu marriages end in divorce, there are some situations where the government believed that some protection needed to be put in place to allow a dissolution of a Hindu marriage. Hindu Marriage Act 1955

Specifically, a marriage can be annulled if:

  • The groom is determined to be impotent and the marriage was not consummated
  • Either party has a previously undisclosed mental disorder that deems them unfit for marriage or parenthood
  • The bride is pregnant by another man at the time of marriage

Hindu couples that have been married for less than one year may not file for divorce, however after that one year period, there are some instances where a divorce is reasonable and can be requested. A divorce can be sought by either party, if:

  • There is continuous desertion by either party for 2 or more years
  • Either party converts to a religion other than the Hindu religion
  • Mental abnormality
  • Leprosy
  • Venereal Disease

Hindu women have additional conditions where they alone can file for divorce from their husband:

  • If her husband marries again, after the first marriage (Polygamy)
  • Her husband has been found guilty of rape, sodomy, or bestiality

An additional amendment was brought to the government in 2010 to add some additional safeguards within marriage that would financially protect women in the event that her husband filed for divorce.

In part, the amendment suggested that women could contest a divorce if she could prove that she would suffer great financial hardship in the event of a divorce. Additionally, there were financial safeguards requested that would protect children born out of wedlock in the event of a divorce.

The amendment passed through the Rajya Sabha, which is the Upper House in the bicameral Parliament in India, but did not pass through the Lok Sabha, which is the Lower House in the bicameral Parliament in India.

There was quite a bit of push back from men’s groups that found the amendment to be unfair to husbands. Even with the laws that exist today, and safeguards that allow for divorce within Hindu culture, very few couples actually get divorced, with most figures estimating 1 in every 100 marriages.

Today’s Modern Hindu Marriages

Many people are surprised to hear than in this day and age, even modern Hindu women and men, still love the idea of an arranged marriage!

While most in the Western world believe arranged marriages to be archaic and devoid of love, there have been plenty of studies that show quite the opposite. In fact, when compared to marriages of choice, dissatisfaction among Hindu men and women who have arranged marriages, is equal across the board. The low divorce rate is the same for both arranged and marriages of choice.

Now, in 2020, the arranged marriages of Hindu culture look nothing like the arranged marriages of yesteryear. While there is still a caste system in India, for the most part, the arranged marriages today are not made in an attempt to gain more power or favor within the caste system, but simply to match people of similar values and backgrounds, and social standing. They are made with good intent, by friends or family, or even matchmaker services.

Dating, from a Western perspective, is not a reality in Hindu culture. Therefore, most young men and women look to their parents, or elder relatives to help find them a spouse. 

A Family Run Dating Service?

While several generations ago, many spouses truly didn’t meet until their wedding day, that is not the case in today’s arranged marriage.

While parents or family members are a big part of the process, young Hindu men and women are clear about what they want, or don’t want, in a prospective partner and they will share this information with their family.

In many ways, the modern arranged marriage in India looks a little like a dating service. While young men and women may not be swiping left or right on Tinder, they look to the elders to find them prospective mates through their network of friends, religious leaders, and work associates. 

Many parents also put out advertisements seeking mates for their children in publications or on websites designed for this purpose. Parents look for a partner with similar background, caste, and educational experience. 

Essentially, the candidates are heavily vetted for each other before they ever meet. Often, once feelers have been put out, and some prospective partners have been identified, the parents of each will often meet first to discuss. If the families get along well, and enjoy similar values and lifestyle, they will then determine together if their children might make a good fit for one another.

At this point, the families will come together with their children for an initial meeting. Rather informal, typically only lasting an hour or so, it is a quick get together to see if they, as a pair, can find some commonality. For the most part though, in modern Hindu families, the children still have the veto power.

In fact, during the selection process as a whole, it continues to be very collaborative in nature, with parents and children working together toward a specific outcome. As such, the thoughts and opinions of the potential bride and groom, are of the utmost importance to the family.

Unlike Western dating, the arranged marriage process has everyone on board, all equally invested in making the right choice.

If the initial meeting goes well, the prospective couple will continue getting to know each other in similar family style get-togethers. One on one dating is not typically done in India, so if the couple decides to move forward, there will be several more get togethers where the potential partners can get to know one another.

After several meetings, each potential mate will discuss the potential relationship with their parents and will ultimately decide whether to commit to marriage or move on.

A Difference in Attitude

While the concept of an arranged marriage may seem strange to Western society, it is important to remember that this style of marriage is deeply ingrained in Hindu culture.  From the time they are very small, most children simply take it as fact that one day, their parents will find them a spouse.

With dating off the table, most Hindu men and women view marriage very practically. Just as one reviews their professional goals and takes the necessary steps to meet them, such is reality for Hindu marriage.

For men and women who are ready to move into the next stage of their lives, such as marriage and parenthood, they do what is necessary to make it a success. For many, that means trusting their parents.

It is a common sentiment that, for many Hindu men and women, they trust their parent’s choices.  As the people who know the potential bride and groom best, most children who agree to arranged marriages truly feel their parents will make the best decision for them.

They enter the relationship with their partner with no preconceived notions and no relationship baggage.

While from a Western perspective, the wedding is the end of the courting ritual, for the Hindu marriage the wedding is truly seen as the beginning. Together now in name, both having made a commitment to one another, and their life together, the newly married Hindi couple both go into the relationship in the spirit of getting to know one another, finding commonality, and creating intimacy in a relationship that works for both of them.

Perhaps that is the reason arranged marriages are ultimately successful

Hindu couples approach marriage the same way Western couples approach dating. While the first year of dating is considered the “honeymoon” period, for Hindu couples, the first year together really is their honeymoon!  Just as Western daters put their best foot forward, compromise more, and work together in the spirit of new love, the newly married Hindu couple have a much larger incentive to do so, as the choice to get married was already made!

Therefore, finding ways to enhance each other’s lives and build a new life together becomes the priority.

Closing Thoughts

With divorce uncommon in India, men and women simply commit to making their marriage work.

Marriage, whether for love, or arranged, takes commitment, patience, and work. However, the rewards are plenty when couples stick together, grow in their relationship, and recommit to each other on a daily basis.

While love may not be there on the wedding day, in the vast majority of arranged marriages, love will come in time, over the course of living a long life together.

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