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Hindu Social Customs

- Dowry, Sati and Child Marriage

by Sudheer Birodkar


Table of Contents


Dahej or Hunda - Dowry and Bride-Price

Dowry is one of those social practices which no educated Indian would own up with pride, although many of us still adhere to this much deplorable practice. Dowry continues to be given and taken . Even among the educated sections of society, dowry continues to form an essential part the negotiations that take place in an arranged marriage. During the marriage ceremony the articles comprising thc dowry are proudly displayed in the wedding hall. Dowry is still very much a status symbol. A number of marriage-negotiations break down if there is no consensus between the bride's and groom' s families. Dowry deaths of a newly married bride are still regularly in the news.

Although the practice of dowry exists in many countries, it has assumed the proportion of a challenge to the forces of modernity and change only in India. Many reasons are put forward for explaining this practice. It is said that a dowry is meant to help the newly-weds to set up their own home.

That dowry is given as compensation to the groom's parents for the amount they have spent in educating and upbringing their son. These explanations may seem logical in the present day context, but they cannot explain how this practice originated. A search for the origins of dowry would have to move backwards into antiquity. Discussion about dowry has to take into account the less prevalent practice of bride price, which is but a reversal or dowry. Although it may not be possible to ascertain when and where these practices originated, it can be supposed that dowry and bride price are posterior to the institution of monogamy. This is the same as saying that dowry and bride price came into being after the practice of monogamous marriage had become prevalent.

But monogamous marriage is itself a culmination of the human adaptation of animal promiscuity. Man's is the only species practicing monogamy, all other species are promiscuous. Thus it is a logical corollary that Man's institution of monogamy came into being at sometime in the long evolution of his species. The practice of monogamy itself evolved in stages as is evident from historical anecdotes as in the Mahabharata where the five Pandava brothers have one wife.

Promiscuity gave way to Polygamy/polyandry, and after various permutations and combinations, monogamy became the established system. As long as promiscuity existed there was no question of dowry or bride price. The origin of these two practices could be linked up with the discarding of promiscuity in favour of Polygamy and Polyandry. These two forms of marriage are themselves mutual opposites. While in polygamy there is pairing between one male and But the existence of the diametrically opposite practices of dowry and bride price, possibly owe their origin to polygamy and polyandry. The formation of polygamous and polyandrous forms of marriage could have been made necessary by changes in the demographic balance between the sexes. A rise in the number of females as compared to that of males is a congenial situation for the emergence of polygamy. Mere the chances of more than one female member of society being in wedlock with one male member are more.

In Absence of polygamy, in a society having a larger number of females as compared to males, many female members would have to deprived of marital life. The obligation to get more than one female member into wedlock with one male member could have been the situation which gave birth to dowry as a price exacted by the male and his family from the female's family.

The origin of bride-price could have taken place in opposite circumstances where the sex ratio favoured females and as there was a large number of males for every female, polyandry and bride-price could have been the result.

Along with this generalised hypothesis there were many factors specific to different situations which gave birth to dowry and bride-price. These factors can be identified with more certainty. In India' s context, these practices can be seen to be a result of the dialectics of our caste system. The conflict of opposing tendencies of the caste hierarchy, as we know have resulted in endogamy, preventing inter-marriage between members of different castes. A reason for the origin of dowry and bride-price can also he seen in the same conflict. Hence discussion on these two practices would have to be intertwined.

Dowry (Dahej/Hunda) as we all know is paid in cash or kind by the bride's family to the groom' s family alongwith the giving away of the bride (Kanya-dana). The ritual of Kanya-dana is an essential aspect in Hindu marital rites. Kanya = daughter, dana = gift. The word 'Hunda' appears to be derived from 'Handa' which means a pot. This could be due to the now extinct practice of offerring dowry in a pot.

Dowry (Dahej/Hunda) as we all know is paid in cash or kind by the bride's family to the groom' s family alongwith the giving away of the bride (Kanya-dana). The ritual of Kanya-dana is an essential aspect in Hindu marital rites: Kanya = daughter, dana = gift. A reason for the origin of dowry could perhaps be that the groom and his family had to take up the 'onerous' responsibility of supporting the bride for the rest of her life.

Bride-price on the other hand involves the receipt of presents, in cash or kind, by the bride's family in return for giving away of the bride. Hence bride-price has the character of an exchange.

One feature about dowry and bride-price that is conspicuous is that dowry is prevalent among the higher castes while bride-price exists mainly among the lower castes and tribals (Adivasis). We can only conjecture as to why this curious combination could have come into being. In the caste hierarchy it was the lower castes, the Vaishya's and Shudras who did most of the physical labour and menial work. lie have discussed in an earlier chapter that the various occupational divisions into Jatis exist only among these two castes. The two upper castes, the Brahmins and Kshatriyas had only priestly and martial duties allocated to them and hence no occupational sub-division existed among them.

Thus among the lower castes, the coming of a bride into the family meant an increase in the number of members ~ who could work along with other members and become a source of income for the family. While the family from where the bride came sufferred the loss of one earning member. Hence a bride-price was paid to the bride's parents to compensate for this loss. Contrarily, among the higher castes to whom no manual labour was assigned in the caste hierarchy, the reverse logic applied.

A marriage meant an additional member who was to be supported and hence was a burden on the groom's family as the bride did not go out to earn and contribute to the family income. Thus a dowry was collected to provide the additional burden resulting from a bride's entry into the groom's family.

Sati (Self-Immolation by a widow)

Sati i.e. self-immolation by a widow would normally be looked upon as a negative aspect of culture. When confronted with questions as to why such a practice should have existed, a student of history with misplaced national pride would try to explain away such practices.

According to Hindu mythology, Sati the wife of Dakhsha was so overcome at the demise of her husband that she immolated herself on his funeral pyre and burnt herself to ashes. Since then her name 'Sati' has come to be symptomatic of self-immolation by a widow.

Today Sati is illegal, it is also generally looked down upon but it continues to exist in the rural corners of our country. One still does hear of stray incidents of woman being forced to or trying to commit Sati. The country owes the abolition of this deplorable practice to the crusading efforts of Raja Rammohan Roy the 18th century social reformer.

Hand-prints in a temple symbolizing women who have performed Sati. There are many monumets erected in the middle ages which are dedicated to those women who committed Sati (Jauhar) when their honour was in danger of being violated by Saracenic princelings. These temples are called Sati-Mata mandirs.

The reasons why this practice could have come into being are many. But the principal among them could be identified in the same milieu which gave birth to dowry. Closer examination of this practice of immolation supports this inference. Immolation as a widely prevalent practice can be seen only since the mediaeval period but there are reasons which trace its origins in antiquity.

Even a casual observer will notice that immolation is more prevalent among the higher martial caste. Among the lower castes and aboriginal tribes it is nearly absent. The prevalence of Sati among the higher castes is no co-incidence.

As mentioned earlier, among the higher castes, a bride was looked upon as a burden as she represented a drain On the family's income while not contributing anything towards it. If this was her status as a bride, it is not surprising that if she had the misfortune to become a widow, her presence in the family was dreaded. And apart from being considered an object of ill omen, her presence after her husband demise was a dead weight to her in-laws family.

A widow's status as an unwanted burden was also a result of the taboos that prevented a widow from participating in the house-hold work as her touch, her voice, her very appearance was considered unholy, impure and something that was to be shunned and abhorred. Thus without her husband a woman's existence was not tolerated and an extreme but logical outcome of this was immolation.

Other auxiliary reasons also went into making immolation a prevalent practice. The near impossibility of widow re-marriage arising from the taboos and prejudices that sanctified virginity of a bride was an important reason. Another reason could be the non-recognition of the individuality of a woman who was considered part and parcel of her husband, without whom she was a nullity.

This attitude of looking at women is visible in the legal literature (Dharmashastra) of antiquity. The Manusmriti considered to be one of the most important legal texts guiding ancient Indian polity has injunctions which reflect this attitude. It says "a woman is undeserving for independence" (Ne stree svatantyam arahathi). Beliefs that a widow, especially a young one would fall into immoral practices for sensual pleasures was also used to stoke the fires of Sati. Strangely enough this logic was never applied to the stronger sex. Widowers were never an under-privileged lot.

But the most visible factor that perpetrated Sati was the 'halo of honour' given to it. Especially in the medieavel ages Sati was given the status of an act of honour. This was mainly so among the Rajput martial caste of northern India among whom Sati took the form of a collective suicide after a battle in which male members had suffered death at the enemy's hands.

Sati was even committed by women before their husbands were actually death when their city or town was beseiged by the enemy and faced certain defeat. This form of Sati was more popularly known as Jouhar. The Jouhar committed by Rant Padmini of Chittor when faced by the prospect of dishonour at the hands of a Sultan from Delhi has been immortalised in Indian history.

In those days North India was under foreign subjugation. The most powerful kingdomset up by the invaders was the Sultanate of Delhi.

But in Rajputana, the Rajputs had defiantly preserved their writ by resisting the Delhi Sultans. One such Rajput kingdom was at Chittor. In those days of the aribitrary feudal power structure, any feudal lord who took a fancy for any lady would claim her for himself even at the cost of killing her husband if she happened to be married or even by waging a war if she was queen or princess. one such lady of unsurpassable beauty was the Rana of Chittor named Padmini.

Chittor was under the Rule of King Ratnasen, a brave and noble warrior-king. Apart, from being a loving husband and a just ruler, Ratansen was also a patron of the arts. In his court were many talented People one of whom was a musician named Raghav Chetan. But unknown to anybody, Raghav Chetan was also a sorcerer. He used his evil talents to run down his rivals and unfortunately for him was caught red-handed in his dirty act of arousing evil spirits.

On hearing this King Ratansen was furious and he banished Raghav Chetan from his kingdom after blackening his face with face and making him ride a donkey. This harsh Punishment earned king Ratansen an uncompromising enemy. Sulking after his humiliation, Raghav Chetan made his way towards Delhi with -the aim of trying to incite the Sultan of Delhi Allah-ud-din Khilji to attack Chittor.

On approaching Delhi, Raghav Chetan settled down in one of the forests nearby Delhi which the Sultan used to frequent for hunting deer. One day on hearing the Sultan's hunt party entering the forest, Raghav-Chetan started playing a melodious tone on his flute. When the alluring notes of Raghav-Chetan flute reached the Sultan's party they were surprised as to who could be playing a flute in such a masterly way in a forlorn forest.

The Sultan despatched his soldiers to fetch the person and when Raghav-Chetan was brought before him, the Sultan Allah-ud-din Khilji asked him to come to his court at Delhi. The cunning Raghav-Chetan asked the king as to why he wants to have a ordinary musician like himself when there were many other beautiful objects to be had. Wondering what Raghav-Chetan meant, Allah-ud-din asked him to clarify. Upon being told of Rani Padmini's beauty, Allah-ud-din's lust was aroused and immediately on returning to his capital he gave orders to his army to march on Chittor.

But to his dismay, on reaching Chittor, Allah-ud-din found the fort to be heavily defended. Desperate to have a look at the legendary beauty of Padmini, he sent word to King Ratansen that he looked upon Padmini as his sister and wanted to meet her. On hearing this, the unsuspecting Ratansen asked Padmini to see the 'brother'. But Padmini was more wordly-wise and she refused to meet the lustful Sultan personally.

But on being persuaded she consented to allow Allah-ud-din to see her only in a mirror. On the word being sent to Allah-ud-din that Padmini would see him he came to the fort with his selected his best warriors who secretly made a careful examination of the fort's defences on their way to the Palace.

On seeing Padmini, in the mirror, the lustful 'brother', Allah-ud-din Khilji decided that he should secure Padmini for himself. While returning to his camp, Allah-ud-din was accompanied for some way by King Ratansen. Taking this opportunity, the wily Sultan treacherously kidnapped Ratansen and took him as a prisoner into his camp and demanded that Padmini come and surrender herself before Allah-ud-din Khilji, if she wanted her husband King Ratansen alive again.

On seeing Padmini, the lustful 'brother' decided that he should secure Padmini for himself. While returning to his camp, Allah-ud-din was accompanied for some way by King Ratansen. Taking this opportunity, the wily Sultan treacherously kidnapped Ratansen and took him as a prisoner into his camp.

Allah-ud-din showed his true colours and demanded , that Padmini be given to him and in return Ratnasen was to get his liberty. Word was sent into the palace about the Sultan's demand.

The Rajput generals decided to beast the Sultan at his own game and sent back a word that Padmini would be given to Ala-ud-din the next morning. On the following day at the crack of dawn, one hundred and fifity palaquins (covered cases in which royal ladies were carried in medieveal times) left the fort and made their way towards Ala-ud-din's camps The palanquins stopped before the tent where king Ratansen was being held prisoner. . Seeing that the palanquins had come from Chittor; and thinking that they had brought along with them his queen, king Ratansen was mortified. But to his surprise from the palanquins came out, not his queen and her women servants but fully armed soldiers, who quickly freed ; Ratansen and galloped away towards Chittor on horses grabbed from Ala-ud-din's stables.

On hearing that his designs had been frustrated, the lustful Sultan was furious and ordered his army to storm Chittor. But hard as they tried the Sultans army could not break into the fort. Then Ala-ud-din decided to lay seige to the fort. The siege was a long drawn one and gradually supplied within the fort were depleted. Finally King Ratnasen gave orders that the Rajputs would open the gates and fight to finish with the besieging troops. On hearing of this decision, Padmini decided that with their menfolk going into the unequal struggle with the Sultan's army in which they were sure to perish, the women of Chittor had either to commit suicides or face dishonour at the hands of the victorious enemy.

The choice was in favour of suicide through Jauhar. A huge pyre was lit and followed by their queen, all the women of Chittor jumped into the flames and deceived the lustful enemy waiting outside. With their womenfolk dead, the men of Chittor had nothing to live for. Their charged out of the fort and fought on furiously with the vastly Powerful array of the Sultan, till all of them perished. After this phyrrhic victory the Sultan's troops entered the fort only to be confronted with ashes and burnt bones of the women whose honour they were going to violate to satisfy their lust.

These women who committed Jawhar had to perish but theirmemory has been kept alive till today by bards and songs which glorify their act which was right in those days and circumstances. Thus a halo of honour is given to their supreme sacrifice.

But this halo of honour has to be seen in the light of the above complusions of alien rule in Inda during the medieveal ages. From the 13th century onwards up to the coming of the British, the position of women was insecure due to the arbitrary power structure associated with the feudal society and the rule of the Sultans of Delhi. Although during the reign of the later Mughals the situation had improved relatively, women in the medieaval ages were often exposed to the lust of feudal overlords. Their insecurity increased after the demise of their husbands. This compulsion which was resultant of a particular age was by far the most important reason for the prevalence of Sati during the middle ages.

Although the Mughal emperor Akbar tried to curb this practice, he could not eradicate it completely. As long as circumstances made necessary the existence of such an anomalous and inhuman practice, all efforts to stamp it out were bound to fail. But with the passing of the feudal power structure and entry of the industrial age under the British, the compulsions of the medieaval age which helped the existence of Sati were no longer there. Hence the efforts of Raja Rammohan Roy succeeded while those of emperor Akbar could not.

One last reason that needs to be mentioned in this context is that of grief and remorse experienced by a widowed lady. Women as such are more sensitive and emotional than menu This explains in part the readiness of some woman to commit Sati. But it should be borne in mind that the proportion of voluntary Sati was far less and the reasons behind voluntary Sati Though facts were blown out of proportion to justify this practice. However, in conclusion it can be observed that a complexity of factors contributed over different periods to make Sati a prevalent custom.


Child-marriage is another 'blessing' of the medieaval age and it was born from the same compulsions that ; perpetuated Sati.Child-marriage was not not prevalent in ancient India. The most popular form of marriage was Swayamvara where grooms assembled at the bride' s house and the bride selected her spouse. Svayam-vara can be translated as self selection of one' s husband, Svayam = self, Vara = husband. Instances of Swayamvara ceremony are found in our national epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Various types of marraiges wereprevalant in ancient India Gandharva Vivaha (love marriage), Asura Viviha (marriage by abduction) etc., But among these Bal-Viviha is conspicuous its absence.

There are many reasons to believe that this custom originated in the medieval ages. As mentioned earlier in the turbulent atmosphere of the medieavel ages, law and order was not yet a universal phenomenon and arbitrary powers were concentrated in the hands of a hierarchy led by a despotic monarch. In India the Sultans of Delhi who held the place of the despotic monarch, came from a different type of culture. They were orthodox in their beliefs with a fanatical commitment to their religion and a ruthless method in its propagation. Intolerant as they were to all forms of worship other than their own, they also exercised contempt for members of other faiths. (See note at the end of this chapter).

Women as it is are at the receiving and during any war, arson, plunder, etc. During the reign of the Delhi Sultans these were the order of the day and the worst sufferers were Hindu women. During these dark days were spawned customs like child-marriage and selection of women from the rest of the society, wearing of the Ghungat (veil). This age also perpetuated customs like Sati and looking upon the birth of a female baby as an ill omen, even killing newly born baby girls by drowning them in a tub of milk. Amidst the feeling of insecurity, the presence of young unmarried girls was a potential invitation for disaster.

The predatory Sarasenic feudal lords and princelings of Sarasenic origins who stalked all over India in the middle ages were a source of constant threat . Hence parents would seek to get over with the responsibilities of their daughters by getting them married off before they reached the marriage age. The custom of child marriages with the 'bride' and 'groom' still in their cradles was a culmination of this tendency. This way the danger to a growing girl's virginity was somewhat reduced.

Many marriages during the middle ages were performed in the cradle itself.

The predatory Sarasenic feudal lords and princelings of Sarasenic origins who stalked all over India in the middle ages were a source of constant threat . Hence parents would seek to get over with the responsibilities of their daughters by getting them married off before they reached the marriage age. The custom of child marriages with the 'bride' and 'groom' still in their cradles was a culmination of this tendency. This way the danger to a growing girl's virginity was somewhat reduced.

Alongwith this principal reason, there were a few other reasons arising from the nature of the feudal society which were conducive for the prevalence of this practice. In a feudal society, qualities like rivalry, personal honour, hereditary friendship or enmity are rated very highly. Because of this, military alliances play a very important role in preserving or destroying the balance of power between the various kingdoms and fiefdoms. To ensure that the military alliances entered into were observed by both parties, practices like exchanging Juvenile members of the respective families who were educated and brought up at each other's palaces were followed.

They were a sort of captives who were held to ensure that the military alliances between the two kingdoms or clans were honoured. But a more lasting bond that could back up military alliances were-matrimonial alliances between members of the two famlies . But such matrimonial alliances could be worked out smoothly only if the bride and groom were ready to accept each others Young men and women of marriageable age are bound to be choosy. This difficulty could be avoided when the marriage was between two children or babies where there was no question of their having any sense of choice as to who their partners in life should be.

The caste hierarchy also perhaps had its role to play in perpetuating such a system. Caste which is based on birth and heredity does not allow marriages between members of different castes . But as youngsters whose emotions and passions could be ruled by other considerations might violate this injunction. Out of the necessity to preserve itself, the hereditary caste system could have helped in nourishing the practice of child-marriage.

Among other subsidiary considerations which could have helped to preserve this custom might be the belief that adults (or adolescent) boys and girls would indulge in loose moral practices. This consideration would have - been more relevant in the context of the puritanical and orthodox environment of the bygone ages. The practice could also have been perpetuated, especially among- the economically weaker sections, by the consideration of keeping marriage expenses to a minimum. A child-marriage need not have been as grand an affair as adult marriages.

Note on Sati and Child-marriage

Sati, Child-marriage, Ghunghat, etc were largely caused by the arbitrary tryannical rule of the Sultans of Delhi. The temperament of theseSultans was a result of socio-cultural reasons. They had imbibed these their tryannical traits alongwith their religion from the Arabs who display traits like fanaticism and short-temperedness in their extreme. The reasons why these traits should exist among those Arabs who originate from the Saudi Arabian Peninsula are to be found in their harsh natural environment.

Saudi Arabia, the birth-place of Islam is devoid of fertile plains and river valleys which are congenial to the development of a settled civilized life. This was responsible for the atrophy of residents of the Arabian peninsula into barbarism, and their exclusion from civilization. The same cannot be said of the people of Mesopotamia, Assyria and Egypt who today consider themselves to be Arabs but were the founders of great riparian civilizations of the ancient world. The absence of a civilized way of life among the Arabs (from the Arabian peninsula) nourished the fanatical attitude which later became a characteristic of Islamic thought and way of life.

This attitude was transmitted to other people who were converted to Islam. Added to this was Islam's monotheistic character because of which Mohammedans regarded all other religions in exclusion from their own. This singularistic and exclusive character of monotheistic Islam precluded any possibility of assimilation into itself of other deities or forms of worship. And whenever it had the support or the force of arms, its fanatical and intolerant nature found brutal expression in the annihilative repression it unleashed whenever it came in contact with another religion or culture.

Such was the cultural lineage of the Sultans of Delhi. It made itself evident in the forcible conversion of peoples of other faiths to Islam at the point of the sword, destruction of places of worship belonging to other faiths, the imposition of Jazia tax on non-muslims and other policies whose objective was to stamp out all other religions and to Islamize the country.


Now we move on to examine Hindu Religious Practices like Yagna, and Dana and Gotra



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