Hindu Marriage: Progress under British Rule

India has practically never attacked any country in more than 5000 years of its history. It has indeed been an insular country traditionally –not very interested in the world outside its borders. This may have changed dramatically in the globalised world, but Indians prefer to talk about their own country most of the time; much like Americans or Russians or Chinese –though to a lesser degree.

Europe, one the other hand, was interested in the Orient, and in India since ancient times. Alexander the Great invaded India 326 years before Christ. Megasthenes became an ambassador to the Mauryan Court around the same year. These arrivals were mythically predated by the arrivals of Hercules and Dionysus in India. The visits of Hercules and Dionysus to India were an integral part of Greek folklore.

Thereafter, there was no famous visitor from Europe for almost one and a half millennia. This was perhaps due to the dark ages and turmoil in Europe. The long absence was finally broken by Marco Polo in the year 1292, when he landed on the Malabar coast in present day Kerala. Marco Polo was extremely impressed by the riches of the Malabar region and its king. He went back to Europe and described India as a region full of gold and diamonds. When word got around Europe, a number of monarchs, nobles and rich men decided to send men to this fabled country to establish trade or to benefit from its riches in whatever manner possible.

This contributed in large measure to the age of discovery. The desires of Ferdinand Magellan, Christopher Columbus, Vasco Da Gama, and James Cook to explore the world can all be traced back to Marco Polo's voyages and his subsequent description of the riches of the Orient. There were a number of other explorers, but this is not a piece about how colonialism came to be established, so we will skip the details in this regard. Suffice it to say that the British came to rule over India after a period of struggle and triumph.

Though the British came to India from the west, they first established their stronghold in the eastern part of India, in the province of Bengal. They had a large amount of interaction with the locals in this province, and their understanding of India was greatly influenced by this experience. In return, the elite amongst Bengalis were greatly influenced by their colonial rulers. As a matter of fact, educated and prosperous Bengalis have a strong connection with Britain and the west till date.

The elite in Bengal in those days consisted of the Muslim nobility and the Hindu Brahmans. The British understanding of religion-based personal law was influenced by the insights which they gained while interacting with these classes. Polygamy was rampant amongst Brahmans in Bengal at this time, and more so amongst Kulin Brahmins. The British also brought along their own set prejudices from their native country. Women in Europe in those days did not have any property rights, and they were not much more than chattel for their husbands. The Indian situation was only marginally better.

Another thing which was common in both countries was child marriage. In India this was a phenomenon which was extreme in nature. Hindu girls were married off even before they reached puberty, and the marriages were consummated either immediately or after a variable period of time, depending upon which part of India you were in. Sati was being practiced in many parts of India amongst certain classes, and the imperial masters found this practice abominable. This revulsion was generated in part by the free association of many Indian ladies with European men, which was not objected to by the locals, since they considered the Europeans to be their masters.

(This has a parallel in many cultures and sub-cultures across the world, where men have been known to offer their daughters, sisters, or even their wives to men whom they consider to be superior to themselves in some way. Much before the British men became the rulers of Indians, the Indian fondness for fair skin meant that the British arrivals found themselves interacting with the elite of society. Immigrants from Africa could not hope for similar treatment, as can be seen from the history of the Siddis. Even today, white skinned foreigners are given special treatment in India and Indian cities.)

As they settled down to rule the local masses, the British decided to codify the personal law of their subjects. To paraphrase Hobson, "...the initial British rulers of India were representatives of a commercial organisation called the East India Company, and they had carnivorous instincts where the acquisition of money was concerned. They did not bother much about governing the natives. Things became better and the rulers started to care about the locals as time passed and the influence of the UK government on the governance of India increased. The arriving rulers came from a society which was growing increasingly obsessed with social reform, and they sought to replicate their experience in the country which they were ruling. The rulers had also started to feel that Empire was the reason because of which they had to emancipate the lesser races of the world. Indeed the world had never seen any empire grow at such a rate (paraphrased)." (Hobson, K.; Ethnographic Mapping and the Construction of the British Census in India / Britain and the Indian Caste System; www. britishempire .co.uk / castesystem .htm; viewed on 10th August 2013 in Delhi). They started this 'emancipation' by classifying the natives broadly on the basis of their religion, and treating them as different categories of people insofar as personal law was concerned. Customary personal law variations amongst regions, castes, and other groups continued more unhindered by the rulers than not.

The British took the rather naive view that since Brahmans were the topmost caste in the caste hierarchy, therefore they should be humoured and given the highest rank in the administration as far as natives were allowed to go. This was partly a consequence of their twin desires to actually govern this country and –before that– to make sense of the gigantic complexity that India was, using caste amongst other things as a classifier. Their view took off from a point where each caste was seen as having definite traits. In this respect and at that point in history, they were not far from the truth. Another reason for keeping Brahmans at the top was the natural predilection of the British to deal exclusively or mostly with people who belonged to the topmost strata of society in this country. The British rulers, after all, came from a country which was highly class conscious.

A major component of their plan to rule India was to allow people of all religions to be governed in their personal affairs by their traditional religious law. Marriage, adoption, inheritance, etc. were natural choices as subject matter for such laws. Initial attempts at codification of Hindu religious laws were nothing more than discovering the textual basis for various life events and relationships, and translating this material to the language of the masters. Indeed, all the ancient texts which are referred to by modern commentators on Hindu marriage were originally translated from the vernacular (or Sanskrit) to English during British rule. Colebrooke's Digest and Halhed's Gentoo Code are major examples of British collated translations.

Sati was seen as a social evil by the rulers, and they made significant and recorded efforts to stamp it out. Although initially they tried to regulate the practice of Sati, ultimately they got fed up and Lord Bentinck banned the practice in 1829. This was a major step towards eliminating the system of using marriage as a license for murder.

Another type of murder which occurred in a marital setting was what is called dowry murder.

The assertion that the dowry system grew to monstrous proportions during British colonial rule in India is very convenient for nationalists. Oldenburg claims rather facetiously that the dispossession of Indian women was perpetrated by the imperialists from Europe. (Oldenburg, V.T.; Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime; throughout the text; Oxford University Press; USA; 2002). Marriage in ancient India was by and large not seen as a financial transaction. This remains true today, and there is no persuasive reason to think that this was not true in British India also.

A word which was used as a synonym for 'Hindu' in those days is 'Gentoo'.

Adopting a child was an ancient custom which was permitted by custom to married and childless Hindu couples. Interestingly, although adopted children of ordinary Hindus were allowed to inherit their parents' property, adopted children of native rulers in princely states were not permitted to sit on the throne. In such cases the princely state got merged into British India upon the death of the ruler in question. This law was promulgated during the rule of Lord Dalhousie, and it was the direct cause of the war in 1857. It was known as the Doctrine of Lapse. (Another provision in this law was that the British government was given the power to dismiss any ruler who was deemed incompetent by it.) Apart from this departure, the colonial rulers did their best to make sure that children inherited their parents' wealth. This can especially be seen in the Caste and Disabilities Removal Act of 1950, which prohibited the disenfranchisement of children from their parental property if they did something which caused them to lose their caste.

Initially the British adjudicated Hindu matrimonial disputes, and indeed other disputes, with the help of Court Pandits, but later on they ejected these men, after having developed a massive body of case law, which also served as the foundation for a series of laws which they promulgated in fits and starts. William Jones' Digest of Hindu Law on Contracts and Succession and Sir Thomas Strange's Elements of Hindu Law were major landmarks in their effort to codify Hindu law relating to marriage and other matters.

Polygamy amongst Hindus was permitted to continue by the British. Child marriage also remained a common and indeed predominant form of marriage, with a fairly large part of the female population being subjected to marriage much before they reached puberty. Readers are probably familiar with the lives of the many national leaders who got married when their brides were but little girls.

You may wish to read an article about Hindu Marriage: Origin and Persistent Traits and/or and article about Hindu Marriage: Earliest Codification - Manu and Manu Smriti and/or an article about Hindu Marriage: Yajnavalkya and his Enduring Smriti and/or an article about Hindu Marriage during Muslim Rule.

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Published by Manish Udar

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Last updated on 1st September 2013
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