In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Marriage

  • Introduction
  • Vedic and Classical Sources
  • Later Debates and Legislation
  • Marriage and Renunciation
  • Wives as Patrivatas: Norms, Authority, and Power
  • Sita as Ideal Wife
  • Draupadi and Other Heroic Wives
  • Split Imaging of Women in the Context of Family
  • Divine Marriages
  • Weddings and Related Rituals
  • Dowry and Prestation
  • Votive Rituals
  • Parda and Domestic Space
  • Marriage and Same-Sex Unions
  • Changing Marriage Arrangements and Patterns
  • Widows
  • Divorce and Marital Dysfunction
  • Dowry Murder
  • Sati Immolation

Hinduism Marriage
Lindsey Harlan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0069


Scholarly reflection on Hindu marriage includes work on prescriptive treatments in early Sanskrit sources. Among these are Vedic discourses on household ritual and later discussions of dharma, a term with a wide semantic range that includes duty, law, custom, and religion. These dharma texts differentiated duties of people according to indices of social location, including class (varna) and gender. Colonial authorities often utilized these sources to promote their political agendas. Many early scholars of Hinduism were interested in asceticism, which dharma literature represented as a key stage of life for upper-class men. With the entry of women into academia in the 1970s, the study of women, including their roles as wives, helped focus attention on household life as they experienced it. Attention focused not only on prescriptive sources for the ideal of the good wife (patrivrata), but also on the subjectivity of wives, whose marital experiences included negotiation of, and resistance to, this ideal. Some scholars have investigated female paradigms from Sanskrit literature, particularly epics, to discern both conformity to and deviation from patrivrata code. In addition, they have used case studies from fieldwork and contemporary expressive traditions, such as women’s songs, to access this subjectivity. Interest has also focused on the interaction of husbands and wives as conveyed in other sources of myth, which have revealed not only ideals, but also tensions and conflicts. Considering diverse sources and perspectives, scholars have noted representations that split ideations of women into both benign and threatening roles, such as wife and sister. Some scholars have focused on the wedding sanskara, a rite of passage designed to perfect a couple’s union and ensure a good marriage. Among the most controversial aspects of many, though not all, weddings is dowry payment, which, although illegal, continues to be widely practiced. Also of long-standing interest to scholars is the topic of women’s, and especially wives’, performance of vratas, ritual vows intended to promote household auspiciousness. Along with analysis of women’s rituals has come consideration of the gendered division of household space, including parda, the seclusion of women within the home. Other controversial issues that have served as the focus of concentrated study are same-sex unions, changing modes of engagement, the treatment of widows, divorce, the murder of brides due to insufficient dowry, and sati (suttee) immolation, which, although now uncommon, has generated extensive debate.

Vedic and Classical Sources

Ancient Sanskrit texts indicate that women had important ritual responsibilities that benefited the household and society as a whole. Jamison 1996 argues that the texts clearly indicate not only women’s value in this respect, but also demonstrate ambivalence toward women who, in marriage, were exchanged as commodities. Menski 1991 suggests a decline in the importance of women’s ritual roles during the late part of the Vedic period and comments on the inception of, and the still lingering anxiety about, women’s power as it is reflected in perceptions of women’s sexuality. Roy 2010 examines ancient and classical representations of marriage in a wide variety of textual sources, including Rajatarangini and Kamasutra, and so richly contextualizes the author’s observations on marriage and its diverse meanings, many of which were related to notions of dharma (law, duty, custom). Olivelle 2005 and Olivelle 2009 focus on the prescriptive treatments of certain Sanskrit treatises on dharma. The 2005 publication is a translation of the most famous dharma text, Manu’s Dharmashastra, which presents the duties and expectations of men and women, particularly in the context of marriage; the 2009 publication treats formulations by later authors. The dharma texts have been the subject of wide-ranging analyses and critiques, often focused on characterizations of women’s inherent nature, limitations on women’s independence and agency, and itemizations of women’s duties (stridharma). Olivelle 1993 details the development of the ideal of four life stages (ashramas) for men from the top three social tiers (varnas): these stages are student, householder, hermit, and ascetic renouncer. Men who are initiated by gurus are considered dviijas (twice born), whereas women and men from the lowest varna are excluded from this status and, having been born from mothers, are not spiritually reborn after learning sacred knowledge from men. Women were not encouraged, or even allowed, to read the Sanskrit dharma texts that attempted to order social relations. Nevertheless, many women have learned Sanskrit and read dharma treatises and other sacred texts. Further information on texts treating dharma and ritual are found in the Oxford Bibliographies articles on Dharma and Gṛhya Rites.

  • Jamison, Stephanie. Sacrificed Wife, Sacrificer’s Wife: Women, Ritual, and Hospitality in Ancient India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    Treats women in ancient Hinduism (primarily Vedic and epic literature) and analyzes the positions of women within marriage. Focuses on ritual responsibility, hospitality, and the exchange of women in marriage. Notes contradictory attitudes toward women not only as commodities, but also as strategically important hostesses who are, in their marital households, permanent guests.

  • Menski, Werner F. “Marital Expectations as Dramatized in the Hindu Marriage Rituals of Ancient India.” In Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. Edited by Julia I. Leslie, 47–67. London: Pinter, 1991.

    Focuses on marriage rituals from the later part of the Vedic period and discusses changes in the perception and evaluation of women’s roles in later periods, including classical and contemporary.

  • Olivelle, Patrick. The Āśrama System: The History and Hermeneutics of a Religious Institution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    Analyzes the ashramas, or stages of life constituting the ideal life of a man from the upper three social tiers (varnas). Addresses marriage, procreation, and householders’ duties in Sanskrit scriptural sources. Contains a succinct discussion of gender in a chapter contextualizing the ashramas in terms of other Brahmanical institutions. Won, in the historical category, the American Academy of Religion’s Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion.

  • Olivelle, Patrick. Manu’s Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Mānava-Dharmaśāstra. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Presents and provides a deft scholarly analysis of the most famous of the Hindu law codes with its various pronouncements about dharma (law, duty, custom) in the context of class, gender, and social order. Manu classifies marriages and makes what have become controversial declarations about women in the context of marriage and widowhood.

  • Olivelle, Patrick. Dharmasutras: The Law Codes of Ancient India. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Examination of legal treatises by Apastamba, Gautama, Baudhyana, and Vasistha. Treats manifold reflections on social order, rules, and norms. Subjects examined include the obligations and privileges of marital union. The book provides superb treatment of Brahmanical notions of social order; it appears in the series Oxford World Classics.

  • Roy, Kumkum. The Power of Gender & the Gender of Power: Explorations in Early Indian History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    Examines gender relations in early India. Avoids simplistic rendering of women’s status as high or low. Examines dharma texts but also tackles other Sanskrit and non-Sanskrit sources. Useful for understanding household relationships, ritual performance, renunciation, and other factors informing constructs of gender and marriage.

  • Tyagi, Jaya. Engendering the Early Household: Brahmanical Precepts in the Early Gṛhyasūtras, Middle of the First Millennium B.C.E. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2008.

    Addresses the marginalization of women in early household ritual texts. Analyzes changing constructions of women’s domestic roles.

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