Arranged Marriage?! What For?

What is a marriage in Hinduism?

According to the Purusharthas — four aims of life: Dharma (duty), Artha (prosperity), Kama (pleasure), Moksha (liberation) — are the means to achieve a meaningful life. The word purusha means human being, soul, and artha means not only wealth but also purpose/objective. The Purushshartas revolve around Varnashrama (4 stages of human life). These four stages are:

  • Brahmacharya: student phase of life
  • Grihastha: married phase of life and duties of a family member
  • Vanaprastha: retirement phase, handing over responsibilities to future generations
  • Sanyasa: phase of giving up material desires

Thus, marriage is considered one of the essential sanskaras (sacrament) for Hindus so that an individual can pursue the four purusharthas. It is a sacramental union not only one’s physical needs but also for the performance of one’s religious and spiritual duties. It is also important as a social institution since it is a basis for the traditional family unit.

What is an Arranged Marriage?

An arranged marriage is a system where marriage is determined by the bride and groom’s parents, instead of the bride and groom being in a relationship beforehand. A number of factors are taken into account such as compatibility, culture, lineage, horoscope, etc. to come to the final decision. In arranged marriages, an individual’s caste was a dominant factor in determining marriages, however the prominence of the caste system is also slowly declining from a societal perspective.

We should understand that the vast majority of arranged marriages are based on agreement from both the bride and the groom, and should not be confused with fringe cases not involving mutual consent.

Difference between arranged marriages and love marriages

In Western society (and primarily in love marriages), the decision to get married or not to get married mainly revolves around the two individuals getting married. The usual process for seeking a partner involves dating, in which both individuals meet and spend time together to evaluate if the relationship will work. Based on their experience, the couple decides whether or not they will be suitable partners for a marriage. Families/parents' consent is not always essential and in general, parents do not interfere in it.

However, in an arranged marriage, the approval of the families is usually given more prevalence. Usually, the bride and groom have not met before the conversations around marriage starts among the families (as opposed to having the two individuals spending months or years getting to know each other before marriage). The time taken to reach the final decision to get married is considerably less (usually a few meetings, however, in some cases, there may be more time given to get to know the potential bride/groom). In most modern day arranged marriages, the bride and the groom have a choice and are able to walk away from the process at a given time if they are not satisfied. The process is quite flexible to the needs of the potential couple (e.g. partner should be vegetarian, similar educational background, etc.).

How marriages are perceived

In Western societies, marriage is usually perceived as a bond between two individuals, and this bond is emphasized over the bond between families. The decision making and further consequences are primarily taken on by the bride and the groom. Over time, tools have developed in society that allow the couple involved to be able to spend the necessary time together before reaching a decision to get married.

In Hindu society, marriage is still considered as a union between two families. Thus, more attention is paid towards cultural and interpersonal compatibility. Compatibility between bride and groom are determined through a horoscope match. A general belief is that one has to work towards making marriage successful and both families act as guardians during the marriage if issues arise between a couple. Since the families are involved in the arranged marriage, they have a greater part in decision making as compared to their Western counterparts.

Horoscopes or “Kundali” matching

Jyothish (Vedic astrology) is a practice that dates back to the days of the Rig Vedas (~3000 BCE) and has various references in the Upanishads also. A kundali (Vedic horoscope chart) is one of the tools that is usually used to determine if the bride and groom will be compatible partners. The practice of matching horoscopes is followed to a large extent because of its ability to match individuals based on not only astrological components such as planetary positions but also the individual’s doshas (the elements of fire, air, and water and their movements within the individual). It is very important to note that horoscopes do not guarantee the success of any marriage and are not the sole factor that are used to determine the success of a marriage, nor should they be.

The purpose of kundali matching for marriage is to predict the couple’s future compatibility based on various details such as astrological components, a person’s date/time/place of birth, and other details. The kundali aims to understand various important factors that are important to the success of a marriage (e.g. the couple’s compatibility, the health of the couple’s progeny, the health and well-being of the couple, etc.). In addition to kundali matching, there must be mutual understanding, compromise, and many other important factors that need focus to ensure a happy and healthy marriage. This is why many Hindu families, over generations, have a family pandit (priest) who may be skilled in kundali matching and has a good understanding of the family dynamics to help with the kundali matching process. This way, the pandit will be able to provide as best of a kundali matching for the family’s children based on their relationship and understanding of the family. It is essential to understand that matching horoscopes is only one of the systems used and the extent of its use varies from family to family, place to place, etc.

A parallel to the task of kundali matching can be seen in many dating sites where psychological profiles are used to provide a choice of prospective matches. These psychological profiles may come in many shapes and forms, such as having a Myers Briggs component on a dating site to help individuals have an idea of their partner’s personality traits.

But why arranged marriages?

While the exact origins of arranged marriages are not concrete, the practice has been in place since at least the 5th Century BCE (Arranged Marriage, Cultural India). In the Hindu society, arranged marriages served several purposes such as practicing and preserving ancestral lineage and providing an opportunity to strengthen the kinship group. As time progressed, each family developed its own traditions, customs, and practices based on their ancestral lineage and kinship. This is one of the reasons why there are so many diverse practices amongst Hindus for the same holidays. For example, festivals such as Diwali or Varsha Pratipada (Hindu New Year), which are celebrated in most parts of India, vary widely amongst every geographical region. Additionally, each family may also have different customs, traditions, or practices that may widely differ from other families, even amongst the same linguistic group or caste. In order to pass on these family customs, traditions, and practices, the practice of arranged marriage has been continued for generations.

But seriously, we’re in the 21st century. Why do millennials and Gen Z still have arranged marriages?

A 2013 poll conducted by IPSOS (a multinational market research and consulting firm) found that nearly 75% of young Indians aged 18-35 years old prefer an arranged marriage over a free-choice marriage. A recent survey of 7,398 Indian men and women between the ages of 20 and 35 indicated that approximately 59% of them wanted family or parental approval, while 23% opted to select “with a partner I found,” and the remaining 19% were open to an arranged marriage.

While social factors and family pressure are still a major factor towards arranged marriages in the modern day (both in India and in the West), many millennials and Gen Z individuals still choose to have an arranged marriage out of their own personal choice. To many of these individuals, it is a matter of having familiarity with their community or linguistic group that they want to stay a part of and that they feel comfort in being around during their married life. Throughout the world, the arranged marriage ‘scene’ is changing where it is more of a team effort between parents and their children. There is much more flexibility now compared to the past, in which the selection process is based on both the parent’s and child’s requirements and preferences. With the advent of the Information age, many millennials and Gen Z feel that this process allows for a mutual process in finding a suitable spouse while also staying a part of their social groups.

A Biological Perspective

In Hindu arranged marriages, one of the aspects of finding a suitable partner involves ensuring genetic compatibility of the couple. This is why the gotra system was used in the matchmaking process. The word gotra comes from the Sanskrit word Gau (cow) and Trahi (shed) and it was defined around the 4th century B.C.E to accommodate changed social rules and laws. The Gotra system has its own significance in referring to people who are descendants of an unbroken male ancestor or patriline. This system was used to trace a person’s relation to Saptarishis, the seven sacred saints (Atri, Bharadwaj, Gautam Maharishi, Jamadani, Kashyapa, Vashishta and Vishwamitra). This is a proposal that aims to prevent inbreeding and eliminate recessive and/or defective genes from human DNA as disease is often carried from one generation to the next.

The Vedic rishis knew of the existence of the Y-chromosome and the paternal genetic material that was passed almost intact from father to son. From a modern day understanding of genetics, it is understood that the human body has 2 copies of every gene, one inherited from the father and the other inherited from the mother. When both copies of a gene are faulty, there is a higher likelihood of an individual to develop diseases such as cystic fibrosis, spinal muscular dystrophy, Tay-sachs disease, growth hormone deficiency, sickle cell anemia, thalassemia, etc. (Sakshi, 2018).

The topic of gotra as it relates to marriage are discussed in important Ayurvedic texts such as the Charaka Samhita and Kashyapa Samhita, both of which are texts on the human body, disease, therapeutics, etc.

Thus, the essence of the Gotra system is to prevent marriages within the same Gotra, and that is why the matchmaking process takes this into account before a marriage.

Another aspect that is sometimes taken into account by some families during the matchmaking process is blood group matching. This is done to examine the blood group compatibility between both potential individuals in order to prevent Rh (rhesus) incompatibility. This could happen when a Rh+ male marries a Rh- female (irrespective of blood group), further increasing the likelihood that their offspring may be Rh+, in which case there may be issues where the newborn’s blood is mixed with the mother’s and the babies could affected by conditions such as severe anemia, jaundice, heart failure, etc (Human Reproductive Biology - 4th edition, Jones, Lopez, 2014).

We’re in the 21st century. Why do people still opt for arranged marriages? There’s so many problems with the whole system!

Many critics point to problems and issues such as forced marriages, the dowry system, “honor” killings, discrimination of various forms against women, and various other problems that are stated to be tied to arranged marriage. Additionally, how do people even choose to marry someone they barely know?

These are some of the most common issues that are synonymous with the topic of arranged marriage that are brought up by many who are skeptical and may not fully understand the process. It is important to note that while these aforementioned issues certainly need to be addressed on a societal level, it is not solely the system of arranged marriage that is to “blame.” As with any system or process, there are various opportunities for improvement and change that needs to be brought on a societal level to address these issues. Although the government of India has enacted many policies related to marriage (i.e. Child Marriage Restraint Act (1929), Dowry Prohibition Act (1961), Indian Divorce Act (1969), etc.), there are still many gaps in terms of implementation of these policies. There are also many areas of opportunity from a policy level that need to be addressed to protect women and children and improve accountability for those who are breaking the law. Additionally, from a family perspective, there are many issues that need to be addressed on a personal level (i.e. not having unreasonable expectations from daughter/son-in-law, not forcing children to get married, etc.).

Although these opportunities of improvement from a familial and societal perspective will not happen immediately, the concept of arranged marriage has drastically improved over the past several decades with the modernization of the system. As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest changes is more involvement from children in the process of finding their partners.

So what? I’m not convinced. I still don’t think arranged marriage is for me!

The purpose of this post is to help our audience understand the topic of marriage from a Hindu perspective as it has been practiced for centuries and not to convince our audience in one way or the other. Although there are many differences between arranged marriages and love marriages from a Western society’s perspective, it is extremely important to understand that no marriage can work without the support, understanding, and love between the married couple. This is a universal requirement that needs to be there in order to ensure a happy, long lasting, and successful marriage.