Marriage is a practice common among almost every culture and religion around the world, and while the ceremonies and laws regarding these marriages may differ across cultures, the concept is mostly the same; two people (generally one man and one woman) legally vow to spend the rest of their lives together. However, marriage does not always go the way the couple intended and they might choose to end their marriage via a legal divorce. Here in America, we are desensitized to divorce and I think it is safe to say that almost every person living in America probably knows someone who has gone through at least one divorce. With that being said, not all cultures feel the same way that Americans do about divorce. In India, and more specifically within the Hindu tradition, divorce is still to this day more-or-less a taboo, and it is not easily accepted by a community when a couple chooses to get a divorce.
To better understand the divorce within the context of India’s most dominant tradition, it may be helpful to first discuss marriage. Marriage for Hindus, like for most people of other cultures, is a sacred union of two people joining both their lives and their families together. In Hinduism, marriage is an “essential sanakara” (Sharma, Hinduism, Marriage and Mental Illness) for every Hindu. Marriage is an obligation of all Hindus in order that man and his wife may start a family, since it is believed that only those who have a family can be happy. A man and woman (in Hinduism) are said the be each other’s other half and once they are married they are said to complete each other. According to Sharma, there are three sacramental aspects of marriage under Hindu law. These three characteristics include the following: first, marriage is not to be used to satisfy a person’s physical needs, rather it is meant for “the performance of religious and spiritual duties. Second (and a key aspect of this essay), marriage is a sacramental union and it therefore implies that the marriage is not dissolvable on any grounds whatsoever. Third, the union of marriage means the union of “soul, body, and mind,” and that the union is “not only for this life, but for all lives to come. The union is not only for this world, but also for other worlds.”
Not only is marriage for Hindus important for the above reasons, but it is also an important social aspect. Marriage is the basis for not only starting a new family, but for joining and establishing a relationship between the two existing families (the husband’s and the wife’s). Because of this importance of the joining of two families, marriages between Hindus in India are almost always arranged by the parents of the couple and the children are expected to accept this. These types of marriages generally last an eternity despite the lack of say the parents give the couple. The main goal in a Hindu marriage is for the husband to keep the wife happy and for the wife to keep the husband happy. In doing so the couple can start a family and have children and love the children unconditionally. This keeps the family “united and prevents its breakdown” (Sharma, Marriage and Mental Illness). As S. Pothen discusses in his essay “Divorce in Hindu Society,” when a couple gets married, both the husband and the wife have an obligation to “adjust” their personal characteristics in order to be a better fit for his or her spouse (Pothen, 381). In making such adjustments, the couple has a more probable chance of avoiding divorce and other marital issues. If these rules are followed and the couple works hard enough, there is no reason that the marriage should end.
Divorce in India is much less common than it is in the United States. Though a bit dated, according to the 1981 census, nearly ten percent of American couples had reported getting a divorce. In 1981 in India, the divorce rate was reported at being at less than one percent (0.74%) for married couples between the ages of 15 and 44 (Amato, 209). While these numbers seem shockingly low, there are several factors that reveal the possibility for immense inaccuracy. One such reason these numbers may be off is due to a legality in the way in which divorces in India are granted. Unlike in the United States, divorces in India are not granted by the courts, rather they are granted by a caste panchayat (a council). Because couples do not go through an actual court system to obtain their divorce, there are no records kept of the divorce, almost making it appear as if it had never happened, and preventing it from being seen on legal statistic records. Other explanations for such numbers involve reasons due to social complications rather than legal actions. Because divorce in the Hindu tradition is so looked down upon, many people simply do not report if they have been divorced because they are afraid of the shame that it could potentially bring on not only their families, but also possibly on the community as well. For this same reason, many couples who fall out of love or simply do not want to be together anymore will separate, but never actually divorce. When this happens, the couple may still live together, but they will never actually “be together” like a couple as they once had been. By using this form of separation, the statistics of divorce stay appearing lower than they might, had divorce been more of an option. Despite all of this, divorce is still becoming more and more common, though still not very accepted in India and in Hinduism in particular.
In a Hindu marriage, when something goes wrong, divorce may become an option and sometimes an inevitability. In his excerpt “The Effectiveness of the Hindu Sacrament (Samskara): Caste, Marriage, and Divorce in Bengali Culture,” Ralph W. Nicholas helps us break down some statistics on divorce in Hindu tradition in the specific region of Bengal. Nicholas points out that while divorce in general is not very common, the rate of divorce is distributed vastly unevenly from caste to caste. Due to the importance of the samskara of marriage, divorce in Hinduism is often thought to be irreversible and “unthinkable” since there is no way to reverse the marriage ceremony rituals, but it is still a reality for some couples. According to Nicholas, divorce is much more common in the lower castes than in either the higher castes or in the middle-class castes. He states, “Moreover, marriages among the lower castes, where bride-price (which is given credit, in much utilitarian anthropological literature, for securing marital stability) is still usually paid, end in divorce more commonly than those of any other castes” (Harlan, 144). Though the above statements and claims are specific to Hindu divorce in Bengal, they are not all that different from anywhere else in the world in regards to Hindu divorce.
Prior to 1955, divorce was possible, but not necessarily probable. Even if a divorce were to be possible, it would have more than likely been at the demands or request of the husband rather than the wife. In 1955, the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 was passed. Under the act, it was stated that, “…both the husband and the wife have been given a right to get their marriage dissolved by a decree of divorce on more than one grounds specifically enumerated in Section 13” (Anoop, 4). These grounds specified in Section 13 include the following: 1. The man or wife has sex with someone other than his or her spouse; 2. The man or wife has converted to another religion; 3. The man or wife becomes “incurably unsound of mind, or has suffering continuously or intermittently from mental disorder such a kind and to such an extent that the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with the respondent.” This Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 greatly benefited married couples who could no longer find it in their hearts to stay together for one reason or another by making divorce easier to come by. Despite this, no-fault divorces were (and are) difficult to obtain since both the husband and the wife are obligated to agree on the divorce.
As previously stated, divorce is looked down upon for several reasons, one of the main reasons being how important the rite of marriage is. It is also highly undesired for the families of the couple getting the divorce because of the shame and embarrassment that it brings to them. Though divorce is embarrassing for both the husband’s and the wife’s families, it is worse for that of the wife’s. Along with the acceptable grounds for divorce outlined in Section 13 of the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, Sriya Iyer outlines “acceptable” reasons for filing for divorce specifically for women. These reasons are, if her husband is “bad,” if he has left abroad for good, if he is guilty of high treason, if he is dangerous to his wife, if he has become an outcast, or if he has lost his sex drive or masculinity (Iyer, 31-32). Though this list seems reasonable, filing for divorce under one of these circumstances is still not seen to be an adequate reason.
The way it is viewed in the Hindu tradition is that a woman should never divorce her husband for any reason, regardless of the reason. If a divorce is granted, whether it be a no-fault divorce or a fault-based divorce (the “fault” being either that of the wife’s or the husband’s) it is still typically seen as the divorce being the woman’s fault. An example of this would be a woman filing for divorce against her husband after he has been unfaithful or after he has consistently abused her. In the instance of the cheating husband, the wife is still seen to be at fault. Common reasons that will be stated as to why this was her fault include the belief that the woman is not “putting out” enough for her husband or that she is not attractive enough. In the case of the abusive husband, it is widely believed to be the woman’s fault because she must be doing something wrong to instigate her husband; a husband beating his wife is not in the wrong because he is keeping her in line. The divorce will be granted, but it will always be seen as the woman’s fault. In modern times, with women becoming more educated and with the rise in the number of feminists, it is feared that divorce rights will become even more “liberal” and divorce will eventually become even easier to obtain while at the same time becoming more acceptable. This concept of the claim is regarded “dangerous” due to the fact that with more lax divorce laws and with more educated women, the traditions of the Hindu family dynamic are likely to change or become in altered in some way or another (Shrama, 125).
A couple who gets divorced will more-times-than-not move back in with their parents (the man goes back to his family and the woman goes back to hers). Both men and women who fall victim to divorce receive support from their families. While both the husband’s family allows him back into their household, and the woman’s family allows her back in their household, the two scenarios are not equal. In the scenario of the man moving back in with his family, he is welcomed back with open arms and receives emotional support. The man and his family will most likely resume normal life, as it had been before he had ever gotten married. Women are not as fortunate as their male counterparts when it comes to this. Because a woman should never divorce her husband, she is shamed. Her family will allow her to return to the family household, but not at all with the same open arms that her ex-husband received from his family.
Divorce is more of an embarrassment for the family of the woman because she is seen as the one who is at fault in the divorce. For a majority of Hindu families, having a divorced daughter in the family is believed to lower the entire status of the family. The embarrassment caused the family to feel inadequate and shameful within their community. While a woman is reluctantly allowed back into her parent’s home, it is not without consequence. A woman living back home after going through a divorce is treated much less like a daughter and much more like a servant or slave; she is unable to live her life the same as she had before the divorce. In terms of being treated more like a servant, the family will make her do any of the “undesired” chores and make her do any of the other unpleasant household tasks that may need to be done (Pothen, 213). Along with being dealt the daunting task of unpleasant household work, a divorced woman suffers financially as well. Because the man is generally the one who works and makes a majority of the money, a divorced woman loses her source of income. When a woman moves back in with her family after a divorce, she is not completely cut off monetarily, though. Her family will help her out financially, but the breadwinner of the family will choose how much they give her and will tell her how she should allocate said money. For this reason, it is much more desirable for a divorced woman to get remarried as soon as possible.
One of the purposes of marriage for Hindus is to quickly start having children and start a family. Because of the overlapping statistics that most Hindu couple have children within the first couple years of marriage, and if they get a divorce, it happens within the first few years, most couples have children when they begin the divorce process. As in a divorce in the United States, in India when a couple gets divorced, one parent gets custody of the child or children, should the couple have any. For Hindus in regards to divorce, there is a thing called the “tender years” principle, which means that for any couple (going through a divorce) that has children under the age of six, the mother gets full custody of the child (Pothen, 210). This happens in roughly eighty percent of Hindu divorces, and it can take a toll on the mother; not only does she now have to support herself financially, but she also has to support her child or children. Similar to in the United States, there is child support. Only nineteen percent of divorced Hindu women with children report that they receive child support from their ex-husband, and only half of that nineteen percent report receiving the full amount of child support that they are entitled to.
Marriage in the Hindu tradition is one of the most sacred samskaras of a person’s life and it is a rite that is expected of all Hindus, male and female alike. Because the ties of marriage are so strong in Hinduism in that the marriage is not just the joining of two bodies, but also of two souls, it is supposed to last through life and beyond death. For these reasons, divorce is highly frowned upon and widely unaccepted. While divorce is not ideal for neither the husband nor the wife, a man suffers less repercussions as a result of the divorce, and the women is always seen to be at fault. Despite the hardships and shame of divorce in the Hindu tradition, it is an option and it is slowly and steadily becoming more easily attainable (especially for women), more common, and slightly more acceptable.