Polygamy in Hinduism
Both polygamy and polyandry were practiced in ancient times among certain sections of Hindu society. Hinduism during the vedic period seems to have neither prohibited polygamy, nor encouraged it. Historically, Kings occasionally took concubines. For example, the Vijaynagara emperor, Krishnadevaraya had multiple "wives". Under Hindu Marriage Law, as understood by the constitution of India, polygamy is forbidden for Hindu, Jains, and Sikhs. However, Muslims in India are allowed to have multiple wives. As of October, 2006, marriage laws in India are dependent upon the religion of the subject in question. There have been efforts to propose a uniform marital law that would treat all Indians the same, irrespective of religion, but this has not occurred as of yet.
Note: Manu Samhita (Manu Smriti), also referred to as the Laws of Manu, or the Law Book of Mankind, is the ancient Vedic scripture upon which later Hindu laws (under the British rule) were formulated. It is clearly outlined in the Laws of Manu that all classes, including the Brahmin class, were allowed to take more than one wife. In delineating the laws of both inter-class mariages and inheritance laws Manu first specifies the laws as pertaining to the Brahmin class. A Brahmin's first wife is to come from a Brahmin family, yet his second wife can be from either Brahmin family or Ksatriya. His third wife can be from either Brahmin, Ksatriya or Vaishya. His fourth wife can be from any class, including that of Sudra. Although some speculate that the Brahmin class were never allowed more than one wife, this is not at all supported in the Manu Samhita or in various Vedic scriptures where there are stories of many Brahmin sages who are said to have more than one wife.
Also, 500 years ago in India was the advent of Caitanya Mahaprabhu (also known as the Golden Avatar and Lord Chaitanya). Together with Nityananda Prabhu, he inaugurated the Sankirtan Movement, (the congregational chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra) throughout India. ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness) originates from the teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
Lord Chaitanya gave higher knowledge as follows: "When He (Lord Chaitanya) met Sri Ramananda Raya on the banks of the Godavari, the varnashrama-dharma followed by Hindus was mentioned by the Lord. Sri Ramananda Raya said that by following the principles of varnashrama-dharma and four orders of human life, everyone could realize transcendence. In the opinion of the Lord, the system of varnashrama-dharma is superficial only and it has very little to do with the highest realization of spiritual values." Srimad Bhagavatam, Introduction.
"This modern caste system is now condemned in India also, and it should be condemned for the classification of different types of men according to birth is not the Vedic or Divine caste system." Srimad Bhagavatam, 3.6.13
In more recent history, the Founder-Acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who, in the 1970's was popularily known as the religious ambassador from India, considered polygamy for the purpose of protecting women via proper religious marriage. His expectation, which he made clear, was for all his disciples to rise to the platform of pure devotee. When this did not happen, he revoked such an idea; also for the protection of women, that they would not be exploited in the name of God or Veda by unqualified men.
While he had thought that not all men were fit for married life (brahmacarya), and all women must be married for their religious and social protection, he also stated the majority of men will marry anyway, and unmarried woman could move into a brahmacarini ashrama and live like a nun if they desire. Add the numbers of woman who joined as less than those of men, the need for polygamy in this age called Kali Yuga, obviously diminished from that of previous ages.
There are countless quotes and letters from Prabhupada against Polygamy. In 1976 he stated: "Tapasya begins with brahmacarya, life of celibacy, or accepting one wife only. That's all."
Prabhupada gave his final instruction shortly before he left this world in 1977: "Eka-patni-vrata, accepting only one wife, was the glorious example set by Lord Ramacandra. One should not accept more than one wife." Srimad Bhagavatam, 9th canto, ch 10, verse 54. For this current age Prabhupada instructed: "So if you try to follow the Manu-samhita then you will become a mleccha and yauvana and your career is finished." SPL May 19, 1977
Additionally: "Manu Samhita is not a religion. It is moral principles for conducting society. Religion is how to become devotee of Krishna. That is religion." (April 20, 1974 Hyderabad)
Prabhupada clarifies his teachings are not Hinduism: "No. Hinduism practically we do not recognize because this word 'Hinduism' is not mentioned in any Vedic literature. It is a foreign term. The Muhammadans, they called the inhabitants of India as 'Hindus.' From that word, it is has come to 'Hinduism.' Otherwise, we don't find that word in any Vedic literature. 'Hinduism' is a foreign term, it is not a Vedic term." Prabhupada Interview w/L.A. Times Reporter, Dec 26, 68, Ca.
Polygamy for Hindus
Over the past few months, the issue of Hindu marriage remained a hot bed of legal and governmental debates in India. Most of this controversy arose from the fact that since polygamy is banned by law for the Hindus, an increasing number of Hindu men have been showing a propensity to convert to Islam whenever they want a second wife.
A Historic Ruling
Finally, the Indian Supreme Court on the May 5, 2000 plugged this last legal loophole for good for all potential Hindu bigamists. Now, if it's found that a newly converted Muslim has embraced the faith only to embrace another wife or two, he should be prosecuted under the Hindu Marriage Act and the Indian Penal Code. Thus, bigamy for all Hindus, has been ultimately outlawed.
The Vedic Marriage
Controversies apart, marriages are still made in heaven for the average Hindu couple. Hindus regard the institution of marriage as a sacrament and not just a contract between two persons of opposite sex. What is matchless about a Hindu alliance is that it's as much a union of two families as between two individuals. It's a lifelong commitment and is the strongest social bond between a man and a woman.
Marriage is sacrosanct, for the Hindus believe that marriage is not only a means of continuing the family but also a way of repaying one's debt to the ancestors. The Vedas too affirm that a person after the completion of his student life should enter the second stage of life, that is, the Grihastha or life of a householder.
Most people tend to equate Hindu marriage with arranged marriage. The parents in order to meet this domestic obligation prepare themselves mentally and, more importantly, financially when their child reaches marriageable age. They search for a suitable partner keeping in mind the societal rules regarding cast, creed, natal chart, and financial and social status of the family. Traditionally it is the girl's parents who bear the cost of the wedding and to jumpstart their daughter's married life they shower her with gifts and ornaments to take to her in-laws. Unfortunately, this has aggravated people's greed culminating in the many evils of dowry system.
Arranged marriages in India differ from community to community and from place to place. These ceremonies are indispensable, highly religious and significant. The rites of marriage are also social and are meant to increase intimacy between the two families. However, with a little variation, the usual custom and rituals are more or the less the same throughout India.
What if the girl or the boy refuses to marry the person chosen by their parents? What if they choose a partner of their own liking and opt for a love marriage? Will the Hindu society rule out such a marriage?
The average Hindu - anchored to the age-old rules of an arranged marriage - would hardly embark on a love marriage. Even today, love marriage is looked down upon and the orthodox Hindu priests interdict a love marriage. This is mainly because such a wedlock usually defies the barriers of caste, creed and age.
However, Indian history is witness to the fact that time and again, Indian princesses chose their life mates in Swayamvaras - an occasion when princes and noble men from all over the kingdom were invited to assemble in a bridegroom choosing ceremony. It is also interesting to note that Bhishma in the greatest of Hindu epics - the Mahabharata (Anusashana Parva, Section XLIV) - perspicaciously hints at 'love marriage' : "After the appearance of puberty, the girl should wait for three years. During the fourth year, she should look for a husband herself (without waiting any longer for her kinsmen to select one for her)."
Polygamy In Hinduism
According to the scriptures, a Hindu marriage is indissolvable in life. Still polygamy was rampantly practised in ancient Hindu society. An address by Bhishma to King Yudhishthira in the Mahabharata, succinctly endorses this fact: "A Brahmana can take three wives. A Kshatriya can take two wives. As regards the Vaishya, he should take a wife from only his own order. The children born of these wives should be regarded as equal." (Anusasana Parva, Section XLIV). But now that polygamy has been completely gutted out by law, monogamy is the only option for Hindus.