The word ‘dowry’ has been derived from the Latin word ‘Dos’ which means ‘to give, to offer.’ The gifts, money or estate given to the bride at the time of marriage, came to be called ‘dowry’. The custom of giving or taking of dowry is not a chance event in the history of world cultures. It is a result of the development of social forces over a long period of time.
As man traveled on the road to civilization, different social groups in different geographical areas were formed. With this, matrimony, the basis of any social group, too, evolved into the most fundamental institution of society. Since most of the societies evolved to become patrilineal and patrilocal, the bride would leave her paternal home to join the family of the man to whom she got married. The moment of departure of the daughter from her parental home, used to be a very emotional one for the bride and her family, and the parents showered their beloved daughter with all sorts of gifts. These gifts were meant to be a token of love from her family.
Since, most often, it was the woman and not the man who would leave her parental home to join her spouse’s family after marriage, the husband became responsible for the economic well being of the wife and the children. Women, in most of the cultures, stayed at home to take care of the household and to look after the children and the aged, and had no private income to call their own. Under the circumstances, dowry, which was also called streedhan (wealth the women got from their parents), gave them economic security against any eventuality in life. The size of the dowry was often directly proportional to the financial status of the groom. “It was also an inducement for the bride to go and live with her affinal kins so as to make her feel that she is not just driven out of her natal home.”
Another purpose of dowry was to help the couple set up their new home, to help the husband maintain his family, and to give the wife and children some support in his absence due to circumstances beyond his control. One of the functions of dowry may have been to serve as a form of protection for the wife against the probability of ill treatment at the hands of husbands and their families.
Among the rich people, dowry came to be considered an essential part of the wedding ceremony; this being considered a part of a daughter’s inheritance, her share from the property of her father, when she left for her husband’s house to become a part of his family. With time, the custom of giving dowry to the daughters at the time of sending them off to their husbands’ house, became a well established custom which is still prevalent in most of the cultures the world over.
Sociologically, the doctrine behind the custom of giving and taking of gifts is the development of mutual relations. Kings of yore too exchanged gifts with each other to maintain good relations. These gifts were essentially conditional, the implied condition being the maintenance of good relations between both the parties. According to this doctrine, dowry could remain a part of husband’s property only till the time good relations were maintained between the husband and the wife. In case of divorce or the death of the partner, the gifts had to be returned to the parents of the girl. Very often, dowry served to build power and wealth of great families and played a role in politics of alliance through marriage.
In some, though very few cultures, “Bride Price” or “dower” is known to be paid to the parents of the bride. The gifts were originally used to show gratitude to the family of the girl for “giving” their daughter to the husband’s family. Sadly, the custom slowly degenerated into the custom of buying and selling of the brides.
However, there is little doubt that money has been playing a significant role in one or the other form in all cultures at the time of matrimonial alliances. It has been denigrated by some as the commercial aspect of a social custom like marriage. On the other hand, some anthropologists suggest that marriage payments are one of the ways by which cultures expand social relations between communities by exchanging gifts. Veena Talwar Oldenburge, a professor of history in Baruch College, New York, is of the view that dowry is one of the few women centered institutions where the rights of women are taken care of, in an otherwise overwhelmingly patriarchal and agrarian society.
The earliest known reference to dowry is found in the code of Hammurabi (1728 B.C. to 1686 B.C.), the Babylonian king who wrote the set of laws governing everyday lives of the citizens:
If a woman quarrel with her husband and says:
“you are not congenial to me” the reason for her prejudice must be presented.
If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her,
then no guilt attaches to this woman, she shall take her dowry and go back to her
father’s house. 1
Here the dowry has been referred to as an already existing custom.
It is very difficult to record when the first dowry was given. One finds reference to dowry in English folklore. A popular English nursery rhyme describes a very interesting situation, where a boy, interested in a beautiful village dame going to milk her cows, expresses the desire to accompany her. Of course, she has no objection to that. The boy wants to know her financial status. On being told that she would not be able to bring any dowry as, in her words, “my face is my fortune”; the boy straightaway tells her “then I can’t marry you, my pretty maid.” Though the girl is bold enough to give a very curt reply, “nobody asked you, sir, she said,” it leaves us with no doubt about the prevalence of the custom of dowry in England since the earliest times.
Rig Veda states that cows and gifts, given by the father of the bride, accompanied the bride’s procession. Kakshivat says he became rich by the father-in-law giving him 10 chariots and maids and 1060 cows during the marriage ceremony (Rg Ved I.126). The ancient custom of kanyadan required the father to present his daughter with jewelry and clothes at the time of her marriage. Sita, Draupadi and Subhadra, women protagonists of Hindu religious epics, brought rich presents including horses, cows, jewelery, chariots, servants and maids when they proceeded to their husband’s home after marriage.
In royal families gifts used to be given to sons-in-law at the time of marriage.
Sita Draupadi and Subhadra brought rich presents including horses, cows, jewelery, chariots, servants and maids
when they proceeded to their husband’s home after marriage.2
Jewish marriage laws make it mandatory for the couple to have a written agreement called Ketubbah, which states the financial terms and conditions between the marrying parties. In the first century, Rabbi Ben Shetah enacted the wording of the law to economically protect the woman in the event of divorce or widowhood.
Hachnasat Kallah (‘Dowering the bride’) has been a permanent responsibility of the Jewish community. It was considered a special meritorious deed (mitzvah) and one of the highest precepts of Judaism. “A well known Mishna in Peah, recited daily in the morning prayers, lists Hachnasat Kallah among a select few commandments that benefit a person both in this world and the next world. The Jewish sources indicate that Hachnasat Kallah assist one in finding a spouse, being blessed with children and being saved from a life threatening illness.”
In Christian tradition, a sum of money is required to be paid when nuns enter a convent. They pay this amount as dowry when they become the brides of Christ. In some regions there is a tradition of the church collecting two percent of the total amount of dowry given at the time of wedding. The dowry amount is officially announced during the marriage ceremony. Providing dowries for poor women has been regarded as a form of charity by the wealthy. The custom of Christmas stockings originates from a legend of St.Nicholas, in which he threw gold in the stockings of three poor sisters, thus providing for their dowries.
It is clear that the custom of dowry has been prevalent in all times and cultures, in one or the other form. In modern times, the custom of dowry has declined in certain sections of the society because of the spread of education; while in some others it has assumed alarming proportions. With a variety of household gadgets flooding the market, the demand of dowry too has increased manifold. The spread of consumerist culture has brought morality to the lowest ebb and all kinds of pressures for hefty dowries are put by the groom’s family on the parents of the girl. In fact the dowry system, which started as a safeguard for the rights of women, has grown into a monster which has gobbled the lives of many innocent girls. Insatiable greed for acquiring more and more money and a false sense of social prestige is at the root of the problem.
The Gurus’ aim of creating a healthy social order could not be fulfilled with evils like dowry prevalent in the society. They hit at the root of the problem. The third Guru, who had taken upon himself to root out all the prevalent social evils, emphatically spoke against the ostentatious display of dowry, which emanated from a sense of false prestige. He understood that apart from greed, the root cause of the problem was ego, a false sense of social status which makes one insensitive to other people’s problems. He categorically stated that real dowry was not the material possessions but the inculcation of virtues, which was the permanent asset of a human being:
Give me the name of the Lord as my
wedding gift and dowry,
Give me the Lord’s name as my wedding gown, as my glory
to accomplish my works.3
He condemned the ostentatious display of dowry in strong words:
Any other dowry which the self willed offer for show is false
egism and worthless display of self.4
Ostentatious display of dowry is only a symptom of a deeper malaise which causes many more problems in the society. It puts the poor, who cannot afford to give huge dowries, under undue pressure. Corruption of morality, greed for more and more money, and a false sense of ego arising from a lack of inner strength are only some of the symptoms of this deeper malaise. A person free from the vice of greed, will never misuse the social custom of dowry to his advantage, as is being done today. In India, in spite of the enactment of the laws in favor of women, dowry deaths have become the bane of the society. There is hardly any day, when the news of a woman being burnt because of the avarice of her in-laws, does not appear in the media. On the other hand, taking advantage of the law in their favor, some cases of women exploiting the husbands and their families by falsely implicating them in dowry related cases, too have been reported. Injustice with any member of the society is detrimental to the mental health of its people. The Guru wanted a very congenial environment in the society, where all members experienced a radiance of joy which can only be there only if the law of justice prevailed. He neither spoke against the custom of dowry nor did he propagate it. He left the matter to be decided by the concerned persons according to their financial position and the circumstances of the newly married couple. His concern was to create a healthy society and ensure that no custom was negatively used so as to trigger unhealthy trends in the society.
Here, it must be kept in mind that Sri Guru Granth Sahib is the spiritual heritage of mankind. While social and cultural traditions may vary from group to group, from region to region; the spiritual message, the Ultimate Truth does not alter with the change of place, time or circumstances. The Gurus address the ultimate spiritual concerns of mankind. Anything coming in the way of the fulfillment of this mission is not acceptable to them. Since ego and greed hinder the spiritual development of man, being the root cause of many social problems; any custom emanating from a sense of ego, of false prestige and greed was strongly condemned. For the rest, guidelines have been given that while making matrimonial alliances, the emphasis should be on the virtues and not on the material possessions. Clear instructions have been given that there should be no commerce involved in the relationship between husband and wife, which according to Sikh thought is not a contract between the two individuals, but a sacred spiritual relationship, where they are two bodies but one soul; where both are expected to evolve themselves to the highest ethical and spiritual level:
They are not said to be husband and wife who merely sit together,
They alone are called husband and wife, who have but one soul and two bodies.5
Relationships based on material considerations have been condemned in Sikh thought:
Men and women are only for money and go wherever they please. 6
Sikh code of conduct strictly prohibits the overburdening of the parents of the bride at the time of marriage. The groom’s side has been instructed that the financial condition of the family of the girl should be the main consideration while making decisions regarding the marriage arrangements:
The marriage party should consist of as small a number as the girl’s people desire.
Both (the girl’s ans the boy’s) sides should greet each other singing sacred hymns from Gurbani
and then by the Sikh greeting Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji ki Fateh. 7
Deciding the number of the people accompanying the marriage party has been made the prerogative of the father of the bride. The marriage party should be greeted while reciting Gurbani. There is absolutely no precondition or even reference to the gifts to be given or exchanged. On the other hand, the instruction is that:
No Sikh should settle the match of his son or daughter
for monetary considerations.8
As per Sikh code of conduct, the engagement ceremony, prior to the wedding ceremony is not mandatory. If at all, this ceremony has to be performed, only truth, contentment and a feeling of love, and not of commerce, should prevail:
The soul bride embellished with truth, love and contentment,
her father has come to engage her with her Husband the Lord.9
Thus the Gurus stand for a humane matrimonial relationship based on a feeling of love and respect, and not on monetary considerations. The relationship between a couple, which is the rivet on which a society stands, if based on a feeling of love, contentment and truth, certainly becomes the basis of a healthy society that the Sikh Gurus aimed at creating.
1 Hannurabi’s Code of Laws, Paragraph 142, www.sacredtexts.com.
2 S.K.Ghosh, Indian Woman through Ages, Ashish Publishing House New Delhi, p.70
3 ਹਰਿ ਪ੍ਰਭ ਮੇਰੇ ਬਾਬੁਲਾ ਹਰਿ ਦੇਵਹੁ ਦਾਨੁ ਮੈ ਦਾਜੋ॥ ਹਰਿ ਕਪੜੋ ਹਰਿ ਸੋਭਾ ਦੇਵਹੁ ਜਿਤੁ ਸਵਰੈ ਮੇਰਾ ਕਾਜੋ॥ Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 78-79
4 ਹੋਰਿ ਮਨਮੁਖ ਦਾਜੁ ਜਿ ਰਖਿ ਦਿਖਾਲਹਿ ਸੁ ਕੂੜੁ ਅਹੰਕਾਰ ਕਚੁ ਪਾਜੋ॥ Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p.79
5 ਧਨ ਪਿਰੁ ਏਹਿ ਨ ਆਖੀਅਨਿ ਬਹਨਿ ਇਕਠੇ ਹੋਇ॥ ਏਕ ਜੋਤਿ ਦੁਇ ਮੂਰਤੀ ਧਨ ਪਿਰੁ ਕਹੀਐ ਸੋਇ॥ Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p.788
6 ਇਸਤਰੀ ਪੁਰਖੈ ਖਟਿਐ ਭਾਉ॥ ਭਾਵੈ ਆਵਉ ਭਾਵੈ ਜਾਉ॥ Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p.951
7 ਜਿਤਨੇ ਥੋੜੇ ਆਦਮੀ ਲੜਕੀ ਵਾਲਾ ਮੰਗਾਵੇ, ਉਤਨੇ ਨਾਲ ਲੈ ਕੇ ਲੜਕਾ ਸਹੁਰੇ ਘਰ ਜਾਵੇ, ਦੁਹੀਂ ਪਾਸੀਂ ਗੁਰਬਾਣੀ ਦੇ ਸ਼ਬਦ ਗਾਏ ਜਾਣ ਤੇ ਫਤਿਹ ਗਜਾਈ ਜਾਵੇ। Shiromini Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee, Sikh Rehat Maryada, p. 22
8 ਲੜਕੇ ਜਾਂ ਲੜਕੀ ਦਾ ਸੰਜੋਗ ਪੈਸਾ ਲੈ ਕੇ ਨਾ ਕਰੇ। Shiromini Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee, Sikh Rehat Maryada, p. 24
9 ਸਤੁ ਸੰਤੋਖ ਕਰਿ ਭਾਉ ਕੁੜਮੁ ਕੁੜਮਾਈ ਆਇਆ ਬਲਰਾਮਿ ਜੀਉ। Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p.773.