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Hinduism And The Family

The Hindu view of caste, ashramas, and family are inseparable—every person is born into a family belonging to a particular caste, and passes through the four stages of life by practicing dharma appropriate to each stage of life.

Among the four ashramas, the second stage of the married householder is central because it births and sustains the three other ashramas. When a man marries, he pays the three debts he owes to the ancestors, the gods, and his teacher (guru). To the ancestors, a married man pays his debt by having children, especially a male child, to continue the family lineage. Since the surname of the average Hindu is usually the family name, when a son is born the family name continues. This is not the case with daughters, who marry into another family and take up the surname of their husbands. Continuing the family lineage and its name is crucial because the memories and integrity of the ancestors are kept alive through these. The name (specifically surname) of a family is often synonymous with integrity and respect. Maintaining family integrity is necessary because it reflects the extent to which family members are faithful to their dharma. When a son marries a woman from a reputable family, earns a living through a just and honest vocation, and provides for his family, he honors the ancestors. Furthermore, because dharma is inclusive of religious traditions and practices relating to moksha, when a man imparts family dharma to his children, he enables their salvation and that of generations to come.

As a householder, a man pays back debts owed to the gods, the providers of prosperity and comfort, by offering appropriate sacrifices and prayers to them. Giving alms to the poor and religious mendicants, and occasionally feeding Brahmins and financially remunerating them for their services, are also deemed as acts symbolizing gratitude to the gods for material benefits enjoyed by a family. A man pays back debts owed to his guru by transmitting knowledge and wisdom received from the guru to his children. However, in the cities and towns of India, and in some villages, the average child rarely studies under a guru. In these contexts, a Western school system is the common mode of education. Furthermore, girls are equal recipients of education in cities and major towns. Urban Indian women who receive a Western form of education hold professional jobs just like their Western counterparts. Many of these women also contribute substantially to household income and have an equal voice in family decisions.

For Hindus, a family is larger than the nuclear family; family includes the extended family— maternal and paternal grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. In India, especially in towns and villages still untouched by a free-market economic structure and modern culture that dominates the cities, many people are born into a joint family system. A joint family basically comprises paternal parents, their sons, daughters-in-law, unmarried daughters, and grandchildren. Here, the oldest male is the head of the entire household. Respect for a family member is based on age because the older a person, the wiser he or she is about family dharma. The older men make the financial decisions, and the older women are often informally consulted. In instances where a joint family does not exist, older members as still consulted before important decisions are made, especially in relation to marriage. Among Hindus, the family is the ideal environment through which Hindu dharma is passed from one generation to another—a child begins learning about religious traditions, epic stories, ethics, norms, and values, especially by the example set by family members.

When a person marries in the context of a Hindu family, he or she may literally wed an individual, but on a broader level a person marries into a family. Because a family is the embodiment of dharma, a prospective bride is considered a candidate only when the traditions, practices, and economic status of her family match that of the prospective bridegroom's family. Most Hindu marriages are arranged—relatives and friends suggest the name and family of prospective brides or bridegrooms. Before a family considers a person as a candidate for their son or daughter, the family Brahmin is consulted to examine the horoscopes of the two individuals concerned, and to suggest whether there is a possible match. In a rural setting, after the approval of the family Brahmin, the decision regarding marriage is almost always made by the parents and the extended family of the people involved. In this context, very rarely are the prospective bride or groom's opinions considered. If this process does not result in a wedding, the family search for a bride and bridegroom continues until two families agree that their son and daughter would make a good couple. Among middle class families in Indian cities, depending on the level of conservatism, the man and woman may be allowed to meet alone on one or a number of occasions before a marriage decision is made. Since the 1990s, with the increase of the influence of Western culture, many young men and women in major Indian cities find a prospective bride or bridegroom through the process of a friendship or dating, and then inform their parents of their mutual attraction. However, in the final decision, the families of the man and woman are definitely involved. Unlike in the West, a man and a woman do not get engaged and then inform their families of the "good news."

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsHinduism - Basic Beliefs Of Hindus, Caste System, Hinduism And The Family, Household Religious Practice, Major Hindu Family Rituals