7 min read

Re-defining marriage: how India slowly changed its mind

As India sought independence a long struggle to re-define marriage was culminating. Rahil Patel tells the story of the Hindu Marriage Act and its Christian influences.

Rahil is a former Hindu monk, and author of Found By Love. He is a Tutor and Speaker at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics.

A close-up of a bride groom holding the brides hand. Her hand is henna tattooed and bears gold rings and bracelets.
Bride and Groom hold hands during a Hindu wedding.
Photo by Jayesh Jalodara on Unsplash.

During the last few months of the United Kingdom’s 200 year rule in India, the British Government in London wanted to establish its last legacy on a majority Hindu land. Britain had shaped the Indian Subcontinent not only through the establishment of democratic institutions, free press, nationwide infrastructure, a robust stock market and so on but with radical social reforms that brought well-needed equality, dignity and fairness at every level across The Raj’s 300 million citizens. This seminal legacy was the sanctity of the Christian marriage. One husband, one wife.   However, it was not the colonial administrators who delivered the legacy, but Indian campaigners, reformers and lawyers. This is their story. 

The idea of one husband, one wife  was cautiously presented to the lawyer turned activist Mohandas Gandhi in 1946 which the Mahatma turned down vehemently and bluntly told the British not to interfere in this area. The British were always careful when suggesting social and cultural change and so they  recoiled without any further pressure. But this attitude surprised many as Gandhi was significantly influenced by the Christian faith to the point where he not only believed that the Sermon on the Mount was a profound spiritual document but the greatest political document of all time.  

Heroes and husbands 

It was seen as a sign of power and status to have more than one wife in Indian society and likewise for a woman to have many husbands was a sign of strength and not submission. This wasn’t at the princely or aristocratic level alone but the merchant caste and village leaders as well. Why? It was a practice that followed in the footsteps of two powerful incarnations of God in the Hindu world. Ram and Krishna.  

There are two great epics in Hindu culture which are etched into the minds of most of the one billion Hindus across the globe.  

The first being the Ramayana scripture which was written across a span of 400 years between 200 BC and 200 AD.  In this popular story (inspired by the Iliad) the incarnation of the Supreme Brahman is Lord Rama. He incarnates as a righteous king and is married to Sita and defeats the evil king Ravana (which is the central theme of celebration for Hindus during Diwali).There are approximately 300 versions of the Ramayana and some state that this much admired king had 8,000 wives including Sita.  

The other great epic is the Mahabharata scripture which was written over a period of 800 years between 400 BC and 400 AD (which inspired the Latin poem Aeneid by Virgil). The Mahabharata contains two very important aspects of Hindu culture. The first is the Bhagvad Gita scripture within its battle riddled story (which the father of the atomic bomb J.R Oppenheimer quotes after seeing the impact of the bomb, “I am become death destroyer of the worlds...”) and the other is the most prominent and pivotal incarnation of the Supreme Brahman in the Hindu world whose name is Krishna. Krishna had 16,108 wives. Draupadi is a strong and feisty woman in the same story who has five husbands.  

The influence starts 

So where does the battle for the Christian marriage in the Indian story begin? With 19th century social reformers. 

Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar was born into an Orthodox Hindu family in Bengal (Eastern India). He was raised as a devout orthodox Hindu but was later in life influenced by the eminent organisation, Brahmo Samaj. Much of the way in which Hindus practice their faith today both individually and as a community is largely due to the influence of the Brahmo Samaj in the 18th and 19th century. It was established by another famous Bengali, Raja Ram Mohun Roy who is known today as ‘The Father of the Indian Renaissance.' Roy believed firmly in his heart that in order to transform Indian society one needs to transform Hinduism, and to transform Hinduism for the better one needs Christian doctrine and practices at the heart of the Hindu framework. He campaigned against Sati (the burning of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband) and fought for women’s rights in general. The Christian idea that all were made in the image of God (and equal) was engraved deeply into his worldview.  

Ishwar Chandra saw from Roy’s perspective the need and power in emancipating women in Indian society. He began to pushback and campaign against deeply entrenched Hindu customs which wasn’t easy. After great efforts his vigorous campaign to allow widows to remarry was signed into law (The Hindu Widow’s Remarriage Act, 1856).  

But pushing into law the Christian sanctity of monogamy was far beyond his reach.  

It was the ardent social reformer and critic of the Christian faith Keshub Chandra Sen who would later get the ball rolling in a significant way. Born in Bengal to a devout Hindu family as well. 

Keshub publicly criticised the Christian faith in his early years until he came across a book written by the French diplomat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville. Alexis had spent some time in America studying American democracy and his work, Democracy in America was published in 1835. Towards the end of the second volume Tocqueville states that the growth and strength of America’s democracy stems largely from the sanctity of the Christian marriage.  

Reading this powerful argument transformed the understanding of Christianity for Keshub Chandra Sen. It was also a popular question amongst Indian social and political reformers of the time as to why and how a tiny island  and a few thousand British civil servants managed such a vast subcontinent. “What is their spiritual gift?” was the running question and Keshub realised it was the nature of a family based on Christian beliefs. 

He followed in the footsteps of Roy and as one of the most influential thinkers of his time campaigned to introduce Christian doctrine and ideas into Hinduism. After all his painful efforts he managed to pass the Special Marriage Act in 1869 for those who were members of the reformed Hindu organisation Brahmo Samaj but failed to introduce it into law across the wider Hindu population due to immense push back from the Orthodox high caste Hindu Brahmins. 

But this idea of a Christian marriage and the strength it can bring to a society stayed very much alive in the Indian intelligentsia for years. 

A constitutional approach falters 

It was the brilliant economist, social reformer and political leader, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar who finally took one husband, one wife across the finishing line.  

Ambedkar studied at the London School of Economics (where a bust of him can still be seen in the Atrium of the Old Building). With his incredibly well-furnished mind he knew the pitfalls of Hinduism when it came to democracy. He believed they were not compatible due to the unfair and rigid caste system and so, later on, when as a lawyer, Ambedkar was assigned the crafting of the Indian constitution he ensured it was embedded with Christian principles of equality.  

It was during this time in the 1940s that Bhimrao came across the masterful work of Joseph Unwin Sex and Culture which reveals the importance of sexual restraint and its profound impact on society. Unwin’s work made an impression on Ambedkar and revealed to him the weakening hole within the Indian marriage.   

Ambedkar was in tune with the likes of Keshub Chandra Sen whilst equally unraveling the flaws of Gandhian politics and economics using his razor sharp intellect . Although he took Buddhism as his faith he introduced the Christian idea of marriage to India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1948 whilst drafting the final articles of the Indian constitution. He told Nehru that it was vital to put into law the idea of one husband and one wife. Again, the Constituent Assembly rejected the idea without a second thought. So, Nehru told Ambedkar to leave the idea for a while and get the constitution passed as it was. Then, after the new Indian government was formed they could bring the idea back to the cabinet. This battle took a very long time… 

Tenacity triumphs 

In 1952 the ruling party of the newly formed India, along with India’s first President Dr. Rajendra Prasad, tore the proposal apart once again. Nehru threatened to resign if the party did not pass the Christian idea of marriage but the cabinet called his bluff. Nehru knew that even if his party passed the law the President would not sign on it and so he gave up all hope. Ambedkar by now was furious and fed up with his friends and so he applied his brilliant mind and tenacity to writing articles in the Indian press attacking the ruling party and his friend the Prime Minister - with incredible style, substance and affect. 

Ambedkar had a significant amount of social and political clout across the aisle, and with the general public, so eventually after years of pushing, pressing and penning his arguments the Hindu Marriage Act was passed in 1955. At last, the biblical idea of one husband and one wife came into law after a battle that took over 100 years.  

Growing up in England and that in an Orthodox Hindu family I often heard my parents complain about the divorce rates in western societies. Divorce is not condoned in any Hindu scripture as per my reading over 20 years as a Hindu monk and yet the sanctity of marriage in Hindu communities in the west is still fairly strong in comparison to most other communities. It’s helpful to remember the roots of that strength.  

1 min read

How to be (un)successful

Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?
A man sits cross legged in a park with a laptop on the grass in front of him. He looks to one side.
Malte Helmhold on Unsplash.

You probably want to be a success. 

That’s OK – it’s a very reasonable thing to desire.  

The questions ‘Am I successful?’ or ‘What is success?’ are deeply significant and to ask such questions is a normal part of the human experience. The yearning for a life of purpose, as elusive as it can seem, is felt acutely by the majority of those who have ever lived – certainly by more than might admit it. (Those feelings of inadequacy you experience may be more common than you think.) And now more than ever it is understandable that you may feel you are not particularly successful, or not successful enough. We are assaulted by a combination of capitalism and consumerism, social media and cancel culture, polarised ideologies and virtue signalling, topped off by the wounds of our parents passed down – all of which can amalgamate into producing some pretty angsty, pressure-driven people. 

It’s not just you; I’m pretty sure we all have a bit of a problem with success (the word itself is so subjective), and our idea of it can often be fuelled by wounds rather than vision, romanticised projections rather than reality. Because we are all somewhat flawed, any worldly contribution we try to make can get precariously entangled with a me-fixated narcissism on a fairly regular basis.  

Most of us know that being successful is not simply about money, looks, large numbers or power. That’s just a caricature to which very few reasonable people actually subscribe, right?  

Well, sure – at least on the surface. 

My social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. 

The thing is, despite seeing through it and being repelled by it in others (we see it’s all vanity, inch-deep), something in us longs for success on these terms. But much more interesting than skimming along the surface of ‘success’ is excavating deeper into some of the core motivating beliefs we humans have about ourselves, such as mistaken pride in thinking we each control our destiny, or paranoia that tells us there’s an inherent scarcity of everything in the world. These are the swell that carry along the undercurrent of comparison – where we see the lives of others and long for a different reality for ourselves. And comparison – so often eliciting either pride or despondency – rarely ends well.  

A cursory glance through the wisdom of online articles on the matter tells us millennials typically understand that material wealth isn’t the marker of success – there are enough old, sad, rich people to show that. Instead, success has now become synonymous with living a life that others want. Chase an experience. Go adventure. Wanderlust. #yolo. To succeed in life is to publicly consume as many unique experiences as you can during your short time on earth.  

I don’t know about you, but my social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. Success for today’s generation would seem to look a lot less like the overweight suit-clad city trader selling their soul to the system, making shedloads of cash to buy a slice of suburban real estate with a Porsche in the drive, and more like the lithe and mindful global citizen doing ‘life on my terms’. Think coastal living, yoga on a stand-up paddleboard in the morning, slaying the emails in your industrial co-working space, eating a superfood lunch, nailing a couple of zoom calls early evening before smashing some gua bao and margaritas with ‘your peeps’ at the latest pop-up restaurant before taking an Uber home. #squadgoals  

There’s no escaping the fact that technology has shrunk the world and as James Mumford notes, ‘global capitalism has brought so many different ways of life closer to us than ever before. We can see vividly a greater number of people who we want to be.’ This can bring up hidden feelings we thought we’d buried long ago.  

I often feel unfulfilled. Sometimes completely lost. For years I haven’t been able to admit that. Until fairly recently I would find myself looking at others and thinking: ‘Don’t they ever struggle with life’s big questions? Don’t they ever want to give up? Surely, I can’t be the only one sinking under the weight of comparison?’ Far from freeing me from my broken sense of self, the version of faith I was trying to live by was exacerbating the core wound I recognised in myself. That wound was a sense of feeling a failure, unsuccessful. And like an unwelcome parasite, it fed on comparison to others.  

Read any random couple of articles on ‘successful’ people talking about how ‘successful’ they are, and a lot of what’s conveyed is a profoundly angsty relationship with time: ‘You only have one shot at life’; ‘I don’t want to waste my time on earth’; ‘You can never get it back.’  

It’s as though we have an inherent recognition – and for some, dread – of the physical limits placed on us by virtue of being mortal and human. But what if unencumbered productivity, unceasing activity and unrelenting progress – however that is defined – are signs less of success than of self-centred insecurity? Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?  

It’s as if we have, left unchecked, an insatiable appetite for accomplishment. It’s not hard to see where this comes from. Paul Kingsnorth comments that: “Modern economies thrive by encouraging ever-increasing consumption of harmful junk, and our hyper-liberal culture encourages us to satiate any and all of our appetites in our pursuit of happiness. If that pursuit turns out to make us unhappy instead – well, that’s probably just because some limits remain un-busted.” He goes on to suggest that this is a fundamentally spiritual problem, because ‘a crisis of limits is a crisis of culture, and a crisis of culture is a crisis of spirit.’ 

So far so depressing? 

It needn’t be. 

Fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. 

Despite my continued struggle with all of the above, (neatly summarised by the inner critic’s voice asking me ‘what have you got to show for your life?’), I am beginning to learn that ‘life in its fullness’ (as Jesus once described what he came to offer) is found elsewhere. So, what does this look like and how do we successfully access this fullness of life? This quote can come across – and I’ve heard it used as such – like a marketing slogan, dangling a golden carrot in front of sad or vulnerable people to recruit them into church. Presumably that wasn’t what Jesus had in mind.  

Now there’s no denying the fact that Jesus was one of the most influential people who ever lived. Arguably THE most influential. Generally, even those who don’t follow him recognize that what he taught was pretty timeless. (Also evidenced by the 2.6 billion people today who are happy to be called Christian.) All of this suggests he had some fairly wise takes on how to live life well, and that his perspectives have stood the test of time. So, when he is recorded as teaching about how to discover what he described as ‘life in its fullness’, the chances are there is something valuable and insightful for those of us searching for success.  

The thing is, in this particular speech, Jesus conceptualized ‘life in its fullness’ as a shepherd who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’. Sure, he was talking about himself, but he was also talking more broadly about the human experience. Jesus’ point is that fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. This flies in the face of much conventional ‘self-help’ wisdom, but it would seem you cannot find true abundance any other way.  

We might well think: ‘Well hang on a minute, Jesus claimed to die for the sins of humanity – we can’t all do that!’ Absolutely right, and please don’t try. But in dying and raising to life again, Jesus foreshadowed the journey of surrender and rebirth that each person who chooses true success must go through. As C. S. Lewis said: ‘Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.’ This new life of serving others above ourselves – where we seek to align our desires, loves and motivations, our use of time and energy, words and actions with those of Jesus – comes to resemble the promise of life in its fullness. Discovering that would seem fairly successful wouldn’t it? 


How to be (UnSuccessful) is published by SPCK.