Due to the humungous amounts of snowfall it was a snow day yesterday! So I was trying to get back to my goal of reading a couple of pages of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji daily. I read this:
O my father, give me the Name of the Lord God as my wedding gift and dowry
Give me the Lord as my wedding gown, and the Lord as my glory, to accomplish my works (In Punjabi is further translated as instead of wedding jewellery, give me the wealth of Naam and with that my wedding will look beautiful)
Through devotional worship to the Lord, this ceremony is made blissful and beautiful; the Guru, the True Guru, has given this gift (dowry).
Across the continents, and throughout the Universe, the Lord’s Glory is pervading. This gift (dowry) is not diminished by being diffused among all (There is no other dowry that can compare to this).
Any other dowry, which the self-willed manmukhs offer for show, is only false egotism and a worthless display.
O my father, please give me the Name of the Lord God as my wedding gift and dowry. (Ang 79)
This is the first time I found out that dowry is directly mentioned in the Guru Granth Sahib Ji. Secondly, Guru Ji tells us what a true gift is. It made me really curious about the history of dowry, so I’ll share what I learned below.
Beginnings of Dowry
Kaminsky and Long write in the book India Today that dowry started around 1000 BCE in India (1). During this time both families gifted each other, however from 4th century BCE on, women received a stridhana (fixed amount of gifts), and sulka (flexible) from the groom’s family (1). That way if the marriage couldn’t happen, she still kept the gifts, and if she died they went to both her children, and her parents (1). Sometime between 4th BCE and 2nd century CE, there was a change due to Hindu texts promoting a hierarchal structure of castes in addition to taking away women’s inheritance, religious rights, and ability to be divorced (1). Men no longer had to give gifts, and women were married young with no education or vocational training (1). Due to this inequality, women were to be given gifts from her family to support her in her new home (1). The dowry also served other functions: helping a daughter of lower caste to move up socially, helping the groom’s family if they were poor, and helping his family pay for own daughter’s weddings (2). Scholars have shown that this was voluntary and there was no violence or punishments as harming a child-bearing woman would be considered a great crime (2). When the shift became towards benefitting the groom and no longer the bride, it was reasoned that this was to ensure she was treated well, and to “make up” for the fact that the groom’s family would financially support her since she didn’t work outside the home (2,3). Over time this system became more and more corrupted towards the harm of women and the financial benefit of the groom’s family.
In 1961, India passed the Dowry Prohibition act banning dowries given from either the married couple or parents of the married couple to each other, but this still allowed for “gifts” (2). Further legislation on this matter included the 1984 the Dowry Prohibition Amendment Act, Criminal Law Act (1983), and the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (2005) (2). Despite the legislation, Indian police reports indicate that 8618 female homicides and 3239 suicides were related to dowry in 2011 alone (2). The Asian Women’s Human Rights council estimates 25,000 deaths in India by suicide/homicide of women aged 15-34 annually, due to under-reporting and those dowry deaths that were mislabeled as “accidents” (2). Banerjee writes, “The dowry system is a cultural practice that perpetuates the oppression, torture, and murder of women” (2). Not only is the price of dowries increasing (some studies reporting up to $130,000 US), but the violence is also on the rise as murders are happening when women’s dowries are deemed to be too low (2,4). Banerjee writes “Research points to a direct relationship between the practice of dowry and the harassment, maltreatment, poor mental health, and homicides of women in India. When dowry demands made by the groom’s family are considered unsatisfactory, the brides’ journey into a world of daily humiliation, harassment, and verbal and/or physical abuse begins, often ending in murder or suicide” (2). The most common methods of murder are burning (often hidden as an accident), then drowning, and poisoning (2). The expenses drive many bridal families into poverty and thus dowry has also been linked to female infanticide and abortions because parents know they will not be able to afford the marriages (4).
Anderson studied modernization of Europe, which also used to have a dowry system and concluded that because European social status is about wealth and not about hereditary caste, dowry ended with modernization (4). In contrast in India despite modernization, caste is still predominant determinant of social status, which is supporting the propagation of the dowry system (4). The situation is worsening because of something called “marriage squeeze.” (3). In Indian culture, women from lower status usually marry “higher status” men in the same caste so the higher the status of a woman, the less men available (3). Now there is decreased fertility in the higher status families so fewer men means more competition and men making decisions based off of who will give them the most financial gain (3). Also I thought since there are less girls being born eventually it would catch up, Banerjee suggests this may actually open up the door for exploitation of females by kidnapping and being sold (2).
This situation is also due to the social circumstances in which women live, as described by Bloch. For example, culturally, women are not allowed to refuse to marry, most weddings are arranged, they are not allowed to divorce to escape abuse, they are expected to move in with their husbands (which isolates them from their families), they aren’t allowed to move back with their parents, they have no access to household income, and they have no skills or resources to survive on their own (5). She states this creates a “hostage” situation for the young bride (5). Can you imagine how trapped a person would feel in that situation? They are all culturally imposed norms, but very powerful.
Blotch suggested that it is important to create options for women such as later marriage, possibility of non-marriage and divorce, and jobs, which would decrease the incidence of dowry (5). Ultimately need to change the way we see women in society, and increase their power and autonomy (5). This means valuing the life of a female child from birth. Banerjee comments that although this is very complex and there is no easy solution (despite many people advocating for change there doesn’t appear to be much changing), she suggested accurate reporting by police, acceptance of choice-based marriage and divorce as options, more convictions, tougher legislation, and bystander legislation making it mandatory to report dowry-related violence (or be considered a co-conspirator) (2). In terms of perpetuating caste, this too needs to stop and is done among Punjabis as “malwa, majha and doaba.” When we break down the systems on which dowry violence survives- the devaluing of females and the propagation of caste systems, then we can stop it.
Obviously when we no longer value social status, dowry will not be an issue. In Canada I see a lot of families burning through their savings spending large amounts of money on weddings from both sides (bride and groom), in order to fulfill their ego and show others what a big party they can hold. I think this is really wasteful as this is money that either could be donated to a better cause, or be invested into the couple’s future life together like getting a house or saving for a child. On top of that, people here practice dowry too when they go to India to get married. This really needs to be changed.
Going back to what the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji tells us, we learn that Naam should be our wedding gift, as nothing else compares to this gift. “Any other dowry, which the self-willed manmukhs offer for show, is only false egotism and a worthless display.” So let us learn from this. Clearly, Guru Ji has instructed us to stop the practice of dowry as it is seen today. Not only is it a tool of violence against women, it is also just serving to feed ego. Let us follow the path of liv to Waheguru and not the path of dhaat to maya!
1 Kaminsky, A. and Long, R. (2011). India today. Santa Barbara, Calif [u.a.]: ABC-CLIO.
2 Banerjee, P. (2013). Dowry in 21st-Century India. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 15(1), pp.34-40.
3 Srinivasan, P. and Lee, G. (2004). The dowry system in Northern India: Women's attitudes and social change. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66(5), pp.1108-1117.
4 Anderson, S. (2003). Why Dowry Payments Declined with Modernization in Europe but Are Rising in India. Journal of Political Economy, 111(2), pp.269-310.
5 Bloch, F. and Rao, V. (2002). Terror as a Bargaining Instrument: A Case Study of Dowry Violence in Rural India. American Economic Review, 92(4), pp.1029-1043.