Murari Sharma: Marriage breaks your back

Traditionally, marriages were meant to bring two persons in a communion for life and two families together in a social bond at great cost in Hindu society. But now, their purpose is being unmoored, their longevity has become uncertain, and their expenditure have become extremely taxing for the people with limited means. So Hindu marriage needs urgent reform.

Increasingly, marriage has been losing its traditional purpose and meaning. Now procreation as the ultimate purpose of marriage is fast losing ground. Heterosexual marriages without the intent of producing children have become common. Besides, homosexual marriages that disallow procreation have been gaining legal recognition in advanced societies and elsewhere.

Marriages now last much shorter than before. In some advanced societies, more than 50 percent marriages end in divorce within the first five years. This has been possible because of the increasing financial independence of women and acceptance of multiple marriages and multiple sexual alliances in our time.

However, while the marriages are losing ground and tenacity, marriage costs have sky-rocketed. Based on my personal experience, a typical middle class Hindu marriage in Nepal ends up with a bill of 1.5 million rupees for the groom’s side and 2.0 million rupees for the bride’s side. In India, these costs are much higher because of the deeply entrenched dowry system. Every year, many young and newly married women lose their life in dowry-related suicides and murders.

Hence the need for reform in Hindu marriage.

Not that no effort has been made to reform Hindu marriage in Nepal. Nepal has a long history of reforming such marriage. For instance, Prime Minister Jang Bahadur Rana removed the provision of chopping off the head of the man with whom one’s wife eloped and made several other reforms in the Muluki Ain, or civil code. Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher Rana abolished the sati system, or the self-immolation by a widow in the funeral pyre of her dead husband.

King Mahendra introduced the minimum marriageable age for boys and girls and provided some protection of girls and widows by revising the Muluki Ain. King Birendra enacted through the National Panchayat the Social Practices (Reform) Act in 1976. The Act prescribed several measures to cut the cost of marriage on the bride side as well as groom side, imposing restrictions on the number of invitees, the amount of gifts and dowry, and flashy displays during weddings, and made breaching these provisions punishable criminal acts.

While the execution of the Act was already sporadic under the Panchayat System, the Act fell by the wayside when multiparty democracy arrived in Nepal for the second time in 1990. Except when the administration has nothing else to do, it tends to pay attention to the implementation of this Act. So, the law is observed more in breach than in abidance. Meanwhile, the increasing cost of weddings and post-wedding gift obligations continue to crush the poor and the middle class.

There is no magic bullet to tackle the matter other than educating people and enforcing the Social Practices (Reform) Act with greater rigor by making the adjustments necessitated by the change in time and social circumstances. We live in more exhibitionist times and more permissive social context now. It evidently means the education will have to be broader and more vigorous and punishment for the infringement of the legal provisions more severe to thwart, and eventually reverse, these developments.

Is it going to happen? I doubt that the present crop of Nepali political leadership, which is largely corrupt and broadly unaccountable, will do much about it other than making the right statements to win public support. So Nepal’s lower and middle class may have to continue bearing the unsustainable cost of Hindu weddings in a situation when the purpose and longevity of marriage are increasingly in doubt. That indeed is a pity.