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In many religions, a practice/custom or tradition starts with a noble intention, mainly due to prevalent social needs. But with time it is corrupted, or digresses or even becomes obsolete.

With that premise, my questions are:

  1. What is the origin of the dowry system in the Sanatana Dharma?

  2. Is there any official literature on this?

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    You should read the book "Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of a Cultural Crime"(amzn.com/0195150724). The author argues that dowry system can be traced to British rule in India and not to Hindu or Indian culture.
    – Bharat
    Jul 18, 2014 at 0:16

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I'm trying to explain the most probable interpretation of the inception of the dowry system in ancient India particularly in Hinduism. These are solely my views and I may in fact be wrong.

  • The (voluntary) gifts given by the bride's parents were typically the items that were necessary to start off a new family life. Examples of such items include new bed, utensils etc.

  • Since the bride goes to a new home, she carries with her some of her family possessions such as ornaments (for her own personal use) etc. I don't see any plausible reason for the bride's father to keep these ornaments in his own house.

  • In cases where the groom's family is economically less stable than the bride's family, any monetary gift given as dowry could potentially give the necessary impetus to the groom to start off a new prospective career, e.g. initial investment for a new business, which eventually ensures nothing but a prosperous life for the new family and I don't see any wrong in it.

  • The dowry can be looked upon in a positive light in the sense that it can act as a shield to the new bride against the male dominated social system. If the bride's father pays a reasonable amount of money to the groom's family, their attitude towards the new bride could potentially be more of submissive (may be sub-consciously) rather than aggressive. This in turn also helps the bride to gradually become an important member of her new home.

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  • So actually when did it start? That was the question here brother. Not what is dowry. Jul 18, 2014 at 1:34
  • ...and further more. This is truly fake answer. I have seen tons of girls being tortured even after bringing huge amount of dowry! Male-dominancy is other name of being uneducated. Well I think its time for a new post! somehow, dowry is a curse which we people are having right now. -_- Jul 18, 2014 at 1:36
  • I think Stack Exchange moderator would have to come up and intervene to make me silent here. Dowry does not assure a better future for a girl. Education does. Because this answer starts a debate! over and out -_- Jul 18, 2014 at 1:39
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    +1 @AfzaalAhmadZeeshan, your points are well taken but I think Debasis is trying to point out the common sense origins for the practice. The fact that people have abused and continue to abuse the system shows that, once again, because people are power-hungry, greedy, close-minded, and corrupt, they are able to take something which was meant for the good of the newly formed family and turn it into something disgusting. Jul 18, 2014 at 3:56
  • I never supported dowry system myself... i know it's become a social curse over the time due to its misuse... i wanted to find a plausible justification to its inception... sorry to hurt anybody's feelings...
    – Debasis
    Jul 18, 2014 at 10:13
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While Dowry historically has been known in Indian society, transactional marriage is frowned upon or illegal.

The 8 forms of marriage are in general, listed here in Manu both legal and illegal. https://www.wisdomlib.org/hinduism/book/manusmriti-with-the-commentary-of-medhatithi/d/doc199792.html

The asura form of Marriage is most similar to Dowry and can be found here: https://www.wisdomlib.org/hinduism/book/manusmriti-with-the-commentary-of-medhatithi/d/doc199806.html Look at the commentary as well.

Here the asura form is legal for Vaishyas and Shudras likely being commoners and society and deep in the economics of the kingdom: https://www.wisdomlib.org/hinduism/book/manusmriti-with-the-commentary-of-medhatithi/d/doc199797.html

Here, however, it exclaims such as illegal or highly disdainful: https://www.wisdomlib.org/hinduism/book/manusmriti-with-the-commentary-of-medhatithi/d/doc199799.html

Now we move on to Mahabharata Anusasanika Parva regarding marriage: https://www.wisdomlib.org/hinduism/book/the-mahabharata-mohan/d/doc826370.html "Such sons, again, become full of malice, unrighteous in conduct, the misappropriators of other people’s wealth, and endued with deceit and cunning. Having sprung from that sinful form of marriage called Asura, the issue becomes wicked in conduct. Persons acquainted with the histories of olden times, conversant with duties, devoted to the scriptures and firm in maintaining the restraints therein laid down, recite in this connection some metrical lines sung in days of yore by Yama. Even this is what Yama had sung. That man who acquires wealth by selling his own son, or who bestows his daughter after accepting a dower for his own livelihood, has to sink in seven terrible hells one after another, known by the name of Kalasutra. There that wretch has to feed upon sweat and urine and stools during the whole time. In that form of marriage which is called Arsha, the person who weds has to give a bull and a cow and the father of the maiden accepts the gift. Some characterise this gift as a dowry (or price), while some are of opinion that it should not be regarded in that light. The true opinion, however, is that a gift for such a purpose, be it of small value or large, should, O king, be regarded as dowry or price, and the bestowal of the daughter under such circumstances should be viewed as a sale. Notwithstanding the fact of its having been practised by a few persons it can never be taken as the eternal usage. Other forms of marriage are seen, practised by men, such as marrying girls after abducting them by force from amidst their kinsmen. Those persons who have sexual intercourse with a maiden, after reducing her to subjection by force, are regarded as perpetrators of sin."

Here Bhishma infact seems to imply Arsha is equivilent to Asura forms of marriage, although this translation of Mbh isn't very good.

To sum up all forms of marriage and their morality and legality as per scriptures is debatable and some thought the very practise of accepting gifts (Arsha marriage) is sinful. While others, saw such as simply a social obligation of gift giving and not a sale or transaction and it can be very large or small.

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  • Asura form of marriage is not considered good.
    – Singh S1
    Mar 10 at 3:28
  • @YuvrajSingh indeed I am speaking of Arsha, if I stated Asura is good anywhere in my answer I likely meant Arsha, please feel free to edit it if it is mistakingly done so.
    – Haridasa
    Mar 10 at 3:39

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