We are absolutely wrong, if we still consider the groom’s family as the draconian entity demanding dowry from the bride’s. In a shocking turn of events, girls (Christians included) are demanding property, jewels, cash and automobiles for their marriage (dowry) from their parents.1
Why do girls demand dowry from their parents? Have we lost the battle to abolish dowry? Alternatively, do we need to rethink the process of dowry payment and examine if there is a realistic possibility to redeem dowry from its evil to an unsullied and acceptable form?
Traditionally, dowry is the “Money, property, or material goods that a bride's family gives to the bridegroom or his family at the time of the wedding. In many cultures, the dowry not only helps to cement the relationship between the bride's and groom's families but also serves to reinforce traditional family roles and gender roles.”2
Dowry is a legal abomination in India, “Payment of dowry is now prohibited under the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961 in Indian civil law and subsequently by Sections 304B and 498a of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Despite anti-dowry laws in India, it is still a common illegal practice. Other laws attempting to address the problem include the Dowry and Bridal Gifts Restrictions Rules, 1976 and the Dowry Prohibition (Maintenance of Lists of Presents to the Bride and Bridegroom) Rules, 1985, which are intended to document gifts and provide complainants with stronger evidence in the event that prosecution for crimes against the bride occurs later.”3
Dowry transcends religion. Payment of dowry is practiced by people from all religions - Christians, Muslims, Hindus included. When we discuss the theme of dowry from a Christian perspective, we often find genuine and well meaning Christians opposing dowry. This is an acceptable response for the dowry system has the innate potency to be evil.
The challenge ahead of us is to examine whether this system can be redeemed or not. In other words, is there anything positive about the dowry system, and if so, can we redeem dowry from the clutches of evil to a more beneficial form?
Dowry system is widespread in Asian countries that include the Arab world. In the Arab culture, the groom offers dowry to the bride, whereas in the Asian cultures, the bride offers dowry to the groom.
In its most evil form, the dowry system transforms marriages into a business of extortion and demeans the value of women so much so that women are victims of unbridled violence.
Dowry was a prevalent exercise in the Old Testament period. Genesis 29 records the narrative of Jacob, being in love with Rachel, offered to work seven years for Rachel’s father Laban, in exchange for her hand in marriage, “Now Jacob loved Rachel, so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than to give her to another man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her.” (Genesis 29: 18-20, NASB).
The Bible provides other references for dowry from a neutral perspective. This is not to say that the Bible endorses payment of dowry with a further implication that the Bible endorses evil caused by dowry.
Understanding Parents’ Psyche
For a moment, discard all negative aspersions that enfold the dowry system.
Parents who offer their daughter in marriage would necessarily and voluntarily love to give good gifts to their daughter depending on their affordability. This is to ensure that their daughter lives a comfortable married life.
But giving of good gifts to their daughter is strictly predicated on parents’ affordability. (There is no need whatsoever for a parent to incur debts that they cannot pay off to give good gifts to their children during their marriage.)
Parents giving their sons in marriage would give good gifts to their son. There need not be any differentiation built into the dowry system on the basis of gender. In other words, parents can give good gifts to both their sons and daughters depending on the need, affordability, but without any partiality. To reiterate, any well meaning parent would love to offer these gifts out of love and their own volition.
What kind of a parent would not pave way for their children to live a good life? It would take a very evil parent to horde wealth and not give gifts or share their wealth with their children. It is their children who would, or shall we say, should, enjoy the good benefits of the parents’ labor.
In fact, if children would inherit parent’s wealth, then what prevents parents from giving their children good gifts? So any well meaning parent would love to give their children all the good gifts within their means during and after their children’s marriage.
Dowry’s Biblical Foundation
If we are to consider redeeming dowry from the clutches of evil, we should understand the driving force behind this evil.
Wealth is at the core of dowry. Very often, we are slaves to money. We are also often slaves to the comfort that wealth offers.
So wealth should be relegated to its proper place with respect to God. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that wealth is antagonistic to God, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6: 24b, NASB). The Bible also teaches that we are to strive for God than for wealth (Matthew 6:33; Cf. Matthew 4:4).
Therefore, when dowry is being considered, both parties (bride and groom) ought only to consider dowry from a godly perspective. In other words, dowry is not about wealth but about God.
Dowry Predicated On Love
God mandates parents to love their children. Parents are to love their children impartially and equally. So giving of good gifts during marriage a.k.a. dowry is an entailment of parents’ love for their children.
If there is more than one child in a household, then parents’ love for their children ought to be impartial (the girl is to be equally loved as the boy or the vice versa and if there are two or more boys or girls in the family, the parents should love them equally.). When either of the children (boy or girl) is being given in marriage, the parents are free to do their best according to their affordability and to their children’s welfare.
In other words, nothing can impede parents’ love for their children that entails giving of good gifts to their children for their marriage. Alternatively, parents cannot be held guilty, if they are genuinely unable to provide for their children’s marriage (owing to poverty).
However, demand of dowry in any form and violence of any kind on behalf of dowry (non-payment) is an abomination in God’s sight.
Absolute Condemnation Of Dowry Incompatible With The Bible
The term “absolute” is used (in this context) in the sense of “complete” or “outright.” Churches or pastors cannot condemn dowry totally. In other words, the Bible provides a means to offer dowry but without any evil or sin defiling it.
But due cognizance is offered to the evil prevalent in the dowry system. Hence there is no endorsement of evil within the dowry system.
This also goes without saying that churches and pastors cannot univocally condemn dowry as if there is no provision whatsoever for the parent to give good gifts to their children for their marriage.
An absolute or total condemnation of dowry, devoid of any latitude for parents to exhibit their love for their children during their marriage through giving of good gifts, is equivalent to condemning parents’ love for their children. Churches and pastors should not take this course of action. Instead proper biblical teaching about dowry is the need of the hour.
We find security in God and not in wealth. It is God who makes us wealthy. We could be wealthy now, but if catastrophe were to assault us, we could lose all our wealth in a moment. But if we are with God and if we remain in Christ, nothing can separate us from God. God is everlasting; wealth is fleeting. So we need to train ourselves and our children to focus on God and not on money. Payment of dowry cannot offer us security, only God can.
Christians who truly find their security in God would never ever demand dowry. Christians, who truly love God, will love their children and offer them good gifts during their marriage. There is nothing inappropriate or sinful when parents offer good gifts to their children.
May God rule us. May we not be ruled by greed or love for money.
1Vijay TV’s TalkShow, Neeya Naana, aired on 19th March 2017, entitled “Mother Where’s My Dowry?”