Family Structure in Sanatana Dharma (सनातनीय कुटुम्बव्यवस्था)

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The family is the basic unit of society, the backbone of our social structure. It represents both an association as well as an institution. Every person is born in the family and it is from this association he learns language, behavioral pattern and social norms. He is also dependent on this association for education and food. A family is a universal group, it exists in tribal, rural, and urban communities among the followers of all religions across cultures.[1] Protection and furthering the development of a society are two important things that are dependent on the family. Undivided families were the backbone of Bharatiya lifestyle until the recent centuries. Parivar or family was given paramount importance to Gotras. Gotra (गोत्रम्) means a family or a group of families who are descendants of important ancestors who were the founders of the family. This important factor is highly respected and followed even to the present day. It was rarely seen in other civilizations of ancient times.

We shall discuss about the various aspects of family with Bharatiya perspectives, such as their associations, functionality, the continuity of the family, importance of vivaha samskara, and modern outlook in this article.

परिचयः॥ Introduction

Human nature is defined as the inevitability of having to breathe, eat and drink, sleep, procreate, eliminate waste matter. While some of these functions, are performed individually, others cannot be so performed until humans organize themselves into cooperative groups. The groups that come into existence have the above reasons as a cause and the binding forces include several simple and complex principles of integration. Most obvious is the relationship between different members of a family based on marriage and on descent. Primarily, relationship is of three-fold nature, that between

  • husband and wife
  • parents and children
  • siblings (children of same parents)

Bharatadesha referred to as India, is characterized by certain unique geographical features such as the isolation afforded by the northern Himalayan mountain ranges, the southern peninsula, the tropical heat and rainfall and presence of large tracts of alluvial plains in the north. On the historical front it is the seat of highly developed civilization, called Indus Valley civilization. Many social-anthropologists opine that both the geographical and historical features have a direct or indirect bearing on shaping the Indian society.[1] The typical social features of the Indian society, involve the following factors

  • Ashrama dharmas
  • Varna vyavastha
  • Gotras or lineages
  • traditional joint families
  • cultural aspects

In spite of the universal nature of the family one can see vast differences in its structure in different societies. In tribal and agrarian societies people of several generations live together. Such families are called "undivided families". These societies have large and joint families. However, in the modern industrial society the family is limited to husband, wife and their children. Sociologists call it a "nuclear family".

The family is composed of a number of members living together in a home. They have definite purposes in living together. Thus a family is an associated group of people governed by certain rules and procedures. In this sense the family is an institution.

In India, the gotra system has greatly contributed to the evolution of family structure across various cultural groups in India. Vivaha samskara is based on the gotra system, thus directly playing a role in the family structure. Indian society has been unique in world history because of its value system. The value system embedded in the dharmic lifestyle has shaped the social behavior of a person as well as the social institutions. The traditional value system was laid down by the ancient Indian seers, and they include the knowledge and actions based on concepts such as karma, punarjanma, purusharthas, varnas, ashrama, and samskaras.

कुटुम्बस्योद्गमः॥ Origin of Family

Much sociological and anthropological research has gone into examining the historical origins of the family. In the late 19th century, sociologists started investigation about the Hindu families. Western researchers like J. F. Mc Lennan (1827-1881), Lewis Morgan (1818 - 81), Westermarck He and Briffault propounded their theories about the origins of the family. For example, Morgan concluded that the family was unknown among the simplest and the rudest of peoples. The earliest form of social groupings and primitive society was formed of free sexual relationships, and ignorance of the role of paternity. Westermarck denies Morgan's scheme and concludes that the origin of family was the outcome of male possessiveness and jealousy, and sense of property. While a few such theories have been propounded, many later sociologists regarded the relative futility and uselessness of such historical approach. Data collected by conscientious investigators from all parts of the globe, at all levels of culture, have borne evidence to the existence of the family structure in communities.[1]

Australian aborigines and the even more primitive Andaman Islanders, do have the family as a vital and socially significant grouping. Within the subcontinent of India, the most backward, materially and socially, of tribes like the Kadar, the Paniyan, the Malapantaram, the Chenchu, the Birhor and so on do have the familial organization.[1]

The family is based on simple and obvious facts. It involves the recognition of just those who are closely related to one’s self through constant physical contiguity, physical cooperation, emotional bonds, and blood ties. Many sociologists consider that the family must have always existed, coevolving with the human culture.[1]

Aspects about origin of family are always unclear and not definite, just like when we search for origin of a river above the surface we are unaware of any underground streams which feed the river. Such matters are always shrouded in the sands of time and social scientists can only hypothesize based on few evidences. Origins of hindu family have been mentioned in a few texts of Bharatiya samskuti.[2]

One of the earliest hypothesis was that relationships between man and woman did not have any definite rules and free sexual interactions were led by promiscuity, free marriages (without any social rule basis) and hetaerism (general and temporary continued sexual relations out of wedlock) and evolved to group marriages, polygamy and communal marriages. Later a more rule based marriage system evolved in India. In Mahabharata, Anushasana parva, and Karna parva we find descriptions and discussions about such relationships and the consequent laws that have been implemented. However, we do not find references to the above hypothesis in Vaidik Sahitya which is earlier than Mahabharata. It should be emphasized that mantras related to marriage in the Atharvaveda (14.1.18) stressed on the following aspects about the relationship between a man and his wife [2]

- the marriage ties the bride to her husband's family after leaving the father's house

- the wife lives with her husband in his house after marriage (soubhagyavati)

- the wife along with the husband participates in maintaining a home and raises a family (she becomes a putravati)

Rigveda (10.85.42) also states that the married couple stay in grhastha ashrama without ever separating from each other and enjoy all comforts with a long life.

All these blessings would be worthless if the promiscuity was the basis of a relationship between man and women. Atharvaveda (14.1.52) further states that during marriage when the groom holds the hand of the bride and states that she should live a long life (100 years) together with him. Such wish of staying together would be futile in the first place when conjugal relationships with many partners was the basis of a relationship. It should be noted that nowhere in the Brahmana, Dharmasutras and smrtigranthas, uninhibited conjugal relationship between man and woman were advocated or even described as a basis for the origin of a family. In such contradictory instances from Mahabharata and Vedas, Vedic injunctions are considered as pramana for origin of hindu families.[2]

कुटुम्बस्य परिभाषा॥ Definition of Family

Modern Perspective

A number of modern sociologists and social scientists have defined the family in a number of ways. Many opine that the family is a definite and long-term group defined by the conjugal relationships that reproduce and bring up children. A family may include other blood-relations also but it is mainly formed by living together of man, woman and their children. The unit formed by their living together is called family. When people of many generations and relatives can also live together in a family. The unit that is thus formed is called ‘dynasty’ by Ogburn and Nimkoff. They distinguished between family and dynasty.[1]

A few elements of the family are as follows[1]

  1. The family is a basic, definite and enduring biological group
  2. A family is a socially approved organization for meeting definite human needs. It is a social institution.
  3. Family is formed by the relatively durable companionship of husband, wife and their sex relationships
  4. The family includes the couples and their children. The family procreates and brings up children.
  5. The family can also be large in size in which persons belonging to several generations may live together.
  6. The family may be limited to husband, wife or only the father and his children or only the mother and her children.
  7. When many generations live together it is called joint family

Bharatiya Perspective

The families of India, however, comprised of the husband, wife, children, brothers and sisters, and parents, as is fully indicated by various rites given in the Grhyasutras. The grhasthashrama of a person is considered the basis of a family. A grhastha is the householder, who founds a family after vivaha samskara and supports people who are in other ashramas. Grhyagni was the symbol of a household and each household must possess its own Grhyagni. Families in India, since ancient times, were mostly patriarchal in character. In the Grhyasutras we find various samskaras and grhya yajnas involving different members of the family, the rights and duties entailed for them. For example, in the Grhapravesha ceremony, the sutras enjoin that the husband enters the newly-built house in the company of his wife and eldest son, and the daughter or sister are to light the fire in the kitchen in the new house. A family includes even the student, who along with the wife, son, daughter and brother of the householder has the authority to perform regular worship in the Grhyagni of a grhastha, in his absence. In case the son decides to have a separate household, his Grhyagni would be separate from that of his father. The existence of a joint family system is indicated by several Sutras.[3]

Contrary to the sociologists' views of just the husband, wife and children constituting a family, the Indian family system advocated a united undivided family consisting of the parents, siblings and even students. It is no wonder that our seers expressed that the world is one family, "vasudaiva kutumbakam" which aptly depicts the inclusiveness of the sanatana kutumba vyavastha.[3]

अयं बन्धुरयं नेति गणना लघुचेतसाम् । उदारचरितानां तु वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् ॥ ७१॥ (Maha. Upan. 6.71)[4]

Summary: Those who think "he is mine", "He is not" are petty-minded. The large hearted ones regard the world as one family.[5] We find the following version in Hitopadesha, it is of the same purport and widely known.

अयं निजः परो वेति गणना लघुचेतसाम्। उदारचरितानां तु वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम्॥

ayaṃ nijaḥ paro veti gaṇanā laghucetasām । udāracaritānāṃ tu vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam ॥

The vidhi given in the Grhyasutras that only the eldest son should kindle the Grhyagni, after the death of the householder, shows that after the householder passes away, the eldest son alone moves into the position of the householder, if all the brothers continue to live together without partitioning their inheritance. This vidhi is found in Sankhyayana, Kaushika and Gobhila grhyasutras.[3]

पित्र्यमग्निं शमयिष्यञ्ज्येष्ठस्य चाविभक्तिन एकाग्निमाधास्यन् १ (Kaus. Sutr. 69.1)[6]

This vidhi refers to the joint family system and undivided families, where the eldest son becomes the head of the household after the father. Until recent centuries, families in India chose to stay united as joint family.[3]

Different Aspects of the Family

As a Functional Unit

From the composition of and the principles of integration underlying the family, it is clear that a family is a functional unit. The basic functional unit above the individual level is the family in a society. It is regarded and studied as one of the universal and permanent institutions of mankind.

An environment to permit the satisfaction of intimate biological needs cannot take place without organized co-activity. For a healthy and satisfactory living man seeks a secure satisfaction of his biological drives. By cooperating with other members of his family, and dividing work with them, he is able to satisfy his own basic need for food. He also contributes to the similar satisfaction of the other members who are cooperating with him. Economic needs grow out of biological needs, particularly those of the expectant mother and the infant child, who cannot support and live by themselves.

The family as an economic unit has a personal and a collective aspect. It provides for the personal satisfaction of the individual and collectively it does the same for the family. It is a means of regular and channelized intimate biological satisfaction. It is a unit where not only the psychological instincts of parental love and solitude are satisfied but also contribution towards perpetuation of the group and the race. The family is thus an educative unit and a socio-cultural agency.[1]

As an Association

Yet another way to study a family is by regarding it as a group or a deliberately formed association. Such an approach would study the form and the content of the family, i.e., its character and composition, variations from time to time and place to place. Bound by the biological matrix, the basic grouping of the husband and wife and their children, has been called as the nuclear, the immediate or primary family. It includes all families consisting of those individuals who are bound by a procreative urge and grouped with their children into a protective and productive association. Inclusion of closely related kin is called an extended family. A larger association further includes more members of the extended family as seen in the case of Indian joint family system.

As a Process

The family has been viewed, not only as a permanent functional institution and an ever-active affective association, but also as a process. The process called the family can be divided into three or four well-defined stages on the basis of data available to us in India. In the first instance, we have the formative stage, when the individual as a growing child is prepared for his adulthood roles as a responsible member of society. Then follows the nuptial stage among most of the rural and urban groups, particularly in the former, child marriage having been a very distinctive feature of the Indian rural social structure. After marriage come the children, i.e., the post-nuptial stage. Speaking from the point of view of society at large, this stage is the most significant. As the growing generation of children come of age, they set the same process going again. Thus, the family is an ever-continuing process, on the smooth continuity of which depends the continuity of society itself.[1]

A family is, thus, characterized by[1][2]

  • institutionalized mating, i.e., some type of marriage
  • a nomenclature for knowing the descent, i.e., a mode to know the descent
  • an economic unit especially the mother and child
  • association with a common habitat for all its members i.e., a common household
  • survival (protection of human species) and companionship

Distinctive Features of the Family

A family having the above characteristics has the following distinctive features[1]

  • Universality - family is found all over the world and at all levels of culture. Besides, there is no conclusive or convincing evidence that there ever was a time when the family did not exist. Modern civilization has not so far succeeded in providing a complete and fully satisfying substitute for this grouping. Anywhere in the world, a family has a biological aspect in which a man and woman become husband and wife by certain institutional modes (marriage).
  • Emotional basis - The integrative bonds in a family are mutual affection and blood ties. The cords that tie together the members of a family are the outcome of such an emotional factor as love, and not an intellectual factor like reason. This factor helps perform the all-important role of early education, and transmission of culture.
  • Educative role - The most plastic years of every individual’s life, that is his childhood, are spent in his family. He gets the earliest and the most fundamental lessons in socialization. He is mentally formed according to the norms of society, which get ingrained in him to re-appear in his adult life as conscience or super-ego. The behavior, language and cultural traditions are imbibed by an individual in this familial setting. The family also contributes to the biological growth of the individual by making available basic needs in such matters as metabolism, safety, growth and so on.
  • Limited number of members - A family throughout the world is characterized by its limited size as compared to other types of social groupings and associations. We sometimes find larger groups of the family in agrarian and tribal communities. Primitive social and economic systems, especially agrarian systems, require more human labor. Therefore, the size of the family in these societies is generally large. This was also a reason for the large size of the family. The industrial-urban system has reduced the size of the family. In this system the family generally means husband, wife and their children. In this system the basis of marriage is love and personal liking This has also contributed towards the small size of the family in urban societies.
  • Economic factors - Economic factors have a binding role a family. As mentioned in the above point, agrarian and rural systems, require more human labor. More members in the family collectively contributed towards higher economic gains of the family. In the industrial-urban system, labor and wages of the sole individual determines the economic status of the family. The individual goes from the village to the city in search of employment. On account of the constraints of limited wages and small accommodation, he is forced to follow the small family norm.
  • Central position - Family has a central role in shaping an individuals' participation in other social groups. He is identified by his descent and family lineage.
  • Responsibility among members - Even though a family is bonded on emotional basis, it is not completely devoid of intellectual basis i.e., reason. A sense of responsibility among its members in relation to each other is a rational and reasoned aspect among the family members. This feeling of personal responsibility towards each other is very important to ensure the smooth working of the familial grouping. For example, elder members instinctively care for and teach the younger members as they consider it as their responsibility.
  • Social regulation - Various families collectively form the society, and they evolve restrictions and rules keeping the collective and wider view of the society. Just as an individual is regulated by the family norms and performs functions towards each other, so also the family performs functions and is regulated by the norms of the society of which it is a part. Thus social regulation of larger societies come into place. For example, there are social restrictions on divorce varying in intensity, in almost every society.
  • Persistence and change - The family is the most permanent and universal institution, yet as an association it is subject to constant change in composition and structure, even within the same society. The structure, behavioral patterns and functions of the family have been changing with changes in the socio-economic order.

Distinctive Features of the Indian Family

Respect for parents, support of widows daughters and sisters and the maintenance of infants and relatives are the noble features of Indian culture. The senior and earning member of a family takes upon himself the duty which in European countries is considered that of the government now-a-days. Members of a family, though separated by distance and time, because of occupational compulsions, feel united by a traditional and sentimental common tie which is not so much noticeable in other countries. In addition to the factors given in the previous section, bharatiya principles which are the driving forces for raising a family include the following

Rnas - Vedas and later in the Mahabharata Adi Parva (Adhyaya 120.17-20) four pious obligations have been indicated that are to be discharged by every human being. They are devaruna (debt towards devatas), pitruruna (towards ancestors and parents), rishiruna (towards our rishis, Gurus and teachers) and manavaruna (towards fellow beings). Among these Pitruruna is fulfilled by maintaining the continuity of the family and begetting children as given by पुत्रैः श्राद्धैः पितृंश्चापि.... in Mahabharata. Parents are treated with respect and worshipped. The Vedas directed every individual to treat his mother and father as devatas and respect them. Thus parents and other elders who left for the higher worlds are termed as Pitrudevatas. It is this value which has sustained the moral character of the individual and also it is this sense of gratitude, which makes him serve not only the parents but also the brothers and sisters and other dependents who all belong to the same family.[5]

Kama - Kama is defined as desire (though not an equivalent term) and is the motivating power of all activities. Kama is the third purushartha, in the Trivarga. It is the chief purushartha in youth. Characteristics of Kama, as defined by Vatsyayana, is the tendency of the five sense organs for the achievement of their corresponding objects. It is the pleasure experienced by the self in the fulfilment of the sexual tendencies. It is the cause of mutual attractions among different living beings. It is the basis of creation, it leads to procreation. Fulfilment of natural attractions and innate desires was done in a moral and dharmik background. Indian seers have stressed on the worldly enjoyments of a person in grhastha ashrama together with the knowledge of controlling sense organs. Thus Kama controlled and guided by dharma was said to bring about social upliftment whereas either repression of desires or kama under the influence of adharma led to anti-social tendency. Hence moderation and dharmik basis of such kama was essential in youth.[1]

Varna vyavastha - The varna system presents a structure of values and functions which provide both personal and social justice. It is based upon the moral principle of Karma. It is believed that everyone is born with peculiar leanings, temperament and abilities due to his past karmas. In personal life varna was based upon the twin ideals of Svabhava and Swadharma. These two are the psychological and social aspects of the same phenomena. The social duties of a person are relative to his psychological makeup. Each one should follow his own psychological make up, since by that alone he can make a holistic contribution to the society. Thus within the person Swabhava is the guiding principle. One who acts based on his Swabhava acts spontaneously. Spontaneity is the result of totality and results in harmony. Svadharma means one’s duties in society. These duties should not be imposed from outside pressures. In order to be natural, spontaneous and divine duties must be based on Swabhava. A persons' value system so regulated becomes a better contributor to the society and hence the marriage system was so structured such that the husband and wife belong to the same varna. In case of love between man and woman which knows no rules and transcends all bounds, it was natural that males and females belonging to different varnas met and even married against social conventions. Such marriages were known by the names of anuloma and pratiloma marriages. The varna-vyavastha in the society, was thus four fold and was based on the scientific idea of division of labor.[1]

Ashrama vyavastha - While the varna vyavastha focuses on social justice, ashrama vyavastha concentrates on justice within the individual. The human life has been divided into different stages. Brahmacharya ashrama is the educative and disciplinary stage of life. In Grhastha ashrama, the youthful stage is diverted towards a life of duty. Hence the individual cultivates dharma, artha and kama. In Vanaprastha ashrama, he learns to withdraw from the society and learns to ignore his worldly attachments. He dissociates from artha and kama. Therefore, dharma and moksha becomes his main concern. In Sannyasa, moksha occupies the supreme place. In other words, the dharma which an individual cultivates in former ashramas becomes identified with moksha.

Samskaras - Samskaras are those activities which help to achieve purity and as a result complete development of the individual's personality is possible. In fact, the development of the individual is necessary in accordance with society. In order to fulfil this need, samskaras have been laid down as a means in the Hindu society and is connected with physical and non-physical aspects of man. This helps the socialization of the individual and he develops respect for labor, virtue and duty. Sacraments are generally prevalent in almost all the societies of the world. For example, Sunnat and baptism are prevalent among the Muslims and the Christian respectively. But Samskaras are those kinds of sacraments that have a special significance in Hindu society. They have always been related to the age, occasion and Ashrama etc of the individual. They help refine and develop the personality of an individual and pave way for his social and spiritual progress. During the whole life of an individual, he is vested with some new responsibilities and duties. Samskaras inculcate the feeling in him to do his duty and discharge the responsibilities assigned to him for the welfare of others around him. Sanskaras are not only for his own good, but they also represent man's responsibility to society.[1]

Joint Family (संयुक्तकुटुम्बम्) - A dharmic society in India owes its very existence to the united family system called as a Joint Family (संयुक्तकुटुम्बम्). Even after repeated invasions and influence of foreign rulers for thousand years, if a dharmic society is still seen today, it is due to the family structure. After 300 years of contrary education, people have remained faithful to the dharmas propounded by our seers. However, as with any lengthy battles, Indian family system has been gradually weakening while the education system introduced by McCauley and others are steadily gaining ground over centuries. We have seen how the world which is steadily imitating countries like America, are lately realizing that it is a land of broken families. The dharmik values which shape the moral and ethical values of a person are not easily awakened unless given adequate exposure during his/her upbringing. Such values have largely been an integral part of our family structure which helped in keeping families united.

Linguistic Structure - India has numerous languages and dialects. There are many important languages such as Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, Rajasthani, Manipuri and more recently Urdu. Hindi has been given the status of India’s official language along with English. The underlying linguistic thread that holds people of all these languages is Samskrit. The cultural, moral, ethical and dharmik values of all these people have a common origin viz., the Vaidika vangmaya, Itihasas and Puranas etc. The language in which all these texts have been composed is Samskrit, the root language of all cultures in India.

Gotra (गोत्रम्) - In the Indian society, marriage is in general restricted in three ways. A man may not marry a girl

  1. outside his class
  2. those who fall within certain degrees of prohibited relationships (the sapindas)
  3. those inside his own clan (gotra)

To marry a woman belonging to the same gotra is regarded as incest and requires a severe penance such as Chandrayana. Gotra means a family or a clan according to families. A person born in any varna, Brahmanas and others, are obliged by dharmik vidhis to pronounce the name of his important ancestors, the rshis, who were the founders of his family on certain occasions. This is known as Pravara. It shows that he is the descendent of a particular rshi.[7]

Members and Relationships of the Family

It can be stated that getting married and having a family have been indispensable aspect in the Indian family system. There are three important purposes as per Dharmashastras, viz., begetting sons, performing dharmik activities and fulfillment of conjugal desires. Rig veda states that by having progeny, a man attains Amritatva (eternity).

यस्त्वा॑ हृ॒दा की॒रिणा॒ मन्य॑मा॒नोऽम॑र्त्यं॒ मर्त्यो॒ जोह॑वीमि । जात॑वेदो॒ यशो॑ अ॒स्मासु॑ धेहि प्र॒जाभि॑रग्ने अमृत॒त्वम॑श्याम् ॥१०॥ (Rig. Ved. 5.4.10)

In another sukta (Rig. Ved. 10.85.36) the bridegroom at the time of marriage (panigrahana) tells the bride that he is taking her as a wife to obtain good progeny.[2]

Thus we see that children are important members, the very purpose of a family. The purohit further blesses both the bride and groom to have ten sons (Rig. Ved. 10.85.45). Manusmriti (9.29) also stresses that begetting children is the first of the purposes of marriage.

A Son


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 Jain, B. S. () Indian Society Jaipur: College Book Center (Page 153)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Pt. Haridatt Vedalankar. Hindu Parivar Mimamsa, Calcutta: Bengal Hindi Mandal
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Gopal, Ram. (1959) India of Vedic Kalpasutras. Delhi : National Publishing House (Pages 438 - 449)
  4. Mahopanishad (Adhyaya 6)
  5. 5.0 5.1 Jois, Rama M. Dharma, The Global Ethic
  6. Kaushika Sutra (Adhyaya 9)
  7. Chentsal Rao, P. (1900) Gotra Pravara Nibandha Kadambam, The Principles of Pravara and Gotra. Mysore: Government Branch Press (Introduction)