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Bahuvivaha literally means many marriages. The term refers to the practice of polygamy. As in many other countries of the world, in ancient India too, one could marry more than one spouse at a time. There are many instances of polyandry and numerous instances of polygamy in ancient times. Hinduism, however, never approved of such practices as a general rule, as is made clear in Taittiriya Samhita ( For a Hindu householder, dharma (observance of duty), praja (procreation) and rati (erotic pleasure) had been prescribed as purposes of a marriage, in that order of priority.

Though monogamy was the ideal, polygamy was permitted on certain grounds. A man could take more wives on the grounds of sickness, insanity, infidelity of the first wife, her inability to beget a child, sterility or cruelty towards husband.

Manu (IX.96) says that a woman desires progeny and a man desires continuation of family; therefore in religious matters they are equal, but a son is also important for religious rites and, therefore, a second wife is permissible.

In practice, however, the kshatriyas had many wives. The first one was called dharmapatni – meaning one who is taken for performing duties of a grihasta (house-holder), while the rest are called ‘kamyapatni;, i.e. those for pleasure. In the Middle Ages, it was a matter of prestige to have many wives. The Kulina vivahas in Bengal were extreme case of bahuvivaha in which a man married as many as fifty or more women.

Modern laws prohibit polygamy of any type. In 1860, laws to this effect were passed and the Hindu code, adopted after independence, makes bigamy an offence but provides for divorce on certain specified grounds.