Sketching Singlehood: Making Meaning of a Single Life; Through Times, Vedic & Modern

An essay by Kuldeep Bhandari

Over the decades, instances of urban citizens choosing to stay single for a variety of reasons have escalated phenomenally in the Indian subcontinent. The practices of co-habitation and open relationships allowing for a spectrum of consociation choices against the backdrop of a traditional marriage system have offered people an alternative to the normative conjugal practices. In this paper we’d attempt to outline the affinities and tensions between the Ancient Vedic system of marriage-related concerns and the new practices self-mediated by individuals which altogether tend to readminister the manner in which singlehood or marriage and their various permutations are read and looked upon by the mass and the experts with varying degrees of sensitivity and involvement. We would reason our thought along lines of tradition, authority, social value, modernity and most categorically, along the line of democracy which would be our principal guiding tool in presenting the case study.

The foundation of Indian Wisdom unequivocally is laid upon the authority of the Vedas which invariably are held to be the pillars of truth and knowledge among all the sects of Hinduism. The Indian philosophic tradition has been cardinally instrumental in organizing the society for centuries before the invasions laid the foundation for a secular demographic make-up of the society. A large gamut of philosophic treatises have been the source of fulfillment and plenitude for a civilization which is one of the most ancient and has undoubtedly been claimed as the most egalitarian and self-sufficient of civic societies at various junctures in world history. In the Vedic texts 16 rites[1] for a Hindu have been encoded in order for the subject to lead a satisfactory spiritual & social life and marriage is one of the most important of these. The Vedic texts categorize human life into distinct stages each reserved for a number of special duties and obligations. Notable here is the fact that there is no presupposition based upon gender in this concept and infact Indian culture and Āarsh[2] literature has always provided a high station to the womenfolk in the society. Rishi Manu has instructed:

Yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra Devata, yatraitaastu na pujyante sarvaastatrafalaahkriyaah” (wherever women are given their due respect, the deities  reside there and where they are not respected, all actions remain unfruitful) Manusmriti[3] (3.56)

The stage of human life immediately after the acquirement of Vedic knowledge and Upanishadic training is the one where the scholar and the hitherto celibate Brahmchari[4] is to embark into a marital life at the age of 25 and the same or any age after 18 for a Brahmacharini, deemed proper for the acquirement of a partner chosen by the Guru or parents and in some cases by the pupils themselves. in all cases the matches are sanctioned through prescribed parameters of matching  the  social statuses and caste backgrounds of the persons involved. Marriage is supposed to be the onset of the grihastha Aashram also held as the foundation and supporting pillar of all other Ashrams-Brahmcharya, Vānprastha and Sanyās respectively.

Until the middle of the 20th century and not until very late after independence, India witnessed marriages at an early age for both boys and girls as a result of the loss of Vedic training and and the question of singlehood was highly irrelevantp limited only to a skirting section of the society. The reasons for it could be recognized almost always as unavailability of suitable companions due to a number of factors ranging from personal handicap to individual choice of a spiritual life or a life dedicated to social service. Morality served as a  dictum  and hence monogamy and family life were strict considerations which guided people in their social conduct and any deviance from the prescribed order was considered uncalled for and immoral. With exposure to the emerging World Media and communication technologies along with information flows and increased transnational mobility during the last few decades of the 20th century, ideas from different world cultures & foreign social structures with their inherent rationalities started inducing a cosmopolitan global environment in the country, harking an ethos of individualism which empowered individual subjects with bodily, economic and political autonomy. This transformation was facilitated through continuously transforming law and order conditions to suit the needs and requirements of the subjects. These changes were accompanied with a rise in the corporate and urban sector capitalization accrediting more and more individuals to exercise their skill and energy in advancing their potential to create empowered identities which at were global & cosmopolitan. This however, came at the price of an exchange of local and regional/national traditional values for a modern world culture with cities and metropolises as the contact zone for these transnational negotiations. A large section of the burgeoning middle-class comprised of city dwellers who often faced  identity-crisis due to the changing makeup of the city-spaces owing to accelerated globalization, borrowed these world phenomena in the face of it without adapting or decoding the context in which these originated in their native countries. Singlehood as one such phenomenon presently occupies us with its many challenges and possibilities in the Indian context where it is both feared and championed; gazed at with contempt as well as resorted to as a means for assertion of freedom from oppressive conventions and undemocratic norms. We would analyze the idea of being single and its meaning in today’s India with the larger backdrop of the canonical literary texts which have been guiding the acts of the Indian society from time immemorial. We would move from a traditional reading of the phenomenon and proceeding through the societal perceptions of it, finally resolve the many contentions of the idea into a coherent understanding of the varying motives behind being and staying single in India.

We could begin with a general discussion on the different meanings associated with staying single in a country like India; of these asceticism, education, career prospects, desire for a more suitable partner than the present one or aspiration for multiple relationships, malfunctioning of long term relationships, past relationships as obstruction in finding a willing partner, divorce or death of the spouse, reasons of bodily non-conformity with the ideal of beauty or handicap are some chief ones. Staying single for merely exercising libidinal autonomy directed by a pleasure principle prompts a number of individuals to choose singlism in their younger years but with growing age and increasing societal/parental pressure this section of the single population slowly marginalizes; singles marrying and settling  in the normative fashion. A prolonged singlehood is often  associated with a flaw in the personality of the individual.    The group of singles that voluntary choose to stay single for whatsoever reasons after a certain age category are continuously under the public eye and often fall prey to the criticisms of their family members and relatives. A respectful Singlehood is a troublesome terrain to set out on and is available only to a select few persons in the society such as spiritual aspirants, outstanding achievers in their respective fields choosing singlehood for the sake of their careers, or persons dedicated to service and philanthropic ventures. With increasing contact with international cultures however, a number of individuals and amongst them the educated young people in the age group of 25-35 years have adopted to the universal phenomenon of staying single in their late 20s & early 30s inorder to seek suitable partners for themselves and entering into pre-marital & casual short-term or long-term relationships until the search culminates in the finding of one such. The moral aspect of this pattern is highly contentious in the intellectual sphere as the society is fractioned between those who advocate conventional learning which dictates purity before marriage to fully realize the marital bliss exuding from  monogamy practiced on part by both the partners and  others who stand for individual freedom and sexual liberty as a cardinal democratic concern. The age group 30 onwards as a critical time frame and 35 up as a deadline for singles to marry and settle down is indubitably held by all differing groups as an unchallengeable norm regularised by the society for the overall nourishment of the civil organon.

In the Vedas or the later canonical texts such as the Upanishads, The six philosophic texts[5] and the Puranas & the various Shastras we constantly encounter a large number of Brahmacharis/Brahmacharins, Rishis, Munis who voluntarily accept singlehood and avoid entering into conjugal relationships for enhancing their practise of Yoga and Meditation, conserving the vital fluids of their bodies for transcendental experiences and spiritual knowledge. Revered by both the ordinary and the elite for their exemplary spiritual efforts these personalities emblematized the great moralistic virtues and philosophic traditions which were at the heart of the cultural and moral excellence of the Indian culture. Oftentimes, theses strenuous practises of Brahmacharya culminated in rightful matches and marriage vows depending on the circumstance and disposition of the subjects. We can juxtapose these earliest examples of voluntary singlehood with the instances of singlehood in today’s context and almost invariably find power relationships and an economy of restraint undermining the choices and acts of the single persons.  The question whether singlehood as a possible voluntary choice to lead a life of content and satisfaction with or without an indulgence in biological sexual needs is a query to be answered at multiple levels in the Indian context. The Vedic Ideal Human existence prescribes the first 25 years to a dedicated study of the scriptures & Vedic literature on the completion of which, the subject must enter the Asharam of a Grihasth(householder) and in no other condition than of a voluntarily extended practice of  Brahmcharya delay the duties impending on him/her to marry for the moral and spiritual good of him/herself along with her/his family members and, the society. It is worth noting that in the Indian Vedic system it’s service that’s kept before the self and it’s the duty of the children to provide happiness to their parents by raising children who in effect offer contrasting relief to the ageing parents. An ideal life is believed to be a life surrounded with family members of all ages, making for a healthy environment and bringing deeper sense of content and fulfillment which is the ultimate aim of wo/man on the planet as believed in the Shastras. A life of singlehood advised heavily against for the various difficulties it might offer as that of aloneness in old age or loneliness in life’s achievements and failures with no immediate person to share  these with, is decreed only for the highly trained and strictly disciplined Yogīs who have trained their mind, senses and body for the many hardships of life.

Singlehood and the city

The life in the metropolitan cities of an average adult, in India, is more or less driven by the same patterns as can be seen elsewhere in the world and individuals increasingly seem to choose a single life with all its possible choices of freedom in the execution of the bodily & sexual autonomy. The many advantages of singlehood presented by the city life with its unrestricted domains and unexplored territories, offer a glimpse of a life free and secure from all customs and regulatory principles. The seemingly unhindered trajectory of singlehood is met with serious oppositions only when after the sanctioned period and conventional criterion of age, a number of factors at once start destabilizing the individual’s autonomy and to choose a partner from the decreasing availability of suitable matches due to implicit societal reasons becomes the only option for otherwise prospective & well-to-do individuals over the years. The pressure of being not able to cope up with the normative and the prescriptive conduct goes well along with the biological need to continue the clan in the case of men, and to fulfill the role of a mother in the case of the women. In here, the functional variance in practice from other cultures in the world is signified in the very stake placed upon these two biological processes which are part of the same phenomenon of procreation. As long as the person has not subscribed to a systematic order of renounciation he/she can’t be sufficiently argued to be completely free of the duty to bear offsprings i.e. bring about life in the universe, which in the strict sense in the scriptures is held to be a Pitra Rin(पित्र ऋण)—a debt to the ancestors that one has to free oneself from. Even in the case of ājīvan Brahmacharis(renunciate for a lifetime) who have renounced  family life for the their spiritual practice, advise to seriously think on the matter before treading the path is offered by superiors, relating to the advantages of a well-secured and scripture-ordained marital life post the age of 25.

The typical simile that’s often conjured is the one likening human experience with natural occurrences in plant and animal life as that of the example of a fruit that must be savoured while it’s ripe and not after the first signs of its decay start showing. Although the Vedic learning doesn’t lay any particular emphasis on the obligation to marry as is exemplified in the conduct of many voluntary single Rishis, yet, it clearly has identified Grihastha Aashram (Householder’s Station) with devotion to a single partner as the foundation for an all fulfilling and commendable lifestyle, recommended for the masses. The crucial point however is to continue the Vansh Paramparā— the obligation towards one’s clan: the duty to continue the line started by the forefathers and the first Rishis[6]. The Vedic theology recognizes excessive indulgance in passions and desires performed for the sake of the five sensations namely sight, sound, taste, smell, touch performed through the five sensory organs: Eye, ear, skin, mouth and skin along with the chief- a sixth, namely the mind or, the consciousness whose object is held as ‘thought’ in the sense of a Vritti(a binding thought) as the reason for all Dukham(grief) and bondage and hence, avoidable. In this light of reasoning, keeping single for merely exploring chances in the exercising of the sensory pleasure is ruled out as a plausible option for the even-minded in the Hindu Universe.

What remains now, is a brief glance at the emerging trend of singlehood as part of the modern day-to-day global lifestyle which is defended by the many claims on democratic and individualistic forefronts of reasoning. Political freedom of expression and newer experiences which have gotten encoded into the overall being and modern behaviour patterns have advanced learning and knowledge  privileging the citizens to  associate novel meanings to their search for identity and partnership. At least, it is certain that as long as individuals take charge of their acts and remain faithful to their own reason and social conduct there is no cause on part of the authority, i.e. famiy, neighbouhood or society to levy value judgements on the status of their social and personal relationships, or the lack of them thereof. In a responsive world like that of today where norms are breaking faster than ever before, it is only in the good esteem of both, the individual and the collective consciousness, that one consider & value all aspects of the idea of voluntary singlehood– not just its demonstrable deviance from the norm decreed by the society, but the very context of its possible remittances to the single person in question. Today, instances of single persons leading  successful  lives, both in terms of individual happiness and collective good are outnumbering those who unhappy in marriage throng the courtrooms for divorce petitions creating miserable circumstances for impressionable young children and embarrassing situations for their family members– a violation of the Vedic norm. Scholars have pointed out that voluntary singlehood has therapeutic effect on young people facing relationship problems and personality disorders as they tend to find more time for individual discovery and self-actualization. Moreover, singlehood allows subjects to situate their identity in a universe full of choices and possibilities of all kinds and candor. An attempt at indexing singlehood as a repository of personal and inter-personal relationships and their abundance & lack only, is to judge the iceberg by the tip and miss on the creative and conceptual dynamics of singlehood’s many affinities and vulnerabilities.


India is not only the largest democracy in the world but also a nation with a large section of its population in its youthful years. People in the age group of 18-35 nearly constitute more than half the population and this is secular conglomeration of single & non-single, straight & gay & queer, Vedic & non-vedic, conventional or non-conformist individuals, who in unison stand for their equal democratic rights and freedom of expression guaranteed by the constitution. The matters relating to singlehood such as same sex marriage, live-in & co-habitation, delay with regards to marriage or a personal choice of lifelong singlehood  as was cherished by the Rishi-munis & other illustrative great men and women of the past, sincere and impartial treatment of subjects in the cases of separation or remarriages have been acknowledged by the Court of Law and the system machinery is adapting to new parameters of evaluation when it comes to the issues of individuals’ right to life and living. The long road to a final answer vis-i-vis when and how the society would accommodate the ‘single’ mode with the license to exercise one’s bodily autonomy as a reputable lifestyle choice, is one to be fared in the time to come.[i]


[2] Emanating from the Rishis.
[3] Manusmriti is held to be one of  the first sanctified texts prescribing regulatory principles relating to law and order as part of the Indian Judicial system.
[5] The Yog, Nyaya, Sankhya, Vaisheshik, Purva Mimansa and Uttar Mimansa/Vedanta texts together form the Indian Darshan(philosophy) and primarily draw on the Vedas as the final authority.
[6] All the so-held Hindus have descended from the seven Rishis called the Saptarshīs, namely Agastya, Atri, Bhardwaja, Gautam, Jamadagni, Vashista and Visvamitra and signify the seven Gotrās which are significant in the marriage system. Originally people in the same Gotrās are forbidden to marry as they descend from the same Rishi  and hence are  kins.