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Degree of Prohibited Relationship

Updated: May 5

The concept of "degrees of prohibited relationship" is central to understanding the legal and cultural ethos that guide matrimonial choices in Hindu society. In Hindu law, the framework concerning prohibited relationships is intricately designed to maintain the sanctity and structural integrity of family units.

Governed by ancient scriptures and reinforced by modern legal statutes, this framework delineates the boundaries within which matrimonial alliances may be formed, emphasising the preservation of moral and genetic health across generations.

Degree of prohibited Relationship
Degree of prohibited Relationship


Definition and Legal Significance

The "degree of prohibited relationship" refers to those familial relations between which marriage is traditionally and legally considered inappropriate or invalid due to their close blood ties.

Typically, this includes relationships between direct ascendants and descendants, siblings (including half and step-siblings), and other close relatives, such as uncles and nieces or aunts and nephews.

This legal definition is designed to prevent marriages within close familial lines, primarily due to concerns about genetic health and social norms which aim to maintain clear distinctions in family roles and responsibilities.

Prevention of Genetic Disorders: By prohibiting marriages within close familial lines, the law aims to minimise the risk of genetic disorders that can arise from consanguinity (i.e., marriages between closely related individuals). Genetic diversity is recognized as a key factor in reducing the incidence of inheritable genetic disorders.

Social Structure: The degree of prohibited relationship helps maintain a clear demarcation in familial roles, which is vital for the structural integrity of families. It avoids complications that might arise from the overlapping of roles, such as those of parent-child and spouse-spouse, thereby preserving family dynamics and social norms.

Legal Clarity and Dispute Resolution: By defining specific prohibited degrees, the law provides a clear guideline that helps resolve disputes regarding the validity of marriages. This is particularly important in a diverse society like India, where varying customs and traditions can lead to different interpretations of what constitutes an appropriate marital relationship.

Historical Context and Evolution

The degree of prohibited relationship in Hindu law has a complex history, shaped by evolving social norms, religious practices, and legal codifications over centuries. This evolution reflects broader societal changes and the dynamic interplay between tradition and modernity within the Hindu legal framework.

Ancient Origins

The roots of the concept of prohibited relationships can be traced back to the ancient Hindu scriptures, including the Vedas and the Dharmashastras.

These texts outlined the ethical and moral codes that governed the social and religious life of Hindu society. Relationships that were considered too close for marriage were clearly defined to maintain family purity and social order.

The Manusmriti and other Dharmashastras prescribed detailed rules on who should be considered too closely related to marry. These texts emphasised the importance of avoiding incestuous relationships, which were believed to disrupt the moral and cosmic order.


Mediaeval Developments

During the mediaeval period, the interpretations of prohibited degrees of relationship became more codified with the establishment of different schools of Hindu law, such as the Mitakshara and Dayabhaga schools.

These schools interpreted ancient texts and laid down legal principles that were regionally adopted.

Regional Variations: The Mitakshara and Dayabhaga schools differed in their approach to family law, including the definitions and implications of prohibited relationships.

While both schools agreed on the core idea of prohibiting close familial marriages, their interpretations affected local legal practices and marital norms.

British Colonial Influence

The British colonial administration significantly impacted the codification of Hindu law, including the aspects related to marriage and prohibited relationships.

The British efforts to codify Indian laws aimed to create a more manageable and uniform legal system across their Indian territories.

In the 19th century, British legal scholars and administrators, such as Sir Henry Maine, undertook the task of compiling and standardising Hindu legal texts.

This period saw the translation and reinterpretation of traditional laws into a format that aligned with European legal principles, influencing how prohibited relationships were understood and enforced.

Degrees of Prohibited Relationship

Lineal Ascendants and Descendants

Unbroken Line of Ascent

In Hindu law, the concept of an unbroken line of ascent refers to the direct vertical family lineage that includes parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so forth.

This lineage defines the foundational relationships within which marital unions are strictly prohibited. The rationale behind this prohibition is to maintain clarity in familial roles and responsibilities, which are considered sacred.

Marriage Prohibitions with Ancestors

Marriages within the unbroken line of ascent, such as between a person and their direct ancestors or descendants, are explicitly prohibited.

These prohibitions are foundational in Hindu family law as they ensure the integrity of familial lineage and prevent the biological and social complications associated with incestuous relationships.

Spousal Relationships of Lineal Ascendants and Descendants

Limitations on Marrying Spouse's Relatives

Hindu law extends the prohibition of marriage to certain spousal relatives. For instance, a person cannot marry their spouse's direct ascendants or descendants, such as their spouse's parents or children from another relationship.

This extension of the prohibited degree helps in maintaining the sanctity and respect among family members, which is a pivotal aspect of Hindu cultural values.

Sibling and Cousin Relationships

Prohibitions Among Siblings

Marriages between siblings, including half-siblings and step-siblings, are categorically forbidden under Hindu law.

This prohibition is rooted in the same principles that govern the restrictions on lineal ascendants and descendants, focusing on preserving familial integrity and moral values within the household.

Uncle-Niece and Aunt-Nephew Relationships

Similarly, unions between uncles and nieces or aunts and nephews are prohibited. These relationships are considered close enough that they fall within the degrees of prohibited relationships due to their potential genetic closeness and the cultural need to maintain clearly defined familial roles.

Marriage Between Cousins

The stance on cousin marriages can vary significantly based on regional and community-specific customs and interpretations of Hindu law.

In some communities, marriages between cross-cousins (children of a brother and a sister) are permissible and even encouraged, while parallel cousin marriages (children of two brothers or two sisters) are typically prohibited.

This variability reflects the diverse interpretations and practices within Hindu culture, emphasising the role of custom in defining the degrees of prohibited relationships.


Customary Permissions and Degree of Prohibited Relationship

Role of Custom in Allowing Marriages

Custom plays a pivotal role in shaping the application of laws regarding prohibited degrees of relationship within Hindu communities.

Unlike statutory laws, which provide a uniform guideline, customs can vary greatly between different regions, castes, and communities.

These customary laws often override general prohibitions under certain circumstances, particularly in the context of marriage.

In many Hindu communities, customs have developed historical and cultural validations that allow marriages that might otherwise fall under the statutory prohibitions.

For instance, in some South Indian communities, cross-cousin marriages (between children of a brother and a sister) are not just allowed but are also encouraged.

These practices are rooted in deep cultural traditions and are believed to strengthen family bonds and consolidate property.

Legal Recognition of Customary Practices

The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, acknowledges the significance of custom in the regulation of marriages within the Hindu community. Specifically, Section 5 of the Act mentions that while certain marriages are generally prohibited, exceptions are allowed if they are sanctioned by custom.

Section 5(iv) Exception: This section stipulates that a marriage between parties who are within the degrees of prohibited relationship can be considered valid if "there is a custom governing each of them which permits a marriage between the two."

This provision legally acknowledges and respects the diversity of Hindu traditions and practices across different regions.

Judicial Interpretation: Courts in India have upheld the importance of custom in various rulings, emphasising that recognized community customs can legitimise marriages that would otherwise be prohibited under general law.

The judiciary often examines the evidence of such customs being long-standing, continuous, and widely accepted within the community.

Documentation and Proof: For a custom to be recognized legally, it must be proven to be ancient, certain, and reasonable.

Moreover, it should not be in conflict with public policy. In legal disputes, parties often have to provide historical and community-based evidence to prove the existence and acceptance of such customs.

Legal Provisions and Penal Consequences

Sections 3(g) and 5 of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955

The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, serves as the cornerstone in regulating marriage practices within the Hindu community in India, particularly addressing the legal framework around prohibited degrees of relationship and the consequences of violating these provisions.

Section 3(g): This section defines "degrees of prohibited relationship" as relationships between two individuals who are either directly related through blood or marriage within certain specified limits.

This section is critical in outlining the scope of what constitutes an unacceptable matrimonial union from a legal perspective.

Section 5: It stipulates the conditions under which a Hindu marriage is deemed legally valid. Notably, clause (iv) of this section specifically states that for a marriage to be considered valid, the parties should not fall within the degrees of prohibited relationship unless their custom or usage governing each of them permits a marriage between them.

This clause ensures that traditional customs that condone certain unions are respected, provided they are established and recognized practices within those communities.

Void Marriages and Penal Consequences

According to Section 11 of the Hindu Marriage Act, any marriage conducted between parties who fall within the degrees of prohibited relationship (as defined in Section 3(g)) and without the sanction of customary practices (as allowed under Section 5) is subject to annulment.

This means such marriages are not recognized under the law and can be declared void by a court of law.

Section 18 of the Hindu Marriage Act outlines the penal consequences for contravening the stipulations of the Act, including those relating to marrying within the prohibited degrees.

This includes potential punitive measures such as a simple fine, which may vary depending on the nature and seriousness of the violation.

Specifically, marrying within the prohibited degrees of relationship without an applicable custom or usage that sanctions such a marriage could lead to penal consequences for the parties involved.

This is designed to enforce adherence to legal standards and discourage practices that are considered harmful or inappropriate within the larger social and legal framework.


Contemporary Views and Social Dynamics

Shifts in Societal Attitudes Towards Prohibited Relationships

In contemporary society, attitudes towards prohibited relationships have undergone significant transformations due to globalisation, increased mobility, and the influence of modern values on traditional practices.

The once firm boundaries delineated by customary and legal prohibitions are undergoing reassessment, fostering a deeper comprehension of family structures and marital preferences.

Increased Individualism: Modern societies prioritise individual rights and personal choices, leading to a reexamination of traditional norms, including those governing marital relationships.

Younger generations, in particular, may question the relevance of strict prohibitions that limit their choice of marital partners, especially when such limitations seem arbitrary or are not supported by current societal norms.

Cultural Integration: As societies become more multicultural and diverse, the exposure to different norms and practices can lead to a blending of beliefs about what constitutes appropriate marital relationships.

This cultural integration often challenges traditional prohibitions, sometimes easing the stigmas associated with certain types of matrimonial unions.

Educational Influence: With higher levels of education and awareness, people are more likely to make informed decisions based on factors other than just tradition, such as genetic information and the health implications of consanguineous marriages.

This knowledge can shift attitudes towards a more scientific and less customary view of marriage restrictions.

Legal Implications in Modern Society

As societal attitudes shift, the legal implications surrounding prohibited relationships also evolve to reflect these changes. This evolution is evident in the judicial interpretations and occasional legal reforms that adapt old norms to new realities.

Legal Adaptability: The law often needs to adapt to the changing dynamics of society. For example, courts may interpret the provisions of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, in ways that reflect contemporary values or legislative bodies may amend the laws to align with current societal attitudes.

Human Rights Considerations: Contemporary legal frameworks are increasingly integrating human rights perspectives, particularly in areas such as the right to marry.

Discussions within the legal sphere regarding prohibited relationships often entail a delicate balance between cultural traditions and individual rights, resulting in legal judgments that may establish fresh precedents.

Public Policy: The impact of changing social dynamics on public policy can lead to reforms in family law. For instance, debates about gender equality and non-discrimination might influence how laws regarding prohibited relationships are framed or enforced, ensuring that such laws do not inadvertently discriminate against any individual or group.

Illustrative Examples

Example 1: Direct Lineal Relationships

Raj and Priya are considering marriage. Raj is interested in knowing whether there is any legal impediment to marrying Priya, who happens to be his granddaughter.

According to Section 3(g) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, a direct lineal relationship such as that between a grandfather and a granddaughter falls squarely within the degrees of prohibited relationships.

Such a marriage is not permissible under the law because it violates the unbroken line of ascent rule, which prohibits marriages between direct ancestors and descendants.

Example 2: Marriage with Spouse’s Relative

Simran, who was recently widowed, wonders about the legality of marrying her late husband's nephew, Amit.

Marriages between a person and their spouse's relatives can also fall within prohibited degrees if the relationship is close enough.

In this case, Simran's potential marriage to Amit, her late husband's nephew, is considered within the prohibited degrees of relationship because it involves marrying a close relative of her spouse.

Such a union is generally prohibited to maintain clear familial boundaries and roles.


The degrees of prohibited relationships, as defined and regulated under Hindu law, reflect a deep-seated commitment to upholding the familial and societal norms that are pivotal to the social structure of Hindu communities.

Through a combination of ancient wisdom and modern legal principles, these regulations ensure that marriages within the Hindu community adhere to both ethical standards and genetic health considerations.

As society continues to evolve, so too does the interpretation of these laws, accommodating shifts in societal attitudes while continuing to protect the fundamental values of family integrity and welfare.

The dynamic interplay between custom and law not only provides a safety net against the potential pitfalls of closely related marriages but also respects the diverse cultural practices that enrich the Hindu social landscape.


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