The Smritis of Hinduism recognize eight methods of marriage, one of them being Gandharva marriage. The other seven are: Brahma, Daiva, Arsa, Prajapatya, Asura, Raksasa and Paisacha.
Gandharva marriage is, according to Apastamba Grhyasutra - an ancient Hindu literature, the method of marriage where the girl selects her own husband. They meet each other of their own accord, consensually agree to live together, and their relationship is consummated in copulation born of passion. This form of marriage did not require consent of parents and anyone else. According to vedic records, this is one of earliest and common form of marriage in Rig vedic times.
In Rig vedic opinions and classical literature, the commonly described marriage method was Gandharva, where the bride and the groom had met each other in their ordinary village life, or in various other places such as regional festivals and fairs, begun to enjoy one another's company, and decided to be together. This free choice and mutual attraction were generally approved by their kinsmen. A passage in the Atharvaveda suggests that parents usually left the daughter free in selection of her lover and directly encouraged her in being forward in love-affairs. The mother of the girl thought of the time when the daughter's developed youth (Pativedanam, post puberty), that she would win a husband for herself, it was a smooth and happy sort of affair with nothing scandalous and unnatural about it. The translated version of the Atharvaveda (STRIKARATÂNI, ii.36) passage is:
In Mahabharata, one of two major epics of Hindus, Rishi Kanva - the foster-father of Shakuntala - recommends Gandharva marriage with the statement, "The marriage of a desiring woman with a desiring man, without religious ceremonies, is the best marriage." Elsewhere in Mahabharata (iii:190.36), the epic says, "No man any longer asks for the daughter, nor does a father give away his daughter, they (girls) find the man for themselves."
Gandharva marriage over time became controversial, disputed and debated. Majority of ancient scholars discouraged it on religious and moral grounds. One argument found in the classical literature is that Gandharva marriage originates and sustains from lust, ignores the sacred rituals and vows the groom and bride must make to each other, and it does not consider other aspects of a relationship necessary in a long married life that lasts through the old age. Such a marriage, argued these ancient vedic scholars, may or may not be lasting.
Manu argued that Gandharva marriage may be suited for some, but not for most; he argues Gandharva marriage is best suited for males from those families whose profession is warriors, military, administrators, nobles and king (Kshatriyas). Baudhayana, another ancient vedic scholar, disagrees and writes Gandharva marriage is suitable for most people including merchants and farmers and artisans (Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras), but not for the priest families (Brahmin castes). Baudhayana claims that this is so because Gandharva marriage is based on love and free will. Narada, yet another ancient scholar who wrote Nāradasmṛti sometime between 100 BC and 400 AD, suggests Gandharva marriage is best for everyone including the Brahmins, calling it sadharna; Narada claims the only methods of marriage that are wrong are those that are based on kidnapping, violence, fraud or purchase.
There is no consensus theory to explain why Gandharva marriages declined. One theory claims that as prosperity and wealth increased, parents sought greater control of the activities and social life of their children. Another theory claims that after the vedic period when marriageable age for girls was 16 years or higher, social upheavals encouraged child marriages. The social upheavals included those caused by wars between Indian kingdoms, unexpected attacks and attempts to take young women and men as prisoners during waves of attacks from Persia, central Asia and Muslim Sultans/Emperors. With the arrival of Muslim culture and rulers, which itself favored child marriages, the Hindu culture too shifted to child marriages where the girl was not mature. This practice eliminated the girl's desire or ability to seek men on her accord, meet them, choose and enter into Gandharva marriage. In addition to the influence of foreign conquest, claims Pandey, Hindu ideology shifted from diversity of marriage types to where the social pressures compelled the girl's family to seek arranged early marriages. Yet another theory is that the priestly caste of India, who officiated Brahma marriages and religious ceremonies, over time crafted rules that declared Gandharva marriage for most Hindus as inappropriate and disapproved (aprasasta), because traditional marriages were a source of their income, and Gandharva marriages made them poorer or obsolete.
In 1817 AD, Gandharva marriages in India were ruled legal for some social groups by the Bengal Saddar Court.
In 1930, Judge Abdur Rahim held that the marriage in Gandharva form was not valid in India. This ruling came from the Madras High Court, with the statement that amongst the Hindus, the Gandharva form of marriage was obsolete (as of 1930). This was appealed with the note that the fact that the case is in court is proof that Gandharva weddings among Hindus is not obsolete.
In 1946, the Patna High Court in Kamani Devi v. Kameshwar Singh, ILR 25 Pat 58 = (AIR 1946 Pat 316) held that the relationship of husband and wife, created by Gandharva marriage is binding. The husband, the court ruled, cannot escape his liability of maintaining his wife married in Gandharva form. The Patna High Court went further and held that the celebration of Gandharva form of marriage must be attended with nuptial rites and ceremonies including Homa (invocation before the sacred fire) and Saptapadi (the taking of seven steps by the bride-groom and the bride together) for its validity, This ruling was cited in a decision by the Supreme Court in the case of Bhaurao v. State of Maharashtra.
In a 1974 case, Judge Mukherji noted, "Gandharva form of marriage should not be regarded as concubinage or quasi-marital union, more so in the context of the modern Society and in the background of the forward thinking of the present law givers. The possibility of legal validity of this form of marriage in the whole of India in near future even without being backed by custom, is too notorious to be ignored. In a sense, Gandharva form of marriage is trying to come back very fast (in India), pushing parental domination to the background."
In modern India, particularly in urban regions, gandharva marriages are re-emerging. These self-arranged marriages in India are now called love marriages. Most of these, however, do involve some form of ceremony where friends and members of family are present.
A 2006 article reported that between 10 and 20 percent of marriages in urban India were love marriages.
Mythic beings in Hinduism and Buddhism, Gandharvas are male nature spirits and the masculine counterparts of the Apsaras. They are passionate lovers of women and arouse erotic and romantic passion in women.