On Thursday, the Supreme Court refused to allow a man to divorce his terminally ill wife, on the grounds that he must stand by her through difficult times even if she was willing to break off the marriage by mutual consent.

The apex court’s judgement was clearly a humanitarian effort to ensure that the wife, a patient of breast cancer, is not abandoned during her illness. It acknowledged that she might have agreed to an alimony of Rs 12.5 lakh only because she needed money for treatment, and ruled that the divorce case would not be admitted in court again for at least another six months, or until her cancer was cured – whichever came first.

But as is often the case with many well-meaning court judgements in India, the Supreme Court used this divorce case as an opportunity to deliver a regressive sermon on the meaning of marriage in Hindu society.

“Hindu marriage is a sacred and holy union...by virtue of which the wife is completely transplanted in the household of her husband and takes a new birth. It is a combination of bone to bone and flesh to flesh,” says the judgement, delivered by a bench headed by Justice MY Eqbal. The ruling went a step further while explaining why it was the man’s duty to provide for his wife and protect her health and safety. “To a Hindu wife her husband is her God and her life becomes one of the selfless service and profound dedication to her husband.”

Such notions – that marriages are sacrosanct, religious unions that fuse a woman’s identity with her husband’s – are routinely espoused by family courts and other lower courts while dispensing judgements on cases of divorce, dowry or restitution of conjugal rights. But every now and then, even the High Courts or the Supreme Court endorse these ideas while justifying otherwise progressive judgements.

Made in heaven

In India, marriage is governed by personal laws unique to different religions, validating traditional beliefs that conjugal unions are a religious duty. When marriages sour and end up in courtrooms, judges not only evaluate the cases based on the personal laws in question, but also, at times, chime in with lofty, poetic phrases to further emphasise how sacrosanct marriages ought to be.

In a September 2014 judgement, for instance, the Punjab-Haryana High Court settled a child custody dispute between two partners by declaring that “marriage between two Hindus is considered a sacred relationship because their karmas are intertwined”.

Far more common are declarations that nuptials are supposed to bring about the “union of two bodies and souls” – always heterosexual – because marriage is as “spiritual” as it is religious or social.

“Marriage is the sacred union, legally permissible, of two healthy bodies of opposite sexes,” said one Supreme Court case in 1998. “It has to be mental, psychological and physical Union. When two souls thus unite, a new soul comes into existence. That is how, the life goes on and on on this planet.”

Inherent in this train of thought is the notion that the social institution of marriage is more important than the individuals involved in the relationship. “Petty quibbles, trifling differences should not be exaggerated and magnified to destroy what is said to have been made in heaven,” said a 2004 Supreme Court verdict while hearing a divorce case of a husband who had alleged cruelty on the part of his wife.

The courts’ verdicts in such cases may almost always be well-intentioned, but judges occasionally reinforce outdated conceptions of marriage.