Polygamy, sometimes technically referred to as polygyny, has been practised in many cultures throughout history. The early Jewish doctrine encouraged polygyny because Jews were a minority and needed to increase their numbers rapidly. Islamic tradition addresses polygamy directly.
The Koran states that a man is allowed up to four wives, but only if he can support them and treat them all equally. Many Islamic societies continue to allow polygamy, but usually only the most affluent men can afford multiple wives. In Vietnam, polygamy is not legal, but decades of war that has left the male population severely depleted, which opened the doors for its practice. Polygamy was also common in China during the prevalence of Confucianism.
Many African and Native American tribes practiced polygamy. The highest prevalence of polygamous practices can be seen in Africa. In the United States, polygamy was practised in the olden days, but this ended in 1890.
Polygamy was prevalent amongst Hindus in ancient India during the Vedic period, although currently, it is illegal. It was practised mostly by rich merchants and the warrior castes. Marriage in traditional Hinduism was meant primarily for procreation and to fulfil one’s obligatory duties.
If polygamy served these ideals, Hinduism did not object to its practice. Many Hindu gods were also depicted as polygamous, with two or more wives. Until 1955, there was no prohibition on polygamy for the Hindus.
Today, matrimonial legislation governing Hindus, Christians and Parsees, as well as the Special Marriage Act, have laid down the rule of monogamy and prohibit both polygamy and polyandry. Bigamy is also an offence under the Indian Penal Code (Ss. 494 & 495).