The meaning of marriage

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You will be surprised to know that Hindu marriage customs are pretty much the same as they were 5,000 years ago.

Admittedly, there are some small differences. While many marriages are still arranged, many others are not. Young couples often meet at their place of work or at the University and decide to get married. Also, chances are that they both fly to Switzerland or some such destination for their honeymoon. But the rituals are the same as those of 5,000 years ago.

According to Hindu thought, marriage is one of the 16 main sacraments in human life. Almost all of the rituals that take place during the marriage ceremony reflect this. There used to be over 30 rituals in the olden days and wedding celebrations and ceremonies were spread over three to four days. My own wedding, 50 years ago, had two days of ceremonies. Now however, the ceremony is completed in two hours. The main rituals that take place these days are, in sequential order:

1. Worship of Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. He is prayed so as to remove any obstacles during and after the ceremony.

2. Gaurihara-puja: Worship by the bride of Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati to ask for a long, healthy and happily married life. Hindus consider Shiva and Parvati as the father and mother of the world.

3. Madhuparka: Welcoming of the groom by the bride’s parents. He is considered the incarnation of Lord Vishnu who has arrived at your doorstep to ask for the hand of your daughter.

4. Mangalashtaka: Chanting of eight marriage hymns by the priests while the bride and groom stand facing each other with garlands in their hands. At the end of each hymn, the gathered guests shower auspicious rice on the couple. At the end of the last hymn, the couple exchanges garlands.

5. Kanyadan: This is the official offering of the bride to the groom for him to look after her forever and the pronouncement by the bride’s father that the two families have now become one. This is a major difference between Hindu weddings and weddings in other faiths. In Hindu marriages, the two families are now considered united and stay together as relations.

6. Vivahahom (offerings into the sacrificial fire): The bride is led by the groom around the sacrificial fire four times. Then, while holding her hands, he says to her: “Gods like the Sun and fire have presented you to me. I hold your hands and we will live to a ripe old age”.

At the end of each step, the groom also asks the bride to stand on a piece of stone and says to her, “be firm like this stone and look after me and our children”. It is also worth knowing that when they go around the fire the fourth and last time, the bride traditionally takes over and leads the way. Obviously, the Aryans knew that women were made of sterner stuff and they are the ones who control the household!

7. Lajahom: The bride and groom offer puffed rice to celestial gods through the fire. In doing so, the groom says to the bride, “I am the sky, you are the earth. I am the Rigveda, you are the Saam-Veda, our most sacred scripture; I am the word, you are the melody; I am the seed, you are the bearer. We have married in the presence of fire, distinguished guests and Brahmins. We will love each other dearly without malice and live for a hundred years.”

8. Saptapadi or Seven Steps together: As the final ritual, the seven steps are very important. In fact, the Indian Legal code has ruled that the only two essential steps to legalise a Hindu marriage are the fire ritual and the seven steps. In this seven steps ritual, the bride is led by the groom and walks on seven heaps of rice arranged in a row. As she goes from one to the next heap of rice, she mixes the heap before with the present one. At each step, they take vows to seek happiness, contentment, devotion to each other, children, wealth and a long healthy life together. The final step is very moving and beautiful. This is where they say, “We are now friends forever.”

9. Having completed the wedding ritual, the bride and groom then bow in front of all the elders and seek their blessings.

Sociol scientists, psychologists, sexologists, historians, theologians and atheists have all worked since time immemorial to research the institution of marriage. The historian Majumdar sees marriage as the essential requirement for a regularised and socially sanctioned sexual gratification, transmission of culture, a dependable mechanism for the care and rearing of children, a valuable tool for property inheritance and a means of doing away with loneliness and fostering companionship. Popenoe (1951) states that there are five elements to a successful marriage: mating urge, division of labour, desire for home and children and economic security.

It appears that during Vedic times, there was considerable freedom both for men and women in terms studying the science of sexology, choosing their marriage partners, etc. and that attitude towards sex and marriage was quite open.

Vatsyayana, the author of the Kamasutra (4th to 6th century CE), advocated the need for young men and women to study the science of physical love. He recommended that young girls needed to do so at their parent’s home in addition to learning other arts and sciences before they were married. This, he felt, would make them successful and worthy wives.

Vatsyayana also recommended that if a man was unable to satisfy his wife due to a physical disability, then she was free to leave him and marry another. Later, when Brahminic orthodoxy took over, the society became more restrictive, rigid and traditional. The male became the sole controller of the household and women’s freedom was drastically compromised.

In this traditional Hindu society, the main object of a marriage was considered to be the observance of Dharma, which is loosely defined as performance of one’s duty to the society in a righteous and devout manner. The other objects were progeny (praja) and sexual pleasure (rati). Marriage was considered to be a social duty towards the family and the community and hence one of the sacraments. The rituals such as Havan (fire sacrifice), Kanyadan (offering of the bride), Panigrahan (holding of bride’s hands while taking oaths) and Saptapadi (seven steps together) were all considered sacred. The rites were performed by a Brahmin priest (god’s messenger on earth) in the presence of Agni, the god of fire and messenger to the gods. The union was considered indissoluble and irrevocable. The couple was bound to each other not only ’till death do us part’ but after death as well.

These days, more and more young people marry for companionship and the Hindu union is no longer unbreakable. Divorce is socially and legally permissible, albeit only as a last resort. Mutual fidelity and devotion are still considered essential. According to Kapadia, marriage continues to be a sacrament; only it is raised to a high ethical plane.

Modern Hindus have realised that marriage is a miniature social system that must be kept in equilibrium to survive.

Those of us who have migrated to a foreign land such as Australia have discovered that in this society, one has to make an extra special effort to achieve the above mentioned equilibrium. There are different challenges in this totally different environment and culture. The institution of marriage seems to be under a lot of pressure in the western world. Contract marriages are being openly sought. What can we, as Indian migrants share with our western counterparts? Stability in relationships and marriage has long been a tradition within India. As Hindus, we could show others by example that a marriage may well be a contract, but it is the one that is signed with God as a witness. For its stability and for the happiness of the couple and the family unit, adjustments, sacrifices and selflessness are the essential ingredients.

If we did this, then we would have successfully carried on our age-old tradition of stable marriages across the seven seas.

The writer is a Hindu priest and authorised marriage celebrant

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