It appears that the fascination with this institution known as marriage continues to preoccupy peoples everywhere. Every generation in every culture has attempted to define ground rules to help preserve and protect the initial bond that brings two people together. The liberal columnist Margaret Carlson wrote in the August 18th, 1997 issue of Time magazine that few things in life are as confounding as marriage. The state of Louisiana has passed legislation just a couple of weeks ago which provides an option to couples by which they can either enter into the usual type of marriage or a more binding type called covenant marriage.
My objective tonight is not to dwell on the institution of marriage as such, but to give you an idea of how Hindus have gone about the business of performing the wedding ritual. The mechanics of this performance could not be more different than a typical wedding we might attend in the United States be it Christian or Jewish. It is only when you probe the procedures in depth that you begin to notice some similarities in principle, but not so much in practice.
First of all, on the legal side of things, no state in India could ever dream of passing any law remotely resembling the one Louisiana has attempted. In fact I don’t think they could even enact a law that requires couples to obtain a marriage license and blood tests before a wedding. Hundreds of millions of weddings have taken place in India over the centuries with no more authority than a priest chanting mantras as old as civilization itself and an assembly of relatives and friends witnessing it, not on paper, but by a single word in Sanskrit:”tathastu”, meaning “it shall be so.” It has been a mystery to me, having participated in many a western style wedding, with all its beauty, subtlety, discipline, precision, flowers, music and dance etc., how some 900 million people on the other side of the planet practice this ritual entirely differently. In Indian weddings, there is undoubtedly music, flowers, dinners etc. And it is also beautiful. But discipline and precision are thrown to the winds except perhaps for a single moment in time, which can be called the defining moment after which the society will treat the couple as married. Incidentally the defining moment has no resemblance to the commonly understood moment here when the officiating priest uses the words – “I now pronounce you husband and wife…” In fact not only is there no such authoritative assurance which presumably provides protection under the law, but the defining moment itself can vary from one region to another, from one caste to another and from one sub-caste to another. This enormous variation on a reasonably basic theme is accepted without question merely because it has been so in the family, as the elders will testify. Literally millions of couples follow the procedures without either questioning it or understanding it. The priests oblige and demand nothing from the couple except for an occasional word or two they will ask one or the other to repeat, and these words convey nothing more significant than the English equivalent of “I” or “with my family” etc. This works because the ceremonies are in Sanskrit, an ancient language which the participants are not likely to know, but have enough familiarity with so that the mechanics of the process leaves them feeling content that the right things are being said and done.
Generally, in India, only a handful of people view the entire ceremony step by step and these are mostly the immediate family, especially on the bride’s side which has a vested interest in making sure the defining moment arrives and is past. In the old days one could almost hear a sigh of relief after the auspicious moment because no hurdle beyond that moment could be of any significance since the couple was now married. The rest of the audience attending the wedding ceremony goes about its business, paying scant attention to what goes on up there, and uses the time to chat freely and loudly, visit old friends, exchange gossip, for match-making, or discussing local, national and international politics or business, while waiting the formalities to be over and a good dinner served. In the midst of all this the priest may call for some music and a band (Nadaswaram) might play along being fully aware that the sound they generate will drown out the general din and confusion. Among a variety of things that baffle, the Hindu wedding style tops the list because logically it should have vanished long ago. In fact all signs indicate that its popularity is unquestionable. In the United States, however, we are dealing with a younger generation which values time and does ask questions.
When young people approach me now asking me to perform their wedding, I am touched by their genuine interest in understanding the several steps they will be taking during the ceremony and I am happy to oblige. We have tried to help families by developing a procedure based on our scriptures, with necessary variations to suit the individual family traditions. I have been able to convey to families that the procedures prescribed by our ancestors are full of meaning and beauty as they charge the couple with the responsibilities that they inherit by virtue of the union.
The Hindu wedding ceremony is based on Vedic traditions and rituals originating in the Rig Veda, the earliest of the four ancient Sanskrit books of knowledge which form the basis of Hinduism. Conjugal union has always been considered an important religious celebration, defining the beginning of the third stage of earthly existence, the first two being childhood and student life. These rituals, which date back at least 5,000 years, form a significant dramatic sequence.
First, the groom is invited by the bride’s father to leave the second (the student) stage of life and become a householder. In ancient India, the established practice was for the young to devote themselves to a study of the higher truths under the tutelage of a guru. Approximately twelve years of such studies constituted a full education. The student was expected to be well versed in the four Vedas, the original books of higher knowledge. The effect of this education was considered to be so deep that the next most normal course of action on the part of the young man was the journey to Kashi (Benares) to prepare for a spiritual life full of service or penance. This necessarily meant skipping the third stage of life, the life of the householder. It was this aspect that was built into the wedding ceremonies where the young man is stopped on his “journey” and persuaded by the bride’s father to choose the third stage. Most wedding practices have preserved this element. The four Vedas referred to earlier are known as Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. It would suffice today if the bridegroom can cite the names of the Vedas. But nobody questions the bridegroom. He is there to be appealed to, to show consideration to an amended lifestyle. In the ensuing drama, the bridegroom consents, and the main ceremony begins. The sacred space has been prepared, the time announced, and now the parties involved are brought together. The principal Hindu Gods are invoked to publicly proclaim and seal a bond of friendship between the bride and groom through a series of ritualistic steps.
At the climax in these ceremonies, in the typical South Indian ceremonies, the mangalyam, the auspicious and sacred necklace, is tied around the neck of the bride. The couple circles the sacred fire, confirming to each other, “With these seven steps, you have become my life’s companion. We are both friends. I shall never fail to be your friend. May you also never fail to be my friend…” Mutual wishes for prosperity, for children and for a long, happy life together, follow in a series of ceremonial offerings to the fire. Finally the blessings of elders and guests present are invoked to seal the happy and holy occasion.