By Kumkum Bhatia
The Sanskrit word for marriage – vivaha – literally means ‘that which supports or carries.’ A Hindu marriage is considered extremely sacred as it celebrates the union that supports and carries a man and woman throughout their married life in the pursuit of righteousness – dharma – that finally leads to moksha – liberation.
The Vedas divide life into four distinct stages, or ashrams: brahmacharya ashram – student life; grahstha ashram – household life; vanprastha ashram –retired life, and sanyasa ashram – life of renunciation. Marriage is thus considered to be a sacred ashram and the second stage from student to householder; it not only supports all the other three ashrams, but is also the foundation and a preparation to advance to the remaining two stages of life. Moreover, in India marriage is not just a union of two individuals, but of two families, and even of two villages. Therefore, Hindu weddings are complex, long-drawn affairs replete with elaborate rituals and practices. These vary from community to community but all have their origins in Vedic practices and hymns. Here we will describe and explain just a few of the important ones.
Mangalpheras: Walking around the Fire
The primary witness of a Hindu marriage is the fire-deity Agni, and by law and tradition, no marriage is complete without the pheras. Often people get confused between the pheras and what follows it, the Saptapadi – seven steps. Some communities do follow the ritual of seven rounds, but according to Vedic tradition, the pheras are actually four in number representing the four goals of life – dharma – religious and moral duties; artha – prosperity; kama – pleasures; and moksha – salvation. With ends of garments tied together and to the accompaniment of appropriate mantras, the couple walks – clockwise – around the fire. During the first three rounds, they pray for the Lord’s blessings, pledge loyalty to one another and promise to take care of future progeny. In the final round the bride leads the groom indicating that she will lead the family in all spiritual matters.
Saptapadi: Seven Steps
The seven steps signify the couple’s journey together. Each step represents a specific set of vows. The priest recites the mantras and the bride and groom make the following promises: ‘With the first step, we pledge to keep a pure household; with the second, we vow to develop physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual strength; with the third, we undertake to increase our wealth through dharma – through righteousness; with the fourth step, we vow to acquire knowledge, happiness and harmony; with the fifth, we pledge to pray for noble, intelligent, and courageous progeny; may the sixth lead to long life; and with the seventh step we promise to be friends and companions through harmony and understanding.’ Thereafter, the groom recites: ‘You who have taken the seven steps with me should become my friend…Oh maid, I should never get parted from your friendship… We would plan all things that are to be done in future together. Let us both make our two minds into one.’
After the completion of the seven steps, the wife takes her rightful seat on the left side of her husband.
A married Hindu woman is recognized by five symbols – mangalsutra, toe rings, kumkum, glass bangles and a nose ring. Among these, the mangalsutra – meaning auspicious thread that holds things together – is the most important. It is a sacred thread of love and goodwill and an inevitable part of the Hindu marriage ceremony. The groom places it around his bride’s neck after the completion of the pheras and saptapadi. It is made of black beads with a gold or diamond pendant. The beads signify protection from evil powers and are believed to safeguard the marriage, especially the life of the husband.
Kanyadaanam is an essential, significant and emotional ritual. It literally means the gifting away of a kanya – girl. This is carried out just before the pheras. It is normally performed by the father of the bride wherein he entrusts his daughter to the groom. The father places the right hand of the bride over the groom’s right hand and holy water is poured on the palms of the couple while the priest recites Vedic mantras.
According to tradition, the groom is considered to be a form of Lord Vishnu. Hence, the father honours him by giving his most beloved daughter. In acceptance, the groom touches the right shoulder of the bride promising to care, love, respect, and value her. This ceremony is considered very propitious. Here, the giver is actually greater than the receiver because the father has parted with his most cherished and treasured possession. Hence, it is said that entry to heaven is denied to those who have not performed this important and auspicious ritual of Kanyadaanam.