Most of us are married under a Vedic ceremony we don’t really understand. We are familiar with the Christian wedding and its vows because of cinema and our familiarity with English. However, this exchange between groom and bride is quite recent when compared with the Vedic ceremony.
The Christian formulation is: “To have and to hold, for better and for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health till death do us part.” We can find this vow in almost exactly the same shape in a 14th century edition of the Liber Pontificalis (The Book of the Popes).
Meeting of minds: The Vedic wedding rituals did not place the bride in a position subordinate to the groom. Photo by Divya Babu/Mint
One line was excised from this in modern times. It is the pledge made by the bride just before the words “till death do us part”. She promises her groom she will remain “bonny and buxom in bed and board”. Buxom is of course full-breasted, while bonny means beautiful, attractive. What could account for this lovely line’s omission? Possibly feminism.
The Muslim marriage ceremony has no romance about it. The marriage itself is conducted by the girl’s guardian with or without her consent, though it is not valid unless she later consents. The Muslim marriage is contractual, and it wouldn’t be incorrect to call it a transaction. The unique thing about the transaction is that it is reversed. The woman must compulsorily be paid a gift of cash by the man, following the instruction in verse 4 of the Quran’s chapter “Women”. From the outside, it appears a more natural exchange than dowry, because it is the woman who will perform service—sexual, domestic and maternal. A woman may ask for as much money as she wishes.
Also Read | Aakar Patel’s previous Lounge columns
From a later verse in the same chapter, Shias have legitimized an interesting phenomenon called Muta, or temporary marriage. This is reviled by Sunnis and it is minor differences like these which produce sectarianism.
Let us look at the Vedic wedding. The best book on this was published by Kolkata’s Writers Workshop. It was written by Purushottama Lal with help from scholar Suniti Kumar Chatterji. It reveals the beauty of the ceremony. Lal said his intention was to “present the essentials of the Hindu wedding, shorn of the excessive ritualisation that has crept into it as a result of regional variations and commercial considerations”.
Lal hoped his booklet would “serve the idealism and sacred bonding needs of all who feel that such a text restores to the ceremony the auspiciousness and sanctity that mechanical performance has deprived it of in modern times”.
Does the ceremony do this? Let’s see if it does.
The wedding begins with the purohit addressing the gathered: “Say these words to bless the wedding: ‘May all be holy (Om punyaham), may all be successful (Om riddhim), may all be well (Om svasti).’”
The guests respond: “Om punyaham, Om riddhyatam, Om svasti”.
The man, karta, giving the bride away then welcomes the groom, who replies: “I am honoured (aham ase). The bride is blessed by the presence of divinity.”
The couple then receive each other with these words.
Bride: “I respect you with all my mind and all my heart, I respect your soul with mine. Inside the same as outside, and outside the same inside.”
Groom: “I respect you similarly in the presence of all.”
Bride: “My mind will move with your mind in love, like water flowing on the path of life. My life is linked with yours, my mind with yours and my vows with your vows. Let us work together as two friends, seekers of the same goal.”
The groom replies with these words: “Who is giving to whom? It is love that gives to love. Love is giver, receiver, an inexhaustible ocean. You come to me with love, and that is love’s doing.”
The purohit tells the bride: “As Sachi to Indra, as Svaha to Agni, as Rohini to Chandra, as Damayanti to Nala, as Bhadra to Vivasyat, as Arundhati to Vashishth, as Lakshmi to Vishnu, may you be to your husband.”
The bride replies: “May the path of my husband be spontaneous, and I shall walk on it with pleasure.”
This is followed by the Kushandika, the fire ritual.
The couple faces the fire with the groom standing behind the bride, reaching out in front to cup her palms in his.
Bride: “May my husband live a hundred years, and my people prosper.”
Purohit: “May you be as steadfast to your family as the Pole Star is to the earth.”
Then follows the ritual we associate most with the Vedic marriage, the seven steps of the Saptapadi.
The couple chants together: “We take the first step for nourishment.”
They continue in this manner, taking the second step for success, the third for loyalty, the fourth for bliss, the fifth for the good of all animals, the sixth for prosperity, the seventh for illumination.
They chant together: “With these seven steps I am your friend, may I deserve your friendship and may it make me one with you, loved and loving, sakha-sakhi.”
The couple then hold hands, and the groom says: “I hold your hand happily, for I am your husband. Let us grow old together, as lovers, as friends, as guides. Be with me and let’s together build the ideal home. May the universe’s powers bless us and the holy waters unite us. Your heart, my will—may they be one. Your mind and my mind, also one. I hope our words delight one another. May divinity unite us. What is in my heart, may it be in yours, tied in the knot of truth. In love, may we see a hundred autumns, live a hundred autumns and hear a hundred autumns.”
He then anoints his bride with sindoor.
Bride: (facing Dhruv, the Pole Star): “You are forever stable. May I also be in my new home.”
Purohit: “Witness this bride and bless her. May she be happy in love. Be as a queen with your husband’s family.”
Facing the couple he says: “May you always follow the principles of dharma, artha and kama (morality, economics and sexual pleasure).”
The couple, together: “I will.”
Purohit: “May this ceremony be blessed by God. Shanti, shanti, shanti.”
One thing is striking in the exchange: This is a marriage of equals. The text does not excessively put the bride in a subordinate position. There is also no reference to caste, other than of course the word “purohit”, which can only refer to a Brahmin.
The Bengali purohit meant to preside over my marriage declined, quite rightly, because as a peasant I was a different caste from the kulin Kayastha bride. I am quite certain this would have been a problem even when this ceremony was first performed.
And yet to think that this was how Indians were married a thousand years before Athens, founding city of civilization, became a power is humbling. Such beauty and polish is not to be found in any other marriage anywhere in the world, even if we didn’t realize it at the time.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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