Vedic Wedding Rituals and Society – a feminist perspective

Guest Post by wordssetmefreee

After the Thali post, a few readers (Simple Girl, Fem, Aarti, SB, etc.) wanted to discuss the topic of Vedic wedding rituals and society further – so here goes.

Vedic wedding practices are outlined in parts of the Rig Veda, Atharva Veda and the Sama Veda. They are outlined in the Grhyasutras (within the Vedas). Some information about how weddings in the time of the Rig Veda took place can also be gleaned from the description of Surya’s wedding ceremony. Although this is an allegorical tale, scholars think that the rituals described reflect the practices of those times.

There is a startling amount of similarity between Vedic weddings and current day Hindu weddings. Some may find this ability to preserve traditions over several centuries – this sense of rootedness – admirable; others may see this as rigidity and unwillingness to change and evolve.

There are various interpretations of the Vedas and scholars argue over which is the right way to interpret the writings. There are 3 main reasons for this:

  • The language of the Vedas is an archaic form of Sanskrit, it’s exact form and grammar are now lost to us. Scholars must use their knowledge of later versions of Sanskrit and do their best to interpret the text.
  • The Vedas seem to be written in some kind of a code – the literal interpretation leads to one message and the symbolic/metaphorical interpretation leads to quite another.
  • For a long time, the Vedas were of the ‘Sruti’ variety of literature, that is they were passed on through the oral tradition. Later, they were recorded and became a written form of literature – thus a lot of meaning/significance could’ve been lost in the transcription.

Due to the above reasons, there is a lot of disagreement over the meanings hidden in the verses and it becomes difficult to draw conclusions about Vedic culture. For instance, was Vedic culture egalitarian or was it hierarchical? Were women treated as equals or were they subordinate to men?

I will list and briefly describe just a few primary rituals (there are many others).

Kanya Danam – the father “gives” his daughter as a “gift” to the groom by placing the bride’s hand in the groom’s hand.

The Kamasukta verse recited here is:

Who offered this maiden?, to whom is she offered? Kama (the god of love) gave her to me, that I may love her May the heaven bestow thee, may the earth receive thee

The words “that I may love her” are beautiful but the remaining words – ‘offered’, ‘received’, and ‘bestow’ seem not to indicate independent agency for the bride. Was kanyadaanam a mere formality or was the ownership of women a fact of life? We don’t know.

What we do know for a fact is that the concept of kanyadaan exists even to this day. It remains not only symbolic of the ownership exercised over women by the male members of her family, but also translates to practical life. Women are infantilized both by their birth family as well as by the husband’s family. Many married women are still required to take permission even to step out.

Pani grahanam – a ‘holding of the hand’ to symbolize marital union.

The Vedic chant here is:

I take thy hand in mine, yearning for happiness, I ask thee, to live with me, as thy husband, Till both of us, with age, grow old, Know this, as I declare, to the Gods, that I may fulfill, my Dharmas of the householder, with thee, This I am, That art thou, The Sāman I, the Ŗc thou, The Heavens I, the Earth thou

All of the above lines are acceptable – I especially like that he ‘asks’ her hand and I also like the line about growing old together.   Is the Heaven/Earth analogy meant to be lyrical or does it indicate gender hierarchy? There are several other verses in the Vedas where the men ‘give’ and women ‘’receive’, expressed through imagery.

Kankanabandhana – tying twin bracelets to each other as a symbol of their union and to ward off evil. This practice has a ring of equality to it. The groom AND the bride wear identical ornaments that signify commitment. But why did this practice disappear over time?

This was the practice that seemed to have evolved much later into the tying of the mangalsutra or thali where the tying is done ONLY to the bride. The thread also came to be linked to the husband’s health and long life.  There is no marriage ritual that prays for the health and long life of the bride. Did we become more gender hierarchical over time?

Sapta padi – there are many interpretations of the seven vows, here is a nicer/saner one from Hinduism Today:

  • The first step is taken to earn and provide a living for their household or family.
  • The second step is taken to build physical, mental, and spiritual powers and to lead a healthy lifestyle.
  • The third step is taken to earn and increase their wealth by righteous and proper means.
  • The fourth step is taken to acquire knowledge, happiness, and harmony by mutual love, respect, understanding, and faith.
  • The fifth step is taken to have children for whom the couple will be responsible and to blessed with healthy, righteous, and brave children.
  • The sixth step is taken for self-control and longevity.
  • The seventh step is taken to be true to each other, loyal and remain life-long companions by this wedlock.

Completion of the seventh step is the moment of completion of the marriage ritual.

And here is a misogynistic interpretation: http://varan_bhaath.tripod.com/Pages/Saptapadi.htm When I recently asked our family priest at my niece’s wedding to give me an English translation of the Saptapadi, he gave me something very similar to the above.

Note that the nicer version replaces “sons” with children, for instance. The use of ‘You’ and ‘I’ (with separate roles and responsibilities) is replaced with ‘we’ and common responsibilities. Once again, there is a lot of confusion and disagreement over the “correct” interpretation.

Surya’s wedding ceremony – although this tale is said to be symbolic of cosmic events, scholars also think that the wedding rituals described were reflective of the times.   The bride’s journey to the groom’s home is described in great detail.

Raibhi was her dear bridal friend, and Narasamsi led her home. Lovely was Sūrya’s robe: she came to that which Gatha had adorned. Thought was the pillow of her couch, sight was the unguent for her eyes. Her treasury was earth and heaven, when Sūrya went unto her Lord.

Surya journeying to her husband’s home indicates patrilocality. We don’t know if this is a one off instance or if this was the general trend in Vedic times.

What we do know is that patrilocality is an important part of present day marriages in our society. Women are routinely expected to give up their jobs, move to another city/country, or move in with the husband’s joint family.

Origin and Timeline of the Vedas:

The Vedas were written over a period of time from 1500 through 1000 BC by nomadic Indo-European Aryan tribes as they crossed the Hindu Kush mountains and migrated to the North Western parts of the Indian subcontinent. The Vedas were passed through oral tradition in an old form of Sanskrit long before they were written down.

Content:

The Rig Veda is mostly composed of hymns to various Gods. Most of the Gods were the same/similar to other Indo-European Gods and were nature/element based (fire, earth, sky, water, wind). Thus we can see close similarities between these Vedic Gods (Indra, Agni, Soma, Mitra, Vayu, Varuna, Yama, etc.), Greek Gods (Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Hermes), and Persian and Nordic Gods.

The remaining Vedas contain more hymns as well as other poems, allegorical tales, and philosophical explorations in the physical and spiritual realms.

Ideas Espoused in the Vedas

The Vedas contain rational/scientific/skeptical elements as well as ideas that would be considered regressive/questionable in current time. We don’t know if the latter represent mis-interpretation of the original ideas, added on at later stages, or if such ideas are actually part of the Vedas.

Scientific/Philosophical/Literary Elements

There is a lot of philosophical questioning and agnosticism. The Nasadiya Sukta or creation hymn questions the very existence of God and describes the origins of the universe in ways that run parallel to what modern physicists believe. Many prominent quantum physicists such as Schrödinger, Bohr, and Einstein have written that they were influenced by some of the ideas proposed in the Vedas. There are also parallels between plasma physics and the Vedas. Carl Sagan said that Vedic Cosmology is the only one in which the time scales correspond to those of modern cosmology. The concept of a genderless God (Arthanareeshvara) is unique to Vedic thought.

The story of the Great Flood which appears with Prajapati as the Matsya (later versions identify Vishnu as Matsya Avatara) is said to signify evolution, as the earliest forms of life were aquatic. Similar stories of ‘The Great Flood’ appear in other cultures (Mesopotamian, Sumerian, Babylonian, Mayan, Persian, Greek, Biblical). Another interpretation is that the people of ancient times must’ve experienced a natural disaster and passed this experience down the generations in various forms and variations.

Long before there was science, there was philosophy. Philosophers were the scientists of ancient times – they asked questions, they observed. They lacked scientific methods, accuracy, precision, and data collection. But they had endless curiosity and a love of learning.

The Vedas are not the word of God (like the Gita, Bible, and other later religious texts) but the words of man – man’s thoughts, troubles, explanations, and interpretations of the world he lived in. There are no rewards and punishments, no heaven or hell. There are more metaphors, allegories, personifications, and symbolism here than the combined works of Homer, Sophocles, and Dante. This is the refreshing aspect of the Vedas.

It is a fascinating thought isn’t it – that someone just like you and me, sat down at the end of a tired day, looked up at the night sky, saw the same constellations as us, as they composed these intriguing poems. They wondered about the same things: Who are we and where do we come from?

Precursor to the Caste System

And yet, the Vedas also contain concepts that are the precursors for so many troublesome/regressive/misogynistic/discriminatory aspects of current day Indian society.

  • The Vedas were composed/written in such an esoteric form that the possession and understanding of Vedic knowledge could only belong to an elite class of scholars. This is never a good idea for any society – knowledge sharing must always be a democratic process.
  • The power struggles in the Vedic period became the precursor for the caste system. The warrior class reigned supreme in the beginning, but later the priests became important as rituals became more important.
  • Philosophical exploration and questioning became less important and rituals became more and more significant. Rituals also became less symbolic, more literal, and twisted to favor those in power.
  • Other (Nastika) schools of thought (Carvaka, Buddhist, Jain) tried to overcome the dominance of the priestly class and their excessive adherence to rituals, but were sidelined and Asthika schools of thought became the predominant form of Hinduism.

Treatment of Women

Like all other ancient societies, our stories from the Ithihasas (Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas, which came after the Upanishads which came after the Vedas) indicate that women were not equals to men. Draupadi was gambled away in a game of dice, literally reduced to a pawn in a war between men. (Some scholars postulate that the disrobing scene was absent in earlier versions and was added later during the Bhakti movement.) Sita, who loved Rama with all her heart and soul, was suspected of unfaithfulness and humiliated by being asked to ‘prove’ herself. Women in our epics are portrayed as being treated unfairly. Men were blessed “Ayushman Bhava” (may you live a long life) but women were blessed (Akhada Sowbhagyavathi Bhava (may your husband live a long life) and also with the famous “May you be blessed with a hundred sons.”

When did this preference for the male child begin? In Vedic times? If so, how do we reconcile this discrimination with egalitarian concepts of Adi Shakti (primeval feminine omniscient power) and Arthanareeshvara (androgynous/genderless God) and Durga (Goddess and slayer of demons)?

There are a few women scholars and ascetics mentioned in the Vedas – Ghosha, Lopamudra, Maitreyi, Gargi – but then these women are always portrayed as outliers and needed to stand up against society’s norms and expectations in order to be recognized and accepted. Women in many verses were also required to be “pure” and perfect” which can hardly be described as human.

Androcentrism

So, the question continues to haunt us: Is Vedic culture egalitarian/feminist or patriarchal/sexist?

An interesting answer is provided by the following paper.

Anya Gurholt at Westminster College argues in her paper, “The Androgyny of Enlightenment: Questioning Women’s Status in Ancient Indian Religions” that the fundamental ideas and theories in the Vedas are egalitarian but Vedic society and philosophical organizations were patriarchal and sexist in their interpretation, practice and implementation of the ideas . The reason she gives for this is androcentrism – the original Vedic ideas were recorded, interpreted, discussed, translated, and established in society by men.

Quote from her paper: “This fact is referred to as androcentrism, which is, viewing the world from a male perspective, whilst women are viewed and treated as passive objects, rather than active, subjects of history.”

Gurholt concludes by saying that the (patriarchal and sexist) PRACTICES of Hinduism and Buddhism are in contradiction with the original egalitarian PRINCIPLES of these philosophies. (The related reference is included at the end.)

This is why we also need female historians, scribes, professors, philosophers, priests/clerics/rabbis (besides male ones) so we may avoid bias and retain objectivity and truth.

Conclusion

This post seems to have raised more questions than provided answers. I personally feel that the Vedas (like any other ancient text) should be treated as a piece of ancient literature that reflected the big questions and struggles of that ancient time. To me, it is futile to make literal translations of these beautifully composed hymns riddled with multi-layered metaphors and turn them into rigid prescriptions on how to live (which is what the later Hindu sacred texts like the Upanishads and the Puranas tended to do).  The Vedas should be studied from a historical/literary/philosophical perspective for their many intriguing elements. Insisting on literally interpreting and following 10,000-year-old rituals is akin to resisting evolution.

Evolution is a beautiful thing – it created humans with complex brains. Without evolution, we would be Neanderthals, or going back further, we would be Primates, and if we kept on resisting evolution, we would still be unicellular organisms.

Perhaps the great sages and philosophers who composed the Vedas – if they could see us today – would be surprised and disappointed at how irrational and dogmatic we have become.  How much our present day culture fears questioning and truth seeking, which ironically is the essence of the Vedas.

How we live and let live should be guided by current knowledge of the world, and shaped by the accumulated knowledge and experiences of the past seven to ten thousand years, the time that has passed since the writing of the Vedas.

References – research papers, books, articles, Wiki entries related to this topic

Hawley, John S., and Wulff, Donna M. 1996. Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley, CA

Kinsley, Davis R. 1993. Hinduism: A Cultural Perspective

Lalita, K., and Tharu, Susie. 1991. Women Writing in India (600 B.C.[E] to the Present).

Lang, Karen. 1999. Women in Ancient India. In Women’s Roles in Ancient India

A Critique of the Early Buddhist Texts: The Doctrine of Woman’s Incapability of Becoming an Enlightened One. 2002. Asian Journal of Women’s Studies

Barnes, Nancy S. 1987. Buddhism. In Women in World Religions, edited by Arvind Sharma. Albany, NY

Cabezon, Jose I. 1985. Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender. Albany, NY

Falk, Nancy. 1974. An Image of Women in Old Buddhist Literature: the Daughter’s of Mara. In

Women and Religion: Papers of the Working Group on Women and Religion, edited by Plaskow, Judith., Joan Arnold Romero. Montana

Gross, Rita M. 1993. Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction Buddhism. New York: State University

Anya Gurholt, The Androgyny of Enlightenment: Questioning Women’s Status in Ancient Indian Religions, Westminster College

H. Wilson’s Rig Veda Sanhita (1800s)

Ralph Griffith’s The Hymns of the Rig Veda (late 1800s or early 1900s not sure)

‘Rgveda for the Layman’ by Dr. Shyam Ghosh, and Vedic Physics by Dr. Ram Mohan Roy (for those interested in the physics angle).

Harvard Oriental Series – 50 volumes that discuss different aspects of the Vedas.

http://www.metaphysicalmusing.com/articles/rigveda2014/plasma.htm ( for those interested in Plasma physics – this link gives many other references)

Writings by/Biography of Niels Bohr

Creation Hymn: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nasadiya_Sukta

62 thoughts on “Vedic Wedding Rituals and Society – a feminist perspective

  1. Beautifully researched! I loved this bit. You have really nailed it perfectly when you say:

    “Evolution is a beautiful thing – it created humans with complex brains. Without evolution, we would be Neanderthals, or going back further, we would be Primates, and if we kept on resisting evolution, we would still be unicellular organisms.

    Perhaps the great sages and philosophers who composed the Vedas – if they could see us today – would be surprised and disappointed at how irrational and dogmatic we have become. How much our present day culture fears questioning and truth seeking, which ironically is the essence of the Vedas.”

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    • Exactly! Evolution! Treat ancient documents as a part of history. Move on. I wonder why in all (as far as I know) religions, there is this pressing stress on hanging on to philosophies and traditions that very clearly have no place in a forward-thinking, modern society.

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      • These “sacred” scriptures maintain the status quo and benefit groups that benefit from them.

        For instance, have you ever encountered a Dalit who is a fierce supporter of the caste system? Probably not.

        Chances are that most people who endorse the caste system belong to the upper castes and proportionally benefit from the existence of the caste system.
        These “sacred texts” consolidate power in the hands of a few “in-groups. Who wants to give up unearned power and privilege?

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  2. Some south Indian communities have “sumangali prarthanai” where a group of married women (widows are not invited) conduct a ceremony to pray that the bride dies before her husband. No one really asks the bride if that is what she wants. This is the ceremony with which the MIL “welcomes” the DIL to the family – by praying that the DIL dies before her son. They have a festive meal after that too.

    Indian culture and “tradition” is employed full-time to keep women, lower castes, the young, the underprivileged in their places – under the feet of the privileged.

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    • Wow, I had no clue that this was the meaning behind the ritual! But of course, the meaning is self explanatory when you think about it, if all the women are praying to remain Sumangalis, they must all obviously be praying to die before their husbands. In many houses though, this is not the ritual that the MIL conducts – it is the ritual conducted by the parents before the marriage happens. Imagine, the parents are basically praying that their daughter should die before the son-in-law does!! How morbid!

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      • My MIL does not host parties for special occasions – no birthday or graduation celebrations. She does not commemorate anyone in any way.

        But this was one “welcoming party” she insisted on hosting – with catering etc., both for me and my SIL.

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  3. Excellent well researched post, really enjoyed reading this.

    I think ‘should be treated as a piece of ancient literature that reflected the big questions and struggles of that ancient time’ sums it up nicely. The trouble is that many in our society translate ‘ancient’ as ‘better’, often because it allows them to defend their misguided agendas. Mostly they claim as ‘ancient/ traditional/ indian’ that which is none of these.. but they count on the fact that the masses know their history as badly as the tradition-defenders themselves.

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    • Also, from all I have read, I do not believe that we ever had a gender egalitarian past (depute goddess worship). Essentially some things do not change. Back then as now, money = resources = power.

      Back then most ‘jobs’ required physical labour which men had an advantage in. Women also spend much longer in childbirth and pregnancy stages as child survival rates were lower. You ended up with a structure where men were firmly the ‘earners’ and women firmly dependent for their whole lives. This structure cannot produce an egalitarian equal society. It is simply impossible.

      The provider and holder or resources holds the power. Hence sons were ‘valuable’, and women were better off dead than windowed (what would they eat? how would they protect themselves if they couldn’t buy or build strength?).

      Hence, then and now, the only way to egalitarianism to financial foundations (which now means education and jobs). Some things really don’t change.

      Liked by 4 people

      • I agree, I don’t think they were egalitarian in any way shape or form. I also agree that the insistence on ” tradition”is more about maintaining the status quo.

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      • I agree. I think many of us want to romanticize the past and believe in the image of a Golden Indian age where the vedas had kept us at the peak of all scientific advances and economic prosperity. We choose to believe that the past was much better because then we can still feel superior to those that call us an over populated, corruption ridden poor country.

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        • Thanks for the link Alexandria. I was thinking specifically of indian society around Indian vedic times in my comment, which wouldn’t go as far back as hunter gatherer times mentioned in the article.

          However the article itself is quite interesting and it reminded me of shifts in culture that might reflect this history. Most pagan religions had the concept of goddess worship which seems to have moved towards a more ‘male’ god or gods. We saw a shift towards one male god in monotheistic abrahamic religions and the emergence of more important male gods in polytheistic religions like hinduism. Maybe this reflects some shift in society? It would be interesting to see the timelines super-imposed.

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  4. Great to read!
    Have saved this up for re reading.
    Busy these days but I do read the postings, especially your guest postings here at IHM’s blog..

    Regards
    GV
    (Back in Fremont from San Diego )

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  5. Enjoyed reading this well researched piece. I have always believed that in early stages of civilization women were equal to men and this equality contributed to the evolution of spiritual and cultural and economic growth. There are some researchers who believe that the status of women in the area, that is considered India today, was reduced due to the multiple invasions (mogul and subsequent European /western) of rulers from different religions and cultures.

    There is a game called “passing the secret” where we used to sit in a circle and one person would start by whispering a phrase or sentence to the person sitting next to them. By the time the “whisper” reaches the last person in the chain the whole message would be lost. It was always funny to hear how many things was added and deleted when passed on between a handful of people all sitting under a tree …in a matter of minutes the message became grotesquely transformed. Imagine playing this game across centuries and insisting that the message was unchanged….that’s what many are doing in the name of maintaining tradition:holding on to something that they don’t understand.

    Hopefully, questions raised in articles such as this will make people think deeply and be the starting point of meaningful change.

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  6. Interesting post! I had no idea about all these rituals. Years back when I got married, the only thing that I (and hubby) thought of was to get over with all the ‘formalities’ and start a life together. I didn’t pay any attention to anything which the pundit was saying. Blame it on my age and the stress which wedding ceremony brings!

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    • I am happily married now and very much treated as an equal partner but it stings me to realize that I did not think at all about what the different rituals in my marriage represented. I even had a wedding invitation card with beautiful illustrations of many of these rituals explaining the procedure behind each one but not really the meaning!

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  7. Wow. Normally I can’t get through to the end of such ‘scholarly’ topics. This one was short enough and well-put-together for my attention span. Thanks, peeps.

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  8. Thanks a lot for this. I can imagine the time which went into research. I was so looking for something like this to understand wedding rituals, especially when I came across multiple interpretations of Mangalsutra, Saptapadi when I was looking up for them before my wedding. Very well written.

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  9. Nice… just enough research to sound scholarly and to convince ourselves that we know everything… however, understanding the essence of it requires a little more openness of mind

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    • If you read the post attentively, you will see that I asked more questions than provided answers because we DON’T “know everything”, so I’m baffled by your claim.

      “understanding the essence of it requires a little more openness of mind”
      Precisely. I hope you read this line in the post, “the essence of the Vedas is questioning and truth seeking” which is what this discussion aims to do.

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  10. hah, I’m going to a wedding in a month and half, complete with kanyadhan and bride moving to husbands house to live with husband and fil and give up her everything. and busy learning cooking so she can be useful form the day she lands. I have been warned that I MUST come, since im the sister ( cousin) , show up, shut up, help tie the thali, keep the SIL seer tray ( 5 to be exact) and no revolutionary Ideas, no problems, and then after those 2 days i can go my merry way meet my many friends ( boys!!!!) and leave.
    such is the state of modern,educated ,liberal families still.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Seems like we have similar sets of people in our lives… Keep your “radical” ideas to yourself and let what happen, happen(sigh). Ever wish someone would give a shake to their brains?

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    • Well, if you have objections,bring them up as much as you want before the wedding, or don’t go. You’re radical enough to make a scene at someone else’s wedding but not radical enough to refuse to go? No one can force you to go. If you do go,it’s just rude to make a scene. The wedding is not about you. Yes,it is unfortunate that some rituals are sexist,so change them at your own wedding. If you make a scene at your cousin’s wedding you really won’t change anyone’s mind. Maybe ,if you feel so strongly,you can talk to your cousin and aunt and uncle? This isn’t about feminism,it’s about being polite. If you’re at a wedding,you should behave appropriately.

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      • oh i would never ruin someones else’s wedding, im not so radical. I would and have pointed to my cousin about what he’s doing etc., i would never in a million years even talk to his future wife since i dont know her.
        Sure i feel strongly but i do know not to say stuff in someone else’s wedding. i was warned not to say it to my own parents or my uncle before or after the wedding either.
        dont worry having lived int his planet for 40+ yrs and having being born and raised in that society i do know how to behave and not cause our respected elders any angst..🙂
        all my radical behavior is reserved for my family ( us and our kids) , they will have a truly equal marriage ceremony if they want me to participate.
        for the others wedding unless im specifically asked for my opinion i dont give shit.

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      • Note how she has been told she “MUST” show up and do xyz whether she believes it or not since she is related to the groom. That, IMO, is impolite. She is an adult and can decide whether she wants to participate or not.

        Yes, once she decides to participate, she should just be a bystander at someone else’s wedding, but people can’t have it both ways “you must show up and participate actively but quietly in things even if you don’t believe in them (not just be a bystander).”

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    • I have redirected my cousin Sister in law a bright young doctor of marriagable age to this blog.As usual her parents are looking for groom….I have “poisoned” her mind with my radical ideas so much that now she is very choosy about her prospective groom….her parents are litrally tearing their hairs out n I m smiling in glee😀 I feel like I saved one life from getting sacrificed to society’s whims😛

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  11. The very premise of marriage, in almost all cultures including the U.S and Europe, is gender inequality. That began to change only when religious texts were overridden by secular law. Sadly, the way marriages are performed continue to be mostly religious, with all the discriminatory baggage.

    http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2015/04/29/3652468/justice-ginsburg-eviscerates-case-marriage-equality-just-five-sentences/
    “until surprisingly recently, the legal institution of marriage was defined in terms of gender roles. According to Sir William Blackstone, an eighteenth century English jurist whose works are still frequently cited today to explain the common law principles we inherited from our former colonial rulers, “[t]he very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything.” As late as 1887, fully one third of the states did not permit women to control their earnings. And married women could not even withhold consent to sex with their husband until shockingly recently.
    Under the common law, “by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given herself up in this kind unto her husband,” and this consent was something “she cannot retract.” The first successful prosecution in the United States of a husband who raped his wife did not occur until the late 1970s.
    So American marriage law, and the English law that it was derived from, presumed that the wife was both financially and sexual subservient to the husband. In a world where marriage is defined as a union between a dominant man and a submissive woman, each fulfilling unique gender roles”

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  12. One ritual that was part of weddings in my family/community was the ‘Kasi Yatra’ or Journey to Varanasi. The groom suddenly (pretend) walks away from the wedding, book in one hand, staff in another, setting out to Varanasi to pursue higher education. He doesn’t wish to settle down and become a husband. The bride’s brother or uncle then comes and BEGS the groom (literally holds his chin) to stay back, be kind to his sister/niece and marry her. No higher education for the bride, of course. No conflict between the Brahmacharya and Grihasta stages for her. She demurely waits, hoping her groom will change his mind, and marry her.

    The whole ritual is very popular and usually wedding guests practically run from their seats, following out the rushing groom to watch the spectacle between the groom and the bride’s brother. This ritual was obviously added on in later times because the city of Varanasi was founded much later.

    Every time I watched this, I felt like saying to the groom, “Leave. Since you decided to. No one should beg you to stay. If you stay, you should do so because you love her and want to marry her, not as a favor.” My husband decided he did not want the whole Kasi yatra farce at our wedding. My brother also forewent it.

    Another ritual that always bothered me – the bride’s father washes the groom’s feet. At both mine and my sister’s weddings, we told our dad to refuse to wash the groom’s feet, so this was another ritual that was dropped in our family. At my brother’s wedding, we forbade the bride’s father from washing my brother’s feet.

    But we did not question the kanyadaanam ritual somehow. All 3 of us went through with it. So, nothing extraordinary I suppose, but we took small steps forward. All of this was 2 decades ago.

    I wish I could go back and have a simpler, more meaningful wedding. If I had my wedding today, I would just do the Saptapadi (a version acceptable to me and hubby), wear comfortable clothes, then enjoy dinner with close family and friends (max 30 people).

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    • I tried so hard to do it as you described in the last paragraph…But I ended up giving in to the whims and fancies of the elders who did things cause “This was the way it was ALWAYS done.” I cant tell you how I abhor that sentence.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I destroyed my wedding album (except for a couple of pictures of some of my now deceased relatives) and video ‘cos they bring back bad memories. We celebrate a different day as our “anniversary” and I am planning a renewal of vows on our 20th anniversary – the way we like it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, I also sold my thali and gave the money to charity and donated my wedding saree to someone who could use it. Very cathartic. I do not for one moment regret marrying who I married, but I wish we hadn’t married at all, just lived together without all those bad memories to cloud our happiness. Or conducted the ceremony our way.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly. On TV, I just finished watching a “renewal of vows” ceremony for a couple who celebrated their tenth year by writing their own vows to each other.

      The couple did not have fond memories of their original Vedic wedding ceremony, with the priest refusing to translate the Sanskrit chants, obscure rituals, and having to perform rituals they found personally offensive.

      They said that the renewal ceremony was much more personally meaningful, enjoyable, and satisfying.

      As I watched the couple make their vows, I began wondering why all of us perform rituals that we find offensive, why we mostly endure wedding rituals that have no personal meaning for us.

      What should be a day of personal happiness becomes the day when we sat through smoke, listening to a pot-bellied priest chant verses that we don’t understand, and would be outraged by, even if we did.

      For most couples, the wedding ceremony is just a three-ringed circus, with the couple as the clowns.

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      • My sister’s friend’s daughter (born and brought up here in the US) recently got married. They had a simple Vedic wedding where they did the Saptapadi and the priest translated every vow into English. There was a homa (fire) and traditional clothes – the bride wore a gorgeous Kanjeevaram and the groom wore the Angavastram – but it was a simple, beautiful ceremony, completed in an hour. Followed by a veena recital, then dinner and socializing. I enjoyed it very much.

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  13. This is interesting! Nowadays I don’t think anyone except the priest and the guy who organises the wedding has any idea what those rituals mean. I remember understanding nothing at my cousins wedding, just following what the organizing guy told me to do. Luckily it was a Malayalee wedding. Short.

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  14. I am awed by this piece and how well-written it is, kudos! While we’re on the Vedic subject, though, I’d hope we stay on the subject and discuss this “fountainhead” of all our cultural understanding… until the time I share a few very interesting bits. All I need is some time.

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  15. I have another question.

    I have been divorced twice; both divorces arose because I refused to be a subservient, submissive wife.

    I refused to accept that I should tolerate disrespectful and controlling behaviour just because I was a wife and daughter-in-law.

    I refused to accept that as a wife and a daughter-in-law, I was inferior — less worthy of respect compared to my husband and in-laws.

    I refused to accept that my husband and in-laws had the right to dictate my belief system, my behaviour, my attire and my life choices.

    I insisted that as a wife and a daughter-in-law, I had as much right to freedom, self-determination and respect as my husband or father-in-law.

    In short, I rebelled against the assumption that in a traditional Hindu family, respect depends on your position in the family hierarchy, that the old have authority over the young, husbands have authority over wives.

    My personal experience has led me to believe that traditional “Sanatana Dharma” cannot accommadate “modern” value systems which support equality for all, regardless of gender, age and caste.

    My question is this — is there any space in a traditional Hindu world view for ideals such as gender equality, castelessness and individual freedom?

    Is it possible to be a traditional Hindu and still support gender equality and a human being’s fundamental right to freedom, respect and autonomy?

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  16. Since we didnt have any ‘ELDER interference’ in our wedding, I look back and now feel it was the most equal and beautiful thing ever. Didn’t know at that time, was in a daze..
    My husband arranged the whole thing.. so kudos to him.
    it was in a temple. and we reached there in the morning.
    showered, i wore the beautiful silk saree he bought since I didn’t have any other. and the beautiful necklace and bangles his mom had left. he wore the kurta i bought . we said our prayers, exchanged garlands, exchanged rings, exchanged chains🙂 yes i bought him a gold chain with my money and he bought me a gold chain with the thali his mom had made.
    kept kumkum on each other’s forehead. went round the temple 4 times, hands held , signed the register and done.🙂
    All to the background of temple sounds, shlokas,music, and a group of close friends and well wishers.
    We then fed a lot of poor people in the annadhanam, ate in the temple madapalli and flew home in the evening all married .
    a week later we came back from honeymoon to a nice reception with half the world😦 , a necessary evil i guess.
    This was 25+ yrs ago… and i still relish the thoughts of that day.
    easy simple calm and beautiful. and not to mention stress free.

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  17. Replying to Neha’s question: “My question is this — is there any space in a traditional Hindu world view for ideals such as gender equality, castelessness and individual freedom?”

    Unlike Abrahamic religions, there is no “official” governing body for Hinduism and it’s offshoots Buddhism and Jainism. The self-styled swamis and babas can say what they want but Hinduism is not a religion in the rigid, prescriptive sense of the word, but more of a philosophy. Much like Marx’s Socialism or Hegel’s Rationalism or Kant’s bridging of empiricism and reasoning. You may agree with parts of it and you may disagree with parts of it. There is no punishment awaiting us, no hell reserved for those who disagree.

    So, I’m not sure what “traditional Hindu” means. I think you can practice Hinduism by choosing the parts that make sense – Hinduism gives you that freedom. There is enough freedom of thought, diverse interpretations and opinions, and several schools of thought. Buddhism, Jainism and Carvaka are different schools of thought within Hinduism that disagree with the Brahmanical school of thought that the Atman(Self) exists as an immortal, immaterial entity and is connected to the Brahman(Universal Truth). Tantric philosophy also diverges and disagrees on certain ideas. There is enough room for questioning and disagreement within Hinduism to let you make what you will of it.

    If anything, these debates and differing viewpoints indicate individual freedom of thought and expression. As for gender equality, the post attempts to capture the various hypotheses on the subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Priya-ji,

      Thanks for your well-researched post.

      With respect to the above comment, I am not sure what you mean by “Brahminical School of Thought” but according to Advaita (and its other offshoots) schools of thought, Atman is not connect to Brahman but Atman IS Brahman. Different Upanishads, particularly Chandogya and Mandukya of Sama and Atharva Vedas, respectively point to a similar relationship between Atman and Brahman.

      I’m sorry if I sound like nit-picking but I think the distinction is important.

      Like

      • We’re saying the same thing in different ways. Atman is the essence of each individual living thing. Brahman is the cosmic soul or the ultimate reality or the ‘essence of everything’. Atman is an individual manifestation of the Brahman. And yes, Atman is Brahman because the two are connected, one is part and parcel of the other.

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  18. Thank you for a wonderful piece, Priya. As always, it’s helped me organize my thoughts. I’ve been meaning to get around to reading more on the topic of Hindu traditions and your citations provide a great place to start.

    As you said, Hinduism has always been very amorphous. There are no clear boundaries or laws set in stone. I think over time and with exposure to more rigid belief systems there has been a need to assert that there is a right and wrong set of beliefs. I honestly feel there’s no one who’s less Hindu than the so called guardians of Hindu culture because they undermine the best aspect of Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma – that you are free to believe whatever you want. There is room for saying, “I don’t know for sure”. This space to disagre is slowly but surely eroding. Perhaps it has been eroding for millennia and has finally reached a tipping point. I do not know.

    Sometimes, I think we like to look back to the Vedas or the Upanishads because we feel deep down that the direction we’re going in today with all our intolerance and rigid rituals is wrong. I used to think for a while that the best way to fight misogyny would be to look back and find traditions that oppose it. To prove that the “true” traditions have always been gender equal. I’ve finally come to realize that’s wrong. Looking backwards to dispute something is as futile as looking back to prove ourselves. It’s just a different form of fundamentalism.

    What we need instead, is to find a way forward. It might be different from the so called fundamentals but as you say, it’s ok. We need to evolve. And in this journey, it’s good to be armed with facts. Your article is a great start. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. While Vedic wedding rituals are a very good pointer to the gender equations existing during those times (approx. 1,700 BC to 800 BC), according to many scholars, the Indus Valley Civilization did worship the ‘Divine Mother’ (most probably, in some form of pagan religion) before the Vedic people (nomads who came down from Central Asia steppes and composed the Vedas) came down. These Vedic tribes worshipped the ‘Divine Father’ (as against the mother) and the Vedic culture was probably more patriarchal than the indigenous cultures of the Indian sub-continent. As expected, this resulted in significant confrontation between the 2 cultures which played out over a couple of centuries and eventually, led to Vedics establishing their dominance over indigenous cultures.

    Vedic wedding rituals are indeed patriarchal and there is a very strong misogynistic strand in many verses from Rig Veda (the oldest). Many Vedic hymns play a strong emphasis on male virility and need for men to preserve their semen. Women are often portrayed a ‘jackals’ who will steal and horde semen from men, if they aren’t cautious enough. As many of us will notice, this idea of women as sources of lust and the resultant misogyny is a constant in Hinduism (and even in many Abrahamic religions). This is also the reason behind the high premium paid on celibacy in many Hindu & Buddhist monastic orders. The Buddha went as far as saying that the day a nun is ordained as a “bhikshu” will be beginning of decline of Buddhism. All seekers of Supreme Reality and the Ultimate Truth are asked to eschew all sensual pleasures and the company of women. Witch-burning by churches during the middle ages may have a similar genesis.

    So, inequality in gender relationships and consequent, male hegemony over all aspects of culture were established right from the Vedic age. However, the position of women in the sub-continent improved significantly between 100 AD till about the time of Bhakti movements. This is often termed as the proverbial “Golden Period” which lasted till about the time when Islam comprehensively established itself over the sub-continent. Islamic rule followed by European colonial period has been almost a downhill journey in terms of gender equality in the sub-continent.

    For the readers who are interested, Rita Banerji’s “Sex and Power” provides a very interesting and comprehensive chronological treatment of the subject throughout different periods of history, starting from Vedic times.

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  20. Wonderful read, I always love reading Priya! I would just like to bring to your attention that The Aryan Invasion theory has been totally debunked by latest genetic studies, so the idea of european ancestors crossing hindukush and reciting verses seems to be entirely false ! Here are the links to two newspieces regarding this —
    http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/indians-are-not-descendants-of-aryans-study/1/163645.html
    http://www.newslaundry.com/2014/08/11/indiana-jones-and-the-troublesome-aryans/

    Like

    • VS, thank you for adding the link. Scientists are now disagreeing with the timing and scale of the Aryan influx. But are they disagreeing with the influx itself? Because it is evident in the similarities in the Indo European Gods and in Sanskrit (the mother of many Indian languages) being a sister language to Germanic, Latin, etc. Is the study concluding that, yes, the influx was there, but it was not at the time and on the scale originally thought? Plus that we need to acknowledge the existence and influence of other races and populations that shaped the genome?

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  21. madam, I found three errors in your post.
    1. the indo aryan tribes migrated to north india..
    the aryan invasion theory is proved to be wrong by scholars.

    Me – I did not say “invaded”, I said “migrated” and this is evident in the similarity in Indo-European Gods and Sanskrit being a sister language to Germanic and Latin. What they are contesting now is the timing and extent of the influx.

    2. vedas are not the word of god..
    please read swami vivekanand works who was the best scholar on vedic religion, acknowledged by everyone even westerners. vedas are eternal,vedas are a collection of eternal spiritual laws which are discovered by rishis, just like physical laws of gravitation.

    Me – No comment. My post captures my thoughts on this point.

    3. vedic caste system was discriminatory..
    no, caste system ensured that there is equality of resources. Slowly it got degenerated.

    Me – Please read the post. That’s why I called it precursor to the caste system. At first, it was probably a system of different professions with free mobility but later it became discriminatory and rigid.

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  22. What I don’t understand is that when these rituals are strictly followed, why aren’t they explained to the bride and the groom. I see so many people surprised to know their meaning (including me) being explained in your blog. These are only blindly followed. If asked you will get an exaggerated or biased versions of each society/community/person.

    Like

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