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: 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.


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.


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.


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. ( for those interested in Plasma physics – this link gives many other references)

Writings by/Biography of Niels Bohr

Creation Hymn:

A Woman Who Doesn’t Have to Fit In

A Guest Post by wordssetmefreee

Khoobsoorat – Movie Review

(Warning – Spoilers, lots of them)

When my niece recommended I watch this film, I was skeptical. It sounded like a predictable Bollywood romance, replete with beautiful sets, fine costumes and jewelry, one dimensional characters with very little subtlety, and situations that are too easily resolved, usually through the use of lectures and bit of melodrama.

It turned out to be some of the above. But despite these predictable traits, the movie surprised me.

The Protagonist

What I liked about the film is of course the protagonist Mili (Sonam Kapoor). Or rather, I came to like her. Cautiously. Gradually.

Mili is silly, irritating, and clumsy. She puts up her feet on the dashboard, drinks from the wine bottle, and eats messy food with her hands. She takes selfies of herself everywhere. I thought, “And THIS is what they call ‘spontaneous/bubbly’?” I rolled my eyes.

But over the course of the film, Mili emerges as a woman who likes herself and is not excessively concerned whether others approve of her or not.

She is very good at what she does (physiotherapy) and she does it unconventionally and with lots of heart thrown in.

Mili has had 3 breakups so far (shown funnily in a little flashback) and even though she’s just had it with men for a while, she hasn’t had it with life. In fact, she’s enjoying life more than usual, with the complications of a relationship removed.

Mili dares to dream. She isn’t overly awed by Prince Vikram’s wealth or class. At first she’s attracted to him, and then she begins to like him when she sees his human side. As she finds herself becoming closer to him, her only worry is that he is engaged. Never once does she feel he is “unreachable”. It’s as if she’s always seen him as an equal, as another human being. She conveys an easy, natural sense of self-worth here.

Supporting Characters

Another pleasant surprise – there are two other strong female characters in the film – the Maharani, Vikram’s mother, played by Rathna Pathak, and Manju (played by Kirron Kher), Mili’s kick-ass, Punjabi mom. Both characters were portrayed reasonably well. Power does not make the Maharani evil and being middle class does not make Mili’s mom servile.

The Maharani, although strict and rule bound, never raises her voice or gets abusive as befitting her classy background. Her bossiness is restrained, her dismissals aloof, her rebuttals are often polite, and her language is impeccably clean. And there are layers to her. You can understand that she needs to be authoritarian in order to run such a large estate, several businesses, and keep an army of staff running smoothly. You also sense she is protective of the wheelchair-bound Maharaja. She will not let anyone cross the wall he has built around himself. She fears that it could be devastating to him. Gradually, their previous relationship is revealed. How they played polo and tennis together. How the Maharani had love and friendship and playfulness from her husband before one tragic incident brought their lives to a screeching halt. Theirs was (and is) an equal marriage, a rarity among older (or even younger?) Bollywood characters.

As a foil to the Maharani’s character is Manju, Mili’s mom – loud, bull dozer like, and calls a spade a spade. You can tell where Mili gets her guts and a bit of craziness from. Manju often advises her daughter to “go get “em” if she needs to and to “not take any crap from the guy’s family”. That really made me laugh with happiness!:)

And now, coming to the male lead – Prince Vikram played by Fawad Khan. The actor is smoky handsome and sexy (I can see why my niece was so hooked on this movie now:). When I say sexy, I don’t just mean his physical attributes. I think people who are good looking in an empty sort of way are seldom sexy. He has what attractive men and women have – an air of mystery, a certain aloofness, quiet confidence that doesn’t require loudness or aggression, a reluctance to easily reveal himself and yet he does so in vulnerable moments. And when he does reveal himself here and there unintentionally, you like what you see.

When Mili accuses him of not joining the party with the servants because he has to maintain his distance/status, he replies, “Yeah …. something like that.” He doesn’t deny that the class gap exists and he doesn’t have all the answers. And then adds, “or perhaps, they (servants) would prefer it that way (him not joining their fun).”

He is puzzled by Mili’s craziness. He is befuddled by her impulsiveness. He is wary of her inclination to say things without a filter. He is jolted by her tendency to act on whim, without the slightest though to consequences.

But when he watches his mother’s reaction to Mili’s wackiness, he is secretly amused. All of his emotions were subtly conveyed – a raised eyebrow, a shrug, a warning look, a little hesitation, a tensing of the shoulders, a bit of subtle sarcasm, or some delicate rephrasing of an otherwise crass situation.

There is great chemistry between the two characters. In both the kissing/hugging scenes, they are BOTH drawn to each other, the feeling is mutual, and Mili as the woman is a willing partner, and once she is also the initiator.

Vikram finds himself reluctantly but helplessly drawn to Mili, despite his rational understanding of the volcano he’s walking into. Mili, on the other hand, true to her character, courts fire, and gives no thought to the consequences.


There are several funny moments – some everyday situations, some contrived. When Mili asks people from the royal family to join her skype call with mom, her mother puts on a sweet smile, but once they leave, blasts Mili for doing this to her when “she’s cutting onions and sweating in the kitchen”.

When the kidnappers tell Mili they’re just getting started with their ransom “business” and she’s their first victim, Mili who is now high on something, says, “I get it. I remember being excited too – when I got my first client.”

Mili’s breakups are funny – one is with a clueless guy who has found his soul mate in another clueless girl. Another guy is just someone who couldn’t handle Mili’s feet on his dashboard anymore.

And Vikram’s use of “hum” (we) to refer to himself are greeted by irreverent Mili (and her mom) with a “Who the heck is We?? Hello?? I see only one person here!”

I chuckled when the Maharani (upon being confronted in the middle of the night by Manju) says with lovely poise, “I’m sorry but I need my 8 hours of sleep. Can we discuss these “interesting” theories of yours in the morning?”

Room for Improvement

I thought they could’ve balanced out Mili’s character a bit – she doesn’t ALWAYS have to be smiling or ALWAYS have to drop things – we get it – she’s a fun gal and a tad clumsy. But when Vikram tells her they cannot share a future because they are so different, Mili hardens and softens at the same time. She looks at him both angrily and sadly and says, “I agree.” This is where her character looks more complete, more multi-dimensional. I wish there were a few more of these contemplative moments for Mili.

The confrontation between the moms was unnecessary and Manju’s pettiness and arguing to the bitter end dragged down the last part of the movie a bit.

I also thought the Maharaja’s situation was resolved a bit too simplistically. While I appreciate Mili’s determination to do her job as a therapist and her efforts to bring fun back into his life because she believes it will help him recover, I wish she never explicitly TOLD him he is stuck at the time of the accident, and needs to start living again. I wish she had trusted his capacity for self-direction. And I wish he had taken that first step forward himself, with her support.

The Ending

Loved the ending though! It is the royal family that learns to relax and adapt to Mili’s crazy ways rather than Mili changing herself to fit into the clan’s honored traditions. This is not shown explicitly but implied through the Maharani’s humorous acceptance of Mili and the last credits song.

The movie is based on an older film of the same name starring Rekha. And it does have shades of the Sound of Music. I’m not sure if it passes the Bechdel test but overall, I confess I enjoyed this movie. Charming characters, three strong women, one dashing prince, a hauntingly beautiful palace, and lots of heart make this a warm, pleasant ride. Did you like it? Let me know what you think!

No women and troubles allowed in this wedding.

In Saudi Arabia,

TABUK: Wedding cards usually include a note asking invitees not to bring children. However, one Saudi groom decided to take things a step further by putting a note on his wedding card asking guests not to bring women.

The man’s decision has left many people surprised, but the youth is adamant saying women cause all sorts of trouble and problems, and that it costs a lot to cater for women. [Link]

Yes, he is marrying a woman (It’s mentioned).  I am not sure if same sex marriages are allowed in Saudi Arabia.

No there’s nothing about her backing out yet.

Yes, she probably won’t be attending many weddings in the coming years.

Of Guns and Weddings…

The only thing that makes staying away from the Blogosphere bearable are the messages from blogging friends that you were missed. Thank You for each one of those messages and comments :)

The past few days were loaded with blog worthy moments! Right from the time I got out of the Airport, …or even before that, right from the moment an Uncle called to invite us for a cousin’s wedding.

The first thought was to explain how impossible it was to attend. Then he mentioned how they feared my dad would not have approved of their son getting married to a non Hindu, non-Indian girl. How they had no choice because the boy will not marry any other girl…

If I wasn’t blogging I would have just thought, “What a crazy family we are!” But now I notice how many Indias we have in our family.

Uncle seemed to think that his adult son owed an explanation to a cousin he’s only met at various weddings and other such functions.

Although he is Dad’s sister’s son, to me cousin V was just another over-enthusiastic young cousin dancing for the video-walla at my wedding. I assure his dad I will not miss this wedding for anything and I was sure cousin V was old enough to take this decision. (Resisted the urge to add that all this was none of my business anyway…)

Uncle: That’s what he says, his bank leaves decisions worth millions to him, but he feels we don’t trust him to take any decisions…

IHM: I guess the times are changing and we must stand by our kids.

Uncle : Your aunt thinks this would have never happened if your dad was alive.

IHM: Dad would have only wanted to see all the kids in the family happy.

Lots more along the same lines, and I am proud of this Uncle for being wiser than many other parents in the family. I know of another cousin who wasn’t happy with the marriage that was arranged for him… and who told me? His wife, a gynecologist :(

I am also mildly horrified by the image- totally untrue – dad has. His sister claims this calamity would never have befallen them if my Dad was alive!

She said something about dad taking out his gun.

…and me aware that a nephew had tattooed his non Hindu girl friend’s very Christian name on his chest :)

And Dad had laughed indulgently when he heard of it.