Vedic Marriage Ceremony

Vedic Marriage Ceremony
By S. N. Sastri

"Where women are honoured, there the gods are pleased; where women are not honoured, there all worship of gods is futile." - Manusmriti, 3.56

"Where there is mutual affection and regard between husband and wife, there alone will there be happiness and welfare". - Manusmriti, 3. 60

The Hindu religion, or, to use its original name, Sanaatana Dharma, lays down a comprehensive scheme for the spiritual development of the human being. The ultimate goal of human life is liberation from the repeated cycle of births and deaths. All the rites laid down in the Vedas have, as their ultimate purpose, the attainment of this goal. The essential requisite for progress towards this goal is purity of mind. The Vedas, supplemented by the Dharma Sastras, prescribe a series of samskaras or sacraments to be undergone by Dvijas (Brahmanas, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas) at various stages of life. These sacraments have, apart from their immediate objective, the effect of purifying the mind and making the person fit for spiritual progress and ultimate liberation. Some of the important samskaras are jaatakarma (performed immediately after the birth of the child), naamakarana (naming ceremony),, annapraasana (first feeding of rice), upanayana (investing with the sacred thread) and vivaaha (marriage). Of all the sacraments marriage is the most important. Our scriptures accord a very high place to the Grihastha or householder. Those belonging to all the other three orders, namely, Brahmachaaris, Vaanaprasthas and Sannyaasins, depend on the householder for their sustenance. Manusmriti says: "Just as every creature lives by air, so the other orders of life are sustained by the householder". After completing his studies under a guru the Brahmachaari is enjoined to enter Grihastha-asrama in the normal course. (It is only for those very rare individuals who have attained total detachment towards worldly affairs that Sannyaasa directly from Brahma-charya is prescribed). One of the mantras in the marriage ceremony says that the purpose of marriage is to beget virtuous progeny. Only a Grihastha is entitled to perform the rituals prescribed in the Vedas, including Sraaddha to ancestors. There is an anecdote in the Rigveda describing the origin of the institution of marriage. A god by name Soma desired to get married and sent the two Aswinidevas to Savita, the father of a girl named Sooryaa, to ask for her hand. Savita agreed to give his daughter in marriage to Soma. Then the bridegroom Soma went to Savita's house and was received there with honours. Sooryaa was given in marriage to Soma with the god of fire as the witness. Our marriages have been modeled on this episode from time immemorial. There is one item in the marriage ceremony, known as Vara-preshanam, which is reminiscent of this episode and re-enacts it by the chanting of mantras implying the sending of two or four Brahmanas by the prospective bridegroom to seek the consent of the father of the prospective bride.

In our tradition, marriage is not merely bringing about the relationship of husband and wife between a man and a woman. It is the union of two families, who merge as one.

Marriage is considered to be the gifting of a virgin girl by her father or guardian to a deserving boy. This gift, called Kanyaadaanam, is considered to be the most praiseworthy of all gifts. In one of the mantras in this ceremony the father (or whoever is giving the girl in marriage) prays to Lord Maha Vishnu that, by this gift, his own generation and ten generations before him as well as ten generations after him may be blessed with supreme bliss in Brahmaloka. He then worships the feet of the bridegroom, looking upon him as Maha Vishnu Himself.

In all Vedic ceremonies dakshina to the officiating priests and 'daanam' or the gifting of cash and various useful articles to the priests and other Brahmanas present forms an important ingredient. This should not be looked upon as mere charity intended to benefit the recipients. The main purpose of these gifts is to help the spiritual progress of the giver. The tendency to accumulate wealth and cling on to it is natural in every human being. The Upanishads declare that as long as this tendency remains in the mind, there is no hope of spiritual progress for the individual. A hymn in the Saama veda exhorts every one to counter this tendency by giving freely of one's wealth to others. In the Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad Brahma, the Creator, instructs human beings to give 'daanam' liberally, in order that they may get rid of the defect of greed which is a serious obstacle to spiritual progress. The Bhagavad gita says that greed is one of the gates to hell. It is therefore in the interest of the spiritual development of the giver that the institution of 'daanam' has been built into every religious ceremony. Giving of gifts during ceremonies such as marriages has thus a two-fold objective, namely to earn merit (punya) as well as to facilitate spiritual progress towards the ultimate goal of liberation. The importance of dakshina is brought out in the following extract from the Bhashya (commentary) of Sri Sankaracharya on the Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad: "The yajna (sacrifice or any other Vedic ritual) rests on the dakshina to the priests. The fruit of the Vedic rite accrues initially to the priests who actually perform it. It has to be acquired by the yajamaana (the person for whose benefit the ritual is meant) by paying dakshina to the priests. The dakshina rests on faith because when a man has faith he gives dakshina to the priests; if he has no faith, he does not give it. 'Faith' implies liberality --- faith in the Vedas coupled with devotion". There is a tendency among some people to spend lavishly on all other items in a marriage but to economise when it comes to dakshina and daanam. Compared to the total amount that has to be spent on a marriage these days the amount that goes out by way of daanam and dakshina is a very small percentage, but the result attained cannot be evaluated in material terms. One should therefore be as liberal in giving dakshina and daanam as he is in respect of the other items of expenditure.

The mantras chanted during the marriage ceremony were handed down to posterity thousands of years ago by our ancient sages who 'saw' them in their state of super-consciousness or communion with the divine. The mantras express lofty ideas and have great spiritual potency. The vibrations set in motion by the chanting of the mantras purify the marriage hall as well as all those present there. The persons belonging to the bride's party and the bridegroom's party should listen to the mantras with devotion and faith so that the maximum benefit may be derived. The bridegroom's father, the bridegroom and the bride's father should, when they perform the various rituals, repeat the mantras after the priest with devotion and faith (Bhakti and Sraddha). Devotion and faith are very important. Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad gita that he accepts even insignificant offerings, such as a leaf, flower, fruit or even just water, so long as they are made with devotion. He further says that any yajna, daanam, austerity or any other rite performed without faith does not benefit the person either in this world or in the next. The Chaandogya Upanishad makes it clear that chanting mantras even without knowing their meaning does confer benefit, though the benefit will be greater if the person chanting knows the meaning also. Marriage is not merely a joyous occasion, but, more than that, it is essentially a religious function with great sanctity attached to it. The guests who attend the marriage ceremony will contribute greatly to the lasting welfare and happiness of the bride and bridegroom if they observe silence, listen to the mantras, and keep mentally praying to God to bless the couple, instead of merely engaging in conversation with others. Nowadays the decibel level in a marriage hall goes up so high that the chanting of the mantras cannot be heard. We, the educated elite, should bring about a wholesome change in this situation so that the sanctity of the marriage ceremony may be maintained and the full benefit of the mantras may be derived. Another point to be stressed here is that no one should shake hands with the bride or bridegroom until the marriage ceremony is completed. It would-be advisable if the invitees wait till the end of the marriage ceremony to offer their presents to the bride and bride-groom. Those who want to leave early would do well to hand over their presents to some other member of the family concerned instead of interrupting the ceremony by insisting on giving them to the bride or bride-groom.

It must be pointed out here that there is no sanction whatsoever in the scriptures for the demand or acceptance of dowry in cash or in kind. This is an evil which has crept into the society and which deserves to be eradicated. It will also be seen from the episode of the marriage of Soma to Sooryaa narrated above that it is the prospective bridegroom who has to take the initiative in searching for a bride and not the parents of the bride as has become the practice now.

The various items in the marriage ceremony are essentially the same for persons belonging to all the three Vedas, but there are differences in some details, depending on the Veda to which the bridegroom belongs. These differences will be pointed out at the appropriate places. The marriage ceremony as performed by the Brahmin community in Tamil Nadu is what is described here.

The various limbs of the actual marriage ceremony will now be described.

On the afternoon of the day preceding the marriage the bridegroom's party sets out for the marriage hall. Before starting, a puja to Lord Ganesa is performed by the bridegroom's father.

On the evening preceding the day of the marriage, the bride and bridegroom and the members of their families go to a temple and offer worship. In the past the bridegroom used to be taken in a procession, but this is done only rarely nowadays. The term 'Jaanuvaasam' puzzles most people. 'Jaanu' means, in Sanskrit, 'knee' and 'vaasa' means 'cloth'. A Brahmachari is, according to the Sastras, expected to wear only a single dhoti which reaches up to his knees. When he becomes a Grihastha, he has to wear 'panchakaccham' and an upper cloth. (The word ‘panchakaccham' is wrongly pronounced by most people as ‘panchgaccham'.Kaccham means an end or hem of the dhoti and pancha means five. In this way of wearing the dhoti, five ends are tucked in and hence the name panchakaccham). The occasion on which he wears the single dhoti up to the knees for the last time is known by the term 'Jaanuvaasam'. The term persists, though no one follows these conventions about dress nowadays.

The main rite preceding the actual marriage is Samaavartanam (popularly known as Vratham). This represents graduation on the completion of studies by the Brahmachaari under a guru and is the prelude to the marriage. In ancient times this was performed by the Brahmachaari while leaving the gurukulam on completion of studies. This is done either on the morning of the day of the marriage or on the previous morning according to convenience. The following items form part of this rite:--

1. Ankuraarpanam: The seeds of certain grains are sown in five earthen pots after worshipping them with mantras. Four of these pots are placed in the four cardinal directions and the fifth in the centre. These are kept in a safe place till the completion of the marriage ceremony. They are then immersed in water in a temple tank or other convenient place. The idea behind this rite is the worship of the various gods to get their blessing for the smooth conduct of the marriage. The pot at the centre represents Brahma, and the other four pots represent Indra, Yama, Varuna and Soma.

2. Naandi or Abhyudaya sraadham: The purpose of this is to propitiate the ancestors. The term 'abhyudaya' stands for the first three Purusharthas, namely Dharma, Artha and Kaama. By this rite the blessing of the manes is prayed for, for the attainment of these Purushaarthas. It is said in Valmiki Ramayana (Balakanda, Sarga 72, sloka 19) that king Dasaratha performed Naandi before the marriage of Sri Rama to Sita. This rite is to be performed at the commencement of every religious function.

3. Pratisarakarma: A thread dipped in turmeric powder and sanctified with mantras is tied around the wrist of the right hand for males and the left hand for females, with the chanting of mantras. This indicates that the person has taken a vow to complete the religious rites undertaken with full faith and devotion.

4.Snaanakarma: Certain rituals are performed with the chanting of mantras. The bridegroom has a shave and bath. Then he wears 'panchakaccham', and two sacred threads (yajnopavitam).

5.Kaasiyaatra: The bride's father tells the bridegroom: "Please do not go to Kaasi. I shall give my daughter in marriage to you. Please accept her hand and attain all welfare and prosperity". This function may look comical, but there is a profound significance in it. Going to Kaasi stands for asceticism. The bridegroom is asked to enter grihasthasrama instead of becoming an ascetic, so that he can discharge the three debts to the gods, Rishis and ancestors. Every one is born with these three debts. The debt to the Rishis is discharged by the study of the Vedas, the debt to the gods by the performance of sacrifices and the debt to the ancestors by performing Vedic rituals and begetting a son. The last two are possible only in the grihasthasrama.

The samaavartanam ends with this.

Exchange of garlands and 'oonjal' (swing):
The bride and bridegroom exchange garlands. This symbolises the free exchange of ideas between the two after marriage, indicating that neither of them will keep back anything from the other. They then sit on the swing. The swing is said to symbolise the ups and downs of life, which the couple have to face united with confidence and full faith in each other. This is an occasion for ladies to sing songs in lilting tunes.

The actual marriage ceremony now begins. The bridegroom prays to the assembled priests and Brahmanas and all elders to bless him and make him fit to go through the marriage ceremony. He then performs puja to Lord Ganesa. He chants a mantra which says that he is marrying in order to beget virtuous progeny.

As stated earlier, this is reminiscent of the marriage of Soma and Sooryaa. The bridegroom requests two or four of the Brahmanas present to find a suitable bride for him from a good family. The Brahmanas request the bride's father to give his daughter in marriage to the bridegroom for begetting virtuous progeny. The bride's father gives his consent by saying three times, "I shall give". All this is done through appropriate mantras. Before this the bride's father should have performed all the preliminary rites for the bride, such as jaatakarma, etc.

After this there are some rituals for purification, known as punyaaha-vaachanam.

This is worship of the bridegroom by the bride's father, looking upon him as Lord Maha Vishnu Himself.

The bride's father sits facing east on a raised seat. The bride sits on his lap. The bridegroom stands facing them. The 'Pravara' (lineage) of both the families is then recited by the father of the bride. A sample Pravara runs thus: '"To the bridegroom named Krishna Sarma, belonging to Samaveda, who is Maha Vishnu Himself, who is the great grandson of Narayana Sarma belonging to Bharadwaja gothra, and the grandson of Mahadeva Sarma, and the son of Viswanatha Sarma, I give my daughter named Jayalakshmi, who is the great grand daughter of Sundaresa Sarma belonging to Kausika gothra, the grand daughter of Ramaswami Sarma, and the daughter of Rajagopala Sarma". The mantra further says: "I being desirous of attaining Brahmaloka, give my daughter, adorned with gold ornaments, to you, Maha Vishnu. May all the gods and goddesses and all the beings who support the universe be the witnesses. I am giving this daughter so that my ancestors may attain salvation. May I attain moksha by gifting my daughter to you. I give this daughter of mine to you for begetting virtuous progeny and for performing religious rites." He then places the hands of the bride in the hands of the bridegroom. The bridegroom clasps the right hand of the bride and both sit down for performing the further rituals.

Purification of the bride:
For this there is a rite in the marriage ceremony of Rigvedins and Yajurvedins. As there are various wrong notions about this rite, it is described here along with its real significance. A miniature yoke made of wood is placed on the head of the bride. The thiru mangalyam is placed near the hole in the yoke and water is poured drop by drop through the hole on the bride. This is based on an old story according to which sage Atri had a daughter by name Apaalaa. She had some skin disease because of which nobody was willing to marry her. She did penance and prayed to Indra. Indra came and poured water on her through the hole in the yoke of his chariot. She not only became completely free from the disease, but also lustrous like the sun. The mantras recited in this context are taken from Apaalaa's hymns of praise in the Rigveda. This rite is not performed when the bridegroom is a Saamavedin. Instead, the bride is purified by the singing of some Saamaveda chants.

The bridegroom then gives a sari (Koorapudavai) to the bride. She goes inside, wears it and comes back. The bridegroom's sister is asked to help the bride to wear this sari. During this interval the priests should be asked to sing hymns from the Saamaveda if the bridegroom is a Saamavedin. In Rigvedic and Yajurvedic marriages the priests should chant Ghanam.

Maangalya dhaaranam:
The thiru mangalyam (or Mangala sutra) is first taken round to get the blessings of the elders present in the marriage hall. Then the bridegroom invokes Maangalya Devataa on the thiru mangalyam and performs puja with the 16 upachaaras (shodasopachaara).

The bride's fathers its on the raised seat, facing east. The bride sits on his lap. The bridegroom places the thirumangalyam around the bride's neck and ties one knot, chanting a mantra the meaning of which is as below:-- "O auspicious damsel, I tie this auspicious thread, which ensures long life for me, around your neck. May you live for a hundred years". The bride-groom's sister then ties two knots.

Paanigrahanam - Taking the hand of the bride by the bridegroom:
The bridegroom clasps with his right palm the right palm of the bride, including the thumb and recites mantras which mean: I take your hand so that we may beget virtuous progeny and live till a ripe old age. The gods Bhaga, Aryamaa, Savita, Indra and others have given you to me to be the mistress of my house. O Goddess Saraswati, we sing your praise in the presence of all living beings. Please confer your blessings onus. May all the gods make you (the bride) always favourably inclined towards me.

Saptapadi - The seven steps:
This is the most important item in the marriage ceremony. It is only after this that the marriage becomes complete and legally valid. The bridegroom holds the joined palms of the bride with his left hand and with his right hand he lifts the right foot of the bride and moves it over seven steps, chanting mantras for each step. The mantras uttered by the bridegroom at each step mean: "O dear damsel, by the first step may Lord Vishnu bless us with plenty of food, by the second step with bodily strength, by the third step success in the performance of all vows, by the fourth step happiness, by the fifth step cattle and all other wealth, by the sixth step may all the seasons be favourable to us, by the seventh step may Lord Vishnu bless that we may together perform all the ordained Vedic rites successfully. By taking seven steps with me you have become my most intimate friend and well-wisher. I shall never swerve from this relationship. God has united us. We shall perform all our actions together with mutual love and full faith in each other. We shall always be of one mind. We shall perform all our religious duties together. We are complementary to each other. May we have good progeny and prosperity".

Now the bridegroom pours oblations of ghee into the sacred fire. The bride sits by his side, touching him with her right-hand, to indicate that the two are performing this rite together. Mantras are chanted to propitiate the various gods, with the following prayers: "May Indra bless the bride to become attached to her husband's house and family, to beget good children and to be prosperous. May Agni bless her children with long life. May she have happiness from her children. May she never have to shed tears. May she be protected on all sides by all the gods. May Varuna guard our lives.

A grinding stone is kept to the west of the homa kunda. The bridegroom holds the joined palms of the bride with his left hand and, lifting the right foot of the bride with his right hand, places it on the grinding stone, chanting a mantra. The gist of the mantra is this: "Get up on this stone. Be firm like this stone in carrying out your vows. Resist those who oppose you (in carrying out your vows). Do not succumb to them." Here the stone is a symbol of firmness. There are various wrong notions about the significance of this rite also.

Laaja homa - Offering of parched rice into the fire as oblation:
The bride's brother stands to the right of the bride, facing north. The bride's mother stands nearby, holding a vessel containing parched rice. The bride's brother takes a handful of grains from the vessel and places it in the palms of the bride, which are held by the bridegroom in his folded palms. The grains are then offered into the fire in the homa kunda. While offering the grains the bridegroom chants a mantra, the purport of which is: "This lady is offering these grains as oblation into the fire, saying, 'may my husband live for a hundred years, may my race prosper'". Parched rise is a symbol of prosperity. Then the bridegroom holds the right hand of the bride and goes round the fire, chanting a mantra.

Thereafter the groom again lifts the right foot of the bride and places it on the grinding stone as before, chanting the same mantra as before. Then again, going back to the homa kunda, parched rice is offered as oblation as before. This is followed by going round the fire and lifting the right foot of the bride and placing it on the grinding stone for the third time. Parched rice is again offered into the fire.

Griha Pravesam:
The bride and bridegroom go to the bridegroom's house accompanied by the members of their families. There some mantras are to be chanted by the bridegroom. These mantras indicate the very high place that is accorded to the daughter-in-law in the house. The mantras, addressed to the bride, say:- "Be like an empress in this house. May you be like a queen to your father-in-law, mother-in-law, sisters-in-law and others. By your affectionate conduct towards all those in your husband's house, may you win them over". These mantras indicate the great importance given to the daughter-in-law of the house by the Vedas.

Pravesa Homam:
This is now performed by the bridegroom. The mantras chanted pray for long life, prosperity and virtuous children for the couple.

Seeing the Dhruva Nakshatra and the Arundhati Nakshsatra.

After the stars rise in the horizon, the bridegroom points out these stars to the bride, chanting some mantras. Dhruva stands for firmness. It is prayed that in their married life this couple should be as firm as Dhruva and they should never swerve from the path of Dharma. Arundhatiis the wife of Sage Vasishta and is the symbol of chastity. The idea is that the bride should be chaste like Arundhati.

There are some variations in the order of the different rites in the three Vedas.

The marriage ceremony concludes with Asirvadam, or Blessing by the priests by the chanting of Vedic mantras. Elders bless the couple by sprinkling sanctified rice grains on them. Then presents are given to the couple by relations and well-wishers as a token of their affection.