While some charge that Hindu marriage is paternalistic, it is actually a balanced and culturally rich observance, puissantly preserving our heritage
AT ONE POINT IN THE RAMAYANA, RAMA AND SITA VISIT A FEMALE sage in the forest during their banishment. Referring to this story, Swami Vivekananda commented: “Sita approached this sage and bowed down before her. The sage placed her hand on Sita’s head and said: ‘It is a great blessing to possess a beautiful body; you have that. It’s a greater blessing to have a noble husband; you have that. It is the greatest blessing to be perfectly obedient to such a husband; you are that. You must be happy.’
“Sita replied, ‘Mother, I am glad that God has given me a beautiful body and that I have so devoted a husband. But as to the third blessing, I do not know whether I obey him or he obeys me. One thing alone I remember, that when he took me by the hand before the sacrificial fire—whether it was a reflection of the fire or whether God Himself made it appear to me—I found that I was his and he was mine. And since then, I have found that I am the complement of his life and he of mine.’”
A recent flurry of articles and blog posts has called for Hindu wedding vows and rites to be rewritten in the name of gender equality—the underlying premise being that the Hindu form of marriage is inherently misogynistic. Critics allege that it demeans the woman, putting her into the role of a domestic maidservant intent on pleasing her husband with no corresponding requirement of him.
There is enormous intricacy and subtlety in the rites of Hindu marriage and there is also significant variation across different regions, Hindu traditions, spiritual lineages and socioeconomic groups. However, the core of the ceremony is the saptapadi mantras, the seven vows spoken by the bride and groom as they circle the consecrated fire. The groom leads the bride around the fire for the first three rounds and the bride leads during the last four. Even in this, the Hindu marriage rite recognizes the inherent equality in stature of the bride and groom—just as in life, sometimes the husband leads, and sometimes the wife.
The vows themselves are as follows: “Let us walk together, hand in hand, the seven steps, symbolic of these aspirations: 1) May we take the first step together for nourishment; 2) May we take the second step together for vigor; 3) May we take the third step together for thriving wealth; 4) May we take the fourth step together for comfort; 5) May we take the fifth step together for children; 6) May we take the sixth step together for the many seasons; 7) May we take the seventh step together for everlasting friendship.
“May you be my unwavering partner; let us have many auspicious progeny who shall see long lives of more than eighty years.”
These vows are extraordinarily rich and multifaceted, reflecting deep psychological and sociological insight into the various needs and phases that a married couple goes through. There is no misogyny here. However, there is variation in the exact customs followed across regions and sociocultural groups according to various Grihya Sutras which detail domestic, religious ceremonies. In certain variations of these vows the bride promises to cook for and please the groom, and this is the main grievance of those who accuse Hindu marriage rites of being misogynistic. Rather than getting entrapped in debating whether the interpretations in these sutras are authentic or interpolations, it is more helpful to go deeper in the Hindu philosophy of marriage and gender roles to understand how profoundly revered and important the role of the wife and mother is in Hinduism. As Swami Vivekananda said, “In India the mother is the center of the family and our highest ideal. She is to us the representative of God, as God is the mother of the universe. It was a female sage who first found the unity of God, and laid down this doctrine in one of the first hymns of the Vedas. Our God is both personal and absolute; the absolute is male, the personal, female. And thus it comes that we now say: ‘The first manifestation of God is the hand that rocks the cradle.’”
In the Hindu conception of marriage and womanhood, as reflected in the Shastras(religious treatises), the bride is not at all a maidservant—rather, she is the one who reigns over the household. The Sanskrit term for a wife—grihini—means “the owner of the house,” whereas the term for husband—grihastha—means “a mere resident of the house.” In Tamil, too, the wife is known as illaal, “one who owns the house,” whereas the husband is illarattaan, “one who performs the dharmic rites in the house.”
The conception of the wife as reigning over the household is found in the Vedas. In theRig Veda, we find these beautiful quotations:
“May you be happy as a wife and prosper with your children in your home. Be vigilant as the central authority in ruling your household. Be closely united in marriage with your husband. So shall you, full of years, address your company.” 10.85.27
“O Bride! May your father-in-law treat you as a queen. May your mother-in-law treat you as a queen. May the sisters and brothers of your husband treat you as a queen.” 10.85.46
Certainly the emphasis here is on the woman’s role in the realm of the home and family. But the modern characterization of this role as secondary to the role of men in the workplace is based on the sexist and largely Western cultural premise that the domain of the home is inferior to the domain of the workplace or that the work of a woman at home is somehow less important than what a man does in the office.
Unlike critics who seem to believe the work a woman does at home is demeaning, our acharyas and rishis held women in great reverence, not just for the invaluable importance of her role in her household, but also for the value of that role for society as a whole. Moreover, the wife’s position was not merely one of pleasing her husband. As said in the shastras: “It must be noted that a wife creates well-being for the world even as she does the work of cooking or as a source of sensual gratification for her husband… It is not that she cooks for the husband alone. She has to provide food every day to the guests, to the sick and to the birds and beasts and other creatures. This is how she fulfills the purpose ofatithyam—serving unexpected guests—and vaisvadevam—serving sentient beings.” In Hinduism, the role of cooking and feeding is not that of a lowly servant; it is rather seen as a divine role, a manifestation of Annapurna Devi, the Goddess of food and nourishment, from whom even Lord Siva receives food gathered as alms through begging.
This unique role that woman has as a caregiver for society as a whole is recognized even today. Lauded philanthropist Melinda Gates (wife of Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft) explains that when it comes to development aid and philanthropy, it is more effective to invest in women rather than men: “When I first began focusing on family planning, it became clear that if you want to make life better for a community, you should start by investing in its women and girls. When I talk to women, a universal desire is to bring every good thing to our children. Women tend to spend their resources on their families—prioritizing things like healthcare, nutritious food, education and all the building blocks of a thriving society. The way I think about it, is that when we invest in women, we invest in the people who invest in everyone else.”
In traditional Hinduism the wife plays a fourfold role: she is ardhangini (the other half of her husband, metaphorically speaking); sahadharmini (partner in the fulfilment of dharma and righteous pursuits); sahakarmini (partner in all acts and actions), and sahayogini(partner in all ventures). The late Shankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Pitham, Sri Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swami, explained that one of the three objectives of marriage is “to create a means for women and men to be freed from worldly existence. A man who is not yet fully mature inwardly is assisted in his karma by his wife. By doing so, by being totally devoted to her husband, she achieves maturity to a degree greater than he does.” Swami goes on to explain that in return for the indispensable help she renders to her husband in carrying out his dharma and evolving spiritually, half of whatever positive karma the husband attains is transferred to her. On the other hand, none of the burdensome karma of her husband inures to her. Swami also states that none of the wife’s accrued positive karma is transferred to the husband.
Nor does the Hindu form of marriage neglect the needs and desires of the woman. Agastya and Lopamudra are one of the most venerated couples in Hinduism; both were philosophers par excellence, and Agastya was a revered sage and hermit. Lopamudra once grew tired of her husband’s austerity and wrote a two-stanza hymn, asking for his attention and love. The hymn made Agastya realize his duties towards his wife. In the modern age, we have the example of Sri Ramakrishna and his wife, Sarada Devi. Although Sri Ramakrishna was intent upon a life of celibacy and spiritual penance, on his wedding night he offered to carry out his husbandly duties to Sarada Devi in a conventional sense and to give up his celibacy for her in recognition of the duties a husband owes to his wife.
It is also important to note that Hinduism does not promote a cookie-cutter mold of marriage. Ours is a tradition that venerates women who were unconventional wives. For instance, we honor the Panchakanya (Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita or Kunti, Tara and Mandodari), venerated as the five ideal Hindu wives, yet each in her own way led a very unconventional married life. A celebrated verse that many Hindu children learn from their mother or grandmother: “Remembering the five holy maidens—Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara and Mandodari—will destroy the greatest sins.” Our most idealized wife, Sita, lived as a single mother estranged from her husband, and in some versions of the Ramayana,refused to take Rama back.
We live in a world where women spend more and more of their time outside the domain of the home. This is not a trend that will or can fully reverse in the near future. We cannot turn back the clock and move back into a world where women were primarily stay-at-home wives and mothers. In this context, where women do need to advance and succeed in the workplace, it would be unfair and impractical to expect all women to fully carry out their traditional roles in the household. Accordingly, we do need to re-examine roles and responsibilities in the household and be equitable and reasonable in terms of what we expect of women and men. The conception of marriage in Hinduism does not preclude a husband and wife from arranging and rearranging between themselves their roles within and without the household in new ways.
But we must reflect seriously on all of the important roles played by a married couple in the Hindu conception of society and how those roles and responsibilities may be carried out equitably in today’s world. We have to ponder how married couples in this society can transmit to their children the traditions, practices and values that comprise our spiritual and religious culture. We must ask how we can provide to our families the lovingly prepared, fresh, homemade food and nourishment that is the cornerstone of individual and familial health and well-being in ayurveda and yoga. We must also look at how to carry out our duties in the context of the panchayajna, the five-fold duties towards the world that each human being owes. These duties include: Brahmayagna, learning and sharing Vedic knowledge; Pitriyagna, honoring ancestors and forefathers; Devayagna, propitiating the devas through worship; Bhutayagna, feeding and honoring animals; and Manushayagna, serving human beings by feeding them, etc.
Words from Swami Vivekananda: “The position of the mother is the highest in the world, as it is the one place in which to learn and exercise the greatest unselfishness. The love of God is the only love that is higher than a mother’s love; all others are lower.”
Nor can we abandon the vratas, our spiritual practices and observances that have been the bedrock of traditional Hindu society, cementing and consecrating the bond between families. For example, while critics call for abolishing karva chauth as a one-sided vrata where only the woman fasts for the well-being of her husband, nothing stops the husband from also fasting on that day—and many men do so nowadays. That would be a much healthier alternative than simply stopping the observance altogether, as this is a vrata that strengthens the marital bond and also the bond between the bride and her new family. The integration of worship with the marital relationship in Hinduism makes Hindu marriages uniquely sacred and powerful.
The inherent flexibility and diversity embraced by the Hindu institution of marriage does not mean that the rites and mantras of marriage should be arbitrarily changed to suit the politically correct trends of the day. While Hinduism encourages diversity of practice and customs, there are some core values that underlie all of this diversity. Ultimately, marriage is not just about love and desire but, more importantly, about upholding dharma. It does this by providing for the spiritual evolution of the couple, strengthening the familial bonds that are the bedrock of a healthy society, and through the performance of the husband’s and wife’s respective duties, caring for all sentient beings in one’s community.
It is this world view that is embedded in the Hindu marriage. These marital mantras and rites encode the blessings and spiritual power of our ancestors and devas, and our rishis and acharyas, who are invoked through the marriage ceremony to witness and bless the couple. There is a current of energy, of blessings and power in these mantras and rites, which transforms a marriage from a social contract and emotional bonding to a sacred covenant that is strong and lifelong (or, rather, seven lifetimes long).
Such mantras and rites are not to be tampered with lightly. While no rite in Hinduism is eternal and unchangeable, they cannot be changed by anyone at will or fancy. Only people of enormous power of practice and spiritual attainment, known as mantra drashta rishis, are empowered to change the dharma Shastras to be suitable for a new day and age.
ADITI BANERJEE, 34, is an attorney from New York. She serves on the Board of Directors of the World Association for Vedic Studies and is a writer and editor who has written widely on Hinduism and the Hindu-American experience. Email: email@example.com (as published in Hinduismtoday)