kimsvin mitram grheshesataha?
Who is the friend of the householder?

bhaaryaa mitram grhesataha 
One’s wife

The above question was posed to Yudhishtira, the eldest Pandava brother, by a yaksha (forest spirit) as quoted in the Aranya Parva of the Mahabharata. Yudhishtira’s answer crystallises the Hindu belief that friendship between a couple is the true basis for the marital union.

Centuries ago, civilised societies recognised and acknowledged the most basic instinct of all, ie, the need for companionship, and founded the honourable institution known as marriage.

Experience has shown that life is full of conflicts, questions, concerns, temptations, joys, sorrows, ups and downs, and the Hindus believe that marriage can help one navigate these complexities. Ancient sages developed some guidelines to make sure that this institution was permanent; that it brought happiness not only to the two people involved but also promoted fullness of life within the framework they called dharma, the Hindu code of conduct.

The original Hindu assertion in regard to friendship as a key element of a successful marriage also appears in Christianity. Relationship expert John Gottman, professor at the University of Washington and author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, says, “Happy marriages are based on a deep friendship”, and that friendship is the core of a strong marriage. Gottman’s research shows that friendship in a marriage is important for romantic and physical satisfaction.

Similarly, back in June 1988, Reader’s Digest carried an article entitled “Surprising Key to the Happiest Couples” written by two psychologists who concluded that, “Romance talks about love but it is friendship that puts love to the ultimate test.” They stated, “If there is one prevailing wish that husbands and wives have for their marriage, it is to be close companions for life. While many men and women know that love is essential for such a lifelong bond, they often don’t realise that love without close friendship is only a hormonal illusion. One cannot desire another person over the long haul without really being best friends with that person.”

These and many similar observations may give one the impression that a new concept has been discovered by modern psychologists, but the Pandava prince Yudhishtira revealed this “secret” about four thousand years ago!

According to Hindus, therefore, the basis for marriage is friendship. This friendship is the understanding, the promise and the commitment that unites a man and a woman. There is absolutely no doubt about the importance of a woman and her position in this equation that binds them together.

Let me explain. The climax of most Hindu wedding ceremonies involves Mangalyadharanam, where the groom ties a gold necklace, known as mangalasutra, around the bride’s neck. This confirms and seals the bond between the couple. Traditionally, that is the sacred moment in the wedding when they become husband and wife.

But what happens later in the concluding ceremony is much more significant and meaningful with regard to the rest of their married life: after the Mangalyadharanam, the bride and the groom hold hands and take seven steps (Sapta Padi or Saptapadi) together around Agni, the god of fire (the kindled fire symbolic of their new hearth) and pledge eternal friendship to each other. What they say in unison after they have taken these seven steps is unquestionably the foundation of a successful marriage:

sakha saptapadii bhava sakhyam te gameyam 
sakhyam te mayosaha sakhyam te mayostaha

With these seven steps you have become my friend. 
May I deserve your friendship.
May my friendship make me one with you.
May your friendship make you one with me.

Anyone who has any questions about the role of a woman in a Hindu marriage should pay special attention to the blessing by the presiding priest at the end of the Saptapadi. He recites:

samrajni svasurebhava 
samrajni svasruvambhava 
nanandari samrajnibhava 
samrajni adhidevrsu

Be queenly with your father-in-law
Be queenly with your mother-in-law
Be queenly with your husband’s sisters
Be queenly with your husband’s brothers

The scriptures accord to a wife the status of a queen. Hindu ancestors went even further – they blessed the bride by saying:

murdhanam patyuraroha

May your husband keep you on his head

This means, “may he respect you above all”. There is another question in the Yaksha Prashna episode where this subject comes up:

kimsvid daivakrtaha sakha

Who is a man’s god-given friend? 

Yudhishtira’s answer was:

bharya daivakrtaha sakha

A man’s god-given friend is his wife

In 1801, HT Colebrooke noted in an essay, “Among Hindus, a girl is married before the age of puberty. The law even censures the delay of her marriage beyond the tenth year.” This clearly has no validity in these modern times.

He goes on to explain this in terms of the father’s obligation, “ may be remarked, that it arises from a laudable motive; from a sense of duty incumbent on a father, who considers as a debt the obligation of providing a suitable match for his daughter. This notion, which is strongly inculcated by Hindu legislators, is forcibly impressed on the minds of parents.”

Vivaha or marriage is recognised by Hindus as one of the samskaras or obligatory rites that are part of a Hindu’s life. The father’s address to the bridegroom at the time of the kanyaadaan (giving away the bride) is also a declaration to the assembled that this sacred obligation is now being fulfilled, “I offer to you, my daughter, foremost among young women, here by my side, covered with golden ornaments, so that I may obtain salvation in Brahmaloka.”

Contemporary brides, unlike those in post-Vedic and post-epic times, are not children to be hastily secured in another family by parents who have uncertain, usually short, lifespans or are bound by outworn social norms. They are usually capable of making their own choices of a mate, especially abroad, where they often have an equal say in the wedding arrangements.

The couples who have consulted me in the past five decades, prior to their wedding, have had definite ideas and relevant questions in regard to the overall ceremony, the meaning of the several steps they need to take in the ceremony, the sequence of events and the time it takes to meet the essential requirements of a Vedic ceremony. While they do seek guidance of parents, close relatives and friends, more often than not they openly express their preferences regarding the details. Most parents respect this attitude and are happy to note the couple’s interest in following the mandates of Hindu heritage.

The Vedic Wedding Book

Excerpted with permission from The Vedic Wedding Book: Origins, Tradition and Practice, AV Srinivasan, ebury press.