In Hindu temples, gods and goddesses get married. Marriage is as much a divine rite of passage (samskara) as a human one. It marks the union of matter (prakriti) and spirit (purusha). Matter, because it brings in new wealth, status, pleasure, security, and ushers in the next generation, who can inherit the family name and estate. Spirit, because it forces the couple, the family and the community to accommodate new ideas, new emotions, new problems and new solutions.
Marriage is described as shubh, mangal, kalyan – full of auspiciousness, goodness and fortune, and not a mere contract. One needs to be vigilant (savadhan) when it happens, as it marks a turning of life, and the world.
But things are not so simple. There are gods and goddesses who do not marry, and their energy is used to kill demons and protect the community. There are gods who marry many goddesses, god- wives who are allowed to find their god-husband in many men, divine couples who fight, separate and then make up.
There are gods who choose to dress as mothers, and goddesses who dress like warriors, gods who wear nose-rings and goddesses who sport moustaches, gods who prefer the companionship of men, goddesses who prefer the companionship of women.
Then there are the more practical issues: who can marry whom? There are boundaries created by blood, religion, age, gender, caste, class and whims of fathers and mothers. Who can remarry? How many can you marry? Must you satisfy every spouse? What do you do if the spouse is unsatisfactory? Is fidelity necessary to make a good marriage? Can husbands and wives be happy knowing fully well that the other has many lovers? Can children be raised by single men, single women, groups of women, groups of men? What constitutes a family?
Questions such as these are raised through stories found in Vedas and Puranas: Why is Bhisma, who has no children, considered grandfather by Pandavas and Kauravas? Why is Ganesha married to a banana plant? Why the need to tell stories where celibate Hanuman becomes father of Makaradhwaja? Should the ancestor of the lunar dynasty of kings, Sudyumna-Ila, be called father or mother, husband or wife, for he has both genders? How do you make sense of Oghavati’s tale where infidelity is tolerated; and of Jabala’s answer about her son’s mysterious paternity; and of Kunti’s solution when her husband cannot impregnate her?
Hindu wedding rituals contain many aggregated truths from Harappan and Vedic times, to those that came with the Greeks, Sakas, Kushan, Huns, Turks, Afghans, Persians, Arabs, even Europeans. The “sindoor” and “bangles” originated in Harappan civilisation while the “mangal sutra” has Dravidian roots. The “seven-step ritual” comes from Rig Veda, but back then the ritual was for all forms of agreement, not just the wedding union.
The “Kashi-yatra” ritual evokes fears of Brahmins that their sons would become Buddhist or Jain monks. The “baraat” comes from the Puranic story of Shiva’s wild hordes accompanying him to Himavan’s house to fetch his bride. The “sehra” of the horse- riding groom, practised by Muslims also, comes from the Central Asian custom of preventing the “evil eye” from falling upon the handsome young groom as he sets out to fetch his bride.
While “haldi” (turmeric ritual) has Hindu roots, the “mehendi” (henna ritual) has Islamic roots. The popular “sangeet ceremony”, once a North Indian practice, full of bawdy songs, is now a family song- and-dance affair around the world, thanks to Bollywood. The “engagement ring” is a Christian idea. The “wedding certificate”, though seemingly secular, has roots in Judeo-Christian-Islamic ideas that value the written over the spoken.
India’s ability to aggregate truths comes from its belief in rebirth. No truth was ever replaced, as Indians recognise the need for diverse answers for diverse contexts.
There is no concept of absolute truth as in Christianity and Islam. While Abrahamic faiths reject “false gods”, Hinduism does not have such a concept. In Hinduism, all gods are limited (devata) and contribute to the quest for the limitless (bhagavan).
God, in Hinduism, is not a judge; he is just an accountant, making sure we always repay our debts accumulated over lifetimes – to our ancestors, our family, our soul, the society, and to nature at large. And the “dharmik” way of doing that is by establishing a household, says Manusmriti.
In India, there are wedding ceremonies at day and wedding ceremonies at night, weddings that involve going around a fire, and weddings that involve tying a thread, weddings that focus on paperwork and weddings where it is all about rituals. Weddings in temples take place in seconds, weddings at homes may go on for days.
Sometimes the groom comes to fetch the bride, at other times, the bride and the groom meet at a banquet hall. Some grooms come riding mares, some cover their face with veils, some brides leave with a smile, others with a tear. Some weddings involve dowry, others involve charity. Some weddings are silent and solemn, others full of song, dance and drunken revelry.
While everyone sees the diversity of wedding rituals, we rarely see the diversity of wedding beliefs.
In Shiva temples, the divine couple clings to each other. In Vishnu temples, the goddess has her own separate shrine. Ram is faithful to a single wife; Krishna adores many wives, but in temples stands alone, or with Radha, who is not his wife, at least not in the mundane earthly sense.
Goddesses in temples dress as brides but there is no husband in sight. They are called the virgin (kumari) but also mothers (mata). No one is sure if that means she is untouched by a man, or unattached to any single man, pure or sovereign.
For centuries, India had ascetics and courtesans who never married but played a key role in shaping Indian culture. Just because you did not have sex, or had sex with many people, does not mean you did not have companions and partners who loved you and who cared for you, children you cared for and who cared for you, property you inherited and bequeathed, families of choice, unbound by blood and law. This was acknowledged in sacred stories – in the love of Radha for Krishna, in the bond between Matsyendranath and Gorakhnath, and in the collective families of the Kritikas, Matrikas and Yoginis.
In trying to convert Hinduism to a religion under colonial pressure, there has been a desperate rush for homogenising and standardising the diverse Hindu rituals and beliefs. People are guided by the hegemonic monotheistic principle: there can be no false gods, only one true god. And so the wedding certificate provided by the state effectively became the true god, negating the power of the sacred ritual that once impacted the heart and mind. Wedding rituals have today been reduced to a fun-filled stage performance for the faithful.
The state simply assumes heterosexuality, monogamy and patriarchy is the norm, like colonial masters of yore. The British who used the dharma-shastra to make Indian laws ignored the fact that the dharma-shastra was meant primarily for brahmin and the land-owning elite. They were never for all communities. The rishis always valued local practices: different gods for different folks.
We are often told that divorce was not Indian; but there were many Indian communities where divorce was common. So when the Indian state adopted it, they were not importing any alien value. We are told that widow remarriage is not common; but they were common in many communities.
There were communities where only one daughter-in-law is allowed into the household to prevent breakup of property, communities where property is passed on not to the eldest son but the youngest daughter, or to the child who took care of the old parents. There are communities where sex is not a necessary part of marriage, and where marrying a plant, an animal, a rock or a god, is not weird.
Excerpted with permission from Marriage: 100 Stories Around India’s Favourite Ritual, Devdutt Pattanaik, Rupa Publications.