Marriages in Hinduism

Hindu Marriage - Marriage of Shiva and Parvathi

by Jayaram V

Marriage as a sacrifice and sacred covenant

In Hinduism, marriage has another dimension, which is unique by itself.

Marriage is not a mere physical bond between a man and woman or a social practice to facilitate conjugal bliss, but a sacred covenant between them in which gods participate as witnesses on behalf of the bride, to receive the sacrificial offerings and give her in trust to the groom as the fruit of the sacrifice.

By joining the couple in the wedlock, the gods ensure that they continue to receive offerings from them in future through sacraments (samskaras) and sacrificial ceremonies (yajnas) that are obligatory for a householder.

During the marriage ceremony, it is customary for the priest first to marry the bride to the gods and then present her as a gift from them to the bridegroom.

The groom is then made to take an oath with gods standing as the witnesses that he would protect his wife and abide by her for the rest of his life.

The idea behind this practice is that a man ought to respect his wife and treat her well as a divine gift since he cannot perform his obligatory duties as the upholder of the dharma all by himself.

Besides, the belief that he has received the bride in good faith from the gods themselves puts him under a moral obligation to treat her well.

Marriages in Vedic tradition, theory and practice

We can notice a clear dichotomy between the treatment of women in the Vedic tradition as reflected in the marriage ceremony and the position taken by the Hindu law books towards women and their status in general.

This was clearly a subsequent development, because the law books were of later day origin and they reflected the time in which they were composed. They were intellectual works (smritis) created by men to regulate their lives and social conduct, in comparison to the Vedas, which were considered not-manmade (apauruseya) or divine in origin (srutis).

The law books show unrepentant discrimination based on caste and gender bias, and prescribe stringent punishments to preclude any possibility of disrespect or disobedience.

They characterized the conditions that prevailed in the post Vedic Indian society. The code of conduct they suggested was different from the ancient beliefs and practices followed by the early Vedic society.

While the law books were written by men for men, even they had to respect tradition and show some consideration for the position of women in the household. The life of householder did not begin until he married and brought his bride to his home. His privileges as the head of the household came with many responsibilities. He had an obligatory duty to protect her and look after her and her children.

Married women in the Upanishads

The Upanishads are mostly about spiritual subjects. However they contain several verses, which throw some light on the condition of women in the ancient times.

We know from them that women, like Gargi often participated in spiritual discussions.

We know that fathers often gave away their daughters as gift to spiritual teachers as Janasruti gave away his daughter to Raikva.

We know that women did not accompany their husbands when the latter retired to forests for liberation.

We also know from the conversation between Yajnavalkya and Maitreyi that husbands often discussed spiritual subjects with their wives if the latter had shown interest in spiritual subjects.

Some verses in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad indicate that women who refused sex to their husbands should be either cajoled or coerced or subjected to spells.

Specific methods were suggested in them to facilitate conception or prevent it during sexual intercourse.

If a wife had a secret lover, her husband had the right to perform secret rituals and wish for his destruction invoking the help of gods.

Male children were preferred. So the Upanishad prescribed different methods for the married couples to obtain a male son of a particular color and mental abilities.

Importance of mothers

Mothers are held in high esteem in the Upanishads. Procreation was not a simple affair between a husband and wife. It was again a sacrifice in which gods participated. Vishnu prepared the womb. Tvastr created the form. Prajapati facilitated the impregnation. Dhatr placed the seed in the womb. Asvins crowned the fetus with consciousness (Brihad.6.4.22).

A child spent most of his or her time with the mother. Hence, as per tradition, when a son returned home after completing his education he met his mother first before seeing others.

The sixth Brahmana in the sixth chapter of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad contains a long list of teachers named after their mothers. in the same chapter (6.4.28), we find the following passage, "You are Ila, who descended from Mitra and Varuna. You have given birth to a great child and thereby become the mother of a great child. You have given me a great child as my son. May you become the mother of many children. "

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