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Marriage is one of the most important of the samskaras (Hindu rites of passage). It is not only a social institution but also a religious sacrament.

It is the only one compulsory for women and for men from the shudra varna.

Traditionally, there is no such thing as divorce, though there is now a modern term for it and it is on the increase amongst the Hindu community. For strict Hindus, marriage is still for life or, in the higher varnas, until the husband takes sannyasa.

Polygamy was allowed for those few men who could properly support more than one wife. One of the reasons offered is that there were very often more women to be married than men. This was in a society where a significant number of men remained celibate and practically all women were expected to marry. Today almost all Hindus are monogamous.

Traditionally, elders arrange marriages. Careful consideration is taken to ensure compatibility, and the respective horoscopes of prospective partners are compared. These arrangements are primarily for the benefit of the couple, but there are sometimes more selfish interests such as family prestige, inherited wealth, and so on, which have tarnished the reputation of such matching. Nonetheless, there is evidence that such marriages endure for longer than those in the West, where the liberty of the individual is the primary concern.

Within the system of arranged marriages, the individuals are normally allowed to freely accept or reject specific propositions.

Many marriages are now arranged with the help of advertisements in papers and magazines.

Increasingly, modern Hindus prefer to have complete freedom in their choice of marriage partner.

The dowry system seems to have been prevalent at least from the time of Krishna (it is mentioned in the story of the marriage of his mother, Devaki). More recently, it has been abused and is now banned by law.

There are eight traditional forms of marriage (though not all are considered appropriate). Marriage today usually conforms to the ‘Brahma’ type.

Still in India, marriage usually takes place at an early age; around 16 for girls and 25 for men.

What is termed child-marriage is often akin to a type of betrothal, and marriage itself – and consummation of marriage – doesn’t take place until adulthood.

The following represents some of the main features of the marriage ceremony (keep in mind that there are many variations, and the order of inclusion of these features may also differ according to region, specific religious traditions, etc)

Betrothal: this occurs before the marriage itself. The father of the bride-to-be invites the prospective bridegroom and elder members of his family. Gifts and foodstuffs are exchanged and the date for the actual wedding is confirmed.

1. Welcoming the bridegroom (like the betrothal, this also used to be performed before the wedding day, but more recently happens on the same day)

2. The giving of the daughter in marriage usually performed by the father of the bride. This is usually accompanied by the giving of a dowry (called shridan), which remains the personal property of the bride. The father may also give gifts, which become the joint property of the couple and are normally used for setting up home. The groom may also present the bride with new clothes.

3. Exchanging flower garlands. When the couple are seated for the ceremony, there is usually a curtain between couple, as they should not see each other before the ceremony. The curtain is removed and the couple exchange garlands. The groom’s mother may also present a necklace called the mangala sutra (‘auspicious necklace’). A married woman should never remove this while her husband still lives..

4. Holding of hands. The couple join hands while a relative pours water over both of them.

5. The sacred fire ceremony, during this ceremony the couple offer grains into the sacrificial fire to the chanting of auspicious mantras. Sometimes at the end the bride will ascend a stone slab near the fire, representing the inner resolve to overcome difficulties.

6. Tying the knot (in the garments of the bride and groom)
A married female relative who has children ties together the garments of the couple. This knot must not be untied within a certain period for it symbolises the bond between the couple.

7. Circumambulation of the sacred fire
The couple circumambulate the fire. The number of times differs from one tradition to another. Some tractions go round 4 times – with the bride in front for the first three rounds and the groom in front for the remaining one.

8. Marking the bride’s hair-parting with kum-kum
This is an ancient tradition and in some regions of India (such as Bengal) all married women wear the red mark in the front of their parting.

9. Taking seven steps together
The couple take seven steps and receive a blessing for each. Sometimes for each step the attendees shower the couple with rice (as A symbol of blessings and good wishes). The different blessings are for:

1. Food
2. Strength
3. Prosperity
4. Happiness
5. Children
6. The enjoyment of seasonal pleasures (some say health)
7. Friendship between the couple

10. Viewing the pole star
In some traditions the wedding ceremony should be performed at night (and not during the rainy season). For these reasons, the starry sky is usually visible. The couple faces north, and the husband asks the wife to look at the pole star (Dhruva-loka) representing constancy. The husband may also ask the wife to look at the asterism called Arundhati, who represent one of the great virtuous women, the wife of sage Gautama.

11. Receiving the elder’s blessings
At the end of he ceremony the bride and groom receive the elders who bestow their good wishes

12. The giving of presents
Other relatives and friends also come before the couple and nowadays many give presents at this time.

Reception: After the ceremony there is often a feast, and the couple then leave for their own home. Customarily, there is a gorgeous procession with musical accompaniment. In some traditions, upon arrival the new daughter-in-law kicks over a pot, filled with wheat and which has been placed on the threshold. This ensures that there always be prosperity and food in the household.

The following are scriptural passages and quotes relevant to marriage;

– Vivaha-yajna, the marriage ceremony, is meant to regulate the human mind so that it can be more peaceful for spiritual advancement

Bhagavad Gita As It Is, 18.5 commentary

– As a fort commander very easily conquers invading plunderers, by taking shelter of a wife, one can conquer the senses, which are unconquerable in the other social orders

Bhagavat Purana, 3.13.20

– A person who does not have a chaste wife accepted by religious principles always has a bewildered intelligence

Bhagavat Purana, 4.26.17

– The stage of householder is the most excellent, because it supports the members of all other stages of life

Manu Smriti 3.78

– The Goddess of Fortune personally comes to that place where there are no quarrels between husband and wife.

Niti Shastra

– Marriage . . . is always meant for a higher purpose. In God’s creation there is a purpose for such creation. This purpose is so that male and female may join together, not for sex-life, but to glorify the Lord.

Bhaktivedanta Swami