Vivaha: Marriage

The bride and groom, symbolically tied together, circumambulate the fire. Most ceremonies these days last two or three hours and are followed by a reception and wedding feast.

Vivaha (marriage) is perhaps the most important samskara. Traditionally it was the only rite performed for women, and for men in the fourth varna (shudras). A couple would stay together for life or until the husband took to the path of renunciation. Divorce was not allowed, and those who left their partners were often ostracised from society. Matches were usually arranged by the elders and based on astrological principles. Despite modern attitudes towards this practice, evidence suggests that these marriages worked relatively well.

Marriage was usually between members of the same varna, and the same jati (occupational sub-group). Scripture approved of a woman accepting a partner from a higher varna but the opposite was shunned. Men in some varnas could accept more than one wife provided they could adequately maintain them. Almost all marriages today are monogamous. Until more recent times, women were often married very early, to protect their chastity and because women were considered to mature much quicker than young men. So-called child marriage was often akin to a system of betrothal and marriage was only consummated when the bride reached adulthood. The giving of a dowry, as a symbol of the father’s affection towards his daughter, is an ancient practice, apparently going back at least to the time of Lord Krishna. At that time, the wealth remained the bride’s personal property. Because of more recent wide abuse, the Indian government declared the dowry system illegal in 1961.

Scripture lists eight types of marriage and current rituals fall within the “Brahma” category. The ancient, elaborate and often lengthy ceremony is usually performed by brahmana priests. There is much regional and denominational variation, but certain features are common. These include:

  1. A traditional painting of Shiva and Parvati, whose wedding ceremony was performed by Brahma.

    Welcoming the bridegroom

  2. Exchanging flower garlands
  3. The daughter being given in marriage
  4. Sacred fire ceremony
  5. Holding of hands
  6. Circumambulation of the sacred fire
  7. Marking the bride’s hair-parting with kum-kum
  8. Taking seven steps together
  9. Tying the knot (the garments of bride and groom)
  10. Viewing the Pole Star
  11. Receiving the elders’ blessings
  12. Exchanging presents

Related Values and Issues

  • Commitment
  • The purpose of marriage
  • Arranged marriage
  • Divorce and re-marriage