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The Vedic Wedding Ceremony
An Explanation of the Traditional Hindu Marriage
by V. Sadagopan
December 10, 1995
In the last posting, I referred to Veda mantras or sacred hymns playing a key role in every step of the traditional Hindu marriage. The mantras for this ceremony come mostly from the Rks housed in the tenth mandala of the Rg Veda, where Suryaa, the daughter of the sun god, is given in marriage to a bridegroom by the name of Soma. These mantras are mostly from section 10.85.
Many Divya Desams have references in their traditional histories (sthala puranas) to the Lord seeking the hand of Maha Lakshmi, who is raised by a maharishi after finding her as a parentless infant (ayonijaa). For instance, in Oppiliappan Koil, Markandeya Maharishi accedes to the request of Shriman Narayana who seeks the hand of his daughter Bhumi Devi. She was found as a child in the tulasi forest by the Maharishi. At Kumbakonam, Sarangapani weds Komalavalli, the daughter of Hema Maharishi. At Thiruvahindrapuram, Hemambujavalli, the daughter of another rishi, marries Devanathan in a Vedic ceremony. At Tirupati, Shrinivasa marries Padmavati after seeking her hand from her father, Akasa Rajan. At Tiru Idavendai, the Lord got the name of Nitya Kalyaanar through his marriage of the 360 daughters of Kalava Rishi. He married them each one a day and made them all into one named Akhilavalli Nacciyar.
The most celebrated one is the wedding of Andal and Ranganatha. Ranganatha seeks the hand of Andal from her father Periyalvar and weds her in a ceremony at Shrivilliputtur. Andal had previously dreamt about this marriage and recorded the wedding in detail in her Nacciyar Tirumozhi, Varanamayiram section, exactly as prescribed in the Vedic ceremony.
In the following sections, I will describe the steps of a Vedic wedding and their significance.
Step 1: vaak daanam
This step is a part of Kanya Varanam, where the groom-to-be (brahmachari) sends two elders on his behalf to the father of a girl whom he wishes to marry. The elders convey the message of the brahmachari and ask for the daughter's hand. The two mantras in the form of brahmachari's appeal to intercede on his behalf come from Rg 10.32.1 ("pra sugmantha...") and 10.85.23. The first mantra begs the elders to proceed and return quickly with success back from their mission on his behalf. The second mantram ("anruksharaa Rjava:...") asks for the gods' blessings for the elders' safe journey to the house of the father of the would-be-bride. The mantra prays to Aryama and Bhaga for a marriage full of harmony. The father accedes to the request of the elders and the resulting agreement for betrothal is known as vaak daanam.
Step 2: kanyaa daanam
Here, the brahmachari meets his prospective father-in-law. The latter seats him facing the eastern direction and washes the feet of the future son-in-law, considering him as Lord Vishnu Himself. All honors are given including the ceremonial washing of the feet of the groom by the father-in-law and offer of madhu parka (a mixture of yogurt, honey and ghee) to the accompaniment of selected Veda mantras.
Step 3: vara prekshanam
In this ritual, the bridegroom and the bride look at each other formally for the first time. The bridegroom worries about any dosas (defects) that the bride might have and prays to the gods Varuna, Brihaspati, Indra and Surya to remove every defect and to make her fit for harmonious and long marriage life blessed with progeny and happiness (mantra: Rg 10.85.44). The bride groom recites the mantra and wipes the eyebrows of the bride with a blade of darbha grass, as if he is chasing away all defects. The darbha grass is thrown behind the bride at the conclusion of this ceremony.
Step 4: mangala snaanam and the wearing of the wedding clothes by the bride
Five Veda mantras are recited to sanctify the bride in preparation for the subsequent stages of the marriage. This aspect of the marriage is known as mangala snanam. The sun god (Surya), water god (Varuna), and other gods are invoked to purify the bride in preparation for a harmonious married life. Next, the bride wears the marriage clothes to the accompaniment of additional Veda mantras. The bridegroom then ties a darbha rope around the waist of the bride and leads her to the place, where the sacred fire is located for conducting the rest of the marriage ceremony. The bride and the groom sit on a new mat in front of the fire. The groom recites three mantras which invoke Soma, Gandharva and Agni to confer strength, beauty, and youth on the bride.
Step 5: maangalya dhaaranam
There is no Veda Mantram for tying the mangala sutram (auspicious thread) around the neck of the bride by the groom. The latter takes the mangala sutram in his hands and recites the following verse:
mAngalyam tantunAnena mama jIvanA hethunA |
kaNThe: badhnami subhage! sanjIva Sarada: Satam ||
(meaning: This is a sacred thread. This is essential for my long life. I tie this around your neck, O maiden having many auspicious attributes! May you live happily for a hundred years (with me).
Step 6: paani grahanam
After maangalya dhaaranam, the groom lowers his right palm and encloses it over the right hand of the bride. He covers all the five fingers of the right hand of the bride with his right palm through this act of paani grahanam. He recites mantras in praise of Bhaga, Aryama, Savita, Indra, Agni, Suryan, Vayu and Saraswati, while holding the bride's hand. He prays for long life, progeny, prosperity and harmony with the bride during their married life. The closed fingers of the right hand of the bride is said to represent her heart. The paani grahanam ritual symbolizes the bride surrendering her heart in the hands of the groom during the occasion of the marriage.
Step 7: sapta padi
During this ritual, the groom walks with the bride to the right side of the sacred fire. All along, he holds his wife's right hand in his right hand in the way in which he held her hand during the paani grahanam ceremony. He stops, bends down and holds the right toe of his wife with his right hand and helps her take seven steps around the fire. At the beginning of each step, he recites a Veda mantra to invoke the blessings of Maha Vishnu. Through these seven mantras, he asks Maha Vishnu to follow in the footsteps of his wife and bless her with food, strength, piety, progeny, wealth, comfort and health. At the conclusion of the seven steps, he addresses his wife with a moving statement from the Veds summarized below:
Dear Wife! By taking these seven steps, you have become my dearest friend. I pledge my unfailing loyalty to you. Let us stay together for the rest of our lives. Let us not separate from each other ever. Let us be of one mind in carrying out our responsibilities as householders (grihasthas). Let us love and cherish each other and enjoy nourishing food and good health. Let us discharge our prescribed Vedic duties to our elders, ancestors, rishis, creatures, and gods. Let our aspirations be united. I will be the Saaman and may you be the Rk (Saaman here refers to the music and Rk refers to the Vedic text that is being cast into music). Let me be the upper world and let you be the Bhumi or Mother Earth. I will be the Sukla or life force and may you be the bearer of that Sukla. Let me be the mind and let you be the speech. May you follow me to conceive children and gain worldly as well as spiritual wealth. May all auspiciousness come your way.
This series of Veda mantras starting with "sakhaa saptapadhaa bhava ..." and ending with "pumse putraaya ..." are rich with meaning and imagery.
Step 8: pradhaana homam
After sapta padi, the couple take their seat on the western side of the sacred fire and conduct pradhaana homam. During the conductance of this homam, the bride must place her right hand on her husband's body so that she gets the full benefit of the homam through symbolic participation. Sixteen mantras are recited to the accompaniment of pouring a spoon of clarified butter into the sacred fire at the end of recitation of each of the mantras. These mantras salute Soma, Gandharva, Agni, Indra, Vayu, the Aswini Devas, Savita, Brihaspati, Viswa Devas and Varuna for blessing the marriage and beseeches them to confer long wedded life, health, wealth, children and freedom from all kinds of worries. One prayer -- the sixth mantra -- has a sense of humor and provides deep insight into human psychology. The text of this mantra is: "daSaasyam putraan dehi, patim ekaadaSam kRti". Here, the groom asks Indra to bless the couple with ten children and requests that he be blessed to become the eleventh child of his bride in his old age.
Step 9: stepping on the grinding stone
After pradhaana homam, the husband holds the right toe of his wife and lifts her leg and places it on a flat granite grinding stone known as "ammi" in Tamil. The ammi stands at the right side of the sacred fire. The husband recites a Veda mantra when he places the right foot of his wife on the ammi:
May you stand on this firm stone. May you be rock-firm during your stay on this grinding stone. May you stand up to those who oppose you while you carry out your time-honored responsibilities as a wife sanctioned by the Vedas and tradition. May you develop tolerance to your enemies and put up a fair fight to defend your legitimate rights as the head of the household in a firm manner, equal to the steady strength of this grinding stone.
Step 10: laaja homam
After ammi stepping, a ceremony of doing homam with parched rice is conducted. Here, the wife cups her hands and the brothers of the bride fill the cupped hands with parched rice. The husband adds a drop of ghee to the parched rice and recites five Veda mantras. At the end of each of the recitation , the parched rice is thrown into the sacred fire as havis (offering) to Agni. Through these mantras, the wife prays for long life for her husband and for a marriage filled with peace and harmony. At the end of the laaja homam, the husband unties the darbha belt around the waist of his wife with another mantra. The husband states through this mantra that he unites his wife and ties her now with the bonds of Varuna and invites her to be a full partner in his life to enjoy the blessings of wedded life.
Step 11: griha pravesam
This ceremony relates to the journey of the wife to her husband's home. The husband carries the sacred fire (homa agni) in a earthern vessel during this journey home. There are many Veda mantras associated with this journey. These mantras pray to the appropriate Vedic gods to remove all obstacles that one can experience in a journey. The bride is requested to become the mistress of the house and is reminded of her important role among the relatives of her husband. After reaching her new home, she puts her right foot first in the house and recites the following Veda mantra:
I enter this house with a happy heart. May I give birth to children, who observe the path of righteousness (dharma)! May this house that I enter today be prosperous forever and never be deficient in food. May this house be populated by people of virtue and pious thoughts.
Step 12: praavisya homam
After griha pravesam, a fire ritual known as praavisya homam is performed by the couple to the accompaniment of thirteen Veda mantras from the Rg Veda. Jayaadi homam is also part of the praavisya homam. This homam offers the salutation of the newly married couple to Agni Deva and asks for strength and nourishment to discharge the duties of a grihasthas for the next one hundred years. After that, the bride shifts her position from the right side of her husband to his left side. At that time, once again, she recites a Veda mantra invoking the gods for blessings of children and wealth to perform the duties of a householder.
At the end of the above homam, a child is placed on the lap of the bride and she offers a fruit to the child, while reciting a prescribed Veda mantra. Yet another mantram asks the assembled guests to bless the bride and then retire to their own individual homes peacefully. During the first evening of the stay in her new home, the couple see the stars known as Dhruva (pole star) and Arundhati. The husband points out the pole star and prays for the strength and stability of the household thru a Veda mantra. Next, the husband points out the Arundhati star to his wife and describes to her the the story of Arundhati and her legendary chastity.
The rich and meaningful ceremony of the Hindu marriage (Kalyana Mahotsavam of the temples) is thus carried out in concert with sacred Veda Mantras. The bride and bridegroom should enunciate clearly the Veda mantras and reflect on their meanings during the different stages of the marriage ceremony. This way, they can be sure of a long, happy and prosperous married life and play their appropriate role in society to the fullest extent. Shrinivasa Kalyanam is performed in the temples to remind us of these hoary Vedic traditions behind a Hindu marriage.
lokA: samastA: sukhino bhavantu sarva mangaLaani santu
Oppiliappan Koil Varadachari Sadagopan
 "Rk" (prounounced "rik") refers to a verse from the Rg Veda. -- Mani
 In all these Vedic prayers, the traditional understanding is that the One universal God, Shriman Narayana (Vishnu), manifests powers through these various deities. The Vedic mantras use various names and powers to refer to the One Infinite God who stands as their Inner Controller. -- Mani