Wedding Ceremonies for Feminists: The Hindu Wedding


What's all that stuff that happens before the awesome dancing?

by Ojus Patel, Writing Fellow

Wedding Ceremonies For Feminists: The Hindu/ Indian Wedding

Jumping over a broom, donning intricate henna hand designs, licking honey off your partner’s pinky finger, smashing dishware, eating a black cake: weddings around the world are culturally rich ceremonies in traditions and symbols. But you know what tradition also is? Old, as in, from that time when wives belonged to their husbands and their main duties were to pop out healthy boys. So, while honoring culture through ritual can be deeply important, thinking through wedding traditions from an egalitarian point of view can also be a challenge.

Today we’re launching our new series, Wedding Ceremonies for Feminists, which allow us to learn about ceremonies all over the world… and the perspective of feminists who have balanced their cultural values with their political ones. No one post can speak for a whole culture (or all feminists in a culture), but we hope the perspective of one person who’s navigated through a particular ceremony will inform and inspire. The goal is to help those of you who are trying to honor your heritage while questioning how rituals line up with your values. And for the rest of us, hopefully this reminds us that not all wedding ceremonies end with, “With this ring, I thee wed…”

As a second generation Indian-American, the first generation born and raised in America, there have been many times where I’ve felt disconnected or removed from my ethnicity and culture. Growing up in one country while simultaneously trying to understand the cultural nuances of another is trying, to say the least. My parents raised us to always question, be curious, and resist blind belief. But even still, I’m sure they tired of the constant disagreement to a religion based so much on complex rituals and ceremonies.

All of this came to a head when it came time to plan our wedding. I had put my foot down; I would not take part in things that had “no meaning” to me or were seemingly silly or pointless. My husband, on the other hand, has always been inclined to think traditions are “nice”—meaningful to follow in the footsteps of others, and harmless, even if you don’t believe. It seemed harsh, but as someone who was growing increasingly frustrated with the continual conflict of a traditionally feminist religion (Hinduism is a Polytheistic religion with a lot of emphasis placed on various goddesses and other strong female figures) and a seemingly chauvinist culture (Indian culture is very male-centric, with women traditionally playing a subservient role) I was not ready to give in. Before I was married via a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony, I needed to know that marriage, in the context of religion and culture, meant what I thought it to mean—an equal partnership based on mutual respect, commitment and love.

Knowing the meanings behind beliefs has always been very important to me, and digging into Hindu weddings ceremonies a bit definitely helped ease my already tense mind. Now, sure, there are parts of the ritual that I don’t necessarily stand behind. But, for the most part, the foundation of the ceremony seemed to be based largely on mutual acceptance and partnership. That’s exactly what I needed to see in order to partake… and it didn’t hurt that it made my mom happy.

The fact that the ceremony is about two hours long (on a short day), however, is something I don’t think I’ll ever come to terms with. When a ceremony is so largely based on ritualistic tradition and ancient scripture recitation (the ritual often seems short and concise, but the accompanying scripture may be much longer), there is a lot of room for variation between priests; this translates to a ceremony length of at least two to three hours. Spoiler alert: it’s definitely going to cut into cocktail hour time.

Pink Line

WHAT: Hindu Wedding Ceremony

WHO: The majority of people who participate in Hindu wedding ceremonies are those who follow the Hindu religion. Hinduism, however, is somewhat similar to Judaism in the sense that the culture and religion are often woven together. So, sometimes, those who don’t necessarily consider themselves Hindu participate due to their Indian heritage. For the most part, the Hindu wedding is also seen as the Indian wedding (though their are various other types of ceremonies for those who follow Indian-Islamic or Indian-Christian religions).

The Basics: Hindu weddings are often epically grand, with a lot of colorful clothing and decor, and plenty of celebratory dancing, music and food. Hindu weddings typically span the course of a few days, with pre- and post-wedding ceremonies and celebration. Here in the States, couples usually take the liberty of  deciding which ceremonies and rituals they will participate in based on what is feasible for the couple and their families, both financially and time-wise. The wedding ceremony itself is the main event; it has a few key common rituals that involve many symbolic gestures. Since there are so many sects of the Hindu religion, there is no single standard Hindu marriage ceremony. Regional variations and considerable flexibility in the rituals are prevalent. These are just the basics.

THE POLITICS: After diving deeper into the foundation of Hindu marriage ceremonies, I feel that it’s a fairly even ceremony. There are definitely “giving away” and “owning” themes, but from what I understand about ceremonies from other cultures and traditions, these seem to be fairly universal due to the age of such traditions; Hinduism, as a religion, is pretty open, and often tweaks can be made with the ceremony. In terms of LGBT acceptance, the issue is, again, the  dichotomy between Hindu religion and Indian culture. Hinduism is a fairly open and accepting religion. There are a number of mythological stories that portray homosexual experience as natural and joyful. There’s also temples whose ancient carvings include both men and women engaging in homosexual sex.  However, sexuality in general is a taboo subject in Indian culture, and homosexuality was illegal in India until 2009. Though there are priests who oppose the concept of a Hindu gay marriage, there are others who believe that marriage is a union of spirit and is transcendental to gender.

Note on Gendered Language: Because this ceremony was traditionally constructed around the concepts of “bride” and “groom,” we’ve used gendered language here, though we’d love to hear about people’s experience with LGBTQ Hindu weddings, as well.

Length: 2 to 3 hours

The Nitty Gritty: There are a few key rituals common in a Hindu wedding ceremony. These are:

Baraat: The arrival of the groom and groom’s family (often on a horse or elephant, surrounded by drum players and lots of dancing).

Kanyadaan: The Kanyadaan ceremony is performed by the father or guardian of the bride. (Man, mother’s are left out here, too.) The father brings the daughter, then takes the bride’s hand and places it to the groom’s. The groom accepts the bride’s hand, while the kama-sukta (hymn to love) is pronounced, in the presence of the father, the bride, and the groom. The Kamasukta verse is:

Who offered this maiden?, to whom is she offered?
Kama (the god of love) gave her to me, that I may love her
Love is the giver, love is the acceptor
Enter thou, the bride, the ocean of love
With love then, I receive thee
May she remain thine, thine own, O god of love
Verily, thou art, prosperity itself
May the heaven bestow thee, may the earth receive thee

After this ritual recital, the father asks the groom to not fail the girl in his pursuit of dharma (moral and lawful life), artha (wealth), and kama (love). The groom promises to the bride’s father that he shall never fail her in his pursuit of dharma, artha, and kama. The groom repeats the promise three times. Now, this may not seem very girl-power-esque, but the way I see it is, feminist or not, I will always be okay with my father asking (telling?) my husband to keep me safe, honest, and protected. As a mother of a little boy who may choose to one day be a groom, I’m sure I would ask the same of his partner. Feminist modifications can likely (no promises if you pick the wrong priest) be made with the priest performing the ceremony if the couple wishes, and perhaps having a mother of the son giving him to the daughter (or some fun way of balancing the whole bride-as-object that’s being given away paradigm).

SankalpaIn a decidedly egalitarian step, the couple has to place garlands on one another as a symbol of mutual approval before the ceremony can proceed.

Vivaha-Homa: Not entirely required, but a generally performed rite wherein a symbolic fire is lit by the groom to mark the start of a new household.

Panigrahana: A ritual knows as the “holding the hand,” which is meant to symbolize the union to come. During this portion, the groom announces that he accepts his responsibility to four deities: Bhaga (wealth), Aryama (heavens/milky way), Savita (radiance/new beginning), and Purandhi (wisdom). (Note: In Gujarati weddings, like ours, this step is called Hast-Milap, literally, meeting of hands.) The groom has to face west, while the bride sits in front of him facing east. He holds her hand while the following (again, remarkably balanced) Vedic mantra is recited:

I take thy hand in mine, yearning for happiness
I ask thee, to live with me, as thy husband
Till both of us, with age, grow old

Know this, as I declare, that the Gods
Bhaga, Aryama, Savita, and Purandhi, have bestowed thy person, upon me
that I may fulfill, my Dharmas of the householder, with thee

This I am, That art thou
The Sāman I, the Ŗc thou
The Heavens I, the Earth thou

Saptapadi: The Saptapadi (seven steps/feet in Sanskrit), is the crux of the Vedic Hindu weddings because it represents the legally binding portion of Hindu marriage. The couple circles the fire, which is considered a witness to their union. Then, the bride and groom are bound together. In certain regions, that happens by tying a piece of clothing or sashes worn by the bride and groom together. Elsewhere, the groom holds the bride’s right hand in his own right hand. Then, depending again on region, the circle around the consecrated fire is led by either the bride or the groom. In most instances, the bride leads the groom in the first round. (Yes!) With each round, the couple makes a specific vow to establish some aspect of a happy relationship and household for each other.

There are long, short, and everything in between versions of the seven steps. The basic idea of these steps follows:

With the first step, we will provide for and support each other.
With the second step, we will develop mental, physical, and spiritual strength.
With the third step, we will share the worldly possessions.
With the fourth step, we will acquire knowledge, happiness, and peace.
With the fifth step, we will raise strong and virtuous children.
With the sixth step, we will enjoy the fruits of all seasons.
With the seventh step, we will always remain friends and cherish each other.

In a South Indian wedding, after each saying a mantra at each of the seven steps, the couple says these words together:

Now let us make a vow together. We shall share love, share the same food, share our strengths, share the same tastes. We shall be of one mind, we shall observe the vows together. I shall be the Samaveda, you the Rigveda, I shall be the Upper World, you the Earth; I shall be the Sukhilam, you the Holder—together we shall live and beget children, and other riches; come thou, O beautiful girl!

In North Indian weddings, the couple says the following words after completing all of the seven steps:

We have taken the Seven Steps. You have become mine forever. Yes, we have become partners. I have become yours. Hereafter, I cannot live without you. Do not live without me. Let us share the joys. We are word and meaning, united. You are thought and I am sound. May the night be honey-sweet for us. May the morning be honey-sweet for us. May the earth be honey-sweet for us. May the heavens be honey-sweet for us. May the plants be honey-sweet for us. May the sun be all honey for us. May the cows yield us honey-sweet milk. As the heavens are stable, as the earth is stable, as the mountains are stable, as the whole universe is stable, so may our union be permanently settled.

After the Seven Steps, the couple is considered married. Then comes blessings and prayers from family members, and epic celebrations.

A Note on Cultural Appropriation: This series is about respecting and celebrating sacred traditions (aka cultural exchange), not ideas to incorporate into your wedding. If you’re unsure if you’re appropriating, you could read this great 101 on the subject, or Google “[x element] cultural appropriation” and see if anything comes up. It’s a grey area… but generally if a culture you are not directly connected to has been oppressed, exoticized, or experienced forced assimilation, it’s best to be prudent.

Did you have a traditional wedding ceremony? TELL US about it!

Ojus Patel

Ojus spent her childhood getting lost in literature, but always hated writing. That all changed when she read To Kill A Mockingbird and was struck by just how powerful words can be. Since then, she has spent a lot of time dissecting human behavior and emotion, collecting BAs in english and psychology and an MA in education through the process. Now, she continues the perpetual study of human behavior via writing and photography. She lives with her wonderful husband outside of Chicago, where she spends most of her time chasing their awesomely wild toddler. She’s also forever chasing the enigma of the perfectly crafted sentence.

Staff Picks

[Read comment policy before commenting]

  • InTheBurbs

    Super excited for this series!

    • Lauren from NH

      Agreed. I wonder what other traditions they are going to feature, and if they are going by religions, cultures, or both as is the case here.

      • Meg Keene

        Both!

  • pajamafishadventures

    As a folklorist, I’m super excited to see this series!

  • Laura C

    I loved that a month or two back, this link to a story about a gay Hindu wedding was in the happy hour and I recognized the officiant as having done my friend’s wedding.

    I definitely did not have a traditional wedding, but we did want to make my husband’s grandmother happy, and specifically she wanted to get me a thaali (they’re Tamil; it’s mangalsutra elsewhere I guess?) which is a necklace that the groom puts on the bride in what is … not the most egalitarian ritual or symbolism, let’s say. My husband didn’t know what it was, and before we agreed we read up on it, and in one thing we read, it said that there were three knots in the necklace, representing obedience to your husband, his family, and god (IIRC). But we were assured it would just be a pendant on a chain. Ok. We did go to the temple to have it and my husband’s wedding ring and a few other things blessed, and they found garlands to put on us, which thrilled my husband’s grandmother (“I was thinking, how can we have a wedding without garlands? And now you have garlands and I am so happy”), and she fed us rice pudding in the car on the way home. And then the day before the wedding, the family gathered at the house and he put the necklace on me at an auspicious time of day.

    Felt a little weird going through this thing that I didn’t understand at all and to the extent I understood it, the specific values it represented are not ours. But I have a big “making elderly family members happy” carve-out in my thinking, and it was so important to us that his grandparents were there on what we all expect is their last trip to the United States.

    • Lauren from NH

      May I ask you to say a little more about your “making elderly family members happy” philosophy? I have one grandpa left and he is rather emotionally stunted so we never bonded and my deceased grandmother who was around for most holidays of my childhood, was one of those people who is never happy no matter what you do. While I know it makes good sense to a lot of people to honor their elders, it’s a pretty foreign concept to me.

      • Laura C

        I was never super close to any of my grandparents (all of whom are long dead anyway), so I wonder if it’s precisely that they never controlled my life in a big way and I never felt the need to push back against the big stuff. When my mother’s mother suddenly became paranoid that I would marry a black man — I mean, really paranoid — obviously it wasn’t a view that I endorsed in any way, but where it completely enraged my mother because her mother could always push her buttons, I was just like “she’s old. she’s terribly wrong, but in the grand scheme of things, a woman whose health is declining and who isn’t influencing the country in the wrong direction [I mean, she was going to vote for Democrats no matter what] … I’m not getting worked up about it.”

        So that’s the general approach I came in with — less honor and more … not bother to get worked up about the values that I want society to move past. And my husband’s grandmother (my GMIL?) helped raise him and he loves her a great deal and misses her since she moved back to India, and while he wasn’t raised religious, his approach and his mother’s approach has generally been to go to temple every so often to make her happy. And that works for me. If I felt like this was the tip of an iceberg — for example if my MIL was religious and expected that we would be, too, and was going to be on us about it — I would be a lot more hesitant. But doing a kind of watered-down version of a ritual as part of being respectful of and affectionate toward an elderly woman who it will make so happy, and where there won’t be much in the way of future expectations? I can roll with that.

        • Lauren from NH

          That is a really great answer. Thank you :)

      • Eh

        This is something that I struggled with too. My grandmothers both died before I was born. I had a good relationship with both of my grandfathers but they died a few years before I was married. One elderly relative made an unreasonable request (that we get married in the city I was born in) and I discussed it with my dad who agreed it was unreasonable. I don’t try to please my father (or people in general) so I find the dynamics in my husband’s family a bit weird.

        My husband has one set of living grandparents. Like my in-laws, I’m pretty sure they were (initially) disappointed when we decided not to get married in their church/by their minister (and even more when we said we were having a civil ceremony). We did ask them about family traditions and the one that his grandmother was excited for was that we use their cake cutting set (that was easy enough).

        My sister had a slightly more complicated situation. Her husband has three living grandparents and one living great-grandmother. They wanted to get married out west were they live instead of where both of them grew up. His parents were upset because that meant the grandparents wouldn’t be able to come. My sister felt a lot of pressure to get married where they grew up. On the day it meant a lot to his family that his grandparents and great-grandmother could be present.

    • Meg Keene

      Yes. History, particularly with oppressed cultures and assimilation is complicated. As someone marrying into Judaism, there were a lot of decisions that we made that I don’t know that I personally would have made in a vacuum of history/ family/ culture. (Starting with: I like my background! Can’t I just keep it? What? Mass murder and a dying religion? Well, hum. That does change the equation quite a bit…) So there are plenty of choices that we made because for us, honoring tradition and family had value in and of themselves. The value WAS in honoring that history, not in the particular action.

      In short, we made all sorts of egalitarian modifications and compromises, and we made some inter-cultural ones as well. But there were some big and small decisions where we decided that honoring history and culture was the most important thing. And I’m glad we did.

      For us, the key was mostly to make choices thoughtfully. Which didn’t always mean understanding every nuance… sometimes it just meant understanding, “This choice is REALLY important to X person, or X culture, and not making this choice isn’t anywhere near as important to us.”

      All that said, I don’t want to imply that making these decisions over the course of a lifetime together as a family is always easy. It’s often really really hard. For me conversion and raising kids in a culture that’s not originally my own is HARD. HARRRRDDDD. But I know why I made the decision, and that helps most of the time.

      • Lauren from NH

        It is very interesting to me that you say the history played a big part in considering your family’s Jewish identity. In our discussions of the role of Ethiopian culture/religion in our lives/wedding, history somewhat came to represent guilt over things we didn’t cause and couldn’t change, and thus needed to be mostly removed from the conversation in order to make any progress.

        • Meg Keene

          I mean, different people will obviously have different experiences. I just didn’t feel that I (personally) could marry into a culture that oppressed and that outside the mainstream without taking it on as a moral responsibility. Obviously not everyone feels that way, but that is how I felt. While we didn’t cause it and can’t change it, we as two people are still living inside history. And (again, this is personal, and it doesn’t work this way for a lot of people), I’m VERY aware that my particular background is one that has hugely impacted the world, in terms of takeover and assimilation. So while it’s not, “I, me, Meg came over on the Mayflower and whoopsy a lot of Native American’s died,” or… fill in the blank… I do feel like “I, me, Meg, am a WASP who’s part of a family who’s been in the US for 400 years, and I am the end result of that history.” (Note: That doesn’t make my history easy, or my struggles not real, it’s just something I’ve been very aware of since I was a kid.) So if I marry someone who’s Jewish and I take actions that further wipe out his culture and force assimilation, I’m yet another player in history.

          Which, you know, I am already! We have a biologically half WASP Jewish little boy. And that is the way it is. But in terms to decisions around religion and culture, I try to personally keep history in the forefront of my mind. (Which isn’t hard to do, given that six million Jews were killed in living memory!) And it’s proven to be important as we’ve gone forward, because I didn’t just marry into it, I brought kids into it. And when I read about violent anti-semitism in Europe right now, say, I know that is a real risk for my kids, who are biologically and religiously Jewish. Which means, it’s now my issue to deal with forever.

          But, all that said, we do try to keep guilt out of it. I want to make decisions based on history and my ethics and logic and deep conversations, but never out of guilt. When guilt comes into play, I tap out and don’t make decisions for awhile. (Sometimes that’s for a year or so, even.)

          • Lauren from NH

            I agree with most of what you said here to a point yet some major factors are very different for us. The most significant one being he decided the cultural traditions and history were not super important. His culture, his choice. If he wanted to be more Ethiopian culturally speaking, he would be, and if he wanted a 100% Ethiopian family he would have chosen a different partner (I can be supportive, but I cannot magically be something I am not). Our partnership is one of equals and I will respect the things he finds important to the degree he says they are important and vice versa so long as they are keeping with mutual respect. But the major players in his family do believe cultural traditions and history are super important and were/are not okay with his cultural and family choices, but that’s a story for another day.

  • Lauren from NH

    Per the intro, I hope there is room around this series to discuss when it makes sense to abandon something old so one may start afresh. In my experience, I feel there is a push to hold on to what is old for traditions sake or history etc, often no mater how murky the original intent (it doesn’t mean that anymore! It’s sweet really! Just reimagine it!) and conversationally I think there is value in leveling the playing field on the side of new is sometimes better. My point is only that what is old is not inherently good as what is new is not inherently good. There are benefits and drawbacks to old ways and new ways, and individuals/couples should be able to make those nuanced choices without shaming even from elders.

  • Spot

    I’m going to echo other posters—excited for this series!

    (and forgive my ignorance, but I thought that Hinduism is polytheistic?)

    • Rachelle

      I was going to ask the same thing (just a few days late). I think monotheistic was a typo given that the rest of the article references multiple gods and goddesses…

      • Anon

        It looks like it was changed to Polytheistic, however, Hindus believe in one God that has many forms. So gods and goddesses are different forms or aspects of one (complicated) God.

    • Anonisanonymous

      It’s a common misconception but yes, in its entirety Hinduism is Monotheistic in that Hindus believe that there is one true God and different religions are routes to the same God. Polytheistic in popular culture in that Hindus often consider dieties to be the “Gods” or “Goddesses” but they’re not the “One True God”. Hindus consider deities as a “middleman” to communicate with the One True God because Hindus consider human beings incapable of understanding the complexities of what the True God is. In most simple language, God is a light. The existence of past and future, what was and what is, combined into one which is a light. It sounds silly which us exactly why Hindus use dieties to help transcend above worldly woes to concentrate and understand the meaning of life and try to understand who/what the one true God is.

  • Alexandra

    My cousin married an Indian guy (we’re white). She had an enormous Hindu wedding with everything mentioned here. It was looooooong. Our family all dutifully bought saris and sherwanis, and the groom’s side happily helped us get dressed (it turns out that saris are complicated to put on). Then we sat on separate sides during the ceremony. The bride’s side sat very quietly and solemnly, attempting to follow the entire ceremony. After about thirty minutes, I looked over to the groom’s side, where everybody was kind of milling around, laughing and talking…not rigidly fixed on the ceremony, the way we westerners were used to doing at a wedding.

    It’s long, but kind of like a football game. People watch, but they also socialize. At least, that was my experience at the one Hindu wedding I’ve ever been to. It seemed more or less authentic. A ton of people had flown in from India. The food…oh my gosh, they actually flew in a family from the groom’s region who cooked a giant meal. Pretty amazing.

    • Laura C

      Yes! At my friend’s Hindu wedding, I was sitting with an Indian-American friend and at one point she whispered to me that she was enjoying watching white people not understand that “we talk during weddings.” Which I knew in theory, and which the fact that they had a cart serving non-alcoholic drinks throughout the ceremony should have been a tip-off for, but she was right — Indian people were talking and non-Indian people were looking faintly scandalized. For myself, despite knowing in theory that it was ok to talk etc I couldn’t quite make myself believe it and do it.

      Edited to add YES on it being difficult to put on a sari. I keep thinking I need to just practice doing it myself, but it’s scary even to practice with such a beautiful thing, feeling like I’m going to mess it up in the process.

    • Meg Keene

      That’s funny, because that’s how more conservative/ orthodox Jewish services are. The longer and more traditional the service (not wedding service, just your run of the mill Saturday morning service), the more informal people’s behavior is during large parts of it. (Of course, you have to know what you’re doing or follow leads well, because there are parts of the service that are very important and formal and you do have to focus for). But early on, when you’re basically in warm up, people come in late, catch up with friends, mill around. And kids tend to just run around and play etc. For me, it took some getting used to, but now I really like it. And at more reform/liberal Jewish services, I now tend to feel annoyed that kids can’t just be themselves. SO! I guess I adjusted too much ;)

  • Lauren Walbridge

    YESSSSSSS to this series! My partner and I started writing our ceremony this weekend, and we’ve got two months to go, so hurry up with lots more of these posts (pretty please)!

  • Sarah

    Love this series idea!!

  • Deepa

    We had a traditional Hindu ceremony that clocked in at 52 minutes. The priest that we worked with was great and met with us (one both Indian and Hindu, and the other neither) and our families beforehand to walk through all the steps and the meaning of everything to make sure that everyone was comfortable and on board, as well as to tailor the ceremony to what we wanted (e.g., both parents getting in on the Kanyadaan, getting our only-female siblings involved). He also offered to explain everything he was doing in both English and Hindi, though we opted for English only (in addition to the Sanskrit). We also had a Western civil-ish ceremony later in the day, immediately followed by the reception, so we put a lot of thought into what big signposts (rings, individual vows, etc.) we were going to allocate to each ceremony, so that no side of the family felt like they were getting short shrift. In the end, I think a lot of our worrying was misplaced, since our guests were just happy to be together and able to find meaning and beauty in both ceremonies, however familiar or foreign the rituals seemed.

  • RMC

    So cool! I love this opportunity to learn about other wedding traditions. Are you looking for submissions for other traditions (i.e. our feminist traditional egalitarian Jewish wedding)? Writing our program to explain our decisions to our friends and family – more traditional, less traditional, and non-Jewish – was one of my favorite parts of the planning process.

    • If you want to talk to us about covering a specific ceremony, email us!

      • RMC

        Sorry to follow up on this thread – I tried to use the contact form but it wouldn’t let me submit since I don’t have a website or a twitter. Is there an email address I can use?