World Marriage Day is observed on February 14, 2021 – sponsored by the American Catholic organization Worldwide Marriage Encounter. It is celebrated on the second Sunday of February each year. According to Worldwide Marriage Encounter, “World Marriage Day honors husband and wife as the family foundation, the basic unit of society. It salutes the beauty of their faithfulness, sacrifice and, joy in daily married life.” Even though this is undoubtedly an out-dated view of marriage, World Marriage Day nonetheless presents an excellent opportunity to celebrate the beauty and uniqueness of Indian marriage traditions.
Of the estimated 10 million weddings celebrated per year in India, about 80% are Hindu weddings. For Hindus, the vivaah (wedding) carries enormous import as it is the most extensive ritual an adult Hindu undertakes in their life. Hindu-specific marriage rituals vary by region, financial resources, and the preferences of the bride and groom.
However, certain rituals are almost universally practiced. These include
Kanyadan – during which the father gives away his daughter,
Panigrahana – during which the bride and groom are voluntarily holding hands near the fire to signify union, and
Saptapadi – when the couple takes seven steps before the fire (each ‘step’ is a complete circuit of the fire.).
According to Section 7 of the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, no Hindu marriage is legally binding before the seventh step of the Saptapadi ritual, in the presence of fire, by the bride and the groom together. Traditionally, the wedding ceremony is conducted entirely or partially in Sanskrit, as this is the language of Hindu holy ceremonies.
Hindu weddings are festive celebrations that typically last for several days. The festivities include vibrantly colored attire and decorations and traditional music and dancing. The Indian wedding is extremely family-oriented. Indeed, marriage is considered to mark the union of the bride and groom and mark that of their respective families.
An examination of marriage in India is critical because it reveals the unique cultural challenges that the institution presents, especially for women in India. Because Indian culture is socially conservative and patriarchal, marriages in India often reflect these societal norms. As such, gender roles within marriages are stringent, and wives are often expected to submit to their husbands. What’s more, divorce in India is heavily discouraged. India has one of the lowest divorce rates in the world. As such, women often do not have the social support necessary to leave unhealthy or otherwise undesirable marriages.
Besides these challenging gender norms, marriages in India reflect the socially stratified society of the country. Marriages in India are traditionally a union between members of the same caste. According to the Indian Human Development Survey from 2011-12, only 5% of Indian marriages are between different castes. Only 4.99% of women in India had sole control over choosing their husbands. Marriages are so rigidly controlled by the caste system that inter-caste marriages can lead to violent attacks and ‘honor killings.’ According to data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau, 77 honor killings were reported in 2016. It is important to note that this type of violence goes mostly unreported, and the actual number of honor killings per year is likely far higher.
Even as literacy and education rates rise in India, social attitudes are not necessarily following the same liberal trend. According to Social Attitudes Research for India – a survey conducted across the states of Delhi, Mumbai, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan in 2016, most respondents opposed inter-caste and inter-religious marriages. These attitudes were on full display in February of 2018 when a 23-year old Hindu man was murdered in broad daylight in Delhi for having a relationship with a Muslim woman.
Support for Inter-Caste and Inter-Faith Couples
Dhanak organization was founded by Bibi Ayisha and Aditya Verma, an inter-faith couple. She is Muslim, and he is Hindu. They set up the organization to support couples like themselves. Dhanak works to spread constitutional awareness, specifically about the Special Marriage Act, which enables the legal registration of a marriage between a man and woman of different religions or caste without any conversion. The organization also provides counseling and safe houses to couples who want to marry inter-faith or inter-caste.
Credits – Vivian Chieh, Emma Schubart