When Hindus tie the knot, it’s not just a ceremony. Instead, it’s a life sacrament, and the “saptapadi” or “seven steps” is perhaps the most sacred and meaningful piece.
The lazy, hazy days of summer bring to mind weddings—especially because it is during the hot summer months that Hindu weddings are often celebrated. While I have alreadywritten on the topic of marriage twice, I cannot resist revisiting the Hindu marriage rituals, particularly the sacred and beautiful saptapadi. As an important life sacrament, a Hindu wedding is colorful, involves many rituals, and differs based on sampradaya(somewhat similar to Christian denominations), mother-tongue, and other characteristics of the parties involved. As a Hindu-American, I am quite familiar with the “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part . . .” saying. As a volunteer who hosts various visiting groups at the temple, on interfaith panels, and in day-to-day settings, I almost always get questions about arranged marriages. I am always disappointed when there are no questions about the rituals and vows involved in a Hindu wedding, especially because the saptapadi has a meaning worth sharing. Since a critical component of being Hindu is ethnic and linguistic identity, an American Hindu wedding can be almost as challenging as an interfaith wedding, but there are several common elements. The saptapadi is one of these.
A wedding, of course, starts off with an engagement, known as the sagai, nischithartum,or pradhanum. A wedding also involves two families—and so the engagement and all the ensuing rituals are done with participation from families of both the bride and groom. In fact, my engagement included a ritual known as tamboolalu—a Telugu word, which refers to a ritual common to that particular part of India where my parents and those before them are from. In India, the head of my family (i.e., my paternal grandfather’s older brother and his wife) exchanged betel leaves among other things with the head of my husband’s family (i.e., his paternal grandfather and grandmother). In another event on this side of the world, my husband and I exchanged rings, which symbolize the commitment we made to one another, amidst friends and family. Both events were both social and religious, and an underlying facet of the Indian wedding comes through: this engagement marks the beginning of the union not only of two individuals, but also two families, and so everyone in the extended circle participates, in order to get to know one another.
Hindu weddings are also set up to allow interaction between the bride and the groom and between the families. There is a possibility of many “little” events to make up the wedding, depending on what people decide to do. The events that are part of a given wedding are based on the traditions of the families of the bride and groom. Some events are cultural, some are Vedic religious rites for vivaha (Sanskrit word for wedding)—and in America, some incorporate Western concepts. There is the sangeet, a mainly North Indian ceremony that involves singing of both folk and film songs, with some jokes, merrymaking, and possibly choreographed dances thrown in. This has evolved from the two individual events involving just the women from each side to an event that many Hindus celebrate with friends and families—males and females. At the mehendi, which can be like a party, the bride’s hands are decorated with artistic henna patterns, as are those of women from both sides. At the haldi ceremony (in Telugu, the pellikuthuru cheyuta), the bride is anointed with turmeric paste to beautify her skin, showered with blessings by elder women, and possibly has a “co-bride”—a young lady who is “next in line.” Of course, the bride is given “stuff,” which is why I explain it as the Hindu bridal shower, but most fun are the new clothes that complete the bridal glow.
Surprisingly, there is not always an exchange of rings at the Hindu wedding ceremony. What carries a similar importance is the Vedic ritual of tying the mangalsutram around the neck of the bride by the groom. As he ties the knot, the groom recites the following Sanskrit verse: mAngalyam tantunAnena mama jIvanA hethunA; kaNThe badhnami subhage sanjIva Sarada: Satam. Translation: 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).
There is another Vedic rite, which I find very touching: the panigrahanam. During the rite, the groom takes the bride’s hand and covers it with his own to accept her as his wife.
This is followed by the Saptapadi, the Vedic rite that concludes the wedding rites, and involves taking seven (sapta) steps (padi) walking around the sacred fire. There are detailed translations all over the Internet of the vows made with each step, such as this one. Some are not necessarily accurate or grammatically correct, while others take literary license. It is this simple translation from the monks at the Hinduism Today magazine that I most want to share:
The first step is taken to earn and provide a living for their household or family.
The second step is taken to build physical, mental, and spiritual powers and to lead a healthy lifestyle.
The third step is taken to earn and increase their wealth by righteous and proper means.
The fourth step is taken to acquire knowledge, happiness, and harmony by mutual love, respect, understanding, and faith.
The fifth step is taken to have children for whom the couple will be responsible and to blessed with healthy, righteous, and brave children.
The sixth step is taken for self-control and longevity.
The seventh step is taken to be true to each other, loyal and remain life-long companions by this wedlock.
Completion of the seventh step is the moment of completion of the marriage ritual.
However, they do not say, “Kiss the bride!” That is also something sacred, and done in the privacy of the honeymoon suite.