Puja, Kanyadan and Saptapadi
7500 years ago the foundation of a happy marriage was spelt out by Yudhishtrir in Mahabharat. When Yaksha asked him, ‘किं स्विन्मित्रं गृहे सतः?’ Who is the friend of the householder? Yudhishthira answered, ‘भार्या मित्रं गृहे सतः’ The wife is the friend of the householder’.
Out of the numerous marriages which I have attended, three marriages continue to perplex me to this day. They had two common features.
First common feature: The puja rituals were incorrectly performed.
- In one case the ceremonial Fire had extinguished and was replaced by a thick column of white smoke, but the family persuaded the priest to continue with the ceremonies without lightening the Fire because they wanted to get over with the puja as early as possible.
- In the other case the Purohit was not given the required things he needed to set up the alter for the ceremonial puja and he had to borrow a table cloth from the catering contractor which he spread it on the ground to create a make-shift puja alter.
- And in the third case the groom and his family were so high on spirit that they picked up a quarrel with their own bandbaja party and later threatened to beat the purohit if he took long to complete the puja; the poor pundit somehow managed an ultra-fast foward act to escape their wrath and disappeared from the scene.
Second common feature: Within months these marriages fell apart and ended up in separation.
A coincidence, perhaps? Or perhaps not.
During my overseas travel I was invited to attend a wedding in a chapel. And it found it a rather cold affair. Unlike the glittering Indian brides, here the bride wore white, the groom had a ‘Best Man’, the bride was presented a wedding ring by the groom, and when the married couple left the chapel and drove away in a car, I noticed some shoes tied behind the car.
I was told that the ring ceremony and the shoes tied behind the car were customs born out of certain traditions. Here is what I learnt.
The tradition of white dress was popularized by the Ann of Britain in the 15th century.
The tradition of Best Man came from Germany when the groom used to kidnap the bride from a neighboring village and needed his strongest friend not just to help, but also to be at his side at the wedding ceremony to fight off the bride’s relatives that might try to take her back.
And in 860 A.D. Pope Nicholas had proclaimed that a gold ring was necessary to seal the ‘agreement’ of marriage to prove that the groom was willing to make a financial sacrifice for his bride!
Finally, the tied shoes behind the car. During the Tudor period it was customary for the wedding party to throw old shoes at the bride and groom’s carriage. It was believed that all struck shoes brought in good fortune to the newly wed.
In contrast, the Indian marriages are lavish and famous all over the world for their glitter, bandbaja, and countless colourful ceremonies. But at the heart of the celebrations lie the somber and sacrosanct rituals of Puja, Kanyadan and Saptapadi. These rituals have been handed down by generations of Purohits throughout India without much change. Isn’t it interesting that, for example, the social customs of Punjabi, Bhojpuri and Gujarati weddings are very different, but their pujas are identical and with same mantras?
Let us examine the meaning of these ceremonies.
Cologne Digital Sanskrit Dictionary explains puja as ‘honour, worship, respect, reverence, veneration, homage to superiors or adoration of the gods’. In Sanskrit pu means to purify oneself, to enlighten the understanding, to become clear or bright, and ja means caused by, born. Puja, therefore, is ‘an act which causes personal purification, brightens one’s perspective, and enlightens our understanding’. Puja invokes the gods, welcomes them to grace the occasion, to be a witness of the marriage and to bless the couple.
The act of performing a puja is elegant and beautiful. When understood and performed the right way, puja always changes the ambience and one does experience a divine presence in the area.
Performing a puja is similar to attending to an important guest. The priest invokes the deities, offers them a place to sit, washes their feet, gives them a bath, offers them clothes, garlands them, offers them food, paan (betel leaf) and some offering as a mark of respect, and so on. Once the ceremonies are over, he requests them to return to their abode.
There is a widespread wrong perception that Kanyadan means donating or ‘giving away of the daughter’ by her parents to the groom – daan of their daughter. And because an unbaptised hindu – one who does not wear the sacred thread of Yagyopavit – cannot accept a daan, often we see the grooms undergoing the yagyopavIta samskAra (sacred thread ceremony) a few days before the wedding.
This notion needs to be corrected. One can give away only that which belongs to one. For instance, one can give away one’s money, car, or house in daan because one owns them. But one cannot give away to which one is a custodian. Parents do not own the daughter, she is not a property, because right of parenthood does not give the parents right of ownership of the daughter. So she cannot be given away. The act of Kanyadan, therefore, would imply change of parental responsibility, or change of familial responsibility. It is for this reason that after the ceremony of Kanyadan the parental responsibility of the daughter is with her in-laws, and her upkeep and care becomes the responsibility of the husband.
The actual act of Saptapadi is an act of poetic beauty. The couple circumambulates the fire, going around it seven times, clockwise, with the priest presiding over the ceremony. With each circumambulation they vow to share their lives, remain truthful to each other, stay healthy, trust each other, raise good children and have a happy family, share their prosperity, joys and sorrows, and remain loyal lifelong partners.
Why go around fire, or Agni, one may wonder. Because Agni is a unique god. Agni is the Light, the Knowledge which assumes the form of force. He is the only visible god, and one of the three supreme deities of the Rig Veda, represented as a young man with golden hair and riding a blue ram. Agni has a dual role – on one hand he is the priest of the gods and carries our offerings to them, and on the other hand he is the god of the priests and is thus worshipped by the mortals. Agni is fire of Life, the fire that prepares, purifies and perfects. Rigveda calls Agni VaishvAnara – the Universal Person who is present in all, and also as JAtaveda – the Knower of all.
There is another symbolic connection too. Marriage is also seen as an important step in life, which is ultimately aimed at achieving spiritual perfection. And Agni is the spiritual Fire, a force which compels the human beings upwards – like its own ascent – towards spiritual progress. And Agni is also the Cosmic fire which maintains the Universe.
Such a powerful god is invoked for the Saptapadi. Agni commands our highest respect when he appears to grace the occasion with his presence, spreading light, radiating purity and warmth, dancing in rhapsody at our offerings, accepting them on behalf of other gods, and bless the newlyweds before returning.
I have often observed in hotel weddings that before the Saptapadi a fire is lit somewhere outside in a bucket-like container, is quickly brought in for the ceremony, and is sent out as soon as possible, This is a wrong practice. Invocation of Agni should be done in a Sarvatobhadra kund. A savatobhadra kund has equal length, breadth, and depth. Usually it is either dug in the ground, or made by bricks. The problem is this is not always possible to build. The alternative is to construct a square vedi (platform) on the ground by placing bricks and putting a layer of clean filtered river sand over them. After the ceremony is over, the priest should gracefully ask Agni to return to his abode, and let the fire burn out.
In earlier times, till the invaders had not caused damage to the Indian society and our social fabric was intact, the priest had the authority to stop the wedding if he sensed that the girl was being married under coercion of force or greed. But even his authority was only till the sixth round of the Saptapadi. After the seventh step, even he had no right to interfere, the sole authority to interfere rested with the king. Such is the bond and sanctity of Saptapadi.
The mantras of Saptapadi
With god as our guide, let us take;
The first step to nourish each other
The second step to grow together in strength
The third step to preserve our wealth
The fourth step to share our joys and sorrows
The fifth step to care for our children
The sixth step to be together forever and
The seventh step to remain friends, lifelong.