Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Symbols, rituals, and ancient beliefs

When we were to be first married in California, I tried to incorporate something of my soon-to-be husband’s culture into the day. He was, after all, half a world away from his family on this most important day. I therefore asked him to find an “auspicious” day for our marriage, an important consideration in his faith and culture. He consulted his mother, who consulted a Brahmin, and the day of November 8 was chosen.

When we decided, five years later, to marry in his cultural traditions, we again asked his mother to consult a Brahmin for us for an auspicious day. I hoped November 8 would again be such a day, since it was our actual anniversary and the sentimentalist in me wanted both ceremonies to share the same day. Happily it was, and so on the day of our fifth anniversary, we were married again, this time in the Hindu fashion.

It was a joyful, if exhausting, day. On the one hand, since we’ve been legally married for five years, one could view the event as a renewal of our original vows, but it was more significant than that. Despite my having been well and truly accepted by his family from the beginning, this was treated by them as a true wedding, small and intimate perhaps, but a real wedding nonetheless.

At 61, you don’t really expect to hear people “oooh” and “ahhh” over your appearance. When we arrived at the temple, the Aunties were already gathered, along with a few uncles, and I was greeted with “Oh, what a beautiful bride you make!” and “How lovely you are!” unexpectedly affirming comments. How wonderful these people are, taking me into their hearts, despite the fact that I am so much older than their beloved nephew and the vast differences in their culture and mine. Truth be told, I feel more accepted and loved by the members of this family than I do by many of the members of my own.

Hindu weddings, like western ones, are flexible in their structure. There is no rigid format to follow, but there are certain elements that must be included for the marriage to be considered official. For Western religious weddings, there are the exchange of vows, the blessings, the prayers and often, the exchange of rings. These have both direct and symbolic meaning, but the composition of the ceremony is variable, assuming the essential elements are observed. Hindu weddings are no different in this regard.

But Hinduism is an Eastern religion, very different from our Western ones, and certain aspects of the marriage ceremony reflect that difference. We did not, for example, exchange any vows or promises, a difference I find significant in the most fundamental sense. In a Western wedding, two people come together and make promises to each other in the presence of an authority figure (religious or secular). A promise made is a promise that can be broken and too often it is. Those promises set up an expectation in the bride and the groom, an expectation which is the foundation of the trust that underpins the marriage. The keeping…and breaking…of those vows are central to the security of the marriage.

We took no vows, made no promises. We were participants in a ritual with its origins predating Christianity by millennia, its roots firmly planted in the natural and organic elements of the earth. The ceremony uses flowers, coconut, rice grains, fruit, ghee (made from butter), spices, mango and betel leaves, betel nuts, camphor, and various herbs and spices. Fresh flowers signify beauty and joy, the coconut is a symbol of fertility, rice and fruit signify food for the sustenance of life. Ghee feeds the holy fire, which represents light and warmth. A red vermillion powder, kum kum, is used for blessings and good luck and, when placed as a dot on the forehead of the bride, it is the mark of a married woman.

Everything centres around the holy fire. In the Hindu tradition, fire is the first of the five basic elements, and the only one that is visible, tangible, and which has the power to either nurture or destroy everything in its wake. Fire is therefore invoked as a representation of the ultimate divinity, the sun. Agni, the holy fire, is viewed as the purifier and is witness to most important ceremonies, including marriage. (Hindu prayers involve the lighting of a lamp…the God Lamp…for even the briefest of prayers. The fire carries the message to the gods.)

During the ceremony a brass pot symbolizing the human body is filled with holy water, topped with a coconut (symbolizing the head) and surrounded by five mango leaves and placed on a leaf covered with raw rice. This symbolizes the control of the body, mind, and senses, which lead to self-realization.

Threads dipped in turmeric and tied around a small stick were infused with prayers, then tied around our wrists. The thread symbolized the divine power invoked and is intended to serve as a shield from harm and evil. It is important during a ceremony such as marriage to keep away all spirits of harm and evil (if it works, then I can relax, assured that my mother’s spirit wasn’t there!). The priest put rings on us made of a special grass to indicate purity of mind: this is a grass which is believed to have the capability of purifying water and giving the warmth and speed of fire to metal. We had no engagement rings, so rings made of this grass, which can be substituted for gold and silver in temples, were placed on our hands in their stead.

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