The meaning of ‘getting married’

Will it be a church wedding, Hindu wedding or both, asked a friend.


Oh?!…Will you tie a Thali?


Will you exchange rings?


Oh!? …Will there be ceremonial music at least?


Then what do you mean by getting married?

That was my friend’s reaction when I told him that I will get married in Madras in July. He got me thinking about the meaning of ‘getting married’, to be distinguished from less interesting topic – the meaning of marriage. I guess all of us will agree that ‘getting married’ deals with a transformation in the state of life of at least two individuals, binding them closely together in most spheres of their lives. In our case, it should be easy to distinguish a time when Dr K and I would be considered not to be married to each other, and a time when we would be. He recognises such a transformation, which in my view should be sufficient to say that we are getting married. But then he was confused about my claim.

I guess my friend must have been looking not just for the transformation, but for a precise and a brief moment wherein such a transformation occurs. Traditionally, it could be the pronouncement of the priest, finishing circles around the pyre by the couple, or an assortment of other symbolic moments. One Hindu priest announced during a friend’s marriage that the circling ritual does not complete the process. According to him, marriage happens when a man holds the hands of the bride within seven minutes of a couple circling the pyre. “So, I appeal to all men in this room not to rush to congratulate the bride…you will be considered her husband if you shake hands with her now”!

I guess there are many such symbolic moments in the Hindu traditions and its various interpretations. Let me add to the benefit of some of my American readers that travelling on a decorated elephant or dancing with the commuters in a Mumbai train station do not constitute of such moments in the Hindi tradition. There are of course other religious, cultural and secular traditions that could provide the moment that my friend is looking for. I guess another way to identify such a moment could be when there is a sharp change in what the couple can and cannot do. In most Indian marriages, there is no cohabitation of the couple before the marriage, and so the moment of marriage is significant. It redefines the lives of people.

Sometimes such moments change how the society behaves towards the individuals concerned. I know of a Hindu girl who was in love with a Muslim boy. This was unsurprisingly accompanied by a lot of drama and tension from the families, and the lovers imagined that the familial opposition would change if they got married before the families prevented their plans effectively. Since court weddings require a notice period, they opted for an Arya Samaj style Hindu wedding that would give their marriage a legal status quickly. The priest argued that he could marry off only Hindus and so the groom had to briefly transform himself into a Hindu man. The priest also demanded that the ceremony required someone with the status of the bride’s father to ‘give the bride away’. All the friends who were present in that quick gathering were women and one of them had to ceremonially transform herself into a man to give the bride away. I heard that the story had a good ending with the families accepting them. There were a lot of quick transformations in that case: in their legal status, in their ability to cohabit, how their families treated the relationship and momentary changes in gender and religion of people involved.

In such cases when all such transformations happen together, and they happen under the public eye, one could identify brief and precise moments when a couple get married. In my case, such moments are staggered over the period of at least a year. The decision to date, to live together, to introduce the relationship to our families and friends, the commitment to spend our lives together, a public get-together and the signing of the legal contract are all separate events and there is no brief moment that could be said to have achieved a grand transformation in the state of things. In the truest sense of the word, there is not one date in which we could claim that we got married.

This has some unanticipated advantages. For one, I will not have to remember our wedding anniversary, for no such day would exist. A related advantage is that we do not have to get into the business of celebrating our marriage one day a year; I find the idea of designating 1/365 days in a year to celebrate such things as marriage, mothers, love and birth to be rather silly. One must celebrate these things every day: life must be celebration.

It goes without saying that a life of celebrating each day cannot be based on ceremonies. Religion-inspired ceremonies have not had an appeal for me in years, except for their limited entertainment value. If religion-inspired ceremonies are uninspiring, the industry-inspired ceremonies of giving cards, flowers and gifts are even more unconvincing. My favourite wedding-invitation ever had the statement “please do not bring gifts”. In keeping with the waning power of religion and the growing power of industry, I find it a lot easier to resist religious ceremonies than to avoid gift-giving. One day, we may move into a more rational socialist order.

Marriage then would be, as it should be, about everyday pleasures. It would be about watching sunsets and squirrels together. It would be about unexpected hugs, and the expectation of snuggles. It’s about finding happiness in silence and stillness. It’s about expressions of love that are sincere rather than ceremonious. It’s about the unexpected. It’s life. Love.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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