In an age where women are fighting for their own independence and identity, and are vehemently refusing to be objectified, does the ritual of Kanyadaan really make a sense?
If cricket and Bollywood are the biggest passions of India, a wedding seems to be the heart of India. Ever since a boy is born, the parents start dreaming of when their son would bring a bride who would gift an heir (khandaan ka chirag) to the family. And ever since a girl is born, the parents start saving for the time when they would ultimately make the kanyadaan and hand over the responsibility of their beloved daughter to the groom. The big fat Indian wedding that we call it, an Indian wedding can do without being extravagant, but hardly can a Hindu wedding do away with the unquestionably revered ritual of kanyadaan.
Etymologically meaning "the gift of the virgin", kanyadaan is the most highly valued Hindu wedding ritual, where the father gifts away his daughter to the groom, snapping her from his clan (gotra) into the clan of the groom so that she could begin a new life in a new family and accept it as her own. It is usually considered as the most beautiful as well as the most poignant part of a Hindu wedding because the father sacrifices his most precious possession – his daughter (also deemed as Devi Lakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity) – for the sake of her bright, new future with her husband.
Also, the ritual symbolises the groom accepting the bride in all humility as the most precious gift that he could ever receive, which he would honour and value throughout his life.
It is also believed that by making this huge sacrifice in the form of an offering to the groom (who is deemed a personification of Lord Vishnu), and by embracing this painful separation from his daughter, the father is washed off all his sins.
While this entire process of kanyadaan seems too divine, and the whole idea behind it seems too exquisite, I could not but ponder over the role and the position of the actual subject which is put on offer in this entire process – the bride!
The father makes the divine sacrifice; the groom accepts the offering as the most precious gift ever! And what does the bride do?
With all due respect to the religious rituals, my ever-questioning mind could only find one answer that the bride is brought down to being just an offering, no matter how divine that offering is deemed to be.
The woman, who has been a beautiful responsibility of the father hitherto, will be the husband's responsibility from now on! The woman, who has been taken utmost care of by her father, would be handled with the utmost care by her husband from now on!
The woman, who has been a prized possession of her father till date, will be the most valued possession of her husband from now on! Who is a woman then? Is she a human being with her identity? Or is she the most beautiful but the most brittle object that needs lifelong care and protection?
Somewhere down the line, the woman looks like that divine gift whose well-being rests on the mercy of men.
One might say that in the earlier times, girls were married off at a very tender age. And at that time, the concept of gifting away a beloved possession sacredly to another individual so that he could affectionately take care of her did make some sense. But today, when the majority of the girls get married only after attaining an age of maturity, and when most of them are vested with the capacity to make their own decisions, enjoy their freedom, and be an individual first instead of being someone's daughter or wife, does kanyadaan make a sense?
Today, marriage is about the companionship of two equal individuals where neither is at the mercy of the other; but both develop an unbreakable emotional dependency on each other. Especially in today's urban scenario, the husband isn't the sole caretaker; but the relationship is symbiotic.
Watching the Bollywood movies, all we grew up hearing is "beti paraya dhan hoti hai" (a girl is a treasure that belongs to someone else). It had been a widespread belief in India that the parents give birth, nourish and nurture their daughter only to give her away to her 'real home', i.e., her husband's home.
Whereas, considering today's times, this outlook has undergone a massive change! A girl is brought up with the idea that she is an individual first, who has every right to build her own identity apart from her father or husband in the future.
And I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that a father feels more proud of his daughter's education and achievements than about her virginity. And not surprisingly, many parents bring up their daughters with a dream that the latter would become their walking sticks in old age, even after married off. Considering the role reversal of a woman today, does kanyadaan hold a good?
The ritual only aggravates the dilemma of a modern woman.
"I have been brought up believing that I am equally responsible towards my parents as is my brother. And I thought it would be my privilege to be their solid support when they would need it the most. However, things have changed after my marriage. While my in-laws do not like me handing over a part of my salary to my parents, even my bhabhi (sister-in-law) thinks that I am only a guest in the family I took birth in after I have been married off. This highly disturbs me and leaves me suffering between a belief I grew up with and a reality I am facing presently," says a 29-year old media girl from Guwahati.
However, while our mindsets are still struggling in the dual between the heartily followed customs and logical modernism, our legal system has accommodated provisions that talk quite contradictory to our own age-old beliefs. Today, the Law states that a daughter has equal rights over her father's property even after marriage.
And this immediately dismisses the tradition that a daughter's rights are exclusively concentrated on the family of her in-laws following her kanyadaan to the husband.
Secondly, while the kanyadaan signifies the father handing over the complete responsibility of his daughter to the groom, today, a working woman is entitled to pay alimony to her unemployed husband in case of a divorce. Doesn't this nullify the very importance of a kanyadaan?
For a woman who can feed and nurture her husband, by what logic should she be reduced to a mere offering by one man to another?
When a woman is coming off her symbolic identity of prosperity, taking initiatives for income, and in an age when she has come out of her docile mode to stand and live on her own as a definite individual, is it all right to reduce her into a divine offering?
No matter how much divinity we associate an offering with, offerings can be made of objects, not human beings. In an age where we are talking about women's liberation, how much does a ritual like kanyadaan help towards that objective?
As mentioned earlier, the kanyadaan involves a process where the father rips his daughter's ties from his clan and hands her away to the groom's clan. That's why a girl takes her husband's surname instead of her father after marriage.
But that brings me to another issue, which mustn't have been an issue at all a hundred years back. What remains of the identity of a woman when she faces a divorce? Her father had ritualistically torn her name from his clan, and now she legally discontinued her marital ties with her husband. Under such situations, which clan or family does she belong to?
Or simply saying which surname should she be ideally taking? While a woman today is given the freedom of deciding to walk out of a distorted marriage, what remains of her after a divorce is an unsettling period of an identity crisis, where she belongs to no family.
The same happened with Swarnali (name changed), a single mom from Kolkata who gave up her prospects of becoming the next music sensation by getting married to the love of her life when she was only 22-year old. But hardly did she know then that she would be facing the harshest phenomenon called 'divorce' 11 years hence, following her husband's infidelity.
Swarnali was left alone with her son. She did not want to go back to her own family because somehow that's how we girls are trained, and she was also apprehensive that she would only end up becoming a burden on her widow mom and brother. "It's a year now since the divorce.
Today, when I look back, I wonder how I could see through so much struggle! Yes, I did face an identity crisis! I had snapped my ties with my husband legally. And my father had snapped me from his gotra (clan) ritualistically during the wedding. So, where did I stand? My mom and my brother wanted me to go back to them. But I just couldn't. I guess that's how traditions and rituals can affect you.
I refused to go back to the family that brought me up and cared for all my needs. Today, after 11 years of my marriage and divorce, going back to my family hurt my self-respect. So I had to start anew, creating my own identity, my name, without a surname," Swarnali said.
And finally, to talk about the core meaning of kanyadaan – the gift of virginity – does this phenomenon called 'virginity' really make practical sense for most women today? I believe it's worth giving a thought to.
Hindu wedding consists of some beautiful and touching rituals that help the couple to make responsible vows based on mutual respect and equality to embark on a love-filled journey. But the fast-changing times call for a certain change of traditions and rituals like kanyadaan that is losing its core significance today.
I know of many girls who agree on the kanyadaan despite disfavouring it either because they feel there's no other way out from it if they have to get married or because they feel the ritual would make their fathers happy. And still if one feels that once a ritual must forever continue to be a ritual, well, if all the great men down the history thought similarly, then the abolishment of the Sati system and child marriage, as well as the rise of widow re-marriage and girl education would never have been possible.