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Marriage in Hinduism and Catholicism

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The ritual of marriage is significant in the Hindu and Catholic religions. Hinduism is based on achieving liberation from rebirth as an ongoing struggle by fulfilling one’s dharma according to the class in the caste system which one belongs to. In contrast, Catholicism is based on the interpretation of the Word of God in the form of tradition. Through shared elements in weddings such as the importance of marriage, the involvement of the witness, the significance of the groom clasping the bride’s hand, the exchange of vows and the underlying meaning of the symbol of marriage, one can argue that the theology of Hinduism and Catholicism are revealed.

In the Hindu and Catholic traditions there are different perspectives concerning the importance of marriage. Hindu marriages are greatly rooted in the nature of man. Vasudha Narayanan states, “A man has an obligation in life to marry, raise children [especially sons], and fulfill his debts to his community” (90). Thus, marriage becomes a responsibility, as producing sons in order to preserve the family line and culture, is highly regarded in Hinduism. In order for a male to fulfill his dharma and escape suffering from rebirth, he should attain the three major religious paths which are karma-marga, jnana-marga, and bhakti-marga (Bhogal: Hinduism II). Through performing rituals, priestly teachings, gaining knowledge from the Upanishads and expressing devotion to a god, the aim is moksha, liberation from suffering. Through marriage a man can achieve his dharma and fully perform his religious obligations (Narayanan 90).

Hence, a man without a wife is unable to perform his duties and thus a man is simply a half, who must be completed by a woman. According to Vasudha Narayanan, marrying women in one’s own class is important, thus acceptable if the male partner is a higher class (48). The emphasis on the male partner being of higher class is a reflection of a woman’s unequal role and status. A woman, however, is obliged to get married and be faithful to her husband. Vasudha Narayanan explains, “A Hindu wife’s dharma involves sexual fidelity as well as total obedience” (Narayanan 98). Women’s status is exemplified in the caste. Furthermore, fidelity on the part of a woman is a concrete characteristic of marriage and not her own free will. Marriage in the Hindu tradition is seen as a duty in order to fulfill one’s dharma, as opposed to the Catholic tradition that views marriage as a holy sacrament.

The majority of Christians view sacraments such as marriage, as rituals that are performed by Christians as symbols of their loyalty and faith in Christ. Baptism and Eucharist are vital sacraments that are performed early in life and are present during the sacrament of marriage. “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:27). Hence, the sacrament of baptism is an initiation into the church and the sacrament of the Eucharist is a “re-enactment of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples” (Oxtoby 218). Through the sacrament of Baptism, God is able to call his followers and through the sacrament of the Eucharist, the Christians are reminded of Jesus’ sacrifice of his life, redeeming their sins in order to be accepted in the Kingdom of God. The sacrament of marriage is a sign of the union of Christ and His Church, a union which is permanent, resembling the union between a husband and wife (Paris 51).

The means through which Jesus is faithful to His Church expresses the same relationship between a husband and wife. Fidelity is a crucial component in marriage and just as Christ could in no way leave his Church, no man could leave his wife or wife leave her husband (Paris 51). In addition, a marriage permits a couple to produce offspring and educate their children in the Catholic faith. Catholicism emphasizes Jesus’ teachings of charity, love, faith and hope; however, chastity is also a vow that is to be followed by Christians. Through the sacrament of marriage, the couple is able to procreate without being viewed as a sin but being viewed as a reward of marriage, as long as each person is faithful. Moreover, marriage as a sacrament, emphasizes the teachings of Jesus which is to love others, and through loving others, one will be closer to God, and thus be accepted in the Kingdom of heaven.

Along with the dissimilar view of the value of marriage, the witnesses involved in a Hindu and Catholic wedding are different. The sacred fire, agni, god of fire is the witness in a Hindu wedding ceremony. The fire represents a witness to the marriage of the bride and the groom and without it a wedding would be invalid (Narayanan 93). The fire, agni is seen as a guardian of morality. According to Vasudha Narayanan, “Agni, the god of fire, is seen as a messenger between human beings and the deities because offerings were placed in fire to be carried to other worlds” (24). The worldview of the Hindu religion is that gods are praised, prayed to and given offerings as a sign of sacrifice.

Through offerings and prayers that are made and said before the fire, such as fried grain and verses from the Upanishads and the Vedas, illustrates a sense of devotion to a god. In fulfilling one’s dharma, the bhakti-marga which is the way of devotion to a god must be achieved. The entire wedding ceremony is centered around the fire. Thus, the sacred fire is significant in Hinduism, and is present in all rituals in order for one to fulfill one’s dharma and achieve liberation.

In contrast to the sacred fire as a witness in a Hindu wedding, the best man and the maid of honour are witnesses of the bride and groom in a Catholic wedding. The witnesses’ duties are to sign the registers, approving the union. However, the importance of performing the wedding in a Church before God as another witness is very much significant in the Catholic tradition. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to Peter, “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). The Church symbolizes the house of God and through the Church, one can reach the Kingdom of God for salvation. The Catholic idea of witnesses to a marriage in the house of God is sacred and traditional.

A related element in a Hindu and Catholic wedding is the linking of hands between the bride and the groom. In a Hindu ceremony, the father of the bride gives his daughter to the groom who holds onto the bride’s hand, while the ends of their garments tied, he leads her around the fire, taking seven steps known as the sapta padi. The groom leading the bride around the fire infers the dominant position of men and the inferior position of women in the caste system. The caste system has created inequality amongst males and females, a belief that has found expression in the ritual of marriage.

In comparison, during a catholic wedding ceremony, the priest asks the couple to join hands signifying their friendship (Paris 100). The linking of hands is seen as a union of love between the couple. The importance of love is emphasized in Jesus’ teachings which state, “This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Thus, by following Jesus’ commandment, one can further one’s own belief and faith in God. Its significance in a Catholic wedding is to express the love that is shared between a bride and a groom, who represent the love that is shared between God and his people through the gesture of holding hands.

Another resemblance of a Hindu wedding to a Catholic wedding is the exchanging of vows. The sapta padi is the most dramatic part of a Hindu wedding ceremony. The seven steps taken symbolize the comradeship between the husband and wife, which creates a life long bond. The priest utters the mantras, chanting statements that are repeated by the bride and the groom (Narayanan 93). The words that are being recited are significant to the position and status of women. They promote togetherness and wholeness, and thus a wife is not considered as “a man’s possession, chattel, or obedient servant” (Narayanan 93). The sense of wholeness defines a husband and a wife together, creates “one” individual, and the wife’s duty is to assist her husband in fulfilling his dharma.

Although the meaning of the vows is similar to a Catholic wedding, the consent and acceptance of marriage is not directly expressed between the bride and the groom but between the father of the bride and the groom. For example, the kanya dana is when the father gives away his daughter to the groom and recites “This is Sita, my daughter; she will be your partner in dharma” (Narayanan 93). The importance of the father giving away his daughter to the groom is to display men’s authoritative role in the Hindu tradition, and thus emphasizing a woman’s subservient and obedient position. Therefore, consent is not freely expressed between the bride and the groom in the Hindu tradition, though it is in the Catholic tradition.

The exchange of vows between the bride and the groom is seen as a mutual consent that both the bride and the groom take each other freely and completely for life. Hence, Catholicism promotes equality between all people, “there does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). The exchange of vows emphasizes the value of love and faith between the bride and the groom, which is rooted in the theology of Catholicism. Through loving others and having faith in Jesus, the couple will be able to experience God. It serves as a promise made between the bride and the groom and these promises are made to God.

The last aspect that will be examined is the symbol of marriage in the Hindu and Catholic traditions. In a Hindu wedding the symbol of marriage, is the mangala sutra that is given to the bride. The mangala sutra is a piece of jewelry that is worn around the neck to represent the status of a married woman. “A married woman always wears it around her neck all her life, or until her husband dies” (Narayanan 92). A woman’s status is further determined by the mangala sutra as a reminder of her dharma which is to be faithful and subservient to her husband. However, the groom does not receive a corresponding symbol of marriage during the ceremony, but in the caste system a married man wears a double thread around his neck (Narayanan 92). The fact that the groom does not receive an equivalent symbol of marriage like the bride can be traced back to the caste system which views men as being superior to women.

Conversely, the symbol of marriage in a Catholic wedding is a ring. In a Catholic wedding the ring is transferred from the groom to the bride as a sign of love for each other and thus, expressing their love to god. The ring is a symbol of the eternal love in a marriage, a common theme in the theology of Catholicism which states that one should love others the way that one loves Jesus. The eternal love represented by a ring, is the unconditional love that Jesus has for his people.

As has been noted, the Hindu tradition views marriage as a ritual to fulfill one’s dharma in order to achieve liberation from rebirth, while the Catholic tradition views marriage as a sacrament performed by many Christians as a symbol of their faith in Jesus.

The Hindu and Catholic religions are often regarded as different; however, there are certain cultural norms such as the involvement of the witness, the significance of the groom clasping the bride’s hand, the exchange of vows and the symbol of marriage that are present in these traditions. Whether these cultural norms are borrowed or derived from one another is not important, rather, it is our necessity to have these aspects that are worth mentioning. These universal archetypes reflect our need for a community, values, a sense of belonging, long lasting traditions and relationships. The ritual of marriage reinforces the greatest values of organized religions.

Works Cited:

Amakatt, Fr. James. Sacramentality of Marriage in a Dalit Context. India: Inter-India Publications, 2000.

Bhogal, Balbinder S. “Hinduism II: Seeing the Gods and Goddesses.” Introduction to Religion Studies. Computer Science Building, York University. 11 Jan 2005.

Narayanan, Vasudha. “The Hindu Tradition.” World

Religions: Eastern Traditions. Ed. Willard G. Oxtoby. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Oxtoby, Willard G. “The Christian Tradition.” World Religions: Western Traditions. Ed. Willard G. Oxtoby. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Paris, Charles B. Marriage in XVIIth Century Catholicism. Montreal: Les Editions Bellarmin, 1975.

The Holy Bible: New Testament. New International Version. Canada: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1973.

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