A Comparative Study of Marwari and Kannadiga Brahmin Weddings

On Saturday I was at a Marwari wedding. Actually it was a Marwari Hindu marrying a Gujarati Jain (it was arranged scissors, if you’re curious about that), but the ceremony took place according to Hindu rites. As Gandhi and Khushboo were getting married, I was reminded of my own wedding a little over a year back, and I started mentally comparing the two ceremonies. Here I attempt to put those mental notes “on paper”.

I must mention upfront that I have only one data point (this particular wedding) for Marwari weddings. Also, while the wedding ceremony was still on, I was invited for lunch (in a curious twist, bride’s relatives and friends ate out of a buffet while the groom’s relatives and friends were served a multi-course meal on a silver platter. The food for both was the same, though). So I do not have the complete picture, though the lunch was in the same hall so I managed to observe some stuff as I ate. Also, since the groom in this case was Jain, there is a possibility of some Jain rituals having crept in to the ceremony, so my one data point may not actually be representative. For the Kannadiga Brahmin wedding, I use my own wedding as a data point (again not necessarily accurate, since the wife is technically Gult).

The general impression about North Indian weddings is that they are “action packed”, and a lot of fun. There is known to be much singing and dancing, while South Indian Brahmin weddings are generally solemn religious affairs. There was a fair share of fun at the Gandhi-Khushboo wedding. The previous evening there was a Sangeet where relatives of the bride and groom put up dance performances, which was followed by a general free-for-all dance party, and even a Garba session (and also a Marwari Karaoke session). The cars that were transporting us to the wedding stopped 100m away from the venue, where the groom ascended a mare and there was a brass band and we all danced around to the actual venue. I didn’t attend the reception but I’m sure that had its fun components, too.

However, I noticed that when it came to the ceremony itself, my wedding was much more action-packed and “fun” than this wedding. Yes, at my wedding, the rituals took much longer (started at 11am and ended at 5pm, while here it lasted two hours), but at no point of time was either me or the wife just sitting there doing nothing, which was the case for large sections of this wedding. Most of the time when I looked at the stage, the bride and groom were solemnly sitting in their seats (they had a low bench to sit on, unlike us who sat cross-legged on a low wooden board) doing nothing, as the priests chanted mantras into the microphone. On the other hand, we were constantly doing something. There were “fun” elements like throwing rice on each other’s heads, bargaining for an elephant, getting surrounded by a rope that was spun around by relatives around us, tying the thaaLi, the “Challenge Gopalakrishna moment”, etc.

This is a recent inclusion in both ceremonies, I think, but both weddings involved a phase where the bride and groom are lifted by their respective relatives and friends as they try to get the upper hand (literally) in the muhurtham. In my wedding, the muhurtham involved throwing cumin seeds and jaggery on each other’s heads. Legend is that whoever throws first has the upper hand in the marriage. Here, it was the bride trying to garland the groom and he trying to escape it. At my wedding, the large crowd meant that at that critical moment I was unable to locate my big friends, and had to get lifted by two or three relatives. I resorted to jumping to gain the upper hand (Priyanka had a bunch of big cousins ready to hoist her). It was the opposite story at Gandhi’s wedding. The groom’s party was small, and his brother had told us to be ready to lift him, so we used our “matki phod” skills to good effect to hoist him high.

In both ceremonies, it was the bride’s maternal uncle who performed the “kanyaadaanam” (literally “donation of the virgin”) and brought the bride for the muhurtham. Tradition has it that the uncle should carry the niece, and Khushboo arrived that way. Priyanka’s maternal uncle has a bad back so he simply escorted her to the stage. Then, in both ceremonies, there is the “installation” of bride and groom as Lakshmi and Narayana, and their supposedly divine status for the duration of the wedding. The groom’s shalya (upper cloth) is knotted with the bride’s sari, though since Gandhi was wearing a sherwani, he wore a sash over it for this purpose. Our installation as Lakshmi and Narayana had a fun element as the priest described us as (for example) “Venkataramana Shastri’s great-grandson, Suryanarayana Rao’s grandson, Shashidhar’s son Karthik” which was similar to the refrain in Challenge Gopalakrishna where Gopalakrishna’s father addresses him as “Justice Gopalakrishna’s greatgandson … ” (watch from 7:55 in this video).

The other major point of difference I noticed was in the revolution around the fire after throwing puffed rice in it (it’s a common ceremony in both). At my wedding, I led the way around the fire, but here it was the bride who led the way. I wonder what accounts for this difference, or if it is a minor thing that was missed by the priests.

Overall, I had a fantastic two days in Indore, getting pampered and having sweets thrust into my mouth, catching up with old friends and overall having loads of fun. And not to mention, getting fodder for this double-length blog post.

Religious functions and late lunches

I remember being invited for a distant relative’s housewarming ceremony a few years back. The invitation card proudly stated “lunch: 12:30 pm”. I had a quiz to attend later that afternoon, at 3 pm, I think. Knowing there was enough slack for me to go to the function, thulp lunch and then go to the quiz, I went. At 12:15 (I have this habit of turning up at functions fifteen minutes prior to food; that way I don’t get bored, and people won’t think I’ve “just come for lunch”). Some ceremonies were going on. 1:15. Ceremonies continue to go on, no sign of lunch. 1:45, I realize there’s no slack at all, and want to leave without eating. Relatives get offended. Finally I went to the cooks, thulped some sweets and went off to the quiz.

Almost ten years back. My thread ceremony (upanayanam/brahmopadesham/munji). The priest arrives at the hall at eight o’clock, a full thirty minutes late. “My colleagues are coming at 12:30”, explains my father, “and we should serve lunch by that time. I don’t care what shortcuts you use but make sure we can serve lunch then”. Maybe munji rituals aren’t that compressable after all. Come 12:30, there were still quite a few procedures to go. Lunch was served while the ceremony continued to go on.

Religious functions are notorious for serving lunch late, and the religious purpose of the function is often used as an excuse to do so. I fully support religious freedom, and fully appreciate people’s choice to perform whatever ceremonies that they want. Keeping guests waiting while you do that and delaying their lunch, however, I think is gross disrespect for the guests’ time. And the sad thing is that religion is usually given as an excuse for this disrespect of time.

When you bring religion into a debate, it sometimes becomes tough to pursue a rational debate. In religious functions, if you were to make even the smallest noises about the timing of lunch, you are accused of being inconsiderate, an ingrate, and for having come there only for the food (I don’t know if the last mentioned is actually a crime). It is disrespectful to leave from such functions unless you’ve eaten, and so you are trapped into cancelling other appointments, and staying on until they actually decide to take pity and serve lunch.

I’ve brought up this topic in family forums a few times, and each time I’ve been chided for making such a big issue of something trivial. I don’t, however, understand how lunch is a trivial issue. And how disrespect for people’s time is a trivial issue. I have decided that the next time I attend one such religious function, where there is potential for the hosts to waste guests’ time by serving food inordinately late, I’ll take along a framed printout of Leigh Hunt’s Abou Ben Adhem. And tell them that all their prayers and respect to god will have no effect unless they also respect their fellow men.

Religion 1

I guess from my posts on religion you people know that I’m not the religious types. I don’t believe in rituals. I don’t believe that saying your prayers daily, or hourly, or monthly has any kind of impact on the orientation of the dice that life rolls out to you.

I believe in randomness. I believe that in every process there is a predictive component and a random component, and that you have no control over the latter. I believe that life can be approximated as a series of toin cosses, er. coin tosses, and some times the coins fall your way, and some times they don’t.

I was brought up in a strange household, in religious terms that is. My mother was crazily religious, spending an hour every day saying her prayers, and performing every conceivable ritual. My father was, for all practical purposes, atheist, and I never once saw him inside the prayer room in the house. I don’t ever remember having to make a conscious choice though, but I somehow ended up becoming like my father. Not believing in prayers or rituals (except for a brief period during my sophomore year at college), not believing that any actions of mine could bias the coin tosses of life.

A couple of years back I bought and read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I found the book extremely boring and hard to get through. And it really shocked me to read that people actually believe that praying can change the bias of the coins of life. Or that there exist people (most of Americal, shockingly) who think there was a “God” who created the earth, and that evolution doesn’t make sense.

Anyway the point now is that the missus thinks that I’m atheist because it’s the convenient thing to be, and because I haven’t made that extra effort in “finding God”. She things I’m not religious because I’m too lazy to say my prayers, and light incense, and all such. The irony here is that she herself isn’t the ritual types, instead choosing to introspect in quiet temples.

Just want to mention that you might find me write a lot more about religion over the next few days, or weeks, or months, as I try find my bearings and convince myself, and the missus, of my beliefs.

For starters, I’d say that if there exists a god, he does play dice.

Religion and culture

Normally I don’t consider myself to be too religious. Apart from wearing the sacred thread (janavaara / pooNal) there is nothing religious that I do on a day-to-day basis. I visit temples only to look at the architecture (and look at my offering to the temple as my support to maintenance of the temple), don’t do sandhyavandanam, hate rituals and all that. But then I figured today that irrespective of all the irreligious things that I do, a part of religion has been ingrained in my personal “culture”.

So my car had a freak accident today. I had parked it in the basement parking lot of my office and this electric powered golf cart that my office has recently bought smashed into it. Rear bumper is actually broken. A couple of dents around the sides. The corporate services people have promised to get it repaired for me and stuff, but I’m still mighty depressed about the damage (and I don’t normally take my car to work).

So initially when I saw it smashed, and was told that it would be repaired by next Tuesday, I didn’t think much. I mentally made plans to roam town by auto this weekend and reasoned that I could easily manage the weekdays in office cab. All way peace with the world.

Until I realized that Saturday is Ayudha Pooja, when you worship your tools, especially vehicles. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not the religious types but celebrating Ayudha Pooja is a done thing. I’ve been doing it every year and want to continue doing it. Probably because I think it’s fun, but also because it’s a “done thing”. Washing and cleaning the vehicle, applying turmeric and vermillion, putting flowers and (most fun of all) smashing lemons under the wheels of the vehicle!

I’ll still celebrate Ayudha Pooja this year. Worship my dabba bike, my computer, my violin, my guitar and other sundry implements. But it greatly saddens me that I won’t be able to worship the car. And again it’s nothing religious about it. But just wanted to mention how something that starts out as a religious thing becomes a “done thing” and becomes part of you.

Just like how I’m vegetarian!

Cults and organized religion

On the way back from Mysore last week, my mom asked to go to an orphanage in Srirangapatnam which is run by one Mr Halagappa, a follower of the Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi (ok I must mention that followers of the Sai Baba get pissed off if you call them followers – they claim to be “devotees”. In other words, they consider the Baba to be God. I had a long argument with my aunt once about this). It’s a nice place, located on north bank of the south stream of the Cauvery river.

We were led to the prayer hall where a little girl from the orphanage gave us prasad – something that seemed like sweetened honey and vibhuti. The atmosphere in the hall reminded me of the meditation hall in my school (Sri Aurobindo Memorial, Bangalore). There was an “om” record playing perennially. At one end, there were several photos of the Baba. The interesting thing was that surrounding the “altar”, there were symbols of various religions – om, crescent and star, fire, the cross, the star of david, etc. Maybe it indicated that the Sai Baba was all those gods combined in one.

Now, the thing with people belonging to the Sai Baba cult believe that he is God. They believe that he is God and his previous incarnation was the Sai Baba of Shirdi. Interestingly, most of his followers are also deeply religious with respect to another organized religion. For example, my mother is an extremely devout Hindu – to the extent that she believes that miracles can be caused by doing certain rituals, etc. And she is also completely into the Sai Baba cult.

Then, no organized religion has room for godmen. They do have room for religious leaders – who are supposed to interpret the teachings of the religion and explain them to the mango person, but they certainly don’t approve of religious leaders who claim to be God themselves. In fact, when a religious/spiritual leader proclaims himself to be God, he is implicitly stating that he is alone the true God and all other religions need to be rejected. Yet, he seems to get zillions of followers who are more often than not major followers of some other organized religion. Isn’t there a contradiction?

Spiritual leaders come in two forms – godmen and gurus. The former make their followers believe that they are God. The latter don’t make any such claims – they just claim to be carrying the word of some god of one or more organized religions and passing them on to the mango person. I wonder what it is that makes deeply religous people (wrt organized religion) go after godmen and become “devotees”. Don’t they see it as being contradictory to their belief in their own organized religion? Again – some of them might just be accepting these godmen as gurus and not as godmen, and that makes some sense. But what about the rest?

I know I can confront my mother directly about this, but I also know that she won’t like the idea that I’m asking her uncomfortable questions and she’ll just end up getting angry with me.

Mantras: Songs Fooled By Randomness?

A couple of weeks back, I happened to read Frits Staal’s Discovering the Vedas. I was initially skeptical of the book since it has been blurbed by Romila Thapar, thinking it might be some commie propaganda, but those fears were laid to rest after I read Staal’s interpretation of the so-called “Aryan Invasion Theory” and found it quite logical. I enjoyed the first half of the book, and then lost him. I couldn’t understand anything at all in the second half of the book.

The precise moment where I lost interest in the book was when Staal gave his theory as to why mantras and rituals have no meaning. I found his reasoning of the same quite weak, and since he kept referring back to that later in the book, it became tough to follow. Staal states the following three reasons to claim that mantras precede language, and they are more like bird calls.

  • Mantras are language independent: Anything in language can be translated whereas mantras remain the same in all languages.
  • Mantras, even though they seem to be in a language like Sanskrit, are not used for their meaning.
  • Mantras follow patterns, like refrain, which is not seen in language.

While I find the hypothesis interesting, the proof that Staal gives is hopelessly inadequate. The Beatles might have translated their songs into German, but songs are normally not translated, right? You don’t translate songs, and sing  them into the same tune, unless you are doing some MTV Fully Faltoo or some such thing. On the other hand, what if the songs are in a language that is completely alien to you? There is no way you can translate them, but since you like them you sing them anyway. Without bothering to know their meaning. And songs can definitely have refrain, right? It clearly seems like Staal is trying to force-fit something here. Hopefully he is force-fitting this here so as to prove some other theory of his. But you can never say.

As I had expected, Staal’s theory has caught the attention of the right-wing blogosphere. JK at Varnam writes

This athirathram, which was extensively covered in Malayalam newspapers, was highly respectful and the words I heard were not “playful” or “pleasurable.” I can understand singing for pleasure, but am yet to meet a priest who said, “it’s a weekend and raining outside, let’s do a ganapati homam for pleasure.”

Sandeep at sandeepweb goes one step further, and says:

Even a Hindu not well-versed with the nuances of Mantra intuitively senses that something “divine” or “other-worldly” is associated with every Mantra. In a very crude sense, a Mantra is to some people, a cost-benefit equation: you chant the Gayatri Mantra for spiritual upliftment, the Maha Mrityunajaya to ward off the fear of death, the Surya Mantras for health, and so on. Why, you chant just the “primordial sound(sic),” “OM” to get yet another benefit. Whether these benefits really accrue or or not is not the point. What is immediately discernible is that every mantra is associated with some God or principle. In other words, it has a very specific meaning.

I think mantras are simply songs, in an ancient language, fooled by randomness. As I had explained before I quoted JK and Sandeep, going by Staal’s hypothesis, and the precise reasons that he gives, it is not inconceivable that mantras were composed as songs, in a language that hasn’t survived. In fact, Staal’s “proof” can better explain the song hypothesis rather than a no-language hypothesis. I don’t know why those songs were composed, and I definitely won’t rule out the possibility that they were meant to be devotional (after all, a large amount of later Indian music (including all of Carnatic music) is fundamentally devotional). Anyways the exact reasons for composition may not matter.

So what might have happened is this. I suppose chanting of mantras and conducting rituals was a fairly common event in the Vedic age. I believe that we started off with a much larger repository of mantras and rituals compared to what survive today. And the ones that survive are the ones that were lucky enough to have been associated with certain good events. A chieftan happened to do a certain ritual before going to battle, which he happened to win. And this ritual came to become the “pre-war” ritual. Of course it wouldn’t have been one single event that would have established this as “the” pre-war ritual, but after a couple of “successive trials”, this would have become the definitive pre-war ritual.

Once a particular ritual or mantra got associated with a particular event, then reinforcement bias kicked in. Since it was now “established”, any adverse results were seen as being “in spite of”. Suppose a king dutifully did the pre-war ritual before he got thrashed in battle, people would say “poor guy. in spite of religiously doing his rituals he has lost”. The establishment meant that no one would question the supposed effectiveness of the ritual. And so forth for other mantras and rituals.

To summarize, we started off with a significantly larger number of mantras than we have today. Association of certain mantras with certain “good events” meant two things. One, they got instantly associated with such good events, and two, they got preference in propagation – limited bandwidth of oral tradition meant only a certain number could be passed on sustainably, and these “lucky mantras” (notice the pun – they brought luck, and they survived) became the “chosen ones”.

The sad part in the whole deal is that mantras were taught without explaining the meaning (similarly wiht rituals). Maybe the oral tradition didn’t permit too much bandwidth, and in their quest to learn the maximum number of mantras possible, people gave short shrift to the meanings. And by the time writing was established, the language had changed and the meaning of the mantras lost forever. In fact, this practice of mugging up mantras also gets reflected in the way education happens in India today, with an emphasis on knowledge rather than understanding. I suppose I’ll cover that in a separate blog post.