Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Special Feature: Bali, Land of Offerings



Land of Offerings

Ancient Outpost of Hinduism Thrives in Modern Times

Sample spread from this article

View this article in all its graphic richness on page 18 of the free Electronic Edition.
From the moment I arrived in Bali in September of 2011, I found myself enveloped in Hinduism. My guide, attired in colorful Balinese traditional dress, greeted me at the airport, his hands in namaskar, with, "Om swasti astu." It means "May God shower grace upon you;" and that's how I felt. The 30-minute drive to my hotel took us past huge sculptures with scenes from the Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita. The hotel clerk, with the charming name Vidyawati Devi, likewise greeted me with "Om swasti astu," and as I left for my room, said goodbye with "Om shanti, shanti, shanti"--"peace, peace, peace." Every subsequent meeting for the next two weeks began and ended with such blessings.
In some ways, Balinese Hinduism reflects a deeper philosophic understanding and a fuller incorporation into daily life than found in India. For example, here cremations are not an occasion for sorrow and mourning, but festive celebrations of the soul's passing on to a better world. Balinese Hindus perform Trikal Sandhya, reciting the Gayatri Mantra and other Sanskrit slokas every day at 6am, noon and 6pm--a practice found in India among brahmins. A third example is Nyepi, the Day of Silence in which the island comes to a complete halt; even the electricity is shut off. Hindus stay indoors, praying and fasting. No vehicles are on the roads, the airport is closed and tourists must remain in their hotels. I cannot imagine such an observance taking place in secular India!
A Balinese Hindu's love for his religion is clearly evident in his home. Each one I visited had an open-air temple, often larger than the main living area. In India, in the huge houses of rich Hindus, I have seen at most a small room used for a temple; in a middle-class home, the temple might be merely a four-foot by four-foot space partitioned off, as an afterthought, from a drawing room, bedroom or kitchen. Every Balinese home temple I saw was well maintained, with flower offerings being made two or three times a day.
I was becoming completely enthralled with the lifestyle--until it came time for dinner. Religious, kind and gentle though Bali's Hindus are, this is a land of meat eaters. Not a single vegetarian main course was available at any of the six restaurants in the Sanur Beach Hotel where I was staying. I took a cab that first evening in a fruitless effort to find a vegetarian restaurant nearby. Finally, I settled for toast and jam with hot chocolate milk back at the hotel. Eventually, with the help of friends, I located the few vegetarian restaurants Denpasar has to offer, but food remained a struggle throughout my stay. Even the sweets were often nonvegetarian. I returned to India a few kilos lighter.
Before we proceed with an account of my two weeks in Bali, a note: Many people have studied the religion and culture of Bali, and reached a variety of conclusions, nearly all based on an academic outsider's point of view. I've also come to Bali to give an account, but do not intend to impose any particular point of view. The people I interviewed will speak for themselves and you, the reader, may draw your own conclusions. That said, let's experience Bali!

Getting Started

I needed a journalist visa to visit Bali and report for Hinduism Today. This was obtained with the kind help of Ngurah Arya Wedakarna Mahendradatta Wedasteraputra Suyasa III, a well-known local figure with a typically long Balinese formal name. Dr. Arya (for short) was the first person I met for an official interview. Just 36 years old, he is rector of the private 3,000-student Mahendradatta University, president of Sukarno Centre, and is involved with numerous local organizations. His father, who founded the university, was a prominent politician and associate of Sukarno, Indonesia's first president. The family traces their lineage back to the first king of Bali's Badung region.
On the short drive to Dr. Arya's office, I was impressed by Denpasar's well-developed commercial areas and excellent roads crowded with thousands of motor bikes. My cab driver explained that nearly every teenager owns one. Almost everyone on the roads was dressed in Western styles; apparently the traditional Balinese dress is for special occasions, or for the benefit of the tourists.
I spoke at length with Dr. Arya in one of the halls of his spacious campus in the heart of Denpasar city. He was outspoken about the problems and challenges that Hindu society faces in Bali. As an educator, he is pained that many Hindu youth are not pursuing higher education, which leaves them out of the top echelons of the corporate sector, especially in the area of tourism. He is concerned about the future, especially the impact of non-Hindus moving from less prosperous areas of Indonesia to Bali. He is impressed that the youth remain proud of their Balinese culture even under the influence of more than two million tourists arriving yearly.
From the modern campus of Mahendradatta University, we drove to the outskirts of Denpasar and stepped back in time at the home of Ida Pedanda Gede Putra Telabah, one of Bali's best-known priests. Beautifully carved doors and windows adorned his large residential compound which contained a temple. His family is of brahmin lineage--yes, there are castes in Bali, but in different form than in India--and his father was a priest. Telabah was educated as a doctor and taught at Udayana University until his retirement 14 years ago, at which time he took up the priesthood.
He told the story of Maharishi Markandeya who brought Hinduism to Bali around 500ce. In 1500ce, Maharishi Dvijendra came to Bali. And in the last half-century a number of modern Indian spiritual leaders, or their followers, have made an impact. "Originally," he explained, "the religion was known as Teertha, because we use holy water for all kind of rituals." A tirtha (literally, a river ford) is any holy river, mountain or other place made sacred by its association with a Deity. Telabah told me the Balinese have spoken of Teerth Gango for a long time, even when it was only a name in the scriptures and they had no grasp of the immense river. As in India, one part of the puja is to mystically transform the water being used into Ganga water. This has quite a special meaning in Bali. As I met more and more people, I found that a great common desire is to go to India to bathe in the Ganga, something almost more sacred to them than to Hindus in India who live along its banks.
At one point in our interview, Telabah took a deep breath, closed his eyes and for a few minutes chanted Sanskrit mantras invoking the holy Ganga and praised India's other holy rivers whose banks host the Kumbha Melas. While chanting, the priest went into a meditative frame of mind; the mantras were flowing from him as if he were one with Mother Ganga. I really loved his reciting Ganga as "Gango" in his Balinese Sanskrit accent; it sounded divine and sweet.
Telabah estimates there are 600 priests from the brahmin community in Bali, but he acknowledged that using the word caste, or referencing anyone as "non-brahmin," can cause problems, and he avoids both. Priests come from all castes in Bali, trained in the guru-shishya tradition. Perhaps there will be a formal school established, he said, but it has not happened yet.
Women also can become priests, as has his wife, Ida Pedanda Stri Mayun Telabah. She helps him in the rituals and also performs rituals on her own. She told me there are about 400 priestesses in Bali. In nearly all cases, their husbands are also priests. "Not only do we get equal respect compared to the men, but sometimes we get more. As a woman priest, I also teach the basics of Hinduism to other women and my fellow priests. As well, we take up social work and help the sick and needy."
Telabah explained: "As a priest, we perform five types of yagna (ritual sacrifice): for the Gods, the ancestors, the rishis or gurus, for man himself and for bhoot, the underworld. You could consider animals as the underworld." The puja system is the same all over Bali. He does puja at home and in the community, and at a temple if invited. "The number of temples in Bali cannot be counted," he told me. "The Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva are the most popular Gods in Bali for the common man. Even now, Balinese villages have their own way of puja, offerings and rituals."
Here, for the first time, I encountered the Balinese explanation of their practice of animal sacrifice (see p. 63 for a full report). They believe the practice can be justified from the Vedas. Telabah said, "Animal sacrifice is used in almost all the temples for the bhutas, the underworld. It is performed so that the animal gets a better life. The animals say, 'Thank you,' when sacrificed. If you are just killing an animal, it is violence. Sacrifice done with puja is not violence, it is a path to moksha, liberation, for the animal."
Telabah told me the Balinese believe they are still in the Dwapara Yuga and will by-pass the Kali Yuga altogether if priests perform their duties well.

The Power of Tradition

From Telabah's house, we headed for the Dharma Sthapanam Foundation in Tanjung Bungkak to see Prabhu Darmayasa, a well-known spiritual teacher. In front of each store or shopping complex along the way one of the Hindu Gods presided, usually Ganesha. The ashram reminded me of the abodes of saints in Haridwar with its dhuna, sacred fire, burning continuously in the central temple--a place where devotees gather around the fire on mats to hear the spiritual teachings. Darmayasa greeted the devotees with "Radhe, Radhe," a custom brought from Vrindavan, home of his guru, Siddhayoga Acharya Shri Kamal Kishore Goswami, a great kundalini master.
Though I had been in touch with Darmayasa before coming to Bali, he had never seen Hinduism Today until I handed him several copies at this first meeting. He questioned me at some length. After satisfying himself that I was indeed working for the betterment of dharma, he proved most helpful throughout the rest of my stay, even guiding me to the island's two most famous temples, Besakih and Tanah Lot.
In explaining why the religion is so strong in Bali, Darmayasa gave great importance to samskara, or sanskar, as they say here. Literally the Sanskrit term means "impression" or "sanctification" and is used in both senses. A samskara is specifically a rite of passage, such as name-giving, first-feeding or marriage, but in its more general sense it means any experience or impression which has a significant impact in a person's life. "We Hindus have been living here in a peaceful way for centuries due to the sanskars given to us by our ancestors. It is because of them only that we are strong and powerful. In our tradition, a child is given sanskar as soon as he or she comes to the womb of the mother."
"Another way our ancestors made Bali safe was by constructing temples in all directions. These are not ordinary temples, but built through austerities." He went on to explain how five substances, panchadhatus, were placed in the ground in accordance with the Ashtakaushala Kaushala, their scripture on temple building. These five--gold, silver, copper, iron and ruby--are connected to the five elements. A similar procedure is followed in India; scholars believe it is derived from the Saiva Agamas. "We are a very small island, but the spiritual powers have protected us at all corners. Indonesia has more than 80 percent Muslims, but our spiritual powers are saving the whole nation." Balinese attribute their escape from the impact of the 2004 tsunami to the island's spiritual power.
A village in Bali is called a desha, which normally means country. Each desha has three temples, one each for Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. The Brahma temple is placed near the village center, Vishnu's near the farms and Siva's near the cremation grounds. All land belongs to the village, not to any individual. "All have to come and serve the temple," he elucidated. "If you do not follow the code of the village, you will have to leave. But you cannot sell your home, as it belongs to the village." "Also," he went on, "if you convert to another religion, you have to leave the village. This is the tradition which is continuing for centuries and saving us today. It does not survive due to any lectures or speeches. We carry our tradition forward by simple pujas and the simple offering of canang, which you see everywhere. Our simple teaching is karmaphala (literally, "fruit of action"), meaning you will be rewarded as per your action--for example, cheat and you will be cheated. Due to this principle, people are afraid of doing wrong actions, which would only bring them trouble. When I was a child, there were hardly any Balinese prisoners in jail. They were afraid to commit a crime, afraid of the karmaphala." I heard again and again throughout my stay about karmaphala, explained to me in depth by elders and children alike.
Telabah described customs that are also common throughout India, such as daily worship in the home, here called ngejot, or the offering of each meal to God first. He said the caste system has undergone considerable change in Bali, though the family name continues to identify one's caste. "My ancestors were priests to the king, but we were named as sudras later on. I never faced any problem with this in Bali, but in India many eyebrows were raised when I proudly said I am a sudra. We do not feel there is anything wrong with it."
Dharmayasa has great pride in Bali's practice of Hinduism. He pointed out that the Balinese never underwent the devastating invasions suffered by India, nor the systematic undermining of their culture as occurred under the British Raj. In particular, he told me, "We have huge ceremonies which are performed every five, ten and even 100 years. Millions participate. Other Hindus can learn from us how beautifully we collectively perform our rituals."

Life of a Priest

Later that day I visited the home of Ida Pedanda Sebali Tianyar Arimbawa, 68, chair of the Sabha Pandita, a body of priests affiliated to the Parisada Hindu Dharma Indonesia (PHDI). He told me he has been to India six times and is close to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of Bengaluru. He said the Indonesian government supports each religion, and Hinduism is taught from elementary through university level. There are over ten thousand teachers of Hinduism in Indonesia's schools--"maybe more than in India."
Arimbawa told me the life of a priest is not particularly easy or profitable, but priests are highly respected. "We survive on the offerings of devotees, and the devotees understand this. For instance, when I was building my home, my devotees helped me, as they knew I was a man of limited means. Similarly, they help build the temples."
He continued: "Hinduism has survived in Bali for centuries because the essence of our religion is that we are people who have a culture of smiling. Bali was attacked by the terrorists [in 2002 and again in 2005--see p. 67] but the Hindus of Bali answered just with their smiles. We also responded by silence and prayers. We prayed every day to shower blessings on our country. We prayed not just for Hindus, but the whole of Indonesia. Each morning we continue to pray like that. Every day, all the time, there are ceremonies going on in Bali. We are praying for the welfare of all. We are getting the great power of blessing from Him."

Cultural/Religious Affairs

On my second day I went to the Indian Cultural Centre, Bali, in the heart of Denpasar. Accompanying me was Dr. Sara Sastra, also known by his priest name of Ida Rsi Bhujangga Waisnawa Putra Sara Shri Satya Jyoti. The center is a branch of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, an official Indian governmental body headed by Dr. Karan Singh. Its job is to promote Indian culture in the host country. Usually a country has only one such center, but Indonesia has two, one in the capital, Jakarta, and this one in Bali. The Deputy Director, Bhuvneshwar Sharma, came to Bali two years ago; the center was started in 2006. In addition to Sharma, the Indian staff includes a yoga teacher and a dance instructor. The center participates in all major festivals, conducts classes in yoga, Bharatanatyam dance and Hindi, and issues 30 scholarships a year for Indonesian students to study in India. Sharma said the small expatriate Indian community has successfully promoted Ganesha Chaturthi and other festivals not previously held here.
Sharma is a keen observer of Balinese life and culture, impressing even the knowledgeable Dr. Sastra with his insight. We share his observations in the sidebar on p. 27.

PHDI, the Official Hindu Body

I next visited the offices of the Parisada Hindu Dharma of Indonesia, or PHDI, the body that represents Hinduism to the government and plays an important role with the priesthood and the teaching of Hinduism in the public schools and villages. PDHI issues certificates to people of other religions who convert to Hinduism through the Shuddi Vidani ceremony conducted by the priests. There I met the Bali province head, Dr. Igusti Sudiana Ngurah, a lecturer of sociology, as well as the national head, Dr. Ketut Wiana, a retired lecturer and now full-time teacher of Vedas and Puranas.
Dr. Ngurah explained that PHDI adjudicates issues regarding Hindu practices and culture, including approving the yearly calendar before it goes to print--a complex job requiring input from the priests. In consultation with the government's Institute of Hindu Dharma, PDHI also has a say in the syllabus taught for Hinduism in the schools.
Dr. Wiana told me PDHI helps organize the big festivals such as Neiypi, the day of silence (see p. 56), and Galungan, which occurs every 210 days and lasts for ten days. It is a time the Gods visit the Earth. "Hinduism in Bali," he told me, "is about yagna (sacrifice), sushila (ethics) and philosophy." He explained that conversion ceremonies occur either because a non-Hindu wants to marry a Hindu (the law requires couples to be of the same religion) or because of a person's strong interest in Hinduism. "Even Muslims can become Hindus, and the government has no problem with this." Before 1960, he explained, conversion from Hinduism to Christianity was occurring. "But in the past few years, many Hindus who had converted have come back to Hinduism."

Worship without Murtis

Later that evening we visited the home of Dr. V. Ramesh Sastry, an educational consultant who moved here from India and serves as secretary general of World Hindu Youth Organisation. Our rapport was instant when I gave him a copy of Hinduism Today featuring on the front cover his guru, Sri Bharati Tirtha Swami, 2011 Hindu of the Year.
Sastry is impressed with Bali. "In other places in the world, Hindus live as different families and communities; but here in Bali, Hindus are like one big community living in one big house. The culture of the people is a big bonding force, and it is due to this that they have survived here for centuries."
The biggest difference between India and Bali, according to Sastry, is that in the temples of Bali there are no murtis, no images of God, and therefore no concept of darshan, or sight, of the murti which is popular in India. "During puja, they focus the mind on the temple's pedestal or padmasana and invite the God to come, then they make offerings. They identify the padmasana by putting different colors for each God: red for Brahma, black for Vishnu and white for Siva." One unusual result of this tradition: there is no clash with the Muslims over idol worship, because the Hindus are not worshiping idols.
Sastry says following Hinduism in Bali is expensive, a criticism I also heard from others. In part, the expense is being lessened by holding mass ceremonies for such events as cremations and for the "tooth filing" samskara. This ritual, not done in India, likely predates Hinduism's arrival here.
The custom villages, as they are called, have an ancient form of governance. "Here every person living in the village, including me," Sastry explained, "must report to the banjar, the village leader, as well as pay a fee. There are village programs which are mandatory for the local people, though I do not have to attend. In India, the guardians of society are the police, but here every street and corner of the village is covered by the pachalaks. Pachalaks are ordinary citizens, not police, who keep a vigilant eye on the activities of the community. It is like the neighborhood watch scheme that was implemented in cities like Delhi at one point in time."
"In India, if there is a marriage in your house it is your personal affair. You have the freedom to invite your neighbor or not to invite your neighbor. But here the marriage is not organized by you; it is the neighbors who organize the marriage. Everything here is community-based; nothing is yours. You can only select the date of marriage for your daughter or son. You do not have the authority to invite or not invite. Here it is the banjar who will do everything. If there is a death in your house, it is the banjar which will take care of everything. A death is not your personal problem. It is a problem of the whole community. It is 100 percent community living here."
Sastry praises the Balinese: "The youngsters of Bali are very good at doing prayers. Indian youth today are running after something else and losing their concentration on God. The rest of the Hindu world should look at the Balinese people and thank them for upholding their culture so strongly. The rest of the world prays as individuals and as a family. But the Balinese pray as a person, as a family, as a community, as a society and even as a nation. They pray together on all kinds of good or bad occasions. This integrates the society, binding them together and bringing a strong sense of brotherhood."

Training Teachers of Hinduism

Next I visited the government-run Denpasar State Hindu Dharma Institute, an accredited college which trains Hindu teachers, preachers and priests. The Institute has 4,800 students, four professors and 120 lecturers (equivalent to an associate or assistant professor in the US system); it offers bachelor's, master's and PhD degrees. Instruction is focused on the four subjects taught in the public schools to Hindus: scriptures, faith, ethics and rituals. This is the largest of eleven similar institutes in the country.
At the entrance is a huge, beautifully carved stone Ganesha. The hall where I was taken had paintings of scenes from the Mahabharata all over the walls, plus a colorful Garuda and many other Hindu motifs. Even in India it would be difficult to find a government institution with such a divine touch of Hindu ambience.
The Institute's rector, Professor Titib, is an eminent scholar whose books on Hinduism are taught in universities, colleges and schools all over Indonesia. Titib earned his PhD from Gurukul Kangari University in Haridwar. That venerable college was set up in 1902 by a disciple of Arya Samaj founder Swami Dayananda Saraswati and is now a government-accredited institution.
In addition to their degree, teachers must also obtain government certification. There are currently 6,000 teachers of Hinduism in the country; 3,000 of those are in Bali. Five hundred new teachers are trained each year. The government has ordered that there be one religion teacher for every 20 to 25 students; presently the ratio is one to 40.
Every Hindu student in Indonesia takes two hours of classes a week in their religion from primary to university level and must pass an exam in Hinduism to graduate. Similar courses are provided for each religion.
Institute students who wish to become priests follow a different course of study. After graduation, they must get further training under an established priest. "You have to follow the guru-shishya parampara," Titib said. "This is the tradition from ancient times. We call it aguron-guron--to come and learn from the guru." I parted sharing my astonishment at the existence of this government-run institution for the preservation of Hinduism, something not found in India. I later returned to lecture to the students about my experience at the Kumbha Melas.

Conversion on the Wane

Surpi Aryadharama, 30, is a university lecturer, journalist and author of a book in Indonesian on conversion in Bali. Between 1930 and 2008, according to her statistics, 27,500 people converted to Christianity or Catholicism (regarded by the Indonesian government as two separate religions). "The target of the missionaries is to make Bali a Christian island," she said; but with the population of Christians and Catholics just two percent, she does not think it possible. "I am optimistic because our youth are interested in learning about Hinduism, and now we have an Institute of Hindu Dharma here." Surpi was inspired by Swami Vivekananda and considers the late Satya Sai Baba to be her guru. She is a brahmacharini: "If I marry, I will not be able to achieve my goal of working for Hinduism."
The Balinese have reduced Christian conversion significantly by opening Hindu orphanages, serving children without parents as well as some from poor families unable to care for them. There are now eight Hindu orphanages (vs. 37 Christian ones), and they are increasingly popular with the people. The one I visited appeared to be well run.
Later I met with Puneet and Neeta Maholtra, both from India, who run the Queen's restaurant chain in Bali--one of the few places I could get a decent vegetarian meal. They are prominent in the Bali-Indian Friendship Association, set up to bring the small expatriate Indian community closer.
Puneet observed that ancient customs found in village India are still followed here, such as never giving something with the left hand or pointing with a single finger, both considered inauspicious. He admired the Balinese sense of devotion and said, "To put it bluntly, Hinduism in India is contaminated, but here in Indonesia it is still quite pure. They are so loyal to their religion and culture. I think we can all learn a lesson from their high level of commitment."

Bali's Hindu Doctrine

Dr. Somvir, a transplanted Indian who has taken Indonesian citizenship, generously shared with Hinduism Today his wealth of knowledge about Bali.
The Balinese religion had traditionally been known as Agama Tirtham. In response to a strong anti-communist movement in Indonesia, the 1960s the government set up a ministry of religious affairs, promoting the doctrine of Panchashila (see p. 26) and requiring citizens to belong to an officially recognized religion. This was actually a matter of life or death, as the atheist communists were singled out for attack. But Agama Tirtham, though Hindu in origin and essence, was not granted official recognition.
Pandit Narendra Dev Shastri Shastriji was instrumental in devising a solution. Sent to Bali in his early 20s by the Birla Foundation to propagate Hinduism, Shastriji settled here permanently and married a Balinese girl. He helped to articulate Hinduism in a manner consistent with the Panchashila doctrine, while not altering the traditional core Hindu beliefs and practices. (Though of Arya Samaj background, he did not promote its reformist teachings here.) He convinced the Balinese to call themselves Hindus, put forward the Vedas as their holy books and say they believe in one God. He had them adopt the Gayatri Mantra as a main prayer and regularized a set of mantras already in use for puja.
Shastriji developed and implemented the Tri Sandhya , a regimen of six Sanskrit prayers said three times a day, beginning with the Gayatri Mantra. The six prayers are:
1) Lord is the Earth, Sky and the Heavens. Let us meditate on the light of the sun, which represents God, and may our thoughts be inspired by that divine light.
2) Lord, Narayana is all that has been and what will be, free from taint, free from dirt, ever existing and without form, holy god Narayana, He is only one and there is no other.
3) Lord, you are called Shiva, Mahadeva, Iswara, Parameswara, Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, Purusha, the supreme soul, source of everything.
4) Oh Lord, I am full of sorrow, my action is full of sins, my soul so destitute, and my birth is also so poor. Save me from all this sorrow, purify my body and mind.
5) Lord, forgive me Mahadeva, He who gives salvation to all sentient beings, save me from all this sorrow, guide me, redeem and protect me, O Sada Shiva.
6) Lord, Forgive my sinful deed, forgive my wrong speech, forgive my sinful mind, forgive me for all those misdeeds. Om, Peace, Peace, Peace.
With these formulations and innovations, "Hinduism was recognized, and a crisis was averted," Somvir concluded.
Bali has benefitted from the recent movie, "Eat, Pray, Love," which ended with star Julia Roberts finding true love in Bali. The resourceful Balinese quickly adjusted their tourism advertising to include all three goals on their beautiful island, resulting in an increased popularity of yoga for tourists. In Bedugul, North Bali, Dr. Somvir is developing the Maharishi Markandeya Yoga City project, intended to be the biggest center of yoga, meditation and ayurveda in the world. Some Balinese oppose him, thinking he plans to impose the Indian version of Hinduism on them. Shastriji faced similar fears; ultimately, during the later part of his life, he was isolated from the community. Perhaps to avoid a similar fate, Somvir promotes yoga and not Hinduism as such. In addition, his target audience is more international than local.

The Mother Temple

The Mother Temple, holiest in all of Bali, is located at 3,610 feet on the slopes of Bali's highest mountain, Mount Agung, an active volcano rising 10,308 feet. Lava flows from a huge 1962 eruption that killed 2,000 people missed the temple by just a few meters. The Balinese believe Agung is a fragment of India's Mount Meru, brought by the first Hindus.
Darmayasa kindly agreed to be my guide for the day. To reach the temple, we drove two and a half hours through interior villages with spectacular rice terraces, cooperatively maintained and dating back hundreds of years.
Mother Besakih Temple is, in fact, a complex made up of 22 temples. Its numerous courtyards and brick gateways are connected by stepped terraces and flights of stairs which finally lead up to the central shrine, Pura Penataran Agung, built in the 17th century. You can take a quick tour of this and other Balinese temples at
Arriving at the temple complex, we proceeded to the Pura Goa Raja cave temple, the mandatory first place of worship. I changed into the traditional sarong and head dress required for entrance into any temple in Bali. From the parking area we descended a flight of several hundred stairs to reach the temple. Most temples in Bali are open air, but this one is located inside a cave.
The story is that once there was an evil king who harassed his people. The Gods came to destroy the king, riding three serpents: Brahma from the Earth on Anantabhoga Naag, Vishnu from the water on Basuki Naag and Ishwar from the sky on Takshaka Naag. It is images of these three serpents, or naags, that are enshrined here. "The idea," Darmayasa explained, "is that if the earth, water and wind maintain a good balance, then the world becomes a peaceful place. This temple balances these three elements for the welfare of the world."
Walking up the stairs, we proceeded to the Lakshmi temple for a short puja and then started up the grand staircase to the main sanctum. By this time it was late afternoon. The weather was extremely pleasant, and we could see the clouds floating just a few hundred feet above us. The area up to the sanctum was landscaped with plants and trees. Beautiful red flowers grew on each side of the stairs.
As I climbed, I was more and more charmed by the majesty and magnificence of this structure. When one set of flights ended, I found myself on a platform where the view--both down below and up to the temple above--was breathtaking. The serenity and divinity of the surroundings brought me to a completely meditative state. I was rendered blissful and speechless.
Scores of devotees in white, carrying yellow and white umbrellas, were coming down the stairs. Darmayasa explained that they had worshiped at the Mother Temple to establish their ancestors as devatas among the Gods.
Passing through a narrow entrance at the top of the stairs, we came into a courtyard dominated by a large platform in front of a row of temples. The three main structures represent Sadasiva, Parasiva and Siva. Puja was in progress for a group of a hundred who had arrived before us. A large number of foreign tourists watched from a distance but did not take part.
Soon it was our turn for puja. As with most pujas in Bali, it began with preparatory prayers by the priest followed by recitation of six slokas as a group. At the conclusion, the priest sprinkled holy water on all of us and gave out rice from the puja. We applied this as a tilak to the forehead, and, in the unique Bali style, also to the temples and earlobes.
The open-air temples of Bali are quite different from the closed-in temples of India where even forced air circulation may be insufficient. Here the openness to the sky overwhelms your senses and connects you with the divine as the Vedic mantras are chanted and flower offerings are made.
In India you would always leave your shoes at the temple entrance and proceed barefoot, even a long distance, for worship. But here, the Balinese walk about in the temple with their shoes on. Only for puja were their shoes removed and placed by their side.
Our worship complete and evening upon us, we headed back to Denpasar. Our route took us through Ubud, the famed art center, where we stopped briefly for dinner; I would come back in a few days for a much longer visit (see p. 60). We met Ketut Suardana and his Australia-born wife, Janet De Neefe. Together they run a chain of restaurants and guest houses, and Janet, an author, organizes the yearly Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. They are a successful cross-national couple with four children. Janet much of her life here in Fragrant Rice, a book of insightful reflections on her own melding with Balinese life, plus her favorite local recipes. (See excerpts on p. 34 and 67.)
Ketuk told me his wife became a Hindu by choice when they married. Janet explained, "I am a Hindu officially. But I am still understanding it, as it is a complex religion. There is a worldwide trend of Westerners taking to Buddhism, I think because it is easier. Hinduism is a very gentle kind of artistic religion here."


On my seventh day, from morning to late afternoon, I had the unusual experience of attending a cremation ceremony for a complete stranger, something never done in India (see p. 64 for a full report on cremation in Bali). It was quite an adventure; the Balinese do not mourn, weep or wail as the funeral proceeds, but rather celebrate the person's life and their transition to higher realms.

Developing Hindu Resources

Today Dr. Sara Sastra took me to Denpasar to visit the Dwijendra Foundation's school, a private institution serving 4,000 students. Its mission is to produce "Hindu human resources" to improve the knowledge of the Hindu people of Bali in religion, culture and literature. The school was founded in 1953 by Shri Dang Hyang Dwijendra, named after an 8th century Javanese priest of the same name who built Besakih Temple.
It was the first such institution in Bali. It was here Pundit Shastri and others developed the concept of Tri Sandhya, the thrice-daily prayer of Gayatri mantra at 6am, noon and 6pm, which has been implemented for Hindus all over Indonesia.
As I entered, I was struck by two things: the huge statues of Goddess Saraswati and Lord Ganesha at the entrance and the hundreds and hundreds of motorbikes parked chockablock in exquisitely precise rows beside the buildings. It seems nearly every older student has one--a testament to the relative prosperity of Balinese Hindus.
The Foundation's vice-chair, Shri M.S. Chandra Jaya, took us on a tour of the neat, clean and well-maintained classrooms. The likes of this Hindu school could hardly be found in all of India. Here I was as much an object of inquiry to the children as they to me; they especially loved to hear about the four Kumbha Melas I'd been to. When I asked if they would like to visit India, nearly every hand went up. All wanted to go to Haridwar to bathe in the Ganga.
The school gives a complete secular education up to college B.A. level. Jaya explained that 99 percent of the students are Hindus. This is their main campus; a few other schools use the Foundation's name but run independently. The government provides funds for books and sponsors a free education for 250 children each year. He said that as a matter of government policy, they cannot call it a Hindu school, even though there are Muslim schools. They are working toward a change so that it can be so designated.
The school has 12 teachers of Hinduism and a yoga instructor. Fees are nominal, only us$0.56/month for kindergarten and $1.36 for secondary school, just enough to cover expenses; children from orphanages attend free. "We have a small number of seats compared to the demand for admission," Jaya told me. "Anyone who graduates from here is looked upon as someone who will take care of the future of Hinduism in Bali. They are also considered to have the essential qualities required for a good Hindu priest."
Ketut Wantra, a 9th grade Hinduism teacher, said he was teaching about the avatars, Hindu ethics, ancient philosophy and the history of Hinduism. "We try to teach the children to be humble. For example, if somebody is handsome, he should not be proud of it. We each have to remember that we all have good points and minus points. We teach about karmaphala, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayan and Mahabharata. Religion and morality provide guidance to our children on how they should lead their lives in today's times."
Fellow Hinduism teacher, Gusti Ayu Nyoman Kartika, shared: "We try to teach not only theory, but the practice of Hinduism as well. We teach bhajans, yoga, mantras and how to make an offering in the temple. The children go to the school temple every day and make a small offering, called canang. On full-moon day all 4,000 students--each in traditional Balinese dress--make big offerings and perform puja together at the temple."
The teachings clearly have an impact on the students. Luh Putu Citra Dwi, 17, told me, "Hinduism helps us to maintain calmness and peacefulness. My concentration power has improved immensely, and my behavior towards others has become more friendly. Our teachers, such as Mrs. Kartika, are close to us, and they influence our lives in a greater way. What makes our school different is the focus on Hinduism. We learn other subjects to pass our exams, but we learn Hinduism to put it into practice in our lives. In general Hinduism makes all of us wiser and develops our power to judge what is good and what is bad. My aim is to become a doctor and a good human being who is useful to society."
Class 9 student, A.A. Ngr. Satria, 15, said, "I love my religion and am proud of it. Hinduism has inspired me to become a better human being. According to the Gita, we must protect those who are weak. I love the Mother Besakih temple. In my normal life, I wear Western clothes, but I don traditional Balinese dress for the temples. I was never taught to be a vegetarian while practicing Hinduism. I love meat, have it every day, and will never be a vegetarian."

Insights Into a Remarkable Culture

During my last few days in Bali, I attended personal ceremonies at Dr. Sastra's house (see p. 54-55). I also accompanied him to the large campus of Bali's Hindu University, where he teaches ayurveda. Despite its name, this is a private, secular institution; Hinduism is taught only as part of its regular course of study, as in any other university here.
On an auspicious day at Dr. Sastra's home I attended a ceremony for another family. On a second visit to Ubud, Bali's art center, I met P. T. Damar Wayan of the erstwhile royal family of Ubud. He offered explanations about Bali's culture, philosophy and art, especially how it is all preserved as an obligation of the entire community, not just a few individuals. Finally, I met again with Dr. Arya and his Bali Youth Forum and made a good-bye visit to Darmayasa ashram.
During my flight home, images of my wonderful time in Bali came one by one before my eyes. Bali, I had learned, had one extra samskara, tooth-filing, over and above the sixteen samskaras delineated in scripture. I was pondering how to have this samskara and obtain an edge over all my Indian Hindu brethren. In a quick vision, I saw the high priest wearing his diamond-studded headgear performing the tooth filing ceremony on me. Just then I opened my eyes and took a sip of the chilled lemon juice the stewardess had served. Unexpectedly, some of my teeth were extra sensitive to the cold. I convinced myself it was due to the tooth filing completed a few seconds back by the high priest. I smiled and felt blessed that I was now carrying a lasting touch of Balinese Hinduism to India.PIpi

Educational Insight: Hindu Wedding

Educational Insight: Hindu Wedding


Hindu Wedding

The Sacred Rites of Matrimony

In this Educational Insight, we present a pictorial summary of the Hindu wedding ceremony, with text drawn from a new book, Vivaha Samskara, designed particularly for Hindus living in the diaspora and released in 2011 as a guide to this sacred event. It encompasses all the basic aspects of the traditional rites and incorporates a few key innovations for contemporary times.
It all started at the wedding of my daughter Rupali in 2005. Right after the wedding ceremony, the daughter of a family friend informed me that she had just gotten engaged and wanted me to be her wedding purohita (priest). I had never done this before, so I did not accept immediately. Having attended many Hindu weddings in the US over the last two decades, I felt that the ceremony could be made more meaningful to the couple and the invited guests, since most people do not understand Sanskrit, the language of the ceremony. I accepted the request after studying the subject in depth. PAfter officiating one wedding, I was requested by many Hindu friends and acquaintances to officiate their children's weddings. In the meetings prior to these weddings, I always explain the ceremony and its significance to the couple. Due to the lack of a reference book in English, I decided to write a book specifically for the Hindu diaspora and even Hindus in India. I met Shri Sanjay Mehta, an active member of the Hindu Mandir Executives' Conference (HMEC), after I started writing. With his encouragement, it was decided that the book would be published under the auspices of the HMEC, as it neatly complemented the common objective of sustaining Hindu Dharma.


In the mid 1960s, indian professionals started arriving in the US in large numbers after the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which changed the basis of US immigration policy. A majority of these Indian immigrants grew up in the tradition of Sanatana Dharma, commonly called the Hindu religion. As they settled in a newly adopted country and their children grew up in the non-Hindu-majority American society, they perceived a great need to preserve and propagate their own Hindu identity to the next generation. Many Hindu temples were built, and purohitas (priests) trained in India were brought in to properly observe temple traditions. As of 2010, there were approximately 600+ Hindu temples and institutions in North America. The Indian purohitas came well trained in performing the daily temple rituals, as well as conducting the samskaras for the devotees, such as upanayana (sacred thread ceremony) and vivaha (wedding). Purohitas generally do not deliver a sermon to a congregation, as in the traditions of some other religions.
As Hindu young adults in North America reached the age when marriages are usually performed, it was natural for them and their parents to wish for a proper Hindu wedding ceremony. Even in Hindu/non-Hindu unions, the desire for a Hindu ceremony is strong on the part of Hindu parents, as well as second-generation Hindu young men and women in North America. Although a number of books are available on the topic of Hindu wedding social customs, we felt a need for a book in English specifically geared toward meeting the multifaceted requirements of the diaspora, as well as Hindus in India who follow the "Don't ask, don't tell, just do!" practice when it comes to performing symbolically rich rituals.
Differing social customs are followed in a vivaha samskara depending on the region (within India) of family origin. This first edition of the book does not list or delve into the region-specific practices and rituals associated with Hindu weddings. Our intention is to focus on the Vedic roots of the essential steps in a vivaha samskara and to sustain a common Hindu identity. Although Vivaha Samskara is a result of the needs of North American Hindus, it is intended for all Hindus anywhere in the world. Our key objectives are as follows.

Educating Young Hindus

The Hindu wedding ceremony comes to us from the Rig Veda, the most sacred book of the Hindus. It is written in the archaic version of what eventually became the Indian classical language Sanskrit (Sausk(R)ta). One of the important duties of the purohita is to ensure that the couple getting married understands the steps in the ceremony. Most people have not studied the Sanskrit language, making it difficult for the couple to follow the ceremony. The English-language skills of the purohitas from India at present may not be adequate to explain the symbolism of the rituals to couples whose mother tongue is essentially English. This will change over time. The foremost purpose of this book is to educate and empower Hindu young adults entering the married stage of life. The couple should be aware of the meaning of the samskaras and the sublime ideals enshrined in them.

A Guide for Bride, Groom and Parents in the Diaspora

The generation of Hindus who immigrated to North America in the 1960s and 1970s generally had their own weddings performed in the traditional Hindu Vedic way, in India in most cases. It is not a common practice for purohitas in India to explain the symbolism of the steps to the couple or the attendees. Second-generation Hindus in North America are curious about their roots and heritage, but they may not get enough information from their own elders. Therefore, the second purpose of the book is to provide a reference source to the bride, the groom and their parents as they prepare for their wedding.

Vedic Hindu Vivaha Procedural Adaptation

Hindu Dharma rituals have evolved over several millennia. The third purpose of this book is to provide a Vedic Hindu vivaha vidhi (marriage procedure) with a few adaptations to reflect contemporary reality. The young generation of North American Hindus have generally been born and brought up in North America. Their identification with the region of family origin in India is much weaker than that of their parents, who are mostly first-generation immigrants. Therefore, this book promotes a common Hindu identity regardless of the family's regional origin.
The traditional Vedic Brahma Vivaha ceremony does not include a step wherein the bride and the groom state their acceptance of each other as life partners. It is presumed to have been done. The reality in the life of 21st-century Hindus in North America is that the bride and groom themselves may choose each other, with their parents' consent or with relatively minimal parental involvement. We have added a mutual-consent step to the traditional ceremony.
In the traditional Vedic sapta-pada (rite of seven steps), the groom expresses the couple's wishes for their married life. This book provides an alternative set of verses for sapta-pada wherein the bride and groom express their shared prayers and aspirations.

An English Reference for Purohitas

The Indian-trained purohitas bring thousands of years of Hindu ritual practices to the ceremony. They rightfully follow the shastras and traditions they learned. Their contribution to the sustenance of Hindu Dharma and to the creation of North American Hindus' unique identity is enormous. The ancestral lineage of the purohita, the tradition he belongs to and the region he comes from all impact the way he conducts the vivaha samskara. It is not the intention of this book to suggest any alterations in the practices of the properly trained purohita. As they gain experience in conducting weddings in North America, they may adapt to contemporary situations. This book is intended to assist purohitas in their meetings and communications with the couple and their parents.
Although the large cities of North America now have established Hindu temples with trained purohitas, there are many small towns where a properly qualified purohita may not be available to perform the wedding ceremony. Using this book, a practicing Hindu with fundamental knowledge of Hindu dharma, a strong desire to sustain it, familiarity with our ritual practices, sufficient knowledge of Sanskrit and the ability to properly pronounce Sanskrit words should be able to conduct the ceremony. The acting purohita is encouraged to ask the couple and their elders to read this book prior to the meetings in which they will decide the details of their ceremony.
In a Hindu wedding ceremony, the attendees have two important roles: they are observant eyewitnesses to the bride's and groom's commitments to each other and the couple's commitment to society, and they bless the couple to sanctify the union.

Hindu/non-Hindu Interfaith Marriages

As the 21st century dawns in North America, it is not uncommon for a young Hindu adult to choose a non-Hindu spouse. Such interfaith couples face many divisive issues related to the differences in their religious beliefs, especially if the non-Hindu religion is essentially exclusivist in its central tenet. The fifth purpose of the book is to ensure that a Hindu contemplating marrying a non-Hindu addresses potential differences prior to getting married so that these issues do not become festering conflicts with negative effects on harmonious marital relationship.

Contents of the Book

  1. A complete Vedic Hindu Brahma vivaha liturgy in Sanskrit with English transliteration and translation. It constitutes a step-by-step guide to each aspect of the wedding.
  2. Two modifications for contemporary relevance: mutual consent and joint seven-step pronouncements.
  3. Explanation of the meaning of Hindu rituals.
  4. A discussion of Hindu/non-Hindu interfaith marriage issues.
  5. A complete ceremony for a non-Hindu to become a Hindu.
161 pages, 6"x9", paperback, isbn 978-0-9793501-3-9, $12
To purchase the book, visit:
HMEC is an initiative of the World Hindu Council of America (VHPA).

Steps of the Vivaha Samskara

Here we excerpt the detailed wedding procedures found in Vivaha Samskara. The book includes more complete explanations and instructions and provides all the mantras in Sanskrit which our summary gives in English.

Start of the Ceremony

After an invocation prayer, the purohita makes an opening statement to briefly explain the ceremony and the attendees' role therein. The bride's elders arrive at the mandapa (a pavilion with four pillars and a cloth canopy) and wait for the arrival of the groom's party. Although weddings generally take place in a public facility nowadays, such as a hotel ballroom, it is deemed to take place at the bride's elders' home. Therefore, they arrive first to be the hosts of the event. The groom's elders then arrive and are welcomed by the bride's elders. The two families stand together to await the groom.

Arrival of the Groom

The groom arrives to the accompaniment of music and is formally welcomed by the bride's elders. A part of the welcoming ritual involves a puja to the groom, with offerings of a seat, water for washing feet and a mixture of honey and yogurt. The groom is then escorted to his seat on the right side (attendees' perspective) of the stage. Traditionally, the arrival of the groom and his party to the bride's village took place at least one day prior to the wedding. Such an arrival with fanfare was a method of announcing that the wedding is scheduled to take place. Anyone with an objection to the union was expected to contact the elders of the bride or groom. Gifts may be presented to the groom at this time.

Arrival of the Bride

The bride arrives, accompanied by music and fanfare. She takes her seat on the stage on the left side. It is customary in most parts of India for the maternal uncle to escort the bride to the wedding venue. Nowadays it is recommended that the bride choose as her escort(s) the elder(s) emotionally closest to her; parents in most cases. The groom's elders perform a puja to the bride. Gifts may be presented to her at this time.

Invocation to Lord Ganesha

At the beginning of any Hindu religious ceremony, Lord Ganesha's blessings are sought, as He is the remover of all obstacles. This puja is performed by both sets of elders. In this step the bride's elders and the groom's elders request the attendees to collectively express the desire that the day and time be meritorious and auspicious for the samskara.
A statement of intent (sankalpa) is made by the elders and the couple that they are about to perform a wedding ceremony. It is customary to identify the day (according to the Hindu calendar system), names of the persons performing the ceremony, the lineages of the bride and groom and the location where the ceremony is being held.
The announcement of the gotra (clan-lineage) is particularly noteworthy. In Hindu Dharma, "sagotra vivaha," i.e., the bride and groom belonging to the same gotra, is forbidden. The announcement of both gotras informs the attendees that the bride and groom belong to different gotras.
Tying String Around Wrists
The bride and groom each tie a cord around the other's wrist symbolizing their commitment to perform the ceremony, their pledge to provide mutual protection and their prayers for good health.

Pledge of Mutual Consent

This ceremonial step allows the couple to announce their mutual consent. Each one states that she/he has made a mature and wise decision to accept the other as spouse to discharge the duties of the householder stage of life. This step is not a part of the traditional Brahma vivaha. It was added in this book to reflect the contemporary reality for many North American Hindu young adults that the bride and groom choose each other as life partners.
A pebble soaked in water, a niranjana, a tulasi leaf, darbha grass, flowers and akshata (unbroken grains of rice, colored) should be placed in a copper tray. The groom and the bride hold this tray in their hands and say the following three times in the presence of all the attendees.
Groom:"My fair lady, I have chosen you as my wife in the same way that Shantanu chose Ganga or Yayati chose Sharmishtha. May the sages, the sacred fire, God Varuna and all other Deities, the Sun, the Moon and the Earth give their consent to our union, and may they bless our union."
Bride: "I have reached the age of majority, and I am perfectly capable of making decisions about my career and life. I thoughtfully and joyfully choose you as my husband of my own free will. May the sages, the sacred fire, God Varuna and all other Deities, the Sun, the Moon and the Earth give their consent to our union, and may they bless our union."
Now the bride asks the groom three times to take an oath, and the groom takes that oath three times. Bride: "Promise me that you will not transgress my bounds while you pursue religious duties, acquire wealth and seek the fulfillment of earthly desires!"
Groom: "In the pursuit of my religious duties, acquisition of wealth and fulfillment of earthly desires I shall not transgress your bounds."

Giving Away the Bride, Kanya Danam

In this step, the bride's mother pours a small stream of holy water from the kalasha (water vessel) onto the bride's father's palm, which then flows to the groom's palm and finally to the bride's palm. This water stream is collected by the groom's mother in a copper plate. The symbolism here is that the bride is being entrusted to the groom and that he is now responsible for her protection, with full approval of the parents of the groom and the bride.
The groom's response to the bride's parents after accepting her as his life partner is poetic and noteworthy. He raises a rhetorical question, "Who is the giver and who is the receiver?" He then goes on to provide the answer (paraphrase): "You and I are merely instruments in the hands of Ishvara. It was the wish of Ishvara that brought us together. I accept her with love, just as the parched earth at the end of summer eagerly accepts the first showers of monsoon."
One important part of this step is the advice given to the groom by the bride's father: "Do not transgress her as you pursue your duties, acquire wealth and seek fulfillment of your earthly desires." The groom repeats three times that he will not do that.
The act of gifting one's daughter represents the fulfillment of the parents' obligation or debt to their ancestors. The perpetuation of society through progeny is considered one of the most important duties of a householder. This act of entrusting the daughter to her husband is done for the sustenance of society through procreation.

Eight Auspicious Verses

The bride and groom stand [or sit] facing each other, each holding a fresh flower garland. A cloth curtain is held between them so that they cannot see each other's faces. The curtain symbolizes their separate identities prior to getting married.
Eight auspicious verses (mangalashtakam) are sung by the purohita and/or family members to invoke blessings of God, rivers, etc. At the end of each verse, the purohita and invited guests collectively advise the couple "Shubha mangalam. Svadhana." "Svadhana" means attention, and "shubha mangalam" means auspicious. The invited guests are advising the couple to pay keen attention to the commitments they are making to each other and to society on this auspicious occasion. Out of the eight verses traditionally recited, some may be specifically composed for the couple incorporating their names in the lyrics. Some are recited by relatives, such as aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins. Once the curtain is removed, the bride garlands the groom, then the groom garlands the bride. The removal of the curtain symbolizes that two lives are becoming one and there will be no secrets between them. This is one of the most important commitments the bride and groom make to each other.

Expectations for Married Life

As the bride and groom stand or sit facing each other, they express their wishes for life. One expresses a wish and the other responds by saying, "Let it be so; I will do all I can to make it so." The bride and groom alternate. Each time, after the promise is made, one sprinkles akshata over the other's head. The bride and groom are committing to work together in their married life to fulfill their duties in the following six areas: prosperity, religious duties, fame, duties towards the society, to children, and success in all endeavors.

Tying the Sacred Necklace

The bride's mother presents the bride's necklace, called mangala sutra, literally "auspicious thread." It is sanctified by the purohita through a brief puja. The groom then places it on the bride, while reciting, "I place this mangala sutra around your neck as a symbol of our good fortune, love and friendship." Nowadays most (not all) Hindus use a gold necklace with black and gold beads. Socially it serves as a symbol of a Hindu woman's married status.

Applying Kumkum to the Bride's Forehead

The groom then applies a red dot on the bride's forehead and red kumkum powder in the part of her hair as a symbol of his commitment to protect her in all circumstances. These are well known symbols of her marriage status. While applying the kumkum, he recites this mantra: "May this tilaka of sindura forever nourish your status and esteem, just as the orb of the early morning sun enhances the beauty and glory of the Eastern skies."

Placing a Ring on the Groom's Finger

This is a Western custom adopted by Hindus in North America and elsewhere. It is not an essential part of the traditional ceremony. Bride: "I place this ring on your finger as a symbol of our love. Keep it safe and secure on your finger, and keep me safe and secure in your heart."

Tying the Knot

The purohita now instructs and guides the groom and the bride in performance of a Ganesha puja in which five betel nuts, dried roots of turmeric and some laddus are placed before the Deity. The purohita recites: "Lord Sri Ganesha, your physical stature is large. You shine with the brilliance of millions of Suns. Ignorant people do not know your real nature. Kindly remove all the obstacles in my undertakings." After the puja, the groom's stole and the end of the bride's sari are tied together, with the sanctified betel nuts inside the knot. The knot is not to be undone until the ceremony is over. The image of the bride and groom circumambulating Agni (fire), thus tied together, is iconic for Hindu weddings, representing a bond for life.

Acceptance of Hand in Marriage

The groom accepts the bride's hand in marriage while saying, "The Deities Bhaga, Aryama, Savitri and Indra have brought you to me so that we may together follow the difficult path of grihastha ashrama. I take your hand in my hand so we may receive good fortune. May we live together well into ripe old age" (Rig Veda 10.85.36).

Seeking Agni's Blessing through Homa

In Vedic times it was customary to perform an Agni puja (sacred fire worship, also called homa) every day. The couple's performing this ritual for the first time after getting married signifies their entry into grihastha ashrama (the householder stage of life). The groom recites, "Having accepted this bride as my wife, I will perform this vivaha homa in order to successfully and firmly establish her status as the wife and to establish the sacred fire in our household." The bride sits on the left side of the groom and rests her right hand on the groom's wrist as an indication of her participation in this vivaha homa.
The groom recites a series of Vedic mantras. Each time "svaha" is uttered at a verse's end, he pours a spoonful of ghee into the sacred fire, which burns in the homa-kunda (a small square pit holding the ritual fire, fueled by small pieces of dried wood). The couple is seeking Agni's blessings for protection, purity, illumination of minds and a smooth relationship.

Circumambulating the Fire & Ascending the Stone

The groom places two fistfuls of popped grain and two spoonfuls of ghee in the bride's hands. Then he places one hand beneath and one hand over the bride's hands. The groom recites: "Aum! By making the offerings to Agni, this girl has worshiped God Aryama. May Aryama free this girl from attachment to her parents' home and family, and not from an attachment to our home and our family. Svaha!" The bride and the groom then together offer the grain into to the fire.
The bride and groom now walk clockwise around the sacred fire holding a pitcher of holy water and homa utensils. The groom holds the bride's right hand and walks slightly ahead of her. At the end of the circumambulation she places her foot on a stone, and the groom expresses his wish that she become as strong as the stone she is standing on to form a strong household and face any adversity that may lie ahead in life.
These actions (offering puffed grains, walking around the fire and standing on the rock) are repeated two more times. In the first round, the Vedic Deity Aryama is invoked in the form of Agni. In the second round, Varuna is invoked, and in the third, Pushana is worshiped. During each round, the groom recites this verse from the Grihya Sutras: "I am indeed the Prana. You are also the Prana. I am the Sky, and you are the Earth. I am a verse of Sama Veda, and you are a verse of Rig Veda. Let us be married. Let us have children. Let us endear ourselves to each other. With love and affection for each other, and with minds acting in unison, let us live a long and happy life of 100 years." Finally, a fourth oblation is made to Prajapati, without circumambulating.

The Rite of Seven Steps

The purohita prepares seven small mounds of rice in a line for the bride and groom to step on. The bride and groom, standing next to each other, their stoles still tied in a knot, step on the mounds as instructed by the purohita.
This is one of the most important parts of the ceremony. According to the 1956 Hindu Marriage Act of India, the circumambulations around Agni and the seven-step ceremony are recognized as the essence of a Hindu wedding. The sentiments expressed here provide the essence of the wife's role in the marriage. In the traditional Brahma vivaha, the groom addresses the bride and expresses seven wishes for their married life. After each statement he repeats, "Become one with me in thought and action. May we be blessed with many children and may they enjoy a long life."
  1. Take this first step for the abundance of nourishment in life.
  2. Take this second step for strength in life.
  3. Take this third step for prosperity in life.
  4. Take this fourth step for the fulfillment of all earthly desires.
  5. Take this fifth step for procreation.
  6. Take this sixth step for the enjoyment of the various seasons of life.
  7. Take this seventh step for a lifelong friendship.
Groom: "Now that we have taken these seven steps together, we will be inseparable friends through the journey of life. May Ishvara give us life long enough to watch our many children and grandchildren grow and prosper."
Rite of Seven Steps, Alternative Form with Joint Recitation
In the traditional rite of seven steps, the bride does not have the opportunity to express her wishes. In order to emphasize the complementary nature of the husband-wife relationship, Vivaha Samskara provides verses to be jointly recited. These joint expressions, stated after an opening verse expressing a wish for everlasting love, make the rite of seven steps contemporary.
Bride and groom together: "O Vaishvanara Agni, we are taking seven steps together to begin our united journey of life. May our love and affection for each other keep growing the way a river keeps swelling in the rainy season." Then they together recite the following seven prayers. Prior to the first prayer, the groom says, "O Mistress of my heart! This is my first step with you." And the bride says, "O Lord of my heart! This is my first step with you." Together: "May we fulfill our duties with honor and become worthy of merit." The groom and bride exchange similar complimentary verses before each step.
  1. May we fulfill our duties with honor and become worthy of merit.
  2. May our home always be filled with wealth and sustenance.
  3. May we know all the joys that life has to offer.
  4. May our home be blessed with children and grandchildren.
  5. May our life together be peaceful & mutually nourishing.
  6. May our deeds bring pride to our families.
  7. May our two hearts beat as one.
After the final step, the groom and bride repeat together: "Since we have taken these ceremonial seven steps together, our minds have become one. May we shine like the moon and the moonlight."
Blessings by the Purohita
Now the bride and groom stand facing each other, holding each other's hands and their foreheads touching. The purohita sprinkles holy water on them and intones the following: "May you be blessed with prosperity, power, health, plenty of food, cattle, many children and a long life of 100 years. Let there be peace. Let there be nourishment. Let there be happiness."
Meditating on Dhruva, Arundhati & Saptarishi
In this part of the ceremony, the groom and bride recite together with eyes closed: "We hold Dhruva [the pole star], Arundhati and Saptarishi [two constellations] dear to our heart. We bow down to them and pray to receive their blessings. They are the ideals of steadfastness and fidelity to all people on this Earth."
Final Salutations
The newly married couple should now bow down to their parents, the purohita and all the elders in attendance and together ask for their blessings in these words: "Respected elders, parents and gurus, kindly accept the salutations from us, the newly married couple. You all attended this samskara out of your love and affection for us. We are eternally grateful to you for that. We pray to you to once again extend your best wishes to us."
The purohita recites a verse of blessing, and all the attendees follow him in unison: "May all be well with you. As long as the sacred river Jahnavi (Ganga) flows on this Earth, and as long as the Sun, protector of all beings, shines in the sky, may you live happily with your daughters, sons and grandchildren. And may your life be filled with beauty, grace and happiness. May all be well."

Weddings Logistics

A wedding in a hindu family is one of the most joyous events and is celebrated with gusto. Parents are generally deeply involved in organizing and paying for the event, because traditionally it has been the parents' responsibility to conduct a proper wedding. It can be a multi-day, lavish event with guests normally ranging between 200 and 500. The events may include:
  • Mehendi/Sangita/Garba: Also known as the "henna and music" party. Although Garba folk dances originated in Gujarat, they have become common among many non-Gujarati communities as well.
  • Pre-Wedding Puja: Worship to seek blessings prior to the main event. This can be a small, private, family affair. The brides from some communities perform a rite called Gauri-Hara puja just prior to the beginning of the main ceremony. A trained purohita can provide guidance in these matters.
  • Wedding Ceremony: The main ceremony.
  • Reception: Besides dinner and dancing, an entertainment program is generally presented by amateur artists who are friends and family.
Elders: Apart from the bride and groom, the most common parties involved in the ceremony will be the parents of the couple. It is possible that one or both of the parents may not participate due to a variety of reasons, such as physical inability, death of one/both parents or unwillingness to participate. In such situations, the bride/groom should select someone she/he is emotionally close to, such as an uncle/aunt. The term elders is used generically in Vivaha Samskara. The purohita should customize the steps accordingly.
Expenses: Some communities have the tradition of the bride's parents bearing all the wedding related expenses. These days it is more customary for the two sides to contribute equitably. In an interfaith marriage, the issue of expense sharing may be more complicated. It is recommended that open discussions be held early on to resolve these issues.
Muhurta: The auspicious day and time chosen for the wedding is called muhurta. It is traditionally chosen by consulting the purohita and in accordance with the Hindu panchanga (calendar). Many times there could be a clash between practical considerations, such as availability of a venue, and the dates considered auspicious.
Venue Choice: Unlike Christian churches, Hindu temples will generally not conduct a wedding ceremony in the main temple itself. An adjacent hall may be used. Most popular choices for Hindu weddings are wedding halls or hotel ballroom facilities. Sometimes an outdoor wedding is desired. Weather plays a major role in the success or chaos of an outdoor wedding. An indoor ceremony is always easier to manage. A Hindu wedding does require the use of a ceremonial fire. As the hospitality industry in the diaspora gets more exposed to the use of a small ritual fire in Hindu weddings, it is becoming more common that the facility management will allow the use of fire. It is essential to check on this prior to engaging the facility.
Ceremony Format: The wedding ceremony is what makes the event special. The rest of the celebration is a party! So, all steps that will be included should be decided early on, especially if it is going to be an interfaith wedding. Sometimes additional social customs are woven into the procedures. It is important that the purohita knows about these steps and how to incorporate them along with the Vedic steps.
Stage and Mandapa: The canopy under which the ceremony is performed, called mandapa, should have four pillars, according to the shastras. The mandapa should be at least 12 feet square and set on a stage which is at least 18 inches off the ground. The minimum recommended size of the stage is 24 feet wide and 12 feet deep. Ideally the mandapa should face east. Invited guests should be seated in two sections with an aisle clear in the middle for the arrival and departure of the bride, groom and their families. The stage should be covered in white cloth to create a pure, clean and auspicious space. All participants stepping on to the stage are required to remove footwear.
Audio-Video Recording: The photographers and videographers should not unduly interfere in the proceedings. Care should be taken to instruct them well, especially if they are not familiar with the Hindu wedding steps. The attending guests should have a clear view of proceedings. Sometimes this is achieved by having a live video display on a large screen.
Music: During the ceremony, the presentation of appropriate music creates a serene atmosphere. The sound-system control person should coordinate the presentation of music with the purohita. Shehnai music is traditionally associated with Hindu weddings. There are many variations in the choice of music, depending on the region of India the families hail from. It is not uncommon to have live musicians perform.
Dress Code: The bride and groom's region of origin in India will greatly influence the style and color of attire. The purohita should wear simple attire worn by purohitas in India, such as a white dhoti and white/beige silk kurta. In the case of an interfaith wedding, non-Hindu participants may require assistance in selecting and wearing Indian attire.
Review of Logistics: Besides the bride and groom, there are many individuals involved in a Hindu wedding ceremony, e.g., parents, siblings, uncles and aunties. Each must be informed and understand their role in the ceremony and be ready to perform it when required. This is not the same as a rehearsal in a Christian wedding. The purohita does not rehearse the ceremony prior to the actual wedding.
Extra care should be taken in case of fusion weddings, as the non-Hindus involved may not be able to follow the purohita's instructions well. Another important item to attend to is the collection of all required materials for the ceremony. The purohita, in the initial meeting, should supply a list of items required. Most wedding materials are now available in the West.