Keeping the faith

Whether it sees you as soul mates or simply two lucky people who found each other, every religion celebrates marriage in its own unique way. We look into the meanings and rituals behind wedding spirit.

Christianity | Judaism | Hinduism | Islam

CHRISTIANITY
Christianity says when you meet someone of the opposite sex and emotions are engaged, you must use your common sense to decide whether you want to spend the rest of your life with them. The Church believes marriage is something ordained and invented by God, and not by human beings. As we are all created in God's image, to be married is an instinct in all of us (if only someone would tell those eligible bachelors out there!).

'The idea of having some sort of ethereal someone out there who connects with your inner soul is nonsense, 'says Bishop Frank Retief, presiding bishop of the Church of England in South Africa. 'We believe God gave us minds to think, faculties to make judgments, and emotions with which to feel, ' he explains.

'God created man and woman in the Garden of Eden, and brought the two to each other, 'Retief says. Eve was created from Adam's rib, which is symbolically under the arm. According to Christian thought, the rib is near the heart, so that Adam would love her. 'The woman was a creation of such beauty, 'Retief goes on, 'that when Adam saw her, he said, "this is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh", which is an ancient primitive way of saying "wow!" '

Marriage counselling is compulsory Before Christian marriages. Retief explains, 'Some couples today come from dysfunctional homes, and many have had previous relationships and come with baggage.' The lessons explain what it means to be a Christian within a marriage and refresher classes are offered to keep you on track. Retief explains that Christians are not prudes, and believe that 'sex is the most wonderful and joyous gift God has given us as part of a relationship with the opposite sex. It's the culmination of intimacy and should be exercised freely, often and with great joy within marriage.'

Sharing the same spirituality helps to keep the marriage together, as it means you probably share the same value system when it comes to life priorities, raising kids and handling money. Christianity believes marriage is wonderful and should bring joy into people's lives. Your wedding day should reflect the joy and seriousness of a lifelong commitment.

How it's done: Different churches have their own methods, and this is an abridged version, but usually the service begins with an explanation of what marriage is. The minister reminds the assembled congregation that the marriage is taking place in front of two witnesses: God and the congregation.

The bride and groom are given a final chance to change their minds. They make a statement of intent about how they want to treat each other for the rest of their lives. Then they exchange vows and rings (symbolising eternity) and pledge, 'Till death do us part.' Prayers are said and the couple are pronounced husband and wife. They seal the union with a kiss, and are introduced to the applauding congregation.

JUDAISM
'Judaism holds the idea that a man and a woman are one soul split in half 40 days before conception, 'says Tova Goldstein, wife of Rabbi Goldstein. The kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) says God sends your soul mate across your path various times during your life to give you the opportunity to find each other. Judaism believes we each have individual potential, as well as potential as a couple.

Equality is very important – wives are not expected to be passive, submissive, or lose their individuality. There are no rules about being a good wife; only that compromise is essential (as any psychologist will tell you)and that the woman is responsible for bringing spirituality into the home.

'The wedding day is considered serious as well as fun,' says Tova. 'We compare it to the high holy day of Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement].' On both these days, Jews believe that the gates of heaven open, and they have the opportunity to have their sins forgiven. So, no matter how wild your past may have been, you can start afresh. According to Judaism, men and women aren't allowed even a little peck on the cheek before they're hitched. So it's customary for the bride and groom to walk out hand in hand after the ceremony and share their first moments of physical contact alone in a separate room.

Before a Jewish woman weds, she's expected to attend marriage lessons. 'We teach family purity laws, many taken from the kabbalah, which play a big role in how we view marriage, 'Tova says. For instance, when a woman has her period, no sexual contact is allowed during the bleeding and for seven days after that. 'Research shows that many couples who divorce have become sexually bored with each other. This way, the passion and excitement are kept alive, 'says Tova. During this time of abstinence, couples learn to communicate in other ways (like talking!).

Eventually, when the physical part of the relationship cools down (and yes, Tiger, it may even happen to you!),a deeper level of bonding exists. Women are the ones who say aye, and nay, about sex. Sex isn't seen as a serious exercise to be undertaken only for procreation. It's got to be fun. There are warped misconceptions out thereabout religious Jews 'doing it' through a hole in the sheet, but Tova is adamant that God wants us to have a passionate and adventurous sex life. The Hebrew word for love is 'ahava', the root of which is 'hav', meaning 'give'. So the root of love is giving, and the more you give, the more you love.

What does it all mean?:
Bedekking – the groom walks into the room and puts a veil over the bride.
Chuppah – the cloth structure under which the couple get married, which represents the home they will create together.
The bride walks around the groom seven times – seven represents the Sabbath day and the circle represents completion and creation.
Seven blessings are recited wishing the couple happiness.
The breaking of the glass is to remind Jews of the destruction of the temple.

HINDUISM
'Hindus believe marriage is a connection between two souls and that there's one person out there for you, 'says Harshad Master, a student of Hinduism. In the Hindu view, marriage makes spiritual growth possible, and is not just a contract but a sacrament, which is something much deeper. Of the 16 sanskaras (sacraments) in Hinduism, that of marriage (Vivah Sanskara) is the most important – the strongest social bond formed between a man and a woman.

Hinduism says that the second of four milestone life stages begins when a man and a woman marry and start a household. It's considered the only way to continue the family and repay debts to the ancestors, and marriage is the first step towards attaining perinbam (liberation from worldly bondage – the ultimate aim of every soul).

The Vedaas (ancient religious texts) say that mutual trust, give and take, and loyalty are essentials for a happy married life. The husband is considered to be the wife's highest deity, and she must ensure that he's happy. Hindu wives are considered to be queens of their homes, are regarded as equals, and should be treated with intense love and respect. Women exercise authority over their husbands through their love, tenderness, affection, grace, beauty, selfless service, fidelity and purity (quite a lot to live up to then).

As far as sex goes, the man must ensure that his lady gets pleasure (they did write the Kamasutra after all!) but for certain days each month, sex is forbidden. The scriptures say that both husband and wife must be happy and fulfilled. Mutual fidelity is considered to be one of the highest laws regarding marriage –but it's the responsibility of the wife to make sure that her husband finds her attractive. Basically, the woman is considered to be the backbone of the nation and it's up to her to sustain religion, national strength, peace and prosperity. But then, you already knew that –didn't you?

What's up before the big day? A Hindu wedding must be celebrated on a grand scale and made as memorable as possible. There are many pre- and post-wedding rites, customs and traditions, coupled with singing, dancing and feasting, all of which are symbolic. The embellishment ritual is about making sure the bride looks so gorgeous, the groom will be over-whelmed by her beauty!

It's an incredibly elaborate process. Flowers are plaited into her hair, and a chaddar (veil) is the finishing touch. The dress, usually from India, is a cream or red sari. The body, considered the house of the inner soul, is prepared as an abode of God so that Shakti, the female energy, can awaken the creative power in Shiva– the man. By being adorned, the bride is prepared as a representation of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth (prosperity).

Rites of passion
Mehendi –One of the bride's friends applies hennapaste to the bride's hands, palms and feet.
Maroh or mandhawa is the nuptial canopy, erected according to the rules laid down in the scriptures. It's built with bamboo poles, sacred kusha grass (a symbol of purity) and covered with different flowers, mango leaves and sweet-smelling plants.
The Chowka is the sacred space where the major ceremonies are performed. It's painted with rice, flour or coloured powders in ritual designs.
Pokhra –Before the wedding, the bride and groom have separate baths in sneh-jal (love water).
Tilak –Made of sandal-paste, or sacred ash, it's applied between the groom's eyebrows, in front of the Third Eye, to symbolise he's ready for marriage.

How it's done: The groom is welcomed at the entrance to the hall with mantras, blessings and tilak, and led to the stage to be given gifts by the bride's parents. His father-in-law symbolically offers the bride-groom a cow as a present and the groom presents the bride with gifts of clothing and jewellery, acknowledging his lifelong duty to provide her with life's necessities.

The groom stands facing east, while the bride stands to the right of her hubby-to-be and faces north. The bride's parents give her away in a ceremony called Kanya-Danamand the sacred fire ceremony (Homa) is performed with solemn vows and joining of hands (fire is a symbol of energy, family life and unity).

During the stone-stepping ceremony, the bride's mother counsels her daughter.In spite of the difficulties facing them, the couple are enjoined to remain steadfast and true to each other.

The 'seven steps' ritual legalises the marriage, establishing an indissoluble bond. One end of the groom's scarf is tied to the bride's dress to symbolise the union. The bride and groom garland each other, then the priest sprinkles water on their foreheads. Looking at or visualising the sun, they pray for power to lead a creative, useful and meaningful life. Meditating on the pole star, which is stationary, represents steadfastness in fulfilling their vows. Finally, the couple feed a morsel of food to each other, an expression of mutual love and affection. The ceremony ends with benedictions.

ISLAM
According to the Koran, the objectives of marriage (aside from reproduction) are love, mercy, mutual respect, justice, emotional well-being and spiritual harmony. Islam maintains that marriage is beneficial in many ways. First and foremost, it's regarded as a way to acquire spiritual perfection.

A legal agreement rather than a sacrament, marriage is also a religious duty. 'We do believe in predestination,' says religious official Sheik Mohamed Moerat, 'but we were also given the mind and intellect to choose between right and wrong. Some Muslim groups have arranged marriages, 'says Moerat, 'but in fact, the prophets say a male must actually see the bride before he marries her and vice versa – with clothes on!' he jokes.

– Eligibility for marriage is measured by a concept called rushd – the 'capability of sensible conduct' or maturity. Piety and religiousness are the most important aspects when choosing a spouse. But good nature, compatibility, family background, physical and mental health are also considered important. The groom is expected to offer mahr (a gift to the bride),which can be cash or non-material (like teaching) to symbolise his ability and willingness to provide for his wife and family.

The main rule governing Muslim marriages, Moerat says, is that of respect. 'Then comes humbleness, obedience, rites and all the responsibilities that go with being married.' Sex is completely forbidden before marriage, but after that you're on your own. Islam recognises 'the natural human inclination towards sex and desire, and allows sexual gratification within the confines of a marriage'.

The Muslim term for marriage, 'nikah', literally means sexual intercourse. Natural sexual instincts must not be repressed. Sex during menstruation is forbidden, but the only other law surrounding intercourse is that there must be mutual understanding between the couple. The key words are mutual pleasure and satisfaction.

Polygamy is accepted under extreme circumstances, for instance ifa wife can't bear children. But four wives is the limit! Moerat says, 'Polygamy is to safeguard women, not to create widows and orphans.' In most cases, the husband would need to get his wife's permission to marry again.

How it's done: The marriage is normally officiated by an imam and 'a sermon is recited with passages from the holy Koran and the prophets, usually about married life,' Sheik Moerat says.

The bride does not attend her own wedding – in fact, she doesn't have to do anything! A proposer and an accepter (a male representative of the bride's family) lead the ceremony. If she has no male relative, she can appoint a priest. Both the bride and groom enter into the contract of their own free will and accept it as a lifetime bond. The bride has the exclusive right to stipulate her own conditions in the contract.

Tradition and ritual:
Muslim traditions vary greatly from country to country, but these are some pre-wedding rituals:

The mangni or engagement ceremony is an exchange of rings.
Manjha is a ceremony during which the bride is anointed with paste at her house a day or two before the wedding. The paste, made of turmeric, sandalwood and chameli oil, is provided by the groom's family.
In another ceremony, henna is applied to the hands and feet of the bride-to-be. A symbolic token, in the form of a spot, is also applied to the groom. After the henna ceremony, the bride does not leave her house until the wedding.

- Fairlady bride summer '03/04

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