Patriarchy, pop culture, and practices: Re-exploring kanyadaan in modern times.

Rocky and Rani did it on screen, Dia Mirza off it—how will you interpret the age old tradition of kanyadaan

Hate it or love it, it is hard to ignore a Dharma movie. The same can be said about Rocky aur Rani Ki Prem Kahaani. And there is one scene from the recent release that draws on the heartstrings of every girl in the country—the one that comes in the final credits over the lyrical effervescence of Kudmayi—the kanyadaan scene where Rani’s father placed her hand over Rocky's, giving her away in his care whilst Rocky's father repeated the gesture, putting his trust in the bride to take care of his son as well in a gesture of equality that the Hindu wedding almost always lacks.

Hindu marriages, today, are a coming together of the ceremonial tenets set in the Manusmriti, the Vedas, and modernised outlooks, although modernised we still continue to veer towards the traditional. 

With knowledge being its literate meaning of the Vedas, the text is considered the oldest markers of Hinduism, detailing the basic principles of the religion as the quest to achieve eternal freedom. Marriage, an important step in this journey, was sacrosanct and a requirement for men and women to repay the debts of their ancestors by bringing new progeny into the world. During the vedic period, women were given the final choice in choosing their grooms, thereby placing love marriages at the helm of all things. The man and woman would join an equal partnership or ardhangini.

However, as the vedic period subsided to give rise to the Manusmriti, the idea of marriage changed. In contrast to the Rigveda, which welcomed husband and wives as equal partners,  the Manusmriti believed women needed to be properly guarded. “In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her son; a woman must never be independent” (Manusmriti 5.148)

Nearly seven centuries after the Vedas, the Manusmriti largely influenced by the socio-economic context of its birth, portrayed women subordinate to men, which resultantly placed marriage as a union where men had higher authority and women were considered "property" transferred or "given" from the father to the husband. The Dharmashastras of the 2nd and 3rd BCE, which continue to be regarded amongst the highest hindu authorities, provided certain rigidity towards defining gender roles, which found itself solidified under the brahmanical strong-hold during the Mauryan times. Given this preclude, we can trace the basis of the Kanyadaan practice during this era where women need to be dependent on their protectors i.e male counterparts.

Kanya-daan in a literate sense means “kanya” bride and “daan” giveaway. In its present form, this practice celebrates the figurative union of Goddess Lakshmi who takes form as the bride and God Narayana who presents himself as the groom. The parents through this practice assist and consent this blessed affair by giving the groom their most prized possession, their daughter.

In recent times, we have seen several women let go of this tradition to practice their own autonomy. Remember Dia Mirza chose a female priestess to initiate her wedding, and a lot of girls have also chosen to do away with that aspect of the ceremony altogether. In the Netflix Series, The Big Day, Nikhita Iyar spoke about three traditions that speak similarly of patriarchy and decided to do away with them.

Several critics argue that kanyadaan, given its historical context in the shastras, is nothing more than a transfer of ownership over women, thereby perpetuating the idea of women as property.  “By a girl, by a young woman or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently even in her own house” (Manusmriti 9.2)

Furthermore it reinforces the patriarchal ideal of women being dependent on men for their well-being and decision making, while their own authority and autonomy remains restricted and feeble. The father ‘giving his daughter away’ may patronise a woman’s own agency in providing consent to the marriage of her choice. “ A daughter, who is another’s property, may be given in marriage to a deserving candidate only” (Manusmriti 3.13)

Whilst some might argue it’s just a sweet gesture to give a woman away from one family to another, it is important to note that the family here signifies one man (the father) to another (the husband)

On social media, some women commented on the reeking misogyny of this tradition arguing that they, via this ritual, are beginning a new chapter in their lives on an unequal footing. 

Ultimately, it is the history of this practice that perhaps impedes it to move forward with the changing times. The patriarchal undertones of this tradition provide a barrier for many modern women to accept this archaic concept.

Despite this, many have found consensus to move forward with this tradition by placing it with a new meaning. A meaning that suits the present narrative. The father by giving his daughter’s hand does not give away his most ‘prized possession’ but by placing her hand in that of her husbands, he subtly conveys his desires for his son-in-law to care for her as he would have throughout his life. Several priests argue that originally kanyadaan was a practice of acceptance; acceptance of starting a marriage on equal footing where the parents give their daughter in hope of the groom to care, respect and love her like they have—an idea that was also found in Rocky aur Rani Ki Prem Kahaani's final scene and taken further to subtly break the barrier of age-old traditions and creates new rituals by ultimately reclaiming it as their own.

What would you do on your wedding day?

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