[Article in Kannada by Late Vidvan Chayapathy and English Rendering by Smt Padmashree Mohan]
The following is an account of the māngalya which is a part of the Hindu marriage rituals. It is brief and indicative only and not a comprehensive treatment of the subject.
The māngalya is dear and sacred to many women of Bhārata even to this day. It is a symbol of being married. The people of our country revere it greatly. We realize what a venerated object it is when we consider how even a political campaign can sway the minds of people by saying that the high rate of inflation makes it hard to purchase gold for the māngalya.
On the other hand, there are also a growing number of women, educated in modern ways, who question the status awarded to the māngalya. They liken it to a halter tied around the necks of cattle and horses. Based on such a comparison, activists and feminists consider the tying of the māngalya as a humiliating practice. Very often, they decry the māngalya in their speeches and writings.
Marriage is the (socially approved) union of man and woman. Māngalya is a symbol of that union. Similarly, different symbols are used by different sects of people in other parts of the world. But they are all essentially symbols and nothing more. Our feelings and emotions invest greater meaning and sanctity to them. Some people cite this reason and hold the view that it would be unwise to pursue any rational questioning to understand the significance of the māngalya.
The greed of people and their imprudence has given rise to the shameful practice of varadakṣiṇā (dowry). Unfortunately, this has converted marriage into a sordid business of gains and losses. Thus the joy and ardour of conducting a wedding is replaced by arduousness giving rise to the saying in Kannada "mane kaṭṭi ṇoḍu maduve māḍi noḍu." It means that one must perform a marriage or build a house to experience how taxing it can be. A good number of people fret about how they will buy the gold for a māngalya in the midst of soaring costs.
Aren't marriages being performed elsewhere in the world with none of these rites and rituals? As long as society approves of man and woman coming together to form a family unit, how do specific rites matter? Why behave in (financially) suicidal ways just because of some ancient tradition? Reformists denounce the current form of marriage as being ostentatious and advocate a simpler procedure instead.
There are also a good number of people who do not concern themselves with probing into the meaning of traditions. They make minor tweaks to conventions to suit their convenience, and are content to conduct their affairs 'traditionally.'
But there are also a small number of people to whom traditions are dear. They even wish to gain a deeper understanding about them. The various views articulated about the institution of marriage cause anxiety and confusion to them rather than alleviating doubts and offering clarification.
Instead of blindly adhering to traditional practices, it is judicious for us to investigate them and retain only those that are found to be valid and uplifting for our lives.
That is why the most relevant question in this context becomes, “How is the māngalya related to marriage? Is it just a symbol of marriage? Or does it have a deeper significance and meaning? How does the māngalya benefit our lives?”
The institution of marriage permits a man and a woman to live together in cooperative companionship, with the approval of society. The notion that ‘mutual attraction of personality and thoughts forms the crux of marriage’ is most widespread. And this notion is consistent with today's way of life too.
Although the earth appears to be stationary, the fact of its motion is well-established. That the moon's surface is full of craters and not smooth as poetically described is known from landing on the moon itself! X-rays and scans have now made it possible to know the inside of the body just as well as we know the outside. Microscopic and telescopic devices have thus drawn out the mysterious truths of Nature, and understanding these truths has enriched our lives.
Although a lens is basically glass, it undergoes a process of refinement and acquires special optical properties. Similarly a mind that has been conditioned and refined by the procedures of sādhana acts like a lens and provides insights into the information gleaned from the sense organs. There are sādhakas who have turned their well-conditioned mind inwards, learnt from the truths revealed therein, and have shaped their lives to be in harmony with those truths. They have fashioned the affairs of their outer lives to resonate with the truths revealed to them in their inner lives.
The knowledge of the inner truths helped such sādhakas determine the true purpose of life and conferred upon them, a state of bliss unattainable through just the outward manoeuvres of life. Since they were able to present conclusively the objectives of life, they wove several symbols and practices of that inward life into the dealings of outward life. This is designed in such a way that their future generations too would be drawn inward through the contemplation of those symbols and practices. Just like geologists discover the lodes and ores bearing gold and other precious gems within the earth, the sādhakas tapped the rich treasures hidden in the depths of the Ātman and gave them to the future generations.
People with a comprehensive knowledge of life have indicated that the kernel of the marriage ceremony practiced in Bhārata is best understood according to the pointers given in the previous paragraphs. Although some marriage practices today are inconsistent with the inner truths and are just masquerading in the name of śāstras and tradition, there are other elements that hark back to the inner reality. Only a knowledgeable person can distinguish between the two.
The Basic Principle:
That marriage rests on the mutual attraction of thoughts and personalities is outwardly acceptable. But it is more meaningful to investigate how marriage is a union of the śaktis (energies) that confer femininity upon the woman and masculinity upon the man. It follows from this that we must redirect our attention from the outward appearance of the body towards the subtle energies that are at work in Creation. The general understanding is that the union of a cell each from a woman and a man results in the development of a foetus. Jñānis do not reject this idea. But through their deeper understanding, they realize that the prāṇa is the subtle energy that operates within the body.
The fount of that prāṇa is the divine energy which is itself of the form of Consciousness, known by the name 'Soma.' This entity can be experienced and it is of the nature of Light and Bliss. They also call it by the name Nārāyaṇa - where Nāra means the aggregate of all forms of life, and ayana means the fount and resting place of all those forms of life. Similarly, Prakṛti - the energy or principle which aids the expansion and manifestation of that underlying divine energy - is called Lakṣmī. Puruṣa (also used to mean “man”) has the potential like Nārāyaṇa to fill and grow. In the image of Lakṣmī, stri (a woman) has the potential to give expression to Nārāyaṇa’s power to grow. Just as a seed grows into a tree, and in return, produces a seed at maturity, life that blossoms from the Source of Consciousness must trace its path back to the source. Every stage of the blossoming of life should be without any deterrent that prevents the journey back to the source. This is the view of the realized people.
Similarly, since marriage too is a relationship that furthers the blossoming of life, it is most meaningful when people participate in it with the remembrance of the “Source-Energy” behind all Creation. That is why every mundane marriage invokes the divine marriage of Lakṣmī and Nārāyaṇa.
Reaching adulthood with the capability of bringing forth a new generation of children is not the only criterion for the marriage of a man and a woman. A financially sound standing to ensure the supply of food, clothes and comforts is not the only qualification to look for in a man. A man should be a 'vara' ('groom', 'boon' and ‘superb’ in Sanskrit), not just a man. He must have inquired into questions like 'What makes the body grow?' and 'What is the source that has given rise to my present form?' The search for the answers to these questions ought to have prompted him to be a 'brahmachari', which does not merely mean “a bachelor” or “an unmarried person”, but one who has moved towards the brahma-śakti that has manifested itself through all Creation. Having submitted his mind to the Nārāyaṇa-śakti which is the root and source of Life, his body must enable the flow of that power through itself just like a copper wire conducts electricity.
The realized guru of such a brahmachari notices this qualification in him, and exhorts him to get married. The girl chosen to be wife of such a man must be capable of not only receiving that Nārāyaṇa-śakti, but of giving it a manifest form too, like Goddess Lakṣmī. That is why marriage is not considered merely to be the coming together of the external bodies. It is the union of the inner principles, the inner Śaktis. Vyaktis (people) are mere instruments for the eternal play of those Śaktis. When we take a second look at the rites, rituals and mantras that are part of a marriage while keeping the above thoughts in mind, we realize the deeper meaning of marriage.
The Significance of the Māngalya:
Just like all the auspicious ornaments that are part of a marriage, the māngalya too bears the mark of these elevated thoughts. Contemplating its outer form draws our thoughts inwards and reveals the inner truths to us. The meaning of the symbols impressed on the māngalya becomes clear to all as soon as they become adept at looking inwards. Since a great many ṛsis of Bhārata have strived to look inwards, it is only in this land that the rites and rituals of marriage (including the form and use of the māngalya) have evolved to embrace and reflect the meaning of the inner life of the Ātman. These practices cannot be censured just because others have not arrived at a similar understanding and have not advocated similar practices.
The appearance of the māngalya varies - in shape and in the design made by the symbols imprinted on it. Generally every māngalya bears marks of the Bindu, the Visarga, and the Surya-Chandra-Agni on it. It is always made of gold. And it is always tied around the neck of the bride. Let us look at the significance of these.
When the inward focus of the eyes of the Jñānis reaches a point just above the line formed by the eyebrows, they have a vision of a luminous Bindu (dot). That is the Light known by the name Śiva. That solitary Bindu joins with another Bindu to form a Visarga (two dots in this (:) shape). The Bindu then becomes capable of opening up and expanding. This comes to be known as Śakti or Lakṣmī or Prakṛti. When the Bindu of the form of Śiva joins with Visarga of the form of Śakti or Prakṛti, Life blossoms. The coming together of Śiva and Śakti, or again of Nārāyaṇa and Lakṣmī is indicated by the presence of the Bindu and Visarga on the māngalya. The same union of Śiva and Śakti is reiterated by the use of the symbols of the Soma, Surya and Agni on the māngalya.
Just like the picture of a flower can evoke the memory of the experience of the flower, these symbols on the māngalya reach back to the experience that the Jñānis had. Being reminded of that inner truth, the Jñānis look upon the external object - the māngalya - with reverence. The brightness of gold most closely resembles the effulgence of the inner Light and draws the vision inwards. Besides, the contact of gold has the special power to facilitate such an inward shift. For these two reasons, the māngalya is made out of gold. A piece of turmeric root has these properties to a good extent and hence can be substituted, in times of need and financial constraints, for a māngalya made of gold.
The region in the body from the Mūlādhāra Cakra (at the base of the spine) to the Kaṇṭha (the throat) has been identified by Jñānis as the seat of the Śakti (the feminine principle). The region above the throat is the seat of Śiva (the masculine principle). The throat, then, is the seat of the union of Śiva and Śakti. That is why the māngalya bearing the symbol of the union of Śiva and Śakti is tied around the neck at the level of the throat which is their seat of union in our body. The vara (groom) who ought to have had an experience of Śiva and Nārāyaṇa, during his brahmacharya days, remembers all this and ties the māngalya around the neck of the bride to imbue her with the same experience.
This mangala-sūtra (the thread which ties the māngalya) with the pointers it bears to our inner lives is the mangala- sūtra of our lives. It is an auspicious reminder of the inner truths revealed to the Jñānis. It is a blessing in keeping with the inner harmony.
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