Marriage ceremonies are considered among the most auspicious rituals in every religion. Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, in his latest book titled ‘Marriage’, has brought together stories from Vedic, Puranic, Tamil, and Sanskrit literature, regional, classical, folk, tribal and oral traditions, across 3000 years of history and 3 million square kilometres, to reveal the diversity and fluidity of Indian customs and beliefs around marriage.
Discussing what made him write this book, Devdutt says, “There were several inspirations. One was that my friends who were getting married would constantly ask me questions about the various rituals of marriage. They often found the practices strange or bizarre. They did not understand either the historical or geographical contexts or the origin of these rituals. The second reason was that a lot of gay friends asked whether gays are allowed to get married, and what the rituals should be. That forced me to revisit all the rituals, practices and stories of gay marriage. And I collected enough content to write a book.”
Talking about the immense research required for this type of book, the author says he collected stories from various sources, including those in languages like Tamil, Telugu and Tulu. As an established author, a lot of information was already present in bits and pieces throughout his writing, Devdutt says, adding, “Putting them together took a few months.”
“Many rituals have no explanation. We don't know why they exist. They also change over time. We cannot explain why they originated, and why they are no longer practiced,” he says, and cites the example of the tradition of brides putting their feet on a grinding stone and the grooms touching the big toe. Devdutt says “People give all kinds of explanations, from the patriarchal to the feminist. We don't know why it came into being, and, though it is believed to have something to do with stability and household work, we can’t be sure what it actually means.”
Through the book, Devdutt has explained various facets of marriage. Asked which one resonates the most with him, he says, “The part of marriage I find interesting is friendship. Importance is given to conversations. When you think of an ideal marriage, you think of the wedding of Shiva and Shakti. They are visualized as playing games and having conversations with each other. This part of marriage is what I find very interesting. That is what sustains a marriage. Marriage is not about children and property, as is seen in the materialistic world. At an emotional level, it recognizes human loneliness and the desire for companionship.”
The concept of marriage in the modern world has taken a different turn, symbolized by the left or right swipes to decide whether or not to enter into a relationship. “I think the Tinder profile, where you select or look at a guy or a girl, for whatever reason, is like a swayamvara. A swayamvara, is personal selection ceremony. In the old world, the choices were few. Men and women were bundled up and married to people that their parents chose for them. They then had to figure out a relationship as they went along. However, men and women from some tribal communities chose their own sexual partners. This happens today too,” points out Devdutt. “Many people select their own friends or companions.”
Noting that all relationships do not end in marriage, he says “We live in a world of choices and extreme choices, which didn't exist for our ancestors. Having so many choices makes one feel lost. It can have a negative impact on mental health.”
The last year-and-a-half has impacted people differently. For Devdutt, it was a time to focus more on reading and writing. “My knowledge base has increased. I don't think such a period will come back. Initially, it was very stressful; but gradually, I turned it to my advantage. I like to read research articles. I don't enjoy fiction as much as I enjoy research and non-fiction articles on culture, art and heritage,” he says.
Devdutt Pattanaik has written over 50 books and 1000 columns since 1996 on how stories, symbols and rituals mirror the subjective truth (myths) of ancient and modern cultures around the world. Interestingly, his advice to budding writers is to focus on what readers want, as much as what they want to say. “A good book is not just about what you want to express, but also about what others want to read,” says the author, whose next book, ‘Eden’, an illustrated retelling of Jewish, Christian and Islamic lore, is soon to be published.14