To Give or Not to Give: ‘Kanyādāna’ in an Age of Idiocy and Instantaneity
Kanyādāna’ is on the news this wedding season for strange – though not totally unexpected – reasons both in India and globally. Part of it was sparked by an ad from Manyavar – makers of “Indian ethnic wear” — which seemed to try to raise awareness that a daughter was not an object to be ‘given away’. This was followed up by viral photos of wedding cards printed with moral messages such as ‘Kanya is not an object to be given as daan,’ and Kolkata sociologists weighing in their (all-too-familiar) two cents with Freud, Vidyasagar, and the need for ‘andolan’. NPR recently interviewed a feminist group of priests, the ‘Shubhamastu Collective’, who were supposed to be ‘fighting the patriarchy’ and ‘storming male bastions’ (after all, who does not love a good fight against the big bad wolf?). This metropolitan collective – which now has a Bengali film (Brahma Janen Gopon Kommoti, 2020) promoting them, and a Kolkata-based Durgapuja (66 Pally, 2021) to their credit this year – has turned eyes and ears for allegedly dropping parts of the Hindu wedding ritual which they have found ‘regressive,’ and augmenting these marriage rituals with Rabindrasangeet. The NPR article quotes the priestess Nandini Bhowmick, former Sanskrit professor and stage actress, as saying:
“You have to be confident; you have to study hard,” says Nandini, a Shubhamastu priestess who recently started using only one name to avoid revealing her caste. “But you can become priests by profession. Why not?” On hiatus from her job as a professor of Sanskrit at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, Nandini, 60, claims as much right to interpret — or reinterpret — Hindu scripture as any other priest. “I have just omitted those portions [of Hindu wedding liturgy] which are regressive to women. Like kanyadaan, the donation of the daughter to the husband and in-laws,” she explains. “How can I keep that, when women of today are so enlightened? They are empowered! Most of them are working.”
As a Hindu ritualist, I have in the past received many questions about kanyādāna and I have taken recourse to the śāstras to assuage doubts about the popular-but-flawed view that kanyādāna represents a daughter being ‘given away’ as chattel (cf. ‘beti paraya dhan’). I would like to highlight such a passage from Hariharācārya’s Bhasya (c. 13th-14th c. CE) on the Pāraskaragṛhyasūtra (c. early 1st M. BCE) which makes a conclusive remark on the issue and represents the śāstrīya siddhanta (authoritative view) of the kanyādāna.
As early as the 13th century (long before Europe ever heard of feminism), the term ‘dāna’ is interpreted as having a ‘gauna’ (figurative or qualitative) sense in the case of kanyādāna, and not a mukhya (principal or literal) sense. How so? Hariharācārya says quite poignantly: ‘svatva-tyāga-pūrvakaṃ hi parasvatvāpādanaṃ dānaṃ’ – there can be a dāna only when one’s ownership ceases and that of another begins, which is a ‘mukhya’ or literal sense of ‘giving’ – ‘na ca kanyā kathañcid api a-svakanyā kartuṃ śakyate’ – it is never possible that one’s own daughter ever ceases to be one’s own (since actual parentage cannot ever change) – ‘nāpi parasya kanyā bhavati vivāhottaramapi mameyaṃ kanyetyabhidhānādatra gauṇo dadāti’ – nor is it that another’s daughter suddenly becomes one’s own after the wedding, thus the ‘giving’ is implied in a ‘gauna’ or figurative sense (as opposed to a literal sense). The Mayūkhamallikā of Somanātha also highlights: ‘kanyādāna-putradāna-vidyādāna-ādau svatva-tyāga-asambhavāt ityarthaḥ’ – the various injunctions about the giving of daughters, sons, knowledge, etc. are all figurative because it is impossible to alienate any of these. A daughter can be no more ‘given’ away than a teacher ‘giving’ knowledge to a student alienates himself from that knowledge.
I often take a modern example to illustrate this (to yajamāna and jijñāsu alike) who are not familiar with the śāstras or with the intricate language of pūrvamīmaṃsā. Imagine an anchor on stage introducing a famous singer, saying ‘I give you so-and-so’. That ‘give’ is not a literal giving: neither does the anchor have any ownership over the performing artist nor is any such ownership transferred to the audience upon this pronouncement. It has the sense of being a ‘formal presentment’ – which kanyādāna really is all about. When a groom is received at the bride’s house, the seniors of the bride’s household ‘present’ their daughter to their guest. The groom does not stride into the house of his own accord and march off into the bride’s bedchamber. Just as when guests arrive, the householder formally introduces his family members, saying, ‘may I present my son/wife/daughter?’, the word ‘present’ does not actually mean that the guest is going to have ownership rights over the said family member. The kanyādāna is a śiṣṭācāra – a custom of cultivated people – which the śāstras praise as an exemplar of dharma.
To illustrate this sense further, let us consider the mantra of acceptance of the kanyādāna which the groom recites from the Veda: ‘dyaustvā dadātu pṛthivī tvā pratigṛṇātu’ – “May the heavens give you and may the earth receive you!” – which goes to highlight that how the ritual itself recognizes and impresses upon its participants the figurative sense of the ‘giving’. All things flourish under the generosity of the sky and upon the humility of the earth: the sky ‘gives’ us to be and the earth ‘receives’ us to be. This motif recurs further along the ritual when the groom takes the hand of the bride, declaring ‘dyaurahaṃ pṛthivī tvaṃ’ – “I am the sky, and you are the earth!” – I belong with you, and you belong with me; for there is no earth without the sky and there is no sky without the earth!
The hallowed Kāmastuti (the prayer to worldly desire) is recited at this point continuing the groom’s ritual acceptance – ‘ko’dāt kasmā’adāt kāmo dāt kāmāyādāt kāmo dātā kamaḥ pratigrahītā kāmaitatte’ – “Who gives? And to whom is given? Kāma (= kāmanā / worldly desire) gives and Kāma alone receives. Kāma is the giver and Kāma is the recipient. This is consecrated to Kāma alone!” – which is a poignant reminder that the person who gives, thinking “I am the giver”, and the person who receives, thinking “I am the recipient”, are both equally mistaken – it is truly Kāma which acts through its agents. It reminds both the figurative donor and the figurative recipient that some things are never truly given nor truly received. The ritual enactment of the ‘giving’ serves a higher purpose, namely, that of dharma.
The ritual goes even deeper poetically and speaks of the bride as having three previous ‘divine husbands’, tracing this ‘dāna’ to the Ṛgveda 10.85.40-41: Soma (Moon) and Gandharva (Sun) who successively ‘gave’ her to Agni (Fire), who now ‘gives’ her to her mortal husband. The earlier figurative sense of the bride’s father as her ‘donor’ is now evident, because this mantra now replaces him with Agni who ‘gives’ her with blessings to the groom. The symbolism of these ‘divine husbands’, while being obscured by the passage of time, are nonetheless comprehensible: the girl first ‘belonged’ to Soma (the Moon) and waxed like the sixteen phases of the moon to her fullness, then she ‘belonged’ to the Gandharva (the Sun) whose radiance and splendour she imbibed, before finally being consecrated and blessed by Agni with prosperity and progeny and ‘given’ to the groom (the ‘fourth husband’) to establish his household. It is said – ‘gṛhiṇī gṛham ucyate’ – the gṛhiṇī or wife (the lady of the household) is the gṛha or household personified; the home is not brick walls or landed property; home is where the wife resides. The kanyādāna therefore, seen from the groom’s perspective, is Agni’s blessing (āśir) of wealth, prosperity, and progeny to become a gṛhapati (the lord of a household) which is impossible without the kanya’s transformation into his bhāryā or patnī (wife). Therefore, in the light of the above, we can clearly see that the custom of kanyādāna is a praśaṃsā (an indirect praise) not merely of śiṣṭācāra, but also of gṛhastha-dharma.
A kanyādāna therefore is not a ‘giving away of the bride’; its appropriate (samicīna) translation in English should rather be the ‘formal presentation of the bride’. A kanyādāna is what separates a situation where a girl simply walks out of her house one day and into the house of her lover without bothering to inform anyone. Or a man simply walking into the house of his beloved and shifting her out. The sentiment behind the kanyādāna – as well as the more important gotroccāraṇa (recitation of the lineages of the bride and groom) – represent not merely the acceptance of and support for the couple by their families, but also serves as a ritualized introduction between the two families, signifying that they have assented to this union and have blessed it. Beyond the (modern Western) individualist delusions of a marriage simply being between two private individuals (‘the rest of the world be damned!’), the kanyādāna is part and parcel of a different cultural (arguably, civilizational) ethos where the institution of marriage is a joining of two families. In a ‘modern’ age, fragmented into individualist subjectivities, especially in urban spaces where weddings frequently take place at wedding halls, the underlying symbolisms of the arrival of the groom and the leading away of the bride often become invisible and are misperceived as injustices. But it is necessary to examine the larger context to see the story it tells.
The new brand of ‘stage feminist’ priests catering to elite circles in Kolkata are an astonishing development, because despite their alleged credentials (of being Sanskritic scholars), their actions demonstrate an incredibly poor understanding of karmakāṇḍa (ritual) and kalpaśāstra (the theory of ritual). If they were novices or enthusiasts with no claim to specialist knowledge, one could overlook their actions as kind but mistaken sentiments and gestures. However, the claim by Professor Nandini Bhowmick in the NPR article is that as a professor of Sanskrit at Jadavpur, she has ‘as much as right to interpret – or reinterpret – Hindu scripture as any other priest’. To this claim, the counterargument is that karmakāṇḍa is a śastra (discipline) in its own right, and as a specialist body of knowledge, requires specialist expertise. An expert in sāhitya-darśana-purāṇetihāsa may be ill-equipped to interpret karmakāṇḍa, but a scholar of a Karmakāṇḍa department (which Jadavpur University does not have) is certainly within their rights to reinterpret older smritis, regardless of caste or gender, provided the interpretation is grounded and well-argued. In order words, there must a reasoned argument proving that the extant practice is inadequate through the dialectics of pūrvapakṣa-uttara-siddhānta that demonstrates śastra-saṇgati (consistent with tradition). A simple shibboleth against ‘regressive patriarchy’ is not going to fly. A śāstrajña pandit may well be expected to elucidate that śāstrārtha to the general public, instead of imposed etic concepts and lenses. It would appear therefore that Professor Bhowmick’s praxis fails to live up to her own standards: namely, that of studying hard. It is unacceptable therefore (and a specimen of poor and malafide scholarship) that Professor Bhowmick characterizes kanyādāna as a ‘donation to the in-laws’. If, as Professor Bhowmick says in her interview to NPR, modern women are ‘enlightened’ and ‘empowered’, is it then too much to expect a more nuanced understanding of the tradition before falling prey to hasty generalizations and giving in to the eagerness to signal virtue in the age of instantaneous appeal? It is necessary, I think, not to confuse change (or an eagerness for it) with progress or progressiveness.
The NPR article does not forget to do some brāhmaṇ-bashing (a popular sport in India and globally). After all, how can Rāma-praśaṃsā ever be complete without a bit of Rāvaṇa-nindā? Nothing new ever comes onstage without criticizing the old, for without the inadequacy of the old, the new has no raison d’etre. To rubbish the old is to indirectly legitimize the new, especially when the latter has vacuous appeal in and of itself. The degradation of vaidika and smārta karmakanda in Bengal over the decades (for many reasons) is no secret. If the contention is that the Hindu priesthood has been restricted to male brāhmaṇs or that there is often a laxity in hereditary institutions, then that is certainly true. It is easy for those of a reformist zeal to criticize the discrimination (almost proletarianizing the new ‘modern woman’ priest in the process), but what is not easy to dismiss is the śraddhā and niṣṭhā that is inculcated and ingrained when generation after generation (of ‘male brāhmaṇs’) of yājñika families dedicates and commits to the study of karmakāṇḍa. That kind of knowledge is not essentially bound by caste and gender, because it can certainly be learnt and cultivated. But without śraddhā, there can be no learning. As the NPR article further lets on, the collective is more of an event management company with some ‘progressive’ rituals thrown in as part of the upholstery. This new phenomenon may be aptly called the ‘Insta-purohits’, who perform to the screen and to the audience for instantaneous effect and fame, not to serve society and the cause of knowledge at large, but to pander to the limelight and indulge in self-promotion. In their hands, the diatribe against ‘kanyādāna’ is but a thinly disguised instantaneous marketing strategy to keep a gullible audience engaged: an ātma-praśaṃsā (self-promotion), rather than an actual nindā.
To include women in Hindu ritual as officiants is a welcome move; let there be no ambiguity in my words. Dharma is never an ossified compilation of mindless rules and obligations, but an ever-renewing possibility for self-transformation and self-renewal through the situated practices of family, community, and country that allow individuals to make sense of their lives meaningfully. Dharma undergoes continual micro-changes, retiring and reinterpreting older customs, and it does so through the people who are rooted in and exemplify dharma, and not through those who remain neglectful of it or are eager to disrupt it out of misguided notions. Such changes – while being welcome and a desideratum – need the adept hands of those who understand and respect dharma in the first place; indeed, such may be expected of a well-intentioned paṇḍit(ā).
This also touches upon a difference between the conceptions of the ‘public intellectual’ of the West and the ‘pandit’ or ‘ācārya’ of India: the former – the ‘public intellectual’ – places his knowledge ‘for the greater good’ in the public gaze, and having historically replaced the clergyman’s pulpit, has often blurred the lines between thinking and preaching to an enamoured ‘public’. Fetishizing ‘dissent’ and ‘protest’ against state institutions as self-styled consciences of democracy and justice, and rubbishing ‘majority’ communities as a pathetic attempt to show solidarity for ‘minority’ communities, while being eternally suspicious of anything traditional and resistant to disruptive change are the hallmarks of this class. The latter – the pandit or ācārya– shuns the limelight and prefers to impart knowledge away from the public eye, with humility, patience, reverence, and selflessness even at the point of being caricatured and maligned. Publicity – especially the performativity and virtue-signalling that it engenders – destroys the intellect, a wisdom lost on the ‘public’ intellectual.
I conclude with a note on the importance of śraddhā or reverence (extolled everywhere in Hinduism) in this passage from the Devīpurāṇa:
श्रद्धा धर्मः परः सूक्ष्मः श्रद्धा ज्ञानं हुतं तपः। श्रद्धा स्वर्गश्च मोक्षश्च श्रद्धा सर्वमिदं जगत्॥
सर्वस्वं जीवितञ्चापि दद्यादश्रद्धया यदि। नाप्नुयात् स फलं किञ्चित् श्रद्दधानस्ततो भवेत्॥
Śraddhā – reverence – is that highest dharma; śraddhā is knowledge, sacrifice, and spiritual striving. Śraddhā is svarga and śraddhā is moksa – everything in this world comes down to śraddhā. Even if everything were to be given away without śraddhā (i.e., irreverently), such an act would acquire no merit at all. Therefore: cultivate śraddhā – be reverent, be humble, be respectful.
Acknowledgments: I thank Swastik Banerjee (Calcutta University) for keeping me updated on the ‘progressive’ trends of Hindu ritual in Kolkata, and Dr. Chandroneev Brahma for his constant encouragement for me to write on the Hindu śāstras for a wider audience.
 “Kanyadaan ad controversy: Hindu organizations protest and appeal to boycott the brand”, Woman’s Era: Sept 27, 2021. Source: https://www.womansera.com/kanyadaan-ad-controversy-hindu-organizations-protest-and-appeal-to-boycott-the-brand/ (Accessed Nov 07, 2021).
 “কন্যা ‘দান’ সামগ্রী নয়, বিয়ের চিঠিতে লিখে হিন্দুত্ববাদীদের কোপে কন্যাদায়গ্রস্ত পিতা”, Anandabazar Patrika: Nov 04, 2021. Source: https://www.anandabazar.com/amp/lifestyle/father-daughter-faces-the-wrath-of-hindutva-army-after-negating-kanyadaan-on-wedding-invite-dgtl/cid/1311945 (Accessed Nov 07, 2021).
 “কন্যাদান বিতর্ক: কী বলছে সমাজ? খোঁজ নিল আনন্দবাজার অনলাইন”, Anandabazar Patrika: Nov 04, 2021. Source: https://www.anandabazar.com/lifestyle/sociologists-discuss-why-any-mention-of-kanyadaan-irks-the-society-dgtl/cid/1312002 (Accessed Nov 07, 2021).
 “Hindu priestesses fight the patriarchy, one Indian wedding at a time”, NPR: Oct 15, 2021. Source: https://www.npr.org/2021/10/15/1045954728/hindu-priestesses-indian-weddings (Accessed Nov 07, 2021).
 “‘Boycott Manyavar’ trends after Alia Bhatt ad showing ‘kanyadaan’ gets backlash’, News18: Sept 23, 2021. Source: https://www.news18.com/news/buzz/boycott-manyavar-trends-after-alia-bhatt-ad-showing-kanyadaan-gets-backlash-4235222.html (Accessed Nov 07, 2021).
 “Women storm male bastion, to conduct puja, play dhak”, Times of India: Oct 10, 2021. Source: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/kolkata-women-storm-male-bastion-to-conduct-puja-play-dhak/articleshow/86905500.cms (Accessed Nov 07, 2021).
 See Tripathi, Brahmanand (ed). (2015). Pāraskaragṛhyasūtram (Harihara-Gadādhara-Bhāṣyadvayopetam). Varanasi: Chaukhamba Surbharati Prakashan.
 I am indebted to Mahāmahopādhyāya Professor Korada Subrahmanyam’s input in the Bharatiya Vidvat Parishad for this reference as well as to the one from the Mahābhaṣya.
 Pāraskaragṛhyasūtra 1.6.3 (cf. Tripathi 2015: 93).
 Four minor variations of the Kāmastuti for each of the Ṛgvedīya, the Sāmavedīya, the Kṛṣṇayajurvedīya and the Śuklayajurvedīya śākhās. I have cited from the fourth here.
 The word kāma popularly has a sexual connotation in the public imagination (courtesy of the Kāmasūtras). However, in the Vedic world, it stands for the modern ‘kāmanā’ which refers to all kinds of desires that serve as motivations in everything we do in life. Kāma ‘drives’ everything, just as our motivations, wishes, dreams, ambitions, etc. ‘motivate’ us.
 “Somaḥ prathamo vivide gandharvo vivida uttare tṛtīyo’gniṣṭe patisturīyaste manuṣyajāḥ”, Pāraskaragṛhyasūtra 1.4.16 and Gadādharabhāṣya thereon (cf. Tripathi 2015: 77-78). This mantra occurs as in the Sūryāvivāhasūkta of the Ṛgveda (10.85.40-41).
 Gadādharācārya, identifying Gandharva as the Sun, comments that the girl belonged to the Moon on the day of her birth and to the Sun for the next one-and-a-half years, thereafter which she became Agni’s. The source and rationale for this timing is not immediately clear to me.