The marriage ceremony, vivāha-saṁskāra, according to Vedic or Hindu tradition, is a lengthy process that may take weeks for completion. One of the most important parts performed on the day of the actual marriage ceremony is called kanyā-dānam. To execute kanyā-dānam, the bride’s father takes the left hand of the bride and places it into the right hand of the bridegroom. This signifies that the father has accepted the groom and has given his daughter into his care. The groom accepts the bride’s hand and then the couple makes a formal promise to jointly pursue a life of dharma, artha, and kāma and to remain faithful to each other. This process is called pāṇi-grahaṇam or accepting the hand. [As an aside note: mokṣa is not included in the promise because mokṣa is pursued independently, regardless of the marital relationship.]
There has been criticism of this ceremony in recent times, based on the literal meaning of the compound word kanyā-dānam. The word kanyā means “an unmarried virgin,” and the word dānam means “charity or donation.” Thus, the compound word means “the donation of one’s unmarried daughter.” This implies that the daughter is the property of the father, who has the right to donate her. She is treated like an object possessed by the father who transfers his right over her to the bridegroom. This can be seen as insulting for the daughter to be treated like an insentient object or like a cow whom the owner can donate at will.
Such criticism is based on an improper understanding of the word dānam in the compound word kanyā-dānam. Dānam comes from the root word dā, “to donate,” and is formed by applying the lyuṭ suffix in a verbal sense, bhāva. Thus, the word means “the act of giving or granting” or “gift, present, donation.” Śabara Svāmī, while commenting on Jaimini Sūtra 4.1.3, defines it as giving up one’s ownership over something and establishing the ownership of the donee over it. According to Sanskrit vyākaraṇam rules, an object of a verb generally takes the second case, called karma kārakam. But for verbs meaning “to donate”, Pāṇini made special rule by which the donee, the object, takes the fourth case, called sampradāna kārakam (caturthī sampradāne 2.3.13). As an example, Bhaṭṭoji Dīkṣita writes viprāya gā dadāti—“[He] donates cows to a vipra.” Here the donee, vipra, is in fourth case instead of the usual second case—i.e., vipram. This means that the donor relinquishes his ownership over the cows and establishes the ownership of the vipra over them. Once the act of charity is complete, the donor cannot claim any rights over the cows. He no longer has a relationship with them. All rights that he had over them are transferred to the donee vipra. If, however, he gives the cows only for some time so that vipra can benefit from their milk, etc., and will take them back after some time, then instead of using the fourth case, the second case will be used—i.e., vipram in place of viprāya. The sentence then would be, vipraṁ gā dadāti.
Now in the light of this, we can analyze the word kanyā-dānam. Is it really charity? Certainly not. If that were the case, then the father would not remain a father anymore. He would lose his relationship with the daughter for whom he has done the kanyā-dānam ceremony. But that is not the case. Therefore, it is understood here that the word dānam is not to be taken in its primary sense. All it means is that father was the caretaker of his daughter and now he gives that responsibility to the bridegroom. This meaning is corroborated by the Sanskrit word pati translated as “husband.” The word pati is derived from the root word pā— “to protect” or “to nourish.” Thus, it means “one who gives care and protection.”
This meaning is supported by the following verse from Manu-smṛti (9.3): “A father protects his daughter before marriage, the husband protects her after marriage, and her sons protect her in her old age [especially if the husband dies or takes sannyāsa. Usually, a wife survives the husband.] A woman is not capable of protecting herself.” [The last part of the verse is another topic of criticism and is usually translated as, “A woman should not be given freedom.”] From this verse, it is clear that before marriage, the father has the responsibility of his daughter’s well-being and after marriage, it is the responsibility of the husband. This transfer of responsibility from the father to the husband is done by the ceremony of kanyā-dānam. Thus, the word kanyā-dānam does not mean to give one’s daughter in charity.
Such a usage of the word dānam is not unusual in Sanskrit. Another compound word where dānam is used in its secondary sense is vidyā-dānam (“giving knowledge”). If dānam is taken in its primary sense, then it would mean that the donor of knowledge relinquishes all claims to his knowledge and transfers the rights to the donee. But it is impossible for anyone to transfer his knowledge to someone else and then become devoid of it. Rather, by distributing one’s knowledge, it increases, as said in Śukra-nīti (3.180) dānena vardhate nityam. This goes completely against the primary meaning of dānam. A similar usage is in the compound word śrama-dānam (lit., “donating one’s labor”), which is used for offering voluntary free physical labor.
Such an explanation of the word kanyā-dānam is not given to avoid the criticism of modern thinkers. It is found in many ancient works of Hindu dharma. For example, while commenting on Jaimini Pūrva-mīmāṁsā Sūtra (6.7.1) svadāne sarvam aviśeṣāt, Pārthasārthī Miśra, an 11th century ācārya, writes: “It is not possible for the father to donate his daughter. Donation means to relinquish one’s ownership and to establish the ownership of the donee. Although a father gives his daughter to the bridegroom, he does not become a non-father. [That would have been the case if he had donated the daughter, just as one who donates a cow is no longer the owner of the cow.] Donation is possible only when one owns the thing to be donated, not otherwise.” Somanātha, in his Mayukha-mallikā commentary, makes it even more clear. He writes, “In case of kanyā-dānam, the usage of the word dāna is secondary, and it means to give unto the care of the bridegroom. Therefore, according to dharma-śāstra, a family member other than the father is also authorized to do kanyā-dānam.” The sense of the last statement is that if kanyā-dānam meant donating the bride to groom, then such a thing would not be possible by anyone except the father of the bride. The very fact that other members of the family can also do kanyā-dānam implies that it is not a dānam in its primary sense. In practical life also it is seen that if the father has expired or is physically unable to be present at the site of marriage ceremony, then some other family member performs the kanyā-dānam ceremony. The 13th century scholar Hariharācārya, while commenting on the Pārskara-gṛhya-sūta, also writes that the word dāna in kanyā-dāna has a secondary meaning and is not to be taken in its primary sense.
It is seen that even in the English language, when we introduce someone, the word “present” is often used. For example, to introduce an artist during a stage performance, one may say, “Now we present this famous musician to you.” Or to introduce your family member to an honorable guest, you may say, “May I present my son to you?” The act of kanyā-dāna is a similar formal presentation of the daughter to the bridegroom by the father. Traditionally, the boy and girl would not meet before marriage. So the ceremony of kanyā-dāna was their formal introduction. Thus, the objection to kanyā-dānam raised by opponents of Vedic or Hindu culture is based on an improper understanding of the word dānam in kanyā-dānam. It is another way to instill faithlessness in the minds of Hindus and supporters of Vedic culture. [I thank Mahāmahopādhyāya Ācārya Korada Subrahmanyam for the śastric references.]
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