A major characteristic of different countries and religions is that they have varying traditions. However, some traditions and events are universal to the human community. One tradition that is common among all countries and religions is the wedding ceremony. Great importance is placed on this event and it entails various celebrations and rituals that take place as the society members witness the wedding couple exchanging their legally binding marital vows. In spite of the similarity in meaning and importance of the wedding for individuals across nations, the particular implementation of the ceremonies differs considerably.
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This disparity is caused by the presence of differing religious beliefs and cultural practices by people of various nations. Two countries that have markedly different approaches to weddings are India and the US. This paper will set out do discuss American and Indian weddings with the aim of showing the differences between them. The paper will demonstrate how the cultural and religious differences between these two countries contribute to the various traditions and rituals observed during American and Indian weddings.
American and Indian Cultural Factors
India is a huge country located in the southern region of the Asian continent. It has the world’s second largest population. There is great diversity in India with the subcontinent containing people from multiple religions and who speak varied languages. In addition to this, there are many regional subcultures and the country’s population is still divided on a caste basis.
Dupree, Bhakta and Purva (2013) document that India has 18 different languages and 300 separate dialects are spoken. The country has multiple religions consisting of Hindus, Islam, Christian, and Sikh. In spite of the divergence in religion, Hinduism is the primary religion in India and 80% of the population belongs to this faith. Religion is an integral part of the lives of Indians and many aspects of community life are guided by religion.
Marriages do not escape the control of religion. Since Hinduism is the predominant religion in the country, it has significant influences on Indian weddings. Another important cultural attribute of India is that it is a collectivist society. In the collectivist society, the relationships with other members of the family and the society are deemed important and individuals are not considered autonomous but rather as parts of the family. Dupree, et al. (2013) notes that in this type of society, the individual is considered lower in hierarchy when compared with the family network.
The United States of America (generally referred to as America) is a large country located in North American continent. It is the third most populous country in the world. America has the greatest cultural and ethnical diversity in the world. While a variety of languages is spoken by Americans, English is the predominant language with 80% of the population using this language. The other main language is Spanish, which is used by 12% of the population. Due to the cultural and ethnic diversity of the US population, various religions are practiced.
However, Christianity is the predominant religion and 79% of Americans identify with this faith. The other minor religions include Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. The life of many American’s is influenced by their religious beliefs. Religion guides the attitude of individuals on certain issues and it influences some institutions including the marriage institute. America is a highly individualistic society. In the individualistic culture, great importance is attached to personal freedom and an individual’s needs.
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The Marriage Institute
The origin of marriage is unknown and it appears to predate all existent civilizations and religions. The nature of marriage has often varied for various cultures. However, for more than a millennium, western civilizations have understood it primarily to be the union of one man and one woman as husband and wife (Milne, 2011). Marriage is regarded as an important aspect of the society. Through this act, two previously independent individuals are joined and they go on to make a family. The family unit serves as the basic building block of the society since it provides a conducive environment for conceiving and raising children, who ensure the continuity of the human race.
While the past century has witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of premarital cohabitation and divorce rates, weddings are still preferred by many people. This appeal of marriage arises since in addition to the social importance of marriage, it also holds a religious import. Milne (2011) asserts that marriage has had religious significance for many people throughout time. Marriages are often performed through a wedding ceremony, which is a social event. While weddings are held in high esteem by both Americans and Indians, there are significant differences in the rituals and traditions followed by these two communities..
Differences between American and Indian Weddings
The American Wedding
The bride and groom are central to the wedding ceremony. An important aspect of the American wedding1 is that the choice in spouse is made entirely by the wedding couple. The bride and groom decide to enter into marriage since they have romantic love and friendship. While the family might attempt to influence the choice in spouse, the impact of this influence is only marginal.
The American wedding typically begins with the man proposing to the woman that he intends to marry. If the proposal is accepted, the man will present her with an engagement right. The woman is not his fiancé and they can start planning for a wedding. An engagement party might be held with a few close friends in attendance. However, the engagement party is not necessary and the engagement affair can be a private affair for the couple.
A popular pre-wedding tradition in America is the bridal shower2. Laboy (2013) documents that the wedding shower tradition can trace its origins to the historical time when men were required to provide gifts to the bride’s father. Over time, this ritual evolved into men giving fits to prove that they could provide a good home for the bride. The groom’s friends could also offer gifts to the bride to help in the setting up of the new home.
The tradition further evolved with the friends of the bride showering the bride with gifts during an informal party held before the wedding. In America, the bridal shower takes place a few weeks before the wedding and the friends of the bride organize it. The shower is normally a surprise event for the bride and the guests “shower” the bride with gifts. The bridal shower is meant to prepare the bride for her upcoming marriage by having her friends provide moral support. A wide range of small gifts is offered including bedroom and kitchen items.
Special attention is paid to the wedding attire worn by the bride. In the American wedding, the bride typically dresses in a white gown. This gown often has a veil that hides the bride’s face throughout the ceremony. It is only lifted to reveal the bride’s face after the couple is married and it is time for the groom to kiss his new wife. The gown might also have a train that will trail after the bride giving her a regal feeling. When preparing for the wedding, the bride typically engages in an elaborate search for the perfect wedding gown. The groom’s wedding attire is normally made up of a black suit.
An important tradition in the American wedding is the walk down the church aisle by the bride3. This act represents the journey from unmarried life to the married life. The bride is accompanied by her father or a male member of her family during this symbolic walk. The couple’s song of choice is played while the bride makes her way to the altar where the groom awaits her. The male walking the bride down the aisle gives the bride over when they get to the altar. After this, the couple is ready to exchange their vows.
Exchanging of vows is one of the most important rituals in American weddings. Laboy (2013) documents that great significance is attached to this ritual since it is through the vows that the couple affirm their covenant and pledge their commitment to each other. Some couples write their own vows, which they then read out to each other in the presence of the witnesses. The couple can opt to have the official conduct the ceremony using the traditional vows that essentially ask the groom if he takes the bride to be his wife and vice versa. Both parties are supposed to respond with “I do” therefore establishing the couple’s marriage. The person officiating the wedding declares the couple husband and wife.
After the vows have been exchanged, the couple is now ready to carry out the ring exchange. Howard (2008) notes that before the 20th century, only one ring was give by the groom to his bride. This ring was not necessarily a symbol of love but rather a demonstration of the material support that the groom promised to offer his wife to be. The double-ring exchange emerged in 20th century America as a marketing ploy of the jewelry industry.
In place of its original meaning, the wedding ring is now presented as the physical symbol of the couple’s love and devotion to each other. As such, the use of rings for marrying is an “invented” tradition that was introduced to the public by the jewelry industry. Even so, this double-ring culture became popular and it is today an important part of the American wedding. The honor of carrying the wedding rings falls on the groom’s best man or the bride’s maid of honor.
He/she will produce the rings during the ring exchange ceremony. If it is a church wedding, the religious official will say a blessing over the rings before handing them over to the couple. During the ring exchange, it is common for the couple to pronounce the vow “with this ring I wed thee” (Laboy, 2013, p.254). The marriage pronouncement made by the officiant makes use of formal phrases to underscore the legal authority bestowed upon the official. The use of legal language also emphasizes that the marriage is a legally binding contract that the couple must respect.
A common American tradition is for the couple to exchange their first kiss as husband and wife in public. This public kiss is a symbolic seal of the vows exchanged by the couple during the wedding ceremony. Howard (2008) explains that the kissing tradition has roots in Ancient Rome practices. For the Ancient Romans, a kiss was exchanged to signal the end of a contract. In the same way, the couple use the kiss to signify the completion of the marriage contract.
After the couple has been married a reception party, which is the fun and festive part of the wedding, follows. In this stage of the wedding, there is music, dancing, and a great feast held in honor of the newly weds. The wedding cake tradition occupies an important part in the American wedding. Howard (2008) traces the origins of this tradition to ancient Greek custom where baked bread was used to signify future wealth and happiness for the newly weds.
In the American wedding, a decorated multi-tier cake is presented at the reception. The wedding couple cut the cake together as a symbol of their unity and shared life. The couple takes a piece of the cake and shares it with each other as the guests look on. After this, the cake is distributed to the guests. Another cake tradition is the preservation of the top tier of the wedding cake. This cake is saved for a year and eaten in celebration of the first wedding anniversary.
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A common American tradition during the reception is the tossing of the bouquet4. Throughout the wedding, the bride holds a colorful bouquet. In this tradition, the bride tosses her bouquet to the guests who fight over it. The unmarried guests in the reception are eager to acquire this special bouquet since it is believed to bring luck to the individual who catches it
The reception marks the end of the American wedding and the guests are allowed to leave at their leisure. The married couple can also leave and start their honeymoon. In most cases, the couple arrange before hand for their honeymoon destination. This destination might be a hotel or an exotic beach resort depending on the budget of the couple.
The Indian Wedding
Among the Indians5, marriage (referred to as Vivaha) is generally considered as obligatory for every person. Marriage fulfils a religious purpose since it makes it possible for a person to obtain moksa. Moksa is one of the most important concepts in Hinduism. All Hindus aim to achieve moksa, which is the liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth that all humans undergo.
A wedding is essentially the celebration of the coming together of two people in marriage and as such, the bride and groom are the most important components of the ceremony. However, the Indian culture makes a wedding more than just about the bride and the groom. In Indian culture, the family exerts considerable influence on the spouse chosen by the individual. The family influence is great since the marriage is not just a union of the bride and groom but also a joining of two families.
As such, arranged marriages are prevalent among Indians. Some studies suggest that more than 90% of all Indian marriages are arranged. (Dupree, et al., 2013). The parents of both parties carry out the marriage partner selection. Mehta (2005) reveals that win selecting a spouse, primary considerations are given to social status of the family from which the person is coming, his/her academic qualifications, and health.
In Indian culture, an engagement ceremony precedes the wedding. During the engagement, the families of the couple out a number of rituals to authorize the engagement carry. The families consult horoscopes to divine the most favorable wedding date. The engagement party is a huge event that involves relatives and close friends to the couple. Laboy (2013) documents that the couple is often presented with gifts of jewelry and clothing during this ceremony. The groom’s parents present the bride with certain gifts to symbolize that she is welcome to the family.
The bride and groom undergo some preparations before the wedding day. The first is a ritualistic bath known as the Haldi. This ritual takes place during sunset when both the bride and groom are given ceremonial baths in their respective houses. Married women carry out the ritualistic bath and they use turmeric to anoint the couple. An elderly woman pours holy water after which ordinary water is used to complete the bathing process. Rice is then sprinkled on the head of the bride and groom and married women sing celebratory folk songs.
On the day before the wedding, the Mehendi ceremony is undertaken. This ceremony involves the bride and it is carried out by women only. In this ceremony, the hands and feet of the bride are painted with beautiful patterns using henna. Laboy (2013) notes that the Mehendi ceremony overlaps with the Sagri ceremony that is essentially an acquaintance party. In the Sagri, the female relatives of the groom visit the bride and present her with gifts. this visitation is done to provide an opportunity for the bride to familiarize herself with the groom’s female relatives.
The final ceremony on the day before the wedding is the Sangeet. Mehta (2005) explains that Sangeet literally translates to “music” and as such, this ceremony entails much festivity. The bride’s family holds a party where entertainment and food is provided to the guests. There is a lot of dancing and merriment during this ceremony. This ceremony presents an opportunity for the couple to meet each other’s family. The bride’s family offers a number of gifts to the groom and appeal to him to treat his future wife with consideration.
On the day of the wedding6, the bride and groom repeat the Haldi ritual after which the bride is assisted by her female relatives to dress up in her wedding attire. Mehta (2005) asserts that great attention is paid to the bride’s wedding attire. The color of the wedding sari varies according to the individual taste of the bride and it might be red, yellow or white with gold and silver embroidery.
The bride is adorned with great quantities of expensive jewelry, which include bracelets, bangles, necklaces, anklets, and earrings. In addition to this, the face of the bride is heavily made up to accent her beauty and her plaited hair is embellished with jewelry. On his part, the groom is dressed in a costly Punjabi or dhoti. The color of the groom’s attire is usually white but it can also be beige.
The bride’s home is the traditional venue for the Indian wedding function and the groom, in the company of his family and friends, makes his way to this wedding venue. This groom’s wedding procession is very vibrant and there is singing and dancing even as it makes its way to the wedding.
In some cases, the groom might make the journey in a decorated horse or elephant flanked by his wedding party that includes his family members and friends. When the groom arrives, he is welcome into the house by the bride’s close female relatives. After the formal welcome, the family priests perform a ritual after which the ceremony begins. At this stage, the bride and groom exchange floral garlands and additional rituals are carried out.
A significant ritual in Indian culture is the Kanyadaan, which literally means to give away the maiden. The bride’s father or an appropriate male relative such as an uncle or elder brother carries out the ceremony. A libation of water is poured symbolizing the giving away of the daughter. The groom accepts the daughter and recites Kama-sukta verse. While this exchange is taking place, the groom promises the bride’s father that he shall pursue a moral and lawful life, wealth, and love for the sake of the bride.
The Panigrahana and Bhai-baran rites succeed the Kanyadaan ritual. In Bhai-baran, the bride makes an offering of fried grain and sweetmeats to the gods Aryaman, Varuna, Pushan, and Agni (Mehta, 2005). The sacrifice is offered in order that these four gods may be pleased to bless her in her marriage. Fire has a special function in the Indian wedding and the marriage rituals are done around a sacred fire. In Indian culture, the fire god Agni plays a central role in the wedding ceremony. This god acts as the primary witness to the marriage and the couple makes a sacrifice to the fire.
An important part of the wedding is when the groom ties the mangalsutram around the neck of his bride. This sacred necklace effectively identifies the woman as married and as such, the couple is considered married after this event. Mehta (2005) declares that the tying of the mangalsutram is an integral part of an Indian wedding. The bride will wear this holy necklace after the wedding as a symbol that she is married.
The next ritual in the Indian wedding is the Saptapadi. This is a seven step ritual that begins with the garments of the bride and groom being attached by ting ceremonial knots between them. The couple’s right hands are then tied together using a blessed thread. Laboy (2013) reveals that the joined couple then face north and take seven steps as they recite seven mantras. The climax of the wedding is when the groom applies vermillion7 on his wife’s forehead.
This symbolizes that he has accepted her as his life partner. In some Indian traditions, the bride is given toe rings as an additional symbol of the marriage. After the rituals have been completed, the wedding festivities begin. The guests are served many different types of traditional Indian dishes and drinks. Music is also a key feature of the festivities and the guests dance in celebration of the successful marriage ceremony.
After the end of the wedding, the bride leaves accompanies the groom to his house. The bride bids her family farewell and goes to become a part of her husband’s family. Mehta (2005) notes that on arrival at the groom’s house the last ritual of the day is carried out. In this final ritual, the bride finds at the entrance of the house a bucket full of water with a gold ornament dipped in it on one side and a metal pot full of rice on the other side of the door.
The bride is supposed to dip her hand into the bucket and fetch the gold ornament. She is then supposed to use her leg to offset the pot therefore spilling its contents. This ritual symbolizes that the bride will not face poverty while under the care of her husband. Once inside the house, the bride and groom say a prayer to express their gratitude for a successful wedding ceremony.
Cultural influences on weddings are evident. While the American wedding is a celebration of the joining of two individuals in matrimony, the Indian wedding is a celebration of the union of two families. The family involvement in the two weddings therefore differs significantly. Only the immediate family plays a major role in the American wedding and the extended family is rarely involved. In contrast to this, the immediate and extended family has a high level of involvement in the wedding ceremony.
The two weddings also differ significantly in the time span. While the American wedding only takes a single day, Indian weddings can last for five days or even longer.
The influence of religion on weddings is also evident from this paper. Both American and Indian weddings have some religious influences. However, the influence on American weddings is marginal. Most of the American rituals and traditions are of a secular nature. For example, the bridal shower, ring exchange, and wedding cake traditions all have a secular origin. In contrast to this, religion has a profound impact on Indian weddings. In India, weddings have a spiritual sanction and Dupree, et al. (2013) explains that marriage fulfills a spiritual purpose for Indians. It assists the believer as he/she walks along the path, which eventually leads to ultimate spiritual liberation.
The differences in the roles attributed to men and women in society are also highlighted in this paper. The American culture is characterized by a strong emphasis on gender-egalitarianism. In this culture, women are treated as equals to their male counterparts. There is no discrimination on a gender basis and no gender is regarded as superior. In the American wedding, each couple is expected to play an equal share in the marriage.
The Indian culture highly patriarchal and men are deemed superior to women. This is evident from a number of the traditions and rituals in the Indian wedding. In the Kanyadaan ritual, the bride is treated as the property of her father since he literally gives her away to the groom as a gift. The groom is asked to protect the bride in their marriage and provide for her material needs. At the end of the ceremony, the bride leaves her family and joins the groom in his family.
American and Indian couples enjoy different rates of divorce due to their differing cultural backgrounds. The divorce rates among Indians are markedly low. Dupree, et al. (2013) declare that until recently, divorces among Indian couples were unheard of because of cultural, religious, and social stigma associated with divorce.
The strong family support system also ensures that the Indian couple has adequate help to cope with marriage issues. Contrary to this, there is a high rate of divorce in America. This high divorce rate is attributed to the focus on personal happiness within the marriage. There is also a lower stigma attached to divorce in America. In addition to this, the lack of an extensive family support system means that couples lack external assistance when coping with marital problems.
Weddings have been important societal events for centuries. This importance has not diminished even as the society has changed significantly over the course of the last century. This paper set out to discuss American and Indian weddings with the aim of highlighting the differences between the traditions or rituals adopted by the two cultures. It began by providing an overview of the marriage institute in order to underscore the importance of weddings in society.
The paper has offered an overview of the cultural factors in India and the US and then proceeded to provide a detailed description of rituals and traditions contained in American and Indian weddings. From the discussions made in this paper, it is clear that Indian weddings vary greatly from American ceremonies. Hinduism and the cultural traditions of Indians heavily influence Indian weddings. On the other hand, Christianity and the egalitarian American culture influence American weddings.
Dupree, J., Bhakta, K., & Purva.P. (2013). Developing Culturally Competent Marriage and Family Therapists: Guidelines for Working with Asian Indian American Couples. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 41(2), 311–329.
Howard, V. (2008). Brides, Inc.: American Weddings and the Business of Tradition. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Laboy, A.C. (2013). Wedding Traditions from Around the World. NY: AuthorHouse.
Mehta, P.C. (2005). Marriages in Indian Society. New Delhi: Discovery Publishing House.
Milne, E. (2011). Marriage and the religion clauses. St. John’s Law Review, 85(4), 1451-1482.
- The US is a multicultural nation and American weddings vary significantly. However, most weddings have a Christian influence since this is the religion of majority of Americans.
- While the bridal shower was traditionally a females-only affair, it is increasingly evolving to include some male friends of the bride and groom.
- In contemporary culture, the phrase “walk down the aisle” is used to mean, “Get married”.
- This tradition is not popular with some brides who find it more meaningful to offer the bouquet to a special friend or member of the family.
- India is a vast nation with a population of one billion people, hundreds of spoken languages, tens of cultures and five religions. The wedding traditions defined here are therefore not universal but restricted to Hindu weddings, which make up the majority of Indian weddings.
- An important aspect of the Indian wedding is that the mothers to the groom and bride are not in attendance. Laboy (2013) explains that it is believed that if the mothers are not present it will protect the bride and groom from the evil eye.
- Vermillion is a brilliant red paste used in art and decoration. It has a religious connotation to Indians and it is applied in the presence of A priest and this may be followed by worshiping the Sun God.