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Laavan Bride Left Behind

REHAT MARYADA – [T]he girl’s father or the principal relation should make the girl grasp one end of the sash which the boy is wearing over his shoulders … [then] the boy, followed by the girl holding the end of the sash, should go round the Guru Granth Sahib ….

INTRODUCTION

We have documented a number of examples in the past exposing Sikhism’s hypocrisy in living up to the claim of equality between the sexes.

In this paper, we intend to further expose the hypocrisy of equality by examining a specific ritual known as laavan carried out during the matrimonial ceremony of Anand Karaj.

Traditionally, the male has always led the female during the Anand Karaj.
Traditionally, the male has always led the female during the Laavan.

Laavan involves, among other things, the bride holding on to the groom’s scarf. “The ceremony is known as Pallae Di Rasam. The father of bride gives in her hand one side of the scarf of the groom. Holding this scarf in her hand, she later follows [behind] him during the main ceremony,” [1] submissively and obediently as they perform circumambulation of their “divine” scripture Sri Guru Granth Sahib.

Before lambasting us for this particular assertion, we wish to bring to the attention of Sikhs similar objections and queries raised by some of their fellow faithful [2] over the legitimacy of this ritual vis-á-vis the claim of egalitarianism.

For example, Anju Kaur enquired in a research journal:

As a little girl, I never understood why, if Sikh men and women are supposed to be equal, does a Sikh bride walk behind the groom during matrimonial circumambulations (laavan). And sometimes the bride even covers her face. It just looked wrong. The standard answer I usually got was, “That is how it has always been done.” [3] (bold ours)

Similarly, Bhupinder Singh Mahal observes how some Sikh “bigots pick and choose” what they deem to be non-egalitarian acts “while all the time ignoring an obvious gender discriminatory practice inherent in Anand Karaj, the Sikh wedding ceremony. For example, during lavan [four wedding hymns] it is the bride who is made to walk behind the groom while circling around the Sri Guru Granth Sahib”. [4] (bold ours)

The point being made is potent and one that cannot be summarily dismissed as trivial or unjustified faultfinding. Putting aside for the moment the origin of this ritual, if men and women are supposed to be equal, why then is the groom given the role of leading the way?

As a little girl, I never understood why, if Sikh men and women are supposed to be equal, does a Sikh bride walk behind the groom during matrimonial circumambulations (laavan).

THE GURUS LEAD THE WAY

Given that the couple circumambulate SGGS four times, would it not be closer to equality if, hypothetically speaking, the first two rounds were led by the groom and the last two led by the bride, or vice-versa? Alternatively, how about if the bride and groom were to make these circuits side-by-side?

If, on the other hand, this ritual does indeed find its origin with any of the Gurus, then it would certainly be deemed an act of heresy for any Sikh to suggest, let alone attempt, amending or rejecting it altogether. In this case, Sikhs would be obliged to issue an apologetic that accounts for two consequential objections:

  1. How this seemingly non-egalitarian act of laavan can be reconciled with the principle of equality?
  2. And how such a ritual could have been instantiated by a Guru who was supposed to be both a champion of women’s rights and the best practitioner of this principle?

Furthermore, this potential catch-22 seems to be an actual one when one examines the evidences since it appears that this ritual of inequality was indeed put into practice by a Guru:

It was Guru Amar Das, the third Guru of the Sikhs, who … institutionalised the Sikh marriage … [and] called it ‘Anand Karaj’ (The Ceremony of Bliss).

Later Guru Ram Das, the fourth Guru of the Sikhs, elaborated the idea by composing four hymns which he named ‘Lava’ and called upon his followers to sing them on the occasion of marriage. The word ‘Lava’ literally means ‘to unite’. [5]

According to Duggal:

[A]t the time of the third Sikh apostle, Guru Amar Das (1479 – 1574) a devotee by the name of Nihala came to the Guru complaining that he had a grown-up daughter to be married; while the groom with the marriage-party had arrived in the village, the Brahmin priest refused to perform the wedding ceremony since the Guru’s Sikhs ridiculed the Hindus day in and day out for their ritualism.

The Guru appreciated his devotee’s predicament and without asking for the Janam Patris or minding caste or any other considerations had the wedding performed in accompaniment of the recitation from Anand Saheb, a Sikh scripture.

It was later formalised by Guru Ram Das who “instead of the seven Hindu perambulations reduced the ceremonial to four rounds”. [6]

This act was later “formally legalised by the British Government in 1909 by passing the Anand Karaj Act”. [7]

Dr Talwar insists:

That the Anand form of marriage was an old ceremony among the Sikhs and not an innovation of the reformists has been described above. The supporters of the Bill quoted several instances from Bhai Santokh Singh’s Suraj Prakash, then considered the oldest and the most authentic complete record of Sikh history, to show that this form of marriage was introduced by the third Guru. Since the Anand composed by the third Guru and the laawaan, i.e., ties composed by the fourth Guru, the sine qua non of the Anand ceremony, were embodied in the Sikh scriptures, the reformers put this forth as an irrefutable proof of the ceremony having been enjoined by the Gurus. [8] (bold ours)

And so the formal procedures for this ceremony were incorporated into the Rehat Maryada compiled in the first half of the 20th century:

[T]he girl’s father or the principal relation should make the girl grasp one end of the sash which the boy is wearing over his shoulders … [then] the boy, followed by the girl holding the end of the sash, should go round the Guru Granth Sahib while the ragis or the congregation sing out the recited stanza. [9] (bold, underline ours)

Hence, you find this mentioned by a number of Sikh scholars and academics. The Sikh Encyclopedia elaborates on the whole process of Anand Karaj until it comes to state:

The Guru Granth Sahib is then opened at page 773 and the first stanza of the Lavan quartet is read from it. The same stanza is then sung by the choir while the couple slowly and reverentially circumam bulate [sic] the Holy Book, Guru Granth Sahib, clockwise, the bridegroom leading and the bride following, both continuing to hold their ends of the scarf throughout. [10] (bold ours)

Guru Nanak … wrote Mool Mantar on a paper, placed it on a low stool, and performed Lavan – went around it four times, followed by the girl. Dr Kulwant Singh Khokhar 

It is interesting to note that even the feminist scholar, Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh who wrote The Birth of the Khalsa: A Feminist Re-memory of Sikh Identity, does not dispute this procedure, but acknowledges it. She and her co-author describe how “the bride’s father unites the bride and groom with a saffron-colored scarf. He places one end of the scarf in the groom’s hands, passes it over the groom’s shoulder, and places the other end in the bride’s hand”. With the scarf in the bride’s hand “the couple reverentially circle the Guru Granth in a clockwise direction”. [11] Although she conveniently overlooks the crucial detail of who leads who, it is difficult to see how the scarf could remain “over the groom’s shoulder” during circumambulation if the groom was behind the bride.

This detail is also ignored in an article co-authored by Prof Arvinder Singh and Dr Jagroop Kaur, which, ironically, examines “[t]he Status of Woman in Sikhism with Special Reference to Lavan”. After making the patently false assertion that “the woman is [sic] source of all evil” in Islam, the authors, while acknowledging that “the bride and groom go round four times around Sri Guru Granth Sahib”, remain silent over the crucial issue of who leads who despite recognising the Pallae Di Rasam:

Before moving around Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the end of the cloth worn by the bridegroom called ‘Larr’, is placed into the hands of the bride by her father/guardian. [12]

In spite of these obfuscations, however, Dr Kulwant Singh Khokhar reveals that the origin of laavan, which includes the bride having to submissively follow behind her husband, actually lay with none other than Guru Nanak himself:

Guru Nanak Cev [sic], the first Sikh Prophet, refused to marry by ancient Hindu ceremony of Vedi. It caused a furor, but things settled down soon. He wrote Mool Mantar on a paper, placed it on a low stool, and performed Lavan – went around it four times, followed by the girl. Evidently, from the fourth Guru onward the Guru’s marriages were most probably performed by Anand Karaj. [13] (bold, underline ours)

CONCLUSION

Since the origin of the Sikh matrimonial ceremony was instantiated by the Gurus, the two aforementioned questions demand an answer from those Sikhs who believe the principle of equality to be immutable, divinely revealed and absolute in its actualisation:

  1. How can this seemingly non-egalitarian ritual be reconciled with the principle of equality?
  2. How could this ritual have been instantiated by a Guru who was supposed to be both a champion of women’s rights and the best practitioner of this principle?

If a reconciliation cannot be achieved, then this is just another example of Sikhism having failed to defend its blind espousal of equality between the sexes. Such a failure should raise alarm bells for those who are sincere towards the truth. It would be another clear indication that Sikhism cannot be revealed of God since a benevolent Creator would not demand His servants to live up to standards and conditions that are impossible to achieve.

We look forward to the answers from any keen and dedicated Sikh apologist.

[1] S.S. Kapoor (1996), Ceremonies of Bliss: Anand Karaj (The Sikh Marriage Ceremony), Birth of a Child, Book 2 of Sikh Ceremony Series, (Hemkunt Press, New Delhi), p.55.
[2] The following question was posted on a Sikh forum by a one GSingh:

As Guru Granth Saheb holds equality for both men and women, can bride and groom take two lavan phere each leading the other? Is it written in Guru Granth Saheb that groom has to lead for all four lavan phere? Is yes, please quote me from Guru Granth Saheb [sic].
– Sikhnet.com, Anand Karaj Lavan Phere, 10 Nov. 2010 1:41pm

[3] A. Kaur (2002), Sikh Matrimonial Circumambulations (Laavan), (Understanding Sikhism – The Research Journal, 4(2), July-Dec 2002).
[4] B.S. Mahal (2001), Changing Perceptions about Rituals & Conventions, (The Sikh Review, Vol. 49:10 October 2001 No: 574).
[5] G.S. Sidhu (1997), Sikh Marriage Cermony [sic], (Endorphin Ltd.), p.3.
[6] K.S. Duggal (2008), The Sanctity of Anand Karaj, (Vol. 56:5 MAY 2008 No. 653), p.29.
[7] G.S. Sidhu, op. cit., p.3.
[8] K.S. Talwar (2005), The Anand Marriage Act, Punjab Past and Present, (National Archives, New Delhi, 2(2), Oct 1968, 400-410), pp.5-6.
[9] The Code of Sikh Conduct and Conventions, Article XVIII, (SGPC.net, CHAPTER XI).
[10] The Sikh Encyclopedia (Date: Unknown), Anand Karaj.
SikhiWiki has the same entry and explanation: www.sikhiwiki.org/Anand_Karaj.
[11] N-G. K. Singh, M. Palmer (2009), Sikhism World Religions, (Infobase Publishing, NY), pp.92-3.
[12] J. Kaur, A. Singh (2011), The Status of Woman in Sikhism with Special Reference to Lavan, (Institute of Sikh Studies; Abstracts of Sikh Studies, July-Sept 2011 / 543 (Vol XIII, Issue 3); accessed: 14 Jan 2012).
[13] K. S. Khokhar (2005), Anand Marriage – Development and History, (Global Sikh Studies), pp.5-6.

One comment

  1. Let’s begin a discussion on this post on laavan. The central criticism and argument of the post seems to be as follows: The Sikh marriage ceremony traditionally has the groom lead the bride four times while both circle the Guru Granth Sahib Ji, the Sikh scriptures. The fact that the male leads is given as evidence of inherent inequality in Sikhism. Certainly questions need to be asked as patriarchal norms dominate most religious traditions. Yet the inquiry on this site is not to illuminate or further the goal of equality in Sikhism or among Sikhs. This is a da’wah website, intended to seek converts to Islam and therefore deliberately creates doubts regarding Sikhi.

    And neither have we ever claimed that our goal is to further Sikhism’s equality!

    As Muslims who wish to epitomise and live up to the meaning of the word Muslim: “to willingly and lovingly submit to the Will of Allah”, we are completely at ease with the respective gender roles set by Allah.

    Sikhs, on the other hand, particularly the modernists and feminists among them, are obsessed in wanting to align the historical patriarchal norms established and practiced over the entire combined duration of their Gurus’ rule of 250+ years, which dominates their religious tradition. It is this obsession that we wish to expose in light of said historical patriarchal norms.

    The analysis of the symbolism and meaning of laavan when put into context of considering the entire ceremony and the hymns composed for it, reveal that the assertions made on this site lack nuanced thinking and rigour. Context is extremely important otherwise distortions will occur as has occurred in this post on laavan.

    The four hymns recited in the Sikh wedding ceremony are from the Guru Granth Sahib and appear on page 773 to 774. In order to understand the meaning and symbolic importance of the Sikh wedding ceremony, we need to explore these hymns as they reveal highly spiritual and mystical aspects of marriage and union. In order to comprehend the significance of what is occurring during the Sikh wedding or Anand Karaj (“Joyful Union”), a careful review of these hymns is essential to gain knowledge of the spiritual dimensions and significance of marriage.

    If Sikhism’s example of equality is more theoretical than practical, then we’ll be happy to concede our argument. However, our argument aims at exposing the practical side of Sikhism and how this seems to entirely undermine its theoretical claims and teachings.

    The four Laavan or hymns were composed by Guru Ram Das Ji, the fourth of ten human Sikh Gurus, before his own wedding. During Anand Karj the couple walk in a circle around the Guru Granth Sahib Ji as each stanza of Lavaan are recited. The significance of marriage is made clear by Guru Ram Das Ji on page 788 as follows: “They are not called husband and wife who merely sit together. Rather they alone are called husband and wife, who have one soul while in two bodies.”

    Are you embarrassed to mention how Ram Das and the rest of the Gurus, including the Sikhs of their time, practiced this? Of course you are!

    And neither can you deny the practical tradition established by your Gurus for well over a century!

    The symbolic importance of marriage is union at a spiritual level not just a contractual obligation or partnership to take care of worldly affairs. The couple need to share their entire self with each other instead of operating at a surface level of existence. Couples who operate merely at a surface level in time grow apart as they are unable to share, grow and to truly love. When two individuals become one as a couple at a spiritual level, where they share their entire being with each other, then idea of division, separation and distance give way to union, harmony, and wholeness. The two maintain their individuality but have unity from a deep soulful connection.

    This is irrelevant and shows that you cannot deal with our underlying charge. As a result, you’re attempting to shift the goals posts.

    While gender differences exist at a social level, the Sikh Gurus only see oneness of the Ultimate Reality. For this reason, the Guru Granth Sahib Ji begins with “1 Onkar.” As the supreme is One, so too is the entire creation. While differences exist of gender, race, ethnicity and other categories at a social level, at a spiritual level we start to recognize the entire creation and humanity as one.

    Again irrelevant! Just empty words and claims!

    The four laavan in turn provide spiritual direction for the couple. The Union has four distinct stages as communicated by each laav (singular of laavan) or stanza. The movement of life toward union has four stages: 1. Discipline 2. Love 3. Community and restraint 4. Harmony and Oneness. Each stage is communicated by each laav as the couple walk around the Guru Granth Sahib Ji together.

    It doesn’t provide a very good practical example though does it? And this is our point. When it comes down to living up to the claim of equality, Sikhism’s practical example is sketchy, at best.

    The first verse of Lavan is about letting go of the past and embarking on a new beginning. It stresses that the center of the marriage is spiritual and that the success of the marriage rests on the couple having a daily spiritual practice based upon discipline as follows:

    “In the first round of the marriage ceremony, the Lord gives you instructions for married life. Instead of performing rituals by routine, embrace the righteous life of Dharma, and do nothing that separates you from God. Meditate on God’s Name. Embrace and practice Simran – the continuous remembrance of your True Identity. Worship and adore the Guru, the Perfect True Guru, and all the errors of your past will be washed away. By your great destiny, you shall know that bliss which passes all understanding, and the Lord will become sweet to your mind. Servant Nanak proclaims that in this first round, the marriage ceremony has begun.”

    Again irrelevant to our argument!

    The second verse states that the Guru is the centre of the marriage and that such a marriage is filled with joy, ecstasy and love as described below:

    “In the second round of the marriage ceremony, the Lord guides you to meet the True Guru – the One Teacher. Filled with the awe of the Infinite, your ego dissolves away. In awe of the One who is forever pure, sing Wonderful Praises and see God in all. The Lord – the Supreme Soul, is the Master of the Universe, filling everything, everywhere in all spaces. Deep within you, and outside you as well, see only One God. God’s humble servants meet together and sing the songs of joy and ecstasy. Servant Nanak proclaims that in this second round, the music of the unstuck sound resounds.”

    Ibid.

    The third verse gives the understanding that both love and liberation lie within the Sadhsangat – community of worshipers who gather together to remember the Divine. It is through this that we realize our destiny. The third laav emphasizes restraint as the third step in the mystical journey as follows:

    “In the third round of the marriage ceremony your heart is filled with Divine Love. By great destiny I have met the humble Saints who love the Lord and I have found God. I have found the pure Lord and I sing Wonderful Praises. I sing the Guru’s Bani. By great good destiny I have found the humble Saints and I speak in the silent language of the Infinite. The Lord’s Name vibrates and resounds within my heart. Meditating on God, I have realized the great destiny written on my forehead. Servant Nanak proclaims that in this third round, the heart is full of Divine Love of the One God.”

    Ibid.

    The fourth verse is the final stage which relates to Sahaj Avastha (stage of harmony) and the fulfillment of the goal of life. It is the stage of union when married life is completely blended with love for God. This is the stage when the couple becomes one Soul in two bodies. At this point of the married life and spiritual journey, harmony and oneness is realized:

    “In the fourth round of the marriage ceremony I have found God and my mind is filled with peace. Living as a Gurmukh, I have met God with simple ease. My mind and body are full of sweet delight. I am pleasing to God – and night and day I lovingly focus my awareness on God. I have merged with the One in everyone and all my desires are fulfilled. The Lord’s Name resounds and reverberates within me and all around me. The One God, my Lord and Master, merges with the Divine Bride and her heart blossoms with the Holy Naam. Servant Nanak proclaims that in this fourth round, we have become One with the Eternal Lord.”

    Ibid.

    Unlike the distorted representation of Anand Karj as a ceremony based upon the inequality of the sexes, the reality based upon the spiritual significance and value of married life indicates that the ceremony expresses movement of the couple as two bodies journeying spiritually to become one soul.

    Sadly, it’s your counter that’s successfully managed to distort our arguments!

    While traditionally the male leads given that the custom in South Asia is for the bride to move into the groom’s family home. For this reason, the bride requires greater support from the groom/husband and her family and her following symbolizes this support not her status as a woman being lesser or inferior. Such a thought would contradict Gurbani, the Guru’s teachings, which hold both genders as equal.

    This is clearly an insipidly desperate response when one considers the lofty role Sikhism places on their Satgurus – teachers sent to enlighten the people by taking them out of the darkness into the light!

    Even if we assume this really was the reason, which is dubious given the recognised dominant role of the male in marital relationships by religions throughout that part of the world, are you implying that even after well over a century, the combined efforts of seven Gurus extending over six generations wasn’t enough to change said tradition?

    Are you claiming that your Gurus didn’t have it in them to inculcate a societal change, particularly over such a long period, in, at the very least, their own people?

    Certainly seems that way.

    The Sikh Gurus focused upon providing spiritual, moral and ethical guidance for life through focusing upon Truth (Sat), Contentment (Santokh) and Reflection (Vichar). They did not look to change all aspects of social life such as customs, norms and cultural practices, since these vary by time, geography and culture.

    What about the all-important practical guidance that inculcates this gender equality while also establishing a precedent for all succeeding generations? Even if they didn’t come to change all aspects of society, why would they neglect to make such a simple change that’s practically possible within a single generation, let alone, six? God knows they had enough time!

    The development of character is the primary focus of Sikh teachings.

    Fine; so if these ‘perfect teachers’ couldn’t manage to make this simple character change over, say, a decade, surely they could have accomplished it over a single generation, which would then lay down the groundwork for a practical change in the next! Instead, they were happy with the status quo.

    But, here’s an even more obvious rebuttal to your weak counter. Why couldn’t, at least, one Guru lay down a moral marker by having his wife lead him, if not for the whole four circuits, then at least two, or even just one, if equality was as important as you modernist Sikhs make out?

    As you can see, your counter raises more questions than answers!

    The Gurus never wished to compel by force as compelling others is against Sikh ethics.

    By and large, compulsion is only used as a reactionary measure. In this case, you had well over a century to sort things out, and you failed, miserably.

    Instead the Gurus provided guidance through their example and most importantly by the message contained in Gurbani, the Guru’s Word.

    Lol! Sorry, but their example only solidifies our argument!

    I encourage the founders of this site to focus on Truth, Contentment and Reflection – Sat, Santokh, Vichar – contained in Gurbani so that their mind and heart may find peace.

    And we would encourage you to actually think about your arguments a little more. At the moment, you believe that just churning out information will be enough. Sadly it isn’t. Most of what you’ve brought, thus far, has been shown to be irrelevant to our main argument.

    Telling untruths, falsehoods and distortions is a sin particularly when we do so with spiritual teachers and their message. Only God can help you to rise above this sin – So I offer my humble prayers for your development with God’s Grace.

    You haven’t done anything to prove these wild claims.

    Instead, your poor response has done nothing but further strengthen our contentions; so, by all means, please carry on writing in.

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