At the turn of the century, extremely influential people, among Hindus themselves, demanded the abolition of child marriage and advocated that girls ought to be married only after they attain puberty. They held meetings and passed resolutions against child marriages. Not that they were wanting in faith in the Vedas, most of them; indeed they claimed that their view had support in the scriptures themselves. Among them were distinguished men like M. Rangacaryar, Sivaswami Ayyar, Sundaramayyar and Krsnasvami Ayyar. Then there was the Rt Hon'ble Srinivasa Sastri who was particularly vehement in his criticism of the system of child marriage.
Vaisnavas and Smartas learned in the sastras held meeting at Kancipuram and Tiruvaiyuaru respectively and put forward the view that, according to the Vedas, girls in the past were married after they had attained puberty. They found an explanation for the origin of the custom of child marriages. Their view was this : After the advent of Islam in India, Hindu girls were abducted and dishonoured in large numbers. Girls already married were spared, they claimed. That is how the now custom of child marriage came into practise. The reformers now argued that we must go back to what they thought was the original Vedic practice and put an end to the uncivilized custom of pre-puberty marriages.
They cited their own evidence from the sastras in support of their view. One piece of evidence they presented was drawn from the Vedas themselves, that is the mantras chanted during the marriage rite. The other was from the Manusmriti which is respected by all as the foremost among the dharmasastras.
What do the marriage mantras say? Before answering the question I must tell you another matter. Each part of our body has a deity associated with it. ("adhidevata" or tutelary deity). The sun god with the eye, Indra with the hand and so on - thus there are divine forces inwardly associated with us. Apart from this, during different stages of our life various deities hold sway over us. Thus, a girl is under the sway of Soma (the moon god) from birth until the time she is old enough to wear clothes herself. (The dhoti or vesti that men wear is called "soman". ) Then, until the girl has her menarche, she is under a gandharva. Thereafter, for three years, she is under Agni. When she is under the moon god as a little child she is cool like moonlight. Gandharvas are playful and beautiful, so when a girl is under the gandharva she is particularly attractive. Under Agni she has the fire that kindle kama. This is a worldly interpretation of how certain deities have hold over a girl. But let that be.
What is the meaning of the Vedic mantras quoted by the reformers in support of their view? The mantras are chanted by the groom addressing the bride: "At first Soma had hold on you; then the gandharva became your guardian; thirdly Agni became your master. I, as a human being, have come as the fourth to hold sway over you. Soma passed you on to the gandharva and the gandharva to Agni. Agni has now given you over to me."
Are we not to construe from the Vedic mantras, which are chanted at the marriage ceremony, that at the time of the wedding the girl has already had her menarche, three years after being under the guardianship of Agni? The reformers maintain that their argument against child marriage is not contrary to the sastras. The marriage custom, according to them, changed after the Muslim invasion and they want the original practice restored. No sanatani, they argue, can cite any authority better than the Vedas.
The reformers also quote a stanza form the Manusmriti in support of their argument :
Trini varsanyudikseta kumari rtumati sati
Urdhavam tu kaladetasmadvindeta sadrsam patim
The sloka means: "A girl who has come of age must wait for three years for a groom to come seeking her hand. If no such groom turns up, she may herself go looking for a groom." Here too it is post-puberty marriage that is indicated. Not only that. Manu's code of conduct, it is argued, is "modern" in that it permits a girl to look for a husband herself without any need for her elders to do so. After Manu, the reformers contend, the orthodox Vedic scholars changed everything and made the marriage custom barbarous.
"In the light of these Vedic mantras and the dharmasastra quoted, are not the reformers right? What is your answer, Svamiji?" I will give my answer.
For a general background, please see here