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Beyond widowhood, for a life of fulfilment

A few days ago, I had occasion to interact with two childless widows, Sunita, and Vimla (not their real names). Sunita is around 40, and Vimla is double that age. As an educated, orthodox Brahmin, Vimla’s marriage to a teacher was performed six decades ago. The attending priests, astrologers and other elders had blessed her to be a dheerga sumangali, a mother of a hundred sons. A decade later, however, her husband died of a sudden heart attack.

The very idea of remarriage of an upper caste Hindu widow, even if childless, was considered sacrilege among caste Hindus and it remains so, barring rare exceptions. Thus, for more than half her life, Vimla has suffered life as a lonesome widow and will remain so for the remaining few years left, though she was in no way responsible for the death of her husband!

Sunita’s case is different. She is also a Hindu, of a ‘lower’ rung in the caste hierarchy. She is a confident, intelligent woman, though unlettered. Her husband of 10 years died, also of a suspected heart attack last year. Gradually, however, she collected herself, decided to fend for herself and started working as a domestic help in some houses. Her younger brother, a skilled carpenter, thought of getting her married again. One of his relatives, aged around 50, father of three educated, married and reasonably gainfully employed sons, had been rendered a widower. It occurred to Sunita’s brother that she and this relative could marry. Sunita was initially hesitant, but displayed the common sense and courage to accept the idea. He acted as the matchmaker. A few months ago they got married. This break has given her life a new meaning. When she came to look up my wife and me with her husband recently, she looked happy. Without becoming a mother she has become a grandmother!

I have vivid memories from my childhood days of an affectionate, elderly lady, who had become a widow in her childhood. Head shaven and wearing a dull red sari, her image remains etched in my mind as an instance of how an innocent woman in an orthodox Brahmin family was reduced to a life of abject poverty, humiliation and suffering, for no fault of hers. I remember men sneering at her and other widows, and blaming them as harbingers of bad luck and being responsible for their encountering any failure!

Mercifully, orthodoxy had somewhat loosened its grip when my mother herself became a widow in 1959. She was permitted to retain the hair on her head and was exempted from the dress code. Even so, occasions did crop up now and then that would remind her of her disadvantaged status in society. One such was when she stood in a queue to pay her respects to a mathadhipathi being taken in a procession on a decorated palanquin. As she stretched her hand to receive the theertha, one of his men asked her to get a coconut shell instead of showing her cupped hand to collect the holy water! The trauma of that humiliation troubled her immensely. It made me an agnostic!

False values based on superstition, however, die hard. Even well over one and half centuries after the East India Company enacted the Hindu Widows Remarriage Act, 1856, in response to the bold and pioneering reforms movement initiated by Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and the Bengali poet Ishwar Chandra Gupta (1812-1859), it remains so. It is rightly said that it was the British who gave India one nation, one wife, and also banned the practice of ‘sati’!

This unfairness and abuse of women was perhaps never a part of the values originally enshrined in Sanathana Dharma, which later took on the avatar of Hinduism! Did not Damayanti have another swayamvara and search for her next bridegroom when she was widowed on the presumed death of Nala? How else can one explain Sugreeva marrying his elder brother and Vanara king Vaali’s wife, that too after conspiring with Rama, and killing him? Or Vibhishana, the brother of the Lanka King Ravana, marrying his wife Mandodari after Ravana’s death? Or Tulsi marrying Lord Vishnu, after her husband was killed by Lord Siva, to name some instances?

The writer Vivek Nair points out that a Hindu woman is allowed to marry not just once but four times, and refers to Karuna’s description of Draupadi as “unchaste”, because she had five husbands, one more than permitted! Karna was supposedly himself conceived after his mother Kunti looked at the sun as a virgin!

Vivek Nair rightly points out that in a traditional Hindu marriage even now, the bride is first married to three spiritual entities, namely, Soma, Gandharva and finally to the human bridegroom. The taboo on one woman and only one husband is therefore a myth. Many families seem to be ‘respecting’ this ‘Agni as husband’ angle, by consigning daughters-in-law are unable to meet the dowry demand, or as ‘satis’!

It was perhaps Manu, about 2000 years ago, who first propounded that a Hindu widow should remain virtuous and chaste after the death of her husband, in order to reach heaven. Hinduism as enunciated by Manu sanctified gender inequality.

The likely motive for making widows ineligible to marry again, especially among upper-caste, property-owning Hindus, was family honour and fear of losing parcels of family property if widows married again! Exceptions were when the she was married to the younger brother of her dead husband, under the specious claim that the sindoor on the forehead a woman who enters a family as the daughter-in-law should never be wiped out! This also explains the horror of “sati”, which permitted, even encouraged, a widow to mount the funeral pyre of her husband and be consumed by that fire!

Bizarre orthodoxy and exploitation of Hindu widows is brazenly visible in all its inhuman ugliness, not in some inaccessible corners of India but in Vrindavan near India’s capital Delhi and in the ancient temple city of Varanasi, where the ashrams ostensibly run to protect the widows, in reality treat young widows as cash cows.

Widows becoming pregnant are made to go through life threatening surgery by quacks, and some of them even die as a result!

It is a revolting shame that musclemen and anti-social elements, parading as protectors of “values of Hinduism”, forced the film-maker Mira Nair, actors Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, who had even shaved their heads to portray the miserable life of widows, to abandon their project.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 2:27:25 PM |

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