February 13, 2008

Love Can Blossom Again

According to the most recent Census, there are 34 million widows in India, and more than half of them are less than 50 years of age. A UNIFEM supported survey of 255 widows in Vrindavan, conducted by the Guild of Service in 2002, reports:

A whopping 39 per cent of the widows interviewed had married below 12 years and 47 per cent between the ages of 12 and 17. Thirty per cent of them had become widows by the age of 24. Two had become widows by the time they were 12. They were married when just 7 and 9 years old respectively.

If we extrapolated from this sample, a third of the 34 million Indian widows — 10 million — would have been widowed by the age of 24, approximately the age when most women in the developed nations even begin to contemplate serious relationships.

That the Widows Remarriage Act of 1856 was no match for the Laws of Manu, is underscored by the fact that 60% of surveyed women have been widows for more than 20 years. More disturbing, 90% of the women were against remarriage. Only 13%, however, said they did not believe in remarriage. 70% attributed their reluctance to remarry to social and religious taboos.

The Hindu woman is not only commanded, but also brainwashed into believing that she could not love more than one man. If she did, she'd be unfaithful, flouting the pathivratha dharma [duties of a chaste wife to her husband]. That holds, even if the man she might have loved once is now a mere shadow on her mind. She must wait patiently until she's reunited with her man in the next birth. Then, in every birth after birth, for eternity. No such prognosis or restraint for her man, though.

All of this, of course, is nothing but horse manure. A woman, just as a man, can love more than once, more than one man, whether her ex is dead or alive. Sita, my maternal grand aunt, was only twelve when she got married. Within a year of the marriage, before it was even consummated, her husband (an undeserved label, really) had died, leaving her a child widow. In the heartless and cruel culture that considered a barely thirteen as an inauspicious widow to be cast into a dungeon, Sita refused to accept that her life was over. She declined to have her head shaved, dress in bland brown, or stay indoors. Unable to bear the community's ire, my grandfather packed her off to Saradha Vidyalaya, a boarding school in Madras (now, Chennai) for young widows, started by Sister Subbalakshmi in the 1920's.

Savithri, the Headmistress of the school, and a divorcee who had lost her twelve year old son recently, developed a special liking for Sita, and took her into her own home. She would live with my grand aunt until her death, and I would have the honor of meeting this remarkable lady several times. Sita was fairly well versed in classical music, and with the active encouragement of her foster mother, became a singer for the All India Radio. There she met another AIR artist, a progressive man from the neighboring state of Kerala. They fell in love, and after a year, they were married (civil marriage, of course). My grand aunt passed away in 1978, and was survived by her daughter, and grand children.

My paternal grand aunt, Soundarya, was not so fortunate. Widowed when she was 23, and childless, she returned to my grandfather's household, with a shaven head and a brown sari wrapped around her. She was wealthy with her dead husband's property, but every penny of it was squandered away by my grandfather, a compulsive gambler and a philanderer. After my grandfather passed away, she was forced to lead what can only be described as a nomadic life, shuttling between the homes of her nephews and nieces.

I have been a personal witness to all the unprintable abuse that were heaped on Soundarya. During rare moments of respite, she'd ask my mother, "Mythili, you are an educated woman. Men in their fifties and sixties marry, often taking women young enough to be their grand daughters, as their second and third wife. Tell me, how is it fair that women should languish in the life of the dead?".

The Shankaracharya of Joshimat [one of the six high priests of Hinduism] explains:

... it [remarriage] is forbidden by the shastras [the scriptures]. Widows are like sadhus and for society to recognize their new status as ascetics they wear white clothes and have their hair shorn. As ascetics they are not invited for happy occasions. They are supposed to dedicate their lives to God.

Supposed to? What gives this man the right to suppose anything for another woman? If love could blossom again for Sita, so it could for Soundarya. And, each one of the 34 million widows of India, can be a Valentine again for someone today, after having been one for someone else yesterday. Let no shastras or their hallowed custodians interrupt her life and loves.

  1. While the Shankaracharya is telling us about the shastras, I would like him to also tell us what he means by "Shastras"? Every ancient book is not a shastra. Customs don't become laws.

    Where in the Vedas or Smritis does it say that widows should have their heads shaven and wear saffron saris? Or that they should not remarry.

  2. Of course those guys knew that love could and would blossom again -= 'again"? how many of the little girls and boys even knew 'love " when they were in those farcical child marriages? It takes a man and a woman to fall in love and their lives ended before they reached that stage.
    As for a second chance - this was precisely why those draconian rules were imposed on them - they were kept away from any possibility of being seen and loved by a man.
    This post reminded me of the several cases I have seen in my family.
    Timely remembrance of those women who were denied their rights to their valentines.

  3. ..how would love blossom if the woman was made unattractive as humaly possible, hidden inside and generally treated like an animal? the sad part is that some of these traditions exist till today.

  4. Lekhni,

    I am not very familiar with the shasthras. But are you suggesting that it is not there in shasthras?


    I also do'nt understand why you quoted Shankaracharya of Joshimath. Did I miss a recent news item or something - did he prevent some widows from getting married?

  5. > Supposed to? What gives this man the right to suppose anything for another woman?

    The Sankaracharya is entitled to his opinion/interpretation of the Shastras. How is that even relevant? He is not the government *forcing* his opinions on people.

  6. lekhni, Hawkeye:
    I am not an exponent of the shastras, either. I am assuming that the Shankaracharya is. I must concede that much at least to him in deference to his position!

    Here's what I found in the Laws of Manu:

    3-166. A shepherd, a keeper of buffaloes, the husband of a remarried woman, and a carrier of dead bodies, (all these) must be carefully avoided.

    9-65. In the sacred texts which refer to marriage the appointment (of widows) is nowhere mentioned, nor is the re-marriage of widows prescribed in the rules concerning marriage.
    9-66. This practice which is reprehended by the learned of the twice-born castes as fit for cattle is said (to have occurred) even among men, while Vena ruled.
    9-71. Let no prudent man, after giving his daughter to one (man), give her again to another; for he who gives (his daughter) whom he had before given, incurs (the guilt of) speaking falsely regarding a human being.

    5-156. A faithful wife, who desires to dwell (after death) with her husband, must never do anything that might displease him who took her hand, whether he be alive or dead.
    5-157. At her pleasure let her emaciate her body by (living on) pure flowers, roots, and fruit; but she must never even mention the name of another man after her husband has died.
    5-158. Until death let her be patient (of hardships), self-controlled, and chaste, and strive (to fulfil) that most excellent duty which (is prescribed) for wives who have one husband only.

    For the widower, however,

    5-167. A twice-born man (brahmin), versed in the sacred law, shall burn a wife of equal caste who conducts herself thus and dies before him, with (the sacred fires used for) the Agnihotra, and with the sacrificial implements.
    5-168. Having thus, at the funeral, given the sacred fires to his wife who dies before him, he may marry again, and again kindle (the fires).

    Apparently, there are a couple of weak references to widow remarriage in the Atharva and Rig Veda, which appear to contradict Manu's laws against remarriage - see here (link via an anonymous comment in Agelessbonding). I am not much impressed by these, but it is possible that the Vedic practices differed from the ones that did during and after Manu. I am familiar with many stories from the Hind mythology, but I have not come across a single instance of widow remarriage.

    The Shakaracharya quote is from the UNIFEM report. Just to point out that a high priest of Hinduism is currently of the view that widow remarriage is prohibited. I could be wrong, but I don't believe that a widow remarriage will be solemnized by any Hindu priest even today.

    usha, cynic in wonderland:
    Here's another gem from the Laws of Manu -
    3-10. Let him wed a female free from bodily defects, who has an agreeable name, the (graceful) gait of a Hamsa or of an elephant, a moderate (quantity of) hair on the body and on the head, small teeth, and soft limbs.

    With her head shaved, the widow has no chance, especially if she were unlucky enough to be born into the the twice born caste!

  7. mssnlayam:
    Certainly, the Shankaracharya is entitled to his opinion. Just as I am entitled to criticize in my blog, his or his shastras' opinion about what others should or should not do. His views will be irrelevant when the widows of Vrindavan, and the society at large in which they live, realize that religion is irrelevant. Until then, let the discourse continue in the interest of hastening the process of realization :)

  8. Thank God Manu did not enjoy the status of prophet in Hinduism - I shudder to think what might have happened then.

  9. RationalFool,

    1. Marriage is a newer concept in the vedic/historical context. Not every woman who slept with men, got married in those days. Marriage was for the rich and powerful. So the general shastras of marriage, which was created for the king to marry some important mistresses or for tri-varnikas to intiate grahasthashrama - wouldn't have concerned itself to create a section for widow remarriage. It did not concern the women at all except as a reproductive vehicle.

    2. Priests do perform in marriage rituals where get widows remarried. I have read those mantras (there are some versions)as far as I recollect they impose no restrictions on widows.

    3. If as you say Manu Shastra prohibits widow remarriage and if someone asked Sankaracharya what the Manu Shastra says on this topic - he should say the truth. I would've been upset if he said something else. His job is not to customize it for the 'modern thought'. I can do that. As you said, if he is an expert on it, he is better off sticking to his expertise. So you shouldn't blame him for saying the truth. You can disagree with him all you want but that would just be your opinion. Much like Manu's opinion.

    4. Manu Shastra is a brilliant piece of work. 7-8 years ago when I read it, I thought it was so brilliant that I am not surprised it offended you.

    5. In those days Men killed other men to rape abduct or marry their wife. Men also killed husbands of weallthy women, princesses etc to abduct their wealth, property and kingdom. Nobody, literally nobody, married widows out of love or even pity. If you *really* think about it, Manu's laws made the society shun men who forcefully married widows and so acted as an effective deterrent. It in fact protected more women than one can imagine. Infact Manu's laws as uncivilized as it sounds was instrmental in taking the first shot at civilizing society.

    6. It is easy to say laws are written in the context of their times. Hard to understand it. Very hard. Our constitution as it stands prevents sex outside marriage. Its got an agenda. you want religion to become irrelevant. you have an agenda. Sankaracharya has an agenda.

    7. Women were as irrelevant in the past as you would like religion to be in the future. If you truly understand the irrelevance of religion and importance of women, you should also understand what it means to believe the converse.

    8. I was in vrindhavan less than 6 months ago scoping something out with an NGO to make lives of women there better. Even donated personal money and got ripped off badly. I get a feeling from your comments that you are not familiar with that place. I would recommend that you do not over-trust the research report that you linked. I am already viewing it with skepticism.

    9. My father's sister was widowed whe was 17 years old, on the day of diwali, 3 months after she got married. She was pregnant at the time. So, I know what you are talking about.

  10. Just fyi- there are many splendid local indian criticisms and translations of indian texts by indian authors. Any historical text of india interpreted (+vely or -vely) by forign authors are horribly inaccurate.

    I am a big fan of many local bashing of hinduism because moreoften than not it is a well-read well-understood crticism.


    Did you mean Manu Shastra? I am not familiar with all (in fact most) shastras - but i *guess* Smarthas have their own Shastra and it need not be the same as Manu's. Sankaracharya is a smartha (I guess).

  11. I Normally dont do this, but take a look at http://solitarycynic.blogspot.com/2007/11/lajja.html ( had written it a few months ago on a similar topic since its something which i feel extremely strongly about)

  12. Hawkeye, man!! you stole the last two comments from me. I guess you read a translation/commentary of Manu. Who was the translator/commentator?

    Also, have you read "deivathin kural" in Tamil?

  13. hawkeye:
    1. The events that might or might not have occurred four millenniums ago to prompt Manu to lay down some of the most discriminatory rules of behavior, do not explain or justify quoting these scriptures to influence or impose restraints on social behavior today.
    2. Your experience in Vrindavan six months ago in itself does not refute the results from the questionnaire based survey conducted in 2002. Which data items or tables presented in the UNIFEM report specifically do you consider as suspect? Why?
    3. I understand the relevance of unsupported and irrational religious beliefs, and relegating women to an inferior or unimportant status, as much as I understand the relevance of the belief in the sun revolving around a flat earth!
    4. "Lost in translation" is a standard refrain to defend and uphold every nonsense that's written in the name of every infallible god, around the world.
    5. I cannot believe that I am falling for a flame trap at this stage of the game, but here it is anyway: packaging a piece of garbage in brilliant adjectives does not transform it into a pot of gold!

  14. RationalFool,

    > Certainly, the Shankaracharya is entitled to his opinion. Just as I am entitled to criticize in my blog, his or his shastras' opinion about what others should or should not do.

    I am not questioning that.

    > His views will be irrelevant when the widows of Vrindavan, and the society at large in which they live, realize that religion is irrelevant. Until then, let the discourse continue in the interest of hastening the process of realization :)

    I did not convey my views correctly in my previous comment. I meant that, I wound't bother changing what adults believe and do (and neither should you), as long as what they do not harm me (and you).

    I believe adults do things which make them happy based on their various priorities in life. If they are following some beliefs and getting screwed as a result, so be it. We have the right to say how they should live and discuss about it. I wouldn't want to spend the time on that, unless I know that person.

    The story of the 12-year old girl is a different issue that needs to be addressed.

  15. cynic in wonderland:
    Thank you for sharing the link - a must read. A minor point on your post: it's not just the rituals and strictures surrounding widowhood that were man-made. Gods, too, were man-made :)

    Ditto, except for the thank god part :)

  16. This is not a flame trap. I don't remember saying you were wrong/right anywhere or passing judgements about you. I don't understand why this sort of topics tumbles so quickly into a flame war. One should be able to hold a logical argument on anything without getting emotional or defensive. I support widow remmariage and basically the intent of the post. I am asking questions on the way the post goes about describing its intent.

    1. I remember asking you if this " impose restraints on social behavior today." happened in the recent past. And whether some widow's right to remarry was prevented? if sankaracharya prevented in action some widow from getting remarried he is against the law. as simple as that. i asked if he did that.

    2. For starters - The widows in Vrindhavan are not a representative sample of rest of India. Your extrapolation of those statistics to rest of india was a *huge* approximation.

    3. I don't understand what you mean here. I said historically women were treated unequally and as inferior. Are saying that that is incorrect? Are you saying early and medaival age always treated women fairly and equally?

    4. "defend and uphold". Nobody is defending an upholding. You are confusing 'descriptions' with arguments. If ask me why nazis killed jews. I will give you an accurate answer. By virtue of giving you an accurate answer, you cannot conclude that I support and defend the nazis. To me its just data. you ask. i retrieve. wikipedia gives descriptions for so many things. you can conclude that it is defending the subjects of its content.

    5. well! assuming all people who like manu's laws want it to be applied in today's world is not logical.

    there is a severe bias against people who question popular thought. not very different from mediaval ages.

  17. Is there a need for an institution like marriage?

    Anyway, if you consider Marriage as a contract with the sanction of the society, then what's the problem with society refusing to sanction certain types of contract? (for any 'reason' - religious or otherwise)

  18. hawkeye:

    "4. Manu Shastra is a brilliant piece of work. 7-8 years ago when I read it, I thought it was so brilliant that I am not surprised it offended you."

    I did not realize that you were serious when you wrote this. I apologize for mistaking it to be a flaming attempt.

    Godmen like the Shakaracharyas are revered by hundreds of thousands of faithful, who would do nothing in defiance of their pronouncements, no matter what the law says. It is not necessary that they physically act to prevent a widow from marrying again.

    I am well aware that extrapolations from samples to populations are fraught with error, hence the caveat. Your original comment, however, was about the report, and not my extrapolation:
    "I would recommend that you do not over-trust the research report that you linked. I am already viewing it with skepticism."

    "Any historical text of india interpreted (+vely or -vely) by forign[sic] authors are horribly inaccurate.
    This is not a neutral description. I took it to be a comment on George Bühler's translation of the Laws of Manu from which I had quoted the relevant verses. I apologize if I had misunderstood you. Perhaps, you would consider posting the correct translation of the relevant verses on your blog.

    I am glad to know that we agree in our support for widow remarriage. I am also glad that, even though you like Manu's laws and consider it to be a brilliant piece of work, you and I agree that they should not be applied today. These are two big issues on which we agree. There is really no reason to dwell any further on our minor differences. Thanks for your comments.

  19. naren:
    I don't believe that the institution of marriage is necessary to navigate the relationship between two consenting adults. Many of the laws governing property rights - common property law in California, for example - and transactions between individuals - employer provided health insurance, for example - depend on legalized marriage. You may want to refer to the wealth of information in the web on this issue, much stemming from the discussion on gay marriage rights.

    Widow remarriage is legal in India, so it's less of a problem (compared to gay marriage in the U.S.) for women who remarry, if society refused to sanction it. It is not easy, however, to overcome the religious and social taboos, as evident in the responses of the Vrindavan widows to the questions on remarriage.

    I have been an educator (of adults, exclusively) lifelong, and I am not about to give up on my two bits to tear apart the veil of ignorance from one and all :)

  20. hawkeye, rationalfool:

    I'm sorry I did not stop by this blog for a few days - I didn't realize there was a fascinating discussion going on here.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but the Manu smriti/shastra is not a "religious" text for most people - it was basically the law of the land. Laws, of course, change with time.

    As Usha says, Manu was never treated as a prophet..and even in the excerpt you quote, Manu refers to the absence of any mention in "sacred texts" to justify his stand. (showing, for one, that his work is not one of those sacred texts).

    So then which texts would the Shankaracharya be referring to? I would say the only texts common to all Hindus in all parts of the country are the Vedas and the Upanishads/Smritis. You could also consider the Gita as a religious text. A lot of the other "religious texts" like the Ramayana / Mahabharata/ Bhagavatam are really historical retellings.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I have never heard the Vedas/ Upanishads prohibit widow remarriage. It's definitely not in any translation of the Upanishads that I have read (they are all available online, you know).

    The only reference in the Atharvana Veda to widow remarriage is supportive - it says if a woman who has a husband gains another, then she should give a goat and 5 rice dishes. There is no mention of whether the woman is a widow or committing polyandry.

    (read page 64 in Sarva Daman Singh's book on polyandryin ancient India) http://books.google.com/books?id=8UZF-ckLEnYC

    Which is why I say that the Shankaracharya should tell us what he is referring to by "shastras" - it has become such a generic term now that it could refer to anything from the Ramanayana to Ramanuja. Incidentally, Adi Shankaracharya has not said anything about widow remarriage.

  21. RationalFool,

    I apologize if I actually ofended you. I think my communication was stuttered and bad. I am trying to take a path where I dont want to offend anyone and stll make my point, please bear with me in failing efforts to do so.

    the main reason why i responded was, i thought lekhni had made a subtle and wonderful point. i thought of some upanishadic/puranic stories where women with dead husbands married. At that time I used to think why manu's laws didnt apply.

    The second reason why I responded was that I thought the reference to religious leaders by the linked article and your post. Most women in vrindhavan may not even be aware of a sankaracharya of joshimuth. I didnt even know a sankaracharya for joshimuth existed until i read your post. it just seemed like a detour & potshot.

    the third reason was because the whole topic of widows is close to my heart. in my research so far it is less vedic mandate but more tribal convention.

    anyway i have confused my communication to a point where I need to clear the slate to start over again. So i will refrain from saying anything further.

  22. Rather late in the day here, I am afraid. Had tried to comment before, but failed due to some stupid Blpgger-centric technical reasons.
    I agree with TRF in his overall attitude to the topic, though I am very far removed mentally whenever I hear the words 'Vedas', 'Upanishads' or 'Shankaracharya'.

  23. The Rational Fool - Discovered your blog today. Whatever I have read till now, has been my own thoughts - brilliantly expressed. Thanks!...Am adding you to my blog roll, hope that's fine by you:)


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