Brides of Death

Friday, July 06, 2007

Appearing at The Blogging Curmudgeon, My Left Wing, and the Independent Bloggers' Alliance.

"Sanvean (I Am Your Shadow)" -- Dead Can Dance

"If a woman's husband dies, let her lead a life of chastity, or else mount his pyre"

-- Vishnu Smrti xxv.14

Last month, in the wake of the ghastly stoning death of D'ah Khalil Aswad, My Left Wing's Maryscott O'Connor wrote a passionate indictment of organized religion.

Sure, I hate all organized religions. But I especially loathe those religions that use special modes of dress and behaviour to segregate women from men; in itself, that shouldn't mean much, but invariably when women are especially set apart from men, it is generally with the understanding that it is because women are either inferior or dangerous or "unclean."

Witness the Hindu widows of India.

They cannot remarry. They must not wear jewelry. They are forced to shave their heads and typically wear white. Even their shadows are considered bad luck.

. . .

There are an estimated 40 million widows in India, the least fortunate of them shunned and stripped of the life they lived when they were married.

It's believed that 15,000 widows live on the streets of Vrindavan, a city of about 55,000 in northern India.

This legion of societal outcasts flock to the holy city, Vrindavan, to die. Their hope is to be finally freed from the wheel of karma; from the cycles of life and death.

It is understood that Mathura City is the transcendental abode of Lord Krishna. It is not an ordinary material city, for it is eternally connected with the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Vrindavan is within the jurisdiction of Mathura and still continues to exist. Because Mathura and Vrindavan are intimately connected with Krishna eternally, it is said that Lord Krishna never leaves Vrindavan (vrindavanam parityajya padam ekam na gacchati). At present the place known as Vrindavana in the district of Mathura, continues its position as a transcendental place and certainly anyone who goes there becomes transcendentally purified.

"We must understand the transcendental importance of Mathura, Vrindavana and Navadvipa dhamas. Anyone who executes devotional service in these places certainly goes back home, back to Godhead after giving up his body.

In 2000, film-maker Deepa Mehta began production of "Water." The third and final installment of her elements trilogy, it tells of the plight of widows in traditional India.

The backdrop of the film is the rise of Mahatma Gandhi, who not only agitated for India’s independence from Britain but also sought to improve the lot of Hindu widows. Colonies like the one depicted in Water aren’t nearly as prevalent in modern India, but according to Mehta, they do still exist. Through advocacy and activism, however, Hindu widows have become more independent.

“Some of them are becoming aware, slowly, that there is a world outside,” says Mehta, “and realizing that they won’t be rejecting their religion if they step outside the prescribed part. Because religion has nothing to do with it — it’s a misinterpretation of the religion that’s led them there, not the religion itself.”

But, like all religions, much is in the interpretation, and in which of the contradictory texts you keep or reject. We remake our religions constantly in our image; those images shaped largely by the religious beliefs that underly them. Beliefs about the place of widows are so entrenched in Indian culture, that Mehta was unable to shoot the film there. (The movie was finally filmed in 2004 and in the more amenable location of Sri Lanka.) Because of outrage from fundamentalists -- who claimed the film was "anti-Hindu" -- Mehta was threatened and even burned in effigy.

Burning women is another deeply entrenched Indian tradition. An ancient practice called "sati" (or "suttee") calls for widows to be burned on their husbands' funeral pyres. Now illegal, and rarely practiced, it finds its basis -- like the tradition which consigns widows to lives as social outcasts -- in ancient Hindu scripture. While this immolation was supposed to be a voluntary act of self-sacrifice, in practice women were often forced onto the pyres and tied down. In the late 1700s, affluent Brahman Ram Mohan Roy advocated for reform, and achieved a good deal of success. His arguments were theological in nature. In one of his hypothetical dialogs, he argued that, according to scripture, while widows were proscribed from remarriage, the basis for self-immolation was superseded by the admonition for them to become ascetics. In this point-counterpoint exploration he articulates the position of both the "advocate" and the "opponent" of burning living widows to death.

Advocate.—You have made an improper assertion, in alleging that Concremation and Postcremation are forbidden by the Shastrus. Hear what Unggira [Angira—one of the seven rishis or sages of the Hindu tradition] and other saints have said on this subject.

“That woman who, on the death of her husband, ascends the burning pile with him, is exalted to heaven, as equal to Uroondhooti.”

“She who follows her husband to another world, shall dwell in a region of joy for so many years as there are hairs in the human body, or thirty-five millions.”

“As a serpent-catcher forcibly draws a snake from his hole, thus raising her husband by her power, she enjoys delight along with him.”

“The woman who follows her husband expiates the sins of three races; her father’s line, her mother’s line, and the family of him to whom she was given a virgin.”

“There possessing her husband as her chiefest good, herself the best of women, enjoying the highest delights, she partakes of bliss with her husband as long as fourteen Indrus reign.”

“Even though the man had slain a Brahman, or returned evil for good, or killed an intimate friend, the woman expiates those crimes.”

. . .

Concremation and Postcremation being thus established by the words of many sacred lawgivers, how can you say they are forbidden by the Shastrus, and desire to prevent their practice?

Opponent.—All those passages you have quoted are indeed sacred law; and it is clear from those authorities, that if women perform Concremation or Postcremation, they will enjoy heaven for a considerable time. But attend to what Munoo [Manu—mythic lawgiver ca. 200 CE] and others say respecting the duty of widows: “Let her emaciate her body, by living voluntarily on pure flowers, roots, and fruits, but let her not, when her lord is deceased, even pronounce the name of another man.”

“Let her continue till death forgiving all injuries, performing harsh duties, avoiding every sensual pleasure, and cheerfully practising the incomparable rules of virtue which have been followed by such women as were devoted to one only husband.”

Here Munoo directs, that after the death of her husband, the widow should pass her whole life as an ascetic...

I suppose it's arguable that a life shorn of one's hair and begging on the street is better than burning to death, but not by much.

As with all religious prescriptions and proscriptions, it's impossible to separate the ideology from the culture. Like in our own primarily Judeo-Christian culture which fixates on a few obscure references to homosexuality at the expense of the more prevalent message of charity, the emphasis says far more about greater cultural mores than scripture. The plight of the Hindu widows may be justified by scripture, but it has it's roots in economics and plain, old-fashioned misogyny.

The core of the problem lies in what Indian sociologists call patrilocal residence -- the custom of Hindu brides marrying into their husbands' families, largely severing ties with their own. In many cases, especially when widowhood comes early, this leaves a woman dependent on in-laws whose main interest after her husband's death is to rid the family of the burden of supporting her.

. . .

For the younger widows -- some barely teen-agers despite laws that forbid child marriages -- there is the additional threat of being forced into sex with landlords, rickshaw drivers, shopkeepers, policemen, even Hindu holy men.

This, too, has historically been part of the widows' lot. The tradition of widows being forced to have sex with other men in their husbands' families, or to sell sex, was once so widespread that the Hindi word "randi," or widow, became a synonym for prostitute.

. . .

Since independence, Indian governments have revised inheritance laws to entrench widows' rights to a share of their husbands' property, and legislated for pensions. But more often than not, laws are circumvented. One study found that inheritance laws often served to entrap women. Their husbands' families, intent on preventing division of land and homes, frequently forced them to remarry back into the family.

The old customs mean that many Hindu girls are twice blighted. Parents eager to unburden themselves of a daughter arrange a childhood marriage, and widowhood leaves the woman unwanted again.

"The widow is more inauspicious than all other inauspicious things. At the sight of a widow, no success can be had in any undertaking; excepting one's mother, all widows are void of auspiciousness. A wise man should avoid even her blessings like the poison of a snake."

-- Skanda Purana