Fate of Hindu Widows

 

In the old days, and sometimes even now, widows in India have a terrible time. 
This is more acute if they are poor, upper caste and Hindu. 

In Hindu communities, with the death of her husband, all joy left a woman’s life.

Being a widow is considered to be a terrible thing.  After the demise of their husband, as widows, they are considered to be “unlucky” and are never invited or welcome at any auspicious occasion.  Birthdays, weddings, festivals – all occasions of merriment are suppose to be avoided by the widow.  As widows were suppose to be harbingers of bad luck, they were neither to be seen nor heard.   

All colour left the life of a widow.
They were only suppose to wear plain white or black clothes. 
No more vermillion in the hair parting. 
No more henna on the hand.
No more jewellery.   

All taste left their lives too.
Plain food. 
No more sweets. 
No more chutneys. 
No more spices that make food and life interesting.

All music was banned for a widow.
No more singing or humming while walking, working or sitting by the window. 
No more playing musical instruments of any sort. 
No more dancing. 

All social contact with the opposite sex was also banned.
Widows were to avoid all contact with men.  This was for two reason. 
First, to avoid rumours and cruel back-talk of the widow being “of loose character”. 
Secondly, to avoid igniting “desire” in the heart of men who might now see the single woman as a target for his unwanted attention. 
In the old days, men, if they needed to talk to a widow, would do so from afar and usually have other women in the vicinity as chaperones.
Even close male relatives were to keep their distance.

 

Lives of Hindu, upper caste, poor widows were truly sad.
Low caste Hindus did not have the same restrictions and life was easier.  In some communities, they were even allowed to remarry.
Sikhs and Jains, like the Hindus, avoid marrying widows if possible.
Christian and Muslim women could remarry anyway and so it wasn’t so bad for them. 


The only thing a widow was allowed to do unhindered was to pray. 
Pray for a better life. 
Pray for the good of the lives of her family. 
Pray that in the next life, her husband would not abandon her so early in life.

Widows were suppose to work quietly – preferably at home.  Even if financial situation demanded that she should work, to preserve her modesty, they were expected to work at home or with a group of women.  

Why was this ? 
In a culture and religion that is suppose to respect women, why such cruelty towards women who were unlucky through no fault of their own ?

Its not religious – as a widow was considered to be as pure as the Ganges.
Main reason for such unfortunate restrictions was financial. 

Without adequate financial support or resource a widow was seen as a “burden” on the family she lived with.  Even if she helped out in the house, she was seen as an extra mouth to feed.  Without a son to guaranty support in old age, her fate was uncertain.  If she had no sons, her parents or brothers were her only refuge. 

Only sons stayed on – girls leave after marriage.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Girls Daughters were given gold and cash as part of their share of the ancestral wealth (dowry) and they moved out to live with their husband’s family.  Sons had vested interest in staying on.  Land, houses and businesses was usually passed on to the sons, so the sons stayed.  It was their responsibility to look after the wives of their father.  (Before Independence, Hindus could have as many wives as they could afford.)  It was reasoned that a son would look after his own mother.  Hence sons were prized over daughters – to make sure you had someone to take care of you in your old age.

Most of the time, this is so.  Mothers expect obedience from their sons and daughter-in-laws even after being widowed.  Most widows live quiet lives, reminiscing of happier times.  There have been plenty of famous widows – Mirabai, Ahalyabai holkar, Rani Durgavati, Jijabai, Lakshmibai of Jhasi, Indira Gandhi etc.  But for the most part, widows have led life of anonymity in our society.

Ofcourse, life is rarely so simple.

Even sons, sons born of your own body, sometimes abandon you.  Countless widows in India suffer due to neglect at the hands of their own family.  Some are so cruelly treated at home, they prefer to take a chance on random kindnesses of strangers than stay at home.  Beggars, wondering pilgrims, unordained nuns – windows often take to the road and hope to live out their lives in some forgotten corner of a temple or a ruin than live with their unkind family

Pilgrim centres are often the last resort of poor widows.  They hope to live on scraps of food from temples or pilgrims hoping to earn religious merit.  In a city full of temples, they hope to appeal to God’s mercy and hope, sincerely hope that in their next life wont be so accursed.   

It is a matter of profound shame that widows live such poor, pathetic lives in India.  Social welfare schemes by the government, NGOs and institutes set up by the rich try to help as many as they can.  Its still difficult.  Until social attitudes change, it will always be difficult.  Until widows become financially independent, these problems will sadly continue.     

 

© Bhagwat Shah
bhagwat_s@yahoo.com 

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