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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: [03] Widowhood after 100 B.C.

Published: 10.06.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

Little is known about widowhood before 100 B.C. A.S.ALTEKAR feels that niyoga was probably more frequent than “regular remarriage” (151). But early widowhood is hardly an important chapter in Indian history. We follow the title of the present subsection.

It is not unexpected that the subject of suttee with its horror and exoticism has found more publicity than the subject of widowhood. The widow is a mere shadow throughout her life and she is meant to remain a shadow. No artist has painted the melancholy of a widow, and no poet has described the life of a widow. Following WINTERNITZ we use for the widows's plight the German word Witwenelend.

Witwenelend is the result of "enforced widowhood." It is not connected with old age, and it may already start in childhood ("child marriage": § 5). For two or almost two millennia remarriage was not possible (not possible for a large part of the population). And when enforced widowhood prevailed, widows were widows for life.

Child marriage and enforced widowhood were introduced in the course of centuries, but the way in which they spread is unknown. Customs were always changed by Brahmans. Somehow the Brahmans managed to exercise their influence everywhere.

The widow has to suffer (e.g. WINTERNITZ 86-105). There are negative and positive lines of estimation. The negative line stresses, besides Witwenelend in general, the great number of child widows and the consistent spread of enforced widowhood to low-caste families (WINTERNITZ 92: M.F.Billington). The negative line also mentions expulsion of the widow, going astray (prostitution) and liquidation. The positive line emphasizes the gradual improvement in the life of the widows: birth of a son or of more than one son, growth of the children, improved status in the family due to advanced age. But not all widows have sons, and not all widows are satisfied when they think of an improvement of their life in a distant future.

Manu prescribes for the widow an ascetic form of life: "After her husband is dead, she may voluntarily emaciate her body by eating pure flowers, roots, and fruits; but she must never mention even the name of another man." (5.157, supra § 9.1). Child widows (what does Manu suggest in their case?) are hardly a subject for the law-books. See LESLIE infra.

We would expect a deterioration of the status of the widows somewhere in the middle of the first millennium A.D., but not earlier, contemporary with the increasing disappearance of niyoga (§ 9.1) and contemporary with the introduction of "child marriage" (§ 5). But the chronology of Witwenelend cannot be derived from other developments (also not from suttee). In the case of the widow the deterioration started earlier than one would assume (300-100 B.C.?). Manu already condemned niyoga, i.e. remarriage (Manu 5.157-160). niyoga was the sheet-anchor for many desperate widows. There are epic epigrams describing the suffering of the widow. "The greatest danger that can overcome a woman is widowhood, says the Ramayana" (ALTEKAR 164). BROCKINGTON mentions the description of the Witwenelend by a Brahman woman in the city of Ekachakra (Mahabharata). "She [the woman] goes on to say that it is better for women to die before their husbands, just as Bhadra [another woman]... declares that a widow is better off dead, since her situation must be due to sins in a previous life, and that she will from then on [beginning with widowhood] lie on a bed of kusa grass" (222). There was an old anti-niyoga current, and probably many widows already had to suffer in pre-Christian centuries because niyoga was no longer accepted. Niyoga was not always a good solution, but probably it was in most cases better than ritual isolation.

The most important early evidence is found in a famous Jataka: the story of prince Vessantara. Vessantara is exiled (he has to leave the paternal palace and to enter the forest), and his wife Maddi presses her father-in-law for permission to accompany her husband. The father-in-law warns her: she will not endure life in the wilderness. But Maddi describes the agony of widowhood which would be much more painful than the hard life in the forest. [As in the Savitri story the wife needs the permission of her father-in-law when she wants to leave the house and to accompany her husband.]

Seven Jataka verses in a long monologue (directed to Maddi's father-in-law, 185-191) contain the burden "O terrible is widowhood, great chariot-driver [addressing her father-in-law], go I will." Actually Maddi would only become a woman whose husband has not returned from a journey (PB, wife-whose-husband-is-gone-abroad: § 9.5), by no means a widow; but the local rules (or Maddi's fears?) were probably different. Here, 'once gone' meant certainly 'gone for good'.

The seven verses mentioned describe the Witwenelend:

(187) Knocked down and smothered in the dust, haled roughly by the hair -- A man may do them any hurt, all simply stand and stare. O terrible is widowhood! great monarch, go I will.

(190) Naked are rivers waterless, a kingdom without king, A widow may have brothers ten, yet is a naked thing. O terrible is widowhood! Great monarch go I will.

MINORU HARA (ii) 42/191; SYED Ku 176-177. The Jatakas (Jataka verses) are pre-Christian (Glossary).

Earlier than Witwenelend was probably misogyny. It can be speculated that there was some subconscious connection between both. See § 8.7.

The life of the widow is forcefully described in the law-books. Manu (5.157-160 supra) demands asceticism and chastity. "... a good woman, though she be sonless, will go to heaven when she steadfastly adheres to the celibate life after her husband's death.” Many additional details are mentioned in later texts: "[A widow] should give up adorning her hair, chewing betel-nut, wearing perfumes, flowers, ornaments and dyed clothes, taking food from a vessel of bronze, taking two meals a day [only one meal being permitted], applying collyrium to her eyes; she should wear a white garment, should curb her senses and anger, she should not resort to deceits and tricks, should be free from laziness and sleep,... should sleep on the ground at night on a mat of kusa grass,..." (KANE 584). The restriction of sleep (only a minimum permitted?) is an interesting element.

There are hyperboles and absurdities, both betraying magical origins. "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 (widowed) mother all widows are void of auspiciousness; a wise man should avoid even their blessings like the poison of a snake.” (KANE 585)

According to a Purana “... the tying up into a braid of the hair by the widow leads to the bondage of the husband; therefore a widow should always shave her head [KANE 585; FITZGERALD 667]. She should always take one meal a day and never a second.... A widow who sleeps on a cot would make her husband fall (in hell).... she should not sit in a bullock cart even when about to die, she should not put on a bodice, should not wear dyed garments... "(KANE 585). -- "If a widow wears after the death of her husband an indigo-coloured [instead of a white and undied] garment, then her husband will go to hell, and she will follow him." (KANE 585; WINTERNITZ 96) The expressions 'will go to hell/heaven' for offenders/protectors reflect the well-known dharmic language (Glossary: dharma).

The tonsure of widows is a special case. "It appears that the practice was gradually evolved after the 10th or 11th century" (KANE 587-593; ALTEKAR 159-162). The custom "... is referred to by several European merchants and travellers from the 16th century downwards." (ALTEKAR 160) "Some of the smrti texts only refer, if at all, to one shaving on the husband's death, but there is no smriti passage prescribing continual shaving for widows." (KANE 592) Permanent tonsure followed the example of Buddhist and Jaina nuns? (ALTEKAR 161). Whatever the situation in a monastic surrounding, in a Hindu family permanent tonsure was social death. "'Baldhead' is a swearword for widows" (WINTERNITZ 87). In a modern novel a young widow faces tonsure. But "The hapless girl jumps into a well to escape the dreaded ritual." (SOGANI 37) And "The widows in south Maharashtra are so terrified of being tonsured that they run away from their homes to escape the tyranny of the priests." (SOGANI 38) On pp.134-138 M.A.CHEN describes what she calls "Disfiguring the Body" (of a widow). "... a widow is expected... to refrain from... looking at herself in the mirror.... But for many widows the ultimate expression of their mistreatment is the forced shaving of their head." (135)

Tonsure of widows is also discussed by U.CHAKRAVARTI. "Forced to wear a distinctive garment and shave her head to symbolize her degraded status, she is publicly defeminized." (CHAKRAVARTI Ge 82). The widow must be "completely unsexed" (72). Contact with a widow is dangerous. "... even dreaming of a widow augurs ill. " (81)

In the context of her publication on "The Hindu widow in [contemporary] Indian literature", R.SOGANI attaches considerable importance to North Indian Vaishnavism: "Vaishnavism as a non-conformist Hindu sect was popular in most regions of India, particularly in Bengal, because it took a liberal view of caste and marriage rules, assigned a sublime value to human love, and promised liberation to its followers through devotion." (13-14) § 12.2 supra.

"The opposition of Srivaishnavas to the custom [tonsure] was most vehement; they declare that a woman who shaved her head would go to the most terrible hell; she would become a Chandali in a subsequent life." (Reversal of the orthodox prescription of the tonsure, ALTEKAR 161.)

A special development within Vaishnavism is the support of the religious reformer Chaitanya (1486-1533). The movement changed at some point of time its character. "Professing love to be the central tenet of their faith, they changed partners whenever it suited them. By the nineteenth century, these sects had bifurcated and multiplied, and lived mainly in small settlements called akhras, usually built on donated land." (SOGANI 125, 126) "Here, the disenfranchised of all castes gathered into a secondary parallel society,..." (SOGANI 126). Chaitanya's experiences were prepared by much earlier "Devotional traditions focussed on Krishna the Cowherd." (FLOOD 138-139)

SOGANI concentrates on the desolate situation in the akhras or religious centres in West Bengal and in religious centres generally speaking. "... Numerous Hindu widows found refuge in Vaishnavism and lived away from their families in the pilgrim towns of Kashi and Vrindavan, and in the muths [ascetic seats] and akhras of Vaishnava gurus.... Respectable society often sneered at Vaishnavism seeing it as an order of debauchery under the cloak of religion, and attitudes towards it were ambivalent." (SOGANI 14) M.A.CHEN even remarks that many akhras in West Bengal served as “abortion centres.” (In 142) But see also CHEN Ru 147-151.

M.A.CHEN's reaction to the akhras is not absolutely negative, but, naturally, the authoress is cautious. "To earn a daily ration of food and cash, they [the widows who were cast off by their families] must sing for eight hours. The image of hundreds of widows huddled in dimly lit halls chanting devotional songs has captures public attention and generated much speculation." (CHEN Ru 149) Emotions (directed to Krishna, as child, or Radha) can be compared with similar experiences of Christian nuns. “... many widows experienced the genuine healing power of their faith...” (ibid.)

Bengal Vaishnavism in the akhras was thus ambiguous: "... the stigma attached to her [the widow's] fallen status makes it almost impossible for her to re-enter the society that has cast her off. She remains isolated and unfulfilled, harbouring feelings of guilt which prevent her even from becoming a part of the community of other fallen women." (SOGANI 124) SOGANI here isolates impoverished upper-class women (widows) who were, due to their style of living, "frowned upon by respectable society." (SOGANI 124, 125)

Refer for the whole range of problems facing Bengali widows to SOGANI's treatment of Bengali literature (B.P.Muley and others). We quote from p.41: "The orthodox Hindu community turns a blind eye to the debauchery prevalent at centres of pilgrimage." There are comfortable lies on the life of the widows in their families: "They [the orthodox] claim that Hindu widows are comfortable in their homes [!] where they are cared for by their families and kept busy in household and religious activities; they get accustomed in time to the austere routine and even the loss of their husbands." (42).

Almost unknown is the opposition of South-Indian Virashaivism (GONDA II 243-252) to Hindu tenets. The Virashaivas ascribe equal status to men and women, condemn child-marriages, and permit remarriage of widows (246). The movement started in the 12th century (Maharashtra and Karnataka).

An old parallel to the widow is the ascetic (CHEN Ru 147-151). LESLIE (299) mentions the following (late) Sanskrit sentence: 'the ascetic (... yati), the celibate student (brahmacari) and the widow should avoid (chewing) betel... anointing (their bodies with oils or unguents...), and eating off copper and brass vessels...' There are similar restrictions for women-whose-husbands-have-gone-abroad (= PB, § 9.5). When her husband is away a wife should not laugh with her mouth open (LESLIE 291). Menstruating women could be added to the list of quasi-ascetics (§ 8.4).

YULE 666-671 (old reports on suttee); JOLLY 69-70 (widows and PB.s: special restraints); CHEN In 76-79 (tonsure, mainly of widows: history and explanations). Tonsure existed already in the 2nd century A.D. (Tamilnadu: 76).

Books on Indian religion or Indian history treat suttee and widowhood only in a marginal manner. Separate books on Indian culture (as the redactional roof of suttee etc.) do not exist.

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