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The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: [05] Widowhood Past and Present

Published: 12.06.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

S.NARASIMHAN mentions a person who felt "it would be a reform to reintroduce suttee" (187, footnote 22).

C.WEINBERGER feels: "In India one must avoid being either a dog or a widow" (vi, quotation and motto).

We isolate general facts and typical items, mainly on the basis of CHEN Ru 115-165. Cruelty to widows (different cases) has been described vividly by S.STEVENSON 203-208; by WEINBERGER 146-148; and in THARU I 358-363. -- §§ 12.4 and 12.5 (with parallel titles) are both concerned with “traditional India”.

We cannot consider the social and economic situation of widows (CHEN Ru Part II). Our text concentrates on the more homogeneous dharmic regulations, existing or disappearing: see CHEN Ru Part I.

A study of contemporary India will, naturally, pay constant attention to the changes (reforms) in the last 100 or 200 years. A typical passage is the following statement on changes:"Nowadays... widows no longer have their heads shaven (unless they personally want to), now wear all colours of saris (not the mandatory white or mud-coloured saris), and now wear blouses [formerly prohibited]." CHEN Ru 145. To this must be added the opposite movement in other cases: "... while the upper castes have begun to relax the rules regarding widowhood, many middle and lower castes have begun to tighten the rules.” (CHEN Ru 144: Sanskritization). Relaxation is nevertheless the dominant trend..

The attachment of a woman to her dying (loyal or disloyal) husband may be so strong (husband-god equation) that she gets neurotic when she receives the news of his impending death. The following case is unusual, but it explains many things. (Suffering of a metropolitan woman:) “Several years ago, suddenly one morning, her husband deserted her. She was then not yet thirty. She brought up her three children, all by herself, suffering untold hardships in the process. Twenty years later, when the children were grown up and settled in life, a message was brought to her one day saying that her husband was very ill and dying in a town far away.... For two days she was like one possessed, praying and crying by turns, till the news of the man´s death was brought. “She cried as we had never before seen her cry in all those years, not even when she went through some terrible times”, her daughter said..” NARASIMHAN 39-40. Due to indoctrination the mental agitation of a widow can be very real, even in an absolutely modern surrounding..

Widespread are the verbal abuses of the widows."More offensive than anything else, the widow is never again referred to as 'she' but instead by the neuter 'it' [?] Widows are ridiculed and, commonly, they are the butt of jokes. From then on the widow is called prani, animal." (CHEN In 82-83) It would appear that to this day many Hindus do not consider widows real human beings. Do the orthodox consider widows ('animals') at least good Hindus? In our days "... activists resolved to campaign against the use of pejorative terms for widows." (CHEN In 15) See also WEINBERGER 147 “The catalogue of insults on the theme of female widowhood comprises (in Rajasthani alone) some fifty expressions: epithets, adages, aphorisms, couplets, and proverbs...”.

Widows have to avoid 'hot' food (meat, eggs, alcohol, onions, garlic etc.). "Eating a vegetarian diet free of all hot foods... is thought to reduce a widow's sexual desire and passion." (CHEN Ru 133)

A widow is impure, and the mere sight of a widow is polluting or inauspicious. Widows are often not supposed to be visible in the exceedingly important marriage ceremonies (for example in the widow´s own daughter's marriage: CHEN Ru 115). "For a long time, probably a year (unless the mourning is lightened), she will continue to sit in that corner [in a small closet], and never go out, even to answer the calls of nature, save at twilight." (S.STEVENSON 204) One woman said that food was "pushed towards her with a stick" (CHEN Ru 131); obviously because there was the fear of pollution in the case of serving food with physical contact.

A description of the fate of a widow (just widowed woman) which we quote in part is almost incredible on account of the reported heartlessness and cruelty. We do not know how far the report can be generalized:

“Once the husband dies, the torture of his wife begins... None of her relatives will touch her to take her ornaments off her body. That task is assigned to three women from the barber caste [outcastes].... No sooner does the husband breathe his last than those female fiends literally jump all over her and violently tear all the ornaments from her nose, ears, etc. In that rush, the delicate bones of the nose and ears are sometimes broken. Sometimes while plucking the ornaments from her hair, tufts of hair are also plucked off.. If she is wearing any gold or silver ornaments, these cruel women never have the patience to take them off one by one; they pin her hands down on the ground and try to break the bangles with a large stone. And many a time her hands are severely wounded in the process. Why, these callous women torture even a six- or seven-year-old girl, who doesn´t even know what a husband means when she becomes a widow!” (THARU I 359)

(Cremation of the husband:) “The place for cremation is usually on the bank of a river or a lake. When the procession reaches the site, the widow is pushed into the water [so that she may not be seen by anybody?]. She has to lie there till the corpse is burned to ashes and all the people have had their bath and dried their clothes. When people are ready to go home, they pull her out of the water. Whether the water is cold as ice or the sun scorches down fiercely she has to stay there until everyone has finished.” (THARU 359-360)

(The way home:) “I will never forget how the scorching heat of the sun was literally burning us on our way. We used to halt at regular intervals to rest a while and drink water. But that poor widow did not dare to ask for water. Had she asked for it, she would have lost her honor [reason?] The women with her could have given her some [!], but they felt no pity for her. Finally she collapsed unconscious.... Later on, when this poor forsaken woman did not even have the strength to crawl, she was tied up into a bundle as if of rags, and then dragged off... (THARU 360).

A widow may return to her natal family. That is, however, not a provision of the law-books. The law-books consider the wife/widow the property of the new family to whom the girl had been given by agreement between both sides (marriage = giving [away] one's daughter). PANIKKAR writes: "A girl born into a family is, according to old thinkers, like an ornament held in pawn to be surrendered to the rightful owner when he demands it." (57). A widow may nevertheless return to her own family (S.STEVENSON 205 and 207). But NARASIMHAN says in a generalizing manner "that it is shameful for her [for the widow] to return to her natal home, whatever the provocation." (48) There is regional variation. "The percentage of widows living in their natal or parental village is significantly higher in south India... than in north India...": CHEN In 32. Living in one's natal 'village' is apparently the same as being close to one's natal 'family'.

The present subject suggests a consideration of the religious feelings of the women: The widows have distinctive problems (emptiness, loneliness, despair) and express their emotions in interviews. But there is no study of the religion of widows. We know that all Indian women spend many hours on their puja: puja at home and puja in a temple, silent puja or songs. There is female worship of Radha and Krishna in the akhras of Bengal and in the great centres of pilgrimage like Vrindaban. Worship of fertility goddesses could be added. A great step is the decision of a widow to become an ascetic (CHEN Ru 150-151).

Witchcraft (Indian) is more than a local peculiarity. Widows and witches are "believed to perform black magic and witchcraft",... "widows are believed to have 'eaten' their husband and are rumoured to devour people more generally." (CHEN Ru 118-119) A witch may be murdered but there is no ritualized killing. The accusation that the widow has "eaten her husband" seems to be fairly common (the widow as "human-devouring ogress": CHEN Ru 152, footnote 7). Morris Carstairs notes an "all-pervasive fear of the village witch" (CHEN Ru 120). A different line is the accusation of widows as witches because the in-laws want the land of the deceased husband (CHEN Ru 281-284).

Widowhood is the result of evil karma (resulting from crimes committed in earlier existences). The greater the suffering of the widow, all the greater the committed crimes (!). According to this logic, child widows (the worst sufferers) have the worst karmic balance (S.STEVENSON 204), whereas the rich sinners have possibly been virtuous in previous existences.

The acting persons (mother-in-law etc.) were not forced to ill-treat a daughter-in-law. There was no divine command to support or reinforce the course of karma, nor was ill-treatment of daughters-in-law prescribed by the dharma. We are only concerned with human nature and conduct. According to the Indian background human beings do not deliberately support the course of karma, and there is no interaction between human initiatives and metaphysical mechanisms. Aged widows with sons suffered less than young widows without sons (almost invisible beings), an attitude which is natural but not connected with the logic of karma.

"A fear of female sexuality and, therefore, the need to control it, have been felt in many societies and civilizations. This control has assumed different forms in different societies. In colonial Haryana [a state in North India], the custom of widow remarriage emerged as one of the most effective and socially valid forms of this control." (CHOWDHRI 93)

SOGANI mentions three possible tragic fates of the widow: immediate death (suttee), "segregation and drudgery", and "subjection to clandestine sexual exploitation by the males of the family or locality...." (SOGANI 7). "A widow's youth also carries an element of risk, since pregnancy would cast an indelible stain on the reputation of her husband's lineage. The crowded living conditions of the joint-family encourage sexual abuse, and a young widow is easy prey since she has no one to protect her. If she becomes pregnant, she is thrown out into the street, and since her own family usually refuses to take her back, all that remains for her is to make good on her reputation as a 'whore'." (WEINBERGER 147) "... there are easy methods of getting rid of an unwanted widow: simply to turn her out of house and home; to push her down a well; to give her poison; to take her on a pilgrimage and either lose her or sell her, or to set fire to her and burn her to death." (S.STEVENSON 207)

Chastity (and suttee) are closely connected with pride and honour (§ 12.6). NARASIMHAN: "'Since male honour is primarily concerned with the sexual purity and exclusiveness of women within a kinship group, the death of the woman [supra] is preferred to loss of patriarchal honour through possible sexual misadventure on her part.'" (58) "Honour is one of the most valued ideals in Hindu culture... Most communities 'pay constant attention to gaining and maintaining honour.'" (CHEN Ru 23)

"In terms of social norms, widow-remarriage is prohibited by most upper castes and is allowed by most lower castes." (CHEN Ru 76)

Every wife hopes with all her heart that she would die before her husband. The prospect of widowhood is a life-long sword of Damocles. Widowhood with all its consequences is as a rule not unexpected, and to die while the husband is still alive "is, in the Indian reckoning, considered the greatest good fortune." (NARASIMHAN 187) As can be expected there are numerous rites whose purpose is to preserve a husband's life (CHEN Ru 26-28).

Two specialists "estimate that roughly one third of Indian widows remarry" (CHEN Ru 107). This may be precise or not, but remarriage has many forms, and in discussing the status of a 'married' Hindu woman one wants to know above all the exact nature of the marriage arrangement and the precise status of wife, husband, children etc. Under the circumstances we have an endless number of local rules and customs. See p.100: "... some castes in the village [Bihar] perform remarriages secretly in the middle of the night, so that the couple can leave the village before dawn." The problem is not widowhood but absence of good remarriage (if adequate remarriage is wanted). See "social norms" (supra) and '33 million' (infra.) -- Niyoga (§ 9.1) is only established in Haryana. See CHOWDHRI 96-97, 93-123. "The land-owning peasantry [Haryana]... needed both her [the wife's] productive and reproductive labour." (CHOWDHRI 115)

M.A.CHEN distinguishes between seclusion and confinement (two parts of ritual mourning), often "seclusion in a dark inner room" followed by "confinement in the husband's home." One formula is seclusion "for at least one month" and "confinement for one year." (Rajputs)

In the case of sensitive widows one expects mental problems calling for neurological attention (NARASIMHAN 39-40 supra). Some widows almost fast to death to make amends for former sins (being the fancied reasons of widowhood: S.STEVENSON 207). The widow is isolated. "As a result, some widows develop neuroses or experience depression." (CHEN Ru 143). The security (German 'Geborgenheit') in the joint family has been praised repeatedly. Be that as it may, it does, on the whole, not include the widows. For the law-books protection of widows is no subject. (CHEN Ru 169-170)

M.A.CHEN has described in detail the costs incurred by the death of the husband; costs of medical treatment, costs of death ceremonies, costs of widowhood. "... meals served to guests, rice distributed to guests, drinks served to men, and donations to the presiding priest." (CHEN Ru 126) Often the widows have to take loans to pay for the expenses (CHEN Ru 128-129). During the period of mourning a widow is not supposed to have contacts with male relatives and with her own family. This is "precisely the time when her in-laws often take major decisions without consulting her... about her rights to land and other property." (CHEN Ru 130) Sometimes the in-laws keep the jewellery (CHEN Ru 129). The case of child widows deserves special consideration (not mentioned in this case).

The life of married women with children varies from case to case, but the lives of widows are still more varied. Unmarried widows are exposed to the in-laws, married widows have new husbands, grown up sons and daughters are sometimes cooperative and sometimes indifferent..

WINTERNITZ gives an overview of the number of widows according to the all-India Census of 1901 (p.87). There were 19,487 widows under five years of age, 115,285 under ten years, and 391,147 widows under fifteen years. Among 1000 women were 180 widows; of these one was under the age of 5, five were between 5 and 10, eighteen between 10 and 15, forty-four between 15 and 20. The figures also give a rough idea of the extent of child marriages in 1901.

"There are more than 33 million widows in India, comprising about 8 per cent of the total female population of the country." (CHEN In 19; 1991) "In rural India, widows represent about three per cent of all younger women (15-35), 30 per cent of all middle aged women (35-39), and 60 per cent of women above 60 years of age." (CHEN In 28)

Witwenelend: WINTERNITZ 86-105; S.STEVENSON 202-208; NARASIMHAN (Chapter 'But Hell on Earth'); WEINBERGER 146-148; SOGANI (passim); FORBES (passim); CHEN In; CHEN Ru. -- An early publication is B.M. MALABARI, Infant Marriage and Enforced Widowhood in India, Bombay 1877, mentioned in WEINBERGER 246 (not available to me). -- Widows in the film: Adarya (Dr. (Ms) SANTWANA BORDOLOI) and Water (DEEPA MEHTA).

In our study the general predicament of women up to the 18th-21st centuries is not treated systematically. We have, however, referred to evils with roots somewhere in the past, but not connected with widowhood: Dowry, Kulinism (§ 12.5), female infanticide and foeticide (§ 9.7), rape in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan (§ 9.3), oppression in general (FORBES 242-252 and NARASIMHAN 50-51). Refer to NARASIMHAN 49 for koorh (woman is threatened with death or even willing to die in order to avert government actions, West Bengal). Dowry criminality is a recent development (§ 7.1)

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Picture Credits: ASW - Aktionsgemeinschaft Solidarische Welt e.V., BERLIN.

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