Women’s Status in Hinduism: Life as a Widow

The trouble with Islam, whole world is out to prove it. Trouble with Christianity, some liberals are trying to prove it. But the troubles with Hinduism have largely been on the sidelined. Once is a while someone comes up with a book portraying the faith as religion of “kamastura” or the “bride-burning” religion, sparking debate for sometime then everything dies out. The real debate on reform has not been had since Swami Vivekananada. Not counting the spectacle sparked by the Shiv Sena( a Hindu extremist group, based in India) or the Bharatiya Janata Party’s(political party in India, works on Hindu agenda) views on Muslims in India.

Twelve years ago my grandfather passed away. My grandmother, a widow, became an outcast overnight. You see according to Hindu customs, being a widow is seen a sign of sins committed in past life. She was excluded from any major religious event; the family did not want the ill-omen brought by a widow. She had to give up wearing red, non-vegetarian food and yes respect of her family members. My mother, a feminist never said a word against this, nor did my uncles and my aunts. They did not want to “rock the boat”. Keeping quite and following the customs insured there place in society as honorable.

Status of women in a Hindu society is directly dependent on her husband, son or father. If you lose any of them or don’t have any one of them, you are doomed. Remaining single is seen as a sign that something is wrong with your character so no one wants you. Having children outside marriage is sure way to get ostracized by the society.

Widowhood is at the bottom of food chain. They get the worst kind of treatment.

If you look at the religious texts, you get mixed messages about the place of women in the society. Some texts say “Wherever woman is respected there the god reside”, then some say “Women are like Sudras, low in birth”. The Hindu society which forbade women from learning the religious texts, taking advantage of this confusion sufficiently painted women as non-human and began treating them as such. The custom of wife burning, bride burning, child marriage, polygamy, dowry and debarring women from education were introduced to insure that women did not challenge the male supremacy.

It is not that these customs were a result of society; they are present there in the religious texts. Just look at the following quotes, “A man, aged thirty years, shall marry a maiden of twelve who pleases him, or a man of twenty-four a girl of eight years of age; if (the performance of) his duties would otherwise be impeded, he must marry sooner.”[Manu IX.94], we can see where the custom of child marriage came from. In many parts of Nepal and India it still happens. Both of my grandmothers were married by the age of eight. Yes eight. On education, “They [women and Sudras] are debarred … from being competent students of the Veda”[Vedarthaprakasha of Madhava Acharyya on the Taittriya Yajur Veda, quoted in Muir III, p.66].Some texts have even said that any woman who hears the Vedas, should have melted glass poured over her ears.

The discrimination does not end hear. As I said earlier, the treatment of widows is the worst. Something to prove, “”If a woman’s husband dies, let her lead a life of chastity, or else mount his pyre”[Vishnusmrti xxv.14] [Clayton 13]. Vishnu Dharmasutra XXV.14 contains the statement:” On her husband’s death, the widow should observe celibacy or should ascend the funeral pyre after him.”

There has been so much debate about the position of women in Islam; I believe that if anyone cared to know about the position of women in Hinduism they will find it impossible to believe that the Hindu community is doing nothing towards reform. What is even more disturbing is that instead of working towards reform the religious leaders are now busy forming extremist political factions and fighting for influence.

I just hope that the community will understand the need for reform before we get the “Hindu Taliban” way.


Veda: Hindu religious texts

Red is the traditional color of good fortune and divine strength.

Sudras: The lower castes, or the untouchables.

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