November 23, 2017 6:35 AM   Subscribe

In a departure from tradition, a young widow’s marriage was solemnised in the presence of around 500 widows in the 400-year-old Gopinath temple of Vrindavan This simple description of a photo gallery published by The Hindustan Times last month leaves out the context and background that would convey to the foreign reader the groundbreaking nature of the entire event.
posted by infini (13 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
This is absolutely heartbreaking and not an issue I had heard of before. It’s hard to imagine such cruelty directed towards these women. Thanks so much for posting this, I’ll be looking for some way to help. Sulabh International, a charity mentioned in one of the articles looks interesting, but if anyone knows of other foundations devoted to this problem I would very much like to know.
posted by machinecraig at 7:08 AM on November 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

As I understand it, a lot of the cultural treatment of widows comes from simple greed. The husband's family wants to keep the widow from inheriting the husband's money or property. Disgraceful.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:25 AM on November 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

An older version of this, sati (CW), was used by the British to prove to themselves that they had a moral right to rule India. Kipling in particular like to use British outlawing of it as an imperial justification. It was the classic technique of distracting people from how bad you are by pointing to something worse.

Glad to see a glimmer of hope that things may be getting better for these women.
posted by clawsoon at 10:30 AM on November 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

To put the context in even wider context (meaning this is not a hot take, genuinely adding context):

...a lot of the cultural treatment of widowswomen comes from simple greed. The husband's familyPatriarchy wants to keep the widowwomen from inheriting the husband's money or property.

Developing on that would be a tangent, so I'll just leave a link: Women's rights and their money: a timeline from Cleopatra to Lilly Ledbetter.

What a lovely thing for this couple; may there be many more weddings.
posted by fraula at 11:54 AM on November 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

I knew it was bad, but I had no idea it was this bad. I didn't see a good explanation of how the religious authorities were brought around- were they? And if so, how?
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:53 PM on November 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hi Joe in Australia,

This will be a clumsy explanation at best, rather than an academic one with citations. I can only speak subjectively.

1. I don't think the religious authorities need to be brought around. The thing to do is to find a willing priest. Hinduism is a complicated philosophy/religion, and a contradictory one. There are no right answers, only pathways and directions to your own journey of enlightenment.

2. Indira Gandhi really set the tone for widows, when after her husband died, she started wearing classy pastel cotton prints and muted silks, instead of pure white. Thus, decades later, when my aunt was widowed, she too followed Mrs Gandhi's style.

3. You'll note in some of the articles mention of the fact that this sort of thing tends to happen in upper caste but lower income families - a key thing about Indian society that's often overlooked or misunderstood is that class and caste are not one and same thing. You can be poor and badly educated and a Brahmin, or well educated world travelled Bania (merchant, or the third caste).

4. fraula makes a solid point here, as does clawsoon.

5. finally, there are no "religious authorities" in the sense of a Pope or a head of the religion, there are so many fragmentations and variations, that it doesn't really work like you'd imagine the Christian church does i.e. membership of a certain church, or following a certain priest. Instead, its membership of a certain sect or system of beliefs.

The bottomline is that its efforts like this - and yes, there's another NGO mentioned in the "foreign reader" links, machinecraig, not just Sulabh - that will make the difference by promoting public acceptance in society.

In my own family milieu, afaik, this sort of thing would not happen. My aunt has never been treated differently from the rest of her sisters. However, it cannot be denied that cultural, social conditioning, coupled with media interpretations, lead to a mindset and thinking that may end up manifesting itself as unthinking bigotry in everyday idiom. That is, immersion in the culture means she won't be able to escape knowledge of her status even if nobody in her daily life was treating her that way. I don't know how else to explain that.

For instance, another terrible such customary expectation is that a girl's parents would send her back to her in laws, no matter what (another reason why there's so much dowry death and abuse) - so, even though I'd been brought up abroad, and had studied in British & American international schools in the ASEAN, when I got divorced, I honestly did not know if I would be welcome back in my family - nuclear, and otherwise - and so did not return home from the USA for 5 years afterwards, living on my own and getting through an abusive relationship, a miscarriage, PTSD treatment, and then a divorce, and rebuilding a new life in a new city, without ever once having a family member, much less my mom ("its too far away", "its cold") showing up for support. Yet, this same mother never heard the irony in her words when she told me how Uncle X and Auntie Y were going to support their son through his divorce and custody battle.

I owe this person nothing for who I am today, 2 decades later. Paraya dhan is how I've always known I've been thought of, in contradiction to the messages received from outside the home, in school, and society. From the link:

In India it is said that a girl child is a ‘PARAYA DHAN’ meaning she is someone else’s wealth which her parents have to keep till her rightful owners claim her.

I am an Indian girl child. However, I have claimed my ownership of myself.
posted by infini at 7:24 PM on November 23, 2017 [43 favorites]

Tbh, I think Dad regrets his hands off attitude all those years when he thought daughters were the responsibility of the mother. I was just back visiting last week, and I can sense this shift. It started happening around 5 or so years ago when he started treating me with a respect he had never shown (his own conditioning? he was born in 1938) - one that recognized my professional achievements and standing in the world, rather than one based on my gender alone.
posted by infini at 7:30 PM on November 23, 2017 [12 favorites]

How about the use of the temple, though? There's no Jewish Pope either, but that doesn't mean someone could conduct, say, an egalitarian service in a more traditionally Orthodox synagogue without permission.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:30 AM on November 24, 2017

Ref: 1

Temples: The standard Hindu temple has remained fundamentally the same from the 6th Century to our own times. One enters through an ornate gateway into an open courtyard that leads into the heart of the temple — a small dark chamber, called garbhagriha that contains the chief deity. Devotees visit the shrine and make an offering to the sculpted statue of god, called murtis. The chamber is surrounded by a circumambulatory, vestibule or antechamber, called antarala. Since Hindu worship is not fundamentally of a congregational nature, the only essential part of a temple is the shrine proper with its symbol-laden threshold and doorway, normally facing east. However, in all but the most basic temples, other elements are present, at least a porch, and often an antechamber or antarala, a hall or mandapa, a dwajasthamba or a flag-mast, usually a pillar fixed outside the main shrine in the sanctum. The whole conception is set in a rectangular courtyard, which sometimes contained lesser shrines.

Ref 2: Temples of Barkur as Public Places: An Inquiry through social and space
syntax studies

The idea of public places as seen in different regions of India, in its history has still not been typified or analyzed. For example the temple complex of Chidambaram or Padmanabhanpuran not only house the place of worship but due to their sheer size, spatial organization and articulation of built form, behave like small cities or parts of a city which supports a range of social intercourse.

To inquire into the idea and typology of a public place as manifested in the temple complex at Barkur, the paper first explores the social dimension of the immediate community with respect to the relationship of the family ceremonies, worships, daily rituals, and community activities with the usage of temple space. This has been done through documentation and analysis of relevant social parameters as correlated to the use of temple complex or its foregrounds (temple precinct). It is interesting to find that for the community the temple complex serves as a very important and frequent place for much different range of non-religious activities, which are usually not associated with a place of worship in other cultures

posted by infini at 1:34 AM on November 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

Some more context: there was an unfortunate resonance between the ideal of female chastity and the material considerations of her family. Chastity, as defined in Hindu scriptures, does not end after a husband's death. In Bollywood films you might hear that a couple is tied for 'seven lives'. If you took that seriously, then allowing remarriage is the same as encouraging infidelity. Society might collapse!

So a widow from the higher castes was doomed to a life of prayer, fasting and tedium (though remarriage was common in the other 4/5ths of society). When Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar started to publish his first tracts on widow remarriage in the mid 19th century the effect, to quote a contemporary jurist, was nothing short of a 'bomb thrown on Hindu society'. Vidyasagar realized that it was not enough to win religious debates (which he did, wilfully humiliating conservative pandits). Remarriages must take place in accordance with rituals, and with the sanction of society. In his lifetime he managed to conduct a few of them, often at great risk to life and limb of all parties involved. Remarriage has long ceased to provoke violent opposition, but the distinction between a legal ceremony and societal approval is still important.

By the way, Ishwar Chandra also modernized the Bengali typeface and grammar. And is also known for his legendary reply to colonial insolence.
posted by tirutiru at 3:37 AM on November 24, 2017 [9 favorites]

An older version of this, sati (CW), was used by the British to prove to themselves that they had a moral right to rule India. Kipling in particular like to use British outlawing of it as an imperial justification. It was the classic technique of distracting people from how bad you are by pointing to something worse.

This is really an offensive trivialization. The brutal reality of sati is quite independent of whatever imperial propaganda chose to make of it in the next century. Drugging widows and tying them to a funeral pyre, beating drums so their cries could not be heard... The East India company's ban in 1828 was unquestionably a moral act and after the subordinate kingdoms followed suit, effectively abolished this human sacrifice. I would argue that only colonials could trample over religious sentiments in this way. Some medieval Indian rulers discouraged the practice but never dared to impose a penalty.
posted by tirutiru at 4:17 AM on November 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

see Roop Kanwar

I've never forgotten her name, I just discovered, to my own horror
posted by infini at 4:30 AM on November 24, 2017

Related - worth watching Deepa Mehtas 2005 film Water set in a widows ashram - its good, but oh so sad and rage-inducing.
posted by phigmov at 2:42 PM on November 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

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