Recently, I was whimsically glancing over the marriage websites on the internet when I saw a caption entitled ‘looking for a widow?’ in an Indian matrimonial website. I at once liked the idea of the website inviting interested persons to marry widows. But more than the invitation, I liked the concept of widow remarriage rekindled in our society. Because, such a concept which may give rise to a movement also has been necessary in India from a long time past. But, why is such a concept necessary?
It is seen that in countries where Christianity is the prevalent religion, marriage between people is based on love. So the proposition there is that even if someone falls in love with a widow then he can marry her also. There’s nothing against it! Again in Islam, it’s allowed if the Male chooses such a woman. But in India and especially among the Hindus it’s like a sin, a ‘taboo,’ to marry a widow. Before going into the plausible reasons of practicing such a hateful and disgustingly useless tradition, let’s look at the conditions of the widows in India among the Hindus from the earliest till date.
Historically, it has been seen that widows have been meted out a very bad and unfair treatment in India among the Hindus. As soon as a Hindu woman becomes a widow then her blouse and coloured clothing are stripped off and replaced with only a White saree to cover her person. Even all her ornaments and her ‘mangalsutra’-the emblem of women marriagehood-are taken off her. She’s not allowed to wear the ’tilak’ and also not permitted to apply vermilion on her scalp. Tattoos and colouring of her heels were also forbidden. She was debarred from taking part in any religious and social ceremonies. She also couldn’t carry out such ceremonies by herself. She was made to sleep on the floor and also to eat alone. She was debarred from showing herself before guests. In most of the societies her head was tonsured as a mark of widowhood. In some communities, she was ostracized also and made to live in a corner of the village. Seeing her first thing in the morning was thought of as a sign of bad luck for the whole day. Perhaps that was the first reason why she was ostracized. She was debarred from using the village common pond or well. This practice of debasing the widow was so prevalent and deep-rooted that even child widows-girls who were married in childhood and whose husbands died even before their marriage was consummated-were meted out the same treatment. This cruel and inhuman treatment only required that the widow be remarried to save herself from mental and physical ruination. But no! In majority of the Indian hindu societies her remarriage wasn’t allowed. She was not allowed to remarry although she may find a potential husband or, if any man may find her worthy. But how come this bar arose?
Some blame it on the Scriptures. But all the Scriptures could not be blamed for this. In fact the Rig-Veda, the Atharva-Veda and, the Mahabharata, directly or indirectly, permitted it. Noted scholar P.V.Kane while discussing this issue says that in the Rig-Veda X18.8 it’s stated that another man is required for a woman whose husband has died. Rig-Veda X40.2 indirectly brings up the issue of widow remarriage by stating the process of a widow bringing her younger brother in law to her bed. This makes her action equivalent for marriage although in some cases it may also mean incest and looseness of character. Atharva-veda 19-5.28 says about a later husband which may also indicate her widowhood (although it may also mean her elopement to a lover without the death of her husband). Atharva-veda X5.27 speaks about a later husband (perhaps after she being widowed)? Atharva-veda 18-3.4 says of a woman choosing another suitor as her husband. Perhaps this verse speaks of widows although it may refer to divorced women also. P.V.Kane in his ‘history of Dharmashastra has himself quoted verses to inform that :: another man is required for a woman in five calamities one of which is (2) when her husband dies. Again in the Mahabharata ‘Shanti Parvan’ 72.12 there is the concept of widow remarriage. But if all Scriptures supports it, there’s the manusmriti which opposes it. In the manusmriti 9-65 it was condemned. So it can be concluded that the early Hindus relied on the manusmriti more for social advice than the Scriptures. But can the blame be dumped on only the manusmriti alone? There are some plausible reasons which can also be attributed to it.
It has been observed that widow remarriage is a problem only in the first three castes of the society. The lowest caste had no such problem. This only means that these three castes didn’t want their men to marry a woman whose husband has died. Why? Because of superstitions! As the first two castes were steeped in rituals and astrology (with the third one also imitating these through observations), they were very superstitious. And one such was that ‘as the woman was unlucky, so her husband has died!’ This meant that whomsoever she will marry will die also. This meant the probable death of one of their family members. So why take the risk of losing him when all that needs to be done is to stop him from marrying a widow? Simple, isn’t it?
Another plausible reason is the dowry factor. Hindu society was steeped in dowry due to the inferiorisation of the female to the Male. This made her position in the society low compared to the men. So to marry her off dowry was necessary. But who will provide for the dowry of a widow? So, there was no chance of her marriage either.
Another plausible reason was the koodi factor. Girls in India were (are) called koodi which also means the number ‘twenty.’ perhaps this naming of the female by this number was the sole reason why child marriage started in India. Because by the time she will be twenty, she will be levelled as koodi or having completed the age of twenty which will also mean that she is old. Now, most of the women perhaps were widowed after they crossed twenty years of age. This meant they were ‘oldies’ or koodis. So why marry them when there are ‘non-koodis’ available everywhere and with dowries also?
Again another plausible but disgusting factor was the virgin or ‘non-virginity’ factor. The factor of virginity was held in high esteem in India. Definitely, almost all of the widows lost their virginity after their marriages. So why marry them when fresh ones could be found and that too with dowries again?
Another plausible reason is the Muslim conquest of India. Historians say that the practice of opposing widow remarriage gained prevalence or momentum from about 600 AD. Again it has been mentioned earlier that it is not a bar in Islam. Definitely, when the Hindus lost out to the Muslims, a type of opposition grew up against them in every aspect. This also applied to such customs as marriages. The Muslims married widows. So in contrast to them, the Hindus opposed it tooth and nail.
Again it has been said that whenever a male in any family raises the idea of marrying a widow, it is the female members of his family, especially the mother and the other female elders who vehemently oppose it. This explains why the concept of widow remarriage has been curbed among Hindus in India.
Didn’t then anybody speak up on behalf of it? Perhaps the British supported it as they were opposed to the practice of sati also. Raja Rammohan Roy through his organization ‘Brahmo Samaj’ supported it. Swami Dayanand Saraswati of the Arya Samaj supported the remarriage of the child widows whose marriages were not consummated. He also supported the Niyoga type of marriage. Annie Besant of the theosophical society supported it by restricting it to child widows only. In 1850 Vishnu Shastri Pandit founded the widow remarriage society in India. In 1856 the British passed the widow remarriage act in India. This was due to the tireless efforts of pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar who worked for women’s upliftment. This act legalized widow remarriage in India and protected their properties from others within British India.
Definitely the conditions of the widows were very pitiable. Their tonsuring, their garbing in blouseless white sarees and their ostracism, all point to the societal efforts to make them look ugly and to prevent them from being seen by the menfolk who may also find them attractive. Those whose husbands may have left some landed property perhaps found some economic relief but it was doubtful if the family of her husband left her in peace with such property. Otherwise the protection of their property through this act might not had been necessary. Definitely, the physical and the mental strain would had been unbearable to live with under such conditions. And so under such conditions, she had no way other than offering herself to interested persons or, to beg. And when the taboo was extended to not to touch her, go near her or, even to see her first thing in the morning then, it’s doubtful if she’d found any pleasure-seekers on her self. So the only recourse left was to beg. And this trend has been continuing till date when in the 21st.century a matrimonial website has to advertise for them (the widows) separately.
Thus we find how practising a disgustingly useless law by the Hindu lawgiver made life hellish for the Hindu widows over time. Definitely that law is best which along with seeking the good of the majority is also flexible and could be amended from time to time or even, could be discontinued forever from observation. What was a law earlier cannot even be imagined to be experimental now. What was good centuries earlier, doesn’t seem so now. It has been seen that widows who are in government jobs and are salaried, get married. Who marries them? The males in the community of course. Why them and not the others then? Definitely for the lucre or riches that could be received through her! Therefore, it may be deduced that among all the plausible reasons against widow remarriage, the major one was her poverty for whic her in-laws and her husband’s family members may be held responsible by depriving her from any type of property. And if the salaried widow with issues can be married, then why not the young issueless ones? If contrarily a widower can marry a virgin or an unmarried woman, then why cannot a widow marry even a widower or a middle aged bachelor? The Jats, the Gujjars and the Ahirs and also the scheduled castes of other communities have been practicing it for a long time! Why haven’t their such males died or even met with ill luck or disaster? What would happen if the women opposing it find their sisters or daughters or even their selves becoming widows and being ostracized or made to return to their mother’s homes for survival? Who will take their risks? Time to rethink, perhaps!
*reference sources: Google.