Saturday, 13 November 2010


Sati – a word that evokes the image of a woman being forced to immolate herself on her husband's funeral pyre – an image that evokes horror and a system that has been abolished by law. But have you ever wondered what it actually means?

Sati means a woman who has the power of truth (sat) in her.

Of course, all of us are aware how we humans can use everything for our personal profit. Give us technology to improve our lives and we use it to make bombs, give us money to buy food and we spend it on wine and woman. But this doesn't mean that technology and money are bad. It is simply that we can use any harmless thing in such a way that it becomes a volatile substance that can harm others around us. So no wonder Sati-a harmless word and epitome of women's power was misused in such a way that it became the worst ailment for mankind and woman was reduced to a secondary position.

The first woman who is known as Sati was Shiva's wife who went uninvited to her father, Daksha's place, to attend a yagya and when her father insulted her husband she cursed her father, sat in a yogic position and underwent auto-immolation using her powers. This angered Shiva who beheaded Daksha.

It is important to remember that Shiva's spouse is Shakti. Sati was an incarnation of Shakti.

If you think that the fact that Sati burnt to death supports the Sati practice then remember her husband was still alive and he loved her so much that he refused to part with her body and wandered with it around the universe and when it was later disintegrated by Vishnu, Shiva gets angry with him and later leaves to meditate alone and refuses to meet anyone for years.

And it is this disintegrated body of Sati that gave us Seats of Cosmic Power or Shakti peeths where woman's power reigns supreme and millions of pilgrims visit these Shakti-peeths every year.

Legend has it that Gods pray to Shakti requesting her to be born again so that the Shiva would return to the world and Sati is reborn as Parvati who later kills several demons.

Another woman whom we call Sati is Sita, Ram's wife (Ramayan) and no she is not called Sati because she passed the fire-test but because she was alone surrounded by rakshasa and away from Ram still she remained true to her love and her husband in spite of all threats and promises - a woman who was true to herself and to her own standards and on whom all the carrots and brickbats of the world didn't have any effect.

And Sita was not just a devote wife but a complete woman who knew how to assert herself as is evident from the fact that in the end she refuses to bow to the man she loved so much and quits him, crowned by the glory of being true daughter of mother earth. She was no meek and weak woman but a woman of substance who knew how to love, cherish and who had the courage of conviction.

Of course, Ram, too, was faithful to her and madly in love with her. Remember, how he searched her like a weak, love-sick man asking trees and other creatures about her whereabouts when she was kidnapped by Ravan. When Sita was exiled to forest, Ram, the King, lives like a pauper in his sumptuous palace and sleeps on the floor. He refuses to remarry. So there is a balance and a shared love that has few parallels.

Another woman who is called Sati is Savitri – Satyavan's wife, who marries him of her own free will while she is fully aware that he has only one more year to live. But she is so sure of her love and her intelligence that she refuses to hear anyone else. They marry and lead a happy life and when he dies, she forces Yama (the death God) to return his soul. And they lived happily ever after.

So do these three women evoke the image of a weak woman being drugged and forced to sit on their husband's pyre and burnt alive? Were they just instruments in man's hands?

I don't think so. For me Sati is Shakti, the cosmic power - woman's power - power of a woman to destroy (like Shiva's wife Sati) or create (like Savitri). And even when she, like Sita, refuses to return to her beloved husband (who, too, loves her), it doesn't diminish her glory in any way. Hinduism doesn't tell you go and obey your husband but to live life as you deem correct according to your own principles, your dharma. None of the three Satis took their husband's permission before committing the ultimate act. And their husbands are shown as epitome of love and fidelity. So when I say glory to Sati, I glorify the powerful womanhood that can create, preserve and destroy.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Hinduism and forced marriages

These days we hear so much about forced marriages and so many movies have been made about these. If you ask me: Are forced marriages Hindu?

My reply would be:

No, they aren't. How can they be?

If you read our ancient texts, including Vedas, it was a woman's prerogative, nay birthright, to choose her own husband. Rich people and kings organised big swayamvar ('swayam' i.e. own + 'var' i.e. groom) ceremonies during which their daughters chose from one of the eligible men who wanted to marry them. And it was not limited to kings or rich people.

We have stories in which rich princesses chose poor aspirants and poor women married rich aspirants and caste system didn't play a major role in it. Parshuram was son of a Brahmin father and Kshatriya mother (a princess).

Raavan was son of a Brahmin father and a Rakshasi mother. Still he was one of the aspirants who wanted to marry Sita and Janak had accepted him in the ceremony. Karn, regarded as a charioteer, attended Draupadi's swayamvar implying that her father had invited him/ accepted his presence.

And here is one of the rare examples that show how a woman used her birthright (according to Hinduism) of choosing her life-partner. Karn actually succeeded the test set by Draupadi's father (another version says that Draupadi refused him before he had a chance because she feared that he'd succeed given that he'd already beaten Arjun once).

From the perspective of a 'modern' person, one would think that Draupadi didn't have much choice but to marry Karn, whom her father had accepted as an aspirant and eligible life partner for his daughter. But Draupadi wanted to marry Arjun (or had been born to marry Arjun). She was sure that he would pass the test. She hadn't anticipated that another man could pass the test. So she finds a way out of this sticky situation though it is not appropriate and evidently discriminatory by today's standards.

She goes against her father's wishes and refuses to marry Karn on the pretext that he is of a low birth.

She willingly marries Arjun, disguised as a poor Brahmin (so neither Kshatriya nor Prince or King), when he passes the test. It is made explicit that she'd recognised him though everyone considered him to have died, burnt in the Lakshagrah incident.

Rukmini marries Krishna in spite of the fact that her brother Rukmi had arranged her marriage with Krishna's cousin, Shishupal and states that it is her birthright as a woman. And we still respect both Rukmini and Krishna while people often forget or abhor Rukmi and Shishupal who are regarded as low-beings (though both were born princes).

And this is a tradition that was still in vogue as late as in the 12th century as is evident from the story of Prithviraj Chauhan (1149-1192 A.D.) and Samyukta in which Samyukta marries Prithviraj Chauhan against her father's wishes in her swayamvar and is supposed to have spoken of her birthright to choose her own husband.

As we have seen above, women like Draupadi and Samyukta went against their father's wishes and chose another man. And we still respect them as women.

In fact, what was essential was that the woman gave her heart to a man (what is called man se patI dhAraN karnaa in Hindi) i.e. considered someone as her husband from her heart and soul.

Yes, that is Hinduism. Forced marriages aren't Hindu if you consider that a woman has to consider a man as her husband from her heart and soul which is impossible if you force a girl to marry a boy chosen by her parents or someone else (of course, it's always easier when parents search for a suitable match and the girl can choose one of the eligible boys/ men chosen by her parents).

And we still honour this tradition of 'swayamvar' in our wedding ceremonies in the form of 'jaymaalaa' (the garland of victory) during which the girl puts a garland around the boy's neck implying that the boy has won over her heart and she accepts him as husband and then the boy honours her wishes by putting a garland of flowers around her neck.

This ceremony is the only one required for gandharva-vivah (a valid Hindu marriage) that is done without the presence of a third person i.e. only the bride and groom are present. But given the way boys breach a girl's trust (and opposite, too, happens at times), gandharva vivah has gone out of mode. But this doesn't make it unacceptable from religious point of view. Yet, it is not advisable because of lack of security as there is no proof of such marriages and any of the two may later refuse to acknowledge that it actually took place.

Sita is considered as a worthy example that a Hindu girl/ woman is supposed to follow. And Sita chose her own husband whom she'd seen, by chance, in a garden and this before the 'swayamvar' ceremony. She's supposed to have fallen in love with Ram at first sight and accepted her as her husband by heart and soul and this before the ceremony. Ramayan is incomplete without Sita's swayamvar. Do you think Sita would have been the exemplary wife that she's portrayed to be if she had been forced to marry Ram?

Marriage according to Hindu tradition is a sacred bond of love and mutual respect, for eternity, in which it is the girl who chooses her own husband whom she accepts as such from the depths of her heart and soul, a bond that is as beautiful, fragrant, sacred and delicate as the flowers in the wedding garland, flowers that we offer to God. This is the Hinduism in which I believe, Hinduism where women are free to choose in spite of political constraints. And forced marriages don't lead to any happiness and lead only to a woman's fury that killed Bhishma Pitamah, in the form of Shikhandi, in spite of the fact that he had the boon that he'd die only when he wanted to.

Hindu and Proud to be one

Yes, I am a Hindu and am proud of being one.

An assertion that quite a few would find strange in this day and age when you see honour killings, forced marriages, dowry deaths, just to state a few of the ailments from which this ancient philosophy suffers.

Yes, I used the word philosophy instead of religion because Hinduism is a philosophy, a sort of complete water-cycle in which several different clouds of water arise from the same great ocean only to return to the ocean, which is why you see certain basic similarities and beliefs in all the paths that have started from this philosophy.

But it has been centuries since people actually forgot the ocean and started thinking that their little clouds were the origin and the end. I am Hindu. But I don't belong to one of the small clouds but to the ocean. I believe in God and sacred ancient Hindu texts including Vedas. So this is a series of articles in which I'll try to answer some questions that I often ask myself, as a Hindu, and the answers that I found after thinking for a long time, reading and as a result of some long winded discussions with some learned men and women.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Unruly Rules

Rules – they are my bête noire. Why? Well simply because I've often observed that in our attempt to make everyone uniform, ensure that they act the same way and create a sort of equality among unequal at times, we, as people and part of institutions, go so far that we cross that fine line that differentiates strict from ridiculous and our rules appear funny, to say the least.

Here are a few examples:

1) Inform before you take a leave - Quite a reasonable requirement one'd think. Now consider this: I've heard of some 'bosses' who penalised their subordinates who took 'sick-leave' without prior notice! Or who considered it inappropriate when an employee took leave without prior notice because of a near one's demise? And of course, there's the case of the jealous co-worker who complained when the 'star employee' took a 'leave' without telling him when he (the star employee, that is) was actually out on an important official mission.

2) Do your home-work on time – All of us know this rule and have followed it in school. But have you ever heard of the class-teacher who punished a new student who'd just been admitted to the school and whom he had allocated a seat less than 10 minutes ago? Why? Simply because the student hadn't finished homework that was due that day.

3) Same post – same pay – Why would the 'star employee' work harder and contribute more to the organisation if he didn't gain anything 'extra' out of it? Don't expect me to work more if you pay me the same as my co-worker simply because we have the same post.

4) One man – One post – I agree on the principle and consider that it's OK for the government or political bodies, etc. but I hope that it won't be applied on people like you and me. I'd have to choose among the many things that I love to do. I guess I'll have no choice but to stop writing.

5) Rules are subject to change at any time without any prior notice – Now that is the funniest and most ridiculous one that I've ever heard. How do you want people to follow the rules if they don't even know what they are? Imagine you come to office on day D and the rules have changed without any prior notice!

Of course, we need rules but don't ever forget why God gave us brains (if you believe in God that is) and if you don't believe in God remember to use common sense before following the rules next time. I know, common sense is very uncommon but it can be quite useful.

And don't forget the golden rule: Rules are made to be broken!

[It's just a take at those who follow rules without applying common sense. Personally, I do follow rules but at the same time I also use common sense, or whatever I have of it.]

A Ray of Hope...

Once again, it's that time of the year when everything is grey and cold... dead. When I look out of my window all I see is the fast fading image of lush green trees. I wish I lived in one of those countries where sun shines all-through the year, where birds chirp with joy every morning. Instead here I am in this dead world.

Everyone says that I need to go out but the world seems like a cold, dreary place. At least, I'm warm inside. If this cold doesn't kill me, the sadness will definitely finish the job. But I can't help it. It's not as if I don't have any friends but I don't feel like talking with anyone.

Just a minute, someone is knocking at my door.

"Hi Meena."

"How are you?"

"I'm fine, di. And you?"

"Excellent. It's been a long time since you called."

"Ummm... yeah. I've been a bit busy."

"Ah... OK. You look sick."

"Thanks. Just the thing to make me feel better!"

"Hey, don't look at me as if I was a monster! You do look sick. You need to go out more often. Have fun. Life is too short to be spent in this dark closet. By the way when was the last time you looked around you? Even I'd fall sick if I lived here."

"As if that was possible," I muttered under my breath, hating her for her cheerful chatter. Did she have any idea as to what silence meant? How could she be so cheerful all the time? Even in this dark, gloomy weather.

"Meena... Meena, are you listening?"

"Yes, di." I said just like an obedient little child that she expected me to be.

"Here. Take it. It's a gift for you."

"For me? It's not my birthday."

"I know. But I felt like giving you a gift."

"Thanks di." I said unwillingly taking that box wrapped in colourful gift wrap. She always managed to come with something and of course, I didn't have much say in what it was. She was a sort of weird Santa who never had a look at the list of things one had prepared but who brought gifts that he thought one needed. I know I'm being mean. But it was so irritating... I rarely, if ever, liked her gifts.

"Now, will you please open it?"

She seemed more eager than I was.

"She was such a child! At her age..." I thought opening the gift-wrap. I didn't feel half as excited as she was. I'm sure she would have torn the gift-wrap, while chattering and shrieking at the same time. And there it lay...

I looked at the little mobile phone that peeped out of the box. I stood still – thunder-struck. What a rude way to remind me to call! I didn't know what to say. Felt like throwing it back at her. But it looked so sweet and innocent... just like that proverbial apple.

I forced a smile. "Thanks di. It's beautiful."

"No need to be so delirious," she winked, "Here, I bought the same for myself. Just have a look. You can do everything you want. Talk with me, for example," she continued laughing, "take pictures, surf the web, chat, tweet, everything you want."

"I want tea."

"She bowed her head down. And I heard my new phone ring. Surprised, I picked it up. And couldn't help smiling... She knew exactly what it took to force that smile out of me. It'd just taken her a few seconds to send me a chat message with the image of a steaming cup followed by the words "T 4 U".

"Thanks di. Would you like some too?" I asked going towards the kitchen.

"Of course, have I ever refused a cup of tea? And please get me something to eat, something spicy. I'm famished."

By the time I returned with tea and some 'namkeen', my new phone was furiously emitting small rings. And di was smiling naughtily. I looked at the small instrument and...

"Di, how does everyone know the number?"

"Oh nothing, I gave your number to everyone and created chat and twitter ids for you and of course, I had to tell everyone, otherwise, what's the use of having all this?"

"Of course." Somehow I no longer felt so lonely and sad. It was still that time of the year but colours were back in my life.

I replied to all my friends. And soon, I got lots of pictures and music on my mobile. Di had taken liberty with my life. And once again, she'd succeeded.

I hate her for it but I love her a lot too because she always knows how to make me feel good. She expresses her love in so many different ways and is so alive just like this little wonder of a phone that she gifted. I keep it with me all the time and always in touch with those who love me. I love taking photographs and am ever-ready. I no longer lose any opportunity to capture life and am as alive as my loving Di...

Sunday, 15 August 2010

I read, therefore, I am

All of us have a vice and mine is a very serious one: I am a compulsive reader. I simply can't help it. Mine is a case fit for Readers Anonymous, if such a body exists. I read and I read all that I can lay my hands on. If I can't find a book or a magazine then I read billboards and advertisements. I've always been like that, as far as I can remember.

The hidden aura of the written word, the magnetism of alphabets, all this is too strong for me to resist. I am the helpless being who is trapped in the whorl of words. I have tried everything: from keeping my head bowed down to asking my friends to pull me away if they find that I am helplessly attracted towards a bookshop or a billboard. Nothing seems to work.

But I think that somewhere deep within I lack the will to end this strange stronghold of words. I am a willing prisoner and I love being trapped by words. Only now I've decided to give it all back to the world and trap others in the same trap that imprisons me. So those who kept me behind the words, it's your turn now.

I may not write words that are impressive and meaningful but then who cares? For obsessive, compulsive readers like me, anything is worth reading. We drink words and are intoxicated forever...

With these words, I declare this bar of words open... for all those who are attracted by the power of words and love being imprisoned by words. It's fiesta time!