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.