Hindu Woman's Religion
" No sacrifice is allowed to women apart from their husbands, no religious rite, no fasting : as far only as a wife honours her lord, so far she is exalted in heaven." (Mann, v. 155.)
THOSE who defend Hinduism, and the low position occupied by Hindu women, say that this is the Kaliyuga, the iron age, or age of universal degeneracy, that in primitive times things were different, and that the status of woman was then higher than it is now.
There may be, and doubtless there is, some truth in this statement. A. text of Manu, frequently quoted, shows that in those times a man might perform religious rites together with his wife. The verse runs as follows :—
"To be mothers were women created, and to be fathers, men ; religious rites, therefore, are ordained in the Veda to be performed by the husband together with the wife." (ix. 96.)
Still the woman is nothing without the man. The laws of Manu show most unmistakably that they were made by men and that their whole aim was to keep the other sex in complete submission, not only in matters of general behaviour but also in the sacred matter of religion. The woman must never dare to have a will of her own, or at any period of her life decide for herself in any thing :—
" By a girl or by a young woman, or by a woman advanced in years, nothing must be done, even in her own dwelling place, according to her mere pleasure." (v. 147.)
She must always be distrusted and looked upon with suspicion as capable of doing any wrong, or, as perhaps it would be more correct to say, as incapable of doing anything right. A king is directed to let his females be well tried and attentive, but their dress and ornaments are to be examined, lest some weapon should be concealed in them. They are to do him humble service with fans, water and perfume. (vii. 219.) The husband is directed never to eat with his wife nor to look at her when eating (iv. 43). She must never even mention his name, and she must be in such absolute subjection that no amount of outrage upon her sense of propriety or affections is to be resented or to cause estrangement.
" Though unobservant of approved usages, or enamoured of another woman, or devoid of good qualities, yet a husband must constantly be revered as a god by a virtuous wife." (v 154.)
A wife is to be considered as a mere maternal machine and domestic drudge. There are, no doubt, many instances where man is better than his creed and where woman rises to higher influence and status than the law lays down for them ; but the fact remains that it is thus decreed :-
" Let the husband keep his wife employed in the collection and expenditure of wealth, in purification and female duty, in the preparation of daily food, and the superintendence of household utensils.
The production of children, the nurture of them when produced, and the daily superintendence of domestic affairs are peculiar to the wife." (ix. 11, 27.)
Such was the social status of woman even in the former and better ages, and, as if this were not enough, her very soul was also to be in subjection, and that religious instinct which is a glory to womanhood was to be denied free expression, and was bound in the chains of a cruel servitude. There is no actual improvement in this Kaliyuga, or degenerate age.
" Women have no business with the texts of the Veda ; thus is the law fully settled. Having therefore no evidence of law and no knowledge of expiatory texts, sinful women must be as foul as falsehood itself ; and this is a fixed rule." (ix. 18.)
The better side of human nature, cramped and confined though it be, will sometimes show itself ; for no code devised of man can entirely eradicate the better promptings of the human heart. In Hindu story there are not wanting instances of a better appreciation of woman's qualities than is ever admitted in the cast-iron codes of this ancient system. Sir Monier Williams gives the following translation of the definition of a wife as found in the Mahabharata :—
" A wife is half the man, his truest friend ; A loving wife is a perpetual spring Of virtue, pleasure, wealth; a faithful wife Is his best aid in seeking heavenly bliss; A sweetly-speaking wife is a companion In solitude, a father in advice, A rest in passing through life's wilderness."
There is also a most touchingly beautiful piece in the Ramayana to be found translated into English by Ward. It purports to be the address of Sita to her husband Rama. Rama was banished by the king, his father Dasaratha, at the instigation of his third wife Kaikeya, who wished the succession for her own son. He was doomed to perpetual exile in the forest, and his wife expresses her determination to go with him. As a beautiful expression of tender affection I cannot refrain from quoting the piece at length. It serves to show that the affectionate nature of a true woman is ever the same, despite its surroundings.
And that a wife her husband's portion shares ? Therefore with thee this forest lot I claim. A woman's bliss is found, not in the smile Of father, mother, friend, nor in herself Her husband is her only portion here, Her heaven hereafter. If thou, indeed, Depart this day into the forest drear, I will precede, and smooth the thorny way.
In which our nutriment has been prepar'd, So anger spurn, and every thought unkind, Unworthy of thy spouse, and by thy side, Unblam'd, and unforbidden, let her stay.
O chide me not; for where the husband is, Within the palace, on the stately car, Or wandering in the air, in every state The shadow of his foot is her abode. My mother and my father having left, I have no dwelling-place distinct from thee. Forbid me not, for in the wilderness, Hard of access, renounc'd by men, and fill'd With animals and birds of various kind, And savage tigers, I will surely dwell. This horrid wilderness shall be to me Sweet as my father's house and all the noise Of the three worlds shall never interrupt My duty to my lord. A gay recluse, On thee attending, happy shall I feel Within this honey-scented grove to roam, For thou e'en here canst nourish and protect ; And therefore other friend I cannot need. Today most surely with thee I will go, And thus resolved, I must not be deny'd. Roots and wild fruit shall be my constant food Nor will I, near thee, add unto thy cares, Not lag behind, nor forest-food refuse ; But fearless traverse ev'ry hill and dale, Viewing the winding stream, the craggy rock, And, stagnant at its base, the pool or lake. In nature's deepest myst'ries thou art skill'd,
Those sheets of water, fin with nymphoeas, Cover'd with ducks, and swans, and silvan fowl, And studded with each wild and beauteous flow'r. In these secluded pools I'll often bathe, And share with thee, 0 Rama, boundless joy. Thus could I sweetly pass a thousand years ;
But without thee e'en heaven would lose its charms. A residence in heaven, O Raghuvu,
Without thy presence, would no joy afford. Therefore, though rough the path, I must, I will, The forest penetrate, the wild abode Of monkeys, elephants, and playful fawn. Pleas'd to embrace thy feet, I will reside In the rough forest as my father's house. Void of all other wish, supremely thine,
Permit me this request—I will not grieve I will not burden thee—refuse me not.
But shouldst thou, Raghuvu, this prayer deny, Know, I resolve on death—if torn from thee."
There is great difficulty in arriving at anything like a clear knowledge of the Hindu woman's religion. Little help can be gained from books and the Hindus themselves have very confused and conflicting ideas on the subject. I have consulted with learned Indian friends and others likely to have the best information, and I give it in as clear a way as it seems to me possible in anything so conflicting and confusing as Hinduism.
The main question is whether a woman can have any worship at all apart from her husband ; and the answer is that she may and she may not. From the passage at the head of this chapter it will be seen that, as a rule, the woman has no religious status apart from her husband, and yet, as will be seen further on, she has a kind of daily worship of her own. This may be merely an unauthorized form of concession to the religious instincts of woman—a sort of thing allowed on sufferance as doing no harm to any one, though it may perhaps be of little good.
At the time of her marriage, at the marriage of her children, and at certain other periods and at some festivals, the wife must sit with her husband during the time he is engaged in the performance of certain acts of worship, though she seems to be there only as a kind of complement of her husband and takes no active part in the ceremonies. If a man has lost his wife, he cannot perform any sacrifices by fire (oupasana), which shows that the wife has some indirect connection with the ceremony, and also in part accounts for the anxiety of a widower to remarry. The woman is a part of her husband and so she worships through him what he does, she does. The " Yajur Veda " says :—
" The wife is half the self of her husband."
Upon this there is a comment by Brihaspati, somewhat as follows :—
" It has been said that the wife is half the self of her husband, and in consequence she shares equally with him all the good and evil done by him."
But the question still remains whether the woman can ordinarily join her husband in his prayers and sacrifices ; and to this the answer must be in the negative. At the midday service when the man performs the ceremonies before taking food, the wife may attend upon him and hand him the things used by him, but she can take no real part with him. The woman is not a twice-born (dvija) ; nor does she wear the sacred thread (yagnopavita) which is the mark of the second birth (upanayana). She cannot read the Vedas, or even hear them read, nor can she take part in her husband's sacred services (devatarchana) : she is outside it all. In reality she has no religious life in common with her husband.
In may be well just to go through the ordinary day with a woman and see what she really does, as far as it bears upon this subject. The women of the household are always the first to rise in the morning, and this is usually long before daybreak. The early morning duties, after the performance of personal ablutions, consist of cleaning up those parts of the house that cannot be entered by people of lower castes, and cleaning the drinking pots and the numerous vessels that are used in a more or less ceremonious manner in a Hindu household. During the performance of these duties, which must be entirely done by or shared in by every good housewife, she generally sings in a low tone some song which is intended to rouse up the god Krishna, or Siva, as the case may be. A specimen of the songs thus sung is here given. It is a translation from one in the Telugu language, and is called melu. kolupu, or the waking up :—
" AWAKE ! AWAKE !
1. Awake ! Awake ! Krishna divine, Awake to save thine own.
Thou lord of all, thou perfect one, Grant us each heavenly boon.
Awake I Awake !
2. Awake I Awake ! for Kings have come, And Queens to thee adore.
They come to wave their ruby hands, And praise thee ever more.
Awake I Awake !
3. Awake I Awake ! thou loveliest one, That earth or heaven e'er knew Thy faithful with petitions come, Full grace to them renew.
Awake ! Awake 1
4. Awake ! Awake ! Hari divine,
Thou god adored by all.
Thou free'st thine own from every foe, And liftest those who fall.
Awake ! Awake !
5. Awake! Awake! both old and young, Their sorrows to remove,
Have sought thy holy presence now; Oh! grant them every good.
6. Awake! Awake! with favour see The faithful at thy feet.
Adored of Sanaka behold
With grace each suppliant meet.
Awake ! Awake!
7. Awake ! Awake! e'en Parvati
Doth worship at thy shrine.
Oh! grant to us our every need,
Thine heart to us incline.
Awake Awake !
8. Awake! Awake! I wait to bring
Sweet jasmine flowers to wave.
Thyself rouse quickly, Madhava I
Shrihari! come and save.
Awake ! Awake!"
After her ablutions are over, the woman places upon her forehead the universally worn tilakam or mark with red powder made of saffron and other ingredients. The shape of the mark differs according to the deity worshipped by the wearer. Those, for instance, who worship Lakshmi (the wife of Vishuu) have merely a circular spot in the centre of the forehead ; whilst the followers of Gauri (the wife of Siva) have a horizontal mark.. This mark is always worn except during days of mourning and other times of ceremonial uncleanness. The absence of it is a sign of widowhood ; and thus, whenever a woman washes her face, she must again renew the mark. The greater part of the forenoon is devoted to preparing the midday meal ; and no food can be taken until this cooking is' done. The partaking of food renders any one ceremoniously unfit either for cooking or for worship.
In a previous chapter I have described the ceremonies performed by the Hindu man before partaking of his first midday meal. The woman, too, has a kind of worship of her own before her midday meal, though it is of a comparatively simple character and occupies only a very short time. She has a metal box containing several images of brass or copper, representing various goddesses, usually Gauri or Lakshmi, or sometimes both of these, and perhaps an image of Subrahmanyan, the snake god, who is worshipped only by women. None of these images are consecrated, for a woman must not even touch any image that has been consecrated. She may take the images out and place them on a low stool underneath the sacred canopy (vitanam), which is in the sacred room or sanctuary of every house ; or keep them in the box and worship them there, still being under or near the canopy. A little lamp is lit and placed near, and the worshipper says the sankalpam, which must always preface worship. It consists of mentioning the time and repeating the name of the place, and that of the family and the tribe, as well as the personal name of the worshipper. After this she goes on to say some simple prayers, asking for aid in any personal needs that may be pressing, or for divine help generally, and also a few words of praise. All, this is accompanied by various bowings with clasped hands. The worshipper then proceeds to offer a bit of fruit, or sweetmeat, or betel and to sprinkle the images with pinches of sandal paste and coloured rice, and a few flowers. Sometimes she also waves before them a bit of lighted camphor, at the same time ringing a little bell or striking a small gong. The whole is concluded by walking round the spot (pradakshanam) three times and by prostration (sashtangs namaskaram). The whole ceremony does not occupy as long in the doing as in the telling, and when it is over the things are replaced in the box, which is then put away in its own proper niche. Among certain sections of Hindus this midday worship is somewhat different. The lingam worshippers, for instance, merely light a little lamp, and taking in the left hand the lingam from its silver or copper box which is suspended from their neck, perform to it some slight worship and wave towards it the lamp from the direction of the food which is about to be consumed. These things differ slightly amongst different sections of the people, but practically this description may be taken as sufficiently representative. It may also be said that this midday worship is all the regular worship that the Hindu woman ordinarily engages in from day to day. At night, when she lights the family lamp, the good housewife will make obeisance to the flame with closed hands repeating the following Sanskrit verse :—
" The flame of this lamp is the Supreme God.
The flame of this lamp is the abode of the Supreme.
By this flame sin is destroyed.
O thou light of the evening we praise thee."
The woman does not, like the men, worship at the time of the evening meal. She simply says, as a kind of grace before meat, the words Govinda! Govinda! (a name of Vishnu), or Mahadêva ! Mahadeva ! (an appellation of Siva), before putting the first morsel into her mouth.
As in Christian countries the good mother takes her little ones and teaches them her holy Faith according to their capacity to understand, and also teaches them to pray at her knee, so the Hindu mother tells her children stories of the gods she has learned from the " Ramayanam " and the 64 Mahabharatam " and other religious books, and at worship time, when the little bell is sounded, the children are taught to assemble and, solemnly placing their hands together, to make obeisance to the gods.
A. Hindu woman's worship is ordinarily confined to the brief midday service described above. Even this she is only supposed to do on sufferance, after having obtained the consent of her husband. A passage on this subject is quoted from the " Padma Purina " :—
" The husband is the beloved of the wife.
He is more to her than all the gods.
Herself and her husband
Be it known are one person.
Without the consent of her husband
Any kind of worship she must not perform."
With the consent of her husband a wife may go on a short pilgrimage without him, when he is unable to accompany her, but this is very seldom. Strictly with his consent, she may also perform and keep vows, as for instance, to do without salt in her food for a stated period or to abstain from milk or various kinds of eatables for a given time. All this is done with the object of obtaining for herself or some one dear to her something desired—wealth, or children, or deliverance from disease. Apart from her husband, the woman has no religious status whatever, and practically very little even with him.
We now come to the important question as to how all this affects her state after death. Does the union and interdependence of husband and wife continue after death, and how can the one affect the other ? There is good authority for the monstrous assertion, which is, however, exactly in accordance with the whole of Hindu legislation and custom, that whilst the good deeds of the wife can materially benefit the husband as to his eternal state, nothing that he does, or can do, will have any effect upon her.' She stands or falls by her own merits alone. If she has been a bad woman, she must expiate her sins by numerous transmigrations and she may be cast into the purgatorial hell. I am aware that this matter is sometimes put in another light by writers on the subject. Ward, for instance, says :—" The merits and demerits of husband and wife are transferable to either in a future state : if a wife perform many meritorious works, and the husband die first, he will enjoy heaven as the fruit of his wife's virtuous deeds ; and if the wife be guilty of many wicked actions, and the husband die first, he will suffer for the sins of his wife. In the apprehensions of a Hindu, therefore, marriage ought to be a very serious business." 1 Though I can find no authority for the first clause of this statement, the quotation from Brihaspati already given, shows that there may have been some such idea in ancient Vedic days. A Pundit friend told me that, whilst this quotation may express the state of things in a former Yuga, it certainly does not apply to this degenerate period of the world's history ; and the following, which is taken from the code of Parasara, the most modern of the three great codes, speaks to the contrary. The code of Parasara belong to the present age, or Kaliyuga, and is of very great authority.
This is a question put by Para,sara, and he himself gives the answer :-
"Why, it may be asked, is the wife not benefited by the good deeds of her husband just as the husband becomes hell-doomed by the evil deeds of his wife? The idea that the wife can be so benefited must not for a moment be entertained."
In support of this he gives a quotation from Yagnavalkya, a celebrated Rishi, to the following effect :-
" To her husband's world she will not go.
Whatever brahmin woman drinks fermented liquor, She will be born again into the world a dog; And after that she will born a pig."
Upon this Parasara makes the following comment :—
"Whatever brahmin woman become bad, she will by the gods be kept out of the ancestral heaven. Such a woman, being without merit, will be born again on this earth as a demon with a mouth emitting flames of fire."
The Pundits of the present day appear to take these quotations as a proof that a bad woman cannot be benefited by the good deeds of her husband. If the woman is a dutiful wife she may obtain a share of the celestial bliss of her husband and her good deeds may be reckoned to his account, • even though he is not a good man ; but if she be a bad woman, nothing that her husband, or any one else, can do will be for 'her of any avail.
I now deal with the Hindu woman as a widow, for her condition as regards religion becomes materially changed after the death of her husband. Although the widow is precluded from taking any part whatever in the ordinary family rites and ceremonies, and although she may be reckoned as dead to all social life, still she can, according to Hinduism, very materially assist her husband after his death and by her prayers and good deeds hasten his final beatitude. It is laid down that the chief way in which she can do this is by ascending his funeral pile and burning herself alive with his dead body. Happily the Government will no longer allow these religious murders and suicides, but there is no doubt whatever that they were formerly carried out to an enormous extent, and, if the strong hand of British law were removed,. it is most probable that these monstrous cruelties would be again perpetrated,'
" There are," it is stated, " 85,000,000 of hairs on the human body. The woman who ascends the pile with her husband, will remain so many years in heaven. As the snake-catcher draws the serpent from its hole, so she rescuing her husband (from hell), rejoices with him. The woman who expires on the funeral pile with her husband purifies the family of her mother, her father, and her husband. If the husband be a Brahminicide, an ungrateful person, or a murderer of his friend, the wife by burning with him purges away his sins. There is no virtue greater than a virtuous woman's burning herself with her husband. No other effectual duty is known for virtuous women, at any time after the death of their lords, except casting themselves into the same fire. As long as a woman, in her successive transmigrations, shall decline burning herself, like a faithful wife, on the same fire with her deceased lord, so long shall she not be exempted from springing again to life in the body of some female animal."
The same writer also quotes as follows from the " Brahma Purana" :—
" If the husband be out of the country when he dies, let the virtuous wife take his slippers (or any thing else which belongs to his dress), and binding them (or it) on her breast, after purification, enter a separate fire.
If sati or self-immolation is not performed, the widow may effect her husband's final good by a strict following out of the rules and regulations laid down by authority for such cases. I can find no authoritative statement on this point, but it is a generally entertained opinion amongst Hindus. They say that the general drift of the following quotations from Manu, and similar declarations by other authors, is to that effect. The tendency of all the legislation on the subject appears to be towards influencing or terrorizing the woman into complete and abject submission to her husband. This is her religion, and it is only by following out these injunctions she can hope for merit here or for happiness hereafter. Not only for life is this submission to be manifested, but even death does not dissolve the bonds, as far as she .is concerned. All her hopes for the future lie in her continually manifesting by a life of the most intense misery her faithfulness to the memory of her lord and master.
" A faithful wife who wishes to attain in heaven the mansion of her husband, must do nothing unkind to him be he living or dead.
Let her emaciate her body, by living voluntarily on pure flowers, roots, and fruits ; but let her not, when her lord is deceased, even pronounce the name of another man.
Let her continue till death forgiving all injuries, performing hard duties, avoiding every sensual pleasure, and cheerfully practising the incomparable rules of virtue which have been. followed by such women as were devoted to one husband.
A virtuous wife ascends to heaven, though she has no child, if, after the decease of her lord, she devotes herself to pious austerity." (Mann, v. 156-158, 160.)
This of the woman. A little further on the law is thus laid down for the man :—
" Having thus kindled sacred fires and performed funeral rites for his wife, who died before him, he may marry again and again light the nuptial fire." (Mann, v. 168.)
I have now given some notion of the nature of the religion and the religious life of a Hindu woman. All that has been said has to do with the females of the upper castes. As regards the religion of the lower castes and of the outcastes, there is very little to be noticed. Their religion, as a rule, is little more than demonolatry or fetichism, and that very often of the lowest kind. The women are very particular to put upon their foreheads the red mark, but of ordinary worship throughout the day either by men or women there is practically none at all. They are all intensely superstitious, and those of them who may be Vaishnavas (worshippers of Vishnu) and who wear upon the forehead the mark of that deity, do, when they put on the marks in the early morning, both men and women, make obeisance to the rising sun, but that seems to be the sum. total of the ordinary daily worship. It is a universal custom at night, when the family lamp is lit, for the women to make obeisance to the flame, but there does not appear to be anything else in the shape of evening worship. In any time of trouble or sickness, especially during the prevalence of any epidemic like cholera or smallpox, or at marriages and other festal seasons, and on the occasion of any family event, worship of various kinds is performed, chiefly by the women. The Sudras and those of the like class will go to the village temple with offerings of fruit, flowers and coloured powder for the temple deity, which, after being presented, are distributed to the neighbours who may be present. The non-caste women, who may not go to the village temple at such seasons, adorn a bit of the inner wall of the house with cowdung or saffron, upon which white or red horizontal lines are drawn, and to this obeisance is made and simple offerings of cooked food and. fruit or flowers are presented. Besides this there is the sacred tree and the simple village idol, often a mere group of shapeless stones, and to these, at certain times, the village women pay worship. Sometimes also they will go to festivals or on a pilgrimage to some shrine that may be within their reach. They are strong believers in transmigration and they think that their future birth will be affected by their good or evil deeds, but, practically, they may be said to have very little religion at all, as distinct from intense superstition and belief in demonolatry of the most degrading kind.
This shows how low a position is assigned to woman in Hindu theology, and the only wonder is that long ere this she has not broken the shackles that would bind her very soul and has asserted her equality to man in the eyes of God. There is, however, hope that a change for the better in this respect is really being effected. India is gradually waking up from her long lethargy and the women of India also are being affected. It may be true that as yet of the vast mass comparatively few women are reached by the rays of light that are beginning to penetrate even into the inner recesses of Indian homes ; but something has been done, and sufficient evidence is manifest to prove that the new life has begun. The whole future of India's greatness is bound up in the emancipation of her women. This can only be done effectually by the spread of that Divine Faith which alone, of all the creeds of the earth, gives woman her true status as the equal with and true complement of man, and which thus makes declaration on this matter :-
" The woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman ; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man Neither is the man' without the woman ; neither the woman without the man, in. the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman ; but all things of God." (1 Cor. xi, 7-9, 11, 12.)
( Originally Published 1908 )
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