Hindu Bengali Widows Through the Centuries
Manuwadi Brahminical dicta did not confer any rights of succession of property to women. According to Manu, women in childhood are to be looked after by father, after marriage by husband and in old age, in absence of husband, she was supposed to be looked after by her son. Women did not have any independent locus standi at any stage of their lives.
For eliminating any possible event of inheriting the due share of property, widows were encouraged and many a times, forced to accompany their dead husbands on the burning pyre. These women were denoted as 'Sati'. With time society also gave religious sanction to such inhuman rituals and religious myths were generated profusely ascribing place in Heaven for the 'Satis'.
During Muslim invasions, instances are aplenty of queens and even concubines of defeated rulers, sitting on their husbands pyre or committing self immolation to escape from possible molestations by the conqueror. But all these practices were usually limited within ruling elite.
Under British rule changes were brought about in land tenancy pattern. The Dayabhaga system of law prevailed in Bengal, wherein widows were conferred with succession rights to landed property of their deceased husbands. This change in Tenancy Acts in favor of women percolated the inhuman Sati system downwards to middle class landed gentry who began to debar the widows from inheriting their share. Bengal Gazettes during the period of 1815 to 1828, record the total figure of 8135 widows bumt alive as Sati. One can very well imagine the unrecorded number of 'Sati' during the said period. In comparison with the rest of India, number of Sati victims in Bengal alone was stupendous. The reasons being the change in the statutory succession rights of the widows, which brought on them this inhuman brutality with the ulterior motive of depriving them from sharing the property.
Early days of nineteenth century witnessed nascency of education based on Western rationality and liberalism, which pin-pointed the dark images and reflections in vogue and the practices in the name of distorted religion. The brutality of Sati was being questioned by the few educated elites of the day. They started protesting against it and tried to bring out an enactment prohibiting its practice. Raja Ram Mohan Roy was the steering head of all these endeavors. Finally Sati was prohibited through an enactment in 1829.
In those days of bigotry, in the name of preserving purity of religion, education was not imparted to women so that they would accept whatever is told to them. Being illiterate a women was sure to embrace death. The social status of women was very low with rampant illiteracy, predominant child marriage and various sociocultural practices like 'Sati', 'Purdah' and marriage to 'Kuhn' grooms. Marriage to Kuhn grooms, who were sometimes on their death bed resulted in large number of widows in Hindu households. These widows, being in their early years, illiterate and economically dependent became a burden, either in their in-laws house or in parental houses, in addition to being exploited by their family members. Such was the state of women prior to the early social reform movement started in mid-nineteenth century, pioneered by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Pundit swar Chandra Vidyasagar, William Carey, David Hare and others. Vidyasagar, like Ram Mohan tried to bring about some relief in the lives of suffering widows. They logically established, crossing all hurdles of religious bigotry and superstitions, that re-marriage of Hindu widows was not against religious scriptures. The condition of particularly young widows, the puritanic attitude of entire family towards them, motivated these reformers to fight against the existing social structures.
Finally in 1856, the Hindu Widow Re-marriage Act was enacted.
But an enactment necessarily did not wipe out the woes and could not change the scenario overnight. Prohibition of Sati and the widow re-marriage act, to some extent empowered the women to free themselves from the shackles of male-dominated society.
The male manipulations found out new ways to evade responsibilities of looking after their widowed relatives.
Very often the property seekers maneuvered to send out their dependent widow relatives to Hindu holy places in the name of religion and pilgrimage. The common places were Varanasi and Vrindavan. Even Navadwip, in Bengal was a targeted place. The choice of the place depended on resources, family background and status. But one thing was clear, that those who did not want to keep any contact with the widows sent them to Vrindavan and those who wanted to maintain some links, decided in favor of Varanasi. Such banishment often occurred due to family quarrels in joint families.
The factors which led to the ouster of the widows from houses also included formation of illegitimate sexual relations on provocation by the licentious males from both within and outside the family. All this led to either throwing out the young widows from their home or the widows leaving the house on their own. But above all these factors was the planned move to debar women from their rightful share of property. In the believed that people who die in Vrindavan would free from the cycle of birth and deaths and would attain moksha (be emancipated). The holy city of Vrindavan has attracted thousands of Bengali widows who have chosen to stay here for the rest of their lives with the sole desire of serving Lord Krishna. Ever since Chaitanya Mahaprabhu came to Vrindavan full of love and devotion towards Lord Krishna, thousands of Bengali widows who have been discarded and abandoned by their families have flocked to this city. Many people have brought the widowed women from their families under the pretext of pilgrimage to Vrindavan and have left behind these hapless women here and have forgotten about them.
It is a common sight to see hundreds of Bengali widows searing a single piece of coarse white sari, with their heads shaven, with emaciated bodies and disillusioned faces, wearing rosary beads round their necks and wearing on their forehead a long sandal wood paste a 'Tilak' that extend to their noses, either begging on the streets or outside the temples and ghats.
Beginning of all such cases, assurances were made for regular monthly financial support to the widows which in most cases, were discontinued after sometime. This depended on the family background and status, and in some cases monthly allowances continued to be remitted regularly.
Contemporary Bengali literature reflects many such case studies depicting the conditions and misery of victims.
Undoubtedly, with the change of time, advancement of literacy and providing legal protection and undertaking welfare measures by the Government resulted in some change in the social scenario at the end of the twentieth century. Widows of today are not so helpless as in earlier times. Many now continue to stay in their homes as subordinates. But looking back at the society, such inhuman accounts can be found not only in literature, but also in some of the family histories. Fear of loosing family prestige prevents the family members of the victims from revealing their experiences.
Even today old Bengali widows aged above 60 years can be found in Banaras and Vrindavan, Mathura and other places, carrying the burden of their distressful past. Some service should be extended to these underprivileged section of the society, so that some solace may be given to them in their twilight years.
Written by Anima Mondal and Soumen Roy. (The article is an extract from the report 'Widows — Neglect and Social Action' prepared by Joint Women's Program.)