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Do we know why we follow certain rituals?

October 12, 2006
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The idea of women starving themselves to prolong the life of their husbands seems archaic. Yet millions of women from all over India continue to do it. In some parts of India this fasting raises it’s head in the form of a festival popularly known as Karva Chauth. Women do not eat during the day-time on this important day. Similar fasting rituals happen in states like Maharashtra where it’s called Vata Purnima. The ritual of Vata Purnima however is not considered sacrosanct in Maharashtra anymore. There are similar festivals in Southern India too. There is no ritual in Hinduism which requires a man to fast for the life of his wife.

Whenever any such fasting ritual is religiously observed by any woman in urban India year after year, it makes me wonder. After all it’s just a one way street. Their male partners don’t do it with them, they don’t pray for their long life.

How did it all start?
When this ritual started, such a ritual (to prolong the life of the husband) made perfect sense. Widows’ lives were sheer hell. They could not re-marry and often were at the mercy of their relatives, who thought that the women brought bad luck and were in some way responsible for the death of their husband. Whether it was shaving their heads, wearing white and living an ascetic life or throwing themselves on their husband’s pyre, it was clear once the husband died, the wife’s life was more or less over. Therefore this ritual was right at the time. When women observed those fasts, they were not really praying for their husbands at all. They are praying for their own lives. They were fasting for themselves!

Today the situation has changed. The ritual of Sati where a woman killed herself after her husband’s death (often to escape torture at the hands of the in-laws and society) is not observed in North India anymore, except perhaps in some rural pockets. Even otherwise, women have come a long long way since those days… and the fasting ritual has far less meaning.

Yet the tradition itself is strongly entrenched…it’s become a ritual that women follow without thinking whether it’s relevant to modern society. Today even if a wife dies her husband is at a loss, he is devastated. I am not saying that in the old days he wasn’t, but at that time he could easily marry again. Today in urban India widows also re-marry. In fact in today’s nuclear families, it’s very hard for a man to manage if something happens to his wife.

So if this ritual is to be followed, why can’t it be changed to include men? Shouldn’t men also fast for the life of their women?

I am not even saying fasting is bad or good, because if a person thinks it is a way of expressing their love for their husband, it seems alright doesn’t it. But in that case the husband should reciprocate shouldn’t he? This is why I think that maybe this may not be the only reason why people do it in modern times.

Do they do it because they actually believe that this action will protect their husbands? Or do they feel it’s simply some ritual they need to do to please the extended family? I think it’s not just because they fear society’s disapproval…I think many girls believe that in case something does happen to their husbands, they shouldn’t feel that it was because they did not observe the traditional fast. Perhaps it is a mix of both reasons.

Related Reading: Why boys are preferred in India

11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2008 1:30 am

    Well, i would just say that it is mindless tradition followed by women for no rhyme or reason.
    and i would not say anything further because if i start commenting on feminism and the rights (and their subsequent murder) of women, i would have to keep writing all night…
    so in context of this post i fully agree that men should fast tooo!!

  2. March 23, 2008 1:32 am

    hey,
    just an off the topic question- how does your husband take this brand of feminism of yours?? does he feel intimidated when you question things like– why don’t you fast for me??
    you need not answer if you do not want to. it’s just a passing thought🙂
    but somehow i believe he must be pretty libertarian in such matters- just a guess!

  3. March 23, 2008 7:51 am

    Minal, no I don’t mind you asking at all because I don’t do this fast and am not a religious person (nor is he) either so the question of asking him doesn’t arise.🙂 In fact he is more of a ‘feminist’ than me in such matters because he always criticizes those men whose wives fast for them! He also hates it when if I try to ‘serve’ him anything, If I cook, he cannot stand it that I ‘serve’ him! he is the kind of person who will never sit and laze around while I work! I too am the same, even if he is say fixing the curtains, I will never lay back and expect him to do stuff. If he is not free, I have done the ‘male’ jobs, like getting the car repaired and such like. He expects me to be very independent and do my own thing, and In this sense his values are very western. He has spent a greater part of his childhood abroad.
    In the first 10 years of our marriage when the kids were small and there was maximum work in the house, my husband used to travel 20 days a month and we lived far away from our respective parents and we didn’t have enough money to keep a cook either! I did everything…and he never expected me not to.he doesn’t like helpless women.
    It’s so strange, but my dad is very similar and I guess that is why I fell in love with my husband, he has the values of the men I grew up with. I grew up in a very educated family, from both sides. My great grandmother was a freedom fighter and my grandmother was a post graduate. I can go on as I am very proud of my genes!
    As for my husband he has very different values from that of a typical Indian male. He believes that women and men are equal in every way and when we I became pregnant he never even asked me whether I was planning to continue with my job. In fact he assumed I would and was quite surprised when I decided to give it up and concentrate on the children. I take all decisions regarding myself and he takes decisions regarding himself… but our values are so similar that things are very easy.🙂

  4. rach permalink
    March 23, 2008 2:48 pm

    This is interesting.
    When I was in elementary school my mom and aunts forced me to take part in the annual Raath fasting (fast for 5 days only able to eat certain foods, and 1 dinner per day, etc) and I hated it. You raise the same questions I ask my mother whenever she and, for a while, I fast. However, there never seems to be a satisfying answer for me. The answer’s always been: “It’s tradition, women have to do it, etc” But then I reply with “Why?”
    and there is no answer.
    Oh well, there’s always going to be that rift between traditional values vs. revolutionary ideas. Old vs. New (blah blah blah). It’ll never stop.

    Your husband seems like a cool dude. When it’s time for me to marry, I hope my husband will help me make dinner as well. It’s totally inefficient if only person does all the work!

  5. Surabhi Segal permalink
    June 11, 2008 12:12 pm

    I never understood the validity of such traditions.Frankly they disgust me and I find the whole concept demeaning to womanhood.But its women who perpetrate crimes against women especially in traditional Indian society.Never could understand those monster mother in laws.My views have been coloured my experiences.Anyway in my family I never saw my own mother do any of this,traditional stuff hence I cannot relate to it at all.

    I did see this around me but though I understand why people do it, I can never understand the monstors who force others to do it. – Nita.

  6. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    June 26, 2008 10:35 am

    Nita,

    I arrived here via the link provided at your oven-fresh post on “Women have feelings…” I am once again amazed at the time lag (more than 17 months) between this post and the first comment it.

    I particularly love to hate Karva Chauth because of (1) the way it is sought to be projected as the pan-Indian (Hindu) ideal of womanhood when it is in fact just a North India phenomenon; (2) the way it glorifies a woman’s subservience to her husband; and (3) its glamorisation by the media (anyone recall a particularly sick ad on TV for god knows what, that showed a stinking rich young couple — she in a benares silk saree, he in a stylish suit — driving out in a very posh car so that she could view the moon through a gleaming new sieve and then look all gooey-eyed at the very smug husband?) and its crass commercialisation (someone has coined the very apt term “karva chauth-capitalism”), which opiates and indoctrinates even the young and supposedly “modern” metropolitan hep crowd into unquestioningly singing the glories of our “rich” and “ancient” culture.

    Of course, as you rightly point out, this is not the only ritual festival of its kind in India. Maharashtra has “vata paurnima” (which is, as you say, not considered sacrosanct anymore; it will die a natural death). For a comprehensive (from a north Indian point of view), though not very reliable, listing of such things from across India, visit http://www.karwachauth.com and click the link “Regional names of Karwa Chauth”.

    After you have finished puking over the above balderdash, go to http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/150795.cms
    Despite the dramatised title of the article, it takes a serious look at what is happening to sex ratios etc. when hallowed traditions and modern materialism merge in a toxic cocktail.

    Finally, we must learn to distinguish between what is truly religion and what are eaily dispensable rituals sought to be passed off as religion (and lapped up by a gullible crowd) just because there is a lot of money to be made out of them.

  7. June 26, 2008 6:18 pm

    Thanks Vivek, Actually I had a very slow start to my blog and that is why you find few or no comments on my posts. I developed a decent readership only after a year or so. Actually I was writing because I enjoyed it and it never bothered me.
    Thanks for the links and I agree with what you say. I too find it irritating that certain rituals are presented as “Indian” rituals but they are actually more regionalistic. But no one has stopped people from other regions from writing books, articles or making movies about their own regions. Once when I was in Africa an african complained to me that hollywood only makes movies in africa with white people in leading roles. I said naturally, because they are making the movies!

  8. June 29, 2008 11:22 pm

    its good to see women fighting against the crap traditions

  9. PRAT permalink
    November 20, 2009 10:40 pm

    So Sweeeet all of you………

    yes Karwa chaut, i Personally believe if the husband loves his wife atleast to keep up with our hinduism rituals as you all say in certain “xxxxxxxxx” unparliamentary words husband also should fast, that wil grow the love between them.

    wel to all ur outside India stories, like Africa, US our so calledd little pity girls wear revealing dresses, hve polygamous relations are these not to be comented on…….

    may not be i think, because it is thgeir right to show their body after all prostitutes do it for their bread and other women for?

    No idea.

    well i again agree to only one point that the couple should share the work, labour, infact everything but simple request in modernisation take the good points from US and not bad points… the final loser is going to be that person who today views indian customs as “xxxxxxxx”

  10. Strong Soul permalink
    May 25, 2011 8:44 am

    i was raised in the united states, i guess most would call me an abcd from back in india, but honestly i love our traditions, my parents always highlighted only the good and MOST(not all of course)are ones i am proud of.

    i always wanted a man that respected women like most all religions teach including hinduism and since i have been taught to honor the good side of our indian hindu culture, i wanted an indian man that would be respect the fact that i love our festivals and our traditions and the fact that i want my future children to continue to honor our culture, our indian american culture.

    which woman wouldn’t want a man like that
    i would love it if he was easy going and did not find anything wrong in being chivalrous, helping the woman he loves in the kitchen helping each other as much as we can. do away with the negatives of our culture and only keep alive the good(which is most of it) just so the beauty of our indian hindu culture will always shine.

    as an indian american born and raised in america, i could never think of calling our indian hindu culture “#$*#$” or whatever some here refer to it as being. and even if the man i married doesn’t respect me and sees our indian hindu culture the way some of you see it, very negatively, i’ll teach all i know to my child and make sure that child will be proud and will never regard our culture as “#$#$”. I’ll pray that never happens🙂 and they say us american born desis are “confused”……… far from it as you can see😛🙂

  11. Strong Soul permalink
    May 25, 2011 8:47 am

    nita ji, i just wanted to add, i love your blog, it’s refreshing to read such an open minded view of most things indian and i especially adored your blog about “divorced, unmarried….”. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

    Thanks Strong Soul. – Nita.

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