Indian widows focus on devotion, fatalism

An interesting article about the widows in Vrindavan……

VRINDAVAN, INDIA – They rise with the dawn, yet the widows of this holy city never really reach the day.

Huddled at society’s edges, suspended between homes and families they left behind and heavens they dream of reaching, the women beg and pray and wander endlessly in shadows, hemmed in by the oily darkness and the dusty light.

Cut adrift upon their husbands’ deaths, often blamed for the misfortune befallen the family, widows for ages have ended up in this pilgrims’ place, homeless and invisible and “socially dead.” Ancient Hindu tradition sometimes takes the husbandless and renders them genderless and nameless: heads shaved, signs of marriage and femininity removed, even their diet neutered by banning spicy foods thought to fuel sexual desire.

Even as modern India marches forward, customs of the 16th century won’t let go. Its young widows are sometimes exploited sexually. The older ones, some of whom led privileged lives in wedlock only to lose their land and worldly belongings at widowhood, now survive by begging from wayfarers or chanting bhajans, or hymns, all day long for the equivalent of a few cents.

Yet, through a curious blend of fatalism and spiritual longing, many of the estimated 15,000 widows here in the so-called City of Widows south of New Delhi accept and even embrace their lot as dasis, or servants of god. It is our karma, they say. In this childhood home of the deity Krishna, the most human incarnation of the god Vishnu, they strive to achieve moksha, or liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth, devoting their lives to prayer at one of the city’s 4,000 Hindu temples.

They may be materially destitute, say those who see India’s multitudes of Hindu widows as travelers on a religious path, but in their widowed world they are humble servants of Lord Krishna. In holy cities like Vrindavan, says Narayana Swami, a priest at the Hindu Temple in Sunnyvale, “widows willingly detach themselves from their families to pray at the ashrams.

A good life is offered to them there. They can serve the temple, help clean it. This is a place to leave the body and to merge with God.”

But like the shadows in these photographs, the phenomenon of widowhood in India and around the globe is complicated by cultural taboos and sacred tenets.

“You can’t assume all those women who end up on the streets are going voluntarily,” says Kavita Ramdas, the Indian-born president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women in San Francisco. “In fact, they are often driven out of their homes. It’s beyond your control, so you make the best of it. And it is not just a Hindu problem or an Indian problem. In many parts of the world, they say a goat is worth more than a woman.

Only where women find the courage to speak out do those things change.”

The widow

The widows rush each morning through the alleyways of Vrindavan, racing to the temple to savor the divine, or perhaps only to blot out their sorrowful loss. They gather up their muslin saris in billowing folds, passing by so quickly they seem little more than ghostly wisps of smoke.

There among them, a face emerges.

Her name is Devi Rani, but she is nobody. A castaway among the widowed multitudes of Vrindavan, Rani had a husband, children, middle-class prosperity and the unfettered respect of a society that embraced her.

When an accident claimed her husband’s life, it took Rani’s entire world along with it.

As part of the centuries-old custom of patrilocal residence, in which some Hindu brides marry into their husband’s family and sever ties with their own, a husband’s death often means the symbolic death of his wife. They are blamed, they are bad luck, they are evicted from their very identity, discarded into what one social worker called the “agony of being a nothing.”

“When my husband died,” says Rani, now 70, “everyone told me I had to leave because I was a widow. Nobody was nice to me. They all spoke very mean to me. That’s why I came to Vrindavan.”

She was, however, spared the street-bound fate of many of the widows who make their way to this pilgrimage center on the banks of the Yamuna River. Alone and despairing, Rani came to Vrindavan to perform a special puja, or prayer offering, for her late husband. When she asked a shopkeeper if he knew of a place she could stay, he suggested a widows’ refuge called Aamar Bari. There was a room available. Today she has food, so she need not beg. She has the company of about 100 other widows fortunate enough to have been accepted here. But even as she dedicates her life to prayer, there is little hope for this lifetime.

“I don’t want to live,” Rani says, “but it’s God’s decision. Whatever God decides about my life or death is God’s decision.”

The controversy

Who are the widows of Vrindavan?

Are they Lord Krishna’s lovers, unshackled now from their pasts, freed from marriage and motherhood to soar on chanted hymns through this holy city?

Or, are they the pitiable detritus of male-dominated customs, discarded upon their husbands’ deaths, swindled of property and land, then left to stagger through Vrindavan’s squalor, voiceless and exploited?

Perhaps they are both, or more.

“Many courageous women are standing up and saying, it is not OK to treat widows this way,” said Ramdas of the Global Fund for Women, “and it should not be sanctioned by religions or by government.”

Yet when the widows themselves speak out, it is often about fate, not change. Customs forbid remarrying, they say. My husband died because of my own bad karma, they tell you. And then, they speak in awe of the place they have found themselves. Said widow Devi

Rani: “Now I love only God. Because only God will take care of me.”

The world

As India assumes a privileged seat at the banquet table of global commerce, as the high-tech pistons of places like Bangalore send it blasting into the future, the state of millions of Hindu widows also is caught by the world’s radar. Watching its jobs outsourced away, the West turns its gaze toward the East. But the images it finds could not be more

jarring: silicon and software wonders, and penniless widows treated like pariahs; infrastructural marvels, and destitution for the unlucky.

Widowhood is considered by some Indians to be a national problem. At an estimated 33 million, the country’s widow population is believed to be the world’s largest. A thriving women’s movement tries to untangle superstitions hand-woven into sacred Hindu texts, to convince the uneducated, for example, that passing within a widow’s shadow is not, in fact, a bad omen. Attitudes are changing, but not fast enough for those who fear more lives will end in homelessness and poverty.

Groups like the New Delhi-based Guild of Service are trying to help the widows of Vrindavan, building safe houses for them, offering them job training and the chance to wear colorful clothes, something denied them by Hindu custom.

“The Constitution of India says that all men and women are equal,” writes the Guild’s Mohini Giri in her essay “Indian Widowhood: The Silent Cry That Society Must Hear.” “However, the society has made women and widows into bonded slaves. Today the vital need is to sensitize the society and the mindset which considers widows harbingers of misfortunes.”

The social marginalization of widows is hardly just an Indian problem. Yet as the world watches this nation of more than 1 billion step toward the future, in the background India’s past swirls in the darkness.

By Susanna Frohman and Patrick May

Mercury News

(c) 2006 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.