New Delhi: Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s foster daughter lighting his funeral pyre has not only hit the headlines for sending a strong message to the gender biased society, but has given rise to several tea room debates. After all, women are also a “living body standing in emotional turmoil” like any aggrieved man.
Questioning the age-old tradition that holds back Hindu women from cremating their family members, Preeti Malhotra, convener of Rashtra Sevika Samiti’s intellectual cell, said, “What will happen if a woman were to light the pyre of one of her family members? She is also a breathing, living body, standing in emotional turmoil.”
Traditionally, the last rites of a deceased person are performed by a male member of the family, and for this reason a son has been valorized. But this has emerged from Garuda Puranas, which is one of the eighteen Puranas and are part of the Hindu body of texts known as smriti.
The Puranas insist on the importance of the eldest son performing the last rites of the deceased family member but it does not say anything on daughter’s role.
The right-wing women groups found the development significant, and counted it as another feather in the cap.
‘It is Significant, It is Big But This Has Been Happening’
In 2014, Gopinath Munde’s daughter gave a blow to gender bias perpetuated in the name of customs and lit her father’s funeral pyre with prominent people and purohits as spectators of the sweeping change.
In 2016, Mallika Sarabhai gave a fitting tribute to her mother Mrinalini Sarabhai by performing Nrityanjali, and lighting the pyre. In 2013, two girls from Bahraich Neelam and Poonam hit headlines when the performed the last rites of their father, “because he never discriminated between boys and girls.”
“In the name of religion women have made many emotional sacrifices, and that has been a tradition across all religions. If a soldier dies his wife has to live with that deprivation, why? But now the times are changing, and in past several years many women have come out,” Malhotra said.
Another thing the women from right-wing groups pointed out that every time the ceremony is televised in relation to the prominent people in politics we say ‘times have changed,’ but it has been happening for long.
“Times changed way back in 50s for us,” said the spokesperson of Rashtra Sevika Samiti, Sunila Sowani. “I will look at this development differently, you are saying that Hindu women are lighting the pyres, but in 50s we started the cell for women training in mantras – there is a purohitvarg for us. We also train women in learning the rituals involved in death related ceremonies.”
'No Protest from Purohits, Acharya'
Both Malhotra and Sowani observed that the pyres were lit with the acharyas and purohits as spectators and there was no cry of protest. “There was a foster daughter to light the pyres, but no karyakarta, purohit or acahrya protested the significant steps in women empowerment, our pracharikaperformed these rites months ago, and there have been counter to it,” said Sowani.
Sowani added that there will never be a complete overhaul, but they will keep open their doors for change, and these steps will be taken to bring women closer to their rights and role in religion. On the other hand its intellectual cell is likely to convene a new session soon, and plan the calendar of events in a way that they discuss and debate the issue. Malhotra added, “It has happened over the period of time, and no one is questioning it. There is change but there is no other choice other than to change.”
When the ‘Higher Caste’ Brings in Change
This case is important – because not just Vajpayee’s foster daughter burnt the pyre, his grand-daughter was standing there, and not to be forgotten he was from the Brahmin kul.
Member of the intellectual cell of Medhavani Sindhu Srijan Charu Kalra, who is also teaching Botany in Delhi University said, “Yes, certainly it is welcome. We know the past and how women were treated in religious matters – the son or husband always scored over us as it was believed that if they perform the last rites the deceased would rest in peace. In times of those rituals, hamara kya sthan tha (what was sour position then).”
Kalra added, “But with this there will be change in the society, because it is coming from the top in the hierarchy – the Brahmins – this will set an example in the Hindu society and others will follow.”
She signed off saying, “In his last rites, Vajpayee has given something to the society, and we should work in strengthening it.”
Impact Restricted to Upper Castes
The act of daughter burning the pyre is of value for Assistant Professor Gender Studies TISS Hyderabad, Dr T Sowjanya but it is likely to be restricted to upper castes “because for lower castes, the Brahmin priest is not present to follow the rituals. "Many lower castes in Telangana region bury the bodies instead of cremating it," she said.
When asked about the act of Vajapyee s daughter she added, “The changing role of women in the arena of religion doesn't send a great message in terms of women's empowerment and liberation.”
She said that few may read it as an epitome of liberal space offered to women especially in the context of son preference being rampant in middle class society. There is age old belief system which promotes son preference because he only is allowed to set the fire.
“This act of Vajpayee’s daughter setting fire in funeral only is a liberal space though such a space for now is offered to Brahmin women. However, the changing politics of Hindutva has already considered them as moral strength.”
The act has a limited value in relation to particular caste groups that are highly sanskritized, she said, “However, it may not have a great connection to women's empowerment and liberation in general.”