By Sakuntala Narasimhan
Friday, October 11, 2013
The idea of any Indian women–much less “inauspicious” widows–officiating as priests was unthinkable till two decades ago. Now that two widows have done just that it might help us confront a continuum of sex bias.
Credit: UN Women/Caroline Pankert
Bangalore, India (WOMENSENEWS)– The holy town of Brindavan near Delhi in north India is notorious for its hordes of destitute widows who have been abandoned by their families and congregate there to wait to die on the banks of the holy river Jamuna.
Most are reduced to beggary or collect coins after singing devotional songs for visitors who come on pilgrimages.
The mistreatment of Indian widows is part of a continuum of sex discrimination that begins with female feticide (although ultrasound for detecting the sex of the fetus has been outlawed) and stretches through bride burning (for dowry) and sexual harassment at the workplace.
Earlier this month, however, something remarkable occurred.
Lakshmi Shanti and Indira Shanti, both widows, became part of a pioneering Kudroli initiative in social reform when they were invited to officiate at the famous Gokarnatheswara temple. This was during the annual Dassera celebrations, one of the most important festivals for Hindus, stretching over 10 days beginning with the new moon in October, which fell on the seventh this year. The temple, now over 100 years old, draws huge crowds of devotees who come to pray to Lord Shiva, one of the trinity of the Hindu pantheon.
During last year’s Dassera celebrations widows also participated in the rituals at this temple, but this is the first time that they were allowed to lead the rites in the sanctum sanctorum and distribute holy water to the milling throng of devotees.
Janardhan Poojary, a former union minister who is involved with the temple, was responsible for promoting this initiative. He has said that these two women would be in charge of the worship to the main deities whenever the regular (male) priests were on leave; but would also be free to join the rituals on other days.
Hindu widows are traditionally shunned as inauspicious and barred from social activities. They are not invited to weddings and cannot wear the red kumkum dot on their forehead, one of the symbols of auspiciousness that all Hindu women are required to wear as long as their husbands are alive.