Indian actress and TV presenter Mandira Bedi recently made headlines for performing her husband’s last rites. Cremations are traditionally performed by men and women are often discouraged from attending. But where does this belief come from and what do the Hindu scriptures say about it?
With a clay pot containing holy water in one hand and holding the beer – a bamboo frame – carrying Raj Kaushal’s body with another, Bedi wept during the rituals and lit his funeral pyre.
Kaushal, a 49-year-old filmmaker, died suddenly on June 30 of cardiac arrest in the western city of Mumbai.
The actress received heartfelt messages of condolence and praise for what many have described as resistance to patriarchy, even in mourning.
Popular author and columnist Shobhaa De wrote that the image of “a grieving Mandira doing her husband’s last rites challenged the archaic norms governing our society for centuries and sent a powerful and anti-patriarchal message. powerful”.
“When Bedi lit her husband’s pyre this week, unknowingly, she also lit countless fires in the hearts of men and women who believe in themselves – and not in conventions that have held us back. society for centuries. These chains were instantly broken when the flames of the pyre touched the sky, “Ms. De wrote.
For the record, Bedi is not the only woman to cremate a loved one. When former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee passed away in August 2018, his adopted daughter Namita Kaul Bhattacharya performed her last rites. In 2014, Pankaja Munde lit the pyre of her father Gopinath Munde, a senior BJP official in the western state of Maharashtra.
During the recent pandemic, too, there have been numerous instances where wives or daughters have been seen performing the last rites – sometimes because male family members had perished or were themselves infected. by the virus or had not been able to travel due to the lockdown.
But breaking with tradition Bedi upset some Indian conservatives and right-wing trolls who ridiculed her on social media, insisting the pyre should have been lit by her 10-year-old son. Some have pointed out that it is against the tradition for a woman to even go to a crematorium.
However, Hindu priests and religious scholars told the BBC that there is no scriptural prohibition on women visiting a crematorium or performing the last rites of loved ones.
So why are women discouraged from performing or attending cremations? The internet is full of bizarre theories, including one that says “women with long dark hair can be easily possessed by spirits wandering in crematoria.”
But Bhagwan Dutt Pathak, a retired Sanskrit teacher in the northern town of Mirzapur, says the reasons were perhaps more mundane – that the women mostly stayed at home and did chores while the men worked at home. outside and carried out work that involved heavy lifting.
Professor Kaushalendra Pandey, who teaches Sanskrit literature at the prestigious Hindu University of Banaras, says there are references in ancient texts of wives performing the last rites if a man died without leaving a son or daughter or a relative. masculine such as a brother. Even girls, he said, had the right to do the last rites.
“The ancient Hindu society was very liberal and women enjoyed immense freedoms. Conservatism came as a reaction to other religions, first to Buddhism, then to Islam and Christianity, ”he says.
Manoj Kumar Pandey, a priest specializing in funeral rites, says the current belief that a cremation should be performed by the eldest son is rooted in the Garun Puran – a Hindu religious text that deals with funeral rites, and is believed to be at least 1,000 years. However, the book is silent on the role of women and does not prohibit them from funeral rituals.
Professor Pandey says Bedi was “right” to cremate her husband. “From the photographs it seems that her attachment to her husband was very deep. She was also trying to protect her son who is very young. She is a very accomplished woman and I think what she did was right. . “
The reason women don’t go to a crematorium, he says, is for their own well-being, as they can be traumatized by death rituals because they are “weaker and gentler” – an opinion with which many women strongly disagree with.
Shailaja Bajpai, editor-in-chief of readers and editorial advisor for news site The Print, says that although in small towns and rural India women still rarely attend funerals, in towns it is now normal for women to attend funerals. ‘they are present.
“In fact, now it’s misunderstood if you don’t go because people also come to the cremation site to pay their respects and offer their support,” she said.
Ms. Bajpai says she has attended many cremations, including her parents.
“I went because I wanted to be there to say goodbye. For me, it was the final closure. But my relatives chose not to go. The belief that women don’t go for them. cremations came from the past and many women in our families do not question it and respect their beliefs.
“It is our personal choice and it must be respected. We should be allowed to do whatever we want,” she said.