Widows

Varanasi and Vrindavan are two north Indian cities that to the Hindu represent the ultimate in Salvation. This is where people from all over the country flock to bathe in the river Ganges, the sacred ritual by which it is believed people can absolve themselves of all their sins, and prepare themselves for Moksha (Nirvana) – the release from the cycles of rebirth.

However, here in these sacred of all cities — there has existed for centuries an unholy secret — the discarded widows of India. Thousands of widows whose families have abandoned them, find their way to these cities where they live under conditions of absolute filth and poverty. They seek their sustenance in the cities’s many ashrams — prayer homes where wealthy businessman donate money to have prayers chanted in their names. The more the prayers that one has chanted in one’s name — the greater is the store of good karma in one’s name. Hence, the widows who live up at these ashrams every morning must chant away for few hours, so they can receive a measly donation of uncooked rice and lentils. If for some reason they can’t chant — they don’t get food.


Copyright © Claude Renault

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But perhaps one of the worst abuses some of the widows face, particularly the young ones, is sexual exploitation. In his book The Age of Kali the author William Dalrymple describes how local pimps, landlords and even priests exploit these women’s vulnerability and once they’ve used them, sell some of these women into brothels in Delhi or Bombay. A recent investigation by the government of West Bengal has confirmed that the sexual exploitation of widows in these cities still continues.

Why are these widows here? And why do they live under such wretched conditions? Not too long ago — many of these widows would have been burnt alive in the cremation pyres of their dead husbands. However, when the British banned the practice of sati, and further introduced a law that entitled widows to their husbands’ property, it cause tremendous discontent among India’s patriarchal lineages. Losing property to a woman and a widow was out of the question. So many of these women were driven out of their homes and forced to beg on the streets. The rules for their existence became a justification for their treatment : they were to live chaste lives, wearing only white, wear no jewelry, or take any interest in material goods, or have any other desires. They were to eat only to live — so their meals too were to be plain and frugal. Most of these rules are rooted in India’s patriarchal tradition — that have long viewed widows as evil women who have consumed their husbands and must prove their innocence through suffering.

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Relevant Links:

India´s Expanding City of Widows

The White Rainbow

A Report on the Status of Widows

The Sexual Exploitation of Widows

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One Response to “Widows”

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Being born in the west and being a non-Hindu, it seems odd to me that widows are treated so cruely. From histroy it is said that Krsna of (Varga or Vrindavana) lived there as a child and moved to Mathura as a young adult to begin the mission there to establish Dharma. It is odd that women in Vrindavana (where Krsna was a child) would be treated in a non-dharmic way by Hindu culture in this city! This is so sad that human cardinal values have reached such a low point. Truely, avidyamaya if dominate in the minds of the cruel exploiters.


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