Hindustan Times

November 17, 2007




Ma Dham, the biggest home for widows in the country, providing shelter to 500 women and children was opened yesterday right at the entrance to Vrindavan.

Last evening, Pandit Jasraj sang there to invoke the gods to bless the new home and its inmates. This was followed by a Bhajan Sandhya by Venugopal Goswami of the Radha Raman Mandir. Earlier too, Pandit Jasraj, a devotee of Lord Krishna, held a concert in Delhi to raise funds for the construction of Ma Dham.

Contemporary culture has just begun to address the issue of an estimated 33 million widows in India. As per the 1991 census, widows account for 9 per cent of our female population. Every fourth house has a widow and 40 per cent of them are over 50 years old. Vrindavan, place of our holiest love idylls, is, as everyone knows, the dumping ground for such unwanted women. According to the Vrindavan Municipal Corporation study of 2006, there are over 3105 widows in Vrindavan town itself. And across Braj bhumi - Radhakund, Goverdhan, Barsana, Mathura - there are estimated to be another 2000 to 2500 widows.

The plight of Bengali widows in particular has been pathetic. Their lives ended with that of their husbands as many of them were burnt alive as satis on the funeral pyre of the dead men. Between 1815 and 1828, some 8135 widows were burnt alive as satis in Bengal. Those who escaped the pyre were banished to the holy cities. Across India, widows were considered inauspicious, and many of them from upper castes were forced to leave their homes and spend their lives in prayer and meditation in Varanasi and Vrindavan.

Their heads shaven, they were compelled to wear coarse white saris, ate frugally, were debarred from weddings and other religious functions and lived almost like outcastes in their own homes until they were shunted out on pilgrimage. They could not inherit a share in the husband's property and had to be dependent on father or son for life thereafter.

Many such Bengali widows still journey to Vrindavan and are now joined by widows from MP, Rajasthan, Orissa, UP, Manipur and other places. But several studies done over the last two years show that these widows do not want to go back home. They have nothing to go back to and are happy in Vrindavan even if it means living on the streets, begging for alms or depending on doles from the bhajan ashrams that provide 100 to 200 grams of rice, lentils and a few rupees for chanting at the ashrams for a couple of hours every morning and evening.

To enable them to live and die with dignity, and to wean them from begging, the Guild of Service has been running Aamar Bari, a home for 120 older widows in Vrindavan, since the mid-90s. Now Ma Dham will shelter more, spread over two and half acres, with residential quarters, a skill training zone, a medical centre, an area for meditation and an administrative block. To provide the atmosphere of a family, widows will be given the responsibility of caring for orphan children from the adjoining areas. These efforts are spearheaded by Mohini Giri and the Guild of Service.

Remarriage, especially of the younger widows, would be one sure way of rehabilitating them, feels Giri. But a recent survey shows that 90 per cent of the 255 widows interviewed are against remarriage. Seventy percent said there were social and religious taboos to a widow remarrying, 13 per cent said they did not believe in remarriage and five per cent said those with children could not think of it as an option. Yet 30 per cent of them had become widows by the age of 24!

Religious leaders, meanwhile, send out conflicting signals. The Shankaracharya of Joshimath says widow remarriage has been forbidden in the shastras and as ascetics they are supposed to wear white and not attend marriages. Acharya Giriraj Kishore says remarriage IS sanctioned by the shastras and that as the patriarchal system gained strength, women became subordinate to men and their right to equality got diluted.

Manoj Mohan, a respected preacher of the Bhagvat Puran who runs a Sanskrit and Bhagvt school in Vrindavan says the shastras of modern society support widow remarriage. So if a widow is young and wants to remarry, she has the right to forget her past and rebuild her life with a new partner, despite pockets of social taboo: "Widow remarriage is needed for reform in society."

Guild of Service Website: http://www.guildofserviceni.com:80/

Guild of Service E-Mails: gos@bol.net.in    guildofserviceni@yahoo.com



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