Why can’t women light the pyre under Hindu traditions?
Indians pray for giving birth to boys. For many the “logic” behind this is an age-old custom that states that only sons can light the pyre of the parents. Daughters, apparently, are not allowed to perform the last rites of their folks, as per a Hindu tradition. This is because if girls would light the pyre, the deceased won’t attain freedom or “moksha” from the cycle of rebirths. In fact many times girls are not allowed entry in their own parents’ funerals.
Are we doing the right thing by not letting our daughters witness the last rites of the parents? This custom has a few arguments that need to be understood to comprehend whether it is right or yet another patriarchal injustice against women.
Women are faint-hearted
Women supposedly are the ones with weak hearts. The burning pyre is a difficult sight to watch, and ladies won’t be able to bear the sight of a burning body that often curls up in the flame and has to be put back into the pyre. Weakness or strength, for that matter, is subjective. Not all men are bold neither are all women feeble. So, at least, if in case the circumstances arise and a girl feels she is bold enough to go to the cremation ground, she should definitely be allowed to. We know enough women who have opposed this belief and stood up to do the last rights for their parents.
Tradition and gender roles
Women – the “great caretakers” of the house are expected to stay back and look after the rest of the family until men return from the cremation ground. They are supposed to prepare food for the men to feed them when they come back. Gender roles have been caging women for a long time now, rendering them devoid of the rights they deserve without protesting for them.
One of the most bizarre reasons is that since women can’t cut their hair off and go bald as men do, on the deaths of their fathers, they are not allowed to perform the last rites. This is because long hair attracts ghosts and negative energy. It is widely believed that a lot of evils surround a cremation ground and this makes girls more vulnerable to bring back spirits or negative energy from the incineration process. Read the story of Namita Bhattacharya.
In the era of kings and palaces, a son was seen as the successor of his father’s throne. This custom has undergone changes over the years with more fathers granting the rights of inheritance to their daughters but it is associated with performing the last rites. It was said that the one who inherits the property of the deceased is supposed to lead the funeral procession. Nobody questions when family members rope in a male neighbour or a distant relative of the “superior” gender to light the pyre instead of the dead’s own daughter or wife.
Attainment of Nirvana
Popular beliefs of the old times say that a son is a bridge between birth and death. Once mortal life comes to an end, the Hindu tradition reckons that liberation from the cycle of birth and death is important to attain eternal bliss. People thus stand by the fact that if a girl performs the last rites, it won’t be possible for the dead person to break free from this vicious cycles. It’s 2020 and we are still believing in these so-called facts.
We’ve been believing in hundreds of baseless traditions that are being passed on to us from our ancestors. This is one of them. Every woman deserves to be present during the funeral of parents if she wishes to. When she can take care of her family for her entire life, then why is she seen as an outsider in their last rites?
Picture used is that of Namita Bhattacharya lighting the pyre of former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Saavriti is an intern with ShethePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.