Recently, when Smriti Irani turned pallbearer for her aide in Amethi, Twitter couldn’t stop lauding her act. They even labelled this as an act of women empowerment. But with all the praise also comes a question – Why aren’t women allowed to participate in the last rites of a family member? In Hinduism, women aren’t allowed to enter a Shamshaan ghat, the place where the dead body is cremated. Neither are they allowed to light the funeral pyre. And this all leads to a yet another – Why! However, as the times are changing, women are breaking stereotypes and shattering the age-old patriarchal beliefs. Last rites remain no exception and the way Twitter lauded Smriti Irani’s act, we can say that now people are ready to support women achieve the cause.
Reason why women are not allowed to enter a Shamshan ghat
Like most of the orthodox beliefs of Hinduism, performing the last rites of parents is the responsibility of a son. In fact, when there’s no son to light the funeral pyre, the son of a relative is supposed to perform the ritual, the daughter in no case is allowed to do this. So here are some of reasons why women are meant to stay at home while men perform the last rites:
- It is said that the house needs to be cleaned once men leave for the cremation ground. Technically, women are supposed to do this. This is the reason why women are meant to stay at home, but this doesn’t come through as a valid reason.
- Women are considered to have a softer heart. Some say that women might be terrified to see the body burn, hence are kept away. Cremating the body might lead to its cramping, and the skull breaking which might have a lasting effect on a woman’s mind.
- Some also say that virgin women are considered to be pure and are most vulnerable to be possessed by ghosts. This is the reason why they aren’t allowed.
Though the pundits will give out thousand other reasons for a girl to not perform the last rites of her parents, if we analyse them closely, none of them really has a scientific connect and are imaginary. That’s another reason why women today feel it right to question and crush these stereotypical beliefs. We’re educated and have the power to reason after all.
Women who went right ahead and lit the funeral pyre anyway…
Women are proving that their power to reason works right and hence are questioning every belief that stops them in any way. In many of the families, except the conservative ones, only the son performing the last rites is a thing of the past. Both daughter and son, or only the daughter can be seen cremating. Here are some some stellar examples:
Foster daughter of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Namita Kaul, performed his last rites in August 2018. Her act sent a strong message to the gender biased society and also hit the headliners, for it was against Hindu rituals. Just before this, Preeti Malhotra, convenor of Rashtra Sevika Samiti’s intellectual cell said, “What will happen if a woman were to light the pyre of one of her family members? She is also a breathing, living body, standing in emotional turmoil.”
Mallika Sarabhai gave a befitting tribute to her mother and Padma Shree awardee Mrinalini Sarabhai, as she danced in front her body on the dance floor of Darpana Academy. Breaking the news of her mother’s death, she also wrote on Facebook, “My mother left for an eternal dance.” She lit the funeral pyre of her mother, along with her brother Kartikeya, and all that she could utter while doing this was, “I am sorry Amma.”
Pankaja Munde, Member of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly cremated her father Gopinath Munde in June 2014. Through her act, she started a debate on reconsideration of prevalent gender inequality in the country, intentionally or unintentionally. She was certainly not the first woman to do so, but being a part of the political field, she really did spread a message through her act.
As the only daughter Pooja Priyamvada performed all the last rites of her father. She says, “A common but absurd reason cited against married daughters performing the parents’ last rites is that their Gotra changes at marriage so how can they perform a religious ritual for parents. Ironically the same man who had raised me had a few of his patriarchal mental blocks too. The man who talked to me freely about menstruation and helped me learn how to use tampons and later taught me to have ‘only safe sex‘ when I was dating, was not sure that I would be able to perform his last rites as his only child.” But she did it nevertheless. Later in Haridwar during the immersion of the ashes rituals also the priests were visibly intimidated by a sombre, almost stoic daughter ready even to get her head shaved as expected while performing last rites for a parent, but she was told it wasn’t mandatory, they just took a small tuft of hair.
There have been many cases where ordinary women too lit the funeral pyre of their parents. There have been reports, one such being from Bhopal and considered to be the first such in the city. People’s eyes turned moist when they saw four daughters performing the last rites of their father. Another incident came to light in Ahmadabad, where relatives expressed their resentment but daughters were adamant in their decision.