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The Rigveda: Widows donít have to burn
By O. P. Gupta

Publication: The Asian Age
Date: October 23, 2002  

In August, 2002, one case of committing sati and two failed attempts to commit sati in Madhya Pradesh were reported by the media.


Reports also appeared that the Rajasthan high court allowed prayers within premises of Rani Sati Mandir of Jhunjhunu district, but prohibited organising fairs, distribution of pamphlets and performing chunri ceremony at the temple till final orders.


Some people assert that richa X 18.7 (seventh richa of sukta 18 of chapter ten) of the Rigveda commands a Hindu widow to mount on the pyre of her deceased husband. In fact, the word vidhwa (widow) does not independently occur in this richa at all. So how can this richa be related to widows?


The word vidhwa does appear in many other richas of the Rigveda. One website quotes Kane's translation of this richa as, "Let these women, whose husbands are worthy and living enter the house with ghee applied as corrylium (to their eyes). Let these wives first step into the pyre, tearless without any affliction and well adorned." From the moment of death of her husband, a woman is no more called "a wife" but a widow. So the phrase "these wives" in the above translation of Kane cannot be interpreted to refer to widows."

In fact, sukta 18 commands a Hindu widow to return to the world of living beings; the Rigveda confers on her all the properties of her deceased husband. The third richa (X 18.3) commands "May those who are living remain separate from the dead..." (Rigveda Samhita by H.H. Wilson and Bhashya of Sayana edited by Ravi Prakash Arya and K.K. Joshi). Dr Wendy D. O'Flaherty, Ph.D., in her book, Rigveda (Penguin Classics, page 52) mentions, "Those who are alive have now parted from the dead." Shri Ram Sharma Acharya of Bareilly in his Rigveda (in Hindi) translates, "Mritak ke pass se jeevit manushya laut aavey..." This command of Rigveda to leave behind the dead is equally applicable to Hindu widows as they are also living.


The English translation of the seventh richa (X 18.7) as given by H.H. Wilson etc. is,


"Let these women who are not widows, who have good husbands, enter (anointed) with butter. Let women without tears, decorated with jewels, first proceed to the house." Shri Radhakrishna Shrimali and Smt. Ashalata Upadhaya of Jodhpur in their book Rigveda (Diamond Pocket books, page 156) give similar interpretations of X 18.7 and X 18.8. Thus, different authors from different places vouch that richa X 18.7 does not refer to widows at all. What this richa says in a nutshell is that, married women should be first (among others) to return to their homes.


The eighth richa (X 18.8) specifically commands a Hindu widow to return alive to her home. H.H. Wilson translates: "Rise woman, and go to the world of living beings; come, this man near whom you sleep is lifeless; you have enjoyed this state of being the wife of your husband, the suitor who took you by the hand." Here again, it is confirmed that X 18.8 actually commands a Hindu widow to return to the world of living beings. Also, this very richa confers upon her full right on the house of her deceased husband (apne putradi aur ghar). In 1995, the Supreme Court interpreted Section 14 (1) of the Hindu Succession Act to the effect that a Hindu widow has full ownership rights over properties she inherits from her deceased husband. The Supreme Court said that the objective was to wipe out disabilities imposed by Hindu shastras. The Supreme Court thus reasserted rights conferred on widows under richa X 18.8.


According to Acharya Sayana, it is the first six richas of sukta 16 of the chapter 10 of the Rigveda (X 16.1 to 6) which are to be recited at funeral pyres; and, none of these six richas either call for burning of widows or make any reference to widows. I would like to draw the attention of readers to richa X 40.8 of the Rigveda which praises Ashwin gods for protecting a widow. It shows gods were praised for protecting widows. How could gods go to protect widows, and, thus act against the Rigveda if the Rigveda had actually commanded burning of widows? Another richa, X 40.2, may come as a complete surprise to many Hindus. H. H. Wilson translates it: "Where are you, Ashwins, by night? Where are you by day? Where do you sojourn? Where do you dwell? Who brings you into his presence in the same place (of sacrifice) as on her couch a widow (brings) her husband's brother, as a woman (brings) her husband (to her)." Thus, the Rigveda not only sanctioned survival of a widow but also her living with her devar with full dignity and honour in the family. So it expressly sanctioned widow marriage.


The third chapter of the Rigveda is considered the oldest part of the Rigveda. Richa III 31.1 commands that a son-less father accepts the son of his daughter as his own son. That is, all properties of a son-less father shall be inherited by the son of his daughter. Richa III 31.2 commands that if parents have both son and a daughter, the son performs holy acts of pindadaan (after death of father) and the daughter has to be enriched with gifts (rindhan, that is, to be made wealthy). Richa II 17.7 also attests share of a daughter in the property of her father.


Those who misinterpret the Rigveda to say that it sanctions sati do this mischief by misspelling the last word of richa X 18. 7 as "yomiagne." The last word of this richa is actually "yomiagre." Thus, there is no richa in Rigveda calling for widow burning. Veda, Ramayana and Gita are the three supreme scriptures of Hindus.


All others (like Brahmanas, Upanishads, Puranas, Dharmashastras, Sutras, etc. ) are just commentaries, explanatory notes or stories written by individuals. As commentaries written on the Constitution of India cannot override the articles of the Constitution of India, similarly, commentaries or explanations on Vedas by individuals cannot supersede richas of Vedas or the Ramayana or Gita. In the Ramayana, everyone knows that after the death of King Dasharatha, his wives were never asked to step into the pyre of Dasharatha. Rather, they lived in family with full honour and Ram always bowed his head before his widowed mothers with full respect. In the Mahabharata, Kunti, mother of the Pandavas did not commit sati. Thus, there is no command in the Ramayana or in Gita to commit sati.


Over the centuries, relatives have been murdering relatives for property. This will continue in the coming centuries too. Greed is human nature. If greedy people incite a widow to commit suicide on the pyre of her husband, let us not say or believe that widow burning is sanctified by the Rigveda or by Hinduism. Richa X 18.3 commands a Hindu widow to separate from the dead and richa X 10.8 commands her to return alive to her children and her home. For their own empowerment, Hindu women should to remember the seven richas viz (II 17.7), (III 31.2) (X 18.3) (X l8.8) (X 40.2) and X 40.8) to assert and claim their status and rights.


(O.P. Gupta is ambassador of India to Finland).


The article are personal views of the author; and, not that of the Govt. of India.



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