Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha was laid to rest at Marina Beach in Chennai. Her close aide Sasikala performed the last rites before her body was lowered into the earth. I watched it in entirety on national television. But why am I talking about this when this post isn’t about Tamil Nadu politics or its vendetta? It’s because…. I saw a woman out there performing the last rites!!!!
Hinduism prescribes a whole set of rules and regulations that have been passed on from generations, with a sole idea of having some sort of orderliness in our complex human life. Some of these rules make sense while many others could simply be termed superstitious.
When my father passed away a few years back, the entire responsibility of giving him that final farewell fell on my sister and my shoulders. From arranging a Hindu priest, to booking the timing and slot for cremation at the graveyard, the two of us managed to pull the whole thing. Yet, at the time when the last rites were to be performed, the priest politely told us to stay away and instead, another male member of the family was asked to step in. I wasn’t too happy with this, yet at that moment, so overwhelmed was I with emotions on my father dying, I refrained from arguing with the family around.
Till date, I regret doing this.
The importance of the male relative performing the last rites comes from the Garuda Purana, one of the eighteen Puranas which are part of the Hindu body of texts. To me, this rule or tradition, whatever you may choose to call it, denies the right of the woman over her parents. For a very long time, I tried making sense of why was it alright for another male member to perform the last rites, but not the daughter. And after considerable reading and speaking to many who were well-versed with the scriptures, I learnt that:
The scriptures mention women as soft hearted emotional beings. Thus extreme grief could be overwhelming and handling rituals related to it may take a toll on them. It is for this very reason, women are often forbidden from entering the cremation ground. The scriptures emphasize on purity in every ritual performed. And mensuration has always been considered impure. As such cycles could hinder the course of the ritual being performed; women were kept away from it in entirety. Some scholars are also of the view that this rule was added to the scriptures to prevent women from demanding paternal property. In our patriarchal society, a woman, once married, belonged to the husband’s family. Exempting women from performing last rites of parents would ensure that they have no rights or legal claim on their parents’ property. A few other scholars, state that though the Puranas do not mention a daughter’s role, it does not expressly forbid them from doing so.
The Changing Trends
But do these traditions & practices seem relevant in today’s times? For years now, this has been under constant debate. In fact there have been cases in the last few years where daughters have come ahead and performed the last rites of their parents. Renuka Choudhury, the fiery congress leader, performed the last rites of her father, being the only child. When Gopinath Munde was cremated, his last rites were performed by his daughter and political heir, Pankaja Munde. The traditional notions of the role of a son in his parents’ last rites must erode away, and we must welcome a new set of practices that are suitable to the world we are living in today.
As a society we collectively need to understand that many traditions and practices were perfect for the time they were made for. Like the process of evolution, our thoughts and ideas must evolve to newer forms, to mold itself into the changing patterns of society.