When The Last Right is Not For Daughters

When The Last Right is Not For Daughters

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.

22 thoughts on “When The Last Right is Not For Daughters

  1. An interesting perspective from a culture far-removed from my own — something I love to read. Your exploration is motivated by deep reflection and research and I appreciate that because it shows that this isn’t just a complaint. This is a serious musing on tradition and culture. And not culture as the expected norms and rules but the culture as it changes, or fails to, with time. I really enjoyed this piece.

    While I understand that the explanation of the Puranas must be clear since many of us are unfamiliar, I thought you lost your cadence a little in the paragraph “The scriptures mention… from doing so.” Not enough to get me to stop reading — but enough that I felt a shift and it pulled me out of the reading in some way. I wonder if you could write this with the same thread of emotion and reflection, perhaps weaving your stance throughout lightly rather than simply educating us?

    Interesting, reflective, and I learned new stuff — triple play! Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Ramya, changes are happening and I see now commonly, atleast in Kerala, the women are doing it for their parents. Good research.

  3. You have done some serious research on this Ramya! And, so proud of you for speaking your mind so clearly, without mincing words!
    Really, this sort of change is so needed today, when women are walking alongside men, are much more stronger (than the men) and equal (in every sense) to men. It is high time we rewrote some of the rules that were laid down centuries ago and learned to move with the progressing times!

    1. Thanks Shilpa. Just read up a bit online and tried to find the answers i needed. Its time the change came about and a time we women are actually more aware of traditions we have been following.

  4. So interesting, and also something quite removed from my own culture. Still it bears saying that all religions, to be relevant, must be living things that can evolve through the centuries. You made an excellent case for Hinduism to consider changing with the times.

    1. Thanks Ellen. agree this may be more of a remote culture to you, but it is something that has to be spoken about. Thanks for dropping by.

  5. I know what you mean and it hurts to see that even years after, some traditions haven’t changed. With time, women have changed and become stronger. Add to it the desire to take it to closure like it would have been for you. Hugs, Ramya. Thanks for sharing parts of your research. We need to know this.

  6. I can imagine the hurt it caused you, Ramya. You are right, traditions need to evolve with times. When my mum passed away, my sister and I participated in all the rituals as much as dad and my brother. But I guess, it must be because my dad has always been like that. He has always put his daughters on par with the son. And even shut the society if they ever protested. My mil also was kept away from my fil’s funeral though I was protesting a lot but she was more scared of society to speak up. 🙁

    1. I can understand what your MIL must have gone through. Its a tough situation and at times, the emotion is overwhelming. Glad to know your father has been progressive in his thinking Rachna

  7. To be ritualistically correct, there is no real basis. Its mind over matter. One of the older reasons was something I have personally experienced of the heat breaking the skull bones with a audible burst. If you feel you are up to it then it really does not matter if its a male or female member. Traditions were created at a time but as times change traditions change too but human nature is almost always fearful and superstitious.

    1. Thats too Sriram. Not really saying it is a pleasant sight. BUt its more to do with one’s ability to handle it, rather than the gender aspect.

  8. With time our traditions must change. What was relevant then may not be relevant now. It is a progressive step that we are slowly seeing. And I feel so bad for you for not being able to perform your father’s last rites. Hope the situation in our country improves.

    1. Yes Reema, it indeed is my mismortune that I could not. Hence felt the need to speak it out. A change is the must needed thing.

  9. I also find it odd when our society wants only male members to perform all the last rites. A wife, daughter, mother, sister should also be allowed. I know its written in puranas but there is a need of change in mentality first and I am glad that change is coming.

  10. While certain traditions of our country are beautiful, there are certain others which need to be shunned. Gender bias shouldn’t be a priority in any of them and any tradition which brings down either of the gender ought to be revisited and revised. Kudos to you for articulating on such a sensitive matter, Ramya.

Have something to say?

%d bloggers like this: