The right to rites



I have already written a tribute to Gopinath Munde earlier this week in my Wednesday column (http://read.ht/fNj). This now is a salute to the Maharashtrian priests, who conducted the funeral rites, for the minimum fuss with which his oldest daughter Pankaja was allowed to light his funeral pyre.

I empathised with the situation fully for I have gone through the pain of losing both my parents over a decade and a half and have had to put up a bitter fight with the rigidly orthodox ‘TamBrahm’ priests who attended the ceremonies both times. We are just three sisters and when my father passed away in the 1990s, I still recall with horror and the attendant trauma how the priest would not let any one of us near his body.

“Your mother will have to adopt one of us as her son and we will then light his funeral pyre,” they told me, even as I, as his oldest child, dug in my heels and said a determined, “No.”

“If not me, it will be one of my sisters but no stranger. My father has not died a lawaaris.” At their determination not to allow the right to this rite to women, they said ‘no way’ too. “Then let him lie there preserved in ice all our lives!” I shouted back. “But no stranger is going to light my father’s funeral pyre.”

In rage and tears, I walked out of the house, against the orthodox tradition again, to look for a priest who would understand. I found one at the local Arya Samaj office who told my mother there was nothing in the shastras or Vedas that stopped a daughter from conducting this rite.

“Will you then shave your head?” the orthodox ones asked in a last desperate bid to stop this progress of tradition.

“Not necessary for even men,” replied the Arya Samaj priest. “Just a lock of hair will do,” and quoted the scriptures in proof. At the time our family priest had a young three year old daughter and was expecting his pregnant wife to produce a son next. He went away muttering under his breath.

Some years later when I needed to do a Vastu pooja in my new home, his wife was expecting a third child (the second born was a daughter too as later the third which soon changed his mind about women’s rights) and he was less rigid about not allowing women to conduct a navgraha pooja.

But when my mother passed away three years ago, he somehow went missing from town and another set of orthodox ‘TamBrahm’ priests put us through the same trauma – but with a precedent in the family they had to give in quickly.

When I spoke to a Maharashtrian friend well versed in the shastras about finding a priest for my Vastu pooja, he advised me to go with a south Indian, “for they are better versed in these matters.”

When I asked him to explain, he said, “Well if you want to get married during rahu kaalam on a Friday, a Maharashtrian priest will still be able to find you a proper muhurat between 11 and 11:30am. But you will be surer with a Tamilian priest.”

But I still prefer the progressive Maharashtra priesthood – and why should they not be so? After all, this is the land of Shahu Maharaj, Jyotiba Phule and Dr BR Ambedkar, all modernists and reformists of their time – and of Jijamata and Savitribai who in their time ensured they were unequal to no man.

In this century, Maharashtra has pioneered the conduct of religious ceremonies by women priests (they wear purple to set themselves apart from other women). My friend the late Dr Shrikant Jichkar, who had set up an ashram school in Amravati, was also among the first to conduct an upanayana ceremony for his 13 year old daughter – when I asked, he said there was nothing in the shastras that stopped a daughter from wearing the sacred thread.

The only reason why daughters were forbidden from such ceremonies was because of the daan concept in the Hindu tradition he told me – you do not take back what you have given and when you have done a kanyadaan, daughter then belongs to the one you had given her to and you had no rights on her – not that your daughter had lost her rights over you.

But with modern day progression and child marriages a thing of the past, people marrying for love rather than being given away in marriage, it is in the rightness of things that a daughter should have equal rights to, well, rites and traditions.

And while I knew of some daughters who had been there before me and some after, including Pankaja Munde, I hope there will soon be a time when the oldest daughter with a younger brother might be granted this right to such rites – that such events will become commonplace and daughters will not have to step aside for strangers to be adopted by their mothers.

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