2. A short outline of Hinduism
3. The concept of femininity in Hinduism
4. Five different ways of life. The female characters in The Hero’s Walk
4.1. Ammayya – a conventional widow
4.2. Nirmala – a wife and daughter-in-law
4.3. Putti – an unmarried woman
4.4. Maya – a young woman breaking with conventions
4.5. Nandana – a girl with two cultures
Anita Rau Badami’s novel The Hero’s Walk is about an Indian Brahmin family finding its way within the Hindu tradition at the end of the twentieth century. Still believing in conventional attitudes but also being confronted with contemporary problems they have to adapt themselves and reconsider their opinions about what is important in life. Though it is Sripathi Rao, the 52-year-old family father, who is in the centre of the story the complex characters of five female family members are – for the most part – shown very detailed. In Badami’s very emotive novel these five women represent four generations and different opinions about life, Hinduism and femininity.
In the following paper the focus will be on these women and their attitudes towards Hinduism. In the first part the traditional role of women in Hindu culture will be described. To get a deeper insight into Badami’s novel it is important to know what was expected from girls, married and unmarried women but also from widows in past centuries, and which important changes took place. In the second part of this paper the female characters of The Hero’s Walk will be analysed. Each character will be examined concerning her position on Hindu religion and in how far she distances herself from the traditional role. In the course of this, the conflicts between them which result from the different opinions will be examined, too.
2. A short outline of Hinduism
Due to the fact that there exist many books on Hinduism – e.g. by Cybelle Shattuck – and that the focus of the paper is on women in Hinduism and not Hinduism itself there will be no detailed explanation of it in this paper. In this chapter only the most important facts on Hinduism which are significant in relation to the topic of the paper will be explained.
Here the term Hinduism refers both to the main religion in India but also to social and cultural structures that are rooted in this religion. In contrast to Christians, Hindus believe in several gods and goddesses which are worshipped in temples or at shrines at home. Another difference is that Hindus traditionally believe in reincarnation. It means that one’s soul is reborn after death and the way of life determines the quality of the next life. However, one wishes to stop this cycle of rebirths so that one’s soul is released (in Hindi moksha) and not reborn. There are several ways to gain moksha, for example through rituals, sacrifices, mantras or exercises.
Closely connected to Hindu religion is the caste system. It is based on the early Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. There are mainly four castes: Brahmins, who are priests and scholars, Kshatryas, who are military forces and the ruling class, Vaishyas, who are merchants, and Shudras, workers, farmers and servants. Only male members of the first three castes are considered as reborn and are thus allowed to read the Holy Scriptures called veda. In addition there are also Asprishyas, the Untouchables, and Adivasis, the oppressed native population. Together they make up about one fourth of the Indian population but do not have a place in the traditional caste system. Within the four castes there is a subdivision into about 3000 subcastes (jatis) that correspond to occupations. The affiliation to a (sub-)caste is fixed by birth and cannot be changed by an individual. Within the traditional caste system many people, especially Asprishyas, were discriminated which was justified by the belief in reincarnation and the belief that the position in the social hierarchy is determined by the way of life in a previous life. Therefore the government has endeavoured to establish a principal of equality among Indians during the last decades. Caste barriers have already largely broken down in larger cities.
3. The concept of femininity in Hinduism
In the following chapter the role of women in Hinduism in the past but also of recent years will be described. In their works Ulrike Agster (1992) and Katharina Poggendorf-Kakar (2002) already analysed the concept of femininity and family within Hinduism. They concentrated on women of the urban middle class as are depicted in the Hero’s Walk, too. It is mainly their results which will be the foundation of the following chapter. The focus, however, will be on the facts that are in connection with the female characters in Badami’s novel .
According to holy Scriptures – an important one is The Laws of Manu (here cited in German from Hüttner) – the role of women in Hinduism is an inferior one. In general one can say that traditionally a woman is subordinated to men throughout her whole life: as a child she has to obey her father, as an adult she is under her husband’s control and after his death under her son(s)’s or other men’s control:
In der Kindheit muß eine Frau von ihrem Vater abhängen, in ihrem jungfräulichen Alter von ihrem Ehemann und wenn er tot ist, von ihren Söhnen, wenn sie keine Söhne hat, von den nahen Verwandten ihres Gatten, hat er aber keine hinterlassen, von den Verwandten ihres Vaters und wenn sie keine väterlichen Blutsfreunde hat, von Landsherren; eine Frau muß nie nach Unabhängigkeit streben. (Hüttner 123)
Therefore, the woman’s main task in life is to serve men and to submit to complete dependency.
A woman’s life starts already as a discriminated one. From early childhood onwards she has disadvantages concerning medical care, education and insufficient food supply which makes her more susceptible to diseases and results in higher death rates. In contrast to girls, boys get the best support parents can afford so that they can achieve the best social position possible. The reason is simple: after marriage women live in their husbands’ families and only they would profit from the girls’ education. The women themselves will neither support their own families nor receive any support (or inheritance) from them anymore. Furthermore it is very expensive for parents to have daughters because traditionally dowry has to be paid for a girl’s marriage. Dowries still exist today though officially prohibited in 1961 (“Prohibition Dowry Act”). Throughout all castes it amounts to approximately thirty times the monthly salary (cf. Bänziger 25) and often means financial problems or ruin to the parents. Agster (34) states that a marriage of one girl means expenses for the parents of approximately 4 to 8 per cent of the income of their complete lifetime. Thus it is understandable if parents see in daughters rather a burden than an enrichment. However, still today female adolescents think that without dowry it is difficult to find a good husband (cf. Poggendorf-Kakar 74).
Traditionally, there is only marriage for women. In Hinduism the concept of staying single – and living outside the family’s home – does not exist for women. The custom that parents arrange a marriage still exists today but children have a say in the arrangement as well. They usually have the chance to meet before, too. Interestingly enough a large number of today’s adolescents prefer arranged marriages (cf. Poggendorf-Kakar 71-72). There are also love matches but the majority of young people think that these break down more easily than arranged ones. Marriage is still considered such an important decision that young people rely upon their parents’ opinion. One reason for this might be that divorces are still disapproved and that marriage is considered a lifelong union. Another fact that has not yet changed very much is that the girl’s parents look for a husband within the same or higher subcaste. However, an important change has been the establishing of a minimum age for marriage in 1978 (“Child Marriage Restrain Act”) which is 21 years for men, 18 years for women. In the past girls used to get married already as small children. In the 19th century it was not unusual to marry 6-year-olds. (cf. Agster 33)
During marriage a wife always has to obey and worship her husband even if he is ill, violent or unfaithful. This is already stated in The Laws of Manu:
Sollte ein Ehemann auch die eingeführten Gebräuche nicht beachten, in eine andere Frau verliebt sein oder keine guten Eigenschaften haben, so muß eine tugendhafte Frau ihn doch immer als eine Gott verehren (Hüttner 124).
She is completely subordinate to his family, especially to her mother-in-law who often treats her rather as a maid than as her daughter-in-law. This usually lasts until she mothers a son and therefore gains good reputation by her husband’s family. Later a son is very important for her again if she becomes a widow and depends on his family’s welfare. This special relationship between mother and son(s) has negative effects on daughters-in-law: In conflict situations between his wife and his mother a husband primarily supports his mother rather than his wife (cf. Bänziger 26).
The wife’s dependency on her husband’s family has often lead and still leads to mental and physical violence against her. Dowry murder is one of the worst forms and mainly occurs in urban middle-class society. If a wife’s family cannot or does not want to pay more dowry or if the wife cannot or does not want to give birth to a boy she is killed so the husband can marry another woman. The murders – often burnings – can easily be disguised as (kitchen) accidents or suicides and therefore can hardly be proved. According to Bänziger (27) 600 women died of burning in Delhi within one year only. Although many women suffer marital violence – physically or mentally – they stay with their husbands or even commit suicide because it is considered disgraceful to return to the family or to get divorced which became legal in all Indian states in 1955 (“Hindu Marriage Act”). Another problem is that women do not have any financial support if they get divorced. Under these circumstances it is not astonishing that many women want to abort a female foetus or kill a female baby to prevent it from suffering under the same conditions as they did or still do.
In Hindu society the ideal of a good wife is called pativrata. She is supposed to honour her husband like a god and to promote his fortune and a long life. One expects of her gentleness, patience, obedience, chastity, subordination, loyalty and modesty, and that she suppresses individual needs (cf. Poggendorf-Kakar 41). It is believed that through her behaviour she can protect and support her husband on the one hand or she can weaken him on the other hand. Though it is discriminating, the concept is still accepted by the majority of Hindu women because subordination is considered a requirement for marital happiness. The fact that society believe in wives’ influence on their husbands’ fate can also be seen in the attitude towards widows as will be analysed in the following chapter.
In the past widows had the hardest life among women because they were excluded from community and had only little chance for rehabilitation. They were seen as fateful and were made responsible for their husband’s death. For example were they suspected of not having been a pativrata, a good wife. In addition they were considered to be dangerous because they would tempt other men of the community. On account to the fact that women were completely dependent on men, a woman who lost her husband had no social security and only few chances to survive. She either had a son who took care of her or her husband’s family did. Otherwise she had to beg for alms or work – apart for them working women were hardly acceptable. Even if she had been a very young widow it would not have been tolerated if she found a new husband. She was expected to remain chaste. In The Laws of Manu this is stated three times within only few lines:
Sie muß [...] nie den Namen eines anderen Mannes nach dem Ableben ihres Herrn nur von sich hören lassen. (Hüttner 124)
Aber eine Witwe, die, um Kinder zu haben, ihren verschiedenen Gatten dadurch verächtlich behandelt, daß sie noch einmal heiratet, zieht sich auf Erden Schanden zu und wird einst von dem Sitze ihres Herrn ausgeschlossen sein. (Hüttner 125)
[U]nd ein zweiter Ehemann wird in keiner Stelle des Gesetzbuches einer Frau erlaubt, welche tugendhaft sein will. (Hüttner 125)
In contrast to women, men were allowed to marry again (cf. Hüttner 126). As a result of these problems many widows chose to be cremated on the funeral pyre of their husband. Fortunately, these so-called suttees were prohibited in 1829. The prohibition of remarriage was officially abolished by the “Widow Remarriage Act” in 1856 but still today it is often considered immoral to marry again.
There are many other traditional rules for widows, some of them still existing today: As an outward sign they have shorn hair, wear white saris but no jewellery and do not use kumkum, a red powder to be rubbed into the parting of the hair. Traditionally widows confine themselves to only one meal a day and usually do not eat spicy food because onion, garlic and similar vegetables are supposed to have aphrodisiac qualities.
Today the stigmatisation of widows is more and more disapproved by younger generations and therefore the concept of a pativrata, an ideal wife, is being modified. Young women strive for more independent lives which include better education and a higher grade of self-determination concerning marriage, children and employment. However, still today unmarried women have a lower social status than married women. Except for an ascetic life there are actually no alternatives to marriage which is still seen as precondition of the procreation of children by the majority of people. (cf. Poggendorf-Kakar 44-49; 69)