Last Friday, many Hindu wives performed the Varalakshmi Puja. This is a ritual that is ostensibly supposed to be for the protection of the husband and family, and the granting of all wishes (as a side note, the well-being of the family is generally assumed to be all that the ideal Hindu wife wishes for).
The altar is elaborately decorated, multiple dishes are prepared as offerings, other married women are invited to receive symbolic gifts, the ritual itself is performed and the accompanying story is read aloud. Having played the game right, the good wife then touches her husband’s feet to get his blessings.
In this version, the potential for outrage immediately becomes clear, especially if you are an educated woman who sees no way to justify your ideal of equality in marriage with this clearly asymmetrical power balance. I admit that for many years I performed the puja a little unwillingly, more to fulfill cultural and family obligations than out of any personal spiritual conviction.
To understand the level of outrage, you really need to know the story. And so, here is the nutshell version:
The goddess Parvathi asked her Lord Shiva to recommend a ritual that even (significant word) women of any (significant word) caste could perform. We gather from this that generally rituals were performed by Brahmin men. (Since my focus is on gender here I won’t deal with caste for now. But I am aware of the elephant in the room.)
Shiva described the Varalakshmi Puja as one such ritual, and explained how it was to be done, as well as what benefits it would confer. In response to Parvathi’s question about who had done the ritual before, Shiva narrated the story of Charumathi, a Brahmin lady who did Everything Right (I can’t seem to keep the sarcasm out. Forgive me.) She would wake up at an unearthly hour, do all the housework, pay obeisance to her husband and her in-laws, and generally was a paragon of wifely virtue according to the Hindu creed.
As a reward the goddess Varalakshmi appeared to her in a dream and described a ritual to her. She woke up and told all the ladies in the town about it (clearly a very efficient system of communication) and got them all so hyped up that when the day came they didn’t let her forget and descended on her house ready to perform the ritual. They cooked the offerings and decorated the altar. Then they proceeded to walk three rounds around the altar. When they had completed the first round, anklets appeared magically on their feet. At the end of the second round it was bangles on their wrists, and after the third round they were covered in assorted jewelry. Presumably this was supposed to be the reward for their devotion.
As a young bride I was horrified at what I saw as a shallow tale of materialistic gratification under a thin veneer of religious manipulation. I know of people who perform the ritual and leave out the story because it makes their hackles rise. There are others who simply pay no attention to the story, focusing on the decoration of the altar, the entertainment of their visitors and the general sense of wellbeing that any communal event seems to give rise to.
But years of performing the puja, and recent transitions in my life, have given me a new paradigm within which to place the ritual. I think that the story of Charumathi is really a form of coded feminine empowerment.
It seems to me that the chastity and faith of the woman sanctifies the man and his family. It places a terrible moral burden on the woman, but if you are in a position to do the ritual then that indicates a desire or at least an opportunity for the attainment of a higher spiritual plane.
Despite the discomfort about the story details, it’s not really about the man or his parents at all. It’s about the investment of divine power in the feminine, in a context of male-dominated ritual. In Rigvedic times there is supposed to have been more equality between men and women, but that was a really long time ago. Along with changes in socio-political contexts come modifications to religion, since this is possibly the easiest way to control whole populations while making them believe it is for their own good.
In any case, there developed a situation in which men were the custodians of ritual, and this of course invested them with a certain amount of social status and power. The overt empowerment of the feminine in this context would have been impossible without upsetting a few apple carts. Hence the coding of the ritual as a sub-level of spiritual empowerment, apparently trivializing women’s aspirations by representing them as mere baubles, but perhaps in reality using the trinkets as a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. And the women were in control the whole time.
I have written in a previous post about Indian women and our resorting to passive aggression in the face of learned helplessness. Whatever Charumathi was, she was far from helpless. And you have to hand it to her- that was one kickass stunt she pulled. Who knew if her dream was even real? But more importantly, who would dare to mess with her after that?
In many parts of the world, it could be argued that education is moving women forward, but large numbers are still subject to terrible discrimination. In that kind of situation anything that advances the cause of women is a good thing but only if it is viewed as such. In these countries, Western models of feminism are often seen as strident, alien and unfeminine. Perhaps the answer lies in decoding traditional tales and rites, and investing them with meanings that invoke the power of the feminine.