I’m not one for rituals. Growing up, my family was far from religious. When other families took extensive vacations to India touring endless temples and doing darshan, my brother and I took full advantage of the fact that my mother’s social obligations in India outweighed her pious ones. We were more than thrilled to bask in our air-conditioned Indian apartment, playing Nintendo, watching American television and awaiting hot pizza delivery from the newly established Dominos.
Don’t get me wrong-it wasn’t that we were Richard Dawkins-ites (well not yet, anyway) flouting our religious indifference and heathenish attitudes. Instead, we actually took on a more “spiritual” approach.
The term “religion” has come to embody dogma, rituals and an association with organized religiosity. “Spirituality” on the other hand, is advertised as a more inclusive concept where morals are permitted to be subjectively interpreted and ancient text or philosophy contains an intellectual component. My brother and I were raised on the latter; we were guided to question everything that we know, not to follow or believe anything blindly and to simply “be good and do good.”
Regardless of my mother’s aversion to organized religion, in our early childhood days, we did partake in a few religious rituals. We recited the aarti every night before bedtime, we knew core slokas and the meanings behind them, and spent every Sunday afternoon learning about Indian history, religion and culture. However, a full blown devotion to religion and its rituals never emerged.
My Mother’s Disbelief
I never saw my mother perform pooja. She never visited the temple and with her quick metabolic affinities, she would never even entertain the idea of fasting. Fasting inevitably involves some self-discipline, devotion, or a belief in good health, but my mother always maintained her disinterest towards the notion whenever she was pelted with questions and stares of disbelief for abstaining from fasting.
It would naturally follow that I never participated in the like either. One year, I got caught up in the hype of wanting to fast so that I would “get a good husband” (as common myths foretold) but after a few hours without a cheeseburger, that plan quickly dissipated into thin air.
Keeping Karva Chauth
Imagine then, the disconnect of me looking forward to the Indian tradition of Karva Chauth where wives are supposed to fast for their husbands to preserve the husband’s health, wealth and happiness.
The holiday falls in October or November, four (chauth) days after the new moon. The wives are to fast from sunrise until the first sighting of the moon, after which it is permissible to eat.
Of course, much like many Hindu auspicious occasions, the idea behind Karva Chauth stems from many different legends and tales. One says that a beautiful queen was duped by her brothers to break her fast, and that her husband suffered lifelong physical impairment as a result and was only cured once his wife committed to fasting throughout Karva Chauth. Another story claims that a woman, who was devoted to her husband, threatened to curse the god of death when he was about to take her husband. Because the god of death was convinced that the woman’s devotion was so powerful and that her curse might come true, he set her husband free. Folklore such as these can be relevant in that they teach a moral or a specific value; however, parables that are designed to dispense infinite wisdom are not always applicable in modern day nor do the original intentions reflect those sincere beliefs. Additionally, declining an invitation to lunch with your coworkers on Karva Chauth naturally provokes questions about fasting, which when iterated out loud sounds completely archaic.
Moreover, if your husband isn’t observing the fast as well, he will undoubtedly (and perhaps inadvertently) become a bull’s eye target for the masochist remarks incredulous feminists are eager to launch.
In an age of prolific social networking, where one’s personal information is blasted for your closest 1,000 friends to see and stalk, nothing remains private. Facebook statuses, blog posts and Instagram pictures reflect those of your friends who celebrate Karva Chauth, those who scoff at it and those who have no idea what it is.
Legends and Stories
For me, my appreciation of Karva Chauth peaked when I was looking up the origins of the holiday. Much like the rationale-defying traditions in Hindu religion that I usually sidestep, I expected this one to be no different. Most of the legends and stories I looked up described the tradition and the frills that go along with it; however, it had me questioning the actual purpose of the fast.
I then came across another article that described Karva Chauth as seasonally occurring at a time when men were usually off to war for undesignated periods of time. Their wives would fast as a prayer for the husbands’ health and safe return. For some reason, this anecdote struck a chord.
I imagined myself in a remote village, stripped of modern day conveniences with my husband gone for months at a time not knowing whether he was dead or alive. Considering I go into hyper-paranoia if I don’t get an “I’m fine” text from him during partying hours, I can’t even fathom being away from him for such a long time, let alone not knowing whether he was ok.
Perhaps it’s naïve and hackneyed to assume that wives were so desperate for their husband’s safe return that they contrived a plea exchange to ensure their husband’s safety. For me, it represents a defining act of love. An act to demonstrate the sliver of hope, faith or belief that one’s devotion and sacrifice could be enough to bring back a loved one home safe and sound.
An Indian Valentine’s Day
Though pop culture now deems this celebration a modern day “Valentine’s Day” where husbands eagerly await the first moon sighting with their wife, Karva Chauth is just another reason to celebrate the commitment to sacrifice and the extent one will go for their spouse.
While I logically know it’s not necessary for me to starve myself to prove I love my husband, it’s the symbolism and emotional power behind the story that propels my desire to fast.
I was inexplicably blessed to marry the man of my dreams, who not only treats me like a queen every day of my waking and sleeping life, but showers me with an undeserving amount of love and affection, sacrifices his desires in place of mine, and takes care of me in the way every father dreams of for his daughter.
Whether he condones the fast or whether he doesn’t observe it with me is completely irrelevant. Because the way he will lovingly feed me a bite of my cheeseburger from In N Out when we first see the moon makes that moment worth a million morsels.
Meera Agarwalla lives in San Francisco, where she is currently working for a legal recruiting firm and volunteers as a pro bono attorney for gender based and political asylum claims. She loves traveling, reading, writing, and feeding her husband.