This past Karva Chauth, a friend in the Bay Area wrote on Facebook that she was thirsting for a drop of water. Karva Chauth is a Hindu ritual where wives fast for the health and longevity of their husbands.
A great advantage of being a Bengali is that I do not have to participate in this annual ritual. A greater advantage of being a free thinker is that I get to choose my rituals and one that prevents me from accessing a drop of water when I need it, does not make my top ten list. I did not know how to help her other than by writing about this obscurantist practice.
Draupadi, from the Hindu epic Mahabharata, fasted on the day of Karva Chauth for the long life of her husband, Arjuna. This legend is one of many that Indian women draw on from Indian myths to justify the day-long fast. Their husbands are supposed to benefit from this sacrifice and live longer than their normal “three score years and ten.” Using Draupadi as a role model is of particular interest to me because by the same token, the modern Indian women should be allowed to have five husbands.
Karva Chauth was originally supposed to be a day when “sisters” felicitated each other. The bride, a pretty young thing, made friends with another young girl at her husband’s home and the two girls, “sisters.”
celebrated Karva Chauth by giving each other gifts in clay pots (karvas), and performing some rituals. Over time, this innocent pastime has been converted to a day of fasting for the welfare of the husband. The wife has to fast until she sees the image of the moon, not directly but as a reflection on her thali (plate) or through a diaphanous material. The circumstances that initiated this ritual hardly exist in this day and age.
The bastardization of the ritual, that may have been created to ensure the woman’s total compliance to her husband’s agenda, seems anachronistic. And we are perfectly capable of staring at the moon directly, thank you very much.
In ancient lore, if the woman did cheat on her fast, the consequences were supposed to be fatal for her husband. He might die, as happened to Queen Veeravati, whose brothers, feeling sorry for her, showed her a false moon and gave her the license to eat and drink. This legend of a man’s death being blamed on the infelicitous behavior of his wife seems to have been written by a male chauvinist.
Women are powerful creatures. We raise children and run companies. We are not malevolent planets who can bring on death. (Even malevolent planets cannot bring on death, though they have been conveniently used to explain the occasional heart attack or stroke.) Neither can extreme cases of Pativrata (rituals for the well being of the husband) stave death. The myth of the devoted Savitri who literally snatched her husband back from the jaws of death is just that, a myth; an unproved or false collective belief that is used to justify a social institution.
Several years ago I was introduced to Karva Chauth by a friend, who I’ll call Lakshmi. Lakshmi had just married a Muslim orthopaedist and did this elaborate ritual to show him the value of a Hindu wife (by her own admission). I was not married at the time and I believed that this rite created a sisterhood of married women and excluded those who did not have husbands; a sort of “those who do not have husbands need not apply.”
I don’t think my friend’s deprivations endeared her to her stern husband any more than usual and he continued to be the same tyrant, rather than an avatar of Vishnu. (In his case a daylong fast meant nothing because he was accustomed to a month long fast every year.)
Not all men are tyrants, though, and there are loving men out there who appreciate their wives going through all this trouble for them. Several men would probably want to fast with their wives. That understanding does not suddenly lend credence to a myth. My point is that the wife could just as well take the trouble to draw a bubble bath for the husband, or cook him a meal fit for a sweet prince of Denmark.
Come Karva Chauth, many women, dressed in all their finery, troop out to see the moon, after a day of “hungry rats gallivanting in their stomachs” (again, I quote) and their complacent, fattened hubbies feel very good about all of these rituals done for their benefit. These are age-old traditions that have about as much meaning as baby shower games. It is the meaning we invest in these rituals that give them the power over us. Indian women, I do believe, need to learn how to be firm but kind; they need to learn the power of a simple “no” without getting tyrannical.
And we need to believe that we can stare at the moon any which way we please. In fact, if we so wish, we can go and live there now that we know that the moon has water and is inhabitable in theory. A myth is not inhabitable, even in theory.
Pia Ganguly is the owner of the apparel and fashion company Pia Ka Ghar.