Saturday, January 27, 2018

Of Women in Rajput Society and the Questions of Sati and Mirabai - Thoughts and Experiences

Letter from Mirabai and Tulsidas' Reply (courtesy 40kmph.com)
The recent outrages and controversy over the history of Maharani Padmavati of Mewar and the aptness of her valiant action has created quite a storm. One particular accusation that has been thrown around callously is the position and role of women in Rajput society, one of the most influential castes in Rajasthan, and having significant clout in almost all parts of north and east India in one way or the other barring perhaps Punjab, Bengal, and the Kashmir and Indo-Tibetan regions. The ancestry of Rajputs, mostly from the Gurjara Pratihara times, also has been discussed significantly even recently in the Swarajya article on the Karni Sena too. The article also highlighted caste tensions, more on which will be dwelt in another aspect in this article. Of course, I must qualify that my caste too is Rajput, though not from Rajasthan, but it is my observation that we have broadly the same cultural sensibilities despite these regional variations, and the position of women in our societies are almost identical but for a few regional discrepancies that come over centuries. With this piece on my own observations, as well as readings over time, I would like to sketch a broader understanding of the status of women in our caste, and tackle two particular questions which serve as absolute contrasts - the problem of Mirabaibai, and the question of imposing orthodox practices via Sati.

Orthodoxy of the Rajput Society - the Case of Sati in Point

The problem is that most people tend to think of only royal families, the rajwadas when it comes to Rajputs; however, Rajputs have also been found practising agriculture. So, for such a community, the role of a woman cannot be as restricted as one imagines. Women have to be in public, for there were several roles that they took upon themselves. Most liberal thinkers tend to paint Rajputs as an orthodox, oppressive, partiarchal society where women are nothing better than dirt. It cannot be further away from the truth. Rajput women tend to be stronger than men in the societal dynamics, often having a larger say despite their usual segregation in rural areas, while they are independent and assertive in the urban areas. Decisions taken by women, especially by the martriach of the household, tend to be pretty much the final word in the household affairs, and also in intra community dynamics at times. Even if the woman has donned her ghoonghat, it does not inhibit her from participating in social rituals, gatherings and are in fact viewed as moments of pride by the family in general. She drinks; she eats meat if she wants to, though she chooses to be a vegetarian; she dances with abandon amongst her peers and in front of men too, albeit with grace if she wants to. The levels of freedom that Rajput women have is perhaps unparalleled. However, the woman is also conscious of her Dharma, with which she has grown up. The Dharma of the kshatrani is not just to serve the kshatriya; it is also to become his guide and philosopher in times of doubt, and encourage him to perform his duty, his Dharma and even be an example of the same. Historical accounts of rajwada families and folklore of all Rajput communities across the north are full of stories where women smash the inflated egos of arrogant men, give great ideas of defence, community affairs, resource management, and even lead the fight against the enemy in times of need. She is not just the progenitor of the race, but is also the first teacher, who instils the values of valour, ferocity and courage in the child’s hearts, teaching him/her about their family’s greatness, its martial past, and how we should take pride in ourselves.

This may seem as a contrast to many people, given the false notion that Rajput women are a highly oppressed lot. Practices like Sati among other evils, seen as tools of oppression, were much talked about by the British and subsequent modern Indian historical fabricators, as Dr. Meenakshi Jain has also pointed out. The earliest record of the practice of Sati is found in the Rig Veda; however, a proper kshatriya account probably comes from the Mahabharata, where Madri jumps in to the pyre with Pandu’s dead body voluntarily. Nowhere is she asked to do so, and it is a decision not taken under any duress. One also knows that Sati was probably concentrated only amongst the Rajputs and kshatriyas, and no one else . Most liberal scholars casually call it bride burning, while others call it suicide by abetment; one must note however that this cannot be called either of the two. Sati amongst Rajputs is seen as a sacred, brave act, where the woman chooses to give up everything she views as sacrosanct, as important in her life, and sets an example of being a true kshatrani in that moment. For the Rajput community, women committing Sati are in fact worshipped as Mata, as Devi, as someone who has set an example of valour for many - not to allow the fear of death to come in the way of your duty at any cost. That transcendence is powerful, in sync with the idea of karma, where she has probably concluded her time on earth too. It is also not out of the purview of her Dharma, for she has not grieved over her husband’s demise; rather, she has decided to join him. Given the semi-prophetic belief in the continuity of the bonds in the next life. It is not even an agni-pareeksha, as some would have it put sardonically - it is not a test of her loyalty or sanctity, and no one is being forced to do it. It is also not suicide in any sense, as an escapist oriented Abrahamic structure would want us to believe. In the famous Roop Kanwar case too, one must understand that no one was being asked to commit ritualistic suicide in any way. Sati has always been a rare practice amongst women, for they too live in a society, and have to think of various factors in case an untimely death happens, especially if there are elders and children to be taken care of. If Sati were so common regency would never have happened even in the rajwadas, forget management of the fields and the daily chores in the common households. The only thing that perhaps comes close to the idea of Sati anywhere else in the world is the Japanese practice of seppuku, where the perpetrator is not viewed as a coward but as a braveheart, a legend worthy of mention. However, the contrast with which both these practices are seen are worthy of note - while one is glorified, the other is seen as a dastardly act.



The Problem of Mirabai

Having laid out a broad framework of the powerful role that Rajput women have played, one wonders why Mirabai, the great Mewari poet saint, tends to be such a problem point for the Rajput community even today. Mirabai’s place in the Rajput society is one of contradictions, and yet not - the concept of Rajarshi has always been there, as could be seen with characters like Vishwamitra in the Mahabharata. It is however her non-conformity to the grhastha ashrama that has always been the bone of contention. P Mukta had noted in Manushi years ago how the memory of Mirabaibai was a problem for the Sisodiya Rajputs in general, as they believe that Mirabai had forsaken her duty as a daughter in law and queen. She had not chosen to live the life of a widow, but had instead decided to live the life of a bhakta, a gopika of Shri Krishna in fact, calling herself his wife even after the Rathore had passed away. Her memory however, has been preserved, as Mukta pointed out, amongst the other castes, who have been in the contest of social space with the Rajputs for centuries. That is not true, as other Rajput communities have whole heartedly embraced her memory too. I personally am of the view that she did not respect society in any way or defy structures except in her own case, as some are wont to believe in search of early feminists or caste fighters. Her bhajans, which also probably contain her life’s story, do give such indications. One of her famous bhajans, karam ki gati nyari, has a wonderful line in it, where she praises the learned, the pandita, and laments as to why the foolish tend to become kings in their absence. In another, she hints at performing her own final rites at Pushkar by talking about racing to the holy town like a cloud. Her jeevan charitra shows her as an example of a bhakti yogi, one whose supreme devotion takes her beyond everything. Her interactions with Goswami Tulsidas, himself a grhastha, also captured in beautiful bhajans of their own right, show that bhakti was considered supreme, even bigger than anything else that possibly mattered in life. It is Tulsidas in fact who asked her to leave her home, as she was being kept away from her understanding of her Dharma. However, this was done after she had become a widow. Therefore, it is truly the matter of grhastha that should be seen as a problem. This was a problem even for the Sikhs, who had incorporated her bhajans in the Gurbani too, only to be dropped at the last minute, as she did not completely fit with the pantheon of grhastha saints like Kabir and Namdev.

Another important thing is the interaction of Mirabai with Mughals. It is relevant to note the times around which her story plays out - there is the struggle of Mewar to stay relevant and free from the Mughal rule. Her insistence to live in Vrindavan, Mughal territory at the time, would send a wrong political signal, as is the case with most political asylums today. Note though that Mirabai did not ask for refuge from the Mughals in any way. Any interaction with the enemy in times of war or confrontation however, unless mandated by the state, is viewed as a grave sin against the authority of the state, and it cannot be seen any different at the time. Rashtra dharma is paramount, and hence, Mirabai is also seen as a problem point, even if she defied Mughal authority as per her legend.

In recent times, the Sisodiyas seem to have made some peace with the memory of Mirabai, as one can see in identifying her with places inside Chittor; however, it is something that will take time, just like any other community which also has its own ideas of what honor and pride would mean. However, do understand that the problem of Mira will continue for a while.It is a matter of evolution with time, and the recognition of the love and respect for Mira that will make all the difference. That does not however mean that she will ever be disrepected as a woman, or that the society is patriachy obsessed in any way. In her lifetime itself, the Rana of Mewar had asked her to live in Mewar and built a temple for here. The idol she worshipped was sacred to the Mewaris before it was transferred to Nurpur under various circumstances. If there was really an attempt to disrespect her, the temple would not have been allowed to come up in the first place, let alone stand, in Mewar by the Rathores.

These are my thoughts and observations on the way we see women in Rajput society. I don't know how this will be received, but I do hope there will be civilized discussion and deliberation. I do not intend to disrespect anyone. Honor is important, and I probably understand it better than others. But it is high time we also brought in our own experiences and fought back this weird narrative about us.

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