Hinduism: Religion, Tradition, Superstition, Modernity, Law

The media coverage of Smriti Irani's attendance in a funeral and the forced tonsuring of men and trimming of women's nails in a Jharkhand village warrant education in Hinduism


Two pieces of news this morning must disturb the Hindu society. One, the coverage of Smriti Irani’s participation in the funeral of her murdered aide Surendra Singh has the -illiterate mainstream media lauding the Amethi MP for breaking the “men only” ritual. Two, residents of a village in Jharkhand have forcibly tonsured the heads of nine men and trimmed the nails of seven women who had voluntarily not participated in the act after a fellow villager died. The fashionable, feminist mainstream media, comprising journalists mostly from English language schools, would be well-advised to study some reliable, translated versions of the nation’s ancient scriptures before heaping scorn on Hinduism. Nowhere in its sacred books does the religious civilisation hold that women are debarred from performing the last rites. While Irani endeared to the villagers of Baraulia and Amarbojha in Amethi with her condolence and humane assurances to the bereaved family, there was no need for a section of reporters to impress her by projecting Hindus as a regressive society. The exclusivity of men in funerals developed as a logical practice, as society believed the house must be kept guarded when all the male members were in the cremation ground. Second, while some feminists would take exception to the assumption, it is widely accepted the world over that efforts must be made to protect women from trauma and, particularly, possible frightful scenes like the skeletal remains bursting out of the pyre when it’s set on fire. There is one superstition involved, of course, which dictates that virgin women could be attacked by ghosts and, so, only the married among women could visit the smashana. Finally, the funeral is followed by tonsuring the head of all participants on return — or on the day of shraddha — which women, especially the married ones, could not be a part of because a shaved head denoted widowhood. The practice had a biological reason wherein hair and nails were supposed to be carriers of harmful microbes that the funeral procession might have come back home with from the cremation ground where many might have died of infectious diseases.

Otherwise in Hinduism, Lord Vishnu lists to Garuda those who are eligible to participate in funerals and perform the last rites and, in the list, the women are not forbidden. But if these journalists indeed do not have the inclination to learn up the scriptures, they could still be asked logically if Irani is the first person who has “broken the tradition”, how come they had used the same description when Pankaja had performed the rites for her father Gopinath Munde five years ago? What do families that coincidentally have no men do when someone, from among the kin, dies? What is curiously reassuring, journalists across the globe appear to turn ecstatic at the prospect of some tradition being broken. That is to say that alone is not being targeted. Two days ago, the Queen of England was reported to have broken the tradition by participating in the funeral of an aide of hers. Four years ago, an Afghan woman performing the Islamic rite for a dead person had turned the media orgasmic. No wonder, over a period of time, the mainstream media has been losing credibility, thanks to such frivolous, superficial commentary.

But the incident from the Seraikela-Kharsawan district of Jharkhand cannot be condoned. This is a custom prevalent not only in this State but also in Bihar and large parts of Purvanchal in Uttar Pradesh. The death of a fellow villager pushes the entire menfolk of the hamlet to the local barber. This is in accordance with neither a provision in the scriptures nor any superstition. It’s a tradition handed down the generations in such clans that had begun their existence as newly settled nomads comprising mostly blood relations. A village was literally a large family with uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces. A comparable scene is observed in north-western India where an entire Jat village would have one gotra! Ergo, in such a scenario, the whole village had to participate in a funeral and, thereafter, all the men had to be tonsured. While no village remained a preserve of one family in due course, the tradition did not end, as new additions from outside the principal family in every human settlement happened gradually rather than abruptly. The incident of Jharkhand calls for social reform, which the gram pradhans of the area may deliberate upon in panchayat meetings. Even in the religious beliefs that are documented, there is no scope for force. Even the son of a dead man or woman, upon whom falls the ordained duty, cannot be forced into any ritual. If he is a believer, he is told by the holy books what could befall him in his afterlife. As a modernist or reformist, he is free to ignore the religious advice. wouldn’t banish him for that.

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Finally, if the culprits of the forced act did this because they believed that the victims were practitioners of black magic, no word is strong enough to condemn the deed. They must be meted out punishment according to the most stringent provision of the law. Further, more and more States must amend their laws, emulating the one in Assam that makes witch-hunting a cognisable, non-bailable and non-compoundable offence.

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