Hindu Festivals, Women and New Patriarchal Trends

Last Wednesday, my mother more or less screamed in my ears to wake me up even as I practically begged her to let me sleep. But she would not let me rest until I dragged my sick body – sore and frail – to the washroom. Between painful bouts of cough and prolonged spells of dizziness, I shivered at the touch of cool water. But I had to get going. My mother would not let me rest until the dewy slice of full moon hanging in the sky was looked at and duly worshipped.

It was Kumar Purnima, after all. Throughout the day, my mother would expect me to don new attire, maintain a starch-free diet, and break my fast by looking at the moon in the evening, again. All of this was to be done in the anticipation of a young, moon-like groom – the Kumar. Shortly after, my social media would be filled with dozens of young girls, with flowers in their hair and heena on their palms, gazing lovingly at the moon, praying for the Kumar of their dreams.

Festivals and patriarchy 

Kumar Purnima is one of many festivals that Odia households celebrate. Every state in India has its own share of festivals that are celebrated with a lot of pomp and show. I wish I could partake in the fervour without looking at the problematic side of some of these festivals. Most are celebrated in the upper class, dominant caste households and are inherently patriarchal. On the other hand, festivals like Onam have lost their due significance, and have been largely Brahminised and bourgeoisised.

This trend of homogenisation of festivals is not limited to Onam. Earlier this month, my mother celebrated Navaratri. For nine days, she remained on a vegetarian, starch and salt free diet, steadfastly guarding an oil lamp throughout the night. She ended the festival by worshipping and feeding nine ‘pure’ Hindu girls.

Growing up, I have no recollection of such activities. Dussehra was always marked by pandal-hopping, elaborate meals and short trips. The incorporation of these rituals has been a nascent development, mostly influenced by the now everywhere godmen and astrologers who strongly believe in feeding crows on Saturday to appease Shani Mahadev.

These festivities meant for the prosperity and well-being of the family have caused great distress to the entire family – especially my mother. Yet these are things that have to be done – it appears the promise of prosperity in the future is greater than a moment of peace in the present.

On the health of women

Over the last decade, fresh debates have emerged about the connect between Hindu festivals and a healthy lifestyle. For instance, ‘research’ and several WhatsApp forwards have suggested – rather, established – that rituals like fasting are synonymous with the western idea of ‘detox’ or ‘fruit cleanse’.

While I am no nutritionist to rule for or against ‘fruit diets’, I can but look at my own lived experiences. My mother is a 52-year-old woman with a slew of existing medical conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, sciatica and a chronic cold. Yet almost every month, she tends to find a fresh festival to celebrate and a new excuse to fast.

Also read: Depression, Diwali and Darkness

If one looks closely, there is a close connection between Hindu festivals and the role of the ideal Hindu woman. Whether it is Kumar Purnima, Savitri, Karwa Chauth or Khudurukuni, an ideal woman fasts; and this fast is never to be observed for oneself. It is chiefly associated with the longevity of their spouse, brother, or done simply in the anticipation of a ‘perfect’ groom. This is the price one has to pay – a health detriment that women are conditioned to happily ‘choose’ and accept, for the prosperity of their loved ones. How does one separate patriarchy from such rituals, then?

A millennial understanding of Hindu festivals

In recent days, an ad showing a same-sex couple celebrating Karwa Chauth. Before the home minister of Madhya Pradesh issued a threat and Dabur took the ‘progressive’ ad down for ‘hurting the sentiments’ of people, the LGBTQIA+ community had spoken against the company over their convenient attempt at rainbow-washing while blatantly promoting colourism through their product. Further, the ad also placed the couple smack within the confines of hetero-patriarchal institutions.

Without a doubt, millennials by and large take a lot of pride in upholding tradition and culture without any objection or critique. While one is at liberty to celebrate, it is also imperative that one scrutinises the design of these festivals and the rationale – or lack thereof – behind them.

Sanchita Dwivedi is a Women’s Studies scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She can be found playing with dogs and drinking copious amounts of coffee, when not on bed wallowing in pandemic woes. 

Featured image credit: Pixabay