“Friends, Women & Religious Men, Lend Me Your Ears, I Come Light The Funeral Pyre Not Hide From It”

Atal Bihari Vajpayee's foster daughter Namita Bhattacharya after performing his funeral rites | PTI Photo/Manvender Vashist

Only if a Mark(ess) Antony(a) could have said something about women having the strength, right and will to light funeral pyres back in Rome, even that speech would have been famous and quoted every now and then. And I wouldn’t have to write this article. But that didn’t happen. So here we are.

What do Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Gopinath Munde, and my father have in common? No, my dad wasn’t a part of BJP. Their last rites were performed by their daughters.

There have been three distinct reactions to women performing last rites. The first one hails the progress and looks at it as a forward step for women in general within religion. They see it as part of the evolution of religion and society. The second is the conservative backlash. Equal and opposite reactions. The third is of religious people defending the allegation that their religion is patriarchal and women performing the last rites, is simply ‘not what our ancestors did’. The third type goes so far as to claim that religion has specifically barred women from performing last rites. They are wrong!

According to the Garuda Purana, one of the eighteen Mahapuranas, the son should perform the Sapinda ceremony, as laid down in the scriptures. Pinda is the rice ball used in the moksha ritual and Sapinda implies a generational bond through the rice balls offerings. According to the text, only one son should perform the rites; first the offering of a rice-ball and other things for the father. The husband should perform the Sapinda ceremony for his wife if she has no son; he should do the Sapinda for her along with the mother-in-law and others.

As with other patriarchal religious traditions, there is always a kinder explanation that makes oppression digestible. It’s like mixing Valium in coffee to put someone to sleep. Most religious women are surprisingly attached to and defensive about the very chains holding them back. They are brainwashed all their lives into believing that chains of gold are fashionable jewellery, that gives them strength and makes them who they are.

Photo: renegadetribune.com

In case of the requirement of a male member performing the last rites, the palatable explanations are; women are generally sensitive and performing the last rites might irreparably damage their hearts. They might faint, they might not be able to go through the whole procedure. Speaking from experience I can say that no one fully recovers from seeing their loved one’s dead body. That is human attachment, has nothing to do with gender. Women might express their emotions more frequently and more freely relative to men because toxic masculinity has men repressing their emotions to their detriment. Some studies also show that men are more sensitive than women in general.

Secondly, religious purists also argue that women can’t perform the last rites because they would be pregnant or menstruating. If pregnant the mental trauma might be injurious to both mother and child. If menstruating then just “yuck”. If a menstruating woman can pollute the non-existent (read deities) she pollutes the departed as well. By that logic, no one should perform last rites because the blood flowing through our veins since birth has evolved from the period blood. Wrap your head around this before being grossed out by uterine blood.

The third one is less kind. Married women are not considered daughters of their parents home after marriage, paraya dhan and all that. They are strictly daughters of their in-laws therefore not allowed to perform last rites. If the daughter is unmarried at the time of the death of parents, she must be a virgin (because marriage is the licence to have sex) so her purity is damaged by the evil spirits lurking in cremation grounds.

According to some answers on Quora (the illegitimate offspring of Wikipedia) when all male members of the family leave for cremation, someone has to be in the house to clean it and take care of it. And traditionally, this is the duty of the household women. Hence, women stay at home. Simple.

The real reason why Hindu women were barred from performing funeral rites has nothing to do with health, blood or emotions. It boils down to property, the basis of patriarchy. Before succession was governed by law, it was regulated by two major schools of Hindu law, Mitakshara and Dayabhaga, both based on Manu’s law.

Photo: fromoutsidethemall.wordpress.com

The text of Manu dictates: ‘to the nearest Sapinda the inheritance next belongs…’ The basic difference between the two schools arose on their different modes of interpretation of the term ‘sapinda’. To Mitakshara it meant the nearest in blood specifically the male descendant. However, if the choice is between a daughter’s son and a son’s daughter, the former would be preferable to the latter. According to the Dayabhaga school one who is competent to perform the last rites is Sapinda and thus succession naturally accrues to the person who lights the funeral pyre. This is how women were excluded from inheritance, by denying them the right to perform the last rites.

It is strange that in ancient India women were expected have the strength to jump alive into the funeral pyre and become a Sati but they were considered to not have enough strength to light it?

Coming back to women performing the last rites, it’s not a feminist scheme to claim property. I cannot speak for others but I did it simply because he would have wanted me to.


Radha is a lawyer and preparing for civil services. She is a feminist (no that's not a bad word), environmentalist and potterhead. She loves superheroes but is an agnostic/ atheist.

1 Comment
  1. Thanks for writing this. Hopefully it will enlighten some souls. I am glad to know that you got a chance to bid goodbye to your father. I am a man but your words resonate through my mind too. I clicked on the link accidentally looking at the beautiful phrase and I am grateful that I did. I love the courage you had in researching for this topic.

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