Because It Gives Me Peace of Mind: Ritual Fasts in the Religious Lives of Hindu Women

Because It Gives Me Peace of Mind: Ritual Fasts in the Religious Lives of Hindu Women

Because It Gives Me Peace of Mind: Ritual Fasts in the Religious Lives of Hindu Women

Because It Gives Me Peace of Mind: Ritual Fasts in the Religious Lives of Hindu Women

Synopsis

Explores the history and nature of vrats (ritual fasts) in text and practice, and the roles these rites play in the lives of Hindu women in North India.

Excerpt

In the 1970s I had the good fortune of living and travelling in India for several years, first with my parental family, then alone, before I returned to undertake dissertation field research in the North Indian city of Banaras. Ibis experience in my teens and early twenties set the stage for my scholarly interest in Indian culture and religious history. Occasionally while travelling, I came across women who were fasting. Fasting was clearly such a commonplace activity and women mentioned it so matter-of-factly that I did not pay too much attention to this phenomenon except to use it as an excuse to refuse food or hospitality from time to time when I felt ill at ease or ill of stomach. It was an immediately understood cultural idiom: "of course, she's fasting" (vah vrat hi rakh rahi hai)--nothing more need be said.

I mention this observation partly to suggest that one of the reasons vrats and the vrat tradition were largely overlooked by the mostly male Western scholarly community over the last century is that the very ubiquitousness of vrats and their close association with women's practices rendered this tradition almost invisible. the vrat tradition, if it was noticed at all, was seen to be largely inconsequential to an understanding of the foundations and "core" of Hinduism. When particular vrats were noticed and described in journals by early ethnographers, they sometimes appear as a curiosity: "Pirlya--A Curious Folk Rite," or their aims depicted as superficial: "Bratas in Bengal: a Cult of Beauty."

Attitudes about the insignificance of the vrat tradition for an appreciation of Indian culture have persisted into the present. Some educated Hindu men I met looked at me with genuine puzzlement when I explained to them that I had come to India to study vrats. a typical response was: "Why would you want to study vrats?" meaning, what is there to say about them? of course, other Hindus expressed a different view and understood vrats to be very important, laudable rites.

I first learned about the connection between the "fasts" which women had told me they were keeping, and which I sometimes . . .

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