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Why widows wear white and shave their heads?

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Why is a woman made to shave her head and wear a white saree when her husband dies?

Shaving of the head, wearing a white cloth, and other practices are part of a vow known as the vidava-vrata, undertaken by a widow. At the time that the husband dies, the widow takes to a life of vows, and by so doing she will attain the same planet as the husband. This is the aim of the vrata of widowhood. They believe in life after death.

A lady does not become the widow of a man who is impious or a criminal. The vow of widowhood is not taken for such people. You only take a widowhood vrata for someone who has attained a higher destination in life. You become his widow so that you can go to the same destination and serve him there.


When one takes to this vrata, one becomes the widow of a particular husband. There is no question of just being a widow. In English when you say "widow", it does not have to be the widow of a particular person. It is just a status, like married, single, or widowed. But in "vidava" it is not a status. It is particularly connected with that husband, and only undertaken if he was a pious man. Previously, if someone's husband was an impious person, while he lived the wife would serve him dutifully, but once he died she did not have to undertake the vidava-vrata for him. If he was going to hell, why would you want to go to the same destination as him? The vidava-vrata is only accepted if the husband was pious and had attained a higher destination.


There are many aspects to the vrata, such as shaving, sleeping on a stone, and other things. It is not only limited to shaving and wearing a white cloth. This is the modern application of the vidava-vrata, but it is just a pointless external ritual. While externally dressing as widows, at the same time, they are eating rasa-gulas, gulabjamuns and going to movies; that is is not widowhood. It is not the vow of renunciation of the vidava-vrata.


If she is taking the vidava vrata then she is taking to a life of renunciation. She must sleep on a stone, not a soft bed. Practically all the vows that the Jains follow for sannyasa are present in the vidaha-vrata (vow of widowhood).


Women apply kumkum (sindur) or bindi since childhood. Why is it removed on the death of the husband?

Sindur is the sign of having a husband. Since she is a widow, she stops wearing it. It is something like when a soldier is not working in the army he doesn't wear his uniform. Sindur is a sign of mangalya. Sindur is put on the girl when the husband marries her, so when the husband dies she removes it.


The husband is never made to undergo such cruel customs on the death of his wife. Why is this discrimination made in Hinduism?

The husband also takes to a vow of renunciation, but he does so at the age of fifty. Traditionally the wife was always younger than the husband by many years, and as such it was most common that the husband would die before the wife. For this reason the man's vows of renunciation do not depend on the death of his wife, but on his age.


The scriptures have advised the men as follows:


pancasordhvam vanam vrajet


"After crossing fifty years one should go to the forest."


The vow of renunciation is also there for men. The man should leave his wife in the care of his fully grown son, and take to a life of vows. At first the man will take the vows of the vana-prastha ashrama, wherein he will continue living with his wife in the forest while practicing various vows of austerity. After following these vows for 25 years, at the age of 75, he will formally accept the sannyasa-ashram, at which time it is considered that he has socially died. The wife will be left with the son to be taken care of, and she will also accept the renounced life of a widow. Thus both husband and wife undertake similar vows in their old age to prepare themselves for death and the afterlife.


Yours in service,


Jahnava Nitai Das,

Bhaktivedanta Ashram


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  • 4 years later...

In Gujarat, When husband dies, widow’s relatives tear off her ornaments. Then on second day in “Besna”, she sits near her husband’s photo and all relatives express sympathy for her widowhood and blessing her holy widowhood. Then on fourth day in “chudikaram” her glass bangles are broken. This is a critical stage of widow because she loves her bangles very much and she has to broken it today by smashing her hands to a stone. Hence she has to destroy her all the bangles so that no one else can wear them. Then everyday Brahmin comes and all the relatives are chanting and praying for her husband. Widow is also allowed in this ceremony as it is for her peace of mind also. Then on the tenth day in “suvala” her head is shaven. This is the most painful occasion for the widow. Most of widows (especially young widow) deny cutting their hair, are requesting all the relatives to keep their hair. But elders say the beauty of a woman is for her husband only, when her husband dies there is no need to adorn herself and hence there is no need of hair on her head also. She is forcefully been sit on the stool in white clothes and a barber comes to shave her head. She cries and feels guilty when her head is being shaven. When widow’s head is clean shaven she takes bath and then she is called “Ganga swarup” that means she is as holy as Ganga river. All the close relatives of a widow’ husband are not allowed to do “puja” at temple or at their home in first 16 days. Then widow will not go outside of her house till 9 months. During this time widow is feeling shame and she fears for her insult or humiliation mainly for her shaven head. Also she can not hide her sahven head, so naturally she will not talk to anyone face to face. And in this period she will learn the real rules of "Vidhva Vrat". In which she will live alone, she will not talk to anyone, also she will never give a smile, she will not attain any happy occasions. So during first 9 months, she will lie in a corner till her hair grows and this period is known as "Khuno Palvo"(remian in a corner). After 9 months she will have long hair and can go outside the home. Here widows shave their head only once when she becomes widow. Only her name is changed and a prefix - “Ganga swarup” is added to her name through out her life. She has been expected to remain unmarried and chaste until death. Normally, widow will remain in plain white and forced to go to temple to pray for her husband everyday. She will not wear any ornament on her body. She has to do all menial work in the home.


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