The study of widows under Hindu law in India
The treatment of widows in India has been discussed and criticized widely.
In 2021, “SheThePeople,” a digital website devoted to the women’s movement in India, published “Seven Inhuman Customs That Make The Lives Of Indian Widows Go From Bad To Worse.”
The article noted that “there are nearly 40 million widows in India, and the number has gone up drastically due to the ongoing COVID-19 tragedy. It is high time that we rethink our stance on these practices and liberate these women from the unnecessary restrictions we have imposed on them.”
David Brick, assistant professor of Sanskrit literature in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan, has worked broadly on studying the Sanskrit language and pre-modern India. Primarily, his work has focused on various aspects of Hindu legal tradition, known as Dharmaśāstra.
Brick’s new book, “Widows Under Hindu Law,” is a detailed textual and historical analysis of four widow-related topics in India: widow remarriage and levirate; widows’ rights of inheritance; widow-asceticism; and the custom of sati, a former practice in India where a widow burned herself to death on her husband’s funeral pyre.
“My academic interest in widows began with a seminar I took as part of my graduate coursework,” Brick said. “My instructor suggested I write my term paper on the well-known colonial debate on sati since it involved many Dharmaśāstra texts and ideas, which I was already studying.”
Though Brick’s research covers four widow-related topics, the act of sati garners a lot of attention since it has been thrust into the limelight in India recently. Members of the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, have been accused of glorifying it—despite its being illegal since 1829. As recently as last month, a protest broke out on the parliament floor when a BJP leader allegedly praised the act during a debate, leading to loud opposition and an adjournment to ease the situation.
“Given all the controversy, I feel like I have to say that I certainly do not wish to see a revival of the treatment of widows prescribed in Dharmaśāstra sources,” Brick said. “I also do not wish to defame modern Hindus by drawing attention to things they likely consider to have no place in their religion.
“I firmly believe that religions, like all human institutions, change and that Hinduism is no exception. My goal is to present history, not to offer support or presume that others support any of these practices.”
Brick’s work focuses on high-caste Hindu widows in pre-colonial times with an eye toward better understanding the treatment of such widows during the early colonial period.
“The most striking feature of these widows is their choice between either self-immolation or an unrelentingly hard life of material deprivation and social exclusion,” he said. “Moreover, although the logic of hypergamy may have played a role in this development, given that sati and widow-asceticism both involve the strict control of widows, evidence indicates that the increasing inheritance rights of widows played a decisive role.
“My hope is that insights will provide important context for understanding later colonial debates concerning Hindu widows and also influence how scholars view the character and evolution of dominant male views of women in pre-modern South Asia.”