Of the various duties of a women (stridharma) the most important is a religious observance (vrata), which has fasting as a central element (Denton 24-31). Usually lasting from a day or two to a couple of weeks, vratas may involve group chanting, recitation of religious stories and or the creation of elaborate designs using colorful, powdered rice, but the most important element of the vrata is the fasting component (Denton 30-31). Dharma tends to elevate one feature of stridharma above all else and that is pativrata, the worshipful service of one’s husband (Denton 32). Vratas are mostly carried out by women for their husbands (suhag), the right to preserve their auspicious married state (saubhagya), or for their children (Pearson 78).
Although it may seem as if women are performing these vratas for the well-being of their family, that is not typically the case. According to the Manusmrti, being born a woman is considered the result of sins committed in one’s past life or lives. Being born sinful, a women is thought to be weak and impure, thus women should be “protected” at all stages of her life by male guidance who play an authoritative role in their lives. For example, when a girl is born, she is protected by her father and when she is married she is protected by her husband. Therefore, the Manusmrti declared that no sacrifice, vrata, and fast should be performed by a woman without her husband (Pearson 79-80). Nevertheless, women are considered ardhangani, or “half the body” of a male. The three goals of a householder dharma, artha, and kama are incomplete without the cooperation of one’s wife and therefore a women is essential to the welfare and dharmic duties of the male householder (Pearson 80). After marriage, women are considered to be responsible to perform all types of special vratas for the welfare of one’s husbands.
Taking place during the fall, Karva Chauth is an important observance followed by married Hindu women of Northern India. On this day, prayers are offered to Siva, Parvati, Ganesa and to Chandrama (God of the Moon) in return for the welfare, prosperity and longevity of their husbands. This vrata consists of a daylong fast obtained by the woman, where one is not allowed to consume water nor food (Melton 497). Over the years, this vrata is being recognized as a joyous occasion celebrated by all members of the family, as opposed to a duty forced upon women. Every year, on the fourth day of the waning moon in the Indian Hindu month of Kartika (October in the Western/Gregorian Calendar), the Karva Chauth festival is held. Women wake up early in the morning, before dawn, and enjoy a bite to eat with the other women of the household. Throughout the day, more preparations are made for the evening (Melton 497-498).
Henna is an important factor of this vrata. In some societies, henna is considered to be a very sensual, beautifying agent. Throughout this vrata, moments of one’s wedding day are reminisced. On wedding days, brides’ arms and feet are decorated with henna. Henna is said to bring good luck. In some societies henna is also seen as a cleanser to ritually “clean” the bride during the week of celebrations prior to the wedding. In the old days, henna was said to be emblematic of the blood stained sheets of the virgin bride after the consummation of her marriage (Monger 150). Amidst the preparations for the evening, applying henna to your arms is of significance to this vrata. It has been passed down for generations that the longer the henna stays on the girl’s hands, the longer her husband will love her (Monger 150).
Among these preparations, gift-giving among family members, especially the spouses, has become a common gesture. Mothers of wedded women will give gifts known as “Baya” (Melton 498). A husband giving a piece of jewellery or some kind of other gift to his wife is also common nowadays. The Karva Chauth vrata becomes a celebration by the evening. Women from neighboring homes and families related to the household come over and together the rest of the activities are carried out. Women adorn themselves in their finest jewellery and either dress up in their wedding dresses or in a new dress that is comparable to their wedding dress. After everybody is ready, before the moon comes out, women gather in a circle around the storyteller, who recites the story behind the vrata of Karva Chauth.
The Karva Chauth vrata is associated with many myths. The most popular myth is called The Kings Daughter (Beck and Claus 48-49). This myth consists of betrayal, repent, and sorrow. There was once a king with seven sons and the youngest of them all was a daughter who was very dear to everyone, especially her brothers. As would happen to any individual, the daughter grew up and got married. When the day came to keep a vrata for her husband, the daughter did as any other married women was to do, but the daughter was very delicate and weak and soon she became pale. This sight was unbearable to her brothers, so they hatched a plan to help their sister out of her misery. The brothers managed to create a fake moon, and the trick their sister into thinking it was the real moon so that she would break her fast and eat. The princess, unfortunately, believed her brothers and broke the fast by completing all the necessary rituals, but as fate has it, the next day her husband fell very ill. As days passed on his health got worse and no medication was effective. When she had no choice, the princess called the priests and asked what else could be done. The pandita (religious priests) informed the princess of how she had broken her fast before the moon had arose and therefore, her husband fell ill and has been waning since. Before leaving, the pundits advised the princess to wait until the next fourth day of the waning moon in the month of Kartika. They informed her to complete the vrata this time, fully. The princess did as she was told. She kept the fast until the moon was up and her husband’s health started getting better. The princess and her prince then lived happily ever after. [There are many interpretations of this myth depending on the region in India. One version, different from the one provided can be found in Melton (2011)].
In the evening the women of the house gather for the final rituals of the fast. Surrounding them will be a metal urn (karva) filled with water, a mud pot which is symbolic of the deity Ganesa, a statue of Parvati (Gaur Mata) and food items to offer the gods as well as the person selected to tell story (Melton 498). While waiting for the moon to arise, the women will listen to a version of the myth. The myth is told by a chosen older women with experience of the vrata. Upon seeing the moonlight, the women pass around the karva and offer water to Chandrama and ask for his blessings. These women then pray for their husband’s well-being and then worship their husband as if they were worshipping a deity (Melton 498). After worshipping their husbands, the husbands help break their fast, and they then enjoy a meal. During this time, and out of appreciation for their full day’s efforts, husbands tend to gift their wives jewellery or a new article of clothing (Melton 498).
The Karva Chauth vrata is undoubtedly one of the harder vratas due to the no consumption of food or water rule, which lasts from dawn until moonlight. Married Indian women are deemed to be responsible to complete vratas. Completing vratas is considered a way of cleansing one of their sins but according to the Manusmrti, for a women, there is no way to completely purify yourself. According to the Manusmrti the biggest sin is being a women. (Pearson 79-80). Women were considered completely impure, and bad luck, which explains why in the older days baby girls were immediately disposed of after their birth. Nowadays women are more in power due to the growth of feminist point of views. With this, views on women have changed. Nowadays in bigger cities, women will be less interested in keeping vratas for their husbands. Women of this generation might worry about their body or may not believe in the concept of vrata. As time passes by, the role and rituals of women have changed. There are many women that still live in India that perform this and many other vratas for the well-being and safety of their husbands. Even people who live outside of India perform this vrata as it is not a difficult to perform. Karva Chauth is one of the more important vratas that is to be fulfilled or accomplished by women of an Indian household.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Beck, Brenda E. F (1987) Folktales of India. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Bose, Mandakranta (2010) Women in the Hindu Tradition: Rules, Roles, and Exceptions. Oxon: Routledge.
Channa, V.C (1984) Hinduism. New Delhi: National Publishing House.
Denton, Lynn Tesky (2004) Female Ascetics in Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York Press
Leslie, Julia (1991) Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. New Jersey: Associated University Presses.
Monger, George P (2004) Marriage Customs of the World: From Henna to Honeymoons. California: ABC-CLIO, Inc.
Pearson, Anne Mackenzie (1996) Because It Gives Me Peace of Mind: Ritual Fasts in the
Religious Lives of Hindu Women. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Pintchman, Tracy (2007) Women’s Lives, Women’s Rituals in the Hindu Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rinehart, Robin (2004) Contemporary Hinduism: Ritual, Culture, and Practice. California: ABC-CLIO, Inc.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Hindu Calendar System
Concept of stridharma
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by: Nidhi Patel (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.