In Radha’s Name

Widows and Other Women in Brindaban

Malini Bhattacharya

In 1999, the West Bengal Commission for Women was entrusted by the state government to explore the social and human problem of destitute Bengali women, mostly widows, eking out a fragile existence in the ancient pilgrim town of Brindaban, in Uttar Pradesh. The Report prepared by the Committee set up for this purpose, of which the author was a member, forms the core of this book. However, the author has added to it important historical and analytical material that throws new light not only on the identities of the women who have migrated to Brindaban, but also on the reasons for and factors governing their migration. The book traces the origins of religious pilgrimage from Nabadwip of medieval Bengal to Brindaban, propelled by the popularity of the Vaishnava cult, as well as charts its metamorphosis into the NRI-sponsored pilgrim tourism of today, in the context of globalization. It describes the social vulnerabilities affecting women in different circumstances that led them to seek a life of piety such that the devotional ambience of the women of Brindaban, in their collectivity as 'mais' is forever ruptured and individual faces with specific histories show up within the uniform narrative of faith.

The author argues that by participating in temple rituals, the women not only enhanced their own piety or fulfilled their material needs but contributed to the reproduction of faith, in fact to keeping the whole system of institutionalized worship in operation. With globalization, however, the position of the women devotees in the temple economy has perforce become uncertain. The image of women devotees carrying the banner of the supreme glory of Hindu womanhood has been exploited by Hindu nationalists not only for promoting faith as the traditional way of life, but also demanding that religion be defended by muscle power creating ground for communal violence. But this iconic representation completely masks the actual struggles of the women to formulate their own subjectivity in the face of heavy odds.