By Rajesh Kumar
In Hinduism, there is a very strong belief that if a couple is blessed with a male child they will definitely go to heaven after death. This religious regulation also finds a mention in one of the oldest Hindu Shastra ‘Manu Smriti’. It is written that those whose sons lit their pyre and perform Shraddha go to paradise and are saved from taking re-birth in low beings. (For more information on this subject, please, click here.)
Do you doubt it? Do you believe it? Is there a mythological reference? From where did this belief generate? Let’s explore.
The Role of a Son in Hindu Family
In Hindu family importance of son is many fold. Son is considered to be the savior and one who will give Pinda Daan that is he will take his parents ashes to the Ganges and wash them so that they will go to heaven after their death. This surely makes to the top of the list of reasons why a majority of Indians are obsessed with having a son.
The Story of Jaratkaru and His Ancestors
Great ascetic Jaratkaru wandered over the whole earth making the place where evening fell his home for the night. Gifted with divine power, he roamed, practicing various vows difficult to be practiced by the immature, and bathing also in various sacred waters. The Muni ate air and was free from all desires. One day, he saw the spirits of his ancestors, heads down, in a hole, hanging by just one thread of a root. Even that single thread was being gradually eaten away by a large rat.
Jaratkaru’s Pitris in that hole were without food, emaciated pitiable and eagerly desirous of salvation. And Jaratkaru, approaching
the pitiable one, asked them: “Who are you hanging by this cord of virana roots? The single weak root that is still left in this cord of virana roots will soon be eaten away by the rat. It is clear you shall then have to fall down into this pit with faces downwards. What good can I do to you? Tell me how to avert this calamity.”
Jaratkaru’s Pitris said: “O Brahmacharin! you desire to relieve us by your asceticism but we too have the fruits of our asceticism. But, it is for the loss of children that we are falling down into this unholy hell. The grandsire himself has said that a son is a great merit. As we are about to be cast in this hole, listen who we are, we are Rishis of the Yayavara sect, of rigid vows. And because of no children, we have fallen down from heaven.”
Asserting the importance of a son Jaratkaru’s Pitris continued: “Our severe penances have not been destroyed; we have a thread yet. But we have only one thread now. Unfortunate as we are, we have a thread in one who is known as Jaratkaru. The unfortunate one has gone through the Vedas and their branches and is practicing asceticism alone. He being one with soul under complete control, desires set high, observant of vows, deeply engaged in ascetic penances, and free from greed for the merits.”
Jaratkaru’s Pitris said: “Jaratkaru has no wife, no son. Therefore, we hang in this hole, like men having none to take care of them. If you meet him, tell him that his Pitris, in sorrow, are hanging with faces downwards in a hole. Holy one, take a wife and beget a son. The only thread that remains in the line of his ancestors, the cord of virana roots that we are hanging by, is the cord representing our multiplied race.”
“The threads of the cord of virana roots that have been eaten away are ourselves who have been eaten up by time. The root which is been half-eaten and by which we are hanging in this hole is Jaratkaru who has adopted asceticism. The rat is time of infinite strength. And he (time) is gradually weakening the wretch Jaratkaru. But his asceticism cannot save us. Our roots being torn, cast down from higher regions (heaven) deprived of consciousness by time, we are going downwards like sinful wretches.”
As written in the second chapter of Mahabharata, Jaratkaru’s Pitris state the debatable and radical Hindu theory of having a male child as he says: “And upon our going down into this hole with all our relatives, eaten up by time, even Jaratkaru will sink into hell. Whether it is asceticism, or sacrifice, or whatever else there be of very holy acts, everything is inferior. These cannot count with a son.”
The Last Rituals of a Hindu
It is an ancient custom among Hindus to cremate their dead. Hindus believe it releases an individual’s soul from its temporary physical body so it can be reborn. If this process is not done properly, then it is thought that the soul will be disturbed and won’t find its way to its proper place in the afterlife and come back to haunt living relatives. After a person dies, it is understood that the lighting of the funeral pyre will be led by the eldest son of the deceased.
Manusamriti Plays a Big Role
The basic principles governing the roles of girls and women in Hindu history were set forth in the Laws of Manu. And these texts showed women in a very poor light. They were considered incapable and were advised to be treated as a commodity.
Women are Impure and Represent Falsehood in Hinduism
Manusamriti 5/158 says: “Women have no divine right to perform any religious ritual, nor make vows or observe a fast. Her only duty is to obey and please her husband and she will for that reason alone be exalted in heaven.” There is a strong possibility that since during the Vedic times women were considered no less than mere objects, they did not have any stand in the society and were therefore, shunned from performing significant rituals.
Possible Rationale for Keeping Women Away from Cremation
One of the probable reasons of banning a daughter from cremation and making the son do all the rituals can be that women are assumed to be emotionally weaker and they might not be able to handle the emotional trauma associated with this act. Another reason can be that during the early days of our civilization, fire used to be started by rubbing stones against each other. Therefore lighting any fire used to be a difficult and laborious, something a man could do easily.
This practice of a strong male (usually the eldest son) lighting the funeral pyre slowly grew into a custom, which over time became quite rigid and too many superstitions also got attached with it. Maybe this is what led to the belief that the last rites for a parent or any person would not be acceptable to God unless the deceased’s son had carried them out. This thinking put more pressure on the families to have sons while undermining the importance of daughters.
As most cremations took place at river banks and often the pyre took two days to get over, it was probably impractical for many women to be away from their houses for too long. Large joint families often had a brood of children. Women might have been considered ideally suited back in those days to take care of children. Finally some of the cremation ceremonies could be held outside the town or village and a return journey could be considered dangerous for women.
As per the Garud Purana
Garuda Purana is one of the eighteen Puranas which are part of the Hindu body of texts known as Smriti. It contains details of life after death, funeral rites and the metaphysics of reincarnation, thus it is recited as a part Antyesti or funeral rites. Garud Puran highlights different kinds of hells (naraka) people attain due to their bad karmas but nowhere does this epic mention any agony that one can go through if his or her last rites are not carried out by a male successor.
According to Hindu traditions the son is the legal heir and the inheritor of the family ancestral property. He in turn passes it to his son and so on. A girl is never actually considered to be a member of the family she is born in (paraya dhan concept). They don’t have much say in family matters so that there arises no question of her having any right on the family property. This can also be one of the reasons for which the society supports such rules.
Times are changing but even today, in rural India and in a majority of traditional Hindu families, a son’s birth is considered lucky. And people bind in this old belief keep producing daughter after daughter till a son is born. Times have changed, laws have changed but the values and customs beliefs are still deep rooted in our minds. Let’s wait for such beliefs to be challenged and changed, with fingers crossed that it does not get too late! (For more information on the subject of woman in Islam and Hinduism, please, click here.)
Taken from: www.speakingtree.in with modifications.