Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On Vicarious Sacrifice...

So yesterday was the day associated with the festival of Karwa Chauth.  The fourth day (hence "chauth") after the full moon following Dusshera.  For my non-Hindu readers, I can summarize it as a day when women (by in large, married women) turn into Jesus.  Okay, that's a bit extreme, but the simple form of it is that it is a ritual of willful self-sacrifice (in this case, fasting) for the imaginary benefit of someone else.  It's profoundly nonsensical on the face of it and has no capacity whatsoever to be considered based in any way on reality.  Well, there are so many things I could say about it.  Many of the criticisms about it tend down the path of its inherent sexism because of the fact that only women really have to observe the fast with no reciprocal fasting on the part of the men.  Some argue that it puts the role of the wife as a tool for the spiritual aid of the husband and not as an individual unto herself.  Fortunately, it's not something observed in the part of India from which I hail, but that isn't the case with my wife.  Nonetheless, nobody considers going through it in my house because it's an utter travesty.

In the modern era, it has been commercialized into a sort of Hindu Valentine's Day where fanciful images of romantic love are tied to the rituals.  But just like Valentine's Day, none of those images have anything to do with how the day was originally defined.  Valentine's Day, for instance, was originally a religious feast that celebrated the execution of a martyr.  It only got connected with love in the High Middle Ages when courtly love was basically the primary M.O. of almost all literature of the age.  That too, it only became the dominant mode of celebration in the post-industrial era.  Karwa Chauth is much the same story.  It's only associated with love because mythological literature and Bollywood tells us so.  We associate Valentine's Day with love because Chaucer told us that's how it should be.  We like diamonds because N.W. Ayer & Son told us we don't qualify as humans if we don't.  We give out candy on Halloween because of commercialization of an older practice that involved bribing beggars for future prayers (at least, according to Shakespeare).

But commercialization and sexism aside, I have a problem with the whole vicarious sacrifice issue, as it seems to be a common thing.  The whole premise of Karwa Chauth is the idea that by fasting from dawn to dusk, a woman can provide a divine blessing for health and longevity unto her husband or some other significant member of the opposite sex.  Ummm...  seriously?