Thursday, November 10, 2011


Lakshmi Purana has two parts; the first part is the poor, low-caste woman Shriya’s story and the second, goddess Lakshmi’s (and her consort Jagannath’s). The first part contains an ethical code, and the second, a corrective to it. Like most bratas, this particular Lakshmi brata, called Manabasa Gurubara brata, with which Lakshmi Purana is associated, is woman-centric. This is a narrative based on a domestic conflict and the housewife is the heroine here. She is shown to be central to the family; she can break her family or bring it happiness and prosperity. Balarama composed Lakshmi Puran for the common people. Therefore he outlined, in their language, what was then believed to constitute virtuous living. Shunning the form of scholarly discourse for the purpose, he chose to simply list what one must avoid doing and what one must do. These do’s and don’ts relate to what would please goddess Lakshmi, but most of these are really general, therefore are statements about living in accordance with dharma. The directive that a woman must have a head bath on Thursdays is clearly Lakshmi-oriented, for Odias, Thursday being the day dedicated to the goddess. But “Obey your parents-in-law” is not associated with any particular goddess or god; so it is not intended to be followed only on some given day. The directives are indirect; the form is not “do this” or “do not do that”, but “whoever does this pleases the goddess” or “whoever does that displeases the goddess”. Nothing is imposed; the agency of the person is never taken away. He or she has to make the choice and act, and then face the consequences of his or her action. Incidentally indirect directive is the form often used to describe the moral code in brata kathas, mahatyamas, and the like.

Characterizing virtuous living is in terms of dont’s and do’s should not be dismissed as simplistic. At the level of day-to-day life, it really boils down to what kind of life one must live. Some of these directives may relate to the more superficial aspects of life. Prohibition against taking bitter things like neem on Thursdays and the one against telling lies while participating a meeting of any council belong to two different levels. It would appear that the first is rather superficial. The householder who practises dharma has worldly aspirations: happiness and prosperity of self and his or her family. Interestingly, Shriya prays to goddess Lakshmi to grant wealth and prosperity to her and her family, and immortality (as against, say, moksha) to her, all of which are worldly.

The moral code in Lakshkmi Puran, following which one lives a virtuous life, is about what the woman, especially the married woman, must do and must not do on Thursdays, amavasyas and sankrantis, and what both men and women must not do on any day. The code specifies the don’ts a good deal more than the do’s - this is the only way of spelling out the code since the list of the constraints would always be shorter than that of the recommendations. For instance if someone has to stipulate about food to be taken on a particular day, it would be obviously more economical to say what foods to avoid than what to eat. So the food-related directive has to take essentially the following form: “eat everything except these.” And so must such others.

The directives are about physical and mental well being: about food and food related pollution, cleanliness, family duties, and respect for culture and tradition. On Thursdays women must not take non-vegetarian food, meat cooked in bottle gourd, things roasted in fire, and left-over or burnt food. They must not fry raw rice to make lia ("a kind of puffed rice"). They must not beat children. Now, children have to be disciplined, raw rice has to be fried, and left-over and burnt food cannot always be thrown away, but such things must be done on other days. One - man or woman - must not eat rice with curd at night, and on Thursday, amavasya and sankranti nights one must not have food at all. One must not eat facing the south or the west, nor must one eat sitting on the floor without something to sit on. This emphasis on food is due to the traditional belief that it is associated with states of mind; thus certain foods are believed to cause undesirable inclinations and passions. Incidentally, some vegetables and green leaves were believed to be like non-vegetarian food in this respect. Today we do not live by the belief systems from which these derive, and we have no understanding of them. And generally speaking, whatever of the past is unintelligible today is considered superstition today. This of course is not to say that the old belief systems were “true” or “correct” in some realistic sense. After all, belief systems are only belief systems.

Not washing one’s face in the morning, not washing one’s face after eating food, not having a head bath on Thursday for a woman, having food without washing one’s feet, and applying oil to the body after bath are among the forbidden. These obviously relate to personal hygiene. Not combing and tying hair in the evening is forbidden too, but surely not for reasons of cleanliness; it probably derives from the now forgotten but then prevalent belief system. Sleeping on a crumpled bed, making a clumsy bed to sleep on and sleeping naked are among the forbidden, and these have to do with routine-life aesthetics and decency that have their roots in the tradition. Sexual discipline is an important part of the code; sex is forbidden on Thurdays, amabasyas and sankrantis, and the days the woman's body is said to be unclean, and then sex is forbidden outside of the wedlock. Women must treat the guest with respect and must light the sacred lamp in the evening, etc.; in short, they must respect tradition. And a woman who wants to live a virtuous life must not be quarrelsome, lazy, unpleasant and bold.

The most important part of the code concerns the way the woman must relate to her husband. For her nothing is more important than serving her husband. No matter what religious acts she does – go on pilgrimage, observe bratas, perform tapas, worship gods and goddesses - she acquires no religious merit if her husband is displeased with her. Her husband’s joys and sorrows must be hers, and she must always obey her husband, and be pleasing in her dealings with him, and never get irritated with him.

What is interesting is that in the second part of the tale, which is Lakshmi’s story, the goddess violates the very same moral code. In terms of the prevalent social norms, she was guilty of polluting herself and entering the sacred space of the kitchen and cooking for her family and thereby polluting the family. She asked for a divorce when her spouse wanted her to leave home, arguably it is an act of unacceptable boldness on her part in terms of the norm. A woman must not be sahasi ("bold"), says Lakshmi Puran. She was guilty of cursing her husband and ensuring that her husband and her elder brother-in-law suffered hunger for twelve long years. She did not hesitate to resort to manipulations to achieve her objective. Granted that she had been grievously wronged by her husband, but avenging herself the way she did is not in conformity with the moral code. When her husband requested her to return home, she put a condition for that: she must not be constrained from going wherever she liked. A virtuous wife would not go this far.

But there is not even mild censor of Lakshmi in the story. No one charges her of being a disobedient wife or of violating the code. And it is not the message of the story that she, being a goddess, was not bound by the code which is for the humans. The exchange between Lakshmi and Jagannath about her dismissal from the Great Temple is in human terms. When Lakshmi wanted divorce, her spouse refused because it would bring disrepute to his family. This is human social discourse, as is her laying down conditions before her husband to return home. The message of the story is not also that the powerful are above the code.

Lakshmi’s story is about something else. It questions the code on two specific points: caste-based pollution and the place of the woman in the household. It rejects caste-based pollution. It rejects the norm that specifies the duties and the responsibilities of the woman, but not her rights. It is as though she enjoys all her rights by just being married. From the perspective of this remarkable tale the marginalization of the woman in the society is a mere reflection of her marginalization in her own home. Lakshmi’s protest adds a corrective to the moral code by emphasizing the duties of the family to the woman: she must be given her own space, and her identity and individuality have to be recognized and respected by the family. The story legitimizes resistance by the wife against her maltreatment in the family; in a way it does more – it elevates the wife’s protest to the level of almost a moral duty. This is nothing short of a revolutionary idea when viewed in the context of the ethical thoughts and practices in the sixteenth century Odisha.