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Date of Award

12-1992

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Medical Science)

Department

Religious Studies

Supervisor

Paul Younger

Abstract

This thesis is an exploration of the meaning and function of vrats (votive fasting rites) among Hindu women in Banaras. While both men and women observe vrats throughout India today, women observe far more of them, at more frequent intervals, and for a wider array of reasons than do men. In general, girls are trained to direct the performance of vrats to the attainment of a husband, or, for married women, to the well-being and long life of their husbands and children. Essentially, the vrats that women perform are tied to domestic life and traditionally defined family and gender relationships in a way that vrats men perform are not. Scholars who have written on women and the vrat tradition have documented the ways in which women's performance of vrats are expressive of both their religio-culturally prescribed duties as women and of their special connection to one of Hinduism's central values: auspiciousness. In this thesis, however, by focussing on the personal narratives of individual women that I interviewed in Banaras, I demonstrate that women's sense of duty and obligation to ensuring the well-being of their families through the performance of vrats only partly explains the appeal of these rites to Hindu women. While my field data confirmed that married women perform vrats for maintaining their "suhag" (the auspicious married state), they also perform these votive fasts for the psychological, social, physical and spiritual benefits that vrats bring to themselves. I argue that not only do vrats provide an avenue for the expression of profound spiritual yearnings, but some women see the use of vrats as a way to gain control over their own lives; as a source of empowerment in an environment in which women frequently lack control and feel disempowered. I further consider how women, traditionally denied access to formal asceticism, have found a way to tap into this powerful realm for their own benefit through the performance of vrats.

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