Pativratya:The Theology Behind the Ideology


Robin Roland

The concept of Pativratya is the Hindu concept that a wife lives to serve her husband in any way possible, making her life his, and supporting him in anything, even death. This idea is widely accepted within Hindu society. I intend to examine Pativratya and the theology that perpetuates it.. Pativratya is an oppressing idea that has been justified by three theological misconceptions. The first is that women are inherently sinful thus inferior to men which warrants servitude to them. The second justification used in the concept of Pativratya is the idea that the wife should see her husband as a god. The third and final justification that will be discussed is the idea that men should lead and women should follow because that is the natural order of things. These beliefs are held among many religions including Hinduism and have been used to encumber women's participation in religious institutions. Tolerance is an important aspect of Hindu religious thought. I will investigate the contradictory relationship between pativratya and the concept of Hindu tolerance and possible ways to make a change.

Pativratya is based on the idea that a woman's purpose is to support her husband in all religious and social aspects and to continue his family by producing sons (Dhruvarajan 26). By supporting her husband, a pativrata must be obedient and completely servile, putting her husband's needs and existence above her own. Vanaja Dhruvarajan cites her study of the Musali people. Dhruvarajan shares the views of the Musali people on the ideology on Pativratya:

"Obeying the command of one's husband without question is a mark of virtue and good conduct. She should never be inquisitive. She should never be arrogant. Even slight indiscreton on the part of the wife to her husband is a crime and is unbecoming of a Pativrata." (27)

A Pativrata must have complete devotion to her husband no matter whatever the circumstances may be. Sita showed complete devotion to Rama. Sita is seen as one of the most dutiful and endearing woman in Indian literature. She chose to support her husband without regard for what she wanted. Prabhati Mukherjee discusses the life of Sita in comparison to the Indian ideal of a perfect wife. She states:

" A princess and the only wife of Rama, Sita gave up palace life for accompanying her husband to the forest Her loyalty and steadfast devotion to Rama, her complete confidence in him and dependence on his omnipotence, are at times touching, especially when compared with his occasional unjust treatment of her" (40).

Another important aspect of Pativratya is the idea that a wife has no life without her husband therefore, it is better that she die before her husband because without her husband she might as well be dead. Sita realized this when Rama and Laksmana were being carried off by a powerful demon, she begs the demon to release them and take her instead. Sahagamana is the practice of the wife dying with her husband. I. Julie Leslie cites Tryambaka's avocation of sahagamana in the following, " At the time of a girl's wedding the brahmins should recite (these words): May you be one who accompanies her husband (always,) when he is alive and even when he is dead" (292). The Mosali people also feel that a wife's sacrifice of her life is a virtue of a pativrata.

" A pativrata will be happy to die before her husband. Dying in his own hands is an added privilege for her because thereby she surely reaches heaven. A pativrata burns herself in the funeral pyre of her husband as it is not worth living after her husband's death" (Dhruvarajan 27).

Tryambaka also believed that if a woman performed sahagamana she will receive rewards and absolution of sin after death. He says,

"when sahagamana is performed by a woman who has done wrong-that is something that her husband didn't like, throughout her lifetime, (then) it is said to have the quality of prayascitta. In this sense, it is the ultimate, and only effective, prayascitta (atonement) for the bad wife" (Leslie 296).

The husband and wife should be one, but the husband is superior. The wife basically has no identity without her husband. It is like the seed soil analogy that is often used in describing the relationship between men and women. The seed being the man and the soil being the woman. The seed is valued more than the soil. This explains the attitude towards widows in Hindu culture. Dhruvarajan goes more specific and explains this idea through the Musali people:

"People do not see any reason for mourning the death of a woman because as long as her husband is alive she continues to be part of him. It is only her mortal body that is dead, and if she has been a true Pativrata she has found her salvation. But, on the other hand, when the husband dies, she is also dead, as she is a part of him" (31).

Tryambaka explains in section IV of the Stridharmapaddhati, which I have cited many times earlier. He says, "the good wife should be like Lopamudra, who takes her husband's religious duties as her own to the extent that she seems to be no more than her husband's shadow" (Leslie 115). The main theme of Pativratya is complete idolization and sacrifice to the husband which results in men's complete domination and women's complete subjugation.

The practice of sahagamana and the other practices of a pativrata all come from the theology that a wife should see her husband as God. The Mosali people also feel that the wife should treat the husband as God. Dhruvarajan cites their ideology: " A pativrata knows that her salvation lies in her devotion to her husband and to him only. She never even looks at another man. She believes Pati pratyaksha devatha (Husband is the living God)" (27). This idea even goes to say that a women's devotion should be to her husband even above a bhramana. In the Mahabaharata, Markandeya shares an anecdote about the devotion of wives to husbands with Yudisthira. It is the story of the brahmana Kausika. Kausika goes to collect alms from a housewife. Her husband arrived home right as the brahmana came. The housewife told the bhramana to wait while she tended to her husband. The housewife apologized, but said that, "a married woman should worship her husband before all others" (Mukherjee 12-13). This story shows the extremely elevated status that wives place their husbands. Since the husband is seen as the living God, then also that is where salvation lies. Dhruvarajan puts it simply. "She should understand that her life goal is to be of service to her husband and cater to his every need She should develop the proper disposition to achieve these goals because that is where her salvation lies" (32). Hindu women are taught that they can be free from the cycle of death and rebirth by becoming a pativrata.

The idea that the husband is the wife's path to salvation is closely linked to the second justification; that women are inherently sinful and they have no hope of salvation without the help of men. Women are inferior to men because it has been believed that women are more prone to lust and desire, but also that they cause men to lust and desire. Ramakrsna a leading Indian mystic, thought that women were stumbling blocks on the path to moksa. Arvind Sharma cites Ramakrsna's views on women: "According to Ramakrsna, 'the two obstacles to spiritual life are woman and gold.' and since Ramakrsna also said that, 'It is woman that create the need for gold, ' we are in the end left really with only one obstacle to spiritual salvation---women" (Sharma 116).

Women are considered more prone to sin not necessarily because of what they do but rather just for being. Dhruvarajan explains that,

"The impediment does not arise because anything a woman does directly; her sheer presense has a corrupting influence on man's spiritual nature. Sex is something that veers a man away from his path toward spiritual enlightenment; woman is the personification of sex and therefore a temptation to man" (27).

Woman 's birth is a sign of sin in a past life. Tryambaka conceived that shortcomings like cheating, deviousness, greed and cunning are to be the cause of female birth. Therefore, th concluded that,

" First, since sinfulness is the mark of female birth, the female of the species is always lower than the male. Secondly, so deeply ingrained that this sinfulness that it is more difficult for a femal to be reborn as a male than it is for an animal to be reborn as a human" (Leslie 247).

The inherent sinful nature of women has also been argued on the basis that because women menstruate they are impure. "Tryambaka thought that menstruation was a sign of sexual appetite and her innate impurity" (Leslie 251). These two considerations explains why women are seen as stumbling blocks by Ramakrsna. A woman's sexuality is seen as the cause of men giving in to their desires and not obtaining moksa.

The third justification that is used to support trativatya is the idea that men should rule over women because it is divinely ordained or it is the natural order of things. This justification is interrelated and supported by the ideas that women should see their husbands as God and also that women have a inherently sinful nature. The notion that the husband should be God is supported by the natural heirarchy that exists in all forms of life. A master/servant dynamic exists in not only the physical world, but also the spiritual world. Dhruvarajan summarizes the Mosale people's thoughts:

"To run things smoothly someone has to give orders and others have to follow it. Nature has intended that men give orders and women follow. Otherwise men would be bearing childern and women wold have been stronger" (28).

The idea that women are inherently sinful is also supported by the natural order of things concept. Women are a product of their past lives which are assumed to be sinful. Therefore, the position that they are in is where God intended them to be. Tryambaka compares women's dharma to the four varnas. If one is born as a woman than for that lifetime they must perform the duties of their status (Leslie 263). He states, "Each individual's action, defined by birth and circumstance, is his duty; it was ordained to be so and is therefore right. At this level, there is no conflict; individual dharma is simply the reflection of cosmic law" (Leslie 263). This justification seemed to be heavily supported by the Mosali people. They seem to have a tremendoud fear that changing natural order only leads to disasters. The only way to prevent this is for everyone to understand and accept their place (Dhruvarajan 28).

The idea of Pativratya supported by all three justifications that i have discussed is hindering women's participation and contrubitions tothe Hindu religion. The subjugated role of wives is still very present today. In study of South Indian immigrantes to the United States, she found that 16 out of 40 adhered to the traditional marital roles, such as Pativratya. This misconception is in opposition to the philosophy of Hindu tolerance. In this context, Tolerance implies that Hinduism needs to be tolerant of the changing times and new understanding. Sharma states, "there is a dialectical relationship between the religious tradition and times: the traditions sometimes moulded by the times" (84). Sharma applies the issue of tolerance to the caste system . One could gather many similarities between the caste system and the concept of Pativratya since they are both results of birth. The dissolution of the caste system or of Pativratya would also essentially mean the dissolution of the idea of Karma. Sharma argues that Hinduism can still change the times by still maintaining their traditional role and beliefs, but with a new foundation (85). However, the foundation is not really new, it is the idea of promoting religious harmony. In a sense Hindu tolerance needs to get back to the original goal. It is important that there is harmony within the Hindu people, before there can be harmony with the rest of the world. Sharma states, "A good religion, which believes in equality, and realizes it within it's own society, will not then owe it's existence to the opposition of an inegalitarian society or a religion it might face" (83). Sharma calls for an internalization of the ideals of harmony within the Hindu society. I. Julie Leslie provides two ways to understand and recognize the importance of women in Hinduism. She suggests that,

"the religious texts relating to women must be closely analyzed to reveal the implicit sturctures and unarticulated tensions....Secondly, historical and anthropological studies must provide the missing dimension of experiential reality to our growing knowledge of the texts" (329).

Both of these suggestions could have profound and maybe revolutionary implications to the Hindu social structure. However, true tolerance demands that changes be made in all relationships whether they be outside of the realm of Hindusim or within.


Dhruvarajan, vanaja. Hindu Women and the Power of Ideology. Vistaar Publications, New Delhi, 1989.

Leslie, I Julie. The Perfect Wife: The orthodox Hindu Women according to the Stridharmapaddhati of Tryambakayajvan. Oxfort University Press, Bombay.

Mukherjee, Prabhate. Hindu Women Normative Models. Sangam Books, London. 1978.

Raya prol, Aparna. Gender Ideologies and Practices among South Indian Immigrants in Pittsburg.

Sharma, Arvind. Hinduism for our Times. Oxford University Press, New York,1997

Sharma, Arvind. "Ramakrsna paramahamsa, A study in Mystic's Attitude Towards Women". Beyond Androcentrism: New Essays on Women. Ed. Rita Gross. Scholars Press, Mont. 1997