I was first introduced to the widows of Vrindaban when I was barely 20 years old and on my first pilgrimage to India.
A small group of us were walking the 14 kilometer path around Govardhan Hill with our guru –all of us barefoot, dressed in simple saris and dhotis, and chanting quietly on beads.
We started after sunset to avoid the heat, expecting to finish many hours later.
When we finally got to the village of Radha Kund, it was probably 2 o’clock in the morning. I was overwhelmed with both fatigue and elation at having arrived at such a sacred place, and I offered my obeisances in the dust.
But what struck me, even more than the beautiful reflection of the full moon on the lake, were the elderly women who dotted the pathways. Squatting flatfooted on the ground, they held out the ends of their saris to accept the occasional coin, while calling in love, “Radhe! Radhe!”
They glowed with devotion.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that, even though their spiritual evolution was inspiring (to say the least), their essential physical needs were being largely neglected.
These women are among more than 30,000 mostly-Bengali widows who, wishing to live out the end their lives in a holy place, move to the towns of Vrindaban, Nabadwip or Varnasi often, sadly, to be forgotten and even exploited.
According to a 2004 study conducted by The Guild of Service with support from the National Commission for Women, nearly half of India’s 40 million elderly widows are in need of some form of supportive services.
For many, losing their husband means also losing rights to property and shared assets, despite a 1969 legislative Act intended to protect them. One explanation? The survey of 316 widows begging in Vrindaban and Varnasi found a staggering 91.25% to be illiterate.
So, when I watched the video below, featuring a Bangla girl whose life course will be different, I got a little teary.
Because pure devotion and self-determination are not mutually exclusive.
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