The Unjust World of Vrata Kathas

Things have really gone obsolete in India. People have unending and unquestioning faith in all kinds of fasts, religious ceremonies and 'Vrata Kathas'.  A ‘Vrata Katha' can be simply translated as a story (Katha) that should be listened to during a religious ceremony performed on a day of fast (vrata).

There is an inexhaustible list of festivals like all Poornimas (full moon days), Amavasyas (no moon days), fasts for women like Hartalika Teej, Karava Chauth, Santan Saptami, Vaibhav Laxshmi, Ahoi Ashtami, Pradosh etc, special days like Ganga Dashehra, Aanvala Naumi, Ekadashies, different Panchmies etc. This world of fasts, poojas (religious ceremonies) and 'Vrata Kathas' may sound unfamiliar to urbanized, busy, practical rational individuals. Thanks to television, advertisements and films, Karava Chauth alone remains an elite fast festival of India. Others have gone into oblivion for the uprooted or newly-rooted Indian. But we may remember that the majority of Indian Hindus still cling to each and every fast-festival. These festivals-have a strong local color. The ways of celebrating them change from place to place.

My thrust is on the text of 'Vrata Kathas', their analysis, their impact value and the need to rewrite them.

‘Vrata Kathas’ descend from the Puranic tradition. Puranas have been called the ‘cartoonization’ of Vedic thought. While Vedas expound pure thought, Puranas convey those thoughts to the illiterate masses through crude stories. Truthfulness, fidelity, honesty, simplicity etc. are universal values. But the way a Puranic Katha would convey them would be through the medium of instant miracles, sudden deaths, losses, immediate gains, Akashvanis (trumpeting of divine words through clouds) and so on and so forth. The purpose is very clear - to instill fear in the masses so that they behave according to prescribed rules of social conduct.

But the thing did not stop there. Donation to Brahmins became a prominent feature of these kathas so that the priest class might get its fill without hard work. Similarly, the depiction of women as weak, vulnerable, and helpless got louder and louder. We can see it as a potent ploy of perpetuating patriarchy.

The inherent power structure within the Puranic tales and Vrata Kathas is simply too obvious to be ignored. Women have been threatened, and scared to such an extent that every devout Hindu woman is expected to go through severe fasts, religious rituals and ceremonies in order to pray for the life and health of her men folk. Men, in turn, were never asked to pray for the life and health of their women folk.

Another notable feature of Vrata Kathas and Puranic tradition is creation, preservation and popularization of superstitions. Baseless ideas have been fed into the Indian mind in the name of religion and God. The language of these Kathas is more often than not very crude and rough. Things are stated very brutally. There is no scope of nuances, symbolism and inference here.

Usually a Vrata Katha begins creating its own grandiosity. The underlying geography is very clear. Gods and goddesses, along with their kith and kin reside above the clouds. They keep watching the mortals on earth. Everything is perfect there. Usually, Narad, the gossip loving saint or some goddess asks for the ways and means of salvation of the human kind. Usually, a patriarch in the form of Shankar, Vishnu or Brahma gives solutions to the problems of humankind. He unfolds a great secret, which is actually a very tough fast to be held on a particular date with all paraphernalia for worshipping. The rewards are ensured. Prosperity, health and life of the male folk of the family are the treasured targets of all fasts and their stories. Women are satisfied by reservation of a good-place in the otherworld. This world is for men; the other world may be for women.

Fertility among women is a major concern of these Vrata Kathas. The blot of infertility has been totally given to women. Birth of children is promised as a result of keeping such fasts and more importantly by keeping the fasts in the strict, prescribed manner. Any lacuna, even committed unknowingly is not forgiven. The modus operandi is simple. You ask the gods for a particular favor and go for rigorous routine of fasts and ceremony. You also promise the gods to perform a particular 'puja' once your cherished favor is granted. Once the reward has been bestowed, you are expected to fulfill your promise to the gods. If you forget to do that (which ordinary mortals usually do) you face wrath of gods in the form of sudden loss in business, extreme poverty, disease and even death of kith and kin. Once you realize your fast and fulfill your original promise, everything comes back to you - the dead become alive, the losses in the business turn to stunning gains and all like that.

The teller of the story, the savior, the wise one is always a patriarch. Goddesses do not unfold such high profile secrets. So much so that in the Hartalika story it is Parvati who undergoes extreme penance in order to gain a husband like Shankar but when it comes to narrate the story, she helplessly asks Shankar as to what she did  in order gain a seat beside him. Her tongue is not her own; she cannot narrate her past. Her own past, her own penance, her own acts do not come through her mouth. She needs Shankar to tell them to the world because only then will her actions bear the seal of male approval. What she did was right and all other women should also do the same- this authority cannot come unless and until the sanction comes from the patriarch. Such is the terror the psychotic fear created by Vrata Kathas which countless women listen to with utmost faith thinking that none other but Lord Mahesh only is speaking to them, chastising them, instructing them. The life of the women is held really cheap. They do not matter. No body is supposed to be praying for their well-being.

In very harsh language, the one who keeps the fasts is shown the fear of curse. A curse is the final tool. There is no escape from it. There is no alternative. In utter desperation of not being cursed, the devotee is mentally prepared to undergo all the meaningless rituals, pay heavily to the priests, keep strict fasts and so on and so forth. Instead of a loving, caring, understanding parental figure God becomes a jailer, an agency for reward and punishment. 

The worst part is creation of new stories, new myths, and some hidden treasure of a miraculous fast that has been recent dug out for the welfare of the women folk. The creation of Santoshi Mata took place some twenty - twenty five years ago. The role of the film, 'Santoshi Mata' that had broken all box office records in popularizing the fast and its story cannot be denied. No Vedic, pre-Vedic text ever mentions this form of the Devi. It is a contribution of our own times to the already existing pantheon of miracle performing means. 

In India mythology is a living force; it is an ongoing process as well. Richard Cavendish writes, 'The Hindus...know very well how to distinguish gods from men' even from 'god-men'" For instance, it is generally known "that, unlike mortals, gods do not blink or sweat, their feet do not quite touch the ground, their garlands never wither, and they do not get dirty. Divinity in India, like aristocracy in Europe, is largely a matter of history, birth and inheritance. The gods are those who have always been gods, whose names are enshrined in the ancient texts or in the case of assimilation from local traditions, whose names were 'known to our grandfathers'. The pantheon changes from time to time and place to place, and new gods force their way into it sometimes, but they must be legitimized by stories establishing their birth from  or marriage to, one of the older gods.' (Cavendish: 14-15) 

These Vrata Kathas do not teach us how to face life, how to fight ordeals, how to stand tall before the challenges of life, how to go through struggles. They only tell the Indian woman to live for others, and die for others.

Everybody comes before the self. The Vrata Katlas say that a woman should not live for herself. She has no right over pleasure. She cannot be ambitious. A sort of grandiose personality has been forced upon women where a goddess-like appearance is expected from them. They should be selfless, innocent devotional fools all the time. A woman cannot be expected to be practical, reasonable and rational. She is either a 'devi' or a devil. This idea of living for others is very hypocritical in its results. What happens is that people seek pleasure and hide it and then feel guilty about it. Something that is utterly natural takes the shape of sin in the Indian society. This is the whole problem of the Indian mind. The final fruit of ‘Vrata Kathas’ is guilt.

Vrata Kathas perpetuate superstitions. They stress upon the vicious circle of ‘auspicious-inauspicious' into the listeners' psyche. Beauty, health, wealth, progeny, and fame are good concepts and people ought to pursue them. But we will have to or we ought to think about those as well who have missed these things or have partly achieved them. The world of ‘Vrata Kathas' further marginalizes the unfortunate. Participation of widows is strictly prohibited in many ceremonies. The 'Vrata Kathas' are against the democratic spirit. They create and strengthen hierarchies. Caste system gets a tremendous boost from these 'kathas'.

The words of John Key are worth quoting here. 'Every sub-caste has the most elaborate system of rules which govern every aspect of life. They regulate your status in relation to every other Caste, the sort of food you should eat, how and when it should be cooked and how eaten, who your associates should be, what your profession, who you should marry how and when, where you should live, the sort of house and how it should be furnished, the clothes you wear, etc., as well as more intimate functions like frequency and method of intercourse, ablutions and excretions. An orthodox Hindu could seemingly live his whole life in accordance with caste dharma without taking a single decision!' (48-49)  Likewise an orthodox Hindu is forever in fear of planetary positions. Rahu, Ketu, Shani and the galaxy of evil planets shadow his thinking in such a manner that his own efforts and initiatives become dwarfish.

'Vrata Kathas' perpetuate the obsession of the Indian mind with the male child. Every second 'katha' ensures a son. It is as though women and girls do not exist at all. All folk songs of child-birth celebrate the arrival of a male child, a Krishna, a Ram and so on and so forth. For example, the story of Mahamakha says, 'In the good old days, before the Kaliyug had set in, there was a very pious king reigning over the country of Mithila, north of Benares. He was happy in every way except that he had not a son to succeed his throne... A holy sage, a rishi, visited the king and told him that it he bathed in the waters of the sacred Ganges on the Mahamakham day he would soon obtain a son......He proclaimed his intention among his subjects and several of them who were unhappy like the king in not having sons, followed their sovereign......' and finally, 'The king's desire had already been fulfilled; for he had a boy.' (Sarkar : 64-65)

Now it is not clear from the story whether the king had daughter/s or not; after having son/s if he had any daughter or not; if yes, why a daughter could not succeed the throne? Not a single word is uttered on these points. Only the queen comes who accompanies the king in his efforts to have son/s. A woman is valuable only when she produces son/s. Otherwise she has no value in her own right as an individual. The Hindu mind is dominated by the unconscious presence of a selfless role model. The selfless figure  dominates the Hindu ideal of a woman. The suffering woman, upholding forced and unrealistic norms, maintaining a joint family system and never demanding anything for herself is the role model of women. Prabhati Mukherjee  writes, 'The Devi is the eternally remembered, sweet, innocent, pure, self-sacrificing and self-effacing woman in Indian literature. The most notable trait in her character is her infinite capacity to bear suffering.' (Mukherjee :40). 

It is not that everything is bad in these Vrata Kathas. But the damage they cause is much higher and much more intense than the message of benevolence, rhythm of life, oneness with Nature and continuity of life force from animals to human beings that they give. 

In short, we can say that Vrata Kathas originated for preservation of social order. But instead, they are maligning not only the social order but also the mind set of generations of men and women, boys and girls. In a country where people believe mythology to be true, Vrata Kathas are definitely causing irreparable damage. Hindus have been known for their flexibility and dynamism.  Keeping the tradition of change, the text of these Vrata Kathas must be changed. 
1. Cavendish, Richard. 1992. ‘Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Principal Myths and Religions of the World’. London: Little, Brown and Company.
2. Key, John. 1999. ‘Into India’. New Delhi: Books Today.
3. Mukherjee, Prabhati. 1978. ‘Hindu Women: Normative Models’. Hyderabad: Orient Longman.
4. Sarkar, Jayshree. 1999. ‘Hindu Feasts, Fasts and Ceremonies’. New Delhi: Shrishti.   


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

Top | Society

Views: 3431      Comments: 10

Comment Ten years later, I say with satisfaction that many editions of Hartalika Vrat Katha have removed the abusive part. Many editions, audios and videos of this vrat Katha now do not contain that punishment part if a woman keeps a light fast. It would not be wrong to say that Sanatan is a flexible tradition and a beautiful one.

Prof. Shubha Tiwari
30-Aug-2022 00:08 AM

Comment very well written, but it needs to be conveyed to the community and they should know the facts behind the old tales...

Avinash Yadav
03-Nov-2015 01:57 AM

Comment I am a South African Indian woman. As I grew older I wanted to study more about Indian culture
I have been reading up on the Net- learning mantras etc. I learn from videos-and in this way
get the correct pronunciation. Recently I've come across the Vrats. I've just completed one
that spanned 16months. I'm still in the same situation. My wishes haven't been fulfilled.
I was reasearching to do another vrat when I came across Shuba's article. Thankfully, it serves
to bring me back to my senses. I'm a very spiritual person and can better employ my time in other
Forms of prayer. As a highly educated woman- the logic of Shuba's article is undenaible. Maybe I got ost
In thinking that all that is from India is pure and good. Many thanks for the

20-Feb-2014 13:10 PM

Comment Author's views are innovative

Shail Bala Misra
28-Feb-2012 21:44 PM

Comment Very nice

28-Feb-2012 20:09 PM

Comment I do honestly admit that the effect of these Vrat Kathas had a terrorising effect on my innocent mind in childhood. They impart fear that if one doesn't obey or renounces ritualism, they will be punished by the Almighty.

I am not opposed to Vrats. They teach control over our senses, they increase our will power & they keep us physically healthy. But fasting because of fear or terror or compulsion is injustice to females. One of my acquaintances, a young girl of twenty, Sheesh Kumari, had observed Nir-jal fast on Hartalika Teez, when she had full time pregnancy and she died next day. How cruel is that? We must repect God, our Deities and keep fast to show our love for Him, is admirable, but to force Brats through terrifying Kathas, absolutely wrong and inhuman. I agree with the author's views totally.

Shailbala Misra
27-Feb-2012 00:16 AM

Comment Nicely written. It is a real problem in India. Our society denies us the natural pleasures and aspirations we seek to fulfil and instill guilt in us, weakens us and supresses our self expression. Another old western author (cant recollect the name of the author) had said that a Hindu man's/woman's life is almost completely planned/decided upto his death by the rules and regulations of the society.
Our society is very very constricting, rigid with almost no scope or hope for any originality of thought. Any hint of oroginality/rebellion is quelled/nipped in the bud. When such a man/woman grows up he/she is nothing but a mass of walking guilt , not knowing what to do, devoid of any ambition, any originality, weak and rigid. It is preciselly this weak mindset , lacking any expansive thought , strength or will of its own, burdened with supersitions to such an extent that even in the mind a man cannot think of himself as free , which ruined our society for thousands of years and made it easy for the foreigners to rule us (first the invasion and subsequent rule of islamic kings and then by the Britishers).
No wonder that India lags behind western countries in science/technology. Most of the technology we have today have been bought and borrowed from Western countries. How can a mind , which has been subdued and lacks any original thought invent anything ?????

Rules , traditions, rigidity, 'fear', 'denial' and 'guilt' rather than love, respect and ethical and moral fulfillment of our aspirations and purpose. The unsaid/unwritten rule is clear. Either obey the rules of the society at all levels otherwise even the Gods will desert you, and you shall go to hell !!
Even in big and modern cities, the same problem exists although the conditions are better when compared to small towns and villages.
We Indians are a confused lot, a mass of hypocrites. Neither do we have the courage to free ourselves from this bondage nor do we have the courage/ambition to go reach for the gods. We are stuck in between.

And yeah, the the black hearted Brahmin priests and some of our so called enlightened sages and kings who framed absurd laws ... well, the less we talk about them, the better it is.
Even the great Buddha and Swami Vivekanada succeeded only to a small extent in getting rid of supersition of the masses !!

14-Feb-2012 02:14 AM

Comment hello shubha
indeedI am glad that u have written so beautifully on a much important issue I agree 100% on your vision & strongly support your views.

Dr. Shobha Diwakar
14-Feb-2012 00:44 AM

Comment Thanks for the article, Shubha. I completely agree. I don't know if you've heard of this, but in traditional Bengali households women were supposed to recite the Lakshmi vrata katha every Thursday, the day specially dedicated to Lakshmi, the epitome of femininity at least in Bengal. "Good"girls are always called "Lakshmi"". My mother-in-law always used to observe Thursdays as Lakshmi Puja days and used to recite the stories there to herself. When she stopped going to the puja ghar she asked me not to bother about the vrata katha at all.I wondered why, until I actually started reading the little booklet. Here you have the complete reinforcement of all the worst ideas of patriarchy about womens role and duties in the family. I was quite disgusted, and then I understood why she wasn't in favour of my going through it. She did so herself as a kind of concession to tradition but obviously didn't accept it herself, and she didn't want me to ,either..

Prof. Urbashi Barat
14-Feb-2012 00:39 AM

Comment Good write-up,ma'am.Apart from feminist stance, a little humourous approach here and there would have made it all the more engrossing.This way Sanatana Dharma allows every one express one's own views fearlessly. Remember JLF! Regards.

T.S.Chandra Mouli
13-Feb-2012 06:41 AM

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