Jauhar – Beyond the Notion of Bodily Honour

Hindutva discourse on women resistance to Islamist aggression on Kafir women during historical period

When the movie about Padmavati came, suddenly there erupted a diatribe against ‘Jauhar‘. The so-called progressive circles started denouncing the movie for glorifying ‘Jauhar‘ or mass self-immolation by Hindu women of India in general and in Rajasthan in particular – the border state of India that mainly bore the brunt of Islamist invasions. Whenever Hindus faced definite defeat in the battle against Islamists their women and children committed self-immolation in fire. Interestingly throughout Indian history up until the Islamist invasion (with the sole exception of an instance during the invasion of Alexander the terrible), such mass self-immolation was not done by Hindu women during intra-Hindu wars. We do not have such instances of mass women self-immolation during the expansionist conquests of Samudra Gupta or Rajaraja Chozha.

The mass suicide of women has also been reported during the pre-partition and partition riots – particularly Hindu and Sikh women. It was again reported during 1971 Bengal holocaust. The Yazidi women in Iraq committing suicide to escape sex slavery at the hands of Islamic State (ISIS) is also well documented in recent years (2014-2017).

There are two things which connect the Jauhar with these modern well-documented cases of women killing themselves to escape religious conversion and sex slavery. One is the insider version that views this as a sacrifice chosen by the women over degradation. The other is the outsider view which sees the women as victims of Hindu society – who were compelled by the patriarchal notions of body based purity. Marxists and Euro-centric narrators of history typically advance this portrayal of the self-immolation of Hindu-Sikh women being the result of the ideas of body based purity. Here is a typical view of a British historian, Patrick French, on the suicides of Hindu Sikh women during the partition riots:

“Many women did not wish to return to their original families, which would involve not only social humiliation but the abandonment of the babies they had had with their abductors. The Sikh and Hindu emphasis on ritual purity meant that a substantial number of women chose suicide or ‘sacrifice’ rather than dishonour.”

Here is another similar view from Dr. Bina D’Costa, a ‘South Asian’ scholar from Australian National University (ANU). Discussing partition violence she says:

“Women survivors recounted stories of carrying poison packets around their necks thinking that each day might be their last day. Notions of purity, shame and honour, deeply ingrained and internalized in both men and women, meant that they willingly embraced death.”

‘Jauhar’ by Uma Bardhan (Artist)

But unfortunately, this dominant view in the academia and old establishment media betrays an ignorance of how the Hindu nation has acted faced with a theo-political expansionist aggression spanning centuries that demanded sexual slavery of women, based mainly on religion. It also shows a deep-seated Hindu phobia.

In their point of view, the Hindu women could not have love for their religion that they would sacrifice their lives rather than changing it. And somehow, the academicians believe the Hindu family structure to be something inherently diabolical and oppressive. So, if a woman prefers to die rather than being plucked away from her family, then she could only have been indoctrinated or brainwashed by patriarchy. After all, M N Roy, the founding father of Marxism in India, had viewed the Islamic Jihad on Hinduism as a struggle of progressive forces versus the feudal reactionary ones. So, if a Hindu prefers death to either conversion or abduction by Islamists, then it should be because of patriarchal indoctrination.

M K Gandhi repudiated this view with his simple yet precise observation regarding the mass suicides committed by Hindu women. When he heard about the mass suicides of Hindu-Sikh women during partition riots he was moved and pointed out the real purpose of their action:

“Not that their lives were not dear to them, but they felt it was better to die with courage rather than be forcibly converted to Islam by the Muslims and allow them to assault their bodies. And so those women died. They were not just a handful but quite a few.”

But what about concepts of body-based purity? Of course, the patriarchal tendencies develop in any society and they tend to see the woman as a property. Hence, if she gets violated bodily, then there may be stigma associated with it in the society. However, Hindu Dharma has consistently decried such tendencies.

In Hindu/Hindutva discourse, not only were the women who sacrificed their lives held in high esteem but so were the women who despite being violated still fought for Dharma.

Hindutva ideologue and historiographer Veer Vinayak Damodar Savarkar provides a good proof for this approach. In his Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, Savarkar provides a narrative of the events surrounding the life of Devaldevi, the 14th century Vaghela princess of Gujarat. There are conflicting descriptions about her life. The facts are that her mother, the queen of Gujarat, Kamala Devi, was taken to Delhi by Alauddin Khilji and he married her. However, her daughter Devaldevi had escaped capture by the Khiljis. Later, during a raid near Ellora, she too was captured in a chance encounter with Malik Kafur. At that time, her marriage had been fixed to Shankardev, a Yadav prince. Later, he would fight against the Islamist Sultanate and die.

The princess was married off to one of Khilji’s sons – Khijrakhan, who also happened to be her mother’s step son. However, it was Khilji’s third son, Qutb ud din Mubarak Shah who became the Sultan. Soon, fearing a conspiracy, he killed many of his brothers including Khijrakhan and then took Devaldevi as his own wife. Later, he was also killed by Khusro Khan, one of his generals and a Hindu convert to Islam from Gujarat who had been abused by the Sultan. Khusro Khan married Devaldevi and then proclaimed himself to be the Sultan – only that he reconverted to Hinduism.

Muslim writers and court poets of Khilji had romanticised Devaldevi’s relation with Khilji’s first son. And subsequently, she had been described like an object of conquest passing hands with no mind of her own. In the medieval historiography, she was depicted as one who got married to anyone who came to power.

Savarkar on the other hand provides another view of the queen. He writes admiringly of her thus:

“Some writers vouch that Devaldevi and Khijrakhan greatly loved each other. But this seems to be the flattering way of the courtly writers. Her subsequent course of action makes it abundantly clear! But that shrewd Hindu princess seems to have affected her love for Islam and for her husband till she got the desired opportunity.”

That desired opportunity was, according to Savarkar, the coup by Khusro Khan against the last Khilji – Mubarak. Savarkar speculates that in this, ‘his secret accomplice’ was ‘the former Hindu princess but now the Muslim empress, Devaldevi [who] must have been keeping him posted with every detail of the daily happenings at Delhi’ even as Khusro Khan went for a southern expedition. And while Muslim historians and others following them consistently and contemptuously called Khusro Khan as ‘low born’, Savarkar does not mention his community as ‘low’. According to him, the proclamation said to have jointly made by Khusro Khan and Devaladevi on 15 April 1320 ‘thrilled everybody in India right from the Kings and Nawabs to the Parias and Parwars, Mahars and Mangs with a strange sensation’.

The declaration of Khusro Khan presented by Savarkar in his book reads thus:

“Although till today I was forced to lead the most detestable life of a convert to Islam, I am originally a son of a Hindu. The mainspring of my life is Hinduism and the blood that throbs into my veins and arteries is that of a Hindu. Now that I have won independent and powerful status of a Sultan for myself I am hereby breaking off the shackles of conversion to a foreign religion, and I do hereby declare that I am a Hindu! I have now ascended publicly the throne of the vast and entire, undivided India as a Hindu Emperor! Similarly Sultana Devaldevi till very recently was originally a Hindu daughter. Her husband, the Raja of Devgiri, Shankardev Yadav, was most brutally murdered and she was treacherously captured from her father sneaking miserably through dense forest to avoid seizure by the enemy. She was brought to Delhi and put to shame and ignominious disgrace by being forced to marry Khijrakhan, in the first place, and secondly after his brutal murder, Sultan Mubarik who was killed in the coup d’etat last night. That Devaldevi is my queen, the empress of Hindustan of today! Being originally Hindu in flesh and blood and a Hindu royal princess, she also hereafter renounces disdainfully her shameful conversion to Islam and henceforth will lead her life strictly according to Hindu religion! May this solemn vow of ours absolve us both of our former sin of forceful conversion!”

He now renamed himself Nasir-ud-din defender of Din. Only his Din was not Islam but Hindu Dharma. While every Islamic and British historian emphasises his ‘low-caste’ in a derisive manner, Savarkar writes:

“This Hindu Samrat converted with their willing consent the young wives, daughters and nieces of the earlier Sultans and other Muslim women to Hinduism and married them to his Hindu Paria followers.”

Important to note in this narration by Savarkar is that the very idea of a Hindu caste as being low or superior does not appear in it. The only epithets he uses for Nasir-ud-din are ‘Dharamarakshak‘ and ‘Hindu Samrat‘. More relevant to the topic in question regarding queen Devaldevi, Savarkar writes:

“…(the) former Hindu royal princess and the Yadav Queen, Devaldevi, who was equally responsible for bringing about the unprecedented Hindu revolution of Shree Dharmarakshak Nasir-ud-din, and who was his important accomplice in the secret plot, and who became, after the successful accomplishment of the said revolution, the Hindu Empress of Shree Dharmarakshak, deserves even a greater place of honour, like that of Devi Padmini of Chitor, for the unimaginable mental agonies that she had to suffer in the most adverse circumstances! She deserves the honour of a brave warrior Rajput Princess burning herself on the pyre or in Johar!”

So here again, one can observe the Hindutva discourse has no special regard for bodily purity. To Veer Savarkar, if self-immolation and the memory of the martyrs associated with that deed is holy then the strategic maneuvering he perceives in the life of abducted and ravaged princess Devaldevi is also equally sacred. Here, the woman is not seen as a sexual property of high worth and no mind of her own but as an equal intelligent and even independent partner in the preservation of Dharma, as she deems fit.

We also find the same outlook in Mahatma Gandhi when he repeatedly asked the Hindu society to overcome the social-stagnant prejudice of bodily pollution and accept the girls who were rescued from Islamic abduction:

“Even if a girl has been forced into marriage by a Muslim, even if she has been violated, I would still take her back with respect. I do not want that a single Hindu or Sikh should take up the attitude that if a girl has been abducted by a Muslim she is no longer accepted to society.”

Here, we see both Savarkar and Gandhi converging in their view in distinguishing the respect for the choice of self-sacrifice of a woman from the concept of a rape victim being bodily polluted, which they both did not accept.

Interestingly, this actually has its roots in the traditional Hinduism itself. The following traditional telling of events show that Hinduism actually catalysed people to raise above the notion of body based pollution and honour.

In the Kanchi Sankara Mutt tradition, Swami Atmabodha is considered as the 58th Acharya. According to the tradition, he had a disciple by name Puroshotama, who was given the Sanyasin name Bodhendra Saraswathi. Atmabodha ordered him to go to Puri Jagannatha Kshetra and get a text, the Bhagwan Nama Gaumuthi from a savant, Lakshmi Sridhara. The project was to compose one lakh verses based on this treatise. When Bodhendra reached Puri, he learned from his son, Jagannatha Pandita that the savant had died. At that time an incident was witnessed by Bodhendra.

A South Indian couple had come to Jaggantha Panditha with a problem. When they were doing pilgrimage, the wife was abducted by Muslims. The husband became depressed and dejected and became a wanderer. After a few months, he by chance went near a river bank. There some Muslim women were collecting water. One of those women seeing him came running. She was his abducted wife and she was made to marry a Muslim and live with him. She however decided to return with her husband and they made their way to Jaggantha Pandita to ask what would be the scriptural injunction to make her again his wife as she had lived as a wife of a Muslim after her abduction. Jagannatha Pandita simply suggested that they both hold hands and get into the temple pond and say Rama nama three times immersing themselves in water. Bodhendra witnessing this event asked Pandita if what he was doing was in accordance with Shastras. As an answer, Pandita gave Bodhendra the book written by his father.

In another version, when Pandita said the above prescription to the couple, the widowed mother of Pandita listened to it and got angry. She condemned her son for suggesting the repetition of Rama Nama three times. According to her there was no pollution which could not be removed by a single utterance of Rama Nama


‘Jauhar’ by Raja Ravi Varma

So, the criticism that the glorification of Jauhar is similar to glorification of Sati or female genital mutilation, or that it reduces the woman to her body alone, is because of the ignorance of Hindu tradition and history. In reality, in remembering the martyrs of Jauhar we remember how we have survived as a nation through such sacrifices. And we resolve that we will not allow such fate to descend on our posterity. And that is the best tribute we can pay to their sacred memories. Padmavati is thus a living expression of the spirit of Dharma that still burns – from medieval Rajasthan under Sultanate’s siege to today’s Yazidi villages under Islamic State siege.



Author: Aravindan Neelakandan

Published: May 24, 2018

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. Jagrit Bharat is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article. All information is provided on an as-is basis. The information, facts or opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Jagrit Bharat and Jagrit Bharat does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.