Concept of Karma in relation to religion and patriarchy in “Widow” by Gudipat Chalam

Gudipat Venkat Chalam writes the Widow, considered to be one of the most influential personalities in modern Telugu literature, his philosophical enquiries delve themselves into the mind of a seventeen-year-old widow. The story captures his development of realism in Telugu literature that which critiques contemporary social practices, which were bathing in Hinduism, yet to be adulterated by secular humanism. Although “child marriage” is the foundational aspect of the story, Chalam goes further in his societal investigation of the “country”. One of those investigations unravelling the rotten roots of “patriarchy”, “karma” and “religion” of that “country”. 

“Karma” although not arriving into the Hindu tradition from the Vedas but rather from non-Vedic sects such as Saivism and Bhagavatism, the concept has lingered in the region for over a millennium and traversed itself over the globe in many forms as well. The notion is available in Buddhism, Jainism and even Sikhism, although for the matter of the Widow the Hindu formulation of it must remain forefront. Tackling the conflict between an uninterrupted causal chain (determinism) and free will, the former was fully accepted as the only route by the fatalists, such as the followers of Ajivikas and the latter was taken in by the believers of karma in the Hindu tradition (Jayaram). The idea being that humans were in total control of their lives and actions, that the suffering of life was as a result of ‘desire ridden and egoistic thoughts’. Popularly in Hinduism the idea that took the furthest reach was that ‘fate was a product of one’s own actions and what might look like the intervention of chance in case of some individuals was actually a result of their previous actions done either in their present lives or in their previous ones’ (Jayaram). Thus, karma becomes an explanation of the suffering, situation, status and stature of a human, moving the cycle of reincarnation, based on good or bad actions, the moral judgements of which were substantiated by Hinduism. Here the “religion” in question becomes Hinduism, although the term itself has a rainbowed list of connotations just as “patriarchy” – another matter in question. Labels such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism are “…applied for the convenience of Europeans and not translations of concepts found within these traditions” (“‘Religion’ and ‘the religions’: two new notions”).  Instead of using the ‘way of life’ or Concise Oxford Dictionary definition of ‘religion’ the definition by Steve Bruce is the most encompassing one: Religion…consists of beliefs, actions, and institutions which assume the existence of supernatural entities with powers of action, or impersonal powers or processes possessed of moral purpose (“Common Sense and Analysis”). For “patriarchy” however, the situation is far more complex, the term no longer signifies the Greek understanding of patriarch (πατριάρχηςi), meaning ‘father who rules over a family’ but rather has popularly taken a feministic turn of “men’s dominance”, usually extending it to oppression of women (Pierik, 8) (Pierik, 15). This and the understanding of patriarchy as ‘father’s rule over a kinship family’ are gutted into each other without clarification for the discourse. This by no means is an exhaustive list of what is meant by “patriarchy”, definitions of Walby, De Beauvoir and Weber et cetera are being left out. It is simply to point out the variations in the how the term is understood and most importantly for this title, which definition is going to be applied. Judith Butler realizes the superimposition of the term “patriarchy” as being a Western theoretical hegemony. Being the reason why “many theorists have dropped the concept ‘patriarchy’ altogether, in favour of formulations such as ‘gender difference’ or ‘gender oppression’” (Pierik, 3). However, given that “patriarchy” is a concern of the topic, the understanding of it would be taken in terms of one of those meanings of it that have some sense of universality, “namely… a society that ‘values men more highly than women’” (Pierik, 2). Essentially a structure devised in such a way that it discriminates in favour of men while against women, with the judgements of that structure in this particular case being formulated via Hinduism, the country being India.

The widow in the Widow suffers an ironical predetermined subservience to the patriarchy, while announcing karma as the staple concept in the oppressive order. Although it is via presentism that the vileness of “child marriage” is explored, the situation that the seventeen-year-old widow ends up bearing on the onset of her husband’s death is empathy inducing nonetheless. The structure in which she is married, persisting a seven-lives bond ‘saat janam ka rishta’ and an unquestionable devotion to not just the structure in place but the husband in relation, she is put into a boiling pot of a societal backlash for out-living her husband. Bringing forward the customs of the region; allowing for her life instead of Sati while disallowing her sexual and maternal needs in light of the patriarchal socio-religious structure. Her soliloquy begins with the very thing that is out of her life, that which she was glad to have, a husband. She talks about how Mangamma is “probably in a cosy hug with her husband” whilst she exists in cold, without a shawl as a widow (Chalam, 275). The paradigm in place, is to the core patriarchal, not just in legality, economy or the broader social sphere but inside familial boundaries, the protagonist senses the disgust of the men as well as women of the household on her existence. Venkata Rao from being a cheerful relative who gave her mithai becomes a distant judge of her character. She mourns the death of her unborn children over her husband’s, her child’s relation to her that she would “swing him in…[her] arms” (Chalam, 276). Much of her speech is a reflection of her maternal desires, that which have now no possibility, even though a majority of her life is yet to come. An interesting contrast is made by Chalam, on the one hand the girl is excited in her fantasies about her baby pulling her hair out till it bleeds, but she is weary about it hurting when a barber would shave her head. This contrast puts in the limelight the clear hypocrisies by the patriarchal order in question; oppressing instinctual desires of a woman, while favouring men in every way possible, limiting the contact of a woman in every way but in the situation when she’s to be made ‘untouchable’. 

“…If because of their karma so many women…” is a clear realisation of the girl with no name, who’s entire existence in put in terms of a man. She realises a structural system that employs the concept of karma as a justification while to the same degree it doesn’t apply to the patriarch. Specification is made by her as well, that “Only Hindu widows” have this exclusive sin, the cycle of tyranny is put in question by Chalam using the girl. The relation between this concept for the story, the religion in question with its patriarchal order leads into the suffering of the widow as a rightful pilgrimage to her next life, while atoning for the sins of her previous ones.


“Common Sense and Analysis”. Studying Religion. OpenLearn, Aug. 2012. Accessed 30 Sep. 2021. 

“‘Religion’ and ‘the religions’: two new notions.” Studying Religion. OpenLearn, Aug 2012. Accessed 30 Sep. 21

Chalam, Gudipat Venkat. Widow. Indian Literature: An Introduction. India, Pearson Education, 2005.

Jayaram, V. “The Concept Of Karma In Hinduism.” Hinduwebsite. Accessed 30 Sep. 2021.

Pierik, Bob Thomas. “A History of Patriarchy?” Leiden University, Aug. 2018. Accessed 30 Sep. 2021.

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