In response to an email which I received:
Is there any reason why divorced women should not remarry?
I have been told that a divorced woman cannot do some of the wedding rituals such as fera (circling the holy fire).
I would be interested in your thoughts on this.
This is what I wrote back:
One has to note that the concept of second marriage simply did not exist. So philosophically, the idea of going through life's phases was so ingrained that the idea of going through a life phase again simply did not exist. For example, one wouldn't consider going through the study phase again after completing the marriage/householder/grihasta phase for men. They would go straight into vanvas/renunciation phase. Similarly, if a woman was widowed, that was it, the phase was over, you move on to the next phase. That said, there are serious variances in practises across India.
Some castes would be reduced in status if they allowed widow remarriage. In particular, Jain castes such as Leva Patidar, Mesari Bhavasar allowed widow remarriage, and this was actually one of the reasons why these castes were lower on the hierarchy. There is documented evidence on groups such as Rajbansis of Darjeeling Terai, Umar Banya caste of United Provinces, some Jat tribes. There have been documented evidence that widow remarriage was quite common across the sub continent with references from Poona, Madras, North East, etc. but mainly in lower caste tribes such as Chamars, Bhangis, Gujjars, Ahirs, Rajputs and artisan castes.
The prohibition against widow remarriage was primarily an upper caste phenomena, and any children emerging from such a remarriage were considered to be illegitimate. My personal sense is that this was more due to the property and wealth rights rather than religious sanction. For example, looking at the Dayabhaga and Mitakshara schools of Hindu Law (1), a woman could inherit only if there were no sons. And crucially, if she did inherit, then the estate will remain with her (and thus with the family) only till she is "chaste" i.e. unmarried. This idea was overruled in the case of Har Saran Das v. Nandi in 1889 in the Allahabad High Court where the provisions of the Hindu Widows Remarriage Act of 1856 were applied for the first time. And the widow post remarriage managed to keep hold of property that belonged to her first late husband.
Vrihaspati's quote, "of him whose wife is not deceased half the body survives. How then should another take his property while half his person is alive" is the crucial point. Marriage results not in 2 bodies joined together but the birth of One dual body. Another textual reference is with the Yajnayavalka Smriti, and I quote:
Wife (widow), daughter, father, mother, brother, their sons, gotraja (of the same family), bandhus, disciple and Brahmacharias of the same school, each succeeding one is heir in the absence of the person immediately preceding him in the order of enumeration-this is the law in respect of the inheritance to the property of a sonless deceased person of whatever caste.
Virat Manu's quote:
The widow of a childless man, keeping unsullied her husband’s bed, and persevering in religious observances, shall present his funeral oblation and obtain his entire share.
Katyayana's quote on this issue:
Let the childless widow, keeping unsullied the bed of her Lord, and abiding with her venerable protector, enjoy with moderation the property until her death. After her let the heirs take it.
A survey (2) carried out in Mathura and Saharanpur in the mid 1960's found that nearly 30% of women remarried, mainly lower castes, while upper caste widow remarriage was only 7%. Another good survey was done in the 1990's by Sarah Lamb (3) confirms the idea which I propounded at the beginning, that it was considered to be a normal phase of life.
Finally, to answer the original question, I have been unable to find any good reason behind this prohibition other than to make some guesses. The marriage was supposed to be eternal and thus even if the spouse died, the marriage still survives. Rest of the rot relating to eating meat and and and seems to be just a way to keep the women down. Even the High Court (Matungini Gupta v. Ram Rutton Roy, Calcutta High Court, ILR 19, Cal. 289) was not able to find any documentary reference to any extant Hindu scriptural law which forbade women from remarrying. There is also no reference whatsoever that I could find about widow's not being able to do any religious ceremony.
Pandit Vidyasagar, that brilliant man, went after customs, not law or scripture. Another brilliant Christian lady of India did huge things for widows (3). But the problem seems to be still there, there are tons of widows rotting in the various dharmashala's along the rivers of India. I totally agree with all the respondents on this email chain. They should be encouraged to do what they want, including remarry.