The burning of wives on the funeral pyres of their husbands, widow-burning, commonly known as sati ("suttee" in English), has been practiced in India since at least the fourth century B.C.E. , when it was first recorded in Greek accounts. It was banned by British colonial law in 1829–1830 and survived in the native Indian states until the late 1880s, when it was effectively eradicated, although extremely rare cases persisted into the early twentieth century. Since India's independence in 1947—or more precisely since 1943—there has been a spectacular revival of the phenomenon in four Northern Indian states: Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and especially Rajasthan, a former stronghold of sati. Although the number of women who have committed sati since that date likely does not exceed forty (with thirty in Rajasthan alone), an infinitesimal percentage of the female population, the reactivation of the practice has had considerable social and political impact, especially in the case of the "Deorala affair"—the burning of a young Rajput widow named Rup Kanwar in Rajasthan in September 1987. The nationwide trauma that followed this incident and the media coverage it received (in contrast to the relative indifference shown to the other cases) led the federal government to take legal action, issuing the Sati Commission (Prevention) Act a year later.
Sati was never a universal practice in India, even though the earliest statistics recorded by British officials in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were at times quite remarkable. Several reasons explain the high numbers logged in certain periods and regions of the subcontinent. For instance, a combination of external factors such as cholera epidemics and local customs, like the unbridled polygyny of Kulin Brahmans, might account for a portion of the 8,134 cases recorded in the Bengal Presidency alone between 1815 and 1828. Widow-burning is but one of a wide range of religious rituals implying self-mutilation and self-sacrifice observed by Indian men and women alike. Although death by fire has been the prevalent form of the ritual, cremation being the most common type of disposal of the dead among Hindus, sati could take the form of widow burial whenever the caste or community of the deceased called for it, as for example with the Jogi weavers of Bengal, or with the Jasnathis of Rajasthan, a lost branch of Ismaili Muslims who have reconverted to Hinduism.
The original meaning of the Sanskrit word sati was simply "faithful wife"; only later was the term applied specifically to the woman who immolated herself. In any case, it never referred to the rite or custom of widow-burning. It was the British who, at the close of the eighteenth century, officialized the confusion, expressed by many travelers before them, between the immolated woman and the sacrifice of widows. The Sanskrit language knows of no specific denomination for the practice and instead resorts to periphrastic and euphemistic expressions like "going with" and "dying with," when the widow is burned on the same funeral pyre as her husband, or "going after" and "dying after" when she is burnt on a separate pyre, these being the two major facets of the rite.
Also noteworthy is the fact that according to the Hindu belief system, the sati dies as a wife, eschewing the ill-fated, ominous, and impure state of widowhood: The "eye of faith," combined with the "belief effect" of the ritual, makes the joint cremation of husband and wife appear to onlookers (and as far as one can tell, to the sati herself) to be a reenactment of their marriage ceremony. Through her sacrifice, the sati preserves the bodily and spiritual unity of the couple, affording the Hindu sacrament of marriage its ultimate and truest expression.
Placed in a broader context, widow-burning is but one among a variety of forms of funerary ceremonial, found in many parts of the world, that involve the voluntary death of certain categories of survivors. These people sacrifice themselves (individually or en masse) in the course of the obsequies of a higher-ranking person—a ruler, master, or husband. The belief underlying this body of suicidal practices (termed altruistic by Émile Durkheim in his 1897 classical work Le suicide ) is that the deceased will enjoy the same goods and services in the beyond as he had on earth. He will need his mount and his weapons to wage war, food to assuage his hunger, and finery to set off his beauty and glory. In like manner, he will need to be accompanied by his servants, his counselors, and, finally, his wives.
What seems to lie at the heart of the practice of "following in death" is the settling of a debt of obligation and love (the two go together) binding the various parties to a common master. In ancient China, for example, all the categories of survivors mentioned above were buried with kings or great warlords, together with horses, offerings, and artifacts. Such was also the case in Scythia. According to some authors, the custom would have been introduced into India when Scythians (locally known as Shakas) conquered parts of its territory in the first century B.C.E. It would then have been exported from India to the kingdoms of Southeast Asia—mainly Java, Lombok, and Bali—where Hinduism became the state religion during the first centuries of the common era.
An alternative thesis maintains that widow-burning was indigenous to India but belonged to the same pre-Aryan wild clans and tribes as those that had introduced human sacrifice to propitiate bloodthirsty deities, as well as other equally "loath-some" rituals, into the Hindu canon of practice. Following the same line of argumentation, the remarkable fact that neither the Vedas, the sacred revelation of ancient Brahmanism, nor such authoritative treatises on dharma as the Laws of Manu ever mention widow-burning, is taken as evidence for the repression of this barbaric custom by a civilized Aryan society, in which the widow was enjoined either to lead an ascetic life for the rest of her days or, if she had had no male issue, to cohabit with her husband's younger brother until she begot one. These reconstructions tell readers more about the fantasies and ideologies of the people who conceived them than they do about the history of the practice itself. The aboriginal versus Scythian origin theories seem, in fact, to serve the same purpose: to remove sati rituals from the pure land of the Aryans and exile them into its darkest inner or outer confines. In this way, not only is India's immaculate image as the golden land of spirituality and nonviolence preserved, but also the hard core of "barbarism" found in Hinduism is conveniently expelled and thereby repressed.
The latest version of this convenient scenario is the one used in the polemic following the 1987 burning of Rup Kanwar in Deorala. This was the last and most highly publicized of a series of widow immolations that took place in Shekhavati, a rural region of Rajasthan, one of India's most underdeveloped and conservative states. The "Deorala affair" has been interpreted in a variety of ways according to the different viewpoints of the various actors in the controversy of Himalayan proportions. The proponents of secularism and women's causes declared Rup's immolation to be a patent case of murder in a plot in which the rural illiterate masses had been fanaticized by obscurantist forces and demonic agents belonging to specific castes (mainly the Rajputs and Marwaris) who were backing the revival of an outdated, outlawed practice to further their own interests, whether political, economic, or symbolic.
Commenting on the case and its extraordinary impact on a theretofore indifferent public, the Indian social psychologist Ashis Nandy has offered the following interpretation: The burning of Rup Kanvar became a cause célèbre because of her social milieu. Kanvar was born in a semiurban, well-to-do family from Jaipur, the state capital of Rajasthan, and had received a quite respectable education. The English-speaking and Westernized elite that sought to protect itself from the backlash of acculturation by stigmatizing Hinduism and by conflating tradition with superstition, rural life with social backwardness, and belief with obscurantism—that same elite felt directly threatened by the sacrifice of a young woman whose level of education and social background linked her to an economically emerging social group. Kanvar's death could only trigger a defensive reaction because it demonstrated that the line of demarcation between barbarism and civilization, upon which the edifice of what Nandy has called "a new form of internal colonialism" (Hawley 1994) had been built, had proved very easy to cross.
Nearly nothing is known of sati's origin or of its spread across the Indian territory and social strata during the first millennium of the common era. The general opinion is that sati was originally only performed in Ksatriya milieus—by the women of kings, warriors, and persons who had died a heroic death—and that it was eventually adopted by other status groups of society in the course of the second millennium C.E. as the result of a change of soteriology; this is, for example, the position of the Indian historian Romila Thapar. Many invoke the well-known process of Sanskritization, as theorized by Indian anthropologist M. N. Srinivas in the 1950s, to account for this imitation of the royal model. It is true that the first accounts experts have—Greek sources from Alexander's time (Onesicritos and Aristobulos)—describe the competition between the wives of the warlord Keteus to burn themselves alive on their husband's funeral pyre. It is also true that widow-burning became, from the seventh century onward, a common feature and thus an emblematic caste-identity marker among the same Rajputs who claim to be the Ksatriyas, the "warrior caste," of modern India. However, this is hardly sufficient ground for claiming that this custom was originally the exclusive prerogative of the martial castes, especially when numerous early accounts, both textual and epigraphical, of other groups—from Brahmans at the top of the hierarchical scale down to middle, low, and even impure castes—practicing widow-burning.
Another problematic issue is the prevalence of widow-burning in those regions of India in which "Shakta" Tantrism has been the dominant form of religious belief and practice since as early as the ninth century C.E. It is in an area comprising the
But the first question that arises with regard to widow-burning, a question that casts its long shadow across the entire field of its historiography, is that of knowing whether these immolations were voluntary acts or whether, on the contrary, women were forced to burn themselves—whether their immediate circle (family, priesthood, caste) and the dominant religious ideology they embraced did not force them, at the time of their declaration of intent and a fortiori in their hour of death, to mount the funeral pyre. This crucial element of the mystery of widow-burning is all the more intriguing inasmuch as the historical data provide as much evidence for the one hypothesis as for the other. According to the view one chooses to adopt, one will interpret widow-burning as a form of suicide, as a sacrifice, or as murder—a murder made all the more odious by the fact that it is also a matricide because it is the closest male relative of the deceased, the son, who lights the pyre on which his mother will be burned alive. When viewed as a murder, sati also takes on the dimensions of a collective homicide, being that thousands of men and women attend such events, and because the responsibility of the society as a whole is deeply implicated in it. At the opposite end of the spectrum, those Hindus who believe in "satihood" will view the ritual as a supreme act of selfless devotion and a manifestation of female sacredness, the sati literally becoming Shakti incarnate at her time of death and her burning a magical phenomenon of yogic self-combustion. In this perspective, her self-immolation is a sacrifice that, according to the Hindu belief system, entails no violence to the consenting victim.
Down to the present day, it is the dire fate of Indian widows in India that is invoked as the primary reason for existence of sati. Although widow remarriage has been authorized by law since as early as 1856, it was and still is rarely resorted to among higher or middle castes, or among groups that follow a strategy of embracing high-caste values and practices to collectively uplift themselves in the social hierarchy. An object of universal repugnance, the widow is required to lead a life of asceticism and self-mortification. In the higher castes, her head is shaved, and she is deprived of every finery, every pleasure, and every comfort. Because she is the bearer of misfortune and impurity, she is excluded from domestic festivities, and even from the wedding of her own children. Her existence is but a monotonous succession of fasts, religious observances, and devotional practices.
It can, however, become a veritable trial, given the fact that the hatred and resentment of her inlaws, legitimized by the belief that the widow has "eaten" her husband—caused his death through her misconduct in previous births or in this life—knows no limits. She is subject to humiliation, insult, and abuse. She can be thrown out into the streets and, if her own family refuses to take her back, have no other recourse than to join a widows' ashram at such holy sites as Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, or to make good on her reputation as a whore —a commonplace term of abuse for widows. The young widow is especially execrated, since it is judged that her unhappy fate is the result of abominable sins committed in a past life. Early widowhood was widespread in a society where life expectancy was notably low and where child marriage was common among certain castes and in certain regions until it was outlawed (the custom still persists in some rural areas of Rajasthan). So it is that a number of cases of women who committed sati before reaching puberty have come down to us, such as that reported in the late-seventeenth-century account of the French traveler François Bernier, who witnessed the burning of a twelve-year-old widow from Lahore who trembled and wept so vigorously that she had to be bound to finish the matter.
In sharp contrast to the miserable plight that would otherwise have befallen her, the bright prospect of the glory awaiting the woman who commits sati might have been a strong incentive to newly widowed Indian women; this was at least a widely shared idea. Not only was the sati ensured that her sacrifice—in which she would experience no pain—would bring her eternal bliss with her husband in the beyond, she was also persuaded that she would redeem the sins of seven generations in her father's, mother's, and in-laws' lineages, and never be born again into the "impure" female sex. In castes and milieus where sati had become the ultimate criterion of a woman's "wifely duty" and an icon of caste purity (and thereby, status), not only would family members, Brahman priests, and bards insist that the widow take the solemn vow to burn herself, but tradition at large—as represented by myths, literature, hagiography, and rituals in which satis were worshiped as deities—and, of late, propaganda and political and caste-based activism, left her little chance to escape her fate.
Once the sati declared her intention to follow her husband in death she had to burn herself, even if the Hindu legal treatises that sanctioned this highly controversial practice allowed her to retract. Very often, the would-be sati would have to prove her resolution by enduring a preliminary ordeal, such as burning her finger in a candle flame without showing any sign of pain. This would be taken as proof of her possession by "sat"—by the essence of her being in her role as the perfect wife, a sati—a supernatural power that enabled her to heal, protect, and foretell the future; to curse and bring misfortune on her community or in-laws; as well as to produce wonders and miracles, such as the lighting of her own pyre. The utterance of the deadly vow set in motion a process of mythification, and in certain cases of deification, that reached its climax in the burning itself, a sacred event for believers, granting merit to family, performers, and onlookers alike. One may further surmise, on the basis of a number of indications, that the sati no longer perceived herself as a flesh-and-blood woman but rather as some sort of deity at the very least, a Shakti in the making. In demonstrable cases in which no violence was used, this process of objectification within the sati herself might explain, at least in part, how burning oneself alive—an act which continues to be repressed in the recesses of the unthinkable—could actually form a part of human experience.
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