Death At A Funeral
IN an age of ascending feminism and focus on equality and human rights, it is difficult to assimilate the Hindu practice of sati, the burning to death of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre, into our modern world. Indeed, the practice is outlawed and illegal in today’s India, yet it occurs up to the present day and is still regarded by some Hindus as the ultimate form of womanly devotion and sacrifice.
Sati is the practice among some Hindu communities by which a recently widowed woman either voluntarily or, more often these days by use of force or coercion, commits suicide after her husband’s death. The most common form of sati is when a woman throws herself onto her late husband’s funeral pyre. However other forms of sati exist, including being buried alive with the husband’s corpse, throwing one’s self in front of a moving train and drowning.
In a country that shunned widows, sati was considered the highest expression of wifely devotion to a dead husband. It was deemed an act of peerless piety and was said to purge her of all her sins, release her from the cycle of birth and rebirth and ensure salvation for her dead husband and the seven generations that followed her. Because its proponents lauded it as the required conduct of righteous women, it was not considered to be suicide, otherwise banned or discouraged by Hindu scripture. Under British rule, sati was initially tolerated informally before being formally legalised under certain conditions and then eventually outlawed in 1829. This was followed up by laws in the same directions by the authorities in the princely states of India in the ensuing decades, with a general ban for the whole of India issued by Queen Victoria in 1861. The main problem with the practice, particularly in recent times, is that, whilst sati was supposed to be voluntary, there have been accounts of women being forced or drugged into killing themselves. Property tussles are often the reason, with male heirs preferring to do away with a widow, leaving the inheritance entirely in their hands.
In the late 1950s, a royal sati took place. Performed in Jodhpur by Sugankunverba, the widow of Brigadier Jabbar Singh Sisodia, her act of self-immolation occurred illegally and supposedly in secret. The Maharani Padmavati Gaekwad of Baroda, her close friend, provided this account of her death in 1984: “About a month before he died she stopped eating and drinking. She went about her household chores, looked after her husband and nursed him, but without letting on she got together all the things required for the last rites. I used to go to their house to cheer them up and one evening just a little before sun-down as I drove into the compound, I heard this very deep chanting of Ram-Ram as if coming from a deep, echoing chasm. He had passed away two minutes earlier and she had already announced that she was going to commit sati when he was cremated at sunrise. While they attended to his body she went to her bathroom, had a bath and put on the brand new clothes that she had stored in her trunk. When she had dressed she sat with her husband’s head on her lap all night. Twice his body perspired and twice she wiped it down saying, ‘Why are you so impatient, I am coming with you. Be calm. The sun’s first rays are still to come.’ Morning came and her devar arrived, her husband’s brother who was going to perform the last rites. When he doubted her intentions she got up and sat over the lamp which they kept burning near the dead body. She fanned the flames with the hem of her sari and sat there for five minutes until he said, ‘I’m satisfied.’ Now normally when a sati goes to the pyre she is accompanied by a procession, but the word had spread like wildfire through the whole city and people started gathering. So she said, ‘We can’t walk, bring cars and a truck,’ and in this way they avoided the police who were waiting at the entrance to the big burning ghat. She had sent for me, but I didn’t get the message and got there late and by that time the flames had got too high for me to see her – but I heard her voice saying ‘Ram-Ram’, which never stopped for a second until she died. She is worshipped today not only by Rajputs but by everybody and so many artis and bhqjans (devotional songs) have been composed about her, and her funeral pyre burnt for almost six months non-stop with all the coconuts that people kept putting on it.
In today’s India, sati is rarely discussed openly. Ostensibly, it is considered a shameful practice, particularly by the burgeoning middle class, long outlawed and of interest only as a minor historical footnote. And yet the practice continues, particularly in rural areas of India, with over forty documented cases occurring since the 1950s, approximately one recorded incidence per year, with some anecdotal evidence to suggest that there are a much greater number of successful and unsuccessful sati attempts. Indeed, pro-sati advocates, generally men, demand the right to commit, worship, and propagate sati. One well-documented case, that of 18-year old Roop Kanwar, occurred in 1987 at the village Deorala in Rajasthan. Eyewitness reports of the incident present conflicting stories about the voluntariness of her death: that she was dragged from a shed in which she had been hiding, that she was sedated, that she herself told her brother-in-law to light the pyre when she was ready. Several thousand people managed to attend the event, after which she was hailed as a ‘pure mother’. Devotees from all over India flocked to her shrine to pay homage, bringing huge revenues and status to the village. The event produced a public. Kanwar’s sati led to the creation of state level laws to prevent the occurrence and glorification of future incidents and the creation of the central Indian government’s The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act 1987. However, of the 56 people charged with her murder, participation in her murder or glorification of her murder during two separate investigations, all were subsequently acquitted.
Speaking to Russia Today, Kailash Meena, a member of People’s Union for Civil Liberties, says, “Whatever the rich people did in the past, the poor think is a mark of status and follow blindly, because through Sati, a family’s spiritual status and prestige jumps, and so does its source of income. On the other hand, sometimes when a husband dies, his widow is left with no financial support, and prefers to die in a sort of respectable suicide,” he adds.
Other incidents of sati continue to take place. Fifty-five year old Charan Shah’s self-immolation in 1999 at Satpura village in Uttar Pradesh is shrouded in mystery as witnesses refused to co-operate with official investigations. Shah’s suicide is notable because it led to the publication of a vitriolic article apparently justifying the practice of sati and demanding the repeal of the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, by a respected female academic, Madhu Kishwar. In May 2006, Vidyawati, a 35-year-old woman allegedly jumped into the funeral pyre of her husband in Rari-Bujurg Village, Uttar Pradesh. In August 2006, Janakrani, a 40-year-old woman, died on the funeral pyre of her husband in Sagar district. In October 2008, a 75-year-old woman committed sati by jumping into her 80-year-old husband’s funeral pyre at Checher in Raipur.
And as recently as 2009, a 60-year-old widow named Sharbati Bai attempted to commit sati on her husband’s pyre in Rajasthan’s Sikar district. She couldn’t because the village and the police stopped her just in time.
And though the practice itself is banned, the glorification of sati lives on. In fact, India still has at least 250 Sati temples, including 11 in the district of Sikar alone. Women who commit sati are often worshipped as Sati Devi or a goddess. The priest of one such temple, Makhan Sharma, says that once a woman becomes a Sati, she attains healing powers. “Her respected status means that people’s prayers are answered. That’s why people come here from all around. Our pain and diseases are healed through her blessings.”
Following public outcries after each instance there have been various reforms passed which now make it illegal even to be a bystander at a sati event. Other measures include efforts to stop the glorification of the victims, including the erection of shrines over their ashes, the encouragement of pilgrimages to the site of the pyre and the derivation of any income from such sites and pilgrims. However, it must be recognised that the tradition of sati in India is very complex indeed. Despite the existence of state and country-wide laws prohibiting the act and its glorification, incidents continue to occur every year and they may be on the increase. As one Indian feminist notes, these occurrences confirm that deeply held and deeply cherished norms cannot be changed simply by enacting laws.
The Origins Of Sati
THE term sati is derived from the original name of the goddess Sati, who self-immolated because she was unable to bear her father Daksha’s humiliation of her (living) husband Shiva. Sati as practice is first mentioned in 510 CCE, when a stele commemorating such an incident was erected at Eran, an ancient city in the modern state of Madhya Pradesh. The custom began to grow in popularity as evidenced by the number of stones placed to commemorate satis, particularly in southern India and amongst the higher castes of Indian society, despite the fact that the Brahmins originally condemned the practice. Over the centuries, the custom died out in the south only to become prevalent in the north, particularly in the states of Rajasthan and Bengal. While comprehensive data are lacking across India and through the ages, the British East India Company recorded that the total figure of known occurrences for the period 1813 – 1828 was 8 135; another source gives the number of 7 941 from 1815 – 1828, an average of 618 documented incidents per year.
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