Self-immolation in the modern times is viewed as a form of protest, often for the purpose of martyrdom. If a person is willing to set himself on fire on behalf of a collective cause, will the opposing party stop, realize their mistake, and back out?
Ryszard Siwiec, a Polish accountant, committed self-immolation in September 1968 in protest against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Some hailed him a hero; others called him mentally ill; while some Soviets branded him an irresponsible drunk, for allegedly drinking vodka and smoking at the same time.
In 1987, a widowed woman named Roop Kanwar, 18, decided to immolate herself all for the cause of Sati.
Sati was a social funeral practice in some Indian communities where a recently widowed woman would immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Although the practice has been banned by the British since 1829, there are still reports of women committing Sati especially in remote Indian villages.
The reaction in India regarding Roop Kanwar was an unresolved mixture of shock, admiration, outrage, reverence and embarrassment over the young girl’s action. Local police failed to stop the Sati. The Indian press called the act “a pagan sacrifice” and “a barbaric incident which blackened India’s image in the world.” Women’s groups demonstrated against the Sati all across India, prompting government action against Roop’s relatives. Yet private opinions, even of prominent politicians, were ambivalent.
Roop’s people, the Rajputs, claim Sati as their custom and religious right ¾ the free choice of the widow. It was reported that some groups of Rajput women marched in favor of Sati and burned copies of the anti-Sati ordinance.
Many newspaper reports say the widow was forced into the deed; in a word, murdered. According to all available first-hand reports, however, it was Roop Kanwar’s personal decision to commit this form of ritual suicide. Contrary to many press reports, her intentions were not only known before the funeral, but several village elders and holy men came to test her resolve, according to their tradition. Convinced that she had received the power to become a Sati, the elders and her in-laws gave their blessings.
A witness said, “I saw Roop dressed in bridal make-up walking along with her husband’s body with a coconut in hand. There were about 900 people when the body was taken to the cremation ground. Later, the crowd swelled. It took about an hour for the preparation of the pyre. The girl stood like a rock chanting the Gayatri. Once the pyre was ready, she entered it and sat holding her husband’s head in her lap. She ordered Pushpendra Singh, her brother-in-law, to light the pyre. As the fire engulfed her, Roop sat serenely talking to her relatives, not showing any sign of pain.”
Many newspapers discounted this as unbelievable and ridiculous, saying she must have been heavily sedated or pushed in. But courageous willingness is, in fact, is a common aspect of Satis, historically. A 17th century traveler, Francois Bernier, witnessed a Sati where he “could not perceive the slightest indication of pain or even uneasiness in the victim.”
Another witness to Roop’s Sati, is quoted saying, “She is from a well-educated family. Could this kind of woman have been forced? And there are hundreds of widows here whose husbands died even before there were pension schemes. Why were they not forced? She was a woman who believed her husband was a god and there could be no life for her without him.”
In India, Sati has been a practice of the warrior class, or Kshatriyas. Later, other castes picked it up. Similar practices are found in the history of other cultures, e.g., American Indian, African, Chinese, Egyptian and Greek.
While scouring the Internet for cases of Sati and Indian culture, one passage remains a constant –
The husband for the Indian woman is like a God; the wife must serve and worship him; she must follow him in life, and in death.
Consequently, a wife without a husband (without her God), has no reason to exist and she could become a problem for the rigid caste concept. A widow in fact could hardly find another husband in India among people of the same caste and therefore she could be brought to marry men of different caste, violating the primary rule that prohibits caste mobility between castes.
In fact, the condition of the widow in traditional Indian customs (which is still practiced today in some villages), is particularly difficult. At best, the woman remained to serve in her husband’s family, sleep on the floor and is served food that is not seasoned.
Often, widows are still sent to convents or shelters where, shaved and dressed in white (the color of mourning in India), to spend their time praying in temples. The terrible rite is/was celebrated in a solemn manner – the woman wears the clothes of marriage, goes in procession to the cremation ground and, after turning three times around the pyre of husband by chanting sacred mantras, lies on the pile of wood to be burned alive with her deceased husband. The widow is then worshiped as a Goddess and temples are built for her.
At present Indian laws provide severe punishment against those who organize, promote, encourage or take part in a Sati. It is also forbidden to build altars and temples to worship ‘Sati-women’.
I cannot, in my most sober state, react coherently with what I’ve learned regarding Sati. I understand the differences and gaps between cultures, but this is just insanity. I have to say though, that to be an honorable member of a society, one doesn’t need to abide to a set of ‘rules’, especially if it violates one’s right as a human being.
I am relieved that modern-day India did something to eradicate this form of Thanatos – and with all due respect to this beautiful country and the people, to be free from inhumane rituals is the greatest gift you can give to yourselves, and to your children’s children.
DO NOT LET THESE KINDS OF PRACTICES INSULT YOUR INTELLECT.