AuthorTatlock, Jason

The practice of burying a widow upon the death of her husband (or more typically the burning of a widow on the pyre of her deceased spouse), known as sati, is an important topic of inquiry for the study of contemporary religiosity, premodern rites, and interpretations of religious sources. (2) The victimization of widows brings to the fore significant and often contentious matters that are at the core of a society's perspectives on human sacrifice, particularly in relation to two questions: Is it morally acceptable, and To what extent is it sanctioned by revered statements? Given that religions are ever evolving, the answers to these questions can vary over time. For modern Hinduism, a renewed investigation into the acceptability of widow burning was mandated by reactions to the 1987 death of Roop Kanwar, a young woman who committed sati in northern India shortly after the passing of her spouse. The debate demonstrated that the dissenting side saw sati as illegitimate based on revered source material and ethical standards. This study examines both modern Hinduism and biblical traditions in order to demonstrate that just as sati has fostered disagreements over widow sacrifice in modern Indian culture, the immolation of innocent children stimulated conflict in ancient Israel and among the interpreters who have studied Israelite religion. While these two debates stemmed from distinct cultural, historical, and geographical contexts, their focal points were similar. As with Hinduism, morality and religious statements were and have been significant in the debate regarding Israelite rites. In the end, ancient Israel moved away from the immolation of innocent children and Hinduism has largely abandoned sati sacrifice. (3)

As an historian of ancient Israel, I can appreciate Jonathan Z. Smith's position that scholars of the Bible should be engaged in comparative analysis. (4) Such an enterprise can be difficult and care should be taken to avoid broad generalizations and ethnocentrisms. (5) Still, Robert A. Segal was correct to argue that it is acceptable to note similarities between groups when the scholar finds them, even if such groups have not been in dialogue with each other. It is interesting that Segal chose to cite highly ethnocentric comments James G. Frazer made in Garnered Sheaves on the importance of understanding a particular religious tradition solely on its own merits prior to making comparisons, but it is a valid observation (minus the ethnocentric view). (6)

The comparative approach I have taken here is straightforward: I have identified similar features in the debates about specific forms of human sacrifice in modern Hinduism and biblical Judaism while bearing in mind the individuality of each debate. This study does not suggest that these debates embody universal phenomena or that one religion influenced the other. While the contentious matters I examine here derive from dissimilar cultural and historical settings, there are parallels in the ways that sati and child sacrifice have been addressed in the respective religious traditions and the related interpretative discourses. (7) This study is, therefore, in line with one of the approaches taken in the field of Indo-Judaic Studies in that it examines affinities between the two groups instead of focusing on direct interactions. (8)

The point of departure for this analysis is the 1987 sati of Roop Kanwar, which was investigated by the Women and Media Committee of the Bombay Union of Journalists. Roop Kanwar was married to Maal Singh of Deorala for eight months, beginning in January 1987, but she lived with her spouse for little more than twenty days. When Singh died suddenly in early September from what appeared to be a case of gastroenteritis, Roop Kanwar performed an act of self-immolation. (9)

According to early reports, Roop, after the first shock had worn off, became very calm and reportedly told her father-in-law that she wished to commit sati. Press reports say that she decked herself in bridal finery and, in keeping with the tradition, led the funeral procession to the cremation ground in the centre of the village. She then ascended the pyre and placed her husband's head in her lap. Blessing the crowd assembled there and chanting the gayatri mantra, she slowly burnt to death on the pyre. News of the sati soon spread to neighbouring villages and people flocked to Deorala with offerings of coconuts for the sati mata. (10) In the year after Roop Kanwar's sacrifice, V. V. Raman argued in India Abroad, a publication considered to represent the Indian community in the United States, that "our current concern should be not so much with whether sati is part of Hinduism as with its unfortunate and undeniable occurrence in Hindu society." Raman continued:

Not all the apologetics in the world can erase the fact that very often in Hindu society (as elsewhere) women have been subjugated, treated shabbily and considered as inferior beings. Sati is merely one of its more atrocious and vicious expressions. Many in the course of India's long history have condemned it: Banabhatta, Akbar, Guru Amar Das, and Ram Mohun Roy, to mention but a few. We must resist the temptation to explain away such evils or pretend they have nothing to do with (former) Hindu world views. It is not through computers and more television sets that we will enter the modern age, but through a bold vision that will not hesitate to condemn and correct sectarian hatreds, social injustices, and dark-age superstitions without being defensive about their religious associations, while still retaining the many grand and glorious elements in our traditions." Even a cursory examination of past sentiments will demonstrate that the British previously perceived that such a view corresponded to a more "enlightened" version of Hinduism, (12) as seen by the perspectives espoused by a British governor general of India and a former British ambassador to the United States. (13) During the era of British imperialism, attempts were made to secure support at home for the cessation of sati-immolation; the writings of James Peggs, a former missionary to India, demonstrate such efforts. (14)

Raman would find much in common with the focus of Peggs's study, despite the separation in time between the writers; one wrote in the era that sati was outlawed due primarily to foreign sentiments--the British banned sati in 1829--and the other during the period when sati was legislated against through more internal pressures. (15) It was not until after the death of Roop Kanwar that new legislation against the practice was incorporated into the Indian penal code. (16) The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act was enacted in 1987 in order to bring an end to the rite. The law outlined the following punishments both against the woman attempting sati and those assisting her:

  1. Attempt to commit sati. Notwithstanding anything contained in the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860), whoever attempts to commit sati and does any act towards such commission shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine or with both.... 4. Abetment of sati. (1) Notwithstanding anything contained in the Indian Penal Code (45 of 1860), if any person commits sati, whoever abets the commission of such sati, either directly or indirectly, shall be punishable with death or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine. (2) If any person attempts to commit sati, whoever abets such attempt, either directly or indirectly, shall be punishable with imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine." Note the differences between the potential penalties leveled against the one seeking to immolate herself and the ones who help her. If the widow proves unsuccessful in performing the sati, she faces the possibility that she will either be imprisoned for a maximum of one year or be fined or both. By contrast, those who help her commit the act could receive the maximum penalty of execution in addition to a monetary fine, but this would occur only if the widow dies. If she survives, they could receive life imprisonment and a fine as the maximum sentence. The Indian government clearly viewed sati as an act of murder and the widow as a victim of violent crime. In fact, in 2007 the government proposed several changes to the 1987 sati law, such as describing sati as murder. (18) In 2008, amendments to legislation against sati were eventually abandoned due to disagreements at the cabinet level, but the notion that sati is homicidal is a common judgment on sati sacrifice in the literature of the late twentieth century. (19)

The report of the Women and Media Committee on Roop Kanwar's death, for example, argued that she had been murdered and suggested that a woman can never voluntarily perform sati in any case, even when she believes that she is an independent actor in the ritual, because such a "volunteer" is merely fulfilling the prescriptions of an oppressive Indian community. (20) These views are echoed by aspects of the governments 2006 proposed changes to sati legislation. An amendment proposed that should it be shown that a widow was not forced into attempting to kill herself at her husbands funeral, the courts would consider the possibility that she acted as a result of social preconditioning before seeking to find her culpable of attempting suicide. What is more, the family members of the widow could be guilty of abetment simply because they could have hindered her from carrying out the ritual but failed to do so. (21) By viewing the family as liable for a widows death, the proposed changes sought to modify the belief in the viability of sati at the very place where much of a child's values are formed: the home. Even though these proposed changes were not enacted into law, the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987 seeks to restrain the promulgation of sati by outlawing its veneration, including at...

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