My response to Shernaz Wadia’s poem and responses of others in MUSE INDIA

 

Sati — a view point on its origin
This is a viewpoint on Shernaz Wadia’s poem titled ” Enforced Isolation ” on the subject of “Sati ” published in Muse on November 1, 2008.(visit  www.museindia.com) I suggest you read the poem first and thereafter this piece of mine.(The poem has been published just below this piece) Your feedback is welcome !
My views :A soul-stirring poem. Firstly, I was reminded of what I had read several years ago while reading a media report on one girl named Roop Kanwar. A brief outline is given herebelow:Roop Kanwar (b. 1969 – September 4, 1987) was an 18-year old Rajput woman who committed sati on September 4, 1987 at Deorala village of Sikar district in Rajasthan, India. At the time of her death, she had been married for eight months to Maal Singh, who had died a day earlier at age 24, and had no children. She went to her death in her wedding robes.
News reports of the incident present conflicting stories about the voluntariness of Kanwar’s death. Many news reports say that she was forced to die. However, other reports said that she wished to die, that her relatives were unable to persuade her otherwise, and that she went willingly to the pyre. She is also said to have told her brother-in-law to light the pyre when she was ready. Several thousand people attended the event.
After her death, Roop Kanwar was hailed as a sati mata — a “sati” mother, or pure mother. The event quickly produced a public outcry in urban centres, pitting a modern Indian ideology against a traditional one. The incident led first to state level laws to prevent such incidents, then the central government’s The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act. The original inquiries resulted in 45 people being charged with her murder; they were acquitted. A much-publicized later investigation led to the arrest of a large number of people from Deorala, said to have been present in the ceremony, or participants in it. Eventually, 11 people, including state politicians, were charged with glorification of sati. On January 31, 2004, a special court in Jaipur acquitted all of the 11 accused in the case, observing that the prosecution had failed to prove charges that they glorified sati. That’s the travesty of justice or injustice for us in our country !Next, I recalled a story narrated to me by my late mother in my childhood about Satyavan and Savitri. The story goes somewhat like this: When Savitri’s husband Satyavan died, the Lord of death, Yama arrived to take his soul. Savitri begged Yama to restore Satyavan and take her life instead, which he could not do. So Savitri followed Lord Yama a long way. After a long way in which Yama noticed that Savitri was losing strength but was still following him and her dead husband, Yama offered Savitri a boon, anything other than her husband’s life. Savitri asked to have children from Satyavan. In order to give Savitri her boon, Lord Yama had no choice but to restore Satyavan to life and so Savitri gained her husband back. Even today, traditional Indian families feel that a good wife should be like Savitri.To understand exactly as to what is Sati and what could have originated it, I did some research: The meaning of the word sati reveals the following: Satî (Devanagari: ???, the feminine of sat “true”) (also suttee) is a funeral practice among some Hindu communities, now very rare and outlawed in modern India, in which a recently-widowed woman would immolate herself and burn to ashes on her dead husband’s funeral pyre. The term is derived from the original name of the goddess Sati also known as Dakshayani, who immolated herself, unable to bear her father Daksha’s humiliation of her (living) husband Shiva.
The term may also be used to refer to the widow herself. The term sati is now sometimes interpreted as ‘chaste woman’. Basically the custom of Sati was believed to be a voluntary Hindu act in which the woman voluntarily decides to end her life with her husband after his death. But there were many incidents in which the women were forced to commit Sati, sometimes even dragged against her wish to the lighted pyre. Though Sati is considered a Hindu custom, the women, known as Sati in Hindu religious literature, did not commit suicide on their dead husband’s pyre. The first woman known as Sati was the consort of Lord Shiva. She burnt herself in fire as protest against her father who did not give her consort Shiva the respect she thought he deserved, while burning herself she prayed to reborn again as the new consort of Shiva, which she became and her name in the new incarnation was Parvati.A question further arose in my mind as to what a sati symbolizes? Let me share with you what I learnt: These two women along with other women in Hindu mythology who were exceptionally devoted to their husbands symbolized the truthful Indian wife who would do everything for their husband and they were named Sati. The meaning of the word sati is righteous. But as written earlier the women named Sati, in Hindu religious literature, did not commit suicide on their dead husband’s pyre. Therefore the custom of burning the widow on her dead husband’s pyre probably did not evolve from religious background but from social background. There are different theories about the origins of Sati. One theory says that Sati was introduced to prevent wives from poisoning their wealthy husbands and marry their real lovers. Other theory says that Sati began with a jealous queen who heard that dead kings were welcomed in heaven by hundreds of beautiful women, called Apsaras. 
And therefore when her husband died, she demanded to be burnt on her dead husband’s pyre and so as to arrive with him in heaven and this way to prevent the Apsaras from consorting with her husband.Even though Sati is considered an Indian custom or a Hindu custom, it was not practiced all over India by all Hindus but only among certain communities of India. On the other hand, sacrificing the widow in her dead husband’s funeral or pyre was not unique only to India. In many ancient communities it was an acceptable feature. This custom was prevalent among Egyptians, Greek, Goths, Scythians and others. Among these communities it was a custom to bury the dead king with his mistresses or wives, servants and other things so that they could continue to serve him in the next world.Another theory claims that Sati was probably brought to India by the Scythians invaders of India. When these Scythians arrived in India, they adopted the Indian system of funeral, which was cremating the dead. And so instead of burying their kings and his servers they started cremating their dead with his surviving lovers. The Scythians were warrior tribes and they were given a status of warrior castes in Hindu religious hierarchy. Many of the Rajput clans are believed to originate from the Scythians. Later on other castes who claimed warrior status or higher also adopted this custom. This custom was more dominant among the warrior communities in north India, especially in Rajasthan and also among the higher castes in Bengal in east India. Among the Rajputs of Rajasthan, who gave lot of importance to valor and self sacrifice, wives and concubines of the nobles even committed suicide, when they came to know that their beloved died in battlefield. In other parts of India it was comparatively low. And among the majority of Indian communities it did not exist at all.
A few rulers of India tried to ban this custom. The Mughals tried to ban it. The British, due to the efforts of Hindu reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, outlawed this custom in 1829. (I recalled our high school History books which had a chapter on Raja Ram Mohan Roy and in every History paper there was at least one question on the topic- either a short note on abolishing of Sati or a full question on reformist efforts of this great man !!).
There aren’t exact figures about the number of Sati incidences. In general, before this custom was outlawed in 1829, there were a few hundred officially recorded incidences each year. Even after the custom was outlawed, this custom did not vanish completely. It took few decades before this custom almost vanished. But still there are rare incidences in which the widow demands to voluntary commit Sati.In 1987 an eighteen years old widow (Roop Kanwar whose story has been just narrated above) committed Sati in a village of Rajasthan with the blessing of her family members. In this incidence the villagers took part in the ceremony, praising and supporting the widow for her act. In October 1999 a woman hysterically jumped on her husband’s pyre surprising everyone. But this incidence was declared suicide and not Sati, because this woman was not compelled, forced or praised to commit this act. 
In different communities of India, Sati was performed for different reasons and different manners. In communities where the man was married to one wife, the wife put an end to her life on the pyre. But even in these communities not all widows committed Sati. Those women who committed Sati were highly honored and their families were given lot of respect. It was believed that the woman who committed Sati blessed her family for seven generations after her. Temples or other religious shrines were built to honor the Sati. In communities where the ruler was married to more than one wife; in some cases only one wife was allowed to commit Sati. This wife was normally the preferred wife of the husband. This was some kind of honor for the chosen wife and some kind of disgrace for the other wives. In other communities some or all of the wives and mistresses were immolated with the husband. And in some cases even male servants were immolated with the kings. This kind of Sati in which the wives and servants were treated as the ruler’s property intensifies the theory that Sati was introduced to India by the Scythian invaders of India.Last, but not the least, in some very rare incidences mothers committed Sati on their son’s pyre and in even more rare cases husbands committed Sati on their wives pyres!! (On a lighter note, till date I have actually not read or heard about any man/husband having committed Sati or should we say “Sata” ? !!)I think that’s enough from me to you or you may be tempted to ask “Mr Broca, are you doing a Ph D on Sati or what ?”

God Bless You, Shernaz, for your sensitivity.

 
Dear Gopa jee,
I sincerely thank you for your frank feedback. I feel happy that the piece compelled you to share your views on this sensitive subject. Sharing one’s inner anguish with others is indeed therapeutic. Hats off to your dear mother and to all her devoted children who made her understand the value of her remaining life after the death of her beloved husband. I accept that the media has a role to play. We have often read about real women who have empowered themselves in spite of all odds. May their tribe increase. I am tempted to convert a popular quote from Longfellow’s Psalm of life by substituting men by women here:
 ” Lives of great women,
all remind us,
we can make our lives sublime,
and departing,
leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time.”

 

J S Broca, New Delhi
Nov 07, 2008 

 
Dear Shernaz
Thanks a ton! I can understand what pain you must have undergone during such trying circumstances. I salute you, dear for doing the best for your family/darling daughters and having continued with a renewed zest for life. You are really made of a sterner stuff and I feel privileged to have known you for decades. More power to your pen, dear. Keep writing… writing… God Bless You!

 

J S BROCA, NEW DELHI
Nov 07, 2008 

 
Dear Rassoolji,
Many thanks for your feedback. I too share your anguish on this matter.Yes, Shernaz has, what shall I say, “the fire in the belly” to come out with her sensitivity on issues which are generally a taboo and not discussed so openly. MUSE has thankfully given us a forum for sharing our personal loss and grief with other like minded and equally sensitive readers. Our personal tribulations seem to become smaller when we hear of others who have faced much bigger sorrows.
_______________________________________________________________
Dear Rassool saheb, ji is added at the end of a name as a mark of respect — K. Mallick
 

J S Broca, New Delhi
Nov 07, 2008 

 Dear Jittoo,

Thank you for this very informative piece. As Gopa says, it is an extremely sensitive issue and requires concerted efforts, particularly on the part of the immediate family to make a widow understand and accept that she does not need to relegate herself to the margins of life where she has to live only because she cannot die.

Gopa, we too experienced this pain after my father died. My Mom was actually asked to leave the room during my engagement ceremony. The memory still hurts and brings tears to our eyes. Sadly it was she only who did not allow any protests from her daughters and forced us into complying with society. We gave in because physically too she was a victim of crippling arthritis and emotionally she was in a very delicate state. Only her mental resolve helped her through her excruciating times. First our very own family and then society is very cruel. We just accept things because somebody with a bit of authority says it has always been so and cannot be different. When such things happen in a supposedly progressive community like ours I can only imagine the plight of those in others.

Yes Rassool, like every other injustice perpetrated by man on man, this one too is very painful. 

 

Shernaz Wadia, Pune
Nov 07, 2008 

 
I didn’t want to talk about it as it is a sensitive issue but could not help myself. In fact, I had personally experienced these emotions in my own mother who became a widow after almost fifty years of married life. She was so miserable and depressed that on one occasion I even told her why didn’t you commit sati then? I tried my best to make her realize that she has a very important role to play in our- her children and grandchildren’s lives. Thank God with our rebukes and perhaps great effort in making her feel that she can do a lot for us, my mother seems like she has come to terms with life.
Widowhood is painful, no doubt. But what is sad is that the victims often don’t get any help from relatives in not getting on with life. This is also at the root of most of the problems concerning women in our society. Women need to be taught that they are needed in society for themselves and for the society. God has given every human being the capability and the right to live. Taking one’s life or forcing someone to take her life is deplorable. However, I feel what is more deplorable is not having confidence in oneself; not standing up for oneself. Why can’t a woman start life after an event for which she is not responsible for and has little control over?
Instead of showing pity to these women, our thoughts and subsequently our literature and our media should instil courage in these women to accept life as a challenge and go about making meaning of life. True glory lies in achievement not in sacrifice. 

 

Gopa Nayak, UK
Nov 07, 2008

 
Mr Broca, are you doing your Ph. D. on Sati… 🙂
Sorry sir I was tempted to take up your offer…. just couldnt help it. A very incisive and informative piece that explains the origins of sati. I am enriched and enlightened and at the same time saddened.
Thank you very very much.
Shernaz with her very sensitive poetry and subject matter really does make one think doesn’t she. Warmest regards 

 

Rassool Jibraeel Snyman, South Africa
Nov 07, 2008 

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