09 January 2006

Indian Sati, German Totenfolge in Universal Context

The September 2004 issue of Journal of World History has a thought-provoking article on a much maligned, but not nearly rare enough phenomenon: the Indian custom of sati (= suttee). Author Jörg Fisch's title is Dying for the Dead: Sati in Universal Context. Here's the conclusion (courtesy of The History Cooperative).
Sati, the burning of widows in India, has probably been the best-known (and the most despised or lamented) Indian custom in Europe since the ancient Greeks. Comparisons with other customs usually have been made on the phenomenological level, especially with the burning of witches and heretics. Here it is suggested to introduce comparisons on the functional level. The main question is thus not what happens, but what the function and purpose of the act are. Seen in this perspective, the central aspect becomes the connection between this world and the other world, between the living and the dead. On the basis of a belief in a hereafter that is an immediate continuation of this life, both worlds are connected by an act in which a dead person is followed, voluntarily or by force, in a public ceremony, by one or several living persons, thus emphasizing the continuity between the two worlds. The particulars of the ritual, whether it is killing or self-killing, and the manner of killing are, from a functional point of view, unimportant. Usually, this manner corresponds to the manner of disposing of the dead. Thus, for example, in Indian castes that bury the dead, sati is usually performed by burying alive. In other contexts, the method of killing is to preserve the body of the followers as intact as possible, so as to enable them to do their duties in the hereafter, which often leads to strangling.

Following into death thus defined can be shown to have occurred, in the course of history, in most areas of the world for a longer or a shorter time, with the notable exception of Western Europe [Eva Braun?--J.], for which there is no satisfactory explanation so far, due to the lack of sources. Two further important questions cannot be answered either: we can only guess the context in which such customs had their origin, as we don't know when they developed, and we do not know whether there was a kind of diffusion from one point of origin or whether the relevant customs developed independently from each other in different places. The only exceptions are Southeast Asia, where the occurrence of widow burning makes Indian influence very likely, and Japan, where there was probably Chinese influence.

Following into death is of special interest because it links two worlds and thus religious with sociopolitical aspects. It is a matter of life and death. As it is physically impossible to accompany every dead person, the question of who has the right to be followed and who has the duty to follow arises. Following into death thus not only becomes a mirror of social structure and political power; it also can influence them. There are two main functions in this framework. Especially in India, sati reflects, confirms, and strengthens the subordination of men to women [vice versa, surely--J.]. In many other places it has the same effect for the superiority of the ruling groups. The ceremony of killing the followers shows the long-term results of social and political power struggles.

Following into death presupposes certain religious beliefs (as a necessary, not a sufficient, condition). Wherever beliefs in a final judgment prevailed over beliefs in a transfer of this world into the other, following into death either vanished, if the beliefs of the people at large changed, or were suppressed, if foreign conquerors had sufficient strength to abolish them. This is what European colonialism did, mainly with humanitarian arguments, but basically because of its own religious background.

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