Fuelling the fire of the sati debate

Ashes of Immortality
August 10, 2001

In a gruesome episode of a recent documentary film partly about sati , the Indian director berates a Rajasthani peasant woman for her refusal to acknowledge the "falsity" of an image produced using a montage of several photographic images of a widow combusting on her husband's funeral pyre.

Catherine Weinberger-Thomas's approach to "the feminine and the igneous" is quite different, choosing rather to explore sati as a cultural practice, the "necessity" and tenacity of which demand a recognition of its own "integrity". She concludes that satis are the victors over "violence consented to and used knowingly", and the practice needs to be understood as one manifestation of a symbolic system that - within the terms of that system - actually empowers women. Orthodox Hindus, she suggests, do not see the immolation of satis as the burning of women, but rather as "divine energy revealing itself in broad daylight".

Thus the author eschews the simplicity of outrage, pursuing instead a complex and perceptive investigation of daggers, lemons, decapitated heroes, menstrual blood and other avenues.

She sees her narrative as replicating traditional Indian forms, with stories nesting inside stories inside other stories, in endless proliferation. This is doubtless convenient, for her account is distinctly shaggy and perplexing.

Interweaving informative historical and recent accounts of satis, Weinberger-Thomas traces the emergence of the "deadly vow", in which bhav (affect) "comes on" and sat (the widow's inner fire) "rises" like brooding embers.

According to the relatives (whom the author met) of the recent sati , Hem Kanvar, her dark complexion became white and radiant following her announcement that she would join her husband's body on the pyre. One relative, still elated at the memory, tells the author how Hem retained her composure as the flames licked her head and veil. These empathetic encounters with those who, in one way or another, have experienced the impact of sati, are one of the book's strengths.

But it is difficult, if not impossible, for the reader to piece together the book's diverse fragments satisfactorily. One is left with a rich jumble of contemporary ethnographic and archival reflections, containing ostensible crytopological clues to understanding the sati code, that never break through to any enlightening conclusion.

This is an English translation of a French work that was first published in 1996. So it fails to engage with Lata Mani's recent important work on sati , apart from two endnote references. Ashis Nandy's crucial position is outlined, but Weinberger-Thomas disdains a full engagement and critique of it because the debate is, for unclear reasons, one "from which I am not sure the reader would stand to benefit".

Weinberger-Thomas's investigation yields more of value than the straightforward critiques of the modernists that Nandy describes as "a new form of internal colonialism", but one is left feeling that her voyage "into the heart of Indian orthodoxy" has elevated an abstraction.

Rightly, she wants to transcend arguments "for" or "against" sati , but then she unnecessarily reintroduces them in her penultimate chapter by opposing two views of sati as faith-based and as politically inflected. Much of what she claims here to be incommensurable ("belief systems" versus "elites in search of legitimation") is in fact largely reconcilable. A more direct engagement by the author with the political nature of present-day India's contests over "traditions" would have made this fascinating and frustrating book more comprehensible.

Christopher Pinney is senior lecturer in material culture, University College London.

Ashes of Immortality: Widow-Burning in India

Author - Catherine Weinberger-Thomas
ISBN - 0 226 88568 2 and 88569 0
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £31.50 and £11.50
Pages - 322

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