Ancient practice divides India’s urban and rural

Tim Sullivan

It’s an unused cornfield at the edge of an isolated village, an empty plot of earth that the police flattened with a backhoe and hosed down with a water tanker. But villagers take off their shoes when they step onto the field. They do it as a sign of respect for what happened there a couple of months ago, and to honor the woman they say became a goddess that afternoon when she chose to be burned alive.

“It has become a holy place, and people want to worship there,” said Daya Ram, an aged man who looks battered by decades of labor. “The police won’t let them.” That, authorities say, is no surprise. They see nothing holy about what happened in Baniyani.

“It’s murder,” said Chanchal Shekhar, the region’s top police official. “It’s blatantly a murder.” The reality is something more complicated, a tangle of traditions, laws and beliefs where clear explanations are anything but blatant. Because more than 175 years after India’s former colonial rulers outlawed sati, an ancient Hindu practice whereby a widow burns herself alive on her husband’s funeral pyre, it remains powerfully resonant in pockets of rural India - and a profound embarrassment to the country’s increasingly urbanized elite.

India remains, in many ways two countries - a place that is both urban and rural, modern and pre industrial, educated and illiterate. And sati is a reflection of how vast that divide can be. While sati cases remain rare today, and India normally only has one every year or so, recent months have seen a surge: At least three widows have died on their husband’s pyres since August, and another was stopped from burning herself to death when villagers intervened.

Experts can find no explanation for the increase. It’s possible that media reports and word-of-mouth lead to a copycat effect. But across rural India, it’s easy to find people who revere sati as the ultimate demonstration of womanly honor, devotion and piety.
Thousands of sati temples have been erected over the centuries, many carefully preserved and still in daily use.

“India’s modernization has not really reached out to our far-and-beyond villages. It’s very urban, it’s very metropolitan, it’s very middle class,” said Ranjana Kumari, a prominent women’s rights activist in New Delhi, the capital, some 400 miles (644 kilometers) north of here. “We are many cultural nations within one nation.”

If this nation of more than a billion people appears increasingly modern, a country of software developers and outsourcing firms, the reality is different for most people. More than two-thirds of Indians still live in villages such as Baniyani, and most depend on agriculture. The country seems to thrive on contradictions: India produces well over 300,000 engineers a year, but 700 million Indians lack access to toilets; top Indian universities are among the world’s most competitive, but nearly 40 percent of adults are illiterate; India now has Ferrari dealerships, but only six percent of rural homes have telephones.

Women’s issues are a big concern. Thousands of young brides are believed to be killed annually in dowry disputes, and statistics indicate that in a society that prefers to have boys, the aborting of female fetuses has left the country with 10 million “missing” girls. It’s not all about education and modernization: Some of the country’s wealthiest communities have the biggest imbalances.

But to modern India, sati is a reminder of what it is trying to leave behind, and it reacted with scorn and shame to what happened in Baniyani. “Barbaric,” one news report called it. “Medieval,” said another. Politicians hailed the police for arresting 13 villagers, including the four sons of Kariya Bai, the woman who died. For weeks afterward, a police detachment stayed in the village to ensure the cremation site was not turned into a shrine. In India, even glorifying sati is illegal. In Baniyani, though, tales of sati have been passed down for generations, and the story of what happened here is told with reverence.

“I’ve heard that police say it was a murder, but that’s not true,” said Ram Bali, a 51-year-old farmer walking into the village late one afternoon, exhausted from a day hacking needle-filled brush from nearby fields. “Kariya Bai has become a saint.”  This much, at least, most everyone agrees on: A frail woman about 95 years old, Bai lived with her husband and sons in a mud-walled house barely 15 feet (4.5 meters) wide. In mid-September, Bai’s husband died after a long illness.  He had asked to be cremated on his own land. So his sons built a pyre of dried cow dung in the cornfield, and set his body on top of it.

That’s where the disagreement starts. Bai, her neighbors say, was a quiet, uneducated woman who had given birth to five sons, suffered through the death of one, and watched the others grow to be laborers or small-time farmers. For years, she had talked about how she did not expect to live long past her ailing husband.

Still, they say, they were stunned when she announced after his death that she would commit sati. No one in Baniyani will admit to having joined what quickly became a parade to the funeral pyre, or to having seen Bai burn. They’re too afraid of the police. But many say they listened to the crowds, and heard stories afterward from neighbors who watched.  “The minute she said she wanted to be a sati, everyone came from here and nearby villages,” said Ram, the elderly villager. “There must have been at least 200 people, maybe 300.” Chanting filled the village’s narrow dirt roads: “Sati mata ki jai!” - “Glory to mother sati!” Then Bai climbed onto the funeral pyre, took her husband’s head in her lap, and went - painlessly, they insist - to her death. To some villagers, the act made her a saint, to others a goddess. Most everyone here worshipped what she had done.

“India has changed, and people should not do sati now,” said Bali. “But if you do commit sati, you have courage ... You have gone from a normal person to superhuman.”

“Before the police came, everyone in the village walked around the ashes of the fire” praying to Bai, he continued. “Of course I took my turn.”

But three hours away in Chhatarpur, the nearest large town, the police commander sits in his brightly lit office and dismisses talk of sainthood. Shekhar is unsure exactly what happened, but knows a crime took place. He doubts Bai had the strength to climb on the pyre herself, but also doubts she was physically forced, as has happened in some other cases. He adds, though, that the villagers could have easily stopped Bai, and almost certainly goaded her on.  “The stories of the glorification of sati already exist in these villages. It only takes something to encourage it,” he said.

Widow burning is believed to have taken hold in India around the fifth century, eventually centering on the Rajputs, a high-caste warrior community tied to many north Indian noble families. Bai, like most other women who have died in recent sati cases, was a Rajput. Sati’s origins remain under debate. It may have been how women showed loyalty to dead husbands, or to keep the wives of defeated kings from being raped. It may have been how a man took what he owned, including his wife, into the next life.

Certainly, though, it spared women one of the harshest traditions in ancient Hindu culture: the scorning of widows. Even today in parts of rural India, some high-caste widows remain bound by practices that leave them deprived of any inheritance and forced into destitution.

For India’s modern elite, such beliefs mean there is no real choice in sati, even if a woman goes willingly onto a funeral pyre. “It’s absolute rubbish, these people who say it is voluntary,” said Kumari, the rights activist. “It’s always a question of family, of socialization and economic circumstances.”

But go to a place like Rampur, a village a few miles (several kilometers) from Baniyani on twisting dirt roads, and they speak of the deaths of widows with an often unsettling joyousness. They had a sati case there about 60 years ago, and a temple, set on a shady hill outside the village, marks the spot where the woman died. Inside the small temple, a carefully painted statue shows a woman holding the body of her husband.

“People from far and wide still come to pray at our temple,” said Bimla Shukla, a 40-year-old woman. She smiles broadly when she talks about the woman who was burned alive, and the miracles that her death still brings. “Any wish you make there comes true.”

In another village a couple of hours away, a group of young men spent a recent evening smoking and talking on the steps of a small sati temple. It had been covered in blue graffiti - the announcement of a polio inoculation drive, a political slogan - and then partially whitewashed over. They barely paid the temple any attention. It is part of the background of their lives. But ask, and its importance is clear.

“The police think it’s stupid. They don’t believe in sati,”said Pradeep Kumar Gupta, 22, a sometime guide at an ancient Hindu complex popular with tourists. But he believes. He hopes that one day, after he marries, his wife will follow him into death. “If she loves me, if she really loves me, then she will die with me. That’s the truth,” he said.”But there’s only one person in a million who can love like that.”