Wednesday, November 01, 2006

postheadericon Santhara

Death is not a topic everyone is comfortable reading about or discussing, so I won't be at all offended if you don't read or comment on this post.

I'm sure everyone has heard of the barbaric Indian custom of Sati - the immolation of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre- which was outlawed in 1886 and I'm sure all of us who live in this day and age heave a sigh of relief that these practices no longer take place, but what if I were to tell you that while Sati might be outlawed the practice of "Santhara" is still alive and thriving? So, "what is Santhara" I hear you ask. Santhara is a Jain custom where a person upon deciding that he or she has had enough of this world takes up a fast unto death. While suicide and euthansia continue to remain against the law, apparently Santhera is permissable, begging the question, what is the difference between Santhara and Euthanasia or Santhara and suicide?

Apparently, The Shwetambar sect of the Jain community condone the practice because they claim it is the ultimate spiritual achievement, but sociologists do not agree for the simple reason that it is mostly women who undertake the fast. They (the sociologists) think the practice is sexist and that like the widows of Varnasi, these poor widows of Rajhastan (the state in India where the highest number of "Santaras" take place) are cajoled and sometimes forced to fast unto death by attaching religious glamour to what they are about to do.

In the last one week five cases of Santhara have been reported in Rajasthan, of which two people have died. Annually, over 200 Jains embrace death every year. Isn't it time someone took some action?

I wonder if I have any Jain readers - I would love to ask them what they think of this religious practice.


beenzzz said...

Hi Lotus,
This is such a touchy subject. One one hand sati was pretty much inflicted on widows by their family, while Santhara seems to be a matter of choice. The weird thing is that it's practiced mostly by women. Why is that? Is it social pressure to do so? Is it another form of sati, only disguised to look like choice? It all gets so confusing. This was a very interesting post. I remember write a lengthy paper on sati about 4 years ago. I enjoyed the subject thoroughly, though it made me so sick to read individual accounts.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, beenzzz and thank you for your comment. I think it all boils down to the fact that in Hinduism of old, a woman is considered to be "nothing" or a person with no value without her husband. She ceased to be a normal human being so to speak. In the North of India, the solution was to place her in a home for widows where she could spend her last years singing bhajans to Lord Krishna in the temple for a paltry few 'paise' and a bowl of rice and in Rajhasthan she is coaxed into 'Santhara'(which like you suggest does appear to be Sati in a clever disguise).

Men do also fast unto death, but their numbers are dismal compared with the women and that is what is troubling to sociologists studying this phenomenon.

You paper on Sati sounds fascinating! In your research did you by some chance come across Mala Sen's book "Death By Fire: Sati, Dowry Death and Female Infanticide in Modern INdia"? It's a fascinating read!

Ishrath said...

it gave me a nasty turn to read about this becoz i didn't know about it.

Princess Jibi said...

Its sad to know that these things still happen and no one do nothing about it...

beenzzz said...

I actually read Mala Sen's book cover to cover. It was so interesting!

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Ishrath!

I hadn't heard of this tradition either until the Indian news kept blasting it over and over for the past week. Later tonight I will put some links up on the main post so you can read more on it, if you like.

Princess Jibi - what a cute blogger ID you have! Thanks for visiting. Yes, it is sad, but at the same time, if implemented correctly and without bias, it can be a boon to some very sick people.

Hi ya again, beenzzz Ok one more question for ya - when writing your paper did you happen to come across any Hindi movies that explore Sati? Thanks!

Amelia said...

It's disheartening to learn that what I personally deem atrocities such as these still occur, and more frighteningly, are condoned. It demeans the value of the female and their significance in life. I get upset, frustrated, and overwhelmed when I learn about situations like this and what is not being done to stop it.

Lotus Reads said...


So glad you stopped by. I know exactly how you feel. Women's issues are close to my heart and since I can't do any field work at the moment, I'm hoping these posts will spread awareness in a small way.

Shelliza said...

I've always wanted to learn more about the practice of Sati, but found it way too disturbing. Seems as though Santhara is social pressure to commit suicide. It's amazing that these practices still exsist in the 21st century.

Beloved dreamer said...

Hi Lotus, These days I never know where to find you and where to post.
I want to say thanks for stopping by and for your nice comment on my poem.
More importantly is this post of yours. Of course I new about Sati but had never heard of Santhara.
I watched the video and read about the widows by the river.
It seems to me very sad that these mostly women feel the need to do this. Just looks like Sati to me.
I know that she was ill but could not there have been a better way to help her?
I know that as a non Indian, there is much I do not know or understand. That is why I come to this blog. I know that you will always have something important for me and others to learn.
I would like to read more about the many wonders, both happy and sad of India and it's people.
Keep writing my friend.


Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Shelliza

Yes, these practices are disturbing for sure but very hard to eradicate when you're told it is the one practice that will bring you "moksha" (liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth).

Hi, BD

Thanks so much for thoughtfully sending me a card, you are a sweetie! You can always find me here or on my book blog - I am seldom, if ever, at the other one - that is only for my study notes.

IndiaPeople said...

Also check out these Santhara pictures at