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A Burning Issue or a Burnt Out Issue?

Vijaya Ramaswamy

Edited by Andrea Major
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007, pp. iv 465, Rs. 650.00


Is sati a burning issue or a burnt out issue? The theme of sati has been thrashed out threadbare in the last decade with both western and Indian scholarship converging on this crucial area of social history and societal practice. Just when one is beginning to feel that one has read and reviewed one too many books on this theme, an incident like that of Roop Kanwar happens and you begin to realize that sati continues to be a burning issue if not in the frequency of its practice than in its serving as a cultural signifier of Indian patriarchy.   Andrea Major’s book which has been published this year (2007) in this area needs to be situated within the gamut of recent writings on sati. Following the immolation of Roop Kanwar at Deorala in the Sikar district of Rajasthan on 4th September, 1987, the Economic and Political Weekly came out with a series of articles on sati1 as did the feminist journal Manushi.   Along with the pieces written by social activists and feminists, academic researches into the precept and practice of sati, also began to grow. Proceeding somewhat chronologically in terms of the year of publication, one could perhaps start with J. Stratton Hawley’s Sati: The Blessing and the Curse (Oxford University Press, 1994). Since then very many books have come out on this theme but some of them have attracted more attention than others. Here one should mention Lata Mani’s Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India 1780-1833, which came out from Berkeley, University of California Press in 1998. S. Nara-simhan’s Sati: A Study of Widow Burning in India came out the same year from Harper Collins. Catherine Weinberger, in her book Ashes of Immortality: Widow Burning in India, which came out from Oxford University Press in 2000, took the debate to a different level with her discussion on Shakti and its close connections with sati.   Further, Weinberger sought to establish a broader social base for the practice of sati. According to her ‘it (sati) furthermore encompasses nearly the entire spectrum of the social hierarchy: upper caste satis (Brahmans, Rajputs, Mahajans) jostle with satis from intermediate castes (Jats, Mathurs, Baniyas) lowly artisan castes (Sonar/goldsmiths, Lohar/ blacksmiths, Khati/ carpenters) and castes that are impure (Nai/barbers) or of tribal origin (Minas). So the Rajputs of that earlier time never held the monopoly on the sacrifice of women in ...

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