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death with equanimity

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(Chapter VII, cont.)

7.3

7.3 Honour Deaths And Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa –

Death before dishonour’ has been a time honoured adage. The followers of this maxim never looked back when they had to choose between death and dishonour; they always chose the former. The honourable men and women always preferred death to being compromised in any manner. Whenever their personal honour or that of their caste, creed or country was at stake, they came forward to defend it even at the cost of their own lives, never flinching to make the supreme sacrifice. They were the truly honourable men and women. They never hesitated to die and never hesitated to kill for what they considered honourable.

The history of mankind abounds with the stories of those great men and women who made the supreme self–sacrifice, singly or in groups, and earned a place of honour in the annals of time, their names etched in golden letters for the posterity to see and follow their honourable examples.

Clearly, ‘Honour Death’ can be defined as the voluntary death embraced to defend one’s personal, caste, creed or country’s honour. The earliest recorded example of honour–death is traced to Kumārasambhava, the epic poem by Kālidasa that describes the conjugal life of universal father Lord Śiva and universal mother Goddess Pārvati “Umā, Satī” and the birth of their son – Kumāra “Kārtikeya”, wherein he also mentions the self–immolation of Goddess Satī- when she was insulted at the yajña hosted by her own father – Dakṣa.i Besides this prehistoric example, the history throws up Sati, Jauhar, Hara–kiri, etc as examples of honour deaths. A brief description of these phenomena is given in the following paragraphs in order to bring out their essential features and then comparing them with those of Sallekhanā–Samādhimaraṇa.

7.31 Sati –

Sati was a traditional self–sacrifice performed by the bereaved wife by burning herself on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband. The ideal form of this practice was when the wife did it at her own volition and free will for the reasons of 1. Her unbearably great loss, 2. Feeling of void in life, 3. Losing meaning for living on, 4. Fear of unknown, 5. Fear of personal and financial insecurity, 6. Fear of losing her chastity and personal honour in hostile family and social environment, etc.

However, with the passage of time, the vested interests converted this noble and honourable voluntary self–sacrifice by the bereaved lady into a ritual and they started to force widows to burn with their husbands. The vested interests had it going for themselves. 1. They did not have to support a widow for her remaining life, 2. They did not have to part with her share in the family fortunes, 3. They did not have to bother with the possibility of their family name being smeared if the widow strayed from the path of chastity expected of her, 4. They received all social and traditional esteem and adulation as the family of a Sati, and 5. They reaped rich financial benefits by way of offerings that were made at the Sati–memorial by the visitors who visited such sites in large numbers.

This forced burning of widows, moved Raja Ram Mohan Rai, a famous social activist of Bengal, enough to launch a vigorous campaign against this practice and force the British government of the time to declare this practice as outlawed. However, the practice of Sati was not completely eliminated from the social scene of India and stray cases were reported from different regions from time to time. It was the famous Roopkunwar case, in which there was a doubt of forced burning of the widow, that made the government ban the practice of Sati completely and unequivocally and even to ban the glorification of the Sati sites.

This description of the Sati tradition brings up the following points of comparison and contrast with those of Sallekahnā–Samādhimaraṇa: –

      1. In their correct and ideal form both are kinds of voluntary deaths.

      2. Sati can be forced, Sallekahnā–Samādhimaraṇa cannot be forced.

      3. The subject of Sati desires to die for various reasons mentioned above while the kṣapaka, aspiring to Sallekahnā–Samādhimaraṇa, is free from such desire.

      4. Sati is committed in a lone, insecure and forlorn frame of mind while Sallekahnā–Samādhimaraṇa is practiced in a peaceful state and equanimity of mind without any feeling of insecurity.

      5. The Jaina widows have the support of organised institution of nuns even if their family and social environment is not conducive to living an honourable widow’s life. Becoming nuns, the Jaina widows enjoy great social approval, prestige and respect bordering on worship. No such organised institutional support was available in traditions that practiced Sati.

      6. Sati is a violent form of voluntary death and its subject may be in extreme misery after the initial shock of her husbands death wears of especially when singed by the pyre’s fire. Sallekahnā–Samādhimaraṇa is by the most non–violent form of voluntary death, which is generally practiced by undertaking fast unto death.

      7. The kṣapaka frees himself of attachment and passions whereas Sati is committed due to deep attachment for the departed husband and in extreme passionate state of mind.

      8. Fear is the cause of committing Sati, spiritual motivation that of Sallekahnā–Samādhimaraṇa.

      9. No spiritual benefit like spiritual purification, emancipation or liberation can occur by the practice of Sati. The practice of Sallekahnā–Samādhi–maraṇa has spiritual benefit at the root of it.

      10. Sati is, primarily, a Hindu tradition and its incidence is not found in the Jaina scriptures or tradition.

It is clear from this comparison that the practice of Sati, though a form of voluntary death, is markedly different from the practice of Sallekahnā–Samādhimaraṇa. The Jaina concept of Sati is that if an occasion arises when only one’s righteousness or life can be saved the preference must go to saving the righteous virtues including chastity. However, no incidents of widows being burnt with the husbands’ corpses are found in the Jaina lore, nor do the Jaina precepts and preceptors support such practice.ii

7.32 Jauhar –

Jauhar was yet another form of collective Sati in which, fearing sexual violation, slavery, insult, conversion and other forms of dishonour, the female members of the families of warriors, who had poor chance of defending their territory, yet decided to defend their bastions by fighting to the last man and last drop of blood, committed group self–immolation by jumping into fuming fires. The historical evidences of Jauhar have been found since the ancient period of history to the medieval period. Dr. Upendra Thakur has cited an incident in which, fearing dishonour, thousands of men, women and children had committed group self–immolation when their town was invaded by the victorious army of Alexander “Circa 4th Century AD”.iii In the medieval age this practice flourished in Rajputānā “now a part of the state of Rajasthan, INDIA” when the Mogul armies freely invaded and resorted to plunder and rape of the hapless womenfolk. The most famous examples of Jauhar are –

1. Padmini, the queen of Raṇā Ratansingh of Chittaurgarh “Circa 14th Century AD”, committed Jauhar with thousands of women, children and the old when the fort was sacked and invaded by Allah–ud–dīn Khiljī,iv

2. Twenty–four thousand women children and the old committed Jauhar when the fort of Jaisalmer was sacked and invaded by Allah–ud–dīn Khiljī,v

3. Queen Karaṇavatī of Chittaurgarh “Circa 16th Century AD” committed Jauhar with thirteen thousand women of the sacked fort when Bahadurshah invaded it,vi

4. The queens, their daughters and a number of other ladies of other honourable families committed Jauhar when Emperor Akbar’s army invaded Marwar. vii

However, this practice ceased with the downfall of the Moghul empire.

This description of Jauhar brings to fore the following points of comparison and contrast between the practice and that of Sallekahnā–Samādhimaraṇa: –

  1. The actuating factor for the practice of Jauhar was fear “of violation, abuse, slavery, insult and dishonour”. The actuating factor for the practice of Sallekahnā–Samādhimaraṇa is fearlessness and spiritual gain.

  2. The practice of Jauhar saved the honour of the practitioners but no spiritual gain was contemplated to ensue from it. The practice of Sallekahnā– Samādhimaraṇa is with the primary aim of spiritual emancipation and final liberation.

  3. The Jauhar was always practised in groups. The practice of Sallekahnā–Samādhimaraṇa is always an individual practice.

  4. Jauhar was undertaken by burning in raging fires, Sallekahnā–Samādhi–maraṇa is undertaken by fasting unto death.

  5. Practice of Jauhar is highly violent while that of Sallekahnā–Samādhi–maraṇa is absolutely non–violent.

  6. In a group even the reluctant could be persuaded to follow suit, in which case it lost its ‘voluntary death’ character. It is not possible in the case of Sallekahnā–Samādhimaraṇa, which is totally voluntary.

From this comparison, it becomes clear that the practice of Jauhar, though a voluntary form of embracing death to save one’s honour, it was not a spiritual practice and no spiritual benefit could be expected to ensue from it.

7.33 Hara-Kiri –

In the Samurai days of the Japan of yore, the Samurai “great and noble” warriors practised Hara–kiri. Loss of face “dishonour” was a matter of dying for them and they did not flinch from this form of honour–death in which any Samurai who faced dishonour simply decided to commit Hara–kiri by disembowelling himself with his Samurai dagger. It was a matter of form and anyone who flinched ceased to be a Samurai. The Samurai’s sword was as apt at beheading the adversary as his dagger was in disembowelling himself when he took it in his head.

Hara–Kiri “Japanese, “belly–cutting”“, also known as Seppukku was the Japanese practice of ceremonious suicide by disembowelment, a method originally restricted by custom to noblemen and later adopted by all classes. The term is also used to signify any suicide performed for the sake of personal honour. Hara–kiri originated in feudal Japan, when it was used by the Samurai, or warrior noblemen, to avoid the dishonour of capture by their enemies. It was a part of Samurai’s code of conduct known as Bushido. It later became virtually an indirect method of execution, whereby a noble on receiving a message from the Mikado, or emperor, that his death was essential to imperial welfare, performed Hara–kiri.

In most cases of so–called obligatory Hara–kiri, a richly ornamented dagger accompanied the imperial message, to be used as the suicide weapon. A specified number of days were allotted to the offender for his preparations for the ceremony. A red–carpeted dais was constructed in the home of the offending noble, or in a temple. At the beginning of the final ceremony, the nobleman dressed in ceremonial costume and attended by a group of friends and officials took his place on the dais. Assuming a kneeling position, he prayed, took the dagger from the representative of the emperor, and publicly avowed his guilt; then, stripping to the waist, he plunged the dagger into the left side of his abdomen, drawing it slowly across to the right side and making a slight upward cut. At the final moment a friend or kinsman beheaded the dying nobleman. Subsequently, the blood–stained dagger was customarily sent to the emperor as proof of the death of the nobleman by Hara–kiri. If the offender committed voluntary Hara–kiri, that is, acted on his own guilty conscience rather than by order of the emperor, his honour was considered restored and his entire estate went to his family. If Hara–kiri had been ordered by the emperor, half the property of the suicide was confiscated by the state.

As practiced by persons of all classes, Hara–kiri frequently served as an ultimate gesture of devotion to a superior who had died, or as a form of protest against some act or policy of the government. The practice eventually became so widespread that for centuries an estimated total of 1500 deaths occurred annually by this method; more than half of these were voluntary acts.

Hara–kiri as an obligatory form of execution was abolished in 1868. Incidences of it as a form of voluntary suicide are rare in modern times. Many Japanese soldiers in recent wars, including World War II, resorted to harākiri to escape the ignominy of defeat or capture.viii

Again, the very concept of Hara–kiri is that of violent voluntary death to defend one’s honour and it had no spiritual overtones. In this sense, it does not compare with the practice of Sallekahnā–Samādhimaraṇa, which is a spiritual observance.

To sum up this section we can say that the idea of honour death was very noble and lofty and even patriotic but it always fell short of the spiritual benefit that the practice of Sallekahnā–Samādhimaraṇa logically and systematically promises.

i “Athāvamānena pituḥ prayuktā Dakṣakanyābhavapūrvapatnī, satī Satī yogavisṛṣṭadehā tāṁ janmane SaIlavadhūm\ prapede | Sā bhūdharāṇāmadhipena tasyāṁ samādhimatyāmudapādi bhavyā, samyak prayogādaparīkṣatāyāṁ nītāvivāhotsāhaguṇena sampat |”

Kumārasambhava – I, 21, 22.

ii An exception to this general lack of evidence of Sati, in the form of burning with the dead or condemned husbands, is found in Niśīth Cūrṇi in which wives of five hundred merchants who were ordered to be burn alive by the king for not paying their taxes, also burnt with their husbands. But, it is an exception to the rule.

Niśītha Cūrṇi, Pt. II, pp. 59–60 and Ibid Pt. IV, p. 14.

iii History Of Suicide In India ibid, p. 165.

iv Divakar, Rajasthamn Kā Itihasa, p. 88. ‘Q. Samādhimaraṇa ibid, p. 210.’

v Ibid, pp. 200–01.

vi Annals And Antiquities Of Rajasthan, Colonel James Todd, Vol. I, p. 215.

vii Ibid.

viii Encarta Disc Encyclopedia 1991, Microsoft Corporation, entry on Hara–kiri.

Section – 7.4

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