Title: The Cultural Politics of Religious Humanism in India
Name: Anne Hardgrove
Department of History
University of Texas at San Antonio
Year: 1997
Type: Dissertation Fellowship

This research focused on the cultural politics of religious humanism in India. In general terms, my work addresses questions about the relationship between culture, community, religion, and the representation of violence against women. In other words, what does it mean to have religious freedom and the freedom of religious belief and practice in a democratic society? Should there be limits on those freedoms when such practices may violate the rights of others?

In order to investigate the answers to these questions, I focused on a case study. My ethnographic and archival research focused specifically on the question of the public temples for the worship of sati (widow burning), which have been popular sites of worship among the wealthy Marwari community of Calcutta and northern India. Among some communities, there has been the belief that a woman who burned alive on her husband's funeral pyre held extra-special powers, and provided blessings upon the family, ensuring their well-being. The woman who became a sati was considered by some to be a goddess. These business families worship lineage goddesses who are the deifications of women once burned alive upon the death of their husbands. These worshippers profess that venerating the memories of these women pays tribute to their heroic bravery in self-sacrifice, for the love of their husbands outweighed their desire to live the harsh life of neglected widows in Indian society. They believe that such worship brings auspiciousness to the extended family.

Critics of the temples argue that these temples glorify practices of human sacrifice among women, and are against the rights of women that are integral to a democratic society. They point to the fact that the burning of women--sati--is historically connected to the regulation of women's sexuality and the denial of property rights to women. Sati, they argue, is nothing more or less than religiously-sanctioned murder. Worshipping sati as a cultural value, they contend, leads to widow murder. The Supreme Court of India has a case pending about the legality of sati worship in the country, although no decision has yet been made.

The question of representations of violence against women in public life have American parallels in the debates over pornography, video game violence, and the violence portrayed in many media. In India, the questions are complicated by a colonial legacy and the modernity of cultural practices which date to medieval and non-democratic times.

Bibliography: Hardgrove, A. Community and Public Culture: The Marwaris in Calcutta c. 1897-1997. New York: Columbia University Press/epic, 2002.
Hardgrove, A. Sati Worship and Marwari Public Identity in India. Journal of Asian Studies 58, no. 3 (August 1999): 723-752.
Hardgrove, A. Sati Worship and Marwari Public Identity in India. Women and Gender Relations: Perspectives on Asia: Sixty Years of the Journal of Asian Studies (Resources for Teaching About Asia) by Susan Mann (editor). Ann Arbor:Association for Asian Studies, 2003.