Denison Journal of Religion


This essay stresses the importance of context sensitivity when considering seemingly controversial issues. Cierpal uses the act of Sati, widow burning, to illuminate the need for such context sensitivity. The controversial act takes place when one’s husband dies. Sati is literally translated to “virtuous woman,” and the wife performs the ritual in order to serve, provide for, and protect her husband. Sati can bee seen as a “ritual necessary in order to regain and achieve ultimate devotion to her husband.” Many Western feminist scholars question whether a woman exercises agency in making this choice, yet these scholars often fail to explore the context. Cierpial, however, calls for context sensitivity when investigating these questions of morality and agency. Tracing a brief history of women’s role in Hinduism, Cierpal discusses the nature of women’s relationship to their husbands and reveals that women are “defined by their relationship to men.” She then enters a discussion of Colonialism to illustrate how colonial power has inflicted various regulations on the practice, consequently restricting such rituals of Hinduism. In order to analyze this battle over what many may call “gendered violence,” the author refers to the specific case of Roop Kanwar and feminist responses to the case. Many Western feminists, such as Mary Daly, see the widow as “the victim of a patriarchal society imposing violence against widows,” while many postcolonial feminists strongly disagree. These scholars believe that arguments such as Daly’s operate on principles of universality. They point out that such claims cannot deem practices as universally wrong, for they view sati though a strictly Western feminist lens. In relying only on this lens, scholars exclude other cultures, beliefs, and ways of knowing the world, including those of Hindu women in India. Cierpial doesn’t seek a definitive answer addressing the controversy surrounding sati, arguing that one cannot project absolutes on another religion or culture. Instead, she states that understanding comes from careful consideration of each “culture, characteristic, and orientation of individuals.” Thus, this essay illustrates the importance of context sensitivity: a necessary tool when interpreting any religion or culture.