Sati (Self-Immolation) In The Hindu Tradition

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Sati (self-immolation) in the Hindu Tradition

Sati, the immolation of widows, is the most tenacious example of religious customs, but customs of following in death, Fisch says, have been widespread in world history; examples include headhunting in Southeast Asia (p. 301) and the ritual murder of a king's cook, brewer, and shepherd in Baganda (p. 299).

Fisch points out that the history he wishes to write cannot be written, because the evidence is always fragmentary (p. 297). Given the sparse data on Totenfolge, it is admirable that Fisch has taken on the topic. But, equally, it is regrettable that he has not taken full advantage of the data on East Asia, an area prominent in his argument, that are readily available in English. Japan is mentioned three times in the article, and the single source cited-a work on modern Japan-does not bear out Fisch's analysis in any way. Fisch argues that a belief in a hereafter that is similar to this world is a precondition for following in death. Robert Jay Lifton et al., the authors of Six Lives, Six Deaths, explain that immortality in Japanese thinking followed several modes (including biological, focused on continuation of the family line; theological, mainly a belief in a kind of spiritual power over death; creative, meaning that one's work lives on; and natural, referring to reentering earth's diurnal course), none of which presupposes a hereafter like this world. Rather, they say, "the dominant Japanese image of what happens at death is that one 'enters' the cosmos, stays there for a time, and then gradually fades away and disappears." Even the Buddhist idea of punishment after death was dissolved into this kind of thinking by the late twelfth century, Lifton et al. say, with belief in salvation by the Amida Buddha. Ritual suicide was not a following into death that entailed continued existence, but was a way to take control of one's inevitable death, or a way to resolve an impossible situation.2 Fisch refers to the case of Nogi Maresuke, a general who killed himself on the day of the funeral of the Meiji emperor, to show that "the underlying beliefs" in a hereafter "lingered on" (p. 321). But Nogi, according to Lifton et al., "had no religious faith and subscribed to no philosophical system," and according to his own will and testament he recognized that his suicide, far from being a duty, was a crime. He says that having become old and useless, he "can no longer serve [his] lord" and has long "searched in vain for an opportunity to die." 3 This is the only source Fisch cites for his contentions that following in death was practiced in Japan and was opposed by Confucianism there.

Turning to China, Fisch reports, correctly, that human sacrifice was practiced in antiquity. He follows the pioneering scholar of Chinese religion J. J. M. de Groot in saying that Confucius and his followers opposed it, but de Groot does not support Fisch's contention that it was Confucian opposition that ended the ...
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