By Sharon Jacob.
Mass suicides have been used in many cultures as a protest against foreign colonization. In India, the ritual of Jauhar was traditionally performed by upper-class Rajput women who burned themselves by jumping into flames together. Lakshana N. Palat describes the ritual in detail and writes: “At night, they put on their wedding dresses and went to the stake. They read Vedic texts before jumping into the flames. Some even sang religious songs while hiring Jauhar to endure the pain of the flames. It would be performed en masse, with all Rajput women jumping into the flames together. “
Although rituals like Jauhar were portrayed as events in which women exercised their freedom of choice by publicly speaking out against the horrific war crime of rape, the sight of women storming their deaths in feverish frenzy was also used to tell a story of nationalism to construct that supports and encouraged a deep grudget towards Muslims and the Mughal Empire. So mass suicides like Jauhar become glasses in which women’s bodies are appropriated as objects and used for the marketing and export of a Jingoistic nationalism.
In Mark 5: 1-20, Jesus – the main protagonist in the story – heals a man from Gerasene possessed by demons and instructs the spirits to enter a herd of pigs. The approximately two thousand pigs that were filled with the spirits stormed into a lake and drowned themselves. In the text, the image of the pigs hurrying to death as a collective could also be viewed as a spectacle. The interpretation of this passage often focuses on the character of Jesus, the man obsessed with the demons, and sometimes even the demon himself who exiles the pigs to the edge. This passage is full of imperial images and makes some sharp statements against the Roman Empire. First and foremost, the demons who own the man from Gerasene call themselves Legion, who as many have noticed was the name of a Roman combat unit consisting of around 6,000 soldiers. In this narrative, the author of Mark comments on the Roman occupation and the importance of driving them out of the area. However, the cost of expelling colonial power from the territory is borne by the pigs, who use their bodies to make the ultimate sacrifice in the text. In addition, the herds in the text are often combined into a homogeneous group without taking gender and age into account. The herd is often presented as a unitary group consisting of consenting adults who make a conscious and clear decision to end their lives and the lives of the colonizer who lives in their bodies.
Likewise women in Discussions by Jauhar were often made essential and formed into a single and stable group of adult women who consciously chose to sacrifice their bodies and protect the honor and dignity of their nation. So somehow it is not as traumatic to imagine consenting adults hurrying to their deaths as a heterogeneous group made up of different age groups, abilities and genders.
Last year, India saw and relived Jauhar’s practice on the big screen with the release of the film Padmaavat (formerly known as Padmaavati). The film is loosely based on a poem by Malik Muhammed Jayasitells the fictional story of the Rajput Queen Rani Padmavati and the 14thth Century Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji. The basic storyline is as follows: Khilji is thrilled with the beauty of Rani Padmavati and his desire to own the queen is so strong that he wages war against her kingdom and kills her husband on the battlefield. Rani Padmavaati, determined to protect her honor, joins other Rajput women from her kingdom of Jauhar by jumping into the fire and burning herself. The film is problematic in many ways with the barbaric depiction of Muslims and especially the Emperor Khilji, the glorification of the Rajput culture of the upper caste of the Hindus and the limited representation of female roles on the screen. The last scene of the film shows Rajput women in an almost frenzied state, which is running towards their death (you can see this scene Here).
The film shows Jauhar / mass suicide as a spectacle on the big screen. As a viewer, you are fascinated by the beauty and violence of this spectacle. For the most part, the women in this scene are depicted as faceless masses with deliberate shots of beautiful fabrics that flow in the wind. In the midst of this lightness, however, we see faces of small children and swollen pregnant bellies that are rushing towards their death. The sheer drama of portraying this grotesque ritual creates feelings of ambivalence that are torn between moments of beauty and violence and are enveloped in a mass of confusion and horror. Women, both in film and in history, have often been portrayed as brave, brave women who have chosen to protect their dignity and the dignity of their nation throughout their lives. The superficial connection between a woman’s honor and the nation is still problematic, but even more worrying is the way in which the death of these women is marketed as an act of bravery, courage, and bravery celebrated as the ultimate act of national pride. Critics rightly point out that Padmavaat glorifies an incredibly regressive ritual. They remark: “The subliminal message – in a country where A woman is raped every 20 minutes – is that an “honorable” death of sexual violence is preferable, a message that only reinforces the shameful stigma associated with victims and survivors of such crimes. “
Read through Jauhar’s lens that the pigs in Mark 5: 1-20 who commit mass suicide fulfill a larger narrative agenda in the text. The herd – probably a group of men, women, babies, pregnant mothers, the elderly and a whole range of different bodies – is made essential and transformed into homogeneous objects, the death of which is fetishised and ultimately glorified in a dream to imagine a territory that it is free from Rome. The spectacle of Jauhars or mass suicides intensifies the objectification of bodies as their death is transformed into the “ultimate victim” used to protect the honor and dignity of their country. For this reason, mass suicides / Jauhars must be exposed as violent and patriarchal rituals that glorify the death of innocent civilians and use their bodies as security to envision a nation that is regressive and restrictive to its own people.
Sharon Jacob is an assistant professor for New Testament at the Pacific School of Religion. Sharon earned her bachelor’s degree in accounting from Bangalore University, then her master of divinity from Lancaster Theological Seminary and her master of sacred theology from Yale University. She did her PhD at Drew University. Her research interests include gender and sexuality studies, feminist theory, race and whiteness theory, and post-colonial theory. Her publications include a monograph entitled, Reading Mary alongside Indian surrogate mothers: Violent love, oppressive liberation and childhood stories. She also co-authored an essay entitled “Flow from Breast to Breast: An Examination of Repressed Maternity in Black and Indian Western Nurses” Womanist Biblical Interpretations: expansion of discourses edited by the Society of Biblical Literature Press. Sharon has also published an article in the Bangalore Theological Forum entitled “Reading Mary Along Indian Indian Surrogate Mothers”.
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