A wives tale

February 12, 2010, Northeastern University
Religion professor Whitney Kelting's new book examines the effort among Jain women to reconcile their devotion to their husbands with their abhorrence of self-sacrifice and harm. Photo by Lauren McFalls.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Women members of ancient religious sect in India balance traditional subservience to husbands with equal commitment to nonviolence.

"Sati," a centuries-old funeral ritual among some Hindu ethnic groups in which a widow commits suicide by fire on her husband’s funeral pyre, was once considered by some members of those communities to be the epitome of devoted wifehood, says Whitney Kelting, assistant professor of religion at Northeastern.

On the other hand, Jains, an ancient religious sect in India for whom peace and nonviolence are of paramount importance, and who share the same as the satimas, reject the outlawed funeral practice but accept their culture’s strict discourse on a wife’s subservient role in her marriage.

Kelting’s new book, “Heroic Wives: Rituals, Stories and the Virtues of Jain Wifehood,” examines the effort among Jain women to reconcile their devotion to their husbands with their abhorrence of self-sacrifice and harm.

Her first book on the Jains broke new ground. “Singing to the Jinas: Jain Laywomen, Mandal Singing and the Negotiations of Jain Devotion,” marked the first formal study of the religious significance of Jain music. The Rubin Museum in New York recently showcased Kelting’s collection of three-dozen hymns as part of an exhibit on Jain art.

For her latest work, Kelting traveled to Pane, Maharashtra, and examined eight Jain sati narratives that women use to shape their understanding of wifehood and inform their views on piety and virtue.

In one well-known narrative, a man abandons his soon-to-be wife on her day to become a monk. She becomes a nun to reunite with her would-be-husband.

Though Jain women reject sati rituals because of their commitment to nonviolence, says Kilting, they showcase their loyalty to their husbands by acting in lockstep with their wants, needs and desires.

“They focus on self-cultivation,” Kelting says. “They believe they can achieve anything by being more virtuous.

“This notion of joint-renunciation puts them back together again. For the most part, wives strive to balance the use of religious practices to benefit their husbands.”

Kelting, who grew interested in Jainism while doing research for a college course on Eastern religions, was taken aback by the complexity and uncompromising nature of its philosophical doctrine. Jains’ highly nuanced stance on harm, for instance, turns everyday tasks for members of the religious group into philosophical problems.

But instead of resigning themselves to failure, Jains recognize the impossibility of strict adherence to their religious principles and instead challenge themselves to come up with creative solutions around these ethical dilemmas.

Take the simple but necessary task of cooking: Lighting a flame could accrue bad karma because it might kill an insect, so children—who are perceived to be further away than their elders from the day of reckoning, when karma points are tallied—are tasked with making breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“How do you even get up in the morning,” Kelting says, “if you believe that you can harm not only people, but animals and plants and earth bodies and water bodies?

Jains take things to the logical extreme. They’re always in this mode of compromising.”

Explore further: Religion and psychology: Can they work together?

More information: To read more about professor Kelting, please visit www.philosophy.neu.edu/faculty/m_whitney_kelting/

Related Stories

Survey looks at religious 'sectarianism'

June 1, 2006

A study finds U.S. "religious right" groups have negative attitudes toward similar religious groups on the right, making coalition forming more difficult.

How should we interpret spiritual experiences?

May 9, 2008

Religious practices and religions involving spiritual experiences are growing in popularity around the globe. Academics too are turning their study to the practices of these religions. The interest is in understanding shamanism, ...

Recommended for you

Lifting barriers to citizenship for low-income immigrants

January 15, 2018

Taking the Oath of Allegiance at a naturalization ceremony is an emotional moment for many immigrants, and for good reason: it is the culmination of an often arduous process and many years of striving. Citizenship also opens ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2010
I'd really like to know why someone would rate this highly interesting subject with "1" only.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.