Jauhar, Mass-Suicide, and the Spectacle of Death: A Reading of Mark 5:1-20
By Sharon Jacob.
In many cultures, mass-suicides have been used as a form of protest against foreign colonization. In India, the ritual of Jauhar was traditionally performed by upper caste Rajput women that immolated themselves by jumping into flames together. Lakshana N. Palat describes the ritual in detail writing, “At night, they would dress in their bridal attire, and walk to the pyre. They would read Vedic texts before jumping into the flames. Some would even sing religious songs while committing Jauhar, to endure the pain of the flames. It would be performed en masse, with all the Rajput women jumping into the flames together .”
Although, rituals like Jauhar were depicted as events where women performed their agency by taking a stand publicly against the horrific war crime of rape, the sight of women rushing towards their death in a feverous frenzy, was also used to construct a narrative of nationalism that supported and promoted a deep resentment towards Muslims and the Mughal empire. Thus, mass-suicides like Jauhar become spectacles wherein women’s bodies are appropriated as objects and used to commodify and export a jingoistic nationalism.
In Mark 5:1-20, Jesus—the main protagonist in the narrative—heals a demon possessed man from Gerasene and instructs the spirits to enter into a herd of swine. The swine, which were about two thousand in number, filled with the spirits rush into a lake and drown themselves. In the text, the image of the swine rushing towards their death as a collective could also be viewed as a spectacle. Interpretations of this passage often focus on the character of Jesus, the man possessed with the demons, and sometimes even the demons themselves, relegating the swine to the margins. Replete with imperial imagery, this passage makes some stark declarations against the Roman empire. First and foremost, the demons possessing the man from Gerasene call themselves Legion, which as many have noted was the name of a Roman fighting unit that comprised of about 6000 soldiers. In this narrative, the author of Mark comments on Roman occupation and the importance of expelling it out of the territory. However, the cost of expelling colonial power out of the territory is paid by the swine who use their bodies to make the ultimate sacrifice in the text. Additionally, the herd in the text are often essentialized and constructed into a homogenous group without any consideration with regards to gender and age. The herd are often imagined as a uniform group consisting of consenting adults that make a conscious and clear choice of ending their lives and the lives of the colonizer inhabiting their bodies.
Similarly, women in discussions of Jauhar were often essentialized and constructed into a uniform and stable group of adult women making a conscious choice to sacrifice their bodies and protect the honor and dignity of their nation. Somehow then, imagining consenting adults rushing towards their death is not as traumatic as a heterogenous group comprised of different ages, abilities, and genders.
Last year, India got to experience and relive the practice of Jauhar on the big screen with the release of the movie Padmaavat (formerly known as Padmaavati). The movie, loosely based on a poem by Malik Muhammed Jayasi, tells the fictional story of Rajput queen Rani Padmavati and the 14th century Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji. The basic storyline is as follows—Khilji is smitten by the beauty of Rani Padmavati and his desire to possess the queen is so strong that he wages war on her kingdom and kills her husband on the battle field. Rani Padmavaati, determined to protect her honor, joins along with other Rajput women from her kingdom whoperform Jauhar by jumping into fire and immolating themselves. The movie is problematic on many fronts with the barbaric portrayal of Muslims and in particular the emperor Khilji, the glorification of the Hindu upper caste Rajput culture, and the limited way women’s roles are portrayed on screen. The last scene of the movie shows Rajput women in an almost frenzied state rushing towards their death (you can watch this scene here).
The movie portrays Jauhar/mass suicide as a spectacle on the big screen. As a viewer, one is mesmerized by the beauty and the violence of this spectacle. For the most part, the women in this scene are depicted as a faceless mass with deliberate shots of beautiful fabrics flowing in the wind. However, in the midst of this facileness, we see faces of young children and swollen pregnant bellies rushing towards their death. The sheer spectacle of this grotesque ritual’s representation creates feelings of ambivalence torn between moments of beauty and violence all wrapped up in a mass of confusion and horror. The women, both in the movie as well as history, were often depicted as valorous, courageous women who chose to protect their dignity and the dignity of their nation over their lives. The superficial connection between a woman’s honor and the nation is nevertheless problematic, but even more disturbing is the way in which the death of these women is commodified as an act of bravery, courage, and hailed as the ultimate act of national pride. Critics point out, and rightly so, that Padmavaat glorifies an incredibly regressive ritual. They note, ““The subliminal message — in a country where one woman is raped every 20 minutes — is that an “honorable” death is preferable to sexual violence, a message that only reaffirms the shameful stigma attached to victims and survivors of such crimes.”
Read through the lens of Jauhar, the swine in Mark 5:1-20 committing mass-suicide fulfil a larger narrative agenda in the text. The herd—probably a group encompassing males, females, babies, pregnant mothers, the elderly, and a whole host of diverse bodies—are essentialized and transformed into homogenous objects whose death is fetishized and ultimately glorified in the dream to envision a territory that is free of Rome. The spectacle of Jauhars or mass-suicides reinforces the objectification of bodies as their deaths are transformed into the “ultimate sacrifice” committed to protect the honor and dignity of their land. It is for this reason, that mass-suicides/Jauhars must be exposed as violent and patriarchal rituals that glorify the death of innocent civilians and use their bodies as collateral to envision a nation that is regressive and limiting for its own people.
Sharon Jacob is an Assistant Professor of New Testament at Pacific School of Religion. Sharon earned her Bachelors Degree in Accounting from Bangalore University and went on to earn her Masters of Divinity from Lancaster Theological Seminary and Masters of Sacred Theology from Yale University. She earned her Ph.D from Drew University. Her research interests include gender and sexuality studies, feminist theory, race and whiteness theory, and postcolonial theory. Her publications include a monograph entitled, Reading Mary alongside Indian Surrogate Mothers: Violent Love, Oppressive Liberation, and Infancy Narratives. She has also co-authored an essay entitled, “Flowing from breast to breast: An Examination of Dis/placed Motherhood in Black and Indian West Nurses,” in Womanist Biblical Interpretations: Expanding the Discourses published by Society of Biblical Literature Press. Sharon has also published an article in the Bangalore Theological Forum titled, “Reading Mary Alongside Indian Surrogate Mothers.”