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 ethnic back­ground 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 wed­ding 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.”

To read more about pro­fessor Kelting, please visit http://​www​.phi​los​ophy​.neu​.edu/​f​a​c​u​l​t​y​/​m​_​w​h​i​t​n​e​y​_​k​e​l​t​i​ng/.