Sati is the custom of widow burning or self-immolation where a widow shares her husband’s funeral pyre upon his death. A sati could purify her husband’s deadliest sins by burning with him. Her reward would be to live happily with him in heaven. Some of the earliest epigraphic evidence of sati in the Indian subcontinent was in the 5th century CE, although it took another 200 years before it was extolled. Sati was mostly practiced by Rajput Kshatriyas, the warrior caste. Therefore, most of the traditions surrounding sati are from Rajput traditions. Hindu scriptures do not demand sati, and there is an explicit proscription banning Brahmin widows from practicing it. Nevertheless, it did spread to nonwarrior castes later, probably as a means of elevating social status or for practical financial reasons. Sati has always been the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, the common meaning of sati is a chaste woman who is devoted to her husband whereas the custom of sati is called satipratha.
The mythology of the Goddess Sati is often evoked to explain the origins of the custom. In epic and Puranic sources, Sati is the wife of the God Shiva. When her father, Daksha, insults her husband by excluding him from a great sacrifice, she enters the fire herself. Thus, she displays her ultimate loyalty to her husband whose grief and anger at her death causes him to destroy Daksha’s sacrifice. However, the link between satipratha and Sati’s sacrifice seems tenuous at best because Shiva does not predecease Sati nor does she burn. The motif of self-immolation is also absent from various forms of the myth. In some, Sati withdraws into a yogic coma to give up her life.
Another, perhaps more feasible explanation is that the custom of sati had its origins in the practice of jauhar, where royal women collectively self-immolated to avoid capture after defeat in a war. Thus, the intent was not to follow husbands to their deaths; rather, it was to avoid rape and pillage by the victors. This entry describes the history and moderns uses of sati.
There was a dramatic increase in sati during the early 19th century. During this time, the number of satis fluctuated between 500 and 600 annually. Western travelers and civil servants often described satis that they had seen in India. Their accounts generally reveal a dichotomy of horror and admiration. A sati was either seen as a pathetic victim forced to die a horrible and painful death against her will, or as the heroine courageously dying for love. During colonial times, Brahmin women were burned as regularly as Kshatriya women were. A plausible explanation of why there were more incidents of sati in Bengal than anywhere else during this period could be the Dayabhaga law in Bengal that gave a widow limited inheritance rights over her husband’s property upon his death. Sati could therefore have been a way of eliminating a potential inheritor. Women were taught from the time that they were very young that sati was their duty and that it was the only way to absolve themselves and their husbands of their sin. Widowhood did not leave much to be desired for most women in India, and therefore suicide might have become preferable to the alternatives.
The increase in the number of satis sparked intense debates among the pro- and anti-sati lobbies. In 1828, Rammohun Roy was a founder of the Brahma Sabha, which engendered the Brahmo Samaj, an influential Indian socio-religious reform movement. He is best known for his efforts to abolish the practice of sati, and he first introduced the word Hinduism into the English language in 1816. For his diverse contributions to society, Roy is regarded as one of the most important figures in Indian history and is hailed as “the father of modern India.” He used a wide variety of ancient scriptures and texts to show that nowhere did it say that a widow should commit sati upon her husband’s death. Instead, he recommended ascetic widowhood over sati as being more meritorious. Meanwhile, sati proponents tried to justify the custom on the basis of women’s incapacity for virtue and wisdom. They argued that momentary pain followed by heavenly rewards was better than lifelong suffering in ascetic widowhood, which women were incapable of sustaining anyway. Proponents also cited ancient texts and even argued that the absence of explicit language banning sati was as good as support for sati.
The British colonial policy on sati was formulated at various levels of the criminal justice system in Bengal. After extensive reading of Hindu texts and scriptures, the provincial court, or the Nizamat Adalat, initially clarified that a widow of any caste is permitted to burn herself provided she is not pregnant, does not have infant children, is not under the age of puberty, and is not in a state of uncleanliness. Eventually, the British were able to make the argument that the oldest texts did not condone sati and that scriptures overrode custom. So the prohibition of sati would actually restore the “natives” to their original faith. Sati was officially abolished in Bengal on December 4, 1829, by the British.
Satis are illegal and rare in modern India. Therefore, they usually take place with little advance notice. There have been about 40 cases of sati in the decades following India’s independence in 1947, mostly in Rajasthan, the home of the Rajputs. The single case that caused a public outcry was that of Roop Kanwar, an 18-year-old Rajput girl who became a sati on September 4, 1987, after being married for only 8 months. The early accounts of the incident state that she voluntarily decided to become a sati. She stepped onto the funeral pyre of her husband, took his head in her hands, and calmly went to her death by fire. Many spectators immediately elevated her to divine status by believing that the force of her inner truth lit the pyre.
There was an intense public outcry after Kanwar’s sati. Feminists and other activists marched in protest. There were later reports that Kanwar was drugged into submission. Her parents were not notified until after she was dead. Some of the debate focused on whether the act was voluntary or not. Pro-sati advocates find nothing wrong in a widow committing sati, as long as she is an authentic sati and was not coerced into it. Young Rajput men have been particularly strident about linking sati to religious freedom and disassociating it from violence against women. Proponents of sati are also careful to distinguish between the concept of sati, which glorifies the ideal woman and elevates her to divine (satimata) status, and actual sati as a custom to be followed by widowed women with any regularity.
Feminists are unified in denouncing the practice. There is no confusion about whether or not an authentic sati occurred. The meaning of consent in a patriarchal society is hard to assess. Coercion or consent is not really relevant given the social context in which this event occurs. All sati constitutes violence against women. Feminists reject the glorification of sati, and they rejected the glorification of Kanwar as the ideal Hindu woman who was so devoted to her husband that she chose to sacrifice her life for him.
Following the public outcry over Kanwar’s death, the 1829 colonial legislation banning sati was reviewed and revised to strengthen the laws against sati. Before 1988, there was no explicit mention of sati in the Indian penal code. It was assumed that laws against abetment to suicide and murder would cover every contingency. In 1988, specific anti-sati legislation was enacted that also bans the glorification of sati (such as festivals worshipping the satimata) in any way.
Domestic Violence; Femicide
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